Kayak Class

This week's field trip started like every single one should start for the next few months: a quick dip in ye olde sunscreen vat. That smell of fake coconut not quite masking the smell of chemicals is my summer signature scent, and with the Memorial Day weekend, I have officially consigned myself to being a sweaty, sticky mess for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the bike ride down to the Inner Harbor created its own breeze, so it wasn't until I clip-clopped across the Belgian block of Fells Point (it's not cobblestone-the history nerds get really upset if you suggest it's cobblestone, because it's not cobblestone, it's Belgian block) and pulled up under one of those massive brick buildings lining Fells Point that the sweat really started to pour off me. Ah, summertime.

I was there early on a Saturday to partake in the Canton Kayak Club's new member training lesson. I originally hail from the landlocked fantasia known as Boise, Idaho, but that doesn't mean I haven't been out on the water. I've done some lazy tubing on the Boise River, soda (I swear) trailing behind in its own inner tube. I've taken a dip in Lucky Peak reservoir, when the water level was high enough, which in the drought-ridden west wasn't always the case. But this part where I can just hop on my bike and ride to open waterways and paddle around in there? That's some seriously good field trip.

Mark was our safety instructor, and he was all business, an attitude I can respect. We were definitely sharing signature scents, but he also donned the hat and footwear of a Serious Recreational Waterman. Suddenly my t-shirt, girlfriend's giant old basketball shorts, and ancient sneakers felt incredibly inappropriate, like dressing in black for a wedding or wearing your sweatshirt to the symphony, not that I know anything about any of that or whatever. It struck me as we sat there and waited for the three ladies from Ellicott City to fight their way through Game Day traffic that there's always a kind of in-the-knowness for stuff like this. Like, the initial Canton Kayak Club email said not to wear cotton, but what else is there to wear in the summertime? How was I supposed to know there are special shoes and bags you "need" to row a boat around the little square of water between piers?

The group finally assembled, Mark began his lecture on not getting run over by ships, not losing your cellphone, and the importance of hydration at all times. Several times folks stopped by and asked if they could borrow or rent a kayak. Nope, club members ONLY, no kayaking with the rental class. Now, anyone with $165 to spare can join, but it's interesting that these kayaks are all on publicly accesible piers. The harbor space is public, right? But which public can use it varies as you make your way around it. The founders of the Canton Kayak Club obviously made a good argument that their public would fit right in on the shaky line between public and private over here, and for that I'm grateful, because I totally want to kayak out and see the shore from the other side, and I'm just middle class enough to be able to afford it.

But what about the rest of the shoreline? Development projects have eaten up a lot of it. If you happen to live at the Ritz-Carlton Residences over on the Federal Hill side of the walk, for example, I'm sure the promenade feels like home, but when I'm over there, I always feel like I'm trespassing, like I'm surely not dressed appropriately for that neighborhood. The same thing happens on the east side, where the promenade turns to wood and feels like the private waterfront for the folks who bought condos in Canton. The Inner Harbor feels more public, but it also feels a whole lot more policed, like you'd better be enjoying the place in just the right way or you're out. And once you know the Maryland Science Center was built over there, with no windows, facing up the hill, partly as a defensive position against the "undesirables" of Sharp-Leadenhall and Federal Hill following the uprisings of 1968, well, it's not just a fun place to take the nephews when they come visit anymore. That's the thing with public space, though. You have to actually manage the status of "public" to make yourself at home here. I might have had the wrong outfit on for kayaking, but I fit right in as a member of the public class, so I don't think I'll have any issues using the kayaks this summer.

Finally, after a whole lot of on-land safety drills, we were ready to get in the water. I gingerly stepped in the boat, pretty sure it would shoot out from underneath me, but it didn't.

As for peeing in the boat, well, there are no public bathrooms near any of the piers; Mark suggested using the restrooms in adjoining restaurants. They've been friendly about kayakers coming in, apparently. Yep, private spaces can be made public if you've got the right look to you, which the kayak club members got, I suppose. But we weren't in the water long enough to find out. I paddled around a bit, taking the chop stirred up by that harbor-"cleaning" trash boat we've got vacuuming our waters, and learned to change direction and that I am a long, long way from knowing how to paddle in a straight line.

Then it was time to get out. I did my best beached-whale impression and somehow managed to drag myself up on the dock. "See? You don't have to be graceful to get out of the boat." Thanks, Mark. Guess I belong after all.

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