Adventure, Road Logs, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: 98 Miles at Sea

In the last road log I biked 700 miles to Corpus Christi. In Corpus, I spent months training on sea kayaks with master kayaker Ken Johnson. (Ken has been written about by Forbes magazine and you can find information on touring with him here.) The plan was to switch from bicycle to kayak and do the entire Gulf coast all the way from Texas to the Yucatán.

That plan didn’t work out, mainly because of the difficulty in finding paddling partners to go on such a long voyage. Kayaking is much more expensive than cycling, which narrows the pool substantially. But I didn’t want all those months of training to go to waste, so I decided to at least do a section of the Texas coast before switching back to bicycle for Mexico.

I’ve already written up the story of that fateful, windswept voyage—one of my most popular adventure stories (part 1, part 2). But I never did map it out and figure out the total miles paddled. So here’s a road log (or sea log) of the kayak trip.

Note: Normally I use Google Maps to show the route I took on each leg. This isn’t possible for kayak routes because Google doesn’t have a sea voyage option. Instead, I used Google Maps’ “measure” tool to plot the course and tally up the miles covered—but you cannot share a link to measure tool maps. So no interactive maps this time, but I did include screen shots of each map below.

Friday, February 28, 2014 (Day 602 of the Great Adventure)

This was a standalone paddle day. The point was to go from our usual launch point, in town, to a location on the Intracoastal Waterway outside of town. That spot on the Intracoastal would then be my launch point for the big voyage. Thus, today was kind of like a prelude. 16.4 miles

Map 1:

Overland from my last bicycle point to the kayak launch point.

Overland from my last bicycle point to the kayak launch point. 0.4 miles.

Map 2:

Map 2

Standalone kayak day. 16 miles.

Thursday, March 6 (Day 608)—The Launch

I set off with Ken and our friend Winnie bidding me farewell on the shore. I put offerings in the water and then paddled against a tough tide/wind combination. Slept on the porch of a floating cottage in Baffin Bay. 27 miles.

Map 3 first full day

March 7—Waking in the Sea

Early start but slow progress. Very hard by late morning. I had heard that the tide creates a powerful draw in one direction or another down the long, narrow Intracoastal. I suspect it was with me at night/early morning (mostly when I wasn’t paddling) and then against me all day. Camped underneath another cottage, this one on land. Ken warned me of storms the next day. 17.3 miles.

Map 4 second full day

Friday, March 8 (Day 610 of the Great Adventure)—Race Against Storms

After probing ahead a bit, on Ken’s advice I turned for a pullout point. The kayak trip would be cut short due to approaching severe storms and hypothermic weather. First pullout point was a dud, and second one was a mad dash through a squall. It ended with a night crossing of the final stretch of bay and landing on a beach in the dark. Beautiful. 37.6 miles.

Map 5 Last Day

Total traveled this leg: 98.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 2878.9

Next time I’ll track the 130 miles that Blake, Pixi and I bicycled together in the Texas heat—100 degree days in July. Until then, check out old road logs. And yes, more reports on my current Mexico ride are coming up soon!

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Adventure, New Orleans, Road Logs, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Crossing the Mississippi

We’re almost caught up on old road logs. This is a short one, but reflects a crucial day in my Journey. I had paddled the length of the Mississippi and was almost ready to head west—but with all the ferries I’d taken over the river, it was time to prove I was still doing this under my own body power, even where the river is wide.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 (Day 355)—Crossing Day

I rented a kayak and paddled across, tagging a lamp post on the far shore. That’s where I’d later pick up my bicycling, taking any accusation of cheating out of the equation.

People often ask if I carried the bicycle with me on the kayak. The answer is no. The point is to do each leg powered by own body, not to carry extra equipment.

I also paddled back across, but that part’s not included in the official tally. 6 miles.

Map 1. 3.0 miles cycling.

Map 2. 3.0 miles kayaking and walking.

Total traveled this leg: 6.0

Total traveled since Day 1: 2,082

My hope is to have the Texas road logs up soon, and thus be ready to dive into the new ones for the trip across Mexico when I start it in a few days. I owe you guys an update on that, too—coming soon!

Check out other road logs or help make the next adventure a success.

