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OIA: In Kayaking Kauai and in Life, When Adventures Go Awry, Remember: It’ll Work Out

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Photograph by Avery Stonich

When my husband and I went to Kauai last September, the one thing we really wanted to do was kayak the Na Pali Coast. It’s touted as one of National Geographic’s 100 Best American  Adventures. And with good reason.

Picture paddling 17 pristine miles of Kauai’s rugged and breathtaking northwestern shore. We envisioned sparkling blue waters, frolicking pods of dolphins, and calm seas—which are generally ideal from April to September. Our timing was perfect …  or was it?

As seems common these days, the weather went a bit haywire. The winter swell arrived early. Could we go, or would Mother Nature get in our way?

Since we didn’t have a ton of sea kayaking experience, we relied on local experts for advice, and signed up for a guided trip. Day after day, we kept checking. The guides told us to wait. The swell was too big.

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Photograph courtesy Avery Stonich

Then, finally, conditions were right. The outfitter set us up with kayaks and dry bags, told us what to bring, and gave us a crash course in paddling and safety. Then we set off on a heavenly Hawaiian day.

The going was easy at first, sun-kissed and calm. Ideal. We paddled into a few sea caves and hung out, riding the slow up-and-down motion as the ocean rolled under us, lifted our boats, set us back down, and glided to the back of the cave. Then we listened to the crash of the waves as they crested along the bottom and thumped into the cavern walls.

Sure, these caves are fine … fun … serene … meditative. Hmmmmm.

Then we rounded the western knob of Kauai’s Na Pali Shore, and everything changed. The winds picked up. The seas got bigger.

We approached a cave that was a boiling cauldron. My husband and I went in first. It was pure whitewater, requiring adept maneuvering. Surrounding us were jagged lava walls with ledges that would appear, then sink beneath the roiling surf. If we capsized, we’d be toast—having to right the boat while trying to avoid being gashed to shreds along the razor-sharp rock. Not a good option. So we paddled like crazy, barely navigating a rock spire in the middle, and finally emerged—a bit shaken, but unscathed. After watching our dicey encounter, the guide said no one else should go in. Probably wise. But I’m sure glad we got to be the guinea pigs!

Then the going got tougher. Five hours into the journey, we faced a strong headwind that battled us to the end. It was fun to work our way through the swells—we made a game of it. But man, it was a push. Luckily the stunning scenery was sufficiently distracting so we couldn’t focus on the pain, or the daunting reality that our seven-hour paddle would stretch to 10. Nothing like a little adventure to make lasting vacation memories, right?

And then, finally, our landing came into view—except that it was one of Kauai’s notoriously steep beaches, and it was being barraged by unexpected ten-foot breakers. Even the guides were nervous. With practiced calm but obvious caution, they instructed us to approach one at a time.

The first boat went in, got picked up by a wave and overturned. Yard sale. Next boat, same thing. And the next. Each approach looked like a roller coaster, with no safety rail. Then it was our turn. We approached with confidence, convinced that our self-perceived sea prowess would enable us to elegantly surf into the beach. Uh oh. No such luck. In fact, we were utterly humbled.

We tried to time it between breakers, but somehow got caught in a huge wave. Paddle paddle, but not too hard, stay stable, don’t lean—whoa! What happened? In the blink of an eye, we were torn sideways, and tumbled over into the washing machine. Somehow my husband grabbed the boat, and I got the paddles. We held on for dear life as the waves came crashing over our heads, one by one. We had no choice but to duck under each giant crest, come up for air, and duck again—knowing the set would pass. Finally it did, and we were able to catch our breath and wade to shore.

You always have to keep that in mind in the surf zone. Stay calm and wait for the storm to pass.

And in life, too: When you’re in the midst of utter chaos that seems like it will never end, you have to remember, things will work out—just not, perhaps, the way you planned.

Isn’t that what adventure is all about? Let everything go to hell. Stay calm in the face of adversity. Keep your mind open to the unexpected. Roll with the waves. And see where the ocean spits you. Who knows? You might end up somewhere even better than you could have foreseen.

Our Kauai kayaking adventure wasn’t the serene, relaxing journey we envisioned. But in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. With the help of the local kayak experts, we had an amazing day that we’ll remember for years to come.

No matter what adventure you’re tackling, always take advantage of local knowledge. The people who work in outdoor specialty shops are in the business because they’re passionate about getting outside—and they want to share that with you. Whether you’re on a trip to an unknown land, or right in your hometown, visit your local shop, get to know the people there, and tap into their expertise.

And never forget, even when things don’t go as expected, a little planning can go a long way—like the bottle of super stiff Mai Tais we packed to swill on the beach after our landing!

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.