The Perfect Wave

Written by Ken Leinbach
    Thursday, 29 August 2013
The Perfect Wave

Eyes closed and hands outstretched in the smooth water, I could feel the wake form from my palms just before the turbulent white foam of the wave. My body was alive with youthful spirit hardly feeling the cold of the 60 degree water and not at all the bodily aches and pains of 50 years of living. It was a great day to be alive!

I had been watching this wave while standing in the waist high water 50 to 75 yards off shore. I noticed it from a distance as a sizeable, well-formed swell. I watched as it coalesced into something special while passing the first, deeper sandbar off of Klode Park. As it approached the place where I stood on the second sand bar, I focused my attention on its ever increasing slope while it came closer, closer, closer. Experience had taught my body more than my mind that it all has to do with the slope at the time of commitment. I could feel the water on my legs get sucked outwards to fill the volume of the rising swell. The second before turning my head toward shore my eyes saw nothing but a smooth wall of nearly vertical water from the towering wave. OMG!

With my left leg forward and a smooth but strong push from my right, I launched my body to match the wave’s speed then laid horizontally stiff like a board. It was all in the timing and the timing was absolutely perfect! No need to kick, body parallel with the lake floor, arms outstretched past my head, thumbs locked, hands angled slightly like the bow of a ship on the smooth water in front of the wave. I was in the sweet spot. One all encompassing multi-sensory moment of connection. I was the wave. No cold, no pain, no thought, no time.

... Until ...

Cold, pain (only a little), thought and time reemerged - like awaking from a dream. I lifted my head, opened my eyes and found myself, like a man washed up on shore from a ship wreck, literally ON the beach in the soft light of the setting sun. Holy cow! I had just traveled 75 yards all the way to the wave’s literal end, finally scraping up onto the mix of polished stones and sand (thus the little pain).

There was no one to witness this momentous event, no judge with a score card on shore. Not even my dog, who often joins me in this evening ritual of a cold baptism into Lake Michigan, was there to appreciate my “impossible” exit from the water.

I had gone just to see the waves that evening. I did not know I would become one. But the Lake calls a special sound in my soul that I cannot explain. An evolutionary accident perhaps, the way some are called to sport, art or music. I walked the beach, letting the cold and turbulent water wrap around my swollen arthritic ankles. It felt good! The Lake called me deeper and soon I was playing in the waves ... heart pumping warm blood to my extremities to counteract the enveloping cold. Who would have thought that during this spontaneous solo swim, in Milwaukee of all places, would be the moment to body surf the perfect wave?

I LOVE this place ... don’t you?

While I appreciated the solitude, I do have to wonder why I was the only person around on this spectacular evening with waves crashing into shore and, in some cases, splashing crystalline droplets of reflected light 20 feet into the air as they crashed onto the protective rocks at Klode Park. There are a million and a half people living in this urban area ... Where was everyone?

Play of this variety, outside in the elements, is to me a spiritual practice — my way to connect, recharge and rejuvenate. By my way of thinking it starts with loving a place and learning to how to play in it well, no matter what your age or condition. We do this every day at the Urban Ecology Center. In our three different neighborhoods we strive to be a catalyst to love, learn and play well in a place, our place. So next time when the winds are right and the waves are crashing ... maybe I’ll see you there!

Photo credit: kevin dooley

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach is a nationally recognized science educator and leader in community-based environmental education. From a trailer in a high-crime city park, Ken has had fun facilitating the grassroots effort to create and grow the Urban Ecology Center which is the topic of his first book.

Striving to live with as little environmental impact as possible, Ken lives in the community in which he works and, not owning a car, commutes by bike, unicycle, roller blades, and occasionally even by kayak on the Milwaukee River.


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