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I was crying in a bathroom stall and counting squares of toilet paper.
Months ago, I had brazenly signed up for a summer excursion. My Spanish teacher told her class about a summer camp where you could participate in a slew of activities like rock climbing and camping. She mentioned one that involved a trifecta of adventure: camping, rock climbing, and kayaking.
Finally, an adventure that my sixteen-year-old self was dreaming of. I was too self-conscious to ask any questions until after class but I collected the flyer and noted the cost. Not that the price mattered, I was determined to go.
That determination faded into nervousness on the drive to the drop off spot in Central Wisconsin. Nervousness dripped into sadness, as I said goodbye to my mom. It was the first time I had to leave her.
After a tearful goodbye, the counselors asked us to collect a random amount of toilet paper squares from the bathroom.
There I stood in a bathroom stall, crying, counting squares, and wondering, “What the did I just do?”
A Splash of Happiness
Exploring the love of kayak didn’t start well, but by the end of that week I had a deep love for kayaking.
That week those strangers became friends as we paddled through the caves and over the Apostle Island shipwrecks. We camped on uninhabited islands where we heard the echo of our laughs over the campfires. We felt the icy grip of Lake Superior as we practiced tipping our kayaks and recovering them.
It was a wave of change for me. The skills I learned would come in handy when I accepted a bigger challenge in the future and when I would be sailing on an ocean that was a lot further from home.
It would be many years before I was reacquainted with kayaking again. This time exploring the love of a kayak would take me to my current dream career.
I was 23 years old and pursuing resource management – law enforcement. But I was beginning to have doubts about this path. Tom, my unofficial mentor, suggested I look into the gentler side of natural resources as an interpretive park ranger.
With his insight, I called the closest national park, the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. What began as a phone with questions about seasonal employment ended with a job offer.
As a park guide, I would spend my days kayaking the segments of one of the most beautiful rivers in North America. I would see great blue herons on the shore gazing at me with their stoic dignity. Baby ducks would motor in front of my kayak to meet up with their patiently waiting mother. Beavers would cautiously watch me from the surface of the water, waiting until I passed before swimming back to their latest dam.
I would spend two summers at the Saint Croix but I would only need one summer of kayaking to realize that being an park ranger is my dream.
Years later, it’s my last semester at college and I was starting the practicum program. It was designed to be similar to the rigors of working at an interpretive center and summer camp. A capstone program before graduation.
I am sitting through the orientation and gazing around the cavernous room until my eyes settle on one of the banners. The banners are decorated flags crafted by students from the various summer camp excursions.
There is a banner that has colorful kayaks, caves, and shipwrecks from the Apostle Islands.
I suddenly realize that exploring the love of a kayak from years ago was a program that is still offered to this day at this university in Central Wisconsin.
After all the years with the Navy, I had unintentionally ended up right back where I started. Except now I wasn’t crying in a bathroom stall; instead I would be the counselor who would encourage a trove of hesitant high schoolers.
I look back in awe.
What started as a deep yearning for adolescent adventure, ended up as a round trip endeavor compliments of a kayak.