Kimberly Wheatley: Limitless Sides to Outside

I didn’t grow up kayaking, but for as long as I can remember, whenever I saw a lake or river, I would stare out at the water wondering what it would feel like to be out there. I wanted to be on the water, in the middle of it all. I didn’t know anyone who owned a boat or a kayak so for the longest time it remained just an idea.  

In fact, I was more than 30 years old and on a cruise ship excursion when I finally kayaked for the first time. I loved the experience and wanted to do it as often as possible, but I needed my own boat to make it happen. Owning a kayak felt like a pipe dream until one night, while researching my options, I stumbled upon a kayak that folded into a box, invented for apartment dwellers like myself. Time was of the essence: It was the last day of the spring REI members-only sale, and if I was going to do this, it was now or never. And so, at 10pm on a random Saturday night in 2018, I sat on my couch and impulsively purchased an Oru Kayak Bay ST. What followed was beyond anything I could have imagined.   

I chose the safest option, my local marina in Los Angeles, Calif., for my maiden voyage. The marina was small and well-contained, and I was inexperienced and alone. I stood on the beach assembling my kayak, terrified by what-ifs: What if I capsized? What if I made a fool of myself? What I feared most was that the reality of solo kayaking might not live up to my fantasy. Though the first few moments were wrought with fear, what I now remember most about that initial paddle is the freedom I felt on the water.  

I soon wanted more. I wanted an ambience, surrounded by trees, that was serene and quiet. I wanted to lose myself in nature. I wasn’t going to find it in a marina surrounded by overpriced waterfront homes and boat names like “Ship Happens” and “Son of a Beach.” I’d have to venture outside of Los Angeles, and far outside of my comfort zone, to find that tranquility. 

Big Bear Lake, Calif., was my first real paddling destination as I saw it, and it turned out to be a total game-changer. I’d lived in Los Angeles for 16 years yet had never been to Big Bear, though it was just a two-hour drive away and, in pictures, appeared to have exactly what I was looking for. I was terrified to embark on the adventure alone, but I did what any crazy person would do: I packed up my car and with my Oru in my trunk, headed out on my first solo trip. I was wracked with fear the entire drive. But the moment I laid eyes on that sprawling lake, nestled in the mountains, encompassed by pine trees, I knew Big Bear Lake was where I needed to be. 

Something in me changed during that paddle. Sitting in my kayak on a lake surrounded by jagged mountain peaks, gazing out at the tall pines as the sun shone down and bald eagles soared overhead, I knew I’d never be the same again. I wasn’t just happy—I was brimming with joy. I was at peace. I realized I didn’t need anything other than my kayak and a lake to find this feeling.

The wheels in my head started turning. I had a folding kayak that I could take practically anywhere. Naturally, the next question was: Where to next? I set my sights on paddling anywhere that seemed beautiful, pushing the limits with each trip. 

I’ve taken my go-anywhere kayak to Alaska, Canada and halfway across the world to Norway, living out my wildest dreams. I paddled the world-famous azure waters of Banff’s Lake Moraine, and gazed up up at steep mountains that seemed to extend into the heavens along the majestic Geirangerfjord. But in 2020, when COVID-19 hit and international travel ceased, I realized I’d have to adapt if I was going to continue to opt outside. So, I purchased a roof-top tent and, armed with some tips I learned at a basic camping class at my local REI, I found the courage to start road tripping and camping on my own. My relationship with nature was evolving, fueled by my growing love affair with kayaking. Suddenly, it made sense why people think up clever names for their boats. Naming your vessel is a way to honor the thing that brings you joy. It seemed fitting that I give my kayak a name, so I affectionately named my kayak Bae—my adventure companion. 

It’s hard to believe that a single purchase changed my entire relationship with the outdoors. Kayaking has opened doors for me I never knew I so badly needed to walk through. What I cherish most about the experience is what it’s taught me about who I am. I’ve learned to believe in myself, to dig deep for courage and, most importantly, that happiness is truly an inside job. Now, it’s no longer a question of where I’ve taken my kayak, but where has my kayak taken me?