AB: How did you get started in kayaking?
LAILA: I kayaked for the first time during a 5-week stay at Spitsbergen/Svalbard in the High Arctic in summer of 2002. The kayaking really captured me!
My intro to kayaking was truly special. We had belugas passing us, calved-off glacier ice to paddle in-between and we paddled into the midnight sun. Special was also that I paddled with a rifle laying on the deck of the kayak! We went on a 6-day kayak trip and wherever we went on shore we saw footprints of polar bears. Luckily we did not meet any, but even the footprints made all of us sleep short and light all nights.
I have been kayaking since then, so I am into my 17th year now. Since 2016 I have been a certified kayak instructor for ocean kayaking in the Norwegian Paddling Association. I give introductory and intermediate paddling courses from my boathouse base on the island of Misje, only 20-minute drive west of Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city.
Misje is on the North Sea, meaning we can paddle everything from open ocean and ocean swells, to calm passages in-between islands. We paddle with small whales, sometimes see the sun going down, and on cold winter days we paddle in thin ice on the sea!
In addition to paddling courses I arrange kayak events for companies and private groups from the Bergen area, as well as high-end guests from the hotels in Bergen. These trips are kayaking combined with hiking, climbing, swimming or seaweed harvest. They come with super outdoor food made on the rocks with an ocean view, and a bonfire in the autumn and winter months.
Every Monday and Wednesday throughout the year, I run my popular 4-hour paddling carousels among the islets and skerries. In summer I arrange 10-day paddling expeditions to Southern Greenland with new paddling routes every year (I do not like copy-and-paste trips 😊).
I am among the very few persons in Norway living full-time, all year around on kayaking activities.
Part of the success with my kayaking company is my background as a group leader and PhD in molecular biology and geobiology during 21 years at the University of Bergen and University of Tromsø. This has given me valuable experience in HSE-work (health, safety and environment) both in daily routines and on Arctic field trips.
It’s also given me insight into logistics, the dealing of budgets, writing applications, doing the accounting and meeting people from different cultures and in different stages of life. Because these are also major cornerstones when running your own company, and I feel if I did not have this academic leadership background, I probably would not have succeeded.
AB: What do you love about kayaking?
LAILA: Kayaking is so many things to me:
- Recreation—These energy-boosting paddling hours in everything from sunrise, sunset, to demanding swells and snow.
- Meditative—When paddling, there is time to think and reflect on all of your life, your special situations—good and bad. And coming home from paddling one feels refreshed.
- Exercise—I also use paddling to exercise. It’s five kilometers around the island of Misje, which is a perfect distance to paddle as fast as you can with the goal of always breaking your own record! Another exercise is paddling half-marathons at a fairly high pace. I usually do this once a month throughout the year. Making a living from kayak paddling, I am out on the sea about four times a week—and more often in high season. I clearly notice a physical effect.
- Social—You meet so many different people! And despite being different, kayaking and the positive effect kayaking gives is the initial thing that brings us together. Many end up as friends and even couples. The spirit on the trips is so good, it gives both by guests and me tons of energy!
- Takes me to special places—Kayaking has really taken me around! I have paddled in the canals of Amsterdam, through the stunning tulip fields outside Amsterdam, caving around Mallorca, among icebergs, in the glacier lakes below the huge Vatnajøkull glacier in Iceland, in polar bear areas of Spitsbergen. I’ve kayaked near 1,000-year old Viking ruins in remote Greenland, with swarms of yellow fish in the Canary Islands, and now in November I kayak in Tokyo! I’ve never been to Japan, but have hooked up with a local kayaker. Together with my two kids, we will kayak and get a sneak peek into how kayaking life is in a city of 13 million inhabitants. I’m looking so forward it!
AB: How do you give back to the kayak community, generally?
LAILA: Together with a handful of paddling friends, we arranged a 3-day kayak festival west of Bergen the first weekend of May this year. This was such a fantastic experience despite winds of 16 metres per second. The feedback from the 34 participants was so amazing that we are currently planning the festival for May 2020. Maybe there is a tradition coming up here!
Every fall I arrange a fundraising paddling day where paddlers gather to paddle, chat, laugh, have snacks around the bonfire. We then donate to Shadrach Juma Foundation in the Babadogo slum of Nairobi, Kenya. This is a special project where economic support for the community has raised a library there. Besides being a library, it also offers computer classes, has a music studio for the locals, has curriculum for kids who cannot afford books for school, and school uniforms for kids who cannot afford them and, therefore, are not welcome at school.
The founder of Shadrack Juma, self-raised in the Babadogo slum, visits us nearly every year. This October he joined the fundraising trip and gave a very personal and informative talk on the daily life in the slum and the library. We raised almost 800 USD that evening.
The contact with Shadrack and his local support team here led me to the opportunity to have 20 girls from the Mathare slum kayak with me here at Misje in July of this year. What a day! They had never seen the sea before, or kayaks, vests or paddles. They were so positive and cheerful, and ended up standing in the double kayaks singing and dancing!
We also give back in the form of arranging annual paddling trips specially for collecting marine waste. The Norwegian west coast gets enormous amounts of garbage due to the Gulf Stream and other surface currents hitting our shores, as well as waste dropped from our own inhabitants, we must admit.
During these kayak trips we have collected over three tons of mainly plastic waste. Additionally, we pick up plastic on all our tours. There is always a bag in my boathouse where people can stuff the waste.
AB: How do you introduce new paddlers to kayaking?
LAILA: This is my main activity. I teach the 4-hour introductory course of the Norwegian Paddling Association many, many times throughout the year. The course focuses on basic paddling techniques and rescue after capsizing, both yourself and a paddling friend.
My students are kids from 12 years old, and my oldest guest was 82! Most of them are women between 35-60 years old. Some have always wanted to try kayaking but never have. Some kayaked before having kids and family, and now want to pick it up again. And some want a refresher on the rescuing.
I really love these four hours on the water with those new to kayaking! They enter my boathouse with slight fear in their eyes, thinking, “What have I signed up for?!” They shake for the first 10 minutes on the water. But they master the paddling after no time, and end the course in the boathouse with stars in their eyes!
Most of the persons who take the course with me return to join single-day kayak events, two weekly paddling carousels, join the intermediate course or rent a kayak and paddle on their own.
AB: Do you work with any specific groups?
LAILA: Most of my paddling guests are adults, but I do have kayak trips, birthday parties, Halloween and Christmas paddles for 10-14 year olds. For these trips I mostly use lightweight, stable double kayaks. These are energy-filled and entertaining trips that makes you happy every time.
The trips vary depending on the season. It can be paddling combined with jumping and swimming from the kayaks in the summer, to fishing mackerel in the fall, to paddling with headlamps in complete darkness in the fall and winter.
In October we all dress up (on top of the paddling vests) for Halloween and have carved pumpkins with lights inside attached to the kayak decks. And soon there is Christmas paddling with kids where we end up looking like a long row of kayaking Santas! Ho ho!
I’ve also done paddling with families of three generations. This is so special! There is a new glue, a new connection among the family members after four hours on the water. We play a lot in the kayaks—using hula hoop rings and umbrellas, plastic ducks and water pumps. Hilarious fun!
AB: Where can our readers connect with you?
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