Mary the Kayak Lady: One Woman, One Kayak & 1007 Lakes

  • From this vantage point, Mary visited all 1,007 lakes in Itasca County in her Osprey 13.  From this vantage point, Mary visited all 1,007 lakes in Itasca County in her Osprey 13.
  • Trees create a keyhole view of beautiful Mystery Lake.  Trees create a keyhole view of beautiful Mystery Lake.
  • Periscope up! An otter pops up out of the water on Pothole Lake. Periscope up! An otter pops up out of the water on Pothole Lake.
  • The Kayak Lady is a collection of stories and photos -- a mix of adventure and fun-- that documents Mary's experiences over 15 years.  The Kayak Lady is a collection of stories and photos -- a mix of adventure and fun-- that documents Mary's experiences over 15 years.

Long on spirit, Mary Shideler did not let her short stature interfere with a quest to paddle all 1,007 lakes in northern Minnesota’s Itasca County (in her home built Pygmy Osprey 13).  Sometimes with the help of friends, but often on her own, she carried her kayak through brush, trudged across bogs in tall boots, and put up with hordes of mosquitoes and legions of wood ticks.  In close-up encounters, she observed birds and animals in their forest and wetland habitats and became adept at identifying wildflowers.  Along the way, she also learned to trust her own capacity to overcome obstacles, including her fear of being alone.  Her book, “Mary the Kayak Lady” is available for purchase here.

An Excerpt from the Chapter “Dragonfly Magic”…

One tranquil morning in late May, I headed west off the Scenic Highway to Buckman Lake.  The spring sun made the day feel soft and warm, and I was not in a hurry.  While unloading the kayak, I sensed something wonderful in the air.  There was no wind; the water smooth as a mirror.  The air was dry.  I scanned the shoreline and straight away noticed small ink dots on the stems of cattails and rushes.  At first I did not think too much about the dots, but later I took a closer look and discovered that it was my childhood friends, the little dragons, who were responsible.  Thousands of dragonflies were preparing to take a life-changing action step.  The creatures, dark with wetness, did not discriminate.  They clung to fresh green stalks and old brown ones too.  Soon their protective coverings would dry, becoming brittle and crisp. I knew what was about to happen.  I was fascinated and eagerly settled in to watch the show.

Of course, I had forgotten that Mother Nature carries a different watch than I do.  Things progressed more slowly than my tolerance for sitting still allowed, so I paddled a bit, slipping in and out of the foliage while constantly monitoring progress.

When it happened, it happened quickly.  At one of my checkpoints I saw where the thin larval armor had split just behind the head.  In a backbend maneuver that would win gold at any summer Olympics, the squished-up body of the dragonfly slowly and painstakingly elongated to squeeze through the small opening.  Then it pushed itself into an arch until its head was at the base of the shell.   The wings unfolded like an origami puzzle coming to life.

Spellbound, I stared– not fully comprehending what I had just seen.  All around the lake individuals were in various stages of emergence.  I paddled ahead eager to find another spot to again watch and stare– amazed at the perfection of it all.  The abdomen would un-kink, straighten out, and become round and full– similar to a balloon when it is blow up.  While the wet wings shimmered and dried, the exhausted dragonfly was content to rest in the sun and prepare for life above water.

Astonished and amazed, I slowly made my way around the lake.  Even if those brand new dragonflies had not shared their once-in-a-lifetime performance with me that day, I could not have been disappointed in Buckman lake.  Along the shoreline were four or five beaver lodges in various stages of disrepair.  Some were supporting small willow saplings, grasses, or any number of assorted and sundry plants that had found sufficient soil to get firm footholds.  Through the clear water I spotted a snapping turtle resting peacefully on the bottom.  A busy muskrat wove in and out of the cattails.  Overhead, a pileated woodpecker flew its dippity-do flight.   Two wood ducks waddled through the trees.  A great blue heron waded in the creek that flowed into neighboring Marble Lake.  I knew how fortunate I had been to be in the right place at the right time, and I was reminded of a favorite Mae West line:

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” — Mae West

Two years later, on the first day of June, when the wind was whipping up white caps and the mercury stretched past 80 degrees, I took a trip north and east beyond Buckman lake to Erickson Lake.  No one came with me that day.  I was running on my own time and schedule, traveling at an atypically leisurely pace.

Erickson Lake was at the end of a rough road that required four-wheel drive.  It had been a slow year for leaves to emerge, so it was easy for me to find lakes just by looking through the woods.  I left the truck parked at a mud hole that was large enough to float the kayak.  The air was scented by the fresh smells of spring.  Drooping yellow bellwort, always coy, hung their pretty heads.  Perky violets, proudly dressed in white, yellow, and purple, decorated the forest floor.  I did not mind carrying the kayak in the last quarter mile.  The lake sparkled in the sun, reassuring me that it was nearby.  Before long, I reached the shore and was soon on the water.

I am most open to reflection when I am alone on the water in my kayak.  There I become a willing captive.

It is never easy for me to be still, but the rhythmic activity of paddling naturally lulls me into a meditative state.  The gentle routine movement becomes unconscious at times, inviting thoughts to visit through subtle channels.  The chipmunk chatter in my head all but disappears.  I even quit starting and making lists.  The listening is not just with my ears; my way-down-deep-inside secret places pay close attention too.  I am just being, not wondering about motives or explanations or outcomes.  Finally, it is safe to just let go.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Kremer Lake

On this misty October morning I am
paddling the shoreline, recording
sights and smells in the recesses of
my mind to call upon in the coming
hard-water days. Gently placing my
paddle across the open cockpit so
I may glide along and soak in the
silent beauty of this scenic spot, I
hear the peeping and squeaking
conversation of beavers in their
lodge just off my right shoulder. I can
hardly believe my ears, or luck, to be
in the secret world of these Kremer
Lake residents.  “What a gift,” I think
to myself.  I am learning to keep my
mouth shut and my ears and eyes
wide open.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Learn more about Mary at her website:

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