Dec 092018
 

After a quick lunch stop on the fifth day, my second alone, on my Lake Mead trip, I started paddling around the tip of the unnamed island in Bonelli Bay. I knew as soon as I rounded the corner, I’d be out of the headwind. I looked down at the ribbons of water streaming from the nose of my stand-up paddleboard (SUP) and noticed my tripod head, which was resting on its side near the front of my board, was dragging in the water.

I didn’t want anything slowing me down. I kneeled down and leaned over my knee-high pile of dry bags to straighten it out. In doing so, I shifted all of my board’s weight to the front. It was a rookie mistake. I was tired and obviously not thinking straight.

In a split second, my heavy food bag rolled into the lake with a “THUNK,” my board tilted to the left, and I grabbed the right edge of the board in a desperate attempt to stay on. (I’m terrified of water when I can’t see the bottom.) “Fuck!”

I fell butt-first into the lake. My SUP flipped upside-down. Everything went underwater. Everything, that is, except my paddle and food bag, which wasn’t strapped in like everything else for some reason. Both started floating away in the rolling waves. I started treading water, bobbing in my life jacket and clinging to my board. I pushed as hard as I could to get my board to flip, but with the heavy load attached to it now submerged, it barely moved. “Fuck!”

I took a deep breath and tried again. My board teetered on its side at a 45-degree angle while my gear dragged on the water’s surface. I quickly shoved a couple of my bags against the board, which turned it right-side up. One-by-one, I repositioned the rest of my gear into their original position. With the board stabilized, I swam a few yards away to chase down my food and paddle. Although I had packed an extra one, I didn’t want to be up shit creek (lake?) without a paddle. Or dinner for that matter.

PHOTO: The beach I swam to after my capsize. My camp for the evening is in the distance just to the left of center.

When I attempted to reach across my board to get back on, the weight of the gear tipped and the board rocked onto its side again. I quickly let go and fell back into the water to keep my SUP from overturning again. Instead of wasting energy trying to self-rescue, I decided to swim to shore, which was only about 50 yards away.

After pulling my SUP onto the graveled beach, I waded back into the shallow water and washed my hair. I mean, I was already wet, why not? I repacked and steadied my gear, turning my tripod head so it would no longer drag. Then I stripped off all my clothes, laid back into my skirt, and started sobbing. Everything—the emotional weight of my unexpected capsize and recent life struggles—went underwater.

After drying out and regaining my composure, I started paddling across Bonelli Bay as if the event never happened. I didn’t have any room on my board to carry fear with me. Or self-pity. And no one was coming by to listen to me whine. I hadn’t seen a boat in 24 hours. There was no escaping it, I was completely alone.

No more than a half-hour later, my brand new two-bladed paddle snapped in half without warning. I almost fell in again, but in the open waters of Virgin Basin. Up shit creek (lake?) with a broken paddle now, I decided to sit down in my “loveseat” for the remainder of the crossing, about two miles.

PHOTO: The only “whine” I got that night came from this box. And you see how well it survived it’s time in the water during my capsize.

I eventually hobbled into a spacious camp in an east-facing wash close to the mouth of the Narrows. I set up my tent, changed into PJs, and taped the ends of my broken paddle to avoid more carbon fiber splinters. (I had three already.) As I boiled water for dinner, I sat back into my camp chair and reflected on the day’s unexpected events. Now safe and relaxed, I fell apart again. I asked aloud, “Why in the hell do you do things like this? Why do you need to paddle across Lake Mead? Why can’t you just be content sitting at home in a bathtub eating bonbons?” I didn’t have an answer, let alone a good one.

I fumbled to open my freeze-dried dinner, and it slipped out of my chilled hands. My knees caught it upside down. I noticed typing on the bottom of the Mountain House® package, something I had never seen before in my almost twenty-one years of outdoor experiences eating freeze-dried food.

But the universe’s response was printed on the bottom of my Beef Stroganoff dinner: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. ~Anonymous”

PHOTO: The glorious view from my tent as the setting sun cast the Earth’s shadow above Bonelli Peak across the Virgin Basin on Lake Mead.

Nov 152018
 
Deliciousness

“Deliciousness,” from Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on the Arizona-Nevada border || Prints available–click on photo to order yours!

I wanted to spend time with an old friend of mine, the Colorado River, on my stand-up paddleboard (SUP) in a place I had only been once before, Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border. I had spent much of the last year planning and training, and the last month watching and waiting for a window of favorable weather conditions. On November 1, I got it.

