All of a sudden, my lungs tightened from lack of oxygen. I was in trouble. Not even pass one third of the pier’s length, my capacity to breathe deep was stifled as the rolling swells and frothy tips of Lake Huron bounced me like a rubber ball on the surface of the water. What had initially looked feasible, while I stood solidly on top of the southern pier, now felt impossible with each shallower breath I took.
Earlier in the day, while standing on the south pier, silently surveying the pummeling waves and row of black neoprene-covered bodies sitting and occasionally standing upright upon bright-colored surf boards, I watched as one of the bolder surfers strode by me on the pier with surfboard in hand. “You look solid standing there,” he commented as he passed by before walking another seventy-five feet to the end of the pier where he launched, first his board, and then his body into the churning waters. In the water, he was then positioned well ahead of the pier’s point and the row of surfers who were lined up half way down the pier’s length in the water, awaiting the right wave to ride.
Twenty five years ago when I lived here, surfing was something we watched people do on ocean waves in our televisions, but upon my return to Kincardine a few years ago, I discovered surfing as a local water sport has been growing steadily along with other water sports such as stand-up boarding, sailboarding, kite boarding, surf kayaking and of course jet skiing.
During my first few years here in Kincardine as a teenager, a two level-diving board stood halfway down the north pier facing the north shoreline but I don’t remember having the guts to dive off the board. Ironically, a more gutsy and dangerous game I did join was the daring surf play risked when we jumped off channel side of the south pier into high rolling waves that would then lift us back up and drop us on the pier’s jetty.
But Lake Huron’s water level, I have been told since my return, was several feet higher then. Evidenced now by beaches now un-swimmable because of the water’s recession and revealed rock shoals, by the watermarks on the pier and especially by the pier ladders, whose first steps are out of reach above the waterline, that is, if the ladders are still attached to the pier, which they are on the channel side but not on the south side of the south pier. Instead, as I was shown by one of Kincardine Station Beach’s self-appointed stewards, one such south pier lakeside ladder now lies on the bottom of the lake, knocked off the pier by the power of the lake’s waves and winter ice.
Station Beach, back then and now, remains popular because this main beach is only one block west of the Kincardine’s main street and downtown core. In between the buildings and looking down the side streets, you can catch picturesque glimpses of the stunning western view that heralds some of the best sunset photography in the world. You can also see the small winding creek-like Penetangore River widening into a channel that slips between the two piers, carrying watercraft as small as jet-skis and small power cruisers to the tall mast sailboats and fishing tugs out to sea.
Water and water play has always been a big part of my life. Growing up on the shores on the Sydenham River in the southern Ontario town of Wallaceburg, the river was my backyard and my favorite playground from the time I was a child till I was twelve years old. Our family had a six passenger cedar-strip boat parked in our back yard. Amidst the smaller power boat and then the larger yacht traffic waves, Dad would drive my Mom, sister and I out to Mitchell’s Day for a picnic and a swim. Our uncle and aunt lived just outside of town past the cemetery along the river so they also had a dock and powerboat, though our favorite water toy at their home was the long braided, knotted rope we used when we launched ourselves off the wooden step built specifically for the take-off. Our own home was the second house from Fiddler’s Green; the boating club filled all summer with mostly American yachters that paid us nickels and dimes to tie up their boats on their arrival.
But just east of Fiddler’s Green, a steep incline of the boat launch ended with a small dock for tying up launched boats, but what we the neighborhood kids used as our playground. This was also the place where my real swimming lessons began; not in the chlorinated public pool where I refused to demonstrate in the swimming classes I was enrolled in that I could already swim.
My Dad was a powerful swimmer and all-around athlete and I have been blessed with the same athleticism. Trained in his childhood to be a fast runner by the circumstances of not having a bicycle to go swimming in the distant creek with his friends, he ran beside them on their bicycles, swam and played in the water and then ran beside his bicycling friends all the way home where he would resume his farm work. Dad’s exceptional hand and eye coordination repeatedly put him at the top of whatever sport he tackled. His most noted performance was as one of the star players for the Wallaceburg Red Devils, a lacrosse team that was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. His real desire, I later discovered, was to be a professional baseball player, for which undoubtedly he could have achieved had a poor farm boy, his family and community believed in and supported his dream.
