I am a toddler, maybe two or three, teetering between awake and asleep. My earliest memories, like this one, are dreamlike. I am in a metal-framed carrier way up high on my father’s back, walking along a pathway after a long day at some sort of festival. The visual details are hazy, but the memory’s emotional impressions are vivid. As we make our way back to our car in the dark, nearby sounds of other festival-goers’ voices and footfalls keep the night alive with activity and purpose. I am tired and it is a little scary; I work to stay alert and attentive to the stimulation around me. The strongest part of this memory happens the moment the waves of sleep arrive to carry me away: I remember making a conscious decision to give in, to relinquish control of my thoughts, my anxieties, my consciousness and agency. I remember the feeling of realizing, most likely without language, that I could just let go, right in the middle of it all, despite how much was going on around me. (Perhaps I had spent the day taking steps in the grass away from my family and toward the unfamiliar; perhaps I had gotten my first taste of self-as-singular-and-separate-entity and was still experiencing the nascent, complementary feeling of self-reliance). It will be okay to go to sleep, I remember realizing, while finding our way back to the car, because someone else -my dad- will take over and ensure that I arrive safely back in my bed.
That is a memory unique to babyhood. As independent adults, always on duty as custodians of our own well-being, there is no unmitigated letting go, no absolute calm. Even when we sleep, we are our own guardians. But there is something that comes close to that childlike feeling for me: I can give in, relax my mind and relinquish control of my body, to the ocean. Floating on the surface, tossed about by waves, or diving down to explore the world below on a single breath, I feel calmness and peace in the ocean unlike any on solid ground. Since throwing my father’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean eight years ago, the analogy between ocean swimming and my early-childhood memory on his back has been made even stronger. He has become synonymous with the ocean, so letting go to it, or to him… they have become, in a way, the same thing.
Of course, there are countless dangers associated with the ocean, but I don’t think about them. It may be foolish, but why would I mess with a feeling this sweet?
My love of the ocean is not news to me, and I have found ways to justify spending whole days submerged in water. (In less than a month, I will swim around Manhattan, playing fish for some 8 or 9 hours.) But last summer I discovered another way to love the ocean, a close second to swimming. I saw it first from a ferry as we pulled up to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Roped to the top of Terry O’Mally’s small green car, the sunlight shining through it, was his West Greenland “skin-on-frame” kayak. I walked up to meet Terry for the first time, shook his hand, then reached out to touch the side of the boat. “Beautiful,” I whispered as I ran my hand across its sun-kissed “skin”. Terry laughed knowingly, saying something about how I was going to have to do some kayaking that day. I did not argue. I had come to Sandy Hook to swim, but my heart leapt at the thought of paddling that boat.
I feel quite comfortable in kayaks. I grew up in Seattle where my mom always owned a few. I liked paddling, but I never got all that into it. Though I may not have admitted it before, I always found sitting in a boat a little boring: sitting just inches from the water, but entirely separate from it. As far as seagoing vessels were concerned, the kayak was my favorite, but boats never held a candle to swimming.
This West Greenland skin-on-frame kayak is different. It sits low in the water, only a thin piece of polyurethane-coated nylon separating the nakedness of my legs from the water below. I remember squeezing into it for the first time: My feet and knees bang awkwardly against the rigid wooden ribs. I find my way into a snug seated position and the frame feels almost as if it has disappeared, leaving me encased in what feels very much like a skin, organic and yielding subtly to pressure from my body. It is intimate. I am most definitely in a kayak, but I can sense and enjoy the coolness of the ocean water and small rippling waves that hit the side of the boat, that hit my legs, almost as if I am swimming. Compared to other kayaks, this one is considered “unstable” or “tippy”— balance and some reflexive core muscles are required to keep it from flipping over. Because of this, although a subtle feeling, my whole body is continuously engaged in the act of keeping the boat upright. There is no boredom.
Terry stands in the water and gives me a lesson. He feeds off of my excitement and enthusiastically teaches me to roll the boat. My first attempts are pretty good. I flip it over, enjoy a few moments sitting upside-down underwater, then roll it back upright. I am excited and want more. I do it again and again. Terry teaches me a number of different Greenland rolls and over the course of the afternoon, as I do more and more, I get worse and worse at them. The worse I get, the more I want to do—I want that feeling of success again!
It was not until the next day, when my body was so sore it felt broken, that I realized my declining skills were the result of extreme muscle fatigue. I had played so happily, I had no sense of how hard my core, back, and leg muscles were working. Now I was beyond sore but still high. Lying in bed for most of a day, unable to move almost at all, I felt light and buoyant inside. Terry posted a picture of me in the kayak on Facebook and captioned it “Selkie finds her skin.” Yep. That sounded about right.
Fast forward 10 months. I met up with my mom in Seattle and drove down to Portland, Oregon for a week-long class with Brian Schulz, the man who built Terry’s boat. Over the course of the week, my mom and I, along with 4 other folks, would build our own skin-on-frame kayaks, each step of the way guided by Brian, our fantastic teacher and an expert boat builder. My mom and the others each built beautiful skin-on-frame boats that Brian had designed himself, while I built myself a boat like Terry’s: a West Greenland “Disko Bay” replica kayak. Each detail is an exact replica of this traditional seal-hunting boat (specifically the one in collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization), scaled to match the measurements of my body. (Note that where the original boat was made with seal skin, my boat is made with polyurethane-coated nylon. Where the original boat was stitched together using sinew, my boat was made using an artificial sinew on the frame, and dental floss on the “skin”.) Below is a photographic journal of the week. It shows the evolution of my kayak from two pieces of wood on sawhorses to this Selkie’s new skin.
For more information on Brian’s boats and his classes, check out his website.