The Inland Paddler: I Mean, Inland, Really Inland

Lisa Schell Columns, Explore, The Inland Paddler Leave a Comment

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I can’t think of a more perfect and beautiful way to meditate on and end, what for many, has been a difficult year. Thank you, Lisa. Here’s to a happy and healthy 2015. ~KEP, Cousin Mullet]

Normally, “inland” for me means about 100 miles from the coast of North Carolina, where the red clay shoreline gives way to sweet tea colored water, ringed by long and short leaf pines and hardwoods. Where great blue herons and beavers express their disdain at my intrusion into their home with screeches and tail slaps. Where I can paddle as long as I want to on my choice of at least four lakes or four rivers, all within a 15 to 30 minute drive.

IMG_4335To borrow a phrase from my Hawaii friends: lucky we live NC.

This Christmas, I found myself 2173.2 miles away from home, and 350 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Landlocked, but with plenty of sand. And cacti. In the Valley of the Sun- Phoenix, Arizona.

Well, Sun City, AZ to be precise. Yes, that’s right, America’s first Planned Urban Development for retirees, with more rules and regulations and do’s and don’t (mostly don’ts and can’ts) than a hospital ICU. Even the Rec Center’s Yoga Club has rules and bylaws. Yoga? There are no rules in yoga, except maybe breathe.

Speaking of ICU’s, that’s why I find myself here in this desert …um…(use a nice word, Lisa)…scenario. On the Friday before Christmas, my father, the sole caretaker of my Alzheimer’s inflicted mother, suffered a heart attack during an angiogram designed to identify any arterial blockages and implant stents around them. If you’re 87, or any age really, and are going to have a heart attack, what better place to do it. On the Saturday before Christmas, I hopped a red eye from RDU and by then end of a very long day, he had survived triple bypass open heart surgery. Like so many people my age, with elderly parents, I am now caring for my mom and trying to pilot my stubborn Irish-German dad through his recovery and rehab. IMG_4330

After just 10 days of dealing with advanced dementia- think five year old child who can’t be left alone – and trying to care for a parent in hospital, it’s so easy to see why 67 percent of caretakers of people with AD die before their charges. It’s easy to see why this is the second major surgery this year my father has had. In May, a simple laparoscopic gall bladder removal went south and had to be done the old fashioned way with a scalpel because he waited two years to have it done. All because he did not want to leave my mother.

Clearly he meant it when he vowed “in sickness or in health” some 64 years ago. Little did he know it would be his sickness that would be so problematic.

He is what they mean when they call his “The Greatest Generation.” He is my role model, my rock, my superhero.

And he is my mom’s Knight in Shining Armor. Even under the foggy, hazy spell that is Alzheimer’s.

Be sure to take care of yourself, they said. Easier said than done when mom can’t be left alone and you are shuttling back and forth several times a day from home to hospital, and when you’re dealing with insurance companies, financial institutions, attorneys and social workers. When you can’t just go to the gym, park, lake, or Target without an advanced logistical plan. When you’re in a galaxy far, far away, without your partner, your friends, your dog, cats and frog, and all the other resources and pressure release valves you’re accustomed to having.

But, if you have an inflatable standup paddle board, there are always possibilities.

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Even in the desert, where what passes for a river on Google Maps is actually a dry bed most of the time.

I packed in a rush, but strategically enough to make sure there was room for my Surftech AirSUP, its pump and leash, my paddle clothes, booties, dry bag, hydration pack and PFD, and Wendy’s three-piece Naish Makani paddle. Relatives who came out from California to help graciously understood my need to get to the water and the importance thereof, so four days after dad’s surgery, I loaded it all in the car and headed north to Lake Pleasant, for a session.

Amidst the saguaros, scrub sage and wild burros. Not something we see very often on the way to the water.

Lisa, we’re not in the Coastal Plain anymore.

It takes about 50 minutes to get to the lake, and as you drive out of suburbia, you can’t believe there’s water of any amount anywhere, let alone enough to paddle on. There are hand-stenciled signs, covered in brown dust every now and then along the road that read “boat covers and biminis” with a phone number to call that seem so incongruous with the surroundings. Who needs those out here? Who has a boat? As I follow the signs for the Lake Pleasant Regional Park, it seems more and more unlikely that there is a lake anywhere out here. And it’s taking forever to get there.

When I finally arrive at the park entrance, I am met by an attendant at the gate who seems irked to be there on Christmas Eve day and equally perplexed that I want to go paddle boarding when I’m not obviously hauling one on top of my dad’s Honda. Nonetheless, she graciously accepts my $6.00 entrance fee and $2.00 launch fee and I drive another ten minutes UP to shoreline access at a place called Scorpion Bay. How apt. Because I am sure there ARE scorpions out there, and maybe the western diamondback rattlesnakes that have apparently adapted to the change in their ecosystem brought on by massive irrigation projects and now can be found IN the water. Great. Just great. Thank goodness I brought the 5mm booties.

When I get my first view of the lake, it’s like a scene from Mad Max, combined with Waterworld, set near the Mos Eisley Spaceport in Star Wars Episode IV. That is to say, barren, deserted, and, well, desert-ed.

But there are scuba divers in the water. A few power boats, a sailboat.

IMG_4487And sea gulls.

Wait, sea gulls? Did I mention I am over 300 miles from the nearest ocean? I paddle past one sitting on a No Wake buoy and call out, ” Hey, Jonathan Livingston? You forget that part of your last name? SEA gull? WTF?”

He just looks at me like I’m the one who is out of place, who doesn’t belong.

The water is greenish and clear, and covering what looks to be limestone slab, though I am not sure. Don’t see any fish. It’s not too cold- the booties were not necessary, at least for the water temp. I paddled for about an hour, hoping to see some wild burros promised by the roadside warning signs, and hoping the view would change and be a bit less Star Wars-y and more engaging each time I paddled around a point.

That didn’t happen. To be honest, the sense of excitement, adventure and daring I almost always get when I paddle somewhere new or different, especially with the inflatable, just wasn’t there. If I lived here, I’d have to have a much faster board than this inflatable, that’s for sure. Might even need a motor for it, that’s how uninteresting things seem today. And while the cost of the entrance fee (which I don’t mind, user fees are okay in my book) could be mitigated by an annual pass, I’d be deterred from frequent paddling here by the long drive, if I was a resident.

But, it was good to be on the water. And so was the carnitas burrito I had waiting for me in the car afterward. I felt a modicum of normalcy return, and a wave or two of sanity wash over me. Doesn’t matter what it was like, I went because I could, and right now, that’s the most important thing.

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I don’t know if I will get to go again. There are two other places I might be able to check out if I do get the chance. But I will say this, I will never go anywhere again, if I can help it, without my inflatable. It has been my lifeline. My connection with the water, with my SUP ohana and with my sanity. It would be easy to look at the board bag and shrug it off, to tell myself that I don’t have time for or any business paddling right now. Too easy to give in to the fear that people will judge me for wanting, no needing to get out of the house and on the water and “recreate” while my dad is in pain and my mom needs 24/7 care. Selfish and spoiled, they’ll call it. But if I shrug it off, put it off, leave the board in the bag, or if I give up my daily yoga practice, or refuse to ride the bike, I will drown. I will lose my strength and my ability to take care of mom and dad. And I will end up just like him. No, to fight the evil that is Alzheimer’s and to get my dad back on his feet and battle the whacked out system that is our elder care, I have to be strong.

I have to go, because I can.

Even in the desert.

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