May 1, 2008

Bikes, kayaks, nature and death

Ok, so, I continued this past weekend to break out of the oh-so-hardened shell of slothdom in which I'd been stuck the last several months, by heading to Maryland's eastern shore area for a kayaking/cycling trip with my buddies from the Team Estrogen cycling forum (Can I just say again how weird I feel posting at a site named for a female hormone? But anyway...). We all signed up for the Wild Goose Chase ride at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and, since we've begun paddling together as well as pedaling, the idea immediately came up to bring our 'yaks along and make a multi-sport weekend of it.

A few of my favorite things...

Saturday's weather was gorgeous, and much warmer than any of us expected it to be. It was great to be on the water in such a beautiful place, and to stretch out little-used muscles in the smooth repetitive motions of paddling. Like cycling, kayaking can easily induce a meditative state through the synchrony of breath with motion, and of body with vehicle. Forward propulsion of a kayak is more than just windmilling a double-bladed paddle. It involves power through the shoulders, rotation of the torso, swiveling of the hips, and pressure through the legs in order to glide and maneuver your craft through the water. Once this combination of body functions becomes muscle-memory, it feels both exhilarating and peaceful to move so subtly through nature, with the different perspective that comes from being at water level. That perspective creates an intimacy with your surroundings that no noisy, vapor-spewing jet-skier will ever experience.

After about our half-dozenth bald eagle sighting, one member of our group wondered just what it is about those birds that so fascinates us. They're certainly not the most noble of creatures, being more scavenger than hunter. And, in places like Blackwater, they're nowhere near as rare as they used to be. But there is a majesty about them that derives from their size and the fierceness of their profile. Honestly, though, I get just as much of a kick out of watching vultures as from sighting eagles. The humble turkey vulture fascinates the heck out of me. Butt-ugly up close, vultures also have some fairly vile habits, such as projectile vomiting when frightened and peeing on their own legs to cool themselves in hot weather, in addition to their diet of carrion. But on the wing, a turkey vulture soars the thermals with as much grandeur as any eagle.

Overnight, Ma Nature turned Jekyll-and-Hyde on us and we woke Sunday morning to a grey sky, chilly temps, wind, and the threat of rain. My more ambitious cycling buddies left the motel at 7:30am to get an early start on the 65- and 40-mile routes, while I puttered about my room trying to maintain my motivation in the face of gloomy weather. I finally got my crap together and headed over to the ride start at about 9:00 or so. My intention going into the weekend was to attempt the 40-mile route, even though I haven't been on a ride of that length in over eight months, but the dreariness of the day influenced me to do the 25-miler instead. I started out spinning easily at a much higher speed than my typical average. Within a handful of miles, though, a turn in the road put us directly into a cross-wind and I immediately slowed down to my usual pace. Entering the refuge's Wildlife Drive a third of the way through the route, we were requested to reduce our speed even further, which made for a nice opportunity to meander along looking for wildlife. I had fun at one point watching a tiny swallow (bank swallow, perhaps?) swoop back and forth across the road in front of me for a quarter of a mile, before it finally veered off towards the marsh.

Back on the road, the cross-wind turned into a head-wind and I was forced to shift down almost to my granny-gear. I forgot to look at the weather report later that evening to find out what speed the gusts were-- probably nowhere near as strong as they felt, but enough to make the last several miles a struggle. It's apparently lame to describe cycling as a Zen-like activity, but I insist on doing it anyway. Even in the worst conditions, finding that perfect balance of rpm/mph that allows you to spin the pedals in smooth circles, like a second hand circling the face of a clock, can put even the snobbiest cyclist into a zone of mindless mindfulness. It's the rides when the legs lunge around the cranks in herky-jerky squares that are the hard ones. But when you find that sweet spot, even on a difficult or painful ride... Those are the rides that you look back on fondly, with no memory of effort or discomfort. Take one of those rides, throw in beautiful rural scenery (even with a grey sky), and I end up one happy puppy.

Believe it or not, I did bring my camera along on this trip. I just left it in the car while I was paddling and pedaling. Silly me. But there are a couple of old churches with cemeteries along Md Route 50 that I couldn't resist stopping at on the way home, and a few of the photos actually turned out somewhat decent.

What's left of Old White Marsh Episcopal Church

So sad, dead at 17 in 1792

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