For the first three days, my friend and I had ideal conditions for paddling: virtually no wind and a few clouds here and there to keep the sun from baking us. Easy going! On the fourth day, which was also my first day on my own, though, things changed…

Despite a bullying headwind for about five miles, I ended up paddling hard and long, almost 12 miles. When I found a good camp for the night, it was completely overcast. Even though I was tired, I still went exploring as the day came to a close. After all, I had never seen this foreign landscape before.

Right after the sun went down, all of a sudden, BOOM! The sky exploded. It was off the hook!

I thought, “How delicious! How delicious this sunset; how delicious this chance to be in such a magnificent place; how delicious to feel SO alive right now! And how delicious brownies would be right about now!!!” The photo above resulted. (So did two pans of brownies when I returned home…)

After nine days–two of which I spent in camp on high wind delay–I paddled just over 60 miles from South Cove to Kingman Wash. I finished last Friday morning. It was likely one of the first crossings of Lake Mead (the largest reservoir in the United States) by a woman on a SUP. Regardless, it was definitely a grand adventure!

One where I learned more about the tenacity of the Colorado River as it’s transformed (once again) from a river to a reservoir. I witnessed indescribable beauty in the land and lake. I tested my outdoor skills through high winds, equipment failures (broken sunglasses, paddle, and tent poles), and an accidental capsize 50 yards from shore. But most importantly, I listened to the wisdom of the river.

The journey reiterated the life lessons I have learned since 2015, when my life took an unexpected left-hand turn and I attempted paddle across Lake Powell—a trip I took to cope with my struggles with loss, one that, like life, didn’t quite go according to plan. My friend, the river, reminded me to keep going with the flow. And always keep your paddle all in.

More photos, stories, and thoughts to come…stay tuned…

CM on CR_Lake Mead

From the first day, about two to three hours after we started (aka, before the headwinds, LOL). I’m standing on the sand bar created by the Colorado River meeting Lake Mead. Photo courtesy Scott Lefler.

Aug 292018
 

Some people who read my last post about our stand-up paddleboarding experience on Snowhole Rapid on the Lower Salmon River in Idaho asked if I had any videos of other rapids from the river. I do!

Here’s one of my rides down a fun and splashy class II rapid called Packers Creek Rapids. It was the first rapid out of the Killer Goat Camp on the morning of day 2 of our “SUP Experience” rafting trip with OARS. Save for touching my hands to the board for a few seconds after that gnarly wave around 1:00, I stayed standing up the whole run! It was so fun!

(LINK: https://youtu.be/iHJUPD90ueA)

I hope that, in sharing the “Keep Paddling” story and this video, it helps inspire you to try something new and wild. As Neale Diamond Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Thanks for reading and viewing!

Aug 282018
 
In the Pink

PHOTO CAPTION: “In the Pink,” from our Day 2 camp on the Lower Salmon River, ID while on the recent OARS “SUP Experience” river trip || Prints available! Click on photo to order yours.

“Do you see the line?” asked Liam, our guide and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) instructor.

Liam and I, along with my friend, Scott, stood on the basalt boulders high above Snowhole—the Lower Salmon River’s only class IV rapid—surveying the scene.

The sun poked through ominous clouds tinted yellow by the smoke of distant wildfires. The steep jagged cliffs of Snowhole Canyon constricted one of the last undammed, free-flowing rivers remaining in the United States into a fury of agitated water tumbling over and around house-sized rocks before disappearing around the bend. We couldn’t portage (carry our boards overland) around the rapid. We had to go through it. I stared into the froth looking for a path.

I saw two lines. The first, a pale green tongue on the far side of the river falling into a trail of white spray followed by a train of successive five-foot waves, each foaming at the mouth, each looking like it wanted to eat me. The second, the last line of a friend’s recent email flashing through my head, “…Snowhole—load your boards up in the raft for that one!”

PHOTO CAPTION: At our put-in, Pine Bar. The stand-up paddleboards we borrowed are on the far right and behind the boats.

We were two days into a four-day “SUP Experience” with OARS, a company specializing in river rafting trips, where Scott and I were learning how to SUP through whitewater rapids on a 61-mile trip (from Pine Bar on the Lower Salmon River to Heller Bar on the Snake River). Since falling in love with paddleboarding in 2013, my previous SUP experience included exclusively flatwater, rivers and lakes. Except when feisty winds kicked up. (Lake Powell, I’m looking at you.) And that one time in April 2015 when I thought I was going for a nonchalant outing with a guide on the Colorado River in Moab, UT, to celebrate my 40th birthday and ended up running three class I-II rapids (and falling the last one). But all in all, I’d been on a board enough times to stop counting how many days. This was Scott’s 10th day on a board.