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Adventure, Sea Kayaking, Texas, The Great Adventure

I Thought the Evac Would Be Easy

Photo by André

Photo by André

The last morning of my kayak trip I woke up at 4:30. It didn’t know it was the last morning. I hate early rising, but I was in good spirits as I ate my breakfast and packed my gear, reversing the mud hustle of the night before.

There was only one place to get phone reception. I climbed the back stairs of the abandoned cottage and sat on its upper deck. There I had one bar of signal strength.

Message from Ken:

Please don’t try for Port Mansfield. Sunday will be hypothermic paddling. Hi 54 degrees, 80 percent chance of rain, and up to 25 mile an hour winds.

Port Mansfield was the next—and only—point on my route where I could touch civilization. Get more supplies, maybe even find shelter from the storm.

Today was Saturday.

What Ken was saying was, at my current speed—with a headwind still fighting me every stroke of the way—I would not make Port Mansfield today, and that would leave me stranded in a horrible northern storm tomorrow.

I scratched my head. Well, so what? I mean I had no other options, right? Part of me tingled with excitement: a 25 mph north wind would drive me forward–southward–at tremendous speed, and in the narrow protection of the Intracoastal I could surf into port in anything short of a hurricane.

But it wasn’t the wind, really, that I was supposed to be scared of; it was the severe storms behind the wind. Out on the water I’d be the tallest thing for lightning to find, plus there’s that cold Ken mentioned.

In subsequent texts, Ken offered me a convoluted plan involving turning around, going back the way I came, and meeting him on some stretch of beach where he could pick me up by car.

In other words, giving up.

The kayak after the mud hustle. See how far from the water is? It's still tied up to that post.

The kayak after the mud hustle. See how far from the water is? It’s still tied up to that post.

Speed Test

I don’t have any cosmic objections to retreat; sometimes you lose some. But I didn’t think it was necessary. If I could make Port Mansfield by tonight, I’d be safe before the storm hit; if I couldn’t, there were plenty of cottages to shelter behind. I’d just stay in my tent reading Sunday, and continue on when the weather was clear.

Ken was less confident about my camp-in-a-gale strategy. He believed I either needed to be sure I would make port tonight, or else bug out while I still could. He’s the more experienced paddler here, and I decided to listen to him.

So, could I make port? Even with my early start—which was not as early as I’d like, due to the mud hustle—I’d have to average 4 mph against a headwind to make it. Yesterday I’d averaged less than 3 mph. I texted Ken one last time:

Understood. Going to start for Port Mansfield and track mileage. If cannot maintain 4 mph will turn back to meet you. Can stop at this location and text you if so.

With that I stowed my electronics, strapped coffee to the front of my kayak, and shoved off into the wind.

Photo by André

The wind-sheltered underworld where I spent the night. Not as spooky as it looks.

Priorities

One hour later I stopped paddling. I aimed the nose of my boat into some mud and came to a halt. First priority: fill up an empty yogurt container (the two-pint kind) with urine, and empty overboard.

Ahhh.

Second priority: drink the last of my coffee. But why is the coffee gone?

And, as a distant third priority, I checked my mileage. Three miles in an hour. Respectable, job well done, but you will not make port by nightfall, André.

This was where I had to make a decision. I could go on, fall 10 miles short of a safe harbor, and camp wherever I could find a windbreak through a driving northeaster.  Or I could turn around and drift at a laughably easy pace with the wind, back to some previous point and call it quits.

Adding to the mental math was an itinerary problem. I had a friendly face waiting for me in Mexico, but if I took too long to complete this journey, he’d have to leave for weeks of business travel—leaving me nowhere definite to land.

To decide, I turned to my new policy of what is least stressful?. Viewed that way the choice was clear. My ego wanted to push on, but I turned my boat back the way I’d come. I chose to bail.

The weather around the time I made the decision.

The weather around the time I made the decision.

Mystery Beach

Going back was a joke. The powerful wind was working for me now and I made it in 40 minutes. Meanwhile, the Intracoastal had come to life; it was a weekend now, and fishermen were arriving by the boatful. Motorboats sped past me or drifted while the men aboard drank and fished. At least half the “abandoned” cottages now had boats. It made me realize that had I gone on, I might have had to beg to be allowed to camp on someone’s porch.

I landed at the same spot where I’d slept last night and climbed up the back stairs to text Ken. He gave me the coordinates of the pickup point—somewhere south of Baffin Bay. I scratched my head.

