"Hey, Lana." Katja waved me over. "You're just in time to grab the other end of this kayak."
"Perfect!" I jogged a little to shorten their wait. "Sorry I took so long getting ready."
"1 - 2 - 3," Katja counted down and we all lifted in unison. "Don't worry about it. You haven't missed much.” She started to lead us down the hill. “Set this kayak on the far end of the tarp, perpendicular to the water. Any questions?”
“I don’t think so,” I looked around at my cohorts.
“Nope,” Malcom said.
“Great! I’ll meet you on the beach,” Katja hurried ahead of us.
"Have any of you been on this trip before?" I've done plenty of kayaking and wasted no time in implementing my personal strategy for keeping the boat from hitting my legs while we walked down the gravel incline.
"I haven't, but my neighbor from Dunedin recommended it. She said it was her favorite part of the West Coast." The woman who had left the shed just before me spoke first. "I'm Allison. Nice to meet you, Lana."
"Nice to meet you too."
"All we know is what we read on the website," the guy behind me piped up. So far, I sounded like the only non-Kiwi.
"Cool, me too." I glanced over my shoulder. "Wow, are you two brothers?"
They laughed, in unison with matching smiles surrounded by some formation of ginger facial hair that was growing beyond its usual boundaries. It would soon connect to their curly piles of hair.
The water was starting to come into view and we'd be there in a minute or two.
"Twins, but I'm older."
"What Malcolm means to say is that he is thirty-seven seconds older."
Allison and I laughed.
"Don't mind Jerome, my baby brother."
"By 'little,' he means an inch taller."
"I see. We'll try to keep that in mind."
"In all seriousness, we're not really those kinds of brothers, ya know the ones who compete at every possible opportunity."
"That’s probably good. I know some brothers like that, seems exhausting." I knew three brothers like that – Chris and his two younger brothers dominated many family gatherings with their one-upmanship.
It was a very quick jaunt down the hill, even with a two-person kayak.
“Excellent, set it here next to the this one.” Katja pointed to a light blue kayak that had the New Zealand silver fern on the side we could see.
“Aye aye, Captain,” Allison joked.
Katja watched us while she unpacked a duffle bag and set several plastic containers on the sand.
“Well done, team. There’s just one more kayak to bring down.”
The four other kayakers and Katja stayed on the beach to sort the supplies into a pile for each boat and we headed back up the hill.
“This boat will be our kitchen boat. It’ll have the dishes and drinks.”
“Sounds like Katja has done this a few times.” Malcom said.
“This boat will be—”
Then we were out of earshot.
“I bet she has. I think I heard her tell someone that this is her fourth summer in the Doubtful Sound.”
“So, how much kayaking have you done?”
“Enough to sign up for this trip. I live near a lot of rivers and I always mean to kayak more.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Um, probably because I work too much. On the weekends, I don’t have much energy for anything except the housework I didn’t do during the week. BUT, I’m changing that. This trip is the first step in that process.”
“That’s good,” Jerome said.
“Jerome and I get out as much as we can. There’s a club in Christchurch.”
“Well, you’re in the perfect place for that. I just got here on Sunday and I’m already planning to come back.”
That was true and I was planning to come back, especially if two weeks wasn’t enough to figure out what in the world had happened on that boat.
“How long will you be here?” Allison was walking next to me.
“I’ll be in New Zealand for two weeks.”
Out on the water, Allison and I turned out to be ideal kayaking partners. We fell into an easy rhythm that made our trek smooth. I was in the front of the kayak, the look-out position.
The sky that day was gray and it was drizzling. Everyone wore their blaze orange outer layer all day. The spray skirt kept my legs warm and dry. I was soon so comfortable that my mind began to wander.
I watched the tiny water droplets land around me and ripple out to one another. I noticed how the water would curl behind my paddle as I pulled it back. I spotted little patches of blue sky.
I thought about how to find out if I had dreamed that whole thing on the cruise across Lake Manapouri. Everything from me deciding to swing into the bottom level of the boat to crawling out of the ground next to the shed made no sense.
Could I ask Katja? Would she somehow give me a clue? Who else might know something? Would I see something during the kayaking trip?
A few hours later, we stopped at a rocky beach to eat lunch. Other than that, we were in our boats. Katja gathered us together a couple times to tell us Maori legends about things like how the Doubtful Sound were formed. She knew those stories inside and out and could answer any question.
There was even a story to explain the terrible sand flies we’d soon become quite familiar with. Their bites would itch for two weeks and the visible evidence would take a month to disappear. According to the story, the sand flies were added to the Doubtful Sound so that it wouldn’t be overrun with people and would always stay beautiful.
Those little flies did their job well. Fortunately for us, they don’t venture out to boats very often.