One man discovers his happy place: upside down on a peaceful river deep in Klamath National Forest.
Humboldt California Kayaking
Kayaking school in session at Otter Bar Lodge.
| Credit: Brown W. Cannon III/Intersection Photos

With the windows open, the Humboldt County countryside smelled like a Grateful Dead concert. Cannabis is the economy and identity of this far-northwestern corner of California as corn is to Iowa. My driver eagerly explained that he was moonlighting. His real job was growing marijuana. “Medicinal or recreational?” I asked. “It’s kind of a gray area,” he answered.

Gray areas cover Humboldt County. Coastal fogs roll in each morning, misting redwood canopies with life-sustaining water. In summer, haze from forest-fire smoke fills high inland valleys. During the day, it makes the mountains look like ghosts, and at night it turns the moon the color of old, yellowed lace.

Grays shape characters and perceptions, too. Long before ganja lovers decamped here, this land beckoned to gold miners, yeti hunters, and other eccentrics. They found and made a place where boundaries — between past and present, man and nature, wildness and civility — seem less clear than they are elsewhere.

I had come from New York City, during a year of struggles in work and in love. One of the only things that reliably made me happy then was taking whitewater kayaking lessons in New England. So I went to California’s true north, an eight-hour drive from the Bay Area, to search for an increment of mastery of this difficult, delighting skill: steering a small boat through a river’s rushing water.

My destination was Otter Bar Lodge, just over the Humboldt border in Siskiyou County. It is often called the best whitewater kayaking school in North America. A week on the river comes with gourmet meals, massages, a hot tub, and a bed in a rustic cabin, all on an off-the-grid resort built and run by a gracious pair of cosmopolitan hippies named Peter and Kristy Sturges. They are assisted by a 10-year-old Australian cattle dog named Beebee and a staff of kayaking teachers from all over the world.

Otter Bar is tucked into a glen on the Salmon River. When I arrived, Peter showed me to my cabin, then pointed to the river. “Most people say they’re too tired to go swimming when they get here,” he said, “but you should just do it.” As I dove into a clear pool where giant salmon darted, I was glad I had listened.

Every week from May to August, a new crop of students arrive. Few in my class fit the stereotype of paddlers as adrenaline junkies. There was a retired Presbyterian minister, a wealthy couple from Peru, a white-haired diplomat from Canada, a pharmacist from Florida, a cardiologist from Louisiana, a guide-dog trainer, and a cop. As a group, we were more game than gifted.

The variety of this crowd felt welcoming. The place did, too. Sprays of flowers, wild and cultivated, decorated the paths. In the middle of the night, I woke and stepped onto my front porch; when I looked up, three shooting stars fell. In the morning, I crouched in dew-chilled grass to pet Beebee, splaying my fingers in her morning-sun-warmed fur.

Such comforts ended after the first paddling lesson began, on a small flat pond amid the cabins. In minutes, I was upside down and underwater, jerking my hips and shoulders, trying not to panic, trying to get myself upright, waiting for the Hand of God.

Humboldt California Kayaking
Otter Bar sits beside the Salmon River, which snakes through Klamath National Forest.
| Credit: Brown W. Cannon III/Intersection Photos

The Hand of God is what kayakers call the rescue technique of flipping another paddler's boat after it has turned over, which happens — a lot — to most beginners. Otter Bar's teachers are masters of the Hand of God, which they employ while teaching the basic kayaking skill that will render it unnecessary. This move is the roll.

The roll is an “art of self-rescue,” as one teacher explained: a complex movement involving the hips, back, arms, and shoulders. It is a way of harnessing the laws of physics, but it conflicts with our natural instincts. Turned upside down underwater, most people whip their torsos around to lift their heads toward the surface of the water. This does not work. What does work is to snap the hips to one side, reach the tip of the paddle to the surface, and sweep it in a wide arc, applying only the faintest pressure, to create a centrifugal force that rights both boat and boater.

My teacher, a 27-year-old New Zealander named Daan (“Like naan,” he explained cheerfully. “The bread.”), had his hands full with me. I had, apparently, forgotten everything I'd learned while kayaking in New England. My boat, even on flat water, was more or less completely out of control, which made me frustrated, which made things worse. I asked Daan to talk me through each component of each motion, to try to fix it in my head. Then, when I tried to put it into practice, I went back into a wobbling spin. Or flipped the boat. Again.

Daan explained that some instructions are like laws, and some are just guidelines. The ones concerning water’s flow are laws, because water always behaves the same way. Water's First Commandment, for instance, is “Thou shalt raise the kayak’s edge at every turn across the line between the main flow of the river's current and the eddies (which flow the opposite way).” Fail to raise the kayak’s edge, and the eddy, gremlin-like, grabs the boat and mercilessly turns you over.