Can you confirm coordinates. I paddled past that point yesterday and it looked like desolate ranch land with nothing but windmills.

Ken texted back:

Coordinates correct. Small dirt ranch road runs along there however.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t far… hardly backtracking at all. This would be easy!

I can reach coordinate around 1:30. If I get there first I will land, look for the dirt road and paddle as close as I can. If you get there first I’ll look for you.

Let’s say 2 pm so you’re not waiting.

Of course, I didn’t need nearly that long to get there. But if this was my last day, I might as well enjoy the scenery and a leisurely paddle.

And enjoy it I did. I pulled up along fishing boats and asked if they needed a tow. I chatted with kids and cheered for fishermen trying to pull up a giant catch. I saw a scrawny coyote trotting along a mud flat and chased after him, getting as close as I could by boat. Sometimes I just drifted in the current, enjoying the ride.

Finally the time came. I was back in wide open water and kept a sharp eye on my GPS. I angled toward the spot in question and surfed good tailwind waves across the bay toward it. I remembered this shore: low and barren, generally sandy but with heaps of rocks scattered anywhere. Could be a rough landing.

As the waves rocketed me toward shore, I ripped open my spray deck (the thing that holds you in the boat and keeps you watertight), aimed at a seeming bare sand spot, and leapt out of the boat to run her in. Sure enough, there were sharp rocks all around but the spot I’d picked was clear. With me carefully guiding the boat, we reached shore safely.

I’d hit the GPS coordinate almost perfect. It was 1:30, and a few hundred feet away was a two-track dirt road. The only other thing worth noting was scrub grass and fire ants.

Well, I beat Ken, I figured. I began to unload the kayak and carry every piece of gear to the road, ready for pickup. To make life easier, I marked a trail around fire ant mounds with pieces of driftwood.

But Ken usually runs early, and I started to worry. He didn’t reply to my texts. Finally I just tried calling him.

“Hey, where are you?” he asked.

“I’m at the road!”

It was pretty staticky.

“You’re at the road? They won’t let me in.”

“What!”

“The ranch road is closed. They won’t let me in.”

Oh.

Ohhhhhh.

So here I was, more than half the day gone, farther from port than ever, and a storm coming in. With no one to pick me up. Ken would later tell me that armed guards actually blocked his way at the ranch entrance.

“What are our options?” I asked.

“Well you could camp and wait it out–”

I looked around. This spot was more desolate than any so far. There wasn’t a scrap of shelter for miles.

“–or there’s a boat landing at the end of Baffin Bay. It’s over 20 miles from you.”

The end of Baffin Bay. I’d crossed the bay entrance yesterday, but the bay itself cuts deep inland. I looked at the coordinates on the GPS. Yeah, that was a long way to go.

“What time is it now, 1?” I asked.

“It’s 1:30.”

Sunset was at 7.

“I’ll meet you there at sunset.”

“I don’t know if you can make it that far by sunset.”

“If I can’t I’ll let you know. But I’ll be there.”

“Okay André. Good luck.”

Click.

Map of both proposed pullout points.

Map of both proposed pullout points.

Too Eager

Before I could launch I had to re-load every piece of equipment. I ran them back to the beach, armload after armload, and shoved them into the hatches. At 2:00 I pulled back out through the rocks and made for open water.

To make my rendezvous I’d need to average 5 mph. I knew I wouldn’t hit that average on the first leg, as the wind had swung around to the east. It was crosswise to me now. But I hoped to make up the pace once I reached the opening of the Bay itself, turning west and catching that powerful tailwind once more.

It took 90 minutes to reach the Bay opening. I tore through my water bottles at an alarming rate, straining all muscles to keep the boat going at maximum speed. If I made my destination, I had a shower, a meal, and a warm bed waiting for me; but if I failed I’d be camping without shelter on a desolate wasteland, and still two days from port when the storm passed.

At the entrance to the Bay there’s a point of land, and I cut too close to this. Churning forward through the waves I saw the faintest tint of shadow flicker under the water.

“ROCKS!”

I actually yelled that out loud, to no one but wind demons.

At the same time I executed a perfect full-stop, which is a series of backstrokes Left-Right-Leeeeffft.

The Epic floated dead in the water while I inspected our surroundings. Yes, we were in the midst of a boulder field; we were already deep inside it.

