Sea Kayaking in the Exumas, February 2010
I feel like I need to start by saying, BAHAMAS HERE WE COME! We (McKayla and I) are currently on the second of three flights today taxiing on the Houston airport’s runway. It was an early start to a long day; the taxi picked us up at 4:00 am this morning after catching up with our old friends from Glacier, “the hippies”, until about two in morning. For some reason or another we went from Minneapolis to Houston, now going from Houston to Fort Lauderdale and before the day is over we’ll be in Georgetown, which is located in The Great Exumas island chain in the Bahamas. Hopefully our one checked bag keeps up with us through the day.
The checked bag is one in a laundry list of worries that I’ve been mulling over repeatedly since yesterday and will continue to mull over until we are seated in our kayak out on the water. I’m not sure why I’ve been more worrisome than normal; there are just so many things that could go wrong. I don’t mean to start this journal or this trip off so jittery, but I’m a little nervous. Maybe it’s because we’ll be camping in a foreign country, maybe because we’ll be kayaking in the ocean when neither of us have kayaked longer than an hour or so on calm lakes. It could be that we’re not sure that the renters will rent to us unless we appear like we know what we’re doing (which we don’t), and if they don’t rent to us, where will we go? These are just the concerns that are on the surface of my mind at the moment. However, I am confident that once we get on the water we will certainly have the strength and stamina to make any of the planned distances or get ourselves out of most situations.
I will absolutely do my best throughout this journal not to compare this adventure with the bike trip or any other travels. This trip deserves its own interpretation without comparisons. Though, it shouldn’t be that difficult considering the extreme differences in this and most other trips. I’m sure some of the feelings will be similar, but I will make a conscious effort not to overlap the two. There, it’s in writing so if it happens you can ridicule me later.
It has been entirely too long since I’ve kept a journal. The only other time other than the bike trip was the first summer in Glacier, and all those hikes and backpacking trips we’re written from memory months later, clouded by time and out of “the moment”. This journal will be done daily as we go through the Exumas, and probably a few weeks and maybe months after.
This kayaking trip, if all goes well or near to plan, should total about 30 miles over the course of five days and four nights. There are about ten or so cays (sandy islands formed on the surface of coral reefs) we’ll stop at along the way to rest and hopefully have some good snorkeling. Not to mention, all the while escaping the frigid Fargo winter and enjoying sweet ocean air and tropical deserted beaches.
A few months ago McKayla and I had sat down and listed places and possible adventures to take throughout the world. It was about mid-way through October when we both started dreaming about being somewhere other than Fargo; even though I’d only been there about three weeks. I really wanted to do something for McKayla’s graduation, but we decided it would be better for summer work if we did something shorter in duration for her spring break rather than missing out on a possibly great summer job (which either of us has yet to secure here in February). How we landed on The Bahamas I don’t know. Sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands of Washington was on my part of the list, I assume McKayla worked in the Bahamas part of the deal. After being in Fargo for the last few months of winter, somewhere tropical was perfect.
I do think a couple going to The Bahamas is a little cliché, but only if we were going to the Bahamas on a romantic getaway, specifically. However, we are not going to the Bahamas for tropical drinks, or fancy hotels, we are not going for lazy days on the beach or the night life. We are going for the ocean, we are going for the reefs, for kayaking, we are going to relax and enjoy life to the fullest together in one of the most secluded areas you can reach in the Caribbean, The Exumas. At least now I know if the Forest Service doesn’t work out, I could make it in advertising. However, it won’t be all kayaking and camping, for the last four nights we’re staying in what should be a pretty sweet villa.
Yesterday morning in Fargo before we left for Minneapolis it was 5 degrees with a wind chill around negative 5. I would say that’s been about average for the past three weeks, with it occasionally dropping as low as negative 25 with highs certainly reaching no higher then 20. When we land at 7:30 tonight it should be around mid 60s. I don’t even have the words.
There has been more than one instance where I’ve rushed into things with little to no information and relied mostly on luck and resourcefulness to pull through. This trip is different, there has been a lot of time to think, a lot of time play the “what if” game (A dangerous and annoying head fuck of a game). All of the planning and contacting has been taken of, but I can’t help asking myself over and over, if you were going to a deserted island, what would you bring?
For the most part I feel prepared. Physically, I’m where I need to be; I have the stamina, I just hope my shoulders can keep up. As for McKayla, she’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen her, if she can harness even half her strength and a quarter of her endurance into a paddle stroke she’ll be fine. Mentally, I’m as ready as I can be. I’m confident in both of our decision making skills, and if one of us gets a little too edgy hopefully the other will calm down the situation. One thing that worried me most was navigation, but after uploading about 20 UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates into my GPS (Global Positioning System) to point us in the right direction it is less of a concern, still a concern, but less of a concern. As far as the routine, we will learn how to pack the kayak. Camping, food, and water won’t be a problem. The only things I’m anxious about other than the navigation (which we will become more comfortable with as we go) is paddling efficiency; saving energy and in a worse case scenario getting out or rolling if capsized.
our flight from Houston to Fort Lauderdale McKayla and I gave up our seats together so some kids flying standby could sit together. We both felt bad as the man tried to situate three women in front of us, and rather then one moving to have an empty row two more came from different seats. Before the man could tell them they actually made things worse these women were already laughing and making obnoxious conversation, dumb yuppy snobs. With any luck the kids we gave our seats to will kick the back of their chairs. Hopefully those last couple remarks didn’t get rid of the good karma we got from giving up our seats, we’re gonna need it.
We’ve made it! McKayla and I are in the Bahamas. As the plane touched down we were both glowing with excitement. The sea breeze welcomed us as soon as we stepped foot off the plane. Customs was a snap as they simply checked our passports and sent us on our way. Unfortunately, the checked bag won’t get there until tomorrow morning. Apparently when there’s a full flight not all the bags can make the jump due to the weight capacities. It should be only a minor set back as long as the plane arrives at 7:30am like they assured it would. The kayak renters will meet us tomorrow at 8:00am and hopefully won’t mind a quick stop at the airport to retrieve the pack, I can’t imagine it will be a problem.
