The Kayak Chronicles

Kayaking in La Jolla
Ewen Roberts/Creative Commons
Kayaking in La Jolla

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The kayak shop ran like a makeshift haven for surfers, dropouts and convicted felons. Our boss, Jimmy, was of the dropout faction since he left some Arizona college in the ’80s to move back home and marry his high-school sweetheart. Or so it went, according to the girls who worked at the front of the shop.

What he lacked in academic achievement, Jimmy compensated for in gumption. Equipped with a brand new sign machine, he printed a half dozens that read: BAG’S ARE FOR WET ITEM’S and TOUR GUIDES APPRICATE TIPS!!!

“This is big,” he declared. “Plastic will impress customers! Signage will revolutionize the proceedings of the kayak shop!”

It did not revolutionize the kayak shop.

The men of the shop were rugged, in the way that all men who consider “crossfit” to be a conversational verb are rugged. The women, too, of the Amazon variety: strong, capable, resourceful and unworried by the notion of sexual appeal.

We spent the bulk of our days in the back of the shop, where we swept sand and hosed down wetsuits and dried snorkels and scrubbed fins and rinsed life jackets. These were inherently tedious jobs, but the shared pain of it bound us together as a group.

The beach crew were the real sandy bottoms and had a thankless job that involved strict adherence to inexplicable city ordinances — “Always have one member of your company sitting on the retaining wall” — and tugging boats around the beach. These were the cool boys, the punks of the kayak shop who designated the boat launch as a makeshift fraternity house.

“Did you see that chick’s donk?” asked George, the head honcho of beach crew, on my second day of work.

I hadn’t seen that chick’s, but I’d also seen them all: girls with snug fabric films — called bottoms? Every slink of their lubricious legs eliciting sheepish salacious side-glances from the beachgoers who waddled across the sand.

Ignoring him, I pointed toward the water. A man on my tour couldn’t stay upright, and could someone please grab him a different boat? George pulled his glance away from a bosomy broad who tanned catatonically face-up and looked up toward the horizon.

“Who put the fucking beluga whale on a scrambler?” he asked. “Fatty needs a double, at least.”

George was frank; I liked that. He also had a picture frame tattoo on his inner left forearm “so he could write notes to himself.”

“Hands are too bony,” he said. “This way it’s smooth, and really easy to read. I just wish they’d made it bigger, because it’s hard to fit a lot in there.”

Our own quirks were only echoed by customers’ behavior, like the woman who brought her pet pitbull into the shop to join in on the kayak tour.

En route to shore, we paraded adorably through town — owner pepped in her strident step, customers chummy, dog panting beneath the heat of her miniature life jacket — until reaching the ocean, where the previously placid pitbull became hysterical. The dog’s mechanical obedience went haywire in the face of seaweed smells, and it ran in confused, skittish circles.

“There’s no way that dog is sitting on a boat for two hours,” said our general manager.

Outside of pitbull lady’s world, the waves throttled toward shore with an uncharacteristic harshness for late afternoon. A man in our group looked back at the lifeguard station. Another tightened her helmet, then her child’s. Pitbull lady looked excitedly toward the water.

“This will be fun!” she declared.

With more faith, and a little more muscle, George situated the lady and pooch in a heavier boat and push them out to sea. Up and down went the duo over the briny waves that crashed on the shoreline.

“PUT THE OAR IN THE OCEAN,” I shouted from the boat launch.

She laughed and splashed her paddle playfully against the surface of the water. By now the waves hit as if personally pissed at the shoreline, which deteriorated rapidly as sets churned in. With each bump, the pitbull bounced higher, higher from where it sat on the nose of the kayak — until one wave rolled back the boat and shot the dog high into the air.

The lady screamed. The pitbull floated in its life jacket before tumbling into shore. And there we all waited patiently, unaffected as always.

The entire experience evoked Archie Comics — that which is absurd, instantaneously climactic, poignant and pointless at once. Jimmy’s shop looked like it would never work. But the fact of the matter was that it worked beautifully. We kayakers formed a motley crew: I befriended an ex-heroin addict, my best friend loosely dated our boss, and so on. I curled into the soft familiarity of a little beach whose slippery seaweed wove around the blankets of family reunions where mothers laughed at daughters and young boys who yearned to rid of innocence.

Summer was about the way that the sun painted cotton candy pastels on the early evening clouds; the way that hot air balloons clustered lazily as they floated offshore many miles north; the way our Dionysian abandon fueled our irresistible, youthful glee.

It was a remarkable business.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected]