When I first met Michael, some twenty-odd years ago, he was a sailor. Or rather he owned a kayak with sails called a Klepper, a “fold boat” with a collapsible wooden frame and a waterproof skin. It fits neatly into four canvas bags and can be checked as baggage if you want to go, say, for a kayaking vacation in Belize. Or Mexico, where Michael took his several times. His boat looked much like this one in the watercolor below, but with larger, triangular sails.
He had told me about his prized possession years before I came to know it. Designed in 1907 by a German tailor, Joannes Klepper, Das boot zasammengegt (the boat folded) was meant to appeal to new-century Germans eager to explore nature and carry their watercraft with them. Herr Klepper (photo, right) built a factory to produce his boats, which are still handcrafted in Rosenheim, Germany. In 1956, Dr. Hannes Lindemann sailed across the Atlantic in a Klepper, a story carried by Life Magazine that breathlessly reported: “never before had the ocean been crossed in so small a craft with no outside help of any kind.”
Such feats aside, I was not impressed. Having grown up in the high sagebrush desert of northwest Colorado, in a town with no swimming pool and a river I’d nearly drowned in as a teenager, I had little interest in being in, on or under the water, especially on a sailing kayak.
But then we moved to Oregon, and Michael was so excited to take me out in his Klepper than I couldn’t say no. On a camping trip to Ollalie Lake, I helped him put his boat together (“…assembly times can be as little as 8–10 minutes or can reach upwards of an an hour” – we were definitely at the upper end that day). It was sunny with a brisk wind when we put in. I sat in the bow, and once the wind filled the sails we were skimming along the surface at (to me) a terrifying rate – the jib flapping in my face and the boom swinging dangerously over my head. “Hey baby, we’re sailin!” Michael yelled joyously (or something like that) as the boat heeled and my nose was within six inches of the water. I was scared stiff. Once back on land, I told him I could never do that again.
(Olallie Lake but not my photo, nor our kayaks)
But as I settled into Oregon, got oriented to Portland’s ten bridges, started a job that required lots of driving and stopped bursting into tears as I found myself on the wrong side of the Willamette River with a drawbridge up and an appointment looming, AND learned to correctly pronounce “Willamette” (emphasis on the second syllable, as in Wil – LA – met), I began to appreciate that we were surrounded by water and it might be fun to be on it in a less scary way.
The Steel Bridge, one of Portland’s five drawbridges
So one spring weekend we rented a tandem kayak at REI and paddled around a local wetlands a few miles from town. We were alone and it was quiet. We saw an osprey, blue herons, a Western painted turtle, and maybe even an eagle. We had a picnic on a little island and watched a beaver at work. It felt wonderfully relaxed and safe. A couple of weeks later we rented again, and the REI sales guy told us we could deduct the cost of the rental from the purchase of a kayak. It was a big expense for us – $1200 with all the additional gear, if I remember – but we were in the midst of a high-tension house renovation, and we figured it was a good investment in our sanity and in our marriage. We bought an Old Town Loon kayak made of heavy polypropylene, with a rudder and a big broad beam.
Ah, this was more like it. I sat in the front and learned to say “port and starboard, bow and stern” (still not remembering which is which), and “floating log ahead at one o’clock.” Michael sat in the back – I mean the stern – and operated the rudder. In turned out that we harmonized right away as tandem paddlers, and we began to go out every chance we had. Within a few months I even wrote an article for our local Oregonian, “Starting Slowly, Novice Kayaker Learns Joys of Flatwater Outings.” In other words, I was hooked, as long as there were no waves and we stayed within swimming sight of land.
Which is not to say we didn’t have some tense moments, as when we got caught in a low tide in a Columbia River slough and had to wait for the tide to come in.
Jump forward nearly twenty years. Every fall I block out a week for an annual kayaking trip. The past two years we’ve paddled the Willamette River and camped along its banks, using the wonderful Water Trail Guide that maps every mile, rapids, and hazard. We stopped for lunch in old logging towns that are gasping for life as tourist destinations, the old JC Penney stores now antique malls. It was a placid few days, our only contretemps an issue about where to pitch the tent. When Michael could see the evening would not go well on the ugly, gravely site he’d chosen to camp, he gallantly picked up the tent and carried it across the inlet to the the more scenic spot I preferred.
This year we chose to kayak the coastal waterways, the rivers that meander their slow last miles on the way to the Pacific. The Oregon Coast has to be one of the most breathtaking and moody seashores in the U.S., with everything but good weather and warm water for swimming. The place names say it all: Cape Disappointment, Cape Foul Weather, Cape Perpetua (where supposedly Captain Cook took forever to land, waiting out bad storms).
But this year we got lucky: two days of sun, two days of overcast, one day of rain, four nights camping, one night in the Ester Lee Motel. Three rivers, great fresh seafood, one good restaurant meal, and one stop at a classic coastal watering hole, Mad Dog Country Tavern, which made Michael very happy.
At our last campsite, near Yachats, we realized that our Volvo and kayak, both born in 1994, are growing old together. Our Old Town Loon is out of production, it’s sides and bottom abraded and dinged, its heavy polyethylene style left behind in the face of jazzier “Carbonlite, thermoformed” models.
And that’s a kayak paddle holding open the Volvo back door, which no longer stays up on its own. But like old friends everywhere, they stay faithful and dependable, support one another, give endless hours of pleasure, and still have lots of life left in them.