Rueben of Rueben’s Cabs gave us a ride from the airport to Regatta Point. He was a fairly quite man, but when he spoke had a very interesting ascent; almost like a Creole Jamaican combination. The streets of outer Georgetown were more bustling then I’d expected. There was a fair amount of roadside pubs/tiki huts, small stores, houses and some beach access points. McKayla and I were both taken aback when our driver flew by the first car we passed on the left side of the road. It took a few passings to get used to. The road coming into the point was pretty shady. It rapped around to the back of a convenient store before leading to a long driveway which led to the hotel. I’ll admit when we pulled behind the store I got a little nervous, but it turned out just fine. After the taxi pulled up Rueben got out and started yelling “Miss Nancy, you ave gests!”
The long day of travel is over and we are relaxing comfortably in our very homey condo on the water at Regatta Point. The condo is surrounded by water on three sides with two decks, about a dozen windows, a nice kitchen, and living area. The only thing we can hear is the sound of the waves just outside crashing on the rocks. The smell of the ocean is incredible; it fills the whole place and is embedded in everything throughout the condo. It’s very nicely decorated with paintings, pictures, and books.
Since we arrived there’s been a tug boat hard at work just outside. Nancy, the very sweet and energetic owner informed us that yesterday the mail ship had gotten stranded on the reef. Since high tide was around 11pm they were going to do everything in their power to keep from losing the old mail boat. Hopefully we won’t get stuck on any reefs, I don’t think a tugboat could get to us, get it, haha.
Between the very informative, semi-local on the plane, the taxi driver, and our host, the people seem laid back and genuine. I feel very at home and very relaxed here. This has been a great start to what feels like an amazing trip.
WOW! Today has already been absolutely amazing. All worries are officially gone. We woke up this morning as sunrise was starting. The pinks and purples lit up the sky and slowly revealed just how blue the water really was. The sunrise basked all the nearby sailboats anchored in the bay just in our view from the porch. The water is unbelievable; it’s as blue or even brighter then any of the lakes in Glacier.
Since we only brought enough food for the kayaking trip we were only planning on having a pop-tart each since we won’t have time to go to the store. Luckily Nancy knew we were going to have a long day and insisted we take some eggs, bread and oranges to fix up while we waited for Dallas (the kayak renter/guide). We should write her a postcard with some snow on it to say thanks and that this is what cold looks like. She was apologizing to us that we came when it was as cold as she could ever remember it being, it was low 60s high 50s at worst.
For one reason or another, I’d been planning on kayaking for 5 days and 4 nights even though I knew when our reservations were. Looks like we’ll be gone for 6 days and 5 nights, how that slipped by me, I have no idea. I’d already been planning on stopping at the grocery store before we took off, but we’d be leaving too early, I’m sure we’ll be fine with what we’ve got.
Dallas kept up last night’s observation that people here are laid back and genuine. He got us set up with everything we needed. We stopped to fill up some water bags and we ended up talking about football, family and the outdoors, he was a real nice guy. Turns out he went to Auburn, not as cool as Alabama or Valdosta, but pretty close to home. Seeing the people going on the guided tours reassured us that we had made the right decision in renting and going on our own. Even though he could tell we weren’t experts Dallas had no trouble renting to us, though I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not. Rather then lecturing he just gave us some advice on snorkeling spots and where to watch out for currents as well as where to go in a bind.
I gotta say, we had a bit of a rough start. After getting everything into dry bags and loaded up McKayla came back from squatting with a cut on her wrist and another on the opposite hand. She scraped herself on the hardened coral, which could be razor sharp, while trying to balance. As soon as we got in the boat and shoved off one of the rudder pedals came unhooked causing me to yell for Dallas to come back and fix it, which he did with very little effort. After all that we were off.
The first paddling went better then I ever could’ve hoped. We left from a small harbor on the east side of Barraterre, took the shoreline north and cut northwest once we got around the point of the island to head to our current residence of Lily Cay. I would say we put in about eight miles of paddling, not bad for two people who’ve never been on a kayak for more than an hour or so. I only started getting tired just as we reached Lily. This should be the most miles we will put on in a day unless we get rambunctious, which both of us are capable of from time to time.
When we arrived at our Cay we were the only ones here and it looks like we’ve been the only ones for a while now. As a matter of fact, after we rounded our point at Barraterre we have yet to see a single boat. This campsite is incredible, looking out from our small sandy inlet is a small canal about a half mile wide leading to the adjacent island, New Cay, and behind us is a forest of low palms and eye level brush, which covers most of the island. Down one way is a rock outcrop leading to another empty beach with a beautiful full view of our entire route. If you were to keep following the beach in the other direction you’d find an open expanse of ocean which would eventually lead you to Cuba in about 150 miles, which is where the current is flowing. Don’t get me wrong I like cigars and calamari, but we will definitely be fighting the current tomorrow. I’ve camped in a lot of places, and this has easily taken over the number one spot.
There were a laundry list of firsts today, some serious bucket lit items. Kayak in open water, check, camp on a secluded island, check, go snorkeling in the ocean, check, snorkel around a reef, check, try to spear fish, check. And you bet your ass by tomorrow or the next day spear a fish. I’ve gone swimming in the ocean quite a few times and why I’ve never snorkeled is beyond me, it was freakin amazing. There was life everywhere, we saw starfish the size of a Frisbee, I saw at least four or five types of fish, some as big as my torso (okay, maybe quite that big, but I’ve gotta exaggerate a little) swimming down in the deep water channel between the islands. Before the trip McKayla bought an underwater case for her camera, and it has already paid for itself; underwater photography, check. While “fishing” there were some descent sized fish, not the mondo ones in the depths, but some others swimming in and around the reef that is conveniently located just around the corner from our kick ass campsite. I got two shots off with the fishing spear, the first was a tester, the second I pulled back the huge rubber band, gripped the spear as far up as I could, lined up my shot, and miss, but I’m sure I didn’t miss by much, right.
After snorkeling we dried off and relaxed for a while. We decided to take a walk to the North beach where we found what must’ve been at least fifty, football sized, conch shells. Since it was nearing low tide the beach was extended by another quarter mile or so out into the ocean, it was pretty spectacular. The water was the most beautiful blue you could ever imagine. When we were out there we came across a stranded starfish, which I nudged back into the water, I hope he made it, he was easily bigger than any Christmas star I’d ever seen, spikier too.
