Denver at 150

November 2008

Going "Native" With A Kayak
By Maximillian Potter

For a while now I've been banging my head on a goddamned kayak. A bright-blue, 14-foot-long thing suspended from the garage ceiling on a pulley system that was designed—so my wife has me believing—specifically to support a kayak. When I first saw the boat dangling from the rafters I was reminded of being a kid in the neighborhood seafood restaurant, staring bewildered at a monstrous fake swordfish; of having a similar reaction, which is to say, a mixture of neat! and why? Suspended on the rigging, the kayak is high enough that it's out of sight yet low enough that it can be dangerous to forget. Kayaks being kayaks, its bow and stern are pointy and hard and, trust me, leave a mark.

I never dreamed I'd own a kayak. Then again, I never imagined I'd have any of the "gear" that fills my family's garage. There's the tent that, when opened properly (meaning by someone else), resembles a futuristic igloo; sleeping bags that offer varying degrees of cold-protection (we're covered if we end up in Antarctica); a propane grill I would have bet was a giant waffle iron; pots and utensils made to travel in a backpack; even a device that looks like a metal flyswatter, used to make toast—one slice at a time!—over a campfire. All of this outdoorsy paraphernalia can be packed in (and on) our SUV, what with its roof-mounted kayak rack and cargo carrier. And on more than one occasion, after I've cracked my head on the kayak—bow, stern, your guess is as good as mine—I've stood in the garage rubbing my forehead, looking around, and thought, Denver has done this to me.

Like so many Denver residents, I'm a transplant. I moved to the city almost five years ago, with my wife and two young sons, from Philadelphia, my hometown. Together, my wife and I have previously lived in Chicago and Los Angeles. We picked up some athletic-type stuff in those towns, too. In Chicago, we bought bicycles. Doesn't biking along Lake Michigan sound romantic? In Los Angeles, we got some Rollerblades. One Memorial Day we bladed by President Ronald Reagan and Nancy on the Venice Beach Strand. In Philadelphia, I reluctantly bought a cheap set of golf clubs. A friend liked to play beer-a-hole. But what I've come to believe since we've moved to Denver is that the stuff we bought before we got here, we chose to buy—as in, Eh, why not? Whereas the kayak and the rest of the supplies bought here (at the REI mother ship), well, we need it.

Live in Chicago and you're from Chi-Town. Los Angeles is L.A., baby. In my hometown, you say you're from Philly. To be from Denver, however, is to be from Colorado, and to be from Colorado is to be a "Native." When I first got here I thought it was a pompous, melodramatic descriptive—Rocky Mountain hippie hype. On the T-shirts and bumper stickers. Aren't American Indians the only true natives? I figured Denverites went with "Native" because Denverite sounds so uncool, like something that fell off the periodic table of elements. But now I get it. People born in Denver proudly claim Native status as it conveys they are of the mountains and all that goes along with them. The word "Native" communicates that they enjoy and, dare I say it, commune with all the natural beauty of the Front Range.

Walt Whitman, an East Coaster himself, didn't spend much time in Denver, but the poetic wanderer passed through enough to understand the essence of Native. In his poem "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," he wrote,

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Denverites are pioneers who explore, and exploring requires gear, stuff. I'm not a "Native," I know. Outdoor activity for me, back in Philly, was throwing sneakers on a telephone wire, cranking open a fire hydrant, and maybe hitting the Wiffle ball. A kayak was something Hiawatha used. Colorado was Boulder. Mork & Mindy. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High." And when we first arrived in Denver I was content to sit on my front step in Platt Park and look at the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I had no hankering to live like a "Native." But those peaks and lakes and trails have pulled my wife and two young sons to them. My sons in particular. At six and seven years old, they were not born here, but after five years, try telling them that.

A few weekends ago, we loaded the gear into the SUV and drove up to Steamboat Lake. My wife and two boys had gone camping on their own before, but this was our first time all together. We fished, slept in the igloo tent, made some toast one piece at a time, and my wife took the boys for a few kayak rides. The boys dove from the bow, or maybe it was the stern, into the lake. At night, after the kids were in bed, we stayed up and drank beer and looked at the stars. And when we returned home, we unloaded the car and I helped rehang the kayak in the garage.