Thus far, on this trip, we had uneventfully navigated the river’s class I and class II rapids, even a class III rapid called “Bodacious Bounce,” mostly while standing, some while kneeling. A mere twenty minutes earlier, though, I had taken an involuntary swim in Half-and-Half, a class III rapid named as such because, according to our guides, “Half the time you make it, half the time you don’t.”

I had entered the first big drop on Half-and-Half standing up, but fell in the water when the third wave in dumped me sideways. I managed to get back on my SUP and started paddling again from my knees, but the river’s current pushed me toward a big hole the guides had suggested we try to avoid. I panicked. When I rocked up the crest of the towering wave, it bullied the nose of my board backward. The hole sucked me in. I stopped paddling for some reason. I met the river face first.

Underwater, my board hit my helmet. At least I know which way is up, I thought. My arms flailed. I couldn’t find the surface. When I did, I gasped for air, then the current dragged me under again before I could finish inhaling.

I could hear Liam yelling, “Grab your board!” I couldn’t find it among the darkness and bubbles. I resurfaced.

“Grab my board!” I could see his board but couldn’t reach it. I went under again.

“Swim hard left!” Liam said. I spun my left arm while trying to keep myself afloat with my paddle clutched in my right hand.

Eddy out at that beach just ahead, I thought. Swim harder! Come on, swim harder!

“Swim hard right!” he said.

Swim hard right? But the beach is only five or six feet away, I thought. I should trust him. He could see the big picture. I couldn’t. I switched the paddle into my left hand and swam hard right.

The graveled shore disappeared. The current pushed me downstream toward a chiseled basalt wall to the left. “Turn your feet downriver!” Liam said.

I rolled over like an otter and smashed into a wave. And into another and another. A rugged rock jutted out of the cliff in front of me. I could get trapped here, I thought. I kicked as hard as I could against the boulder and spun backward into an eddy.

Liam stood on top of his board in the flatwater at the end of the wave train, bumping his fist on top of his helmet. At the start of the trip, the guides told us if we did not return this signal, they would assume we had broken a femur, or worse. I pulled my hand out of the water and bumped the top of my helmet. Scott pushed my board, which he had rescued mid-rapid, in front of me. I mounted my SUP and coughed uncontrollably. I had made it down Half-and-Half, and I had learned my lesson. Don’t ever enter a rapid timidly. And don’t ever stop paddling.

PHOTO CAPTION: Our guide and instructor, Liam (middle), and Scott (right) converse on a stretch of flatwater on the Lower Salmon River, ID

Now, at river mile 23.4, I pointed at Snowhole, tentatively tracing the air with my finger. “I think I see the line,” I said to Liam and Scott.

“On this one, you gotta hit the line perfect,” Liam said. “Start a little right, and build up momentum as you go straight down the tongue. Then paddle hard left to miss the rock. The next waves are HUGE and you’re gonna hit them hard, so hit the deck [drop to your knees on the board] if you haven’t already, and keep paddling through them. Whatever you do, don’t stop paddling.”

As we scouted the river’s drop, three private rafts ran Snowhole. Each took a slightly different line—left of the tongue, right of the tongue, and straight down the middle. Each tipped precariously onto its side when approaching the pyramid-shaped rock, then recovered, and disappeared over the long drop, then reappeared, and bucked wildly through the splashy wave train. Each somehow stayed upright.

“What if I run into that rock?” I asked

“I’ve tried running a raft straight into that rock,” Liam said, “Can’t do it. The current pushes you away from it, pushes you left, whether you like it or not.”

“What if I paddle too hard to the left?”

“You don’t want to do that. You’ll end up behind that next rock and hit a massive hole. Yeah… don’t do that.”

“What happens if I don’t hit the line perfectly?”

“You’ll go for a swim. But it’s way shorter than Half-and-Half,” Liam smiled.

“Is there another rapid after this like there was after Half-and-Half?”

“No, it’s just flatwater. We’ll have plenty of time to get you.”

How comforting, I thought.

“I’m gonna do it,” Scott said without any hesitation. “Are you gonna to do it?”

