Our destination in sight

Respecting the Forces of Nature: A Kayaking Lesson on Lake Atitlan

“It’s a beautiful morning. Let’s kayak over to Casa del Mundo for breakfast.” Those were my words as I looked out the window at the windless surface the lake. What started as a calm morning and a beautiful day for kayaking on Lake Atitlan would soon turn and teach us a lesson about respecting the forces of nature.

I always tell my guests at Lake Villa Guatemala to know their limits when going out on the lake. The weather here, especially the wind, can change dramatically within moments. With the wind come waves that can be challenging to swimmers and even experienced kayakers.

We’d done this kayak trip several times before. It’s always a morning trip, as the wind comes up in the afternoon: we cross the lake and have breakfast, and try to return before the afternoon wind comes up. It’s about 5 miles each way, which takes about an hour and a half. As luck would have it, every time we’ve done this trip the wind has come up early, and the trip home took longer than the trip out. This day, however, the wind was calm as we finished our breakfast and hopped back into the kayak.

Looking across the lake toward our final destination -- home
Looking across the lake toward our final destination — home

The first mile was as calm as could be. About halfway through the 2nd mile the wind started blowing from the southwest: the Xocomil. We’d paddled back against a Xocomil before, and going against the wind and waves had added about 1/2 hour to our trip.

It didn’t take long before the wind strengthened and we found ourselves paddling in place. Our GPS tracker told us we were hardly moving at all. It took all our effort and energy not to go backwards.

We discussed our options. We could call our staff and have them pick us up in the boat. We rejected that idea pretty quickly: with the wind and waves, getting close to a boat could be dangerous. We decided that if we really couldn’t continue, we could turn around, ride the Xocomil back across the lake, and have the boat pick us up from shore.

Instead, we kept paddling. The day was cloudy, but the sun was strong. I had sunscreen with me but the wind was blowing too hard for me to put my paddle down and get the sunscreen from my bag.

Now and then we felt like we were making progress, then a big gust of wind would keep us in place. The little voice from the GPS on my phone, inside it’s waterproof bag, told us how slowly going. We were, however, making some progress.

We kept paddling. We sang to ourselves, our voices lost in the wind. We didn’t know what time it was or how long we’d been paddling. Eventually the gusts of wind subsided enough that we knew we wouldn’t have to turn back.

Finally our dock was in sight. With our legs stiff from sitting so long in the kayaks, we climbed slowly up the ladder onto the dock.

A trip that normally takes 1.5 hours had taken us 3.5. Our legs were fried from being out in the midday sun, and our bodies were exhausted.

We’re strong kayakers, and we know our limits: that day the lake tested those limits. Lake Atitlan is big, deep, and wild. She’s unpredictable. She needs to be respected.

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