On the other hand, instructions concerning my technique (when exactly to paddle, and how) were guidelines, because I was the inconstant, unpredictable factor here, and only by developing an intuitive feel for the river could I know how to angle the paddle for this or that stroke. My instincts didn’t want to accept this distinction, but my experience insisted upon the point, emphatically and repeatedly, when we moved from flat water to the flowing river.

To paddle down the river, to be on and in the current in the intimate way that kayaking allows, is something that everyone would get to experience if life were truly fair. Sitting on the river, you can feel fish bump their heads against your boat. Unlucky ones end up as lunch for birds of prey. Dragonflies hover, their abdomens streaked with the brilliant reds and blues that, in the age of TVs and computers, we have learned to call electric. Even absolute beginners can enjoy all this, but enjoyment is always subject to respecting the First Commandment.

Humboldt California Kayaking
Making a splash in the Salmon River.
| Credit: Brown W. Cannon III/Intersection Photos

And so it was that, on an afternoon packed with such pleasures, on a glorious stretch of calm water with not a rapid to be seen, wonder lulled me to into forgetting the law. A gentle eddy flipped me like a playing card. Then it happened again. And again. All inside of a single hour.

Daan Hand-of-Godded me and towed me to shore. I dumped the water from my kayak, and then I basically melted down. “I am holding you and everybody else back,” I told Daan. “Maybe I shouldn't even be here, because I can't stop messing up.”

Daan listened, then calmly answered: “The water is deep. The day is warm. I am here to help you. And even if you flip again, it's just another chance for you to practice feeling uncomfortable when things go wrong.”

After that, the day got better. In a quiet stretch of river, it occurred to me that learning to kayak has something in common with the ruder awakenings of travel, the times when what is true at home proves useless for coping with surprise. A beginning kayaker faces the same choice as a first-time visitor to a distant country. Cling to your instinctive way and deplete yourself, or surrender to circumstance and grow.

That night, I said some words to this effect to the Presbyterian minister. He answered, “Isn’t it strange how sometimes we panic and sometimes we’re calm, in the same kind of situation? And we can never fully know why that is.” Then I went to bed and had a nightmare. I tried to capture beautiful hummingbirds, and each time I caught one in my hands, its little red head would explode.

Learning can take the shape of a story: beginning, middle, end. Or learning can happen like meditation: frustrating, until it’s not. The river’s surface always changes, requiring constant adjustments of balance and tensions in the body. Daan was like the river's interpreter, calling out its commands. Relax your face, relax your hips, relax your shoulders, relax your hands. I tried to adjust, to keep the current flowing beneath the boat, and I kept failing. But somewhere in this repetition, for no reason I can name, my failures seemed to matter a little less — to stop being a judgment on me — and it seemed as if I had escaped myself, had joined with the river, even though the next, clobbering moment always dragged me back, still tense, still scared.

During breakfast before our final paddling trip, Daan told me I had two options. “Don't simplify this to ‘easy’ or ‘hard,’ ” he said. “Think about it in terms of what you're doing with your skills. You can consolidate. Or you can consolidate and expand, and have more fun.”

Skeptically, and feeling coerced (but also grateful for the invitation), I chose fun. On the river, my performance wasn't perfect, but there were more of those instants when I let my body think for me, the First Commandment making itself at home in my bones. At the end of the day, as my kayak approached the last stretch of rapids — a more challenging series than anything we'd faced all week — a salmon leaped up and did a somersault in the air. The creature was so close that I could hear its flesh flap as its muscles flexed. “That's good luck!” someone yelled, and the kayak was drawn forward, currents jumping all around, and the inside of me shifted.

My consciousness did not split, exactly, but it encompassed more than I’d been able to keep track of before. I was borne ahead by the moment, not swamped by it. The wave beneath me lifted me up to see the waves ahead. I could see them coming in rows, the next three or four, and I reached out my paddle as if to greet them: a hug for that big lunk to my right, a love pat for the little monster on my left. I made it through them all by moving with them, and I did not flip over, which made me feel sufficient and competent and strong, in a way that I could not recall ever having felt strong before.

For our last supper, Peter and Kristy hired musicians. The banjo player could have been a cairn of river rocks come to life. On a screen, projected, were pictures that Peter had been taking of us all week. “Did I really look like that?“ people kept asking one another. Because we all looked good, relaxed, residing fully in our bodies. Wine flowed, dusk faded, and everybody's posture seemed slightly to improve.

Orange Line

The Details: Otter Bar Lodge

This renowned kayaking school, which sits on the Salmon River in Klamath National Forest, offers weekly programs for boaters from May to August. To reach it, take the lodge’s Saturday shuttle to and from the closest airport, Arcata-Eureka, about 2½ hours away. Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, about 3 hours away in southern Oregon, has more flights, so some guests fly there and rent a car.