“I don’t think so,” I put my hands on my hips. Half-and-Half had exhausted and humbled me. I was cold, and I didn’t feel like swimming through another rapid. I had an easy out: I could hitch a ride through it on one of our group’s rafts.“I just don’t think it’s worth it.”

“I think you got this,” Liam grinned. “And you’ll be totally stoked when you get through it.”

He said “when” not “if.” Semantics are important to writers just as clients surviving is important to guides.

“When do I need to decide?” I asked.

“Let’s grab lunch first,” Liam said.

While we ate chicken curry salad wraps, we watched several more rafts stay upright through a short harrowing run. I visualized the run over and over. Start right, paddle hard left, but not too hard, then keep paddling. Seemed simple enough.

Ladybugs clung to my white shirt. A good omen, I thought. Maybe I could do this. After all, I didn’t come here to sit on a boat. I came here to learn how to paddleboard rapids.

Another half-hour passed. No one asked me again whether I intended to run the rapid on my paddleboard. And I’m not sure I ever came to a formal decision. Even a final look with Maia, the trip leader, wasn’t convincing. When lunch concluded, everyone in the group returned to their respective vessels. I got back on my board.

“You ready?” Liam asked while bending his knees on his SUP. I didn’t respond. It didn’t matter if I was ready or not, this was happening. I gave myself a short pep talk. You got this. It’s just water. Hit the line perfectly. Keep paddling.

As we crossed the river to position ourselves to start a little to the right, Liam looked back at Scott and me, and said with a smirk, “We’re gonna kill this.”

Liam disappeared into the waves. I dropped to my knees. The silky smooth tongue pulled me into a curled wave. Paddle. Then another, a bigger one. Paddle. Then another over my head. Paddle. Paddle. Rock on the right. Paddle, paddle, paddle! Hole on the left. Paddlepaddlepaddlepaddlepaddle!

I plunged over a ledge and came face-to-face with the biggest wave I’ve ever seen on a SUP. I stabbed my paddle into it, jabbing at it as if I were slaying a mythical beast with a sword. I kept swinging, wave after wave, until the rapid fizzled out.

I pulled into the eddy where Liam and two of our OARS rafts waited. I looked back at the rapid. Scott was in the water, clinging to the side of his board. He bumped his fist on top of his helmet and joined us in the eddy. I turned to Liam. He pumped his fist in the air victoriously. “That was sick!”

I raised my paddle over my head and yelled, “Whoohoo!”

I had spent almost an hour paralyzed by fear, and in about 30 seconds, it was over. I don’t know if I hit the line perfectly or not, but I had just stayed on top of my paddleboard through Snowhole. Liam was right. I was totally stoked.

When I read the line, “Learn the basics of stand-up paddleboarding, reading whitewater, & river safety” in the OARS description on their website prior to our trip, I never imagined we would face a class IV rapid, let alone run it on a SUP. In doing so, though, I learned that when a river—whether “The River of No Return” (as early explorers called the Salmon) or the river of life—drops you to your knees, don’t ever enter a rapid tentatively. And don’t ever stop paddling.

—————————————————

Authors Note: My GoPro died after being submerged in Half-in-Half with me so I sadly have no footage of our run through Snowhole. Should you wish to see an example of what the rapid looks like, though, these two Youtube videos (taken by by people not on our trip) will give you a pretty good idea of the conditions: https://youtu.be/2-e8kakcf94 and https://youtu.be/tS1piA2yvTc.

PHOTO CAPTION: One of our guides, Sean, serenades us in camp after sunset on Day 2 of our river trip with OARS on the Lower Salmon River, ID.

Sep 142017
 

Earlier this week, while camping in northern Arizona, I had the fortunate chance to witness the birth of an evening primrose flower as it slowly unfurled from its green bud at dusk. We watched a first bloom for almost 45 minutes; a second one nearby took less than 7 minutes to open. It was one of the most beautiful natural events I’ve ever seen.

If you’d like to see it too, check out the video I just posted of the second bloom at 2x real time speed (so it’s about 3 minutes long):

Enjoy!

Aug 252017
 

Last Monday, unlike millions of people, I was not in the path of totality for the highly anticipated solar eclipse. Instead, I found myself sitting alone by choice (well, save for the seagulls) in my favorite place, the Raven’s Nest in Acadia National Park, Maine, where forecasters estimated the moon would only cover the sun at 50-60% at its peak.