Timidly I poked the sea bottom with my paddle. Like a hand in the dark, I felt out the rocks around me. The wind and current kept the kayak moving sideways even as I poled it forward toward open water. With the vigorous wave action, one collision could crack open the hull, stranding me.

We moved almost like a crab… a little sideways, a little forward, stopping every few yards to feel out the surroundings. I wasted ten minutes there, but eventually emerged from the minefield unscathed.

And finally I could turn with the wind. From here it was one long, straight run with a tailwind toward Ken… and I needed to average 6 mph to get there in time.

Racing a Storm

I shoved down my only food of the day and tilted into each stroke. I paid close attention to proper form. During training, one of our friends saw how much I obsessed over speed and told Ken that kind of stuff didn’t matter to them.

“Well,” Ken had said. “In kayaking, your speed stats are a good indicator of how good your form is.”

Now every stroke had to be perfect: lean forward, push with one foot, tilt the paddle, thrust like a spear, turn with the body. I repeated this until my torso burned, and then I repeated it some more.

Every hour I would guzzle water and check my speed. It was… questionable. The average was still just a touch too low. I managed to dig in and paddle even harder.

And the wind picked up. The reason it had switched from Southeast to East was, of course, because it was bringing in tonight and tomorrow’s storms. And one of them was early.

I don’t know what time it was when I noticed the sky change. Risking a look over my shoulder, I saw massive dark clouds. The wind grew stronger and colder and the waves were bigger and more powerful. They had miles of fetch behind them, running the bay and batting my kayak like a toy.

Racing with waves is a funny thing in a kayak. It’s a speed boost, to be sure, but each wave throws around the stern of your vessel side-to-side. They don’t really approve of you coming with them; it’d be funnier to the waves if they could turn you sideways, then just roll you over like a window shade.

It was more unnerving because of the weight I carried. Fully loaded, the kayak resisted most of the fish-tailing… only to squirrel around at rocket speeds for the rare wave that managed to grab me. And as the waves got steeper and faster, the heavy boat just sort of sank into the trough between each set, swamping me with water.

This is why I trained, I thought, and paddled on.

Finally things got bad. Another furtive glance showed a wall of rain bearing down on me. A squall, and I was in the middle.

I thought about going to shore. The closest shore, to my left, was more of the same rocky ranch I’d landed at before. No rescue there. The farther shore, barely visible on my right, might have some access road or at least shelter—but could I even make it across in time?

Sometimes you just have to impose human will onto a situation, simply refuse to let Nature dictate the next move. I wasn’t going to shore.

I pointed the kayak at the next marker in the endless chain that led, in theory, to some safe harbor near Ken, and decided to surf the squall-waves and see what happened.

What happened is I was slammed by wave after wave, got blown off bearing… and gathered remarkable speed. When waves picked me up and surfed me, I’d propel forward so fast that I was no longer the pilot, I was simply along for a ride.

As it happened, the worst of the squall passed south of me and I didn’t get rained on for long. I continued my trek toward safety.

Drawing by André

Drawing by André

Twilight

With the squall past, beautiful Áine showed her face. She smiled.

“I always seem to find you like this, Rogue Priest.”

“It’s a bad habit.”

“I can’t give you any more time.”

I looked around. I was still nearly an hour from my destination. I was out of sunlight.

“I know,” I told her.

“What will you do?”

I laughed. “What I always do, my lady.” I stared out at the distant shore, barely a smudge on the edge of vision. “I’ll survive.”

Her clouds closed back over her face and, so veiled, she made her way to bed.

Off on my right was one final point of land. Empty of life and devoid of shelter, it looked about as welcoming as Mars. But I could land there, right now, and still have time to set up camp before total darkness.

Or… I could keep going.

The final crossing, from this point to that distant smudge, was only a few miles. But it was a few I’d have to cover, ultimately, in the dark—without even knowing exactly where my destination was.

Are we here to adventure, or aren’t we?

While the ghost of the sun dropped below the horizon, I left the bewitching safety of that final point and began my crossing.

Me looking awful confident about the weather.

Me looking awful confident about the weather.

So Close

At first I strained in the vain hope of still making land before total dark, but as the sky fell greyer and greyer I knew the truth, and felt at peace.