Right before getting to the Bahamas there was a Bear Grylls episode and he was eating the stalks of palm leaves, I had to give it a try. Pretty bland and very chewy, but apparently you can live off the stuff. After our appetizer and a little relaxation we decided to have a romantic spaghetti dinner, a dinner that will be repeated verbatim, whether we like it or not four more times. However, we will have a variety of sauces, tonight’s special is sweet and sour tuna, while tomorrow’s will either be a lovely fresh seared reef fish or franks and beans; preferably fish.
Lighting a fire out here was a lot more difficult then expected, but if we’d kept trying I’m sure we would’ve gotten it. Besides, the stars would come out better without the fire, that and we were pretty wiped out after dinner.
I wasn’t the only one with some new checks off the bucket list. Along with everything listed, other than the snorkeling, which had already been checked McKayla saw her first sand crab. What was at first fear and disgust quickly became fascination and joy as she laughed hysterically at the side stepping of the creeper. We now have several pictures of Sandy the sand crab our new friend and neighbor.
Today was sincerely one of the best days ever. Everything here is almost unreal, too good to be true. McKayla said it best, “I would be completely happy with this trip if it ended today, but we still have eight more days of this, whooa!” Well my hand is about to fall off, so if there’s anything I forgot I’ll have to save it until morning.
This morning’s wake up wasn’t nearly as pleasant as yesterdays. The views were still amazing, but there were some slight discomforts. I woke up in the middle of the night to droplets on my forehead; thankfully they were small infrequent droplets, but we still had to put up the rain fly. Thanks to McKayla’s suggestion of putting everything else in the kayak or dry bags all we had to do was put on the fly. At the time putting everything away sounded like a pain in the ass, “it won’t rain, we’re in the Bahamas”, and I got a little frustrated. All right I’ll say it, good call honey. The rain wasn’t that bad, but we both woke up with some small sunburned areas and some large areas of bug bites. Whatever they were, they can fit through mesh and leave itchy little sores.
After eating our daily pop-tart we went snorkeling, this time towards Cuba (yesterday we went towards the beach). Yesterday I was concentrating a little too hard on what was close to realize that it can be pretty intimidating out there. I always thought snorkeling was for kids or people who didn’t have the guts to scuba dive, I was wrong. Besides from giving you a miraculous new perspective on marine life, you have no idea what’s swimming near you, even 30 feet away. Everything in that water can swim 30 feet faster than you can. Today I was patrolling the (I wouldn’t call them cliffs so much as rock overhangs, which make up about 95% of Lily’s coast) overhangs and McKayla came up to me saying “There’s something over there, and it’s bigger than me!” We swam back over and saw its cloudy shadow in the distance. As it got closer we realized it was a barracuda that was at least three feet long, no exaggerations this time. Dallas told us they were highly curious, but usually harmless. Harmless or not this thing was big and had teeth. After McKayla left for the shore I went a little further and saw some of the most brilliant corral; some orange some purple some that seemed to grow like leafless shrubs, it was unbelievable. Then my ole pale Barry the barracuda came around again near the 40 foot or so drop off into the deep channel. That water was a little cold so I decided to go to shore to warm up, it had nothing to do with the giant tooth laden hunter that could swim 20 times faster than myself.
After our meager lunch of a granola bar, which will unfortunately be our “lunch” throughout, we decided we’d seen Lily Cay for what it was worth and would move on to a new cay, but not just any new cay, The New Cay (it’s the name of where we are now). Packing up all our stuff isn’t as bad as I thought it’d be, it’s not like we’re in a rush anyway, and the farthest we’re going to paddle today is two miles.
Rumor had it there were Sea Turtles near the Mangroves of Brigantein? Cay, the cay we made sure to follow. We pulled into what we assumed would be the best place to spot a turtle. Even though neither of us knew shit about where o find what were suppose to be baby sea turtles, what dah yah know, we ran into momma sea turtle. She must’ve been just a little smaller than a trash can lid and McKayla was even able to get a picture before she darted off, and man could she move; nearly opposite of the slow, frumpy land turtles. We made a loop around a small rock outcrop and as I was making he turn I saw her (or one of equal size) again. This time we made eye contact and rather than darting off she just turned and swam gingerly, no rush, just I’m going this way now, stunning.
We gathered up our gear, reloaded the boat, and floated on our cloud as we paddled to New Cay. We managed to find the only tree, so far on this trip, big enough to shade ourselves. Since both of our left sides have taken a beating from the sun, this wonderful Casuarina tree with long needles and armadillo like cones has provided us with just the break we needed.
A few more to check off the list: swim with sea turtles, check, swim with dangerous predators, check, open a coconut, semi-check. Okay I feel like I need to explain the coconut, so I found a coconut on the beach, they have a hardened shell inside a fairly tough husk, they can’t go bad, right? I peeled away the outer husk and bore through the shell. Luckily I decided to dribble some out rather than pouring it in my mouth because all that came out was a smelly greenish gel. The coconut must’ve been sitting there for a while or traveling considering there were no coconut trees on that island, and yes they do go bad, very bad.
Tonight’s dinner was spaghetti with Franks and Beans, not quite as good as the tuna, but after only eating a pop-tart and granola bar all day anything would’ve tasted good. I successfully managed not to blow myself up with the stove for the second night in a row, but both nights came pretty close. After dinner we set up camp and took a long walk to the north end of New Cay. Walking on these island rocks is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It is jagged as can be and it is filled with holes; big holes, small holes, deep holes, wet holes, holes dropping into the ocean, holes covered by plants, holes with much in the bottom, and the best for walking back after sunset, holes that can’t be seen. Don’t get me wrong it was a great walk, we saw some cool inlets and an amazing sunset, you just had to watch your step.
Even with a bright shinning quarter moon the stars were out in full. Before going to bed we just laid on the beach in a silent aw enjoying star glow and endless waves crashing into the nearby overhang. What a way to fall asleep.
Waking up is easily the worst part of the day, or at least it has been for the last two mornings. We both woke to a new smattering of bug bites and areas where we missed sunscreen. I woke up with a sore throat from what I believe to be a constant breathing of sea air through my mouth, but I’m not sure. McKayla has been having difficulties with her contacts. Between wet wipes, hand sanitizer, salt water and sand, she constantly has something on her hands that burns her eyes when she puts in contacts, poor thing.
