The Kayak Chick

Having paddled here, there, and everywhere, Carolyn Dowd comes home to lead kayak tours all around the Vineyard.

Carolyn Dowd – also known around here as the Kayak Chick (or preferably just Chick) – was paddling through Thailand to experience kayaking in the rough. It was the winter of 2004. She ran into Dave, the certifiable travel guide. We’ll let her tell the tale:

“This absolute insane man, really crazy, took a travel writer and myself out. So we were climbing up this huge limestone cave, and we looked down, and there’s this big reservoir. He said, ‘Let’s jump!’ After we got in he said, ‘There’s no way out.’ He started swimming into this cave, and it was totally pitch black, and there were millions of bats, and you could feel the drip, drip, drip, just falling all around you. He had a flashlight, and we followed him. He said, ‘There’s a tunnel underneath the water here, and you’re going to have to swim down ten feet, out twenty feet, and then back up ten in order to get out of here.’ We could see a little light coming from under.”

Dave dove down to the underwater tunnel and vanished, leaving Chick and the travel writer behind.

“We were freaking out, and the travel writer said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ So we’re sitting there in a pitch-black bat cave, no way out, nowhere to go, except this little light shining up.” Chick thought about the whole situation for ten minutes. She told the travel writer that she would make the underwater swim to make sure it could be done, then return for him. She dove, swam, and reached the other end. The guide was there. “You’re totally insane,” she yelled at him. Then she dove, swam back, “got the other guy, and went back out again.”

 Chick is descended from three generations of adventurous Island summer residents. Her grandfather was an engineer for Northeast Airlines, her grandmother a pilot, and the two met on the mainland. Chick herself knew she wanted a career in hospitality from an early age, but she wasn’t thinking about jumping into reservoirs and swimming through bat caves in those days. No, more along the lines of “a cruise director like Julie on The Love Boat,” she jokes.

She first got into a kayak when she was studying at the University of Sydney and working for the Olympic committee in Australia in 1999 and 2000: “Kayaking is an unobtrusive way to enjoy the water. You get more of an experience being part of it, instead of looking at it, ” Chick says. In Nova Scotia she led kayak trips around Cape Breton, where schools of whales amazed her by day, and bears posed a challenge at her campsite at night. “It was complete wilderness kayaking,” she says. She remembers running into a bit of trouble off the Cabot Trail. “There’s a type of wind, a southeasterly called a williwaw. I was taking this family of kids and a woman and an old guy on this sunset tour around a bluff. The winds were coming in at us, huge waves.” The kayakers could not paddle around the headland, but it was also not safe to land their boats. “We were in front of the cliff and the whole town went up to the cliff and saw us. They dropped lines down and hoisted the boats up the cliff. Things like that happen when you’re dealing with environmental situations,” she says. She knows that getting through it made her a better tour guide.

She established Island Spirit Kayak on her return to the Vineyard in 2002. Chick and her eco-tour guides don’t have to face the challenges of bat caves or bears – though they do encounter the occasional snorting southeasterly. Island Spirit rents kayaks, leads pond paddles (most often on Sengekontacket Pond between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown), and offers a kayak camp for energetic kids.

“Kids don’t even know they’re learning,” she says. “You throw a Frisbee, and they’re paddling real hard and turning and stopping, going forward, backward, and teaching each other all these skills. They don’t even know how they’re doing it, because they want to get the Frisbee.” Island Spirit offers kayak camps to kids aged eight to eleven and twelve to fifteen. The camp runs twice a week for two weeks.

Her weekly sea-adventure kayak trips start from Edgartown harbor and head out to Cape Pogue or from Menemsha around the Gay Head Cliffs. Then there’s Cuttyhunk. Last summer she led a group of intrepid paddlers across Vineyard Sound to the westernmost Elizabeth Island. At night.
“Phosphorescence created white rainbows, glowing on jumping minnows,” she says. “Perfectly clear night. Sparkling. We spent the night at the fishing club. We were a small group together for four days. It’s so beautiful over there, like another world.”

Borrowing from Chief Martin Brody in Jaws, the slogan on Chick’s website reads, “It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.” That’s a narrow definition for a woman who loves the Vineyard and whose ambitions match her sense of adventure. “This is a good destination for kayakers from all over the United States. What would be really cool is to have advanced sea kayaking. This is a great place to start real adventures, out to Nantucket, Cuttyhunk, Block Island, Newport. I mean, the coast here is so phenomenal. Make it a real paddling experience.”