The wind was still behind me, but softer now, and the waves slowly built down from buffaloes to lambs. On the distant shore lights began to appear: some white, some green, some tiny and twinkling. I chose a set of green lights, hoping it was a harbor, and paddled on. I felt a strange confidence in my lack of good sense, the confidence of the serial adventurer.

Crossing that last stretch I pictured Ken waiting on the shore for me, and hoped he could see my red boat front-lit by the dying daylight. Once, I thought I saw a blinking of a flashlight on shore, as if someone was signaling me, but when I yelled out—fruitlessly, I’m sure—it disappeared and didn’t return.

A strange magic comes over the water at nightfall. The wind went still, and every lap of the waves sounded plaintive and empty against my hull. It all gets so quiet, then; you see only dark reflected by dark, and some dots of light that could be one mile away or a hundred; you are completely alone in a force of nature vast and powerful, one which would gladly eat you and no one would ever know—but you can’t see it, so you aren’t afraid.

I made up a shanty and sang as I went. Perhaps this is human habit in such lonely surrounds. It also warned others I was there before they hit my unlit boat.

Oh the wind is calm,

And the night is clear

All hands on deck!

The shore is near—

And if we make this port,

There’ll be beer for all,

But if we hit that rock,

Then down we’ll fall.

Far from the best song ever composed at sea, but this dubious hymn led me through the black on my way toward the speckled lights of shore.

Getting close, I did not in fact hit that rock. The green-lit dock was a dud, and I made my way to another where dozens of men night-fished. They had no idea I was there till I called out, just yards away. They couldn’t agree on where to find a boat ramp or sandy beach. I disappeared back into the dark as quickly as I’d come.

I went pier to pier along vacation homes, none of them with a suitable kayak landing. (The piers themselves were too tall for me to use.) Finally, I found one lone night fisherman sitting on some rocks and just packing up for the night. I asked him to shine his flashlight on the shore for me. (Mostly he just shined it in my eyes, which by the way, does not help.) I saw a line of rocks with maybe a line of sand in front of them.

“You’re just going to have to choose a spot and land,” I told myself.

So I did.

In black shallow water I leapt out of the boat and walked her in, guiding her around rocks to the sandy beach, laughing with the wind as I made it.

By the time I called him Ken was halfway home. When he pulled up I called out, “How’s it going?”

How’s it going?”

He flipped me off with both hands.

It was good to see him.

We put the gear in his car, loaded the kayak, and headed toward his house. I was up very late. I had to change, shower, unload all the gear, clean things, and sort everything for the trip to Mexico—plus investigate bus tickets, since I wasn’t exactly leaving from where I’d expected to leave.

“You know, you’ve got an incredible amount of endurance,” Ken told me.

“Yeah, it’s my only good quality.”

Me that night at Ken's.

Me that night at Ken’s.

I honored the words of my shanty, pouring out beer for those spirits who’d been aboard, and having a sip myself. I never did end up making dinner—other than one of Ken’s world famous protein shakes, there just wasn’t time.

After midnight I feel asleep clean, dry, sore and warm. The rain fell outside. And somewhere, far away, the waves kept moving.

 

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Find out more here.

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The Rats Didn’t Bother Me

First night of my kayak adventure.

Me the first morning. Photo by André.

I awoke on my floating house at dawn. The wind had come round to the southeast, and the whole house had rotated—my view of the bay was different. Before I left Ken had joked, “Make sure you mark which way you were going each night, before you go to sleep.” Right.

The sun told me which way was which, and I had a borrowed GPS that I sort of knew how to use. I fiddled with it over breakfast while the sun rose in the east, her morning beams cutting onto the porch until I pulled off layers of nighttime clothing. I quickly applied sun screen and went back to eating.

It was a restless morning, the kind I’m used to from my bicycle trip, where I’d be up far too early but still not depart until far too late. Breaking down an entire camp, plus breakfast, cleanup, brushing teeth, changing clothes, loading the boat (or bike), and checking conditions/route is all too much for one person to do quickly, at least without making mistakes. I take my time, but the anxiousness of a late start always unsettles me.

(One crucial morning task is putting in my contact lenses with no mirror, a skill I had long drilled for exactly these conditions.)

By the time I cast off the sun was well up and the wind had intensified from the southeast, slowing my progress south. The GPS had confirmed that I was too wishful in my mileage reckoning—I had only gone 30 miles the day before, and I was destined to make only 20 more today. But I had high spirits and a great deal of excitement over another day of paddling.