The big open water jump was today, and we made it. I don’t think it was any bigger than day one, but from now on we shouldn’t be more than a mile or so from any shore. Having next to no kayaking experience we’re finding out a descent amount about sea kayaking. First of all, just because you can see it doesn’t mean its close, especially in open water because while the Cay is getting closer it did so today for three and a half miles. Secondly, slow and steady most certainly wins the race. It’s easy to overexert yourself by trying to paddle faster or harder, and while it may seem like you’d make better time that way it will require more breaks. Those breaks tended to send us with the wind, which was back the way we came. Even if the wind isn’t in your favor, you still sometimes have to take breaks just to enjoy the surroundings or take a piss.
In an attempt to beat the heat we took off fairly early this morning. We’ve also spent the last hour or so shading ourselves under an orchard of freshly planted coconut trees on the southwest side of Norman’s Pond Cay. The water here is really what makes this place incredible. The beach extends into the ocean very slowly which makes for a very long contrast from the lightest blue you can imagine to a darker ocean blue, back to a lighter blue in the distance. In other words, lots of blue.
Each island has had its own highlights so far and they certainly have features all their own, but they do have two unfortunate things in common. One is not all that unfortunate, and if it weren’t here I’d be a little confused. Sand is like that really over talkative first date, it goes places that you’re not quite ready for. Don’t get me wrong, it makes it easy to build seats or pillows, but it gets into everything: gear, food, clothes, hair, water, the boat, body cavities you name it and sand is there. The other thing always present is a little more disappointing, trash. There is garbage strewn about in a lot of places. The beaches aren’t covered or anything, but a lot of shit has washed up over the years. The Exumas are notorious for causing ship wrecks, and it shows up on the shores of its islands. It really is too bad, but if it weren’t around it would be easy to think we paddled ourselves into another world.
So, I speared my first fish today. It wasn’t exactly a monster, but we both got a couple small bites of it after we boiled it. I got a little frustrated after missing the bigger ones, so I lowered my standards, but we ate what we could of him.
We paddled further North on Norman’s Cay so we would be closer to the underwater cave in the morning. We didn’t go very far before we both gave out. McKayla was hungry and feeling empty of any energy reserves. I on the other hand felt as though the sun was slowly roasting me, so I took rest under what cover I could find. After eating dinner both of us came out of our funks and enjoyed a very nice sunset.
Both of us felt worn out so we went to bed early, too early. Around 11 we both woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, so we decided to go for a little stroll. It’s a good thing we did because if we hadn’t gotten up the high tide coming in would’ve woken us up and drenched everything. It ended up being a very nice moonlit stroll on the beach, and both of us, for the first time, got a good night sleep.
Waking up today felt good, refreshing. It was overcast and a little windy so I wanted to get moving while the sun was still hidden. If all went as planned we would head north and find an underwater cave Dallas had told us about, have lunch, snorkel, and by the end of the day camp at Lee’s Stocking Cay. All did not go as planned.
The overcast and wind turned into rain and more wind. However, before things got bad, we did manage to find the underwater cave. At first glance it looked like a standard hole in the island’s overhangs, but after parking the kayak it looked like an Asian man’s pond filled with colorful coral and fish. We got our masks and jumped in; we figured we would disturb less coral if we jumped the five feet or so rather than climbing in. From outside it looked no bigger than a standard living room and about eight feet deep. From the inside it was an entire ecosystem all its own. At the mouth of the cave there was a huge coral network filled with bright and shining purples and greens absolutely teeming with fish. All sorts of different fish were hiding in walls, the coral, and the depths. There were two places one in the front and a huge gaping space in the back where you couldn’t see the bottom or the end, just darkness. We just starred down in it hoping that nothing came tearing out of that darkness. It was certainly a high point on the trip. Pictures couldn’t do it justice; the fish were more skittish that the ones in the ocean, and the colors were brighter than the power of the camera.
After the cave, things didn’t exactly go our way. As soon as we rounded the northern tip of Norman’s Cay the full effects of the wind were made clear. Waves were crashing hard on the rock overhangs a little too close for comfort. We paddled further out and rounded the bend of the northern tip to find ourselves in the face of the wind and waves. After pulling up on a beach we weighed our options. We decided to give it one last go to jump the gap across to Lee’s Stocking Cay. We were paddling as hard as we could for about a half hour and getting almost nowhere, so we pulled up to another beach on Norman to have lunch and again weigh our options. At this point our weather report was worthless and we had eight miles to go in the next two days. Was the weather going to get worse? Should we try again? Should we stay or should we go now? If we go it could be trouble, but if we stay it could be double. Sorry I had to.
While we were waiting for our spaghetti to cook a group of about eight kayakers just happened to be coming toward us and ended up camping just 50 yards or so down the beach. It was a guided group led by Greg of Adventures in Florida. What a nice guy he turned out to be. We went over and talked to them while they set up camp to try and get a scoop on the weather. Before we could even introduce ourselves they had a beer in each of our hands, which we were more than happy to accept. They were warm Kaliks, a local brew, given to us by Phillis who seemed happy to get them off her hands. Apparently she’d bought beer for the whole group, but she was the only one drinking. I guess she didn’t want to drink alone. According to Greg we were in for a long night and possibly a long day tomorrow. He was surprised we’d made it as far as we did with the wind as bad as it was. One of the kayaks fell off the sandy edge where they’d beached them for the night and started towards the water, but I was able to grab it and helped Greg pull it back in. Meanwhile McKayla was getting Phillis some electrical tape to fix a busted tent pole. I’m not sure if it was these small favors or if Greg was just a really nice or possibly sympathetic guy, but he invited us over for dinner and beer. After talking with Greg and the group for a while he invited us to come with them. He offered food, beer, and to show me how to spear lobster, it was a tough offer to turn down, but we have a villa and showers waiting. I’m not sure if it was the lack of prior meals, but those were easily the best rice and beans I’ve ever had. They were a really great group and it seemed like all of them had spent time in Montana, Georgia, Colorado, or somewhere else McKayla or I been recently so there was no lack of conversation.
