Facing your fears with family

by • May 6, 2013 • AK on the GoComments (0)1405

Land of adventure tests mom’s ‘go for it’ fortitude

Until recently, it’s been fairly easy to steer our youngest child toward pre-selected vacation activities. Have small child, will travel, so we hiked, fished, flew and poked around Alaska with little fuss from the peanut gallery. Somewhere over the past year, between a Denali flightseeing trip and a southeast Alaska cruise, an unanticipated streak of independence emerged from the depths of my 7-year-old’s soul. It all started with a kayak.

James (in rear) and Owen Kirkland get comfortable with their double kayak while waiting for Mom. Erin Kirkland

James (in rear) and Owen Kirkland get comfortable with their double kayak while waiting for Mom. Erin Kirkland

“When, when can we go?” my excited son had asked, inspecting a rainbow of colorful boats hanging upside down from the stern of our UnCruise Adventures ship last August.

Oh, no.

I hate kayaking; or, at least, I used to hate it. Those same skinny vessels had nearly killed me several years ago, and I hadn’t gone near one since. Even my husband, a sea kayak enthusiast, couldn’t change my mind, and yet, there we were, shoving off from Ketchikan for seven days of intense exploration, and me staring at the boats, gripped by visceral terror.

I am generally not a wimp in the area of outdoor recreation. I can hike through bear country, fly in a tiny plane over open water, and use a chainsaw. I’ve even ziplined in a driving rainstorm.

But kayaking holds no allure for me. Despite attending lectures, reading books, and watching videos showing happy kayaking families in an attempt to mitigate feelings about the sport, my flight response still screamed ‘No!’ whenever I saw one. I had been trapped in the cockpit of one of the tippy boats at a Lower 48 lake resort. I had no business being in the boat without training, and undertrained staff had no business putting me there. Though it happened 20 years ago, I still hadn’t shaken the incident.

So what was I supposed to do when my 7-year-old announced that he yearned to paddle? Alaska teems with outdoor opportunities, and to truly explore its nooks and crannies, one must step willingly into its wildness. It’s a conscious decision many parents make while traveling, and it’s one my husband and I choose on a regular basis. Except for the damn kayak thing, we’ve otherwise embraced this healthy attitude of stewardship and exploration, touching the face of Alaska on her most basic level. Until now, we’ve always done that, together.

I regularly preach that stepping beyond comfortable boundaries for activities in which you have questionable background or expertise is part of the adventure travel experience. Alaska certainly has its share of opportunities to do that. River rafting, bear viewing, and even skiing all carry a certain amount of risk, and it is at this crossroads of comfort versus courage that people, particularly parents, must decide to move forward, or not.

Thankfully, UnCruise Adventure staff were neither unprepared or untrained; nor were they unsympathetic to my fears. After a respectful (and lengthy) session in kayak safety and mechanics, safe exits and supervisory reassurances, my son and husband were blissfully ensconced in their double boat, paddling away in a rhythmic one-two motion that made me jealous. Gingerly, I allowed myself to be coaxed into another kayak, a stable Necky warhorse my husband refers to as “the Bismark of kayaking.” Hands shaking, chest filling with honest pre-panic, I sat as a statue, save for my feet tapping the rudder pedals like a nervous drummer.

“C’mon, Mommy!” shouted my son from somewhere behind me, waiting, as was the entire boat, to see if I would bolt from my position on the easy-launch deck. The captain, too, was out of the wheelhouse, having heard the story and wanting to offer personal assurance that nothing could possibly happen to an Alaska travel writer on his boat.

“You’ll be all right,” the expedition leader said quietly, as he gently pushed my kayak backward along the deck’s plastic frame. I couldn’t see anything anymore, not the people lining the railing, not my hands that gripped the paddle so tightly my knuckles hurt, and my ears roared with a herculean effort not to burst into hysterical tears.

Then everything was silent. The kayak, now free of its terrestrial bond, bobbed quietly on the dark, green, calm water. I shut my eyes. When I opened them, my husband and son were there, grinning at me, each with a hand on my kayak, one holding the bow, the other the stern. And I remained upright the entire afternoon.



It’s not easy to overcome a fearful experience, especially under the watchful eyes of kids. Here are a few tips for managing, and perhaps even overcoming, fear in the great outdoors:


Educate yourself. Take a class, read books and discuss with professionals the root cause of your fear. Fear is often caused by a lack of information, so power up with knowledge.


Enlist your partner. Fear is personal, so establishing a respectful boundary for just how much, or how little, coaxing and teasing is allowed. Ask for support as you take small steps forward.


Say “when.” Activities should be fun. Life is too short to spend precious money or time on experiences to the contrary. In my case, I had a job to do, and was willing to trust company staff to help. Would I do it again? Perhaps not. It is perfectly OK to say no. Alaska is full of other, equally beautiful activities. But you must advocate for yourself.


Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and the publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage with her family, and looks forward to another summer of almost-kayaking in 2013.


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