Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Great adventure

Late in June, my dear sweetheart decided to kayak from Philadelphia, PA to Penns Grove, NJ. This is what is looks like via highway.

Early on a Saturday morning, we loaded up the PCS car and headed down to the Schuylkill Banks trail. There's river access just north of 25th and Locust. Barely. Here you can see a splash of water has crested the wall. The tide was still coming in at this point, which if you're curious was 6:17am.

From Drop Box


Mike got this kayak off of Craigslist. It's inflatable and packs down to just big enough to not fit in the back of the Karmann Ghia (not that we've tried, I'm just imagining). It's definitely too big to strap on the back of the motorcycle. But, it's perfect for car-camping - as long as the car is a wagon or SUV. Or a hatchback. Anyway, it's a two-person kayak, but can be used as a single. Mike ended up buying two skirts for it after taking it out for a float test earlier in the month. Below, he has the single skirt installed. For times when we both go out, we have the option for the double skirt. The skirt definitely helped keep things dryer and it kept his legs out of the direct sun. Wise investment all around. Here he is slathering on sunscreen, with everything he'll need for the day packed on or in the kayak.

From Drop Box


Without too many complications, he was able to put in to the Schuylkill River at 6:29am, just 2 short hours after getting up. On a Saturday. He was nervous, but felt pretty good overall about the trip. He'd been planning it out for a few weeks, consulting different maps and scoping out resting spots. He even factored in the tides, which appeared to be largely in his favor - by the time he got to the Delaware River, the tide would be going out. Stowed on the kayak with him, he had 2 Nalgenes full of water, his water filtration set-up (which apparently saved the day when he was climbing Kilimanjaro), a whack of Clif Bars, a small first aid kit, an air horn, a solar charger, his cell phone (in a zippie bag when in his life vest, in an Otterbox otherwise), ID, atm card, dried fruit, sunscreen, dual action pump, and the carrying bag for the kayak. We discussed answering the call of nature, and I explicitly told him to either take a pee bottle or go ashore. "Do not," I said, "stand up in the kayak to pee over the edge." He assured me he would paddle to land to do his business. And then he was off.

From Drop Box


We both use Google Latitude on our phones. It's been a huge anxiety-reducer for me. I worry a lot about things that are out of my control, especially when it comes to Mike. And I worry with good reason when it comes to him: he's been hit by cars at least 3 times while bicycle commuting. Also, he's known to be a little crazy when it comes to his various adventures: running down Kilimanjaro, he discovered, is about as advisable as having your ass-over-teakettle tumble stopped by a rock. He's done both. I sometimes wish I could put him in a protective bubble, but I can't. So, being able to track him on my phone is the next best thing - at least this way I know WHERE he is.*

I went home and returned the car, and then did some laundry. I checked on his status about once every 45 minutes or so, and he was definitely paddling his way down the Schuylkill. He was making great time, just under 3mph, and my quick calculations had him arriving in Penns Grove sometime around 5pm.

I packed up our stuff for overnighting and pool-partying at my parents' place. That was the plan, after all - he kayaks on down, I ride down to meet him, and then we stay overnight. Sunday, we'd cook up a simple barbeque, jump in the pool, float around, and relax before heading back up to Philadelphia. Our friends The Lampesalots were going to come down on Sunday, too.

I read, I did dishes, I packed, did some more laundry, brushed the little cat, and then loaded up my bike with packed cases. I even had to use my tank bag - but that was mostly because I needed more space for the beer (not that we couldn't buy it in NJ, we just had some perfectly drinkable - so I hear - Oberon on hand). I looked like I was hitting the road for a 400 mile trek, but really, I was just going about 35. By the time I left, Mike had made it all the way down the Schuylkill and had crossed the Delaware River to be on the Jersey side. Here, in this photo he sent me, you can see the Philadelphia skyline in the background.

From Drop Box


He took a pee break and stretched his legs, then hopped back on his float for more southward paddling. By now, I was in Carneys Point and found my mom at my brother's soon-to-be-old-house. Rich and Morgan were packing up in preparation for their move to State College, PA. We left them to go grocery shopping and find distractions. Mike sent another photo, and that was entertaining.

From Drop Box


Here's a map - the placemarkers that are along the river are spots I'm about to refer to. There are other placemarkers just for funsies, like the farm Mike worked on as a 14 year old and the flea market/rodeo I worked on as a 16 year old. Mike originally intended to put out in Helm's Cove. But, small town drama, as relayed to me by my mother, meant he would have to modify his destination a bit. Mom suggested the boat ramp at the end of Main Street, except when we drove out that way, there was nothing there but a lousy promenade. Blech. Promenades. So, I called my brother and asked him of other boat ramps/beach access in the area. He suggested Plant Road, down a block from our childhood home, but that would add to Mike's trek and, honestly, I didn't want to do that - even if he was feeling like going for a walk, there's something sinister about adding a few hundred yards to a 25+ mile kayak trip.