With full bellies and friendly good byes we settled in for what would be one of the worst nights I’ve ever spent in a tent. My little backpacking tent was no match for what became about three inches of rain and gale force winds. We were in the tent well before sunset because of the weather and had to get out on more than one occasion from either pulled up stakes, stifling heat from the rain fly or finally, the wind switching directions and blowing from the only exposed side. We went from a wet droopy ceiling to a full collapse. I tried to think of all the places I’d been in that tent because I was sure that this would be the last night I would spend in this tiny, ripped up, leaky little fucker.
Frustration with the tent is what drove me out of bed this morning. Tired of being wet, hot, and covered in sand I hung our bags and the rain fly to dry. Within in minutes there were little spurts of rain, just enough to get everything a little wetter than it already was. So now nearly all our gear was wet, I have a cold, McKayla’s starting to get it, and we found out that after today the waters would be too rough to paddle, we had to call it.
As frustrating as the night was, it is impossible to feel down very long here at all. Though we’re coming in one night early we were both in high spirits. Excited that we’d seen what we had and managed to spend 4 out of the 5 days in very nice weather (which we were told was extremely rare this winter) we looked forward to showers and good food, lots of food.
Dallas just happened to be staying at the cay across from us. He came by early this morning and we told him we’d be heading in. His wife would meet us in Barraterre that afternoon. After packing and saying good bye to our neighbors we hit what would be our last stretch, a nine mile or so paddle back to Barraterre. The water was still a little choppy, but nothing like yesterday. When we took off yesterday for our brief last attempt we took on so much water and hit waves so hard I thought we were going to capsize.
I feel bad I haven’t mentioned our vessel yet. Our kayak, The North Star, is a long and slender, light blue two person sea kayak. Although it had clearly seen better days, it was well maintained and at no point throughout the trip felt unworthy of travel, not that I would’ve known otherwise. It didn’t leak, so it was good enough for me. While paddling we had our pfds (personal flotation devices), which were surprisingly comfortable, our paddles (duhh), and our skirts, which I took some verbal abuse for. The boat had two enclosed compartments. The compartment in front is where we held our most valuable items (documents, phones, dry underwear, food, books, cooking stove and this journal) along with pots and cooking utensils. The compartment in the back contained our shit, all things that could be touched by shit or smell like shit, including flippers, the tent, and my sleeping bag; the last two were in a shit proof dry bag. Don’t worry, the shit was sealed off, somewhat, in “wag” bags. It was illegal to poop anywhere in the cays or in the water. At least we know the seafood won’t be tainted, but that compartment is awful in the heat of the day. In the center, below my feet and behind McKayla was enough room for two dry bags containing mostly clothes, towels, a sleeping bag, our snorkels, and some smaller gear. When paddling, we usually kept a water bag, sunscreen, shoes, and a camera within reach. All our water bags were either hefind our seats or under our legs, and as they were emptied, found there way into the poop portal. The charts along with the GPS and compass were in a water proof bag bungeed in front of me. A spare paddle was strapped to the back and each of us either carried the sponge or the pump in our seats. Just about all of this was unpacked and repacked at least once daily and we got pretty efficient towards the end of the trip.
Everything was loaded for the day and we were on our way back to Barraterre. Almost to the halfway point there was a tiny speck of an island called Tug and Barge. At first I assumed Tug and Barge was a story because it was so shallow a tug boat could’ve gotten stuck pulling out a barge, but as we approached we realized that there was a small oblong rock (Tug) with about a 20 foot gap separating it from the larger island (Barge), very clever. We were welcomed to Tug and Barge by two large white and black spotted sea birds that were nesting on Tug. After tying the kayak to Tug it was time for a little snorkel break. The reef surrounding Tug was the most incredible yet. Both the reef and the fish were bigger than any we’d seen so far, a lot of the same types, just bigger versions. There were also a few new types of fish and a few new types of coral, unreal. I made sure to keep my distance a little more than other dives; Greg had informed us of the Lion Fish that is a nonnative species that takes over reefs after simply touching anything that comes near its home, killing it and eating it. Even a small prick of a contact can send a human into violent convulsions and lead to a very painful death. Lots of fish could look like a lion if you use your imagination. Suspicions of Lion Fish were met with get away from me waves and faster swimming.
Norman to Tug and Barge, paddling was wonderful, Tug and Barge to the edge of Barraterre, all smiles, last two miles from the tip of Barraterre to the “harbor”, awful. The “harbor” we were looking for was an angled road leading into the water with a wooden post nearby. We could where we were going, but we couldn’t seem to get there. Trying to stay upbeat for the end of our journey we encouraged ourselves with thoughts of showers, seafood, air conditioning and rum. “Mmmm, yeah that sounds good”, were the words usually preceding an especially hard paddling sequence.
We reached the harbor exhausted and excited, we’d made it. Just as we pulled in, so did Tarawa, Dallas’s wife, an Alabama native. She was going to pick us up and take us to our next adventure, relaxing in a villa in Hooper’s Bay, Exuma. Tearing apart the kayak I realized it would’ve been very difficult to go more than one more day. If we would’ve gotten stranded from bad weather, both food and water supplies could have been issues. However, if worse had come to worse, we would’ve managed the short trip from what would’ve been Rat or Boysie Cay even in fairly rough waters. Thankfully worse did not need to come worse before reason took over when stubbornness for another day easily could have. We later learned we’d made the right choice; turns out we might not have been able to make it from Rat or Boysie. Anyhow, after unloading the gear and stacking The North Star on her pickup mount Tarawa, Joss, and Emmitt (their two sons two and a half and a half year old) gave us a ride to Hooper’s Bay.
We did it! Time to relax.
The villa was a small pink house at the end of a short gravel road across the street from the ocean. As we walked in the air conditioning hit us right in the face and felt so nice on our burnt faces. The villa itself has two beds, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, a small living room, and both a front and a back porch. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but it was definitely more than we needed. It was decorated with the 1980s beach tourist in mind, with signs like “just relax” and “my other living room is a beach.” After we quickly settled McKayla’s first thought was shower, mine was food. We’d only eaten a couple of pop-tarts all day, and after paddling nine miles was getting close to four o’clock.
