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Of Bayous and Bull Riding (Part 1)

This past weekend I headed to New Orleans for an insurance industry conference, Agency Nation’s Elevate19 . I’m proud to be one of an elite group who had also attended 17 and 18, the first two years of Elevate. I was looking forward to the stellar lineup of speakers and workshops, meeting new people, and best of all would be seeing some of my tribe, #5amclubins.

This group of insurance industry rock stars, who I met almost entirely online, have been tremendously supportive. They are more than acquaintances and colleagues, they are treasured friends.

Friends like Julie Bryndal, an insurance agent from Indy, who had been one of the contributors to my #50for50 compilation. But as she is prone to do, she really went above and beyond by also scheduling the activity so she could experience it with me…stand-up paddling…in the bayou of New Orleans.

She and I got up early on Sunday and took a sunrise walk to Cafe DuMonde for beignets and Cafe Au Lait.

I mean if I was bound to go capsize off a paddle board on the bayou I definitely needed some sugar and caffeine before we went.

Later after we’d also had a light breakfast with protein to balance out the powdered sugar high, we changed into water safe attire and met back in the lobby.

She called an Uber and he had to take us the long way around due to several major roads being closed for a race that morning. I didn’t realize that part at first however and briefly wondered if he was speeding us off to someplace sordid.

But since New Orleans is full of sordid places it was hard to tell.

When he stopped on Moss Street we were at a gas station across from the water. Our guide wasn’t there yet but there was a kayaking guide there who told us about the race that was crossing right over the bridge beside us and all the blocked streets.

Julie and I sat down on the grassy bank of Bayou St. John, to change into our water shoes we’d brought, and wait. Meanwhile I got a better look at the water. There was a short cement wall at the water’s edge and you could see the rocks and branches in the shallow for a couple of feet out. The water was a dark mossy green, with just a hint of the muddy bottom beyond, however it was rather pretty as the sun shone over it. I was relieved to notice that the wind was light so the surface of the water was barely ruffled.

Then I also noticed across the water near the opposite bank a small set of eyes peeking out of the calm waters. An alligator.

Suddenly all the jokes that Mike and my family had made when I told them I was going to go stand up paddling for the first time ever in the bayou, weren’t so funny. Everyone had warned me about gators.

Which meant I had more reason to worry about falling off my board.

Thankfully he appeared to be a little one. I just fervently hoped that a larger momma gator wasn’t lurking nearby.

Our guide, Jeff of NOLA Paddleboards got there soon after and immediately started unloading the paddle boards while he and Julie discussed board length since she’s the experience SUP’er.

He took the time after everything was unloaded to explain technique, handed out life jackets and we were ready to get on our boards.

Or as ready as I would ever be.

I felt the fear and experienced that now normal gnawing sensation of expecting to fail. From pole dancing to pottery wheel and my continued struggles with learning to freestyle swim for my upcoming Tri, I was certainly used to this anxiety of being a continual beginner.

Then I stepped down in the water and climbed on the paddle board.

Jeff hooked the ankle strap on which is supposed to tether you in case of falling off. I gingerly slipped off the water shoes and slid them under the cords on the front of the board since I’d been told I needed to “feel” the board.

I knew the longer I hesitated the worse the feelings got so the faster I could get out on the board and stand, the better.

As I knelt and paddled some on each side to get out to the middle of the bayou I ignored the little voices of doubt that I could stand up.

Julie was already up and Jeff had paddled out to talk me through it.

First you lay the paddle across the board and place your hands in front of you in the biardand rock forward slightly so you can position your feet. Then you stand, bringing the paddle up with you in your hands. All the while with an odd strap around your ankle.

Sounds super simple I thought, after all I am used to doing squats and staying balanced even with dumb bells in my hands.

On level ground where if I lost my balance I’d just step my feet a bit wider.

Which isn’t the same as rising from a squat on a narrow board while floating on water and holding my long handled paddle.

Somehow I did that part ok.

So then I’m standing and knowing I need to start paddling so I don’t drift back into the shallows. Or worse, drift to the opposite shore where there is still a little alligator eyeing us from time to time.

My knees were literally knocking together. Jeff advised me that I should straighten up and lock my knees out until I could feel more balanced.

Despite that sounding like crappy advice considering all the years I’d been told to.never.lock.your.knees. You know, since that is a great way to end up passing out.

When considering taking the expert advice or continuing to let my thighs quiver like crazy, I straightened my legs. I tried to spread my toes out like I did in yoga to aid my balance.

Jeff either saw this or knew it would be instinctive because he indicated that trying to clench the board with my toes would make my feet fall asleep.

Numb feet sounded like a bad idea while balancing on a paddle board.

At this point I was at least standing even if it took me a few more minutes to get the hang of paddling. Turns out that my initial attempts just had me going in circles.

And yet I refused to spend a moment of discouragement when I wanted so much to enjoy the beautiful day and the peacefulness of the water.

As it was incredibly peaceful. That focus got me paddling in the right direction with only a few more corrections and soon I could squat slightly as I stroked my paddle through the water. This added power and I was able to keep up with everyone.

We had to get back down into a kneeling position to go under a low bridge. Getting back up again was better this time.

The bayou flowed through a lovely neighborhood of antique homes including the Pitot House, an 18th century Creole colonial country home.

Julie took some photos. I was awed by her complete ease on the board and tried to mimic her movements. I was no longer nervous.

It was cool to watch passerbys on the banks walking dogs, running, or sitting in the sun because many of them were watching me. Looking a bit envious.

After all I was now grinning like a fool from how good it all felt.

An older lady in a kayak said hello as she paddled in opposite direction and then she called out, “Better you than me.”

I replied, “It’s my first time!” And my voice was definitely a little proud.

We turned around before the next bridge and went back in same direction we’d come. Once back to the launch point we were instructed we could keep going the other way if we were up for it.

I was up for it and so were the others. We crossed under the bridge at Esplanade Street at Moss where the runners had been passing over. We paddled for awhile in that trajectory before turning back. By that time my feet were falling asleep despite my efforts to not clench the board, so I was relieved.

As I took the lead back toward our starting point I found that the alligator had followed us a bit. He was about 100 yards away from the initial spot, but wasn’t really watching now as much as he was trying to sun himself.

I still kept my distance.

We each took our turn coming back to shore, and Jeff helped us off the board.

Back on the grassy bank I had to regain my land legs. I took off my water shoes and dug out the towel that was in the bag I had brought and left locked up in Jeff’s truck while we paddled. Changed back into socks and sneakers while Jeff dug out awesome tshirts for Julie and I.

I took off my swim shirt I had worn over my swimsuit and put on the long sleeve NOLA Stand Up Paddle shirt. I felt like I had earned it.

That glorious morning paddling wasn’t my only #50for50 adventure in the Big Easy. Stay tuned for part 2!

One comment on “Of Bayous and Bull Riding (Part 1)

  1. Lara Racster says:

    Just so proud of you!!


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