Floating Into the Netherworld

The unsettling adventure of kayaking the bayfront in the dead of night

"Maybe we're dead," suggests my companion hopefully.

Our small vessel glides over the inky black skin of the bay. Silent. Effortless. Dreamlike. I rest the paddle against my thighs and run a gloved hand across the surface of the water, watching the firefly reflections of a dozen city lights scatter beneath my palm. I lift my dripping hand to my hot cheeks, vaguely aware that the cold does not penetrate my skin, that I'm so insulated from the physical sensation of the bay waters by a mild fever and a wet suit that nothing seems quite real. We sweep our paddles silently to the right, clearing a dilapidated pier, and head for the first silvery tower of the Bay Bridge, from which the sound of weekend traffic reaches us in muffled oscillating waves. As younger adventurers, my companion and I climbed this tower, scaling the steel catwalks that lead to the cherry light flashing at its crest. There we stood, trembling in the wind and the grandeur, nearly forgetting to press our fingertips to the beacon that had called to us from the ground. Water is now the only means of approaching the tower, land access having been shorn away long ago, but the sight of it can still invoke the apperception of vertigo that affected my limbs in the weeks that followed that climb, the first and only time I have experienced the physical aftereffects of height.

"It doesn't look so tall," says my companion, chuckling at our joint delusion as we round the large concrete base of the tower. We note the shifting hue of the silver paint, black to white depending on reflections of light, and admire the underbelly of the road deck, which rumbles with every passing car like a disquieted animal.

Beyond the bridge, we pause to admire our jewel-box town, shimmering like fool's gold against a hoary, feather-soft sky. I squint my eyes and cup the city in the palm of my hand, thinking that for all its postcard perfection, it looks like a backdrop for a Broadway musical.

"It looks like a backdrop for a Broadway musical," confirms my companion.

We turn our eyes east, searching for the full moon, but find only gathering gloom. A freighter leaving the east shore heads north, its mass dissolving like a ghost ship into the fog. Ferryboats materialize from the north, their plaintive horns sounding, perhaps at the sight of the tiny pin lights glowing on our life jackets, as they approach their docks. We ride the wake of a beautiful yacht as it tools away from the Embarcadero, its stately cabin affording the warm glow of polished brass and burnished wood, until it too heads north, dissipating into the haze until only the lamp on its stern can be seen hovering in the mist like a fairy light beckoning to my friend.

"If I paddled out that way," he says, pointing into the soft, gray void, "I would become more and more dim. Until I just faded away." He begins paddling, and we are enveloped in the low-hanging vapor. I feel it moving over my nose, through my lungs, clinging to my cheeks and eyelashes. Behind us the city bustles and glimmers in virile hues -- red and gold, the colors of the Chinese New Year celebration -- while, in front of us, the white nose of our kayak skims through dark into gray.

Our marine radio crackles into life: "So, how far can we go, huh?" asks the enthusiastic voice of a fellow kayaker. "We're already at Pier 18."

"You can go up to Fisherman's Wharf, as far as Pier 39 if you want," comes the unsolicitous response of Ted Choi. "We'll be out here as long as there are boats on the water."

Choi is a veteran urban kayaker who opened City Kayakfive months ago, after 15 years of lugging equipment to and from the bay for himself and friends. Except for the marine radios and the chase boat, which Choi pilots seven days and seven nights (if there are reservations) a week, his kayak outings haven't changed a lot. His instruction style is casual and convivial. "Your wet suit is on inside out" is delivered with the same matter-of-factness as "Watch out for the ferries. They come in fast" and "Stay half a mile from shore," and he seems to take most people's common sense for granted.

"Not really," clarifies Choi. "That's why I have the chase boat. Beginners tend to forget that current can move against you. After two or three hours, people get tired, they run out of water, they get cold. I stay in contact, check in, pull them out if I have to."

I turn our kayak around and point us toward a pier north of the Ferry Building. We glide beneath it into the darkness, where giant columns of concrete rise out of the water, creating great aquatic avenues that stretch into the distance until sight fails. We inch forward, watching the ghostly ripples of illumination our pin lights cast on the murky water below, listening to the strange, hollow groaning noises created by pockets of air and unseen machinery working somewhere above. I waggle my fingers in front of my face, but they seem as substantial as moths. A ghostly pillar covered in barnacles and dressed with sea grass suddenly rises out of the shadows on my left. We scrape our hull. Something spongy brushes my hand. Hunks of driftwood bobbing in our path begin to look like human heads. I am loath to touch anything, even with gloves, so I use the paddle as a pole, until that reminds me too much of Charon and the ferrying of the dead to the Underworld.

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