I had no intentions of photographing the solar eclipse, wanting instead to soak in the entire experience as it happened in the place where my own path had led me. There were few noticeable changes in the seagulls squawking, the outgoing tide splashing, or the gentle sea breeze stroking the pines when the moon started making its move on the sun. In fact, if you didn’t get the memo about the eclipse or didn’t have those goofy-looking special magic glasses–things the Wabanaki Indians (natives living on this land for an estimated 12,000 years) obviously lacked–you might not have known something different in the universe was even happening. Until just before the peak.

Ready for the solar eclipse on the Schoodic Peninsula’s western shore in Acadia National Park, Maine

At about 2:30 p.m. EDT, the wind held its breath. The waves stilled, settling one-foot swells into a sheet of navy blue-stained glass. The normally sherbet-colored granite cliffs suddenly turned silver. Only the seagulls ongoing squeals indicated that time, life, the movement of the Earth had not momentarily stopped.

As if to simply prove to myself that I could still move, I stood up to make a photograph with my telephoto lens through my eclipse glasses. Mind completely blown. I then decided to make a picture about every five minutes from that point on. The above is what resulted, a composite of 16 images from just before peak to conclusion. I know it doesn’t show the prized totality, the Baily’s beads effect (the “Diamond ring”), or differ than all the other partial eclipse photos ever recorded. But I howled joyfully like a coyote after every frame, and for me, that’s all that matters.

The next day, I repeated this moment on Raven’s Nest at sunset. Seagulls chattered, the cobbled clapped in the outgoing tide, the sea breeze stroked evergreen branches. I peered (through my protective glasses, of course) at the now naked sun, shining in its full glory. The waxing crescent moon now smiling, smugly almost, as if it was proud of itself for the commotion it had caused the day before. I wondered how many other people of the millions who experienced the eclipse yesterday had bothered to sit and enjoy today’s ephemeral moments? I felt so grateful that I have the freedom to taste, enjoy, and appreciate the natural world essentially any time I wish. Others, through circumstance or choice, are not so fortunate.

Sarah Gilman wrote an eloquent essay recently, which summed up my sentiments perfectly: “How would we come to understand our world if we learned to turn this attention on its everyday wonders? What would we save from our own ravenous appetites? If hordes of people pulled off the highway randomly to stare at an old growth Douglas fir, if they did it to watch the way a stream carves through a canyon, or even the way a swarm of flirting gnats become a galaxy when lit by a sunbeam?”

YES, THIS!!

Read the full piece, “Lessons in the moon’s shadows,” here: http://www.hcn.org/articles/essay-people-places-lessons-from-the-eclipse.

There’s big hype for the next solar eclipse throughout Maine, for on April 8, 2024, the path of totality will split the state in half.  In a place where I already spend two to three months a year, I have a feeling I know where I’ll be then. Maybe I’ll photograph it. Maybe I won’t. I’ll decide how to celebrate yet another fleeting moment, as I did on Monday and all days, precisely when it happens.

And that, I think, is living life, not just a single moment, in the path of its totality.

Jun 162016
 

“Of Glory and Beauty” || Cliffs along the Colorado River near mile 54 (just south of Nankoweap ruins) soak up the day’s last light in the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA (Prints available – click on photo to order yours!)

My mom and I recently had the fortunate chance to spend eight days rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time while on a private trip with 14 dear and new friends with Hatch River Expeditions.  Commonly used words to describe the trip like “epic,” “best trip of my life,” and “life-changing” all fall short of how I feel about my time in the canyon’s warm (literally and figuratively!!) embrace.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it was so far beyond epic!  I loved it so much, I’ve already booked another trip down for May 2017!

I have 4000+ images and ~128GB of GoPro video footage to sort through, plus pages and pages of notes I scribbled in my journal, from our trip so more pics and stories are sure to follow as I start to shake the sand out of everything.

However, to give you a taste of how exhilarating–and at times, downright hilarious–our trip was, I put together this three-minute video of our run through the famous Lava Falls, the river’s most difficult rapid (albeit short).  It’s rated a Class 10 on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult and dangerous.

In the short clip, Wendy Gunn, her son Troy, and I are riding in the “bathtub” (the front of the motorized raft), so we had front-row seats as the action unfolded.  Boy, did we get a mouthful!  And man, did we have a blast!

Take a peek at the video below to experience (and for those who have been down the river, perhaps re-live your ride) Lava Falls without getting wet like we did!

