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A drawing of a blue kayak on an orange background. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $475 I ever spent: A kayak that made me appreciate where I come from

Northeast Pennsylvania is beautiful, but after a decade in California and New York, I’d lost sight of it.

Over the course of the decade after I moved away, I saw my once-steely fondness for the place where I’d grown up slowly fade. Northeast Pennsylvania is beautiful, I had no doubt, full of forests and brooks, but it had been years since I’d seen them.

I spent the better part of my 20s in California, seduced by the pristine shorelines and palatial mountain ranges. I would return to my childhood house outside of Scranton one or two times a year, but it was usually during the colder months, when the trees were naked and the sky was perpetually gray.

Even after I moved back East in 2019, to take a new job in Manhattan, I rarely went home, and when I did it was only for a night or two. I had grown spoiled by the shimmer of California and New York, and the Northeastern panorama became something to be endured, not enjoyed.

When my girlfriend and I left New York for Pennsylvania at the beginning of March, we assumed it would be for a short spell. This Covid thing might take a few weeks, we reasoned, and our apartment was lacking in certain amenities (functioning water lines, for one thing). But those weeks have become months, and we’re still here. We broke our lease, moved our lives into storage, and now spend our downtime ambling through the very landscapes I had once been so eager to leave behind.

I have realized over the last few months just how wrong I was in my snobbishness. And for that, I have a blue Crescent Splash II tandem kayak to thank.

I was reluctant to purchase the kayak. As someone who, thanks to those years out West, has spent a lot of time on the water, it’s not that I didn’t want one. I just couldn’t rationalize the cost: $700 for the kayak, another $100 for the two adjustable seats, $150 for the paddles. Even though my girlfriend and I had agreed to split the expense — an arrangement that did little to mask the fact that she was, ultimately, accommodating my wish list and not the other way around — it still felt like too much. This was a summer of inexplicable pain; how could we buy an oversized toy boat?

Finally, one hot July day, while I was taking a break from my umpteenth round of “but should we?” circumspection to answer a work email, she swiped her credit card. “I knew you’d never actually do it,” she told me matter-of-factly (and she wasn’t wrong). I couldn’t even feign anger as I thumbed through my phone to open Venmo. It was ours.

The Crescent Splash II is not the most attractive watercraft out there. Twelve feet front to back and 69 pounds of aqua blue polyethylene, it’s sort of the Mack Truck of kayaks. Depending on how you configure the seats, it can function as either a solo or tandem vessel, a feature that was especially appealing, I thought, given that I’d be taking the kayak for solo excursions at least half the time. I was the one with a background in paddling, racing outrigger canoes — picture six people chugging through the open ocean in a narrow 40-foot canoe — on teams first in California and then in New York.

The pandemic had put a stop to outrigger: no practices or races for the foreseeable future. Here was a pretty close second, albeit one that was relatively foreign to me.

From the outset, though, when we took the kayak to a small nearby lake to give it a proper test run, I could feel the familiar sensations. The technique was undeniably different — kayaking requires a smoother stroke than outrigger paddling and is much more of an arm workout — but the net effect was still there. I quickly got lost in the swift dip of the paddle into the water, in the buzz of birds and crickets that broke through the quiet. The inherent repetition of paddling — whether it’s a kayak, a canoe, or anything else that will float — can always be counted on to clear my mind. It’s simple meditation through action, the same as what you hear surfers and knitters describe.

I was instantly hooked. Even now, I’ll head out for a pre-work morning paddle several days a week (sometimes I sneak in an evening session, weather permitting). Northeast Pennsylvania, it turns out, is a kayaker’s dream; rivers and streams snake through the region’s hemlock forests, and public lakes dot the rolling countryside.

Pretty quickly, my girlfriend was smitten, too. The unexpected satisfaction of a boat gliding exactly where you tell it to, our long drives through sweet-smelling backwoods to find the perfect launch spot — it’s all so alluringly uncomplicated. It wasn’t long after we bought the kayak that I would find her sitting on the couch staring at Google Maps, trying to pinpoint a new body of water for us to explore. We’d giddily scan through satellite images of snaking deltas and oddly shaped lakes, knowing fully well that these small public kingdoms could be ours to share in. My parents seem especially pleased, proud even, when we’d prattle to them about our very modest littoral exploits. “See?” they say. “Like we said, it’s not so bad here.”

Of the many outings that have followed since we purchased the Splash II, there’s one I don’t think I’ll ever forget. A few months ago, we drove an hour east, through empty fields and over an old steel bridge, to a boat launch on the New York side of the Delaware River.

We dragged our bulky little boat onto the river and started on our 10-mile trip. In the beginning, the route was packed — families and throngs of young people had come to the water to laze about on the big, inflatable rafts that were available to rent. Other groups had pulled off along riverbanks to take out their grills and their portable stereos. Everyone we passed seemed happy and maybe a little drunk; it was the closest thing to a party I had seen in months.

It wasn’t too long before we had left the crowds behind, and then it was only the two of us out there. For the next 10 or so miles, we would dart the kayak around the river, finding little rapids to pitch our boat in every direction and grassy riverbanks where we could pull off and aimlessly search the riverbed for stones to skip.

We spent much of the day paddling at a middling pace, one that allowed for us to chat and to point out the fish or birds that meandered past. On a few occasions, my old outrigger instinct would kick in and I would inadvertently pick up the pace, letting my body glide through the strokes faster than my mind could follow. In those moments, I’d lose focus on everything but the paddle I was holding. Soon enough my girlfriend would rightly tell me to knock it off and slow down. At the end of the day, we hitched the kayak to the roof of the car and, on our way back home, stopped at a roadside inn to buy ourselves each a beer.

I might just be fabricating a convenient narrative in my mental re-creation of that day, but I think it was during that run down the Delaware that I realized how much I love being home. Our excursions, our retelling of the excursions to my patient parents the next day, the otherwise humdrum existence of life here (where going to the gas station-cum-grocer counts as an outing) — I’ve become enamored with the smallness of it all. I can’t imagine we will stay in Pennsylvania for good — our jobs are in New York, as are most of our friends. But I won’t forget this rare window of time we have been afforded here, and while I am here, I’ll never take for granted how nice the buzz of insects sounds over the water.

Max Ufberg is a senior editor at GEN, a Medium publication.

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