With my Dad’s genes, I developed into a strong tomboy, towering over boys at age thirteen, with long, fast legs, seizing naturally whatever opportunity I could to use my physicality. By grade seven, my strengths became apparent to our coach as he encouraged me to develop my skills to become one of top three female athletes in my junior high years. When I graduated to grade nine, my junior high coach, met with me regularly on the high school track to keep training, especially with any sport associated with running, but as with my father, the pressure to give up such frivolousness was even stronger for a Catholic-raised girl, so I walked away from taking my athleticism seriously.
Fortunately the black and orange neoprene jacket over my black one-swimsuit was keeping me warm, but with each shallower breath, I felt encumbered by the sleeves and un-zippered front. Now I just wanted to get out of the water, but there was no ladder to climb for my escape. The only choice left was to swim to the pier and grab hold of one of the two pieces of rebar sticking out of the cement portion of the pier
Still, walking and cycling were second nature to me. Like my Dad, I thought nothing of walking for miles and miles and running and even when there was no need for the short quick bursts of sprinting, I would find a reason, including games of touch football with the neighbor boys that often turned into tackle football. By sixteen I was married and the lack of physicality from living added pounds to my lithe, lean and muscled body. But by eighteen, I followed my family to Kincardine and re-discovered the bliss of water play just outside my parents’ home just off of Aintree Road and later, for ten years, from my own home just south of Boiler Beach. No matter the time of year, Lake Huron mesmerized me, calling me constantly to walk its shoreline and whenever possible to swim its clean water. Then, every summer when my husband and I returned to his favorite Algonquin campground, I would swim, accompanied by him in the canoe, to the island and back. Teaching aerobics, working out in the gym, cycling and of course, even walking into town kept my lungs strong and clear even though I smoked during those early years.
When we moved to the city, being away from Lake Huron was one of the hardest obstacles to overcome. Not hearing the waves outside of my bedroom window, it took me months to adapt to the city’s night sounds. Along with participating in fund-raising walks and cycling, martial arts became the new channel for releasing the strong desire to be physical and safe in the unfamiliar, large and seemingly unwelcoming city: eventually though, the water called me back as it always does.
Lake Ontario beckoned me constantly but because of all the pollution, only with my eyes did I enjoy its breadth of blue, so I was forced by my water need, to slip into chlorinated pools. Once back in the water, I found I just wanted to play, not swim laps, so by watching the kids, with their lack of fear, jump and play off the diving board, I followed their lead, mostly looking quite idiotic as I learned to not fear the board and the water’s hard surface so I could one day spring off the board with an elegant swan dive, which I eventually achieved.
The only thing that brought relief during the spells between my water play was motorcycling. On a California driving tour, we entered a small town high in a mountain pass town where a motorcycle rally had taken over the town. Bikes and people of all shapes and sizes were lined up along the streets and to the shocked amazement of my husband, a teenage dream broke forth “I am going to get a motorcycle.” By the following March, my first motorcycle, a brand new 250 cc Yamaha Virago was parked in our garage and the beginner’s permit was parked in my wallet.
In the early 1990’s not many women were driving motorcycles, but my dream to drive one was inspired by a woman I met in 1972. Sam, a tall, vivacious and gregarious woman I met in Chatham where my first husband and I lived briefly, not only had her own motorcycle, she was a motorcycle mechanic, though not just any motorcycle mechanic: she was her fiancé’s motorcycle mechanic. As a racer, she was the only mechanic he let work on his racing machines.
I can only imagine how difficult it was for Sam to secure her license if she even needed to get a separate license in the 70’s because of what it took for me to get my M class license in the early 90’s. The driving test was comprised of two parts. Before we would even be tested on the streets, we first had to weave our way through a set of pylons, do a half circle and return, by weaving through the pylons … without putting a foot down on the ground.
We have all heard the saying if a woman wants to do something a man does she has to do it better in order to receive the stamp of approval. Well, the same standard applied for motorcycle testing, at least where I was tested. During my three tries on my long wheelbase Yamaha, I drove better than most of my male counterparts, who even brought in short wheelbase motorcycles for their test only, but it did not matter. One man wore laced runners and his lace got caught on the peg, but he passed. Another put his feet down, but he passed. Etc., etc., etc. But in the end, the stamp of approval was sweeter because I became a better rider than any boy or man who entered those pylons. My Dad would have been proud of my determination, strength, agility and perseverance.
