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Marna Powell's kayak adventure

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson

The universe is on Marna Powell's side.

"We were driving along Highway 101 and I looked up and saw this hill and I just pointed at it and said, 'There, I want to live there.' The next day that property went up for sale. It had never been for sale before."

The hill was just outside of Orick, Calif., close to where Marna now undertakes her life's work as proprietor of Kayak Zak's, a kayak rental and guided tour company on the shores of Stone Lagoon.

Behind the desk of her tiny office is a poster of Redwood National Park, an aerial view that encompasses several fingers of verdant forest and blue-gray waters of Freshwater Lagoon, Stone Lagoon and Big Lagoon.

"This is basically my whole life right here," she says, gesturing toward the picture. Powell is unprepossessing from a distance: average height, average build, with dark, wild hair. But when you enter her orbit, you're immediately sucked in. She has a wide, toothy grin and a girlish goofiness to her. She wobbles between shyness and unfettered honesty, saying that she "doesn't really know how to socialize." At one point she gleefully refers to herself as a "crippled lady."

"I blew out my knee in 1972, back when the biggest concern they had was that your legs had to look pretty in a dress," she says, adding, "I was never athletic. The leg wasn't treated right, they did a bunch of different surgeries on it, but it didn't heal right."

Powell discovered her passion for kayaking "by accident." She came home one day with a sea kayak for her husband and, after taking it out on the water, he asked if she'd like to try it. She shrugged and climbed in.

"My life changed forever in that moment," she says, raising her palms skyward and imitating the sound of a choir singing, "I can't even explain — every time I get on the water, it's magic."

That moment is one she tries to share. Trained as a sea kayak instructor with an adaptive permit, she has developed a reputation for helping people with injuries or disabilities explore the sport safely, modifying their techniques or craft to meet their needs.

"People assume that I have a background in sports medicine or something, but not really, she says. "You really have to be MacGyver — just imagine and build things."

Adapting, creating and hard work have been themes throughout Powell's life. The house of her dreams, for example, the one on the hill she pointed to many years ago, started off as "the crappiest house in the nicest location with literally an acre of garbage around it."

But the universe had responded to her request, so Powell and her husband rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

"Then the roof blew off the house," she says, laughing.

Today the acre of garbage is an organic vegetable garden and the renovated house is a home to a menagerie of adopted animals as well as many foster children. Powell admits she has a soft spot for "problem children."

"I believe in following your gut through life," she says, "I do that and I run away from the things I don't want."

Powell studied business administration and accounting, as well as recreation management, and although she managed offices and did various jobs in her field, she always knew that she wanted to work for herself.

"Everyone actually assumed I'd be an art major," she says, grinning. "I've got a weird blend of left brain and right brain. I ended up unemployable because of all the weird little things I know how to do."

Her expertise on the water had grown to the point that a career built around her passion seemed inevitable. A lead kayak instructor with North Coast Adventures for six years and an ACA Level III Coastal Kayak instructor with an Adaptive Paddling Endorsement, she was constantly approached for advice and lessons. She founded Kayak Zak's in 2005. For many years the business was run out of a travel trailer, but in 2013 Powell was offered the opportunity to set up a home base on the shores of Stone Lagoon.

"It was a moldy, rat-infested mess," she says, gesturing around the now tidy building that houses a tourism center and small outdoor gear shop. "The [Park Service] had no idea when they offered me this building how dear this area is to me."

click to enlarge CHUCK JOHNSON
  • Chuck Johnson

Today Kayak Zak's is doing a bustling business catering to tourists and locals with a thirst for adventure. Visitors can rent equipment, take tours and lessons or stock up on last-minute camping gear and area maps. Powell says that the company is functioning more like a non-profit, with a lot of revenue going toward special projects with groups such as Making Headway, a center for brain injury recovery.

Powell was also instrumental in reopening the Ryan's Cove campground. This primitive campground on the shores of Stone Lagoon is one of the most tranquil and scenic sites in the National Park System and is only accessible by hiking or kayak. It was shut down during a round of state budget cuts, but thanks to fundraising and sustained petitioning by Powell and other supporters, it reopened to the public in May of this year.

Powell is philosophical about her success and her formula for happiness.

"Sometimes I get these crazy ideas," she says, "and I don't believe I can't do them."

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