Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: At 86, her life is good on the Sound— in a kayak

Listen: Carol Petrich Kalapus wants one thing understood up front.

“I’m not just a jock,” the 86-year-old said.

“I’m also an artist, and last year one of my paintings was given an honorable mention at the Washington State Fair,” Kalapus said.

That was gratifying for the Puyallup woman who married a Tacoma football hero, raised three children, trained horses, played highly competitive tennis and still takes long cycling trips.

“Life is good,” Kalapus said.

Eleven years ago, she added a new adventure to her resume — kayaking.

At 75, never having been in a kayak, she might have considered taking a senior class to learn the basics. That’s not her style.

“I come from a boat-building family, and I was in a rowboat by the time I was 3,” Kalapus said. “I just learned as I went with the kayak.”

That could be her trademark.

Growing up a Petrich, she was part of a family that founded and ran the Western Boat Building Company in Tacoma. She went to Aquinas Academy, later absorbed by Bellarmine Preparatory School, and graduated in 1947.

“I went to the University of Puget Sound, majored in recreation, and met my husband, Leonard,” Kalapus said. “He’d been quite a football player at Lincoln High School — the backfield of ‘45.”

This summer, they’ll have been married 64 years.

Raising their three children on a 10-acre ranch, Leonard became an elementary school principal (Wainwright Elementary was among his last assignments) and Carol stayed home.

With the kids, the horses, dogs, goats, ducks, chickens, sheep and one cow, staying active wasn’t hard.

Life is quieter now, but no less busy for her.

“Leonard’s had both hips replaced and broke a leg, so he’s been a bit laid up,” Kalapus said. “I kayak with a friend, and I’ve been out with the South Sound Area Kayakers out of Olympia and a group from Tacoma, Matelot.”

She also paddles alone.

“I’m an individualist. I like being the captain of my own ship.”

As an octogenarian, that’s not easy, but it’s doable. Kalapus is a Type 1 diabetic and has used a cane to walk since a virus left her with balance issues a decade ago.

“When you get older, nothing is impossible, it’s just more difficult, and you need to be a little slower, a little more cautious,” she said.

Just getting launched in her kayak, Kalapus is something of a wonder. Inside her black Subaru, her yellow Delta kayak is tightly roped with the back third sticking out.

“It’s legal,” she insists.

Once parked, she unties and puts together a small, two-wheeled axle. She pulls the kayak onto the axle and then, using her cane for balance, she pulls the watercraft to the water.

“Getting in and out of the kayak in the water isn’t pretty, but I do it,” she said.

Then the fun starts.

“I’ve covered almost all of the Puget Sound shoreline,” she said. “Start in Olympia and go up along Nisqually Flats, Tacoma, Browns Point, Dash Point, Gig Harbor, Wollochet Bay, North Bay and Vaughn ...”

The list goes on, and Kalapus can sound like a sailor tossing out ports of call. And she can tick off sea encounters.

“I was just offshore at Browns Point, fishing, and a sea lion pup tried to jump in the kayak,” she said. “I kind of patted his head to keep him off, and he swam under to the other side and tried again.”

Another time she’d just hooked a salmon off Dash Point and was being towed around by it when a sea lion surfaced with her fish in its mouth.

“Then the sea lion towed me around for awhile.”

She is happiest in shallow water, where she can watch the seabed and life beneath her kayak.

Paddling requires improvisation. Both her rotator cuffs are torn, so she keeps her upper body relatively stiff and turns side to side.

Painful? She shrugged.

“I’m in a kayak. I could be in a wheelchair at some convalescent home. I’m going to do this as long as I can, and enjoy it.”