Learn to Roll in a Kayak? Check.

Kayak Lesson

Despite appearances here, sporty stuff is not my jam. I read my way through childhood, and distant memories of dodgeball still make me feel a little sore. In my soul, I mean.

Learning to tip

There are a few things that made my Mighty Life List because I’m afraid of them, and rolling a kayak is one of those. Bryan loves to go kayak camping, but the few times we’ve gone, all I can think about is the boat flipping. What if I can’t pull off the rubber skirt thingie and end up trapped? Upside down? Underwater?

I’ll tell you what happens, people. Death — with bona fide dying, and moving toward the light, and all the dead people you know slapping you on the back and offering you smokes.

Suki Waters of WaterTrek Ecotours

This is Suki Waters, the patient and aptly named owner of WaterTreks Ecotours up in Jenner. She and her friend George met us at a little lodge in Guerneville that offered to let us use the pool for the day.


My goal was to learn how to roll so I could stop obsessing about tipping whenever I’m in a kayak — overcome my fears, spread my wings, today is the first day of the rest of your kayaking, and so forth. Suki told me it was possible I wouldn’t be able to flip in one lesson, but we’d give it a go.

As you might imagine, signing a contract with Intel has pushed me to do many things I otherwise could have put off perpetually. This, for example:

Underwater in the kayak

That’s me upside down in a kayak with no escape but my wits. Also the two people on either side of the boat waiting to flip me back over, but shut up. If that photo doesn’t make you anxious, your Xanax dosage is too high.

The first time I went over, I didn’t have a nose plug on, and the water went straight up into my brain. Lesson 1, if you want to flip a kayak, get an effing nose plug. It’s been a few days, and I can still feel water sloshing around when I think about anything complex.


The idea here is to avoid panicking when you go under so you can set up your paddle, sweep it across the top of the water, and use it to propel you back up. Naturally, every time I flipped over, my first order of business was panic. My brain stuck on Panic’s Greatest Hits — Claustrophobia! Aspirating Water! Drowning! And so much more!


We practiced for four hours, and I was feeling fairly grim for 3.5 of them. All I wanted to do was get my head out of the water, but if you sit up, your head drops you back down because it weighs about as much as a bowling ball. The human head makes an excellent kayak anchor.

I swept my paddle, swept it, swept it, and then thrashed around underwater, until Suki and George dragged me up. Rinse and repeat, literally.

Bryan and Hank played nearby in the pool while I moved from dread, to terror, to dismay, and eventually became familiar enough with my internal frenzy that it ceased to bother me.

Me and Hank

We were about to call it a day, when suddenly everything came together. I swept my paddle and popped up so easily that I assumed a powerful outside force was at work. A wave, the hand of God, Oprah, something like that.

On our very last try, I did an entire roll. Over on one side, back up on the other. YES! Then I offered to bear Suki children if she would let me out of the boat.


As we left I was feeling profoundly accomplished, and I still do. That fear used to get in my way, and now it won’t anymore. My horizon just got a little bit wider because I took action on my anxiety. That’s a uniquely pleasant feeling, and one I don’t experience enough.

Bryan caught the whole thing on film and made a little movie of my previous attempts. So tune in tomorrow for the mildly agonizing but ultimately triumphant footage. Thanks to Suki Waters and George Zastrow for all the help and support. And as always, a huge thanks to the team at Intel for sponsoring my lifelist. I couldn’t (or rather, probably wouldn’t) have done it without you guys.

32 thoughts on “Learn to Roll in a Kayak? Check.

  1. Can you hear me hyperventilating from here? I couldn’t look away from that photo of you upside down in a kayak, COULDN’T LOOK AWAY, even though my blood pressure was escalating rapidly and dangerously while I did so. I still haven’t recovered, even after having a little lie down. You were underwater! Upside down! Repeatedly! My god!


  2. Hey, nice! I took swimming lessons in my mid-thirties and was thrilled – THRILLED i tell you – every time i did something I had never done before. Deadman’s float! Jump into the deep end without plugging my nose! Dive, for gosh sake! Maggie, you are a fabulous role model for your son.


