At every house or apartment I have rented in the last six years, I’ve had to find space for a 12-foot, 60-pound piece of plastic. I’ve stashed my kayak in the weedy, cluttered backyards of low-rent landlords who didn’t really care. In one house, I slid it beneath the back porch during the summer and left it on the floor of the dining room during the winter. Some cold days, I ran my fingers along the underside, a mosaic of small scratches left by rocks on shores. Currently, it sits on a small back patio behind the row house I’m renting, secured with a bicycle lock. It fits, if I lay it diagonally.
I’ve turned down places because there wasn’t space for the boat. The benefits of kayaking are multitude and the knowledge I could jump onto the water any weekend is a form of psychological reassurance. I’m not prone to depression or anxiety like I was in my younger days. I am prone to stress: deadline stress, money stress, chore stress, relationship stress, Trump stress, the stress of living in an urban center where the ground you walk teeters between the extremes of gentrification and decay (which are both catalysts of stress), the stress of my cumulative stresses impeding on the productivity I need to survive as a freelance writer. The kayak is the best investment I’ve ever made in maintaining my mental equilibrium.
Kayaking is a way to exit the urban cacophony, completely and totally. A massage or a yoga class or an hour in a coffee shop with a book? These are good, but they are still appointments to bustle to within places on city blocks and within the world of parking and noise and people filing through their day carrying anxiety and shielded by detachment.
Once I carry my kayak from the top of my car to the shore of a river, I am free from all that. The waterways have little of the conflicting interplay of uses that make up city life. Even on a trail or other designated recreation spot, different users maneuver around each other. Runners, walkers, cyclists, and stroller-pushers become socially anxious obstacles for other groups.
On the river, I am alone and un-nagged in my movement. I never hear a bicycle bell. Sure, there are motor boats and large ships to theoretically avoid, but if I stick to the rules of the river and stay towards the shore, they buzz by quickly and I barely notice them.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have much waterfront property on its rivers. For decades, they were absorbed into the industrial landscape: antiquated rail lines, some occasional old concrete bases leftover from shipping infrastructure, and a thick set of trees separates the river from the city.
Kayaking also takes me to its back channel, to places rarely seen and never associated with anything else. I take my kayak to the riverside park in the Lawrenceville neighborhood. From there, I go beneath two bridges, past some level patches where men stand with fishing rods, to an island at the foot of a dam, around a marina with a back patio bar and back again. It’s a trek as familiar to me as a jogger’s usual morning path.
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But I never see these sights while doing anything else. They don’t trigger reminders of first dates of relationships that crashed and burned, of where I sat in a coffee shop and plugged away on a writing assignment that was a slog to finish, of where my car broke down. I don’t see houses I can’t afford, or alternatively neighborhoods left to rot. Everything I see only reminds me of other peaceful summer afternoons. River life exists in a bubble of only positive associations. And on the river, everyone is happy. At least for that moment. I only see people fishing, piled into a leisure boat, sharing a joint at a hidden spot, or zooming past on a jet ski.
The river is the one place where I don’t check my phone—or at least not often. I give into that compulsion at restaurants, at events, and even while hiking—at times when I should know better, when I should be taking in life in front of me, but can’t stop scrolling through my Facebook feed. But not when kayaking. I can’t: Smart kayakers stash phones in waterproof bags or wear them on secure armbands if using them as MP3 or podcast players. They reach for them only when they need to. I lost one phone to the bottom of the Ohio River, casually taking it out of my pocket, before I learned that. So any phone use is careful and intentional, making it so unlike most phone use.
Kayaking promotes thoughtfulness in other ways. Making your safety list, monitoring the tide and current, keeping track of sunset and setting up your safety lights if you stay out after it, balancing so that you don’t capsize: These are small exercises in mindfulness but they add up to make the experience something more than a mind-dulling inner tube float on a river with a beer on hand.
I kayak with friends, but the boat also helped me with feelings of loneliness when I was single. One Saturday last year, when I didn’t have anything to do, I checked out a port on the Allegheny River 40 minutes north of the city. I discovered an offshoot river whose waters were clear and adorned with giant rocks perfect for sunbathing. I swam. I finished The Girl on the Train on a beach towel. I listened two Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’s and a My Favorite Murder. The sun kissed my shoulders and the cool water soothed my nerves. It didn’t feel like a lonesome day. It felt wonderful.
Logistically, it’s not hard to kayak on any weeknight, to grab a six-pack and end the day on the river. I’ve gotten through many Thursdays, when I was agitated by both deadlines and the heat index, by rewarding myself with a paddle at the end.
It’s not about the exercise or the sun (though those are both blissful); it’s about exiting everyday life completely for a moment. I row myself to some hidden spot. My favorite is an old metal and concrete cylinder about 30 feet high. I think it exists so barges could be chained to it.
I tie my kayak to it and climb up the metal strips on its side, dangling from a shoulder a drawstring bag containing some combination of a book, my journal, a thermos, a wine cooler, a bagged Chipotle order. Maybe I will use these things. Maybe I will just sit atop in joyous quiet and separation from the rest of society, no one but the occasional boater to notice me. If the river is calm, I will probably jump and swim. (If I’m going to swim while kayaking, I drive a few miles and a dam separation or two from the Pittsburgh city core, because ew).
I make trips April through June, but kayak season truly begins after the early summer rains, during the dog days of July through September, when the river is lazy. The season ends when 30-degree nights become regular and the water absorbs that cold.
When I know I won’t be able to kayak regular for the rest of the year, I feel a drop in my mood, a slight panic that my best coping mechanism has gone offline. I’ve tried to switch up kayaking with going to hot yoga more regularly during the colder months. It’s not strictly a seasonal activity, but hot yoga feels best during those periods of below-freezing temperatures during which two hours of faux-tropical heat is a respite.
Still, I invariably feel worse at the end of the season. Kayaking, and its complete separation from the everyday world of stress, is irreplaceable.
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