Local resident Ginni Callahan used to spend half the year here in Wahkiakum county, but lately the world has been calling and her sojourns have grown shorter.
“I’ve had opportunities to live other places,” she’ll tell you, “but this place keeps pulling me back. Here and Mexico. It’s a nice migratory pattern. Those birds and whales can’t be wrong.”
A kayak guide, Callahan is a five star sea leader in the British Canoe Union and a level four coach who grew up in an active family on the east coast on Long Island and New Jersey, spending her summers in upstate New York. Her father was a commercial pilot, and her mom rode dressage and trained for triathlons. For a time, her sister was a fighter pilot. No one in the family does anything half way, and that is evident even in someone who has chosen kayaking as a way of life.
Her roommate in college hailed from Seaside, Ore. They became good friends, and one winter, Callahan agreed to drive her friend home for Christmas break.
“I didn’t know there were other options beyond the world I grew up in,” she said. “I loved being outside and the moment I saw Seaside, I woke up. There were the spruce trees on Tillamook Head. There was the surf, the open beach--all of the sudden it felt like I was home.”
She decided to move there after she graduated. And being Ginni, she did.
The first thing Callahan did was buy a canoe. She didn’t even have a job yet, but as an active kid, she’d spent a lot of time in a canoe and it seemed the natural thing to do. She explored a nearby river, but after a while that wasn’t enough.
One sunny February day, she put on her waterproof boots, her life jacket, and her spandex running outfit, thinking it would keep her warm. She tied her glasses on with a bandana and she drove her canoe out to the beach north of Seaside and she put it in the surf.
“I started paddling,” Callahan remembers, “and then I got through a few little breakers and the furthest one out got bigger and bigger. I remember looking up at it and then I remember everything got cold and dark and wet. And then I swam the canoe back to the beach, boots full of water. By then a few people had stopped to watch, which was good, because when I went to put the canoe back on the truck, I couldn’t lift it. I didn’t feel cold or tired but I was too numb or dumb.”
Callahan was married at the time, and when her husband got home and learned what had happened, he told her it was time to buy a wetsuit and a surfboard. So she took that up.
“It went from canoeing to surfing to divorcing and then kayaking,” she laughed.
She was single again and surfing when a man in a kayak paddled up to her.
“Buy a kayak,” he said. “Learn to paddle it and drive me to Mexico.”
“What the heck,” she thought. “It was just one of those times when life turns left and you just go.”
She bought a kayak, learned to paddle and drove him to Mexico.
He needed a ride and she needed a guide. She had taken a couple of classes in Warrenton and her new friend taught her to roll on her way to Mexico. His idea of teaching was to bring her up to the water and leave her there while he explored rougher waters.
“The sea taught me a lot about paddling, actually,” Callahan said. “I remember the first time I went out into unprotected ocean. The waves were bigger. They weren’t that big, it wasn’t windy. It was just swell. The kayak floats, so you’ll always be on top of the water. But when you are sitting in the bottom of the trough and looking at the top of the wave and there is no horizon, you think you are going to die. But then your boat simply floats to the top and you can see everything again and you realize that you are alive. Then you go back down again. Repeat enough times and you learn to trust it.”
“Surf has taught me a lot too,” she laughed. “Breaking surf will take you out.”
Callahan returned from Mexico to Astoria where she had been living and ran into a friend at the grocery co-op. The friend told her about a kayaking company in Skamokawa.
“I paddled over from Astoria,” Callahan remembers. “I met the original owner and told him I wanted to be an assistant guide. The rest is history.”
Eventually she went out on her own and started Columbia River Kayaking. Her original plan was to lead multi-day trips down the river, stopping at bed and breakfasts.
“The one fault with that plan,” she laughed, “is that there were no B&B’s on the river.”
Callahan began to develop her skills as a kayaker and guide and learned over time that she wanted to focus on instructing and coaching. She trained other guides in Skamokawa.
It was that focus that has changed her life. She is now highly sought after on the world kayak stage for just those skills and for her gifts as guide.
“I never thought I would become a kayak guide,” Callahan said. “I never thought I’d be going back to Mexico. I’ve been going back for 16 years and that is my living now.”
Callahan spends the winter months in Baja Mexico, running Sea Kayak Baja and leading trips. The business has started to take off.
“People are not afraid to travel to Mexico anymore, Callahan said. They are not afraid to spend money on recreation and travel. We are in a niche part of kayaking that is growing. It is not the beginner end, but the people who are looking for the challenge and the high end boats and gear that they like to use. People keep coming back and they’re bringing their friends.”
She has been called to New Zealand to run some courses and a trip. She was asked to coach at a symposium in Chile. And most recently, Nigel Dennis who was the first man to paddle around the UK and was one of two men who designed what is considered to be the finest boats in kayaking asked her to be the keynote speaker at his symposium this year in Anglesey.
The next time she travels to Chile to coach, she will guide a trip in Patagonia for a company down there. And the trips to New Zealand may become a yearly thing.
And then there is boyfriend Henrick. He’s from Sweden, and she’ll be traveling there shortly.
About two years ago, Ginni and Henrick had a little adventure. They sailed from the tip of Baja to the Marquesas, through the Tuamotus, an archipelago of atolls. They went on to Tahiti and the Society Islands. They went from Bora Bora to Tonga and explored a few island groups there. Then on to New Zealand.
“Some of those shorter crossings I did in the kayak, and Henrick did single handed in the sailboat.Those were exciting.
“I’d start in the early morning,” she continued. “He was the safety net and we would contact each other every hour on the radio.”
On the crossing from Tahiti to Moorea, the wind came up, according to Callahan. She had learned to use a sail on her kayak and was doing so at the time.
“I was hitting speeds of 10.5 knots and I realized Henrick wasn’t going to catch me.”
She turned around and began to paddle against the wind and waves. She couldn’t see him. Eventually she saw a mast and sail and began to paddle in that direction.
“I almost paddled into a small fishing boat with three guys in it,” Callahan said. “Because the waves were so high I didn’t see them until I was almost on top of them. At this point I was surfing down waves and I almost surfed into them. Their eyes were as big as mine were.”
She paddled back up to them and because they were standing, she asked if they could see a sailboat using what little French she had and the little bit of Tahitian that she had picked up, plus a bit of sign language.”
The men waited and watched until Ginni and Henrick were able to locate each other.
Time in the middle of an ocean in a kayak was thrilling. Time in the sailboat wasn’t nearly as much fun.
“They say you are supposed to get over being seasick three days into your trip,” Callahan said. “If you can survive those three days you are good to go. I quit puking after day nine and never felt good during that first month long crossing.
“I wasn’t complaining,” she continued. “It was just time management. Something else was going to happen eventually. I got to the point where if I was horizontal and completely relaxed, I could open one eye and read. If I opened both eyes I felt queasy.”
With only the two of them they worked in four hour shifts, because someone always had to be on watch. They didn’t get a lot of sleep during that first crossing.
“By the time we got to New Zealand six months after we started, I was beginning to handle sailing better,” Callahan said. “But there was a big storm for the last crossing to New Zealand. Henrick was sick on that crossing.”
They had to pump the bilge every hour by hand. They were bailing every hour. According to Callahan, the waves were so high that even the fancy yachts caught in the storm had to do a bit of bailing.
“The storm lasted a few days but it goes on for a long time in memory,” Callahan said.
It was an exciting adventure and knowing Ginni, there are even more to be had. Some adventures will be here at home on the island surrounded by cottonwoods and others will be in distant lands, or more likely, on distant waters.
Just try and keep up.