Gateway: Sports

Oldest kayaker in town has lived quite the adventure-filled life

Eighty-year-old Gig Harbor resident Bee Dietz competes for the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team earlier this month in Clermont, Florida.
Eighty-year-old Gig Harbor resident Bee Dietz competes for the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team earlier this month in Clermont, Florida. Courtesy

Gig Harbor resident Bee Dietz likes to tell people she didn’t have much choice in who her husband was going to be.

Growing up in the Texas Panhandle as a young girl during World War II, Dietz’s mother was an eighth grade teacher. Even then, her mother raved about one her students. His name was Bob.

Bob and Bee got married in 1956, after Bob returned from serving as a parachutist for the U.S. Army in the Korean War.

But before getting married, Bob and Bee were childhood friends and adventure buddies. The two families took fishing vacations together in Colorado.

“While the dads went fishing, Bob and I went rock climbing,” Bee said.

Bob is now 86 years old, while Bee is 80. But they both remember one day vividly from one of their childhood trips, rock climbing at Monument Lake in southern Colorado. Rounding the lake was a ring of low-ridge mountains. Topping the ridge was a vertical rock wall, sitting on the north side of the lake.

“My brother and I, and Bob, would just go off on our own and climb these vertical rocks,” Bee said. “They were probably 50 feet high.”

They had no climbing equipment, no safety gear and no parental supervision. They were just kids being kids, unbridled by the constant (and perhaps justified) overprotectiveness of 21st century parenting.

“We could’ve all been killed, any old time,” Bee said, nonchalantly.

For the Dietzes, danger has not only been a motif in their lives, it’s been something they’ve actively sought out over the course of their lives, time and time again.

Gig Harbor residents Bob and Bee Dietz, 86 and 80 years old, respectively, pose for a picture in the “adventure room” in their Gig Harbor home. JON MANLEY Staff writer

“We both kind of like to be scared a little,” Bee said. “We like the thrill.”

Her husband nodded instantly in agreement.

“We’ve been in ticklish situations a number of times,” Bob said.

That, by all accounts, is something of an understatement. The couple have both been in avalanches, back country skiing on double black diamond slopes. They’ve climbed mountains together. In the 1970s, they dabbled in piloting sailplanes. Sailplanes, or gliders, are unpowered aircraft which are aerodynamically streamlined using naturally occurring currents of rising air in the atmosphere to remain airborne.

“Every flight you take has what’s potentially an emergency landing,” Bee said. “Once you’ve committed to making a landing, you have to land, even if things don’t look so good when you get toward the ground. Bob broke his back the first time, flying in Virginia.”

Perhaps the most “ticklish” situation — as Bob would put it — that they’ve been involved in, was being in the middle of a storm in 1971 while sailing in the Mediterranean Sea with their children, Ben and Lark, who were 10 and 11 at the time, respectively. They were sailing from the northern end of Corsica over to France when the storm hit.

Bob and Bee sent the kids down below.

“We wouldn’t let them come up — the motion of the boat was too violent,” Bob said.

Bob was handling the sails and Bee was handling the tiller, trying to fight through 20-foot waves in the early hours of the morning.

“Bee was knocked out twice, even though she was tied down to the boat,” Bob said. “I was terribly afraid. The forces acting on the rudder were so severe climbing these very, very steep waves. I could see that affecting the steering mechanism. I was afraid we might lose our steering. If that happened, it’d be extremely problematic to survive. It was terrifying.”

After eight or so hours of fighting through the storm, they made it safely into a nearby harbor.

“We were punch-drunk,” Bee said. “Our senses had been battered for so long.”

But sailing also brought them great joy and the chance to see beautiful harbors and coastal cities. And they meet some interesting people along the way, including Belgian singer, songwriter, actor and director Jacques Brel, who has sold more than 25 million records worldwide.

They also met a pair of Swiss diamond merchants, who helped the Dietzes move their boat.

“One of them took our kids diving for sea urchins,” Bee said. “They took the kids and entertained them and then came back for dinner. We sat there and drank and drank and drank. We partied five or six hours until the wee hours of the morning.”

Bee Dietz, pictured in her home, holds a photo of her two children, Lark and Ben, taken while on a sailing trip in the Mediterranean Sea in 1971. JON MANLEY Staff writer

The Dietzes moved to Washington in 1987, because they wanted to join the Seattle Mountaineers and learn back country skiing. They’ve lived in Seattle, and most recently, on Mercer Island. Bob, who has a PhD in physical chemistry, worked for Bell Labs on the East Coast for 28 years, before working for Boeing in Washington for six years. Bee also worked for Boeing, as a technical writer. They moved to Gig Harbor in early December 2016.

What prompted the move from Mercer Island to Gig Harbor? For one, they wanted to find a one-level home to live in. And secondly, they wanted to go someplace where Bee could be on a sprint kayak team.

At 80 years old, Bee is the oldest member of the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team. She recently competed with the team at the USA Sprint Canoe and Kayak National Championships in the Masters division, taking home several medals.

Bee has been battling rheumatoid arthritis for 50 years. Over time, the arthritis has affected the use of her hands. That, combined with simply aging, has forced the Dietzes to settle down a bit. But for Bee, that sense of adventure still burns hot.

“In sprint kayaking, you compete on quiet water,” Bee said. “You’re not in fear of your life. In every other sport we’ve done, there’s been some element of fear and danger, fear of injury or death. But sprint kayaking has its own type of thrill.”

For now, Bob isn’t able to do kayaking alongside his wife. But he’s proud to watch her compete.

“Bee is serving as an example that an older person can still do it,” he said.

The secret to her success?

“Just keep going as long as you can,” Bee said. “But I think it’s unfair to tell people who are hurting to just keep going. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes I can’t. … I had to stop several things because I couldn’t do them anymore. With sprint kayaking, that’s something that works for me. What’s been important for me is to not just go exercise, but to find something that gave me a thrill, something that has an element of fun to it. Something that gives you some satisfaction.”

The Dietzes are happy to be in Gig Harbor. To them, it just feel likes home.

“We like Gig Harbor a lot, we find the people very interesting and we love being here,” Bee said. “We look forward to doing more exploring together.”