(Note: we spewed a few expletives during the ride, so you may not want to play this at full volume at work…)

Feb 242016
 
The Night Conceals and Reveals

“The Night Conceals and Reveals” || A faint winter Milky Way appears above the illuminated shoreline (painted with a flashlight affectionately referred to as “Big Bertha”) along the western side of the Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, Maine, USA (Prints available – click on photo to order yours!)

The setting sun unfurls a silky sheet of sparkling black satin across the evening sky. Within the opaque darkness, my rental car’s headlights illuminate slivers of Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Peninsula’s pristine landscape. Though momentarily blind to its beauty due to my late arrival from Arizona, I distinctly know what I am missing. Over countless visits—thanks to serving three stints as an Acadia Artist-in-Residence, leading numerous photography workshops, and enjoying personal time—since November 2009, I have come to know these surroundings as well as a doting mother knows her own child.

I pull off at the paved pullout immediately to the south of the historic bridge over Mosquito Harbor and step anxiously into the moonless night. I peacefully close my eyes (though it makes no difference) and quietly eavesdrop on nature’s concealed conversations. The air instantly fills with familiarity. Andante splashes against the granite shoreline sing of a flooding incoming high tide. The crackling crunch beneath my feet suggest seagulls eagerly dropped mussels like bombs against the asphalt to break open their tasty treat earlier in the day. The gentle breeze reveals a salty scent of fresh life precariously balanced with musty death on the delicate knifelike edge of land and sea.

I return to my vehicle to continue reuniting with old friends. Along the way, I wave to the granite outcroppings shaped like cupcakes and now isolated by the high waters. I wink at the Winter Harbor Lighthouse and think to myself, “We have so many stories to catch up on.” I slow my speed while passing by my favorite winter photography spot, West Pond Cove. I hear the waves slurping against the rocky coast. I grin deviously and declare, “Just wait until you ice over. I have big plans for you, me, and my camera then.”

After I park in the vacant lot at Schoodic Point and turn my headlamp on, I excitedly bolt to the boulders frosted with winter’s thin icing. Despite being bundled in all the warm clothes I own, I still shiver, sending the warm desert blood pulsing through my veins to my chilled fingers and toes. With a fervent tingle in my gut, I knock at the wind and announce gregariously, “It’s me! I’m back!”

Wasting no time, Poseidon answers, emerging from the sea as majestically as the rising moon breaks free from the low-lying clouds hugging the horizon. Ignoring the unyielding granite cliffs separating me from his ocean home, his soft fingers curl around the rocks and tickle my soul, spinning me in a joyous pirouette. We waltz together for a few minutes, and though the hushed music never stops playing, I pause to offer an overly dramatic balletic bow in reverence.

Then the silence speaks the words a long-lost lover longs to hear: “Welcome home. I’ve missed you.”

Feb 212016
 
Utah_Glen Canyon National Recreation Area_00108_c

View of the sandstone monoliths from our camp in Fourmile Canyon at sunset along Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah

Want a taste of what our Lake Powell paddle adventure was like last November?  For those of you would like to read a very abbreviated, 1200-word account and see additional photographs from our recent paddle adventure on Lake Powell, I’m thrilled to share that the National Parks Traveler has published my “Going With the Flow” article at www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2016/02/going-flow.

Additional photos were also published in the online and printed version of the “Essential Guide to Paddle the Parks.” To view the guide via Issuu for free, visit www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2016/02/essential-paddling-guide-exploring-parks-canoe-kayak-raft-and-even-sup.

(By the way, if you have any inclinations or even curiosities about paddle a canoe, kayak, raft, and/or stand-up paddleboard in our nation’s parks, you’ll want to spend time reading this new insightful resource.  Just thumbing through my copy just made me want to grab my board and go float in SO many places!  So many new ideas!)

Because of the nature of the guide and article space requirements, I naturally had to leave out A LOT about our journey down the lake (including things like accidentally dumping my solar charger in water after Day 1, our scary Day 4, my significant life learnings in the aftermath, etc.).  In hopes of telling the broader story, I continue to make excellent progress on penning my adventure book about our trip (using the article’s title as my book’s current working title).  I’m up to over 36,000 words so far!  I have not yet set a publication date yet, as I’m focused right now on getting my words down on paper and starting to form the story.  But stay tuned!

In the meantime, hoping this little taste from the National Parks Traveler paddle guide whets your appetite for more to come…

Jan 202016
 
Florida_Captiva Island_00002_c

Paddling among the mangrove forest on the Buck Key Paddle Trail off the shores of Captiva Island, Florida

My toes curled tightly around the cool, white grains of soft sand as I looked to the angry inky clouds to the south.  Not again, I thought, shaking my head.