  3. oh my gosh. i can’t even put my head underwater while i’m splashing in a kiddie pool. i can swim and i took swim lessons as a kid, but putting my head underwater is (became) a problem. upside down underwater strapped to a kayak? oh my gosh.


  4. Now I must go whimper in my bed for a little while. And try not to think about being trapped. Underwater. And all the things that could happen under there.

    (You’re AMAZING. Yay, you!)


  5. I read the line “that fear used to get in my way,” and now I’m choked up. I think I have some new ideas for my own life list. Getting some fears out of my way–I could really use that.

    Mason! I am so impressed with you.


  6. I am so proud of you for tackling this. With the blessing of this Intel sponsorship, you could have taken the easy road and just traveled, indulged, etc., but NO, you pushed yourself. Bravo. I have to admit I have been very jealous of you with this Intel thing. The ugly kind of jealous that’s no good for the soul. But I’m so proud of you now, it’s all gone ( :


  7. Maggie, GOOD JOB! Very proud of you. And you write so well, I can feel your anxiety over here…now off to work with two-year-olds for the day! 🙂 Thanks for sharing.


  8. dude. i am tearing up at work.

    i’ve been making my list, checking it twice, and even crossing a thing or two off it. but between this and greece, i totally get a whole deeper level to this whole list thing – i’ve been thinking of it as “all the amazing places i’d like to travel -slash- craft goals” and it’s so much more.

    so kudos for tackling fear, learning to live in the moment, and taking your life on full-force!


  9. Way to go Maggie!
    I spent a year and a half doing the scariest thing I could imagine… I learned Algebra!

    I sucked at math in high school and it always made me feel stupid to the point I would cry. So I worked with an adviser who not only let me cry but helped me understand WHY math made me so emotional. Now I can solve complex problems and when things get stressful emotionally, I can step back from my emotions and think more logically because I spent that time strengthening that part of my brain.

    My motto: Do something that scares you every day! – It’s so life affirming!

    (Today, I rode shotgun while my son practiced driving – Not easy, and he’s got 35 more hours of practice time. It’s not rolling a kayak but it’s close.)


  10. side note – can you share with us that book list you started in high school? i’m so interested in people’s “to read” lists, and one that’s been kept through so many formative years seems like it would be a treasure!


  11. Congrats! Well done. It’s tricky to learn, eh? (And didn’t Ken’s book that I sent you a year or so ago help psyche you up a bit? This one: http://www.amazon.com/Rolling-Kayak-Ken-Whiting/dp/1896980279 – back when I worked for the very fun/kind/awesome people at The Heliconia Press). I was always a canoer, so when I decided to give kayaking a go, I loved reading about it before trying it in a pool with an expert, just to wrap my head around it first.

    I remember the best advice was to lean forward underwater… and not panic. Because the natural inclination is to do the opposite.



  12. I am in awe! My chest was tightening up just reading that. You are my new hero! I am fascinated with your life list and am so excited that Intel is sponsoring it. I love catching these glimpses at things I will most likely never do. Or maybe I will now…


  13. Way to go Maggie! I remember trying to learn this to, and the “head last” part is so frickin’ counterintuitive! Stupid, heavy, head! But high fives all around!


  14. Most of my kayaking has been done in the presence of a guide, and they all do this little flip-down-to-dunk-yourself-and-cool-off move that I am soooooo jealous of. Now you can probably do that, too. Good on ya, lassie! Soon you’ll be collecting envious looks from people like me.


  15. I’m so thrilled for you, and so impressed with your progress! Thank you for pointing out that it suddenly clicked – I’m taking lessons right now (I’ve never kayaked before) and the whole thing is a bit of a struggle. I did a rescues class where we learned to rescue partners, but I haven’t yet learned to roll. You’re inspiring me!


  16. I would’ve been out of there with no plan to ever return as soon as the water went up my nose.

    That shot of you halfway under water looking up at the camera is crazy! Much more anxiety-inducing than the other Xanax shot. It made me hold my breath until I knew you lived through the whole ordeal. Which I guess technically would have been the beginning of the post but, you know.

    Great work, Maggie!


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