I called Mike to let him know about his destination options. He sounded horrible. He was exhausted. He was down to his very last sip of water. The battery on his phone was dying, his solar charger wasn't working. He had no idea how much longer it would take him, but estimated at least two more hours. This was at 5:30. He thought he was outside of the old D.O.D., which until today I thought meant Department of Defense, but it does not. It's the Delaware Ordnance Depot. So weird! My paternal grandmother used to take us shopping at the base store. And my brother's first big-boy haircut was at the barber on base. ANYWAY, that was a rabbit hole (no, really, I just spent an hour looking at D.O.D. things).

So, I call my brother again because he knows the D.O.D. better than I do. It was still a functioning army base until the mid-nineties, and he was a 15 year old kid with dirt-bike-riding friends when the base was deaccessioned in '95. He said there was a boat ramp and beach at the D.O.D., but that it required a bit of off-road driving. Mom and her Prius were up for the challenge, so we went as fast as a hybrid, low-clearance car can go down an orange-dirt, sandy-mudded, potholed trail with manmade ponds on either side of the lane and 10 foot drop offs. Needless to say, I was an even bigger mass of nerves than necessary. So much stuff, out of my control! Latitude had stopped updating his location for some reason (the cell signal in Salem County is about as reliable as the emergency call boxes on 295 in Salem County. Which is to say, there is neither...). We were gambling that we'd get to the river in time for him to spot us and, well, row the boat ashore. Many long minutes later, we parked at the river's edge, stampeded through sea grass, and found ourselves on the narrowest of beaches. We were set in a mini-cove, so views of the river were limited. From where we stood, we couldn't see anything besides a couple of buoys and Delaware (which, technically, was lapping at out feet since the state line is funky in Delaware). Richard said he'd go as far north as he could without wading and began to traverse the sea detritus, and I tried not to pace. I was hoping against hope that he was north of where we were standing. Richard threw a log in the water about 50 yards north of us, and as we looked up, we saw the tip of an orange paddle dipping into the water. There he was! Just 100 yards out!

Slowly, he paddled over to us, resting for the count of 4 and then paddling 4 strokes. As he reached the beach, he stood, weakly, and began to dry heave. We pulled out his kayak, and mom and Richard lugged it up to the car. Mike wobbled and retched his way behind me. I hadn't thought to bring water - by the time I knew he was out of water, we were already trying to find a place to pull him in. We broke down his gear, shoved it all in the back of the Prius, and then began the lump-bumpy ride back to Rte 130. The first corner store we saw, I popped out and got Mike some fluids. Then, we all went to my mom's house and unloaded the gear. It was a bit frightening to see Mike, a fairly fit dude, so sheerly exhausted. His hands were involuntarily making paddle gripping motions, he was shivering, pale, and sweaty. He'd paddled a distance greater than a marathon - 26.4 miles - and it showed.

I got him situated in the shower, making sure he had his change of clothes and a towel, then went off with mom to pick up dinner. We'd ordered Mexican from a little dive near ... Helm's Cove. It was delicious, and reminded me a lot of La Lupe. Over dinner, we got to hear the tale of Mike's trip.

Things went well until the Commodore Barry Bridge. Then, the winds picked up, the tide turned, and the last 8 miles took him twice as long as he'd anticipated. When he got to the bridge, he had 3/4 of his water remaining. But, as he continued to struggle against the wind and the tide, he found himself getting exhausted and making hardly any progress. He picked out landmarks on the shore and started to get discouraged when, after a quarter hour of paddling, he looked over to realize he'd made little headway. When he was down to only a quarter of his total water, he started rationing it. He kept thinking every bend was the last bend before landfall. And every bend just revealed more bends ahead. Later that night, I said to him, "I bet you'd never been so happy to see my brother in your entire life." He agreed. He also announced he was never doing that trip again. It was the most difficult thing he's ever done (and he's done some crazy-hard things). He's glad he got the chance to do it, though, and I'm glad he didn't die.

Sunday, we were all much-better rested. Mike, while sore, felt like a living, breathing person, though I made sure if he wasn't sitting, he was laying down somewhere. And drinking lots of water. We prepared for the afternoon, fixing mom's beans, making GF pasta salad, and inflating pool toys. We were all ready by 11am, so I put on my swimsuit and went out to check on Mike - he'd shuffled outside at some point, insisting on vacuuming my mom's Prius ("I MADE IT DIRTY! I HAVE TO CLEAN IT!" "MICHAEL! Stop! Stop it! No means no! Do not touch that vacuum! DAMN it!!!"). I found him taking a break.

From Drop Box


I put sunscreen on his limbs, and then left him to doze in the sun. Win-win.

*Although sometimes the Latitude is insane. Once, while he was biking his normal route home from work, he showed up as being in Singapore. I took a photo because I figured nobody would believe me if I told them this without evidence. He's also apparently biked home via Italy and Florida.

2 comments:

Robin said...

That crazy adventurer of yours. We love him just the way he is!

Sara said...

Wow, just wow.