Crossing Baffin Bay is beautiful, island homes and clusters of floating cottages on the approach, then an expanse of blue water too wide to see across. I aimed at the occasional markers of the Intracoastal Waterway, designed to guide large ships that weren’t there. Reliably enough they led me to sight of shore across the bay. Then came hours following a coastline of desolate ranch. With the wind ever shoving me back I spent the better part of the day in a slow, exhausting fight.

I pointed at the entrance to the next section of the Intracoastal: a narrow canal-like passage known as the Land Cut. Nature made this area a shallow, sandy marsh that vessels cannot pass, but engineers of the twentieth century cut their own channel right through. The result is a highway-like waterway, with cabins and mud banks to either side, deep enough that freight vessels can sail it—though with little room to spare.

Entering this channel brought me through a tight cluster of little fishing cabins, some rising on stilts directly out of the water. It looked like a village from some adventure game, a haven for pirates or frontiersman, and perhaps the den of a trader who sells rare goods to passing explorers. But the whole place was deserted, not even vending beer, fuel or bait to those few souls who might bother to fish the Land Cut. No worry; I had everything I needed aboard my little boat.

I will admit that this strange maritime environment triggered my oldest love of adventure, which is wrapped up tightly with imagination and fantasy. Normally, real life adventure is quite different than fiction, but I couldn’t help but see parallels between my actual surroundings that day and one of my favorite video games, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Sure, my boat requires muscle to pilot, and I can’t change the wind with a simple song, but I was out on the water discovering one island or floating house after the next, each one begging to be explored, each one different in its own way. I doubt I would have found a basement full of vampires, or a crumbling wall concealing treasure, but the magic of discovery and exploration was very real to me that day.

And so the spell of adventure renewed its hold over my mind. The last 700 miles of bicycling had become a slog, and I viewed it more as an act of jaw-gritting endurance than a fun adventure. I started questioning my purpose during those months. Adventure will certainly always be physically demanding, but that doesn’t mean it need be miserable, at least not outside of rare unexpected challenges. But my bicycle ride had become miserable, and it was the days that were pleasant and easy that were rare. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep on.

The kayak trip repaired all that. By the second day, I knew that I was warm enough even in the coldest weather I’d experience, that I could rely on my camp gear and sleep cozy, restorative sleep in my tent. All the things I had feared would make this leg a slog were non-issues. Sure, I was fighting for every yard of sea I covered against the wind, but that’s just hard work—like going to the gym. Hard work during the day is not really that challenging if you’re warm, dry and well fed at night.

Photo by André.

Floating cottage in Baffin Bay. Photo by André.

My mind roamed as the beauty of nature intensified. I composed essays, I outlined books. I whispered ideas to herons. The cottages rose with the waves where they were built on rafts, and slumped and leaned where they were built on stilts. I was alone in a desert place, facing difficulty but overcoming it well. That is everything I want in adventure.

If I had one disappointment it was my slow progress. For the second day in the row I’d cover less ground than planned, but by evening it didn’t bother me much. I could keep going as many days as I needed, I thought.

I did have to keep a good eye for a camp site. There was always another cottage on the horizon, but not just any would do; to camp in the fierce wind, I really wanted a good wind block against both the south and east side. The Texas coast is stubbornly flat, and the cottages provide the only wind breaks—but since most here were on stilts, even they offered little protection.

An hour before sunset, I decided to explore a side-channel that extends off the main Land Cut, connecting it to a sandy gulf. As a sort of maritime crossroads, it had at least a dozen large cottages lined along its shores (all empty).

Paddling directly into the wind, I fought hard to ply the little channel. I inspected each house as I went by, to no avail. Only on the way back—leaning back on my boat, paddle out of the water, letting the wind and current send me along—only then did I notice a hidden feature on one large house.

There among its stilts was a wall. A windbreak. Facing exactly the direction I needed.

I put ashore, walking my kayak though mud and marsh grass. The site was perfect. There was a lower deck with a fish-gutting station walled on three sides against the wind. That was where I’d put my tent.

I had to use a maneuver I call the “mud hustle.” You walk your boat through the shallow mud as close to land as it will go, then unload some supplies (carrying it overmud to shore). This lightens the boat, allowing you to drag it further. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

The sun was down long before I finished making camp.