The store was only a five or ten minute walk from the villa. It was a small liquor/grocery store called Smitty’s. I’ve never been so overwhelmed by three aisles of food in my life. It’s not that it was exotic or strange food; it was “I’m so freakin hungry, everything looks so good, but I have to be able to carry whatever I buy.” After what seemed like an hour of finding the right cookies and the seafood freezers I was ready. When I got back McKayla was just getting out of the shower, we both looked at each other like we’d been through an ordeal, as if showering and grocery shopping kicked our ass. “There was so much sand,” was all she could muster, almost in disbelief. “I know, there was so much food I….” trailing off as I set down the groceries.
After washing off five days worth of grime and tending to our very unusual sunburns (a small bridge above the waist, a triangle of a tricep, burnt ears, etc.), we sat down and enjoyed a feast of sun chips, cheese, crackers, plums, steak, potatoes, cookies, and pineapple rum. The celebration continued with rum and cards until what we thought were the wee hours of the morning, probably nine or ten.
Waking up took a little longer than usual with our slightly larger heads, but it wasn’t long before we were huffing the three miles into downtown Georgetown (GT). It started as a fairly breezy, slightly overcast day, but it turned quickly into a hot, still, humid, and in the case of a certain Montana woman a hangover amplifying day. A small bar in the GT loop lured us in with a smell of fried something, but after not finding fish on the menu we settled for a couple drinks.
We found our way into the tourist sector of GT. The area had a hotel and a small docking area for small boats that came off larger sailboats or cruisers. There was a small tent known as a basket weaving market. It was like a small enclosed flea market where the local, mostly older toothless women, sold handmade necklaces, braclets, baskets, beans, peas, 80s t-shirts, and knick knacks. McKayla got a cute bead/shell necklace, but we weren’t done, we needed postcards and even I wouldn’t send the 80s postcards from the market that were mostly sketched neon lettering. You wouldn’t think finding postcards in such a touristy area would be that difficult, but there was only one place even according to the tourist info building we’d visited.
Finally, it was time for some fresh seafood. The Peace and Plenty would become our hub for GT activities, and today became the home of some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. My fish and chips were good, but McKayla’s grouper sandwich was out of this world. The Peace and Plenty is a 70s style, pink, two story hotel with a small outdoor pool in the middle of a U shaped patio facing the ocean. The patio was pretty big, with a bar and steps leading down to a small dock, all of it had a great view of the ocean, sailboats, and Stocking Island across the way.
Not nearly enough can be said about the town itself, or even more so, the people. Everyone we saw waved or said hello. People in the markets were friendly and talkative. People gave the quietest honks you could imagine when passing to say hello. When we were leaving the market there were about 30 school children, nicely dressed, walking to the park for recess. As they passed each one said hi and some would quickly grab our hands; they were some of the happiest kids I’ve ever seen.
Since we started our kayaking trip we had really wanted to re-watch Pirates of the Caribbean. After searching nearly everywhere, we gave up and settled for an even better source of entertainment, rum. We stocked up with three bottles, one for our next four days, one for at home and a third as a gift to the hippies for letting us park the car at their house during the trip.
Hitchhiking is not something I’m usually comfortable with, but Dallas assured us “everyone on Exuma hitched.” Being that McKayla was still hung over and both of us were still a little worn out from paddling we stuck out our thumbs. Sure enough the second car that passed stopped to give us a ride. Until this point, it hadn’t occurred to me that this was cold to them. I guess it’s there winter, but how can it be winter when it’s 60 or 70 degrees out. When we got into the car we were already sweating and the people had the heat blasting with the windows up; I’ve been in saunas with less gusto. During the three minute drive I felt like a cartoon in trouble when sweat is jumping off their head. However, the sauna sedan did manage to get us home in record time. Along the way we were jammin out to some extremely loud Caribbean rap, it was pretty good.
We ended our day with a meal of buttered Red Snapper with red peppers and mashed potatoes, mmm.
We took our time getting up and moving this morning before making our way to the beach. On our way we met two of the neighborhood dogs who decided to join us on our walk. It was about a five minute walk to a beach access entrance. It was a slightly worn path between two fences of houses, but it lead to a pretty nice little beach. The wind hit us in the face as soon as we could see the water. A small sailboat anchored just off shore looked like a fighter getting kicked in the nuts after he was down, just wanting to roll over and be done with it.
We found a spot to hunker down. McKayla sat to read, while I went for a swim. Swimming in the ocean is one of the most peaceful and humbling experiences I believe a person can have. The constant bobbing of waves, silence under water, it could calm a raging bull of a man. Yet in this calm you have absolutely no control; you are a speck in a body of water that stretches two thirds of our world that has been in constant cycling for about four billion years. As I swim I am unable to comprehend the size and strength of ocean or its age. We pale in its comparison, as we can only play on it or in it as it allows. The swim itself was incredible, a truly spiritual experience.
As I make my way back towards shore Fluffy and Nipples, our island dogs, are waiting patiently for me just down beach from McKayla. The cooling wind combined with the grueling sun makes for a dangerous feeling of comfort. Knowing that without sunscreen we could easily burn, we made our way back to the house.
Determined to take the beach back rather than the road we search for a place where our trespassing may go unnoticed. Quickly we discover, the unbeaten path, is a path strewn with sand spurs. Our keens were no match for these demon hitchhikers of the tropical sands, and we are reduced to a two step and yelp dance we continue until we’ve reached a very tall fence. While there was no way to the road without hopping the fence, there was a reasonably low dangling coconut. After a few vain attempts to throw things at the low hanger I did what any self sufficient man would do, I gave McKayla a boost so she could grab it. Jerking with one hand didn’t budge the thing; she even tried fully hanging from it. It was only when I pulled on her did this thing give way and came crashing down on McKayla’s head, sorry hun; finally, a fresh coconut.
The excitement of our coconut made backtracking through the mine field of sand spurs one of victory, slight discomfort and one minor headache from coconut impact. The coconut is an impressive fruit by any standards. They grow where other trees don’t dare, can withstand constant wind and sand blasts, and collect water in a ridiculously hard fruit surrounded by a tough husk that dangles from a vine that could withstand roughly 150 pounds including the fruit itself which had to have been at least 20 pounds. As soon as we got back I set to getting this thing open. Throwing it against a rock took a few tosses, but it was enough to get it started. After getting the husk off, a quick puncture with the Phillips head of my leatherman got the juices flowing. It drained about eight ounces of milk. It was delicious, especially after being chilled for a while, not better at all. When I think of coconut flavor I think of a very distinct, strong flavor, but this was very mild and somewhat sweet.
