Take a deep breath, and go.

Bobbing in a kayak in the middle of Salo Lake in northern Minnesota, I've found that these simple directions are easier said than done.

My fellow kayakers and I — six women in our 30s, 40s, and 50s — have been practicing wet exits and self-rescues all day long under the tutelage of our instructor, Kathleen Anderson, who has quite literally led us in to the wild to discover our own wildness. These are crucial safety drills for anybody interested in sea kayaking, particularly solo jaunts. I’m up next, all of the the group, and I’m frozen to my seat.

Fear pulses through me — primarily the fear that if I flip over, I'll be stuck underwater. Lifelong nightmares (of flipping over, of being trapped, of drowning) surge towards the surface of my consciousness.

I know that I ought to be just fine. I know that I will take a deep breath, shift my weight to 1 side until I capsize, slip out of the kayak with my paddle still in hand, and rise to the surface, where more oxygen is waiting. I will then right my kayak and commence the self-rescue. (Self-rescue, I muse to myself as the rest of my group waits, the late-summer sun lazily descending on the horizon, has to be the most empowering phrase in the history of phrasing.)

I know all of this to be true because I’ve seen the other women each complete a successful wet exit and self-­rescue. I know this to be true because Anderson, a renowned expert on kayaking, has explained so. I know I’ll be fine.

And yet I can’t help but think: Maybe I don’t really need to learn how to kayak in open water. Maybe solo kayaking just isn't for me. Maybe it’s an event I’ll be perfectly happy never having.

Salo Lake, one of northern Minnesota’s abundant freshwater pools, is breathtaking. Loons croon near a jungle of lily pads while eagles soar overhead. Little bloop sounds announce playful otters ruffling the glassy top of the lake. The water is calm, a far cry from the oceanic currents of Lake Superior just a short drive to the east. The surface reflects the blue of the sky and green-and-gold tips from the trees, unique specimens of the Boreal forest found only this close to Canada.

I feel my weight in the kayak, and it occurs in my experience that I’m not simply bobbing on the surface of the water — I’m sitting in it. My hips, my center of gravity, the main of my body, are below water level. It feels magical.

Ready or not, I take a deep breath, allowing the oxygen to fill my lungs deeply, down and back and to the sides of my body. I shift my weight and suddenly I’m underwater. But I’m not stuck. My legs slip out of the kayak, and I make my method to the surface. Oxygen is, indeed, waiting for me.

My paddle, though. I’ve lost my paddle.

Up for that Challenge

Humans have been kayaking for millennia. Like other vessels designed to traverse rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans, kayaks helped our species become water-faring, changing our destiny as explorers by opening neighboring regions and faraway lands.

While voyageurs once paddled into unknown waters to corner trade routes and look for sustenance, modern-day kayaking enthusiasts much like me are traveling existing courses largely out of a desire for adventure and self-discovery.

Some people kayak whitewater in rough, rocky rivers, which call for short boats that can make quick turns and navigate treacherous currents. Other medication is drawn to leisurely paddling longer distances in lakes and seas. Sea kayaks are usually longer vessels, making it easier to trace a straight line.

Both river riding and sea kayaking provide great full-body workouts and immense potential for an adrenaline rush. Both also carry risks; the best gear, technique, and safety precautions are all critical for success and enjoyment.

I knew all of this and then some when I registered with this retreat, but knowing facts in my head is very different from understanding the essence of something within my heart and bones. So, when the opportunity arose to experience sea kayaking for the first time in one of my very favorite places, Minnesota’s North Shore region, I was tempted.

I’d mostly avoided kayaking from fear and discomfort. I love the water and have become a standup-paddleboarding aficionado in recent years. The thought of kayaking, however, made me feel trapped and prone to drowning. Moreover, a tricky lower-back issue helped me hesitate to commit to a seated position for hours on end, with no opportunity to stand or stretch.

At the same time, I pride myself on the willingness to embrace challenges, which tend to be mental than physical for me personally. And I love northern Minnesota, which I have come to consider a sort of spiritual home — perhaps harking back to memories of my early childhood in lake-filled Sweden. To see the lake from a different angle, experiencing it from inside the water instead of standing on the shore, was appealing.

The clincher was understanding that the excursion would be led by Anderson, owner of Wintermoon Summersun, a 400-acre eco-friendly homestead and adventure-retreat lodge featuring dogsledding and sea kayaking in Brimson, Minn.

Anderson had educated me in to run sled dogs in Superior National Forest. Strong, firm, and gentle, she spoke a language of wildness that made sense to me. I found success and development in the experience, not to mention a new appreciation of the deep woods in deepest winter. (To see about my dogsledding adventure, visit “Pulling Ahead: Dogsledding Adventures.”) What unknown magic did summer waters hold that Anderson could help me unlock?

Two weeks later, carrying my water shoes and deep-seated fears, I returned to Wintermoon Summersun to find out.

Welcoming Novelty, Embracing Risk

Anderson’s retreat lodge caters almost exclusively to female-identifying participants, not because kayaking, dogsledding, or any of the other lessons imparted there are for women only. Rather, the place is imbued by having an energy that insists that being outdoors — communing with nature, reckoning with rough water and energetic dogs, truly being wild — is for women and nonbinary folks too.

Those who joined together for this retreat varied in age, background, and kayaking experience. Each day followed a predictable schedule: walking and watering Anderson’s sled dogs; yoga made with kayakers in mind, mobilizing our wrists, shoulders, and hips for a day of paddling; breakfast; kayaking instruction; lunch; kayaking on nearby lakes; dinner for that dogs; dinner for us; and a campfire.

Despite the routine, every single day offered a unique experience. Such as the calm waters that we kayaked all night, our days were at the same time the same and different, following a predictable pattern that created space for novelty and the opportunity to embrace risk.

The biggest risk for me was the wet exit: willingly submerging myself to simulate capsizing to ensure that if (honestly, when) it takes place in real life, the shock won’t prevent me from rescuing myself.

I made some missteps: I didn’t tie back my hair, and so i emerged with my face covered and thought momentarily, if irrationally, that I’d lost my eyesight. In the excitement, I also let go of my paddle, an important tool in the self-rescue process.

In a real-life situation, in additional precarious waters, I could’ve lost the paddle altogether; in colder water, the wasted time chasing it could’ve meant hypothermia. Luckily, water was calm and warmed by the summer sun, meaning the effects were minimal. And I learned my lesson to never let go.

Once I’d swum to my paddle, which hadn’t floated far, I was safely and swiftly able to right the kayak, slip the preinflated flotation device onto one of the paddle blades, anchor another blade atop the vessel, and use the paddle handle like a stable surface to lift myself from the water and get back into the boat. I’d never felt prouder.

From that point on, I was more confident and joyful each and every outing. When I wasn’t concerned about the impending doom of capsizing, I realized all there was to enjoy. I didn’t drown, and my back never acted up — the things I’d feared never came to pass. In their place, I developed additional skills and discovered a new depth to my own strength.

A habit I have, particularly in charged moments, is to open a random book to a random page. The first night of the retreat, I’d nervously thumbed a book on Anderson’s coffee table. I opened it for an Edmund Carpenter poem called “Eskimo Song,” which covers the trip. I’ve carried it near to my heart ever since:

And I think over again
My small adventures
When having a shore wind I drifted out
Within my kayak
And thought I was at risk.
My fears,
Those small ones
Which i thought so big,
For all the vital things
I needed to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing:
To live to see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the planet.