I apprehensively scanned the perfectly still, cerulean backwater bay to the east of Captiva Island.  Ruminations of my past felt as heavy as the muggy Florida air I now breathed. Only five weeks had passed since my mom and I frantically clung to life, paddling with all our strength and spirit through unexpected stormy six-foot swells on Lake Powell in Utah.  Staring into similar threatening conditions, I was hesitant to offer history such a hasty repeat invitation, especially during my first time climbing back onto a stand-up paddleboard since that harrowing event.  But my anxiety about the weather could not drown my enthusiasm to paddle in unfamiliar territory.

The cordial, clean-shaven 30-something-year-old attendant at the water sports rental hut at the ‘Tweens Water Inn broke my trance. “Let me check the weather forecast for you,” he said while spinning around to meet his computer’s keyboard.

“Heavy rain in 30 minutes,” he yelled back after a few seconds.

I slowly touched my red rain jacket and black waterproof pants, which hid my new black two-piece swimsuit. I dressed to get wet—rain or shine.  My concerns stirred elsewhere.

“What about wind?” I asked while stroking my chin and staring at the summoning sea.

“Nothing significant, just four-to-five miles per hour all afternoon,” he calmly responded.

“If the wind kicks up, does this bay see big swells?” I asked stoically, trying to learn more about the Buck Key Paddle Trail—an aquatic path I had never paddled on before.

“Not really, this area is pretty protected by Buck Key,” he said, pointing to a mangrove-covered strip of land across the narrow Roosevelt Channel.

“If I go out for 30 minutes and the weather gets really bad, what happens?” I continued without changing my gaze.

“You’ll get wet, but who cares? If you make it to the trail, you can hide out there until whatever happens passes.”

My eyes widened as a devious smile grew on my face. Like a pirate or rum-runner trying to outrun authorities (including the most dominant powers of them all—Mother Nature’s hurricanes), I too could find a safe haven in the sinuous waterways lined by twisted gangling mangrove roots. Perhaps history and I could play together nicely after all this morning.

“Let’s do this then!” I responded with a sharp clap of my hands.

He nodded with a grin equal to my own. While I filled out the legal paperwork, he effortlessly pulled a long stand-up paddleboard off the rack of many and then positioned it partially in the water to ease my launch from the gently sloping beach.

As I looped the board’s bungee cord over my large purple dry bag to secure it to my rented board, I looked up at him, “Soooo, how about gators?”

“What about gators?”

“Am I going to run into any out there in the bay or on the trail?”

“There’s a three-foot gator that’s been sunning himself in the bayou. You might see him before you turn right into the trail.  Here’s a map.”

“Do you know if he’s had breakfast yet?” I asked only half-jokingly as I tucked the laminated trail map under my dry bag.

He laughed but did not respond.  Nervously, I then added, “Here’s hoping so. Otherwise he’s going to have a yummy side of granola and peach yogurt with his six-foot tall human main course today.”

Kneeling on my board, I submerged my paddle and pushed the island’s beach away from me to start my two-mile journey under overcast skies—and more importantly, no wind.  However, with the line of dark clouds approaching, I swiftly headed to the lagoon’s entrance a half-mile away, paying little attention to the immaculate mansions and the old dilapidated boats (apparently used only by resting and grooming cormorants and anhingas) lining the canal.

When I arrived at the narrow opening for Braynerd’s Bayou, I balked. An unsettling three-foot wide cut beneath a canopy of eight-foot mangroves offered entrance to the Buck Key Preserve—and the water trail I was to follow.  I shuddered and thought to myself, “Where did he say that gator was?”

I inhaled a healthy dose of courage with the salty sea air.  I exhaled fear, hoping the nascent light breeze would carry it away.  Goosebumps emerged on my arms and legs, though I could not tell if my irrational worries or the chilly winds (or both) were the sneaky culprits.

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Great white pelicans float in Braynerd’s Bayou

Pushing the opaque waters away from my board, I propelled myself a short 100 feet before the tree tunnel gave way to an open sky and a storybook tranquil cove. Brown pelicans flew overhead in a clumsy V-shaped pattern. American white pelicans floated like graceful swans. An occasional splash from a mullet leaping into mid-air reminded me of the unseen underwater world no doubt bustling under my feet. A chirping osprey overlooked this magical outdoor kingdom while roosting on his dead-snag throne like a somber-faced gargoyle warding off evil spirits.