After eating and watching some winter Olympics we walked a mile or so to the nearest bar/hotel called Splash. Splash was made up of a series of small condos with a pool and a screened in bar just 20 feet or so from the water. There wasn’t nearly as much dancing as its ad described, in fact, there wasn’t any. It was mostly older tourists eating, drinking, and watching the Olympics in a very well decorated, mosquito free hut by the ocean. McKayla ordered herself a Bahama Mama and I stuck to Kalik (Ka-leak), the local brew. We ate some of the locally famous fried conch and played some pool before we walked back home to watch some more Olympics.
Stocking Island is a small island just to the east of “downtown” Georgetown. There’s a ferry that leaves the Peace and Plenty twice a day at 10 and 1 o’clock. It was about 9:30 when we started our three mile trek into town. Knowing we weren’t going to make it on foot, we hitched and the first car that passed stopped to give us a ride. The driver was a middle aged nurse who’d just moved from Nassau and was so excited about the lack of traffic and views of the ocean on the way to work; she was a very pleasant woman. She had a CRV with a steering wheel mounted on the right side, classy lady.
After making it to the dock with time to spare, McKayla sat on the dock enjoying the water while I began to write. We were soon joined by an older couple from Chicago, and as if she could read McKayla’s mind she brought up the perfect conversation starter for her, Keens. Anyone who brings up or complements her Keens will hear one of the finest advertisement pitches for footwear that anyone has ever heard. I know, she me into getting a pair, and if you’re trail hiking there isn’t a better, shit now I’m doing it. Anyway, they became buddies for the remainder of the wait and the ferry trip. Apparently if we’re ever in Chicago we should stop by for dinner.
The boat ride over was slow and smooth. The captain, Arnie sat and talked fishing with the Chicago guy, while McKayla sat in front with the Chicago lady and an oddly shaped woman in her 60s. I just sat in back enjoying the ride and watching the sailboats slowly pass. According to the grapevine there was some race this weekend so the marina was pretty packed. Now, I’ve never seen a sailboat race, but I’ve got to imagine it would be one of the most spectacularly boring events there could ever be. I’m sure it’s a blast to race, but as a spectator it’s up there with golf or bowling.
Within 15 minutes of landing we were at the island’s high point. It could hardly be called a hike, but the views were pretty baffling. Its “peak” was probably about 100, maybe 150 ft in elevation, but as there were no other lofty summits we could see for good ways, with the open ocean and darker water to the east, small cays stringing to the south and north, and Georgetown to the west. The summit was topped with a “monument” left by the U.S. navy. It was a George Washington type monument, but about a fifth the size with no plaque, marking, or even a date; just a phallic structure on top of a hill.
Since there were a half dozen trails leading to the mound we made our way to the big beach facing the open ocean. The waves were big, probably too big for body surfing, when no bathing suit knot is too tight. We had to find just the right spot because most of the beach was lined with rock outcrops that would’ve made body surfing very painful, if not lethal. We found a good 40 yard gap in the rock, so it was time for McKayla’s inaugural (thanks spell check) body surf.
As far as body surfing goes the concept is as simple as it gets, but the execution can be a little tricky, and even if you succeed very painful. As I said earlier the waves were pretty big, and the last time I taught someone, Luckino, he gave up after about ten minutes and said I was nuts, toughs waves weren’t as big as today’s. Then again McKayla is fairly nuts herself. If you’ve never been the feeling is hard to explain. First, you swim through the break, diving under waves so they don’t carry you back to shore. Then you bob in the water until you spot a good wave. When you spot the one you want you start swimming and the idea is that you time the crest of the wave as your on top of it. If you swim like fell and time it just right the wave will lift you up gently and swiftly carry you close to shore. It reminds me of a dad on the ground lifting his child up with his feet on the kid’s stomach so he or she can fly. It’s a very peaceful and kick ass ride, but where dad would tenderly set you down free of charge, the wave charges an admission for its ride by smashing you into the beach with all its might. The bigger the wave, the harder the smashing and the more water that gets sucked out to feed the wave’s under toe, leaving wet hard packed sand to break your fall.
It took a few tries, but as usual McKayla caught on pretty quick. Before long we were both riding waves, hollerin, having a blast and getting the crazy stares from a few random passers by. At one point I caught a big momma of a wave and was left stumbling by the ass kicking she gave me when I turned and saw McKayla starting to swim in front of big daddy wave. The wave was about three times as tall as she was. I yelled back “NOT THAT ONE!,” but she couldn’t hear and was already committed. She was like a rag doll and I raced to get to her thinking she might’ve gotten knocked out. She came up briefly just in time to get pummeled by another monster when I got to her I lifted her out of the water just as we had to dive under another wave. Her whole head had been replaced by sand, but she was okay; beaten up and a little scared, but okay. After rinsing off what sand she could, we headed in battered and glowing with adrenaline. Body surfing has to be one of the most tiring activities there is, lots of swimming, jumping, and diving. I ended up with a long, but shallow cut on back from a rogue rock, but other than that we were unscathed and ready for lunch.
We made our way to Volleyball Beach to get some lunch and maybe play some volleyball. There was a small canal we had to cross by lifting the pack over head and trudge through, eventually we reached the beach and it was loaded with tourists. None of which were our age, as it had been the whole trip, but it seemed like a fun atmosphere. There was a small hut on the beach filled with annoying tourists and hour long cook times. The food was bad and most people were very snooty. We were even shot down to join a three on three game of volleyball with people that clearly weren’t all that good and therefore shouldn’t have cared. High hopes of volleyball beach led to both bad culinary and social experiences.
The ferry left to go back at four o’clock so we made our way back to the other side of the island where apparently everyone assumed we were missing. I guess when most people visit they hang around the dock and Hamburger Hill as it was called. After arriving a half hour ahead of departure we sat and shot the shit with Arnie. He bought us a drink and told us of his education in Massachusetts where he studied boat engineering. It was nice to meet someone that had such a passion for boats.