Forced now to swim directly to the pier, the backlash from water smashing into the pier now smashed into me, along with the incoming surf, taking more of my breath from me. With my grasp now holding tightly to the three-foot long rebar, I tried to let my body rest by floating on the water’s surface, but in no time, I realized I was in more danger than expected.
Knowing one of Station Beach’s most familiar local faces, a self-appointed steward, Joe Kilian, was standing on the pier, I called out for help. Joe’s face, surrounded by his long white hair and beard, peeked over the edge of the pier before disappearing briefly. Being thrashed about was taking its toll, especially as the water’s force now tried to drag me into the eroded spaces underneath the pier. Fear of being trapped underneath the pier compelled me to swim to the second piece of rebar, which fortunately enabled me to rest my feet on a boulder while I clung tenaciously to the metal bar while waiting for help.
“Swim back,” Joe called out as I grabbed hold of the orange buoy ring he threw to me, but by then my body needed an escape and there were no ladders to climb to lift me out of the turbulence, except the one well behind me. As Joe walked east towards shore trying to pull me in, what I had not previously been aware of was the constant rip current running from the shore up along the pier’s side to the end of the pier, relentlessly trying to carry me out to deep water.
No matter how hard I kicked in the water and no matter how much Joe tugged the rope as he walked slowly to draw me closer to shore while gesturing for me to swim away from the pier, the ring and I were getting nowhere and I knew for the second time I was in deep trouble.
But I also knew when I decided to undertake the challenge my decision was based on a calculated risk and a heart prompting, which I have learned to trust and not just some foolish whim as many people have judged. For the past two years, I had been re-acclimatizing myself to the amazing power of Lake Huron, encouraged by surf guru Laird Hamilton’s advice to use both beach and water as my gym to rebuild the strength, stamina and swimming skills I would need to one day join the line of surfers I knew were stretched out across the waves that day. As Joe had helped, I expected a surfer would too. One did, but not in the way I expected.
Watching Joe’s wild gestures to swim away from the pier, I kept yelling back, “I can’t. I’m too tired now.” My eyes focused on the shore and the three neoprened bodies standing there. Finally, one of the surfers, the smallest of the three, ran and dove into the water, swimming steadily and quickly to me. “Do you need help?” the young woman asked quietly. Hesitating only briefly, I replied “Yes” upon realizing Joe and my efforts were not going to be enough.
Linking my arm into hers, we swam further south of the pier, further away by just ten feet. Suddenly we broke free of the rip current’s firm grasp and we swam steadily to shore. I could see the stern look of reprisal and fear on observers’ faces as I repeatedly said “I’m fine” assuring others and myself. Sincerely thanking Joe and the woman surfer, I grabbed my towel and headed for warmth.
Sleep evaded me the whole night as I continuously replayed, analyzed and evaluated the whole experience. Had I been foolish? What was I thinking? What was I trying to prove? And the answers came. Before hand, I had been thinking the experience would prove whether I was ready to be on a surfboard in the tumultuous water: the answer was not yet. Had I been foolish climbing down the ladder at the end of the pier to immerse myself in the churning waters? No, because there were several people around who could help if help was needed. And finally, like the female surfer who came to my aid, I took a calculated risk, whose results, if not successful, would be used to help keep other people safe by writing about my rip current experience to help encourage those responsible for keeping our water play as safe as possible by raised awareness, education and ensuring the proper safely and rescue notices and devices are in the right places, including the installation of emergency escape ladders on the south side of the eroding south pier where a rip current most notably resides in rough conditions.
Would I take such a calculated risk again? Yes, because sometimes we are called to step out of our comfort zones to make things safer and better for others … and for ourselves.
All Rights Reserved
November 1, 2013
Kaitlin A. Trepanier
All Rights Reserved by DARK HORSES PRODUCTIONS/KAITLIN A. TREPANIER, Connecting the Dots … with The RESPECT PRINCIPLE Developer, Author, Speaker, Playwright, Altruistic Entrepreneur, and Human Rights Activist … because every child should know, by their own experience, they are valued … RESPECTED