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The Buck Key Paddle “Trailhead”

I stopped paddling in hopes of traveling unnoticed in this exotic bay, but a subtle current pulled me closer to the northern edge of the bayou where the official canoe/kayak trail supposedly began. When I drifted in front of a small, cave-like opening in the mangroves, I searched for a trail sign or marker, anything that could help answer my anxious psyche’s question, “You really want me to go in there?”

Unintentionally splashing my feet with drops of tepid water, I swirled my board around with strong backwards paddle strokes to survey my scene from left to right in search of a better option—and to spot that three-foot creature lurking somewhere around here. Along the western shore, I spotted a dark, long object. Gator or deadwood?  I was not about to paddle over there to find out.

Without any effort of my own, the beckoning waterway’s swirling flow rotated my board 180-degrees to allow me to confront the trail’s intimidating entrance once again. I snapped a few pictures of the watery “trailhead” as teasing raindrops started tapping the water’s surface. I extended my arm and turned my right palm face up toward the unleashing sky to feel the soft drizzly dance against my own skin. I took another deep breath, filling my lungs with the earthy, rotten-egg aroma of the mangrove forests now enhanced by the onset of rain.  I grinned.  Time to play pirate.

I dropped to my knees to avoid hitting my head on the low-hanging lanky branches hugging the waterway—and to prevent me from falling off my board into the three-to-four-feet of mangrove muck.  As I slipped into the trail’s grasp, I instantly felt transported to the Dagobah System from the Star Wars movies. Yoda could have dropped out of the trees without startling me.

I alternated paddling and pushing myself off the reddish-brown roots dipping their toes in the brackish six-foot wide channel.  As I snaked through this sheltered dreamlike hideout, I studied Buck Key’s sandy uninhabited landscape veiled behind the wall of green. I contemplated whether I could survive off this land as well as the Calusa Indians once had among their shell mounds. Shy mangrove crabs scurrying among the branches indicated these little critters obviously could prosper here. I wondered if the pirates and rum-runners paused for even a second from their illicit business to appreciate the incredible beauty of their temporary surroundings similar to these.

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Collection of algae-covered shells on Buck Key

After a little more than a half mile of paddling, the shaded waterway greeted the undulating waves of the expansive Pine Island Sound. As if to tempt me to remain in the trail’s dry confines even longer, an elegant great blue heron swooped from one branch to another close enough for me to hear the flap of its wings slice smoothly through the sultry air. Imagining my good fortune could not get any better, within seconds, a giant eagle ray jumped out of the channel waters, flashing his black-spotted body and bleach white underside to the emerging sun—and to me gazing in awe a mere 100 feet away. I closed my eyes and shrugged my shoulders to curl around the warm, welcoming northerly breeze. I counted my many treasures from this experience. I liked being a pirate.

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A juvenile osprey rests on a twisted mangrove branch – spotted en route back to the hotel’s marina.

With the fast-moving current threatening to push me quickly back into Buck Key’s embrace, I stood up on my paddleboard and shook the stiffness from my folded legs before digging my paddle into the sea to return to my hotel.

As I approached the resort’s marina, the same sun-tanned gent who had helped me launch earlier appeared from the rental hut with a friendly smile.

“Well, how was it?”

“Fantastic! The gator was apparently full!” I joked as I slid my board into the beach. “Seriously though, paddling through the tight canopy of a mangrove forest was so different than anything I’ve ever done. I’m from Arizona, where I’m used to paddling under big open landscapes where you can see forever.”

He nodded his head as if he understood.

“Were you fine in the rain?” he asked.

“What rain?” I responded, then slyly smiled and started humming Disney’s popular Pirates of the Caribbean song to myself, “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.”

 

Many thanks to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and the ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort and Spa for hosting the Outdoor Writers Association of America Board of Directors and Officers during our winter board meeting activities this past January.  Their outstanding support made this adventure possible.  If the thought of floating gently through a tunnel of green, communing with wildlife, and savoring the ocean air entices you, you won’t soon forget a paddling trip (via canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard) from Captiva Island!  I can’t wait to return…

The Outdoor Writers Association of America awarded this blog entry Second Place in the “Outdoor Fun & Adventure” category in the 2017 Excellence in Craft awards.

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View of Pine Island Sound from the Roosevelt Channel