The Chicagoans had left on the earlier ferry, so it was just us and the woman who looked like a tennis ball with skinny limbs. He dropped her off at Sliders, only a mile from our villa, but he asked if we wanted to be dropped off closer. Why not, the boat ride back was a little faster with just us on board he was cruising. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen McKayla happier. The boat was rising and crashing on the rough waters and every time we came down she would laugh so hard I couldn’t hear the roar of the engine. It was awesome to see her so hysterical; I hope she didn’t get a concussion from body surfing. The boat passed where we needed to go by a few miles, but it was so much fun it didn’t matter. After jumping off the boat into about a foot of water, which we both judged to be deeper I almost feel backwards, but McKayla did fall, haha.
The thumbs came out as soon as we got to the road and our old friend Rueben, our driver from day one gave us a lift to about a half mile from the villa. Rueben was on his way to get some nice shoes for a funeral where he hoped to impress some ladies. He said this so laid back and nonchalant you couldn’t take offense that he was going to try to pick up chicks at a funeral. I guess it would be a rare social gathering that wouldn’t involve any tourists, good luck Rueben.
Sleep was certainly not hard to come by and we figured we’d need to rest up for scuba diving tomorrow.
This morning I woke up to breakfast in bed, what a way to start the day. McKayla made me an egg and cheese sandwich with some pineapple on the side, good stuff. We weren’t scheduled to scuba dive until one o’clock so we took the time to walk into town rather than hitch.
Okay, so I took a scuba diving class about six years ago, but never did an actual dive and never got certified. I was a little nervous, but McKayla was nothing but excited, she’d wanted to go scuba diving the whole time we’ve been here. Pretty much the whole three miles into town was me asking questions and McKayla trying to remember the answers. By the time we got to the Peace and Plenty dock, where we were meeting Gavin and his boat, I felt ready, McKayla would just do the talking. Gavin sized us up and ran to get us flippers and wet suits. Rather than doing a deeper and more complicated wreck site dive, we went with a more shallow 30-40 foot reef dive. I think he could tell we didn’t really exactly know what we were doing, okay mostly me. I’m a curious guy, especially when I’m nervous. I like to ask as many questions as possible so I can try to figure out how to “wing it” when I’m not sure what’s going on. However, in this case, I couldn’t reveal any ignorance, I was a certified diver, so I dept quite and freaked out on the inside. [What is compression sickness and how do I avoid it? Can we fly tomorrow? I heard a story about people exploding because they flew too close to when they dove. How do I get in? What’s this button do? When do I use the snorkel? What the fuck do these gauges mean? SHUT UP, relax, just remember to breathe normal, come up slow, and don’t give the thumbs up.]
As soon as we got in it all came back, mostly. Thankfully McKayla was having a little trouble descending so I had time to play around with stuff and get adjusted. We dropped about 30 feet right off the bat and my mind finally mellowed. It was easy to relax with all the beauty of this underwater paradise. Within the first few yards, stingray, bam, my underwater wildlife quest was complete, now I just had to enjoy the rest. The fish were huge, new species we hadn’t seen were everywhere. New wavering corals were all over in such a wide color spectrum my mind had trouble keeping up with my eyes. The brain coral was one of my favorites, I wanted to touch it, but I resisted. There were these huge flat corals that fanned back and forth with the waves. The schools of fish were immense and they didn’t so much avoid us as swayed in another direction. Everything in the water seemed more curious then afraid of us, other than the stingray and the giant sea turtle that I didn’t see. It truly was an incredible dive; I just hope we got a good shot of the really cool blue-green fish, among other things.
Unfortunately not everything could go smoothly. Just as we were getting back to our starting point McKayla surfaced really fast. She had run out of air and headed to the surface a little too quickly. The whole time we were on the boat and while we were walking back she said she had a bad headache and was very discombobulated. We didn’t know what it was, but it got worse as the night went on. Thinking it could’ve been dehydration or hunger we drank and ate. The meal was our send off, grouper, lobster tail and cheesy potatoes, man was it good. The remainder of the night was spent freaking out about McKayla’s sickness. Along with her headaches, she had blocked sinuses and had blown some pink snot out of her nose. McKayla decided to call her sister, Danika, to see if she could find out anything via the internet and compression sickness seemed to be the only thing that made sense, and something tells me they don’t have a decompression chamber in Georgetown. Luckily there is one 24 hour scuba hotline in the U.S. Although they put her on hold for a half hour or so the guy who answered was very helpful. She told him her symptoms and right away he knew, it was reverse sinus block. We were relieved to learn that she didn’t need a chamber and we would be okay to fly the following day, but it could be fairly painful. Reassured and exhausted we did most of our packing and got ready to say good bye to the Bahamas.
Since McKayla wasn’t feeling well last night that left one person to dispose of the leftover rum. Lets just say the pricey cleaning fee is almost getting its values worth. Today would mark the start of a 22 hour traveling day starting with a five mile hitch, followed by three flights, that are sure to be very painful on a reverse sinus block, and then, once we reach the Twin Cities a four hour drive back to lovely Fargo.
We didn’t get off to the greatest start. After returning the key to the guy a few doors down, he offered us a ride to the airport. Thinking he was doing this as a neighborly gesture (he’d offered to take us downtown days earlier) was not at all. When we reached the airport he demanded 20 dollars. I told him I only had 12 and that I wouldn’t be taking out anything from the ATM. After glaring and cursing under his breathe he took the 12, which was going to go to medicine and water and left without confrontation. Before he left I told him, “if he would’ve told us it would be 20 up front we would’ve hitched,” I should’ve known better.
When the plane took off it went right over our route. We did our best to take pictures, but nothing could’ve done it justice. Seeing all the islands from an aerial view really put it into perspective. It was an impressive loop. We pointed around and could tell all the islands by name. We sat and traced Barraterre to Lily to Brigintine to New Cay to Norman’s and even little Tug and Barge. Saying goodbye to the islands I think we both felt pretty accomplished. We had kayaked a pretty huge area.
I would tell you all about our travels throughout today, but it was a little brutal, so I won’t go into detail. Okay a little detail. Lets just say at one point McKayla was so miserable she took two small cups filled with wet napkins and put them over her ears for relief. Supposedly this relieved pressure, but I think it was just to distract her or for the flight attendant to have a laugh. I got a picture, but I’m pretty sure that one disappeared.