Editor’s note: Will Nordby, the author of Seekers of the Horizon, began sea kayaking in 1971. He has written for Oceans, Explore, Canoe, Sea Kayaker, River Runner, Small Boat Journal, and Ocean Sports International. He was also the originator of the Sea Trek Paddle Float, a sea kayaking self-rescue device. He worked for KRON-TV in San Francisco as a videotape editor and cameraman and he served as the safety chairman for the Bay Area Sea Kayakers Club (BASK). He died on July 9, 2014.
I’ve been catching up on my reading lately, and what a great book! Every sea kayaker will love it – why wouldn’t you? Editor Will Nordby compiled ten stories by ten sea kayakers and added a story of his own, and they are fabulous. Why fabulous? I looked up the word to see why I was moved to use it to describe Nordby’s book. It’s from the Latin fabulosus, “celebrated in fable”. That certainly describes the adventures in this book. But it can also mean legendary, or exceedingly great. These kayakers’ experiences definitely qualify. This is the stuff of legend.
This is actually the second time I read Seekers of the Horizon. I remembered thinking it was a super fun read and wanted to share it with readers, so I read it again. Maybe too I’m thinking a little about Will because he died recently and he was an important part of the Tsunami Ranger video editing team. Without Will, many of our videos may never have seen the light of day.
In Seekers of the Horizon there are excerpts from other sea kayaking books, such as Paul Kaufmann’s Paddling the Gate, a lyrical description of paddling in the San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate bridge. Paul was one of the first. Also, Hannes Lindemann’s “An Impossible Voyage” is from his book Alone at Sea, in which he describes his crossing from the Canaries to the Virgin Islands. Wow! If you want to know what it’s like out in the middle of the Atlantic in a folding kayak in an epic storm that lasts for days, you’ve got to read that one.
What’s so good about this book is the variety. A circumnavigation of Iceland by John Bauman, a quickie expedition to the Molokai cliffs by Audrey Sutherland that turns gnarly, and the rounding of Cape Horn by Frank Goodman are just some of the cool adventures you get to experience through the eyes of the authors. I also really enjoyed reading about Susan Meredith’s introduction to sea kayaking as a result of her two years aboard the health-ship Hygeine which brought medical care to coastal villages in Alaska.
Here are two of the vicarious adventures you get to experience: John Bauman visits Surtsey, an island in the Westmann archipelago, which erupted from the sea in 1963 and is now a unique laboratory for geologists and biologists. Will Nordby visits Glacier Bay, where inclement weather and the presence of tourist boats triggers a psychological study: imagining the tourists being warm and drinking coffee versus welcoming the challenge of the environment because of its testing of Will’s commitment to the trip and his self-discovery.
Along the way you get to be inside of these people’s heads – why do they do what they do? They ask themselves that same question, and so often it boils down to “What the fuck am I doing out here?” I’m sure we can all relate. They all answer that question differently. For example, Chris Duff writes that he came to kayaking from a “point of need rather than recreational desire”. Oppressed by his successful yet stressful military career he sought and found a life of deeper meaning and value in an 8,000 mile solo journey from the Hudson River to Florida and back up the Mississippi to the Illinois, the Great Lakes, and back down the Eastern seaboard to New York which took him a year and a half. That’s a long way to go to get away but it’s worth it for he rekindles his life: “The changes in me, and the experiences I had encountered were too awesome to comprehend. I was very different from the individual who had left that promising military career not so very long ago.”
“Why am I here?” muses Greg Blanchette as he begins his paddle around Hawaii. He points out that offshore paddling is very different from inshore paddling, with all the activity of waves and rock gardens, the “ready-made entertainment…the continuous procession of things to watch”. It’s on those long slogs that one can find philosophizing a useful time filler: ” ‘Why do I exist?’ ‘What is the purpose of the cosmos?’… My inquiries are conducted in a wondering, as opposed to analytical, frame of mind. My brain is off the hook – not actively searching for answers but considering them one by one as they percolate up through my consciousness.” Eric used to call this “deep philosophizing”, and he meant it both seriously and ironically. Is it really deep? Yes and no. When you put your brain on autopilot you allow all the random thoughts about life and the universe to well up from your mind and I think it’s a little like emptying the recycle bin on the laptop. It’s a form of cleaning out your mental closets, and you never know what treasure you might find. In fact, I’ve heard that all knowledge is actually within each one of us but it’s only available when you can deconstruct your mind by giving it space and time to open.
It was also fascinating to read about Hannes Lindemann’s preparation for his crossing of the Atlantic, how he relied heavily on prayer. Prayer had a profound influence in Lindemann’s life and on his kayaking: “My first step was prayer, the invisible weapon of man, which brings him healing power and relaxation, recovery and renewed energy. True prayer penetrates the unconscious, bringing peace to the individual and thereby helping him to overcome disturbing traits in his character. Without self-mastery, achieved through prayer, and through concentration, I knew my voyage would fail.” That’s one of the most interesting and useful descriptions of prayer I have ever encountered. He also utilized a system of self-hypnosis called autogenic training to allow him to survive on very little sleep without compromising his physical and emotional strength.
Frank Goodman offers seven vignettes of sea kayaking, which give the reader a beautiful menu of some of the many different ways one can experience paddling: working with troubled youth; a sweet, fun little picnic on a local river; a meditation on courage when someone bags out of a trip due to fear; not to mention the epic paddle around the Horn. And in Larry Rice’s Rocks, Ice, and White Whales you get to follow his and Judy’s discovery of the Thule people on Baffin Island, predecessors of the modern Inuit. Looking at a grave site and peering through a chink in a grave they see a section of skull with braided golden hair, giving rise to speculation about blonde-haired Vikings discovering a country west of Greenland long ago.
Speaking of long ago, one of the nice things about this book is that the authors are all pioneers of sorts. Paul Kaufmann, Will Norby, Audrey Sutherland, Christopher Cunningham, and Frank Goodman were kayaking in the 60’s and ’70’s. Susan Meredith was born in 1918 and started kayaking in the ’40’s. Hannes Lindemann made his legendary Atlantic crossings (yes he did two, one in a dugout canoe) in the ’50’s. All of these journeys took place at a time that may seem like ancient history to today’s kayakers. But this is our history, the history of modern kayaking. This is where we came from. Everything we do rests on the backs of these people and others like them who broke new kayaking ground with their dreams, their plans, and their adventures. These are our ancestors, and they did some really cool stuff.
You can buy Seekers of the Horizon on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Seekers-Horizon-Kayaking-Voyages-Around/dp/0871066343/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446056377&sr=1-3&keywords=seekers+of+the+horizon