Even then, the closest point of dry land I could get the kayak to was hundreds of feet from the house. After I finished dinner I had to carry all my water and food overland to the kayak, and secure it inside so no animals could get it. Fun fact: a thirsty raccoon in a salt marsh will chew right through your water jug to drink what’s inside.

I received some alarming texts about weather from Ken, about which I could do little.

When at last I put my head down in my tent, I hadn’t even turned off the light before chattering, scurrying large rodents descended from the palm trees and canvassed my campsite. They had smelled my dinner, and went right to the spot where the stove was—but they found nothing.

Silently, I reached one hand out from the tent and grabbed my only unsecured water bottle, bringing it inside to spend the night with me.

I slept well, planning to wake as early as 4 a.m. to get a head start against another fierce headwind. I thought that if I paddled hard all day I could reach Port Mansfield, the only resupply point on my planned route and a good place to wait out a storm.

I was wrong.

You can read the earlier part of this adventure here.

The conclusion is here.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, the Texas Sea and Ghosts

Andre setting off for his kayak adventure.

Me setting off. Photo by Winnie Shrum.

When I started my kayak trip I was nervous. I wasn’t scared for my safety; I had trained enough that I knew reasonably well I would get through the trip, with body and boat intact. But I expected it to be uncomfortable. I had gotten so used to discomfort on the last leg of my bicycle journey that I was sure my 100-mile paddle would be an act of endurance. And endurance, honestly, gets old.

But a day later than planned, over-bundled against the cold wind, from a pebbly little shallow, I resumed my Great Adventure where I last left it off, and I paddled away. Ken, my mentor, and our friend and fellow adventurer Winnie watched from the shore as I went around an island and out of their sight. From there I reached the Intracoastal Waterway, a shipping lane that follows the coast toward Mexico with a string of barrier islands to protect it from the open sea. This would be my trail.

Once in the deep water of the Intracoastal I heaved a bottle full of offerings over the side, singing songs to the spirits of the sea and of mariners. I waited for discomfort to set in, with a north wind helping to propel me along, but I never did get cold. In fact, It was a very pleasant day.

The houses of civilization disappeared, and marsh became my constant scenery. The shipping lane itself is deep and clear, but the land to either side is mostly shallows with mud flats and salt marshes beyond. At seventeen miles I saw the clear yellow humps of “The Dunes” on my left, a clear landmark and one of the only sandy landings along the way. It would have suited for a camping place,  but I pushed on.

Although I spent most of my kayak trip without any human contact—only a wave to the rare fishing boat speeding by—the Intracoastal is not a trackless frontier.  Little floating cottages bob on their moorings at regular intervals. Others perch on islands. Sometimes these are scattered out over miles, and other times they cluster together in such numbers that it looks like a little town on the water. But all these houses are empty; no one lives there, and those who own them come only a few weekends a year to fish. The result was a more potent beauty than any empty wilderness. Abandonment conjures ghosts.

It was on one of these floating ghost houses that I chose to make my first camp. As the sun fell low in the sky I pulled up to a yellow cottage and clambered out onto her front porch. It was my first time leaving the kayak all day, and my thighs were numb. They woke up readily enough and I lashed the kayak to a post before opening the hatches and slowly, but methodically, pulling out all of my supplies for the night.

Out came water jugs, foodstuffs, a stove, camping gear and warm clothing in drysacks. I stripped naked and changed clothing on the porch, in full view of a handful of other bobbing raft-houses and an island full of vacation cottages. There was no one to see me, not a light in any window on the whole bay.

The joy of these floating refuges is that they are moored to a single heavy pylon, and allowed to pivot on that point with the wind. The front porch, therefore, is always downwind. This was a godsend to your saddle sore rogue priest, who had lost the benefit of his tailwind and had felt the chill of a strong cross-wind from the east for the last three hours. On the porch of this little landing place I had a perfect wind shelter, and organized my gear before at last I hoisted the kayak herself up onto the deck.

I tied her in place, even though she was above the water level, having heard too many horror stories of waking up to a rogue wave stealing away one’s boat.

My cottage perched at the edge of Baffin Bay, facing west thanks to the east wind, and the sunset over the bay was spectacular. But I barely observed it: I rushed to erect a tent and square away all my things before the darkness came.

It was in those last minutes, when the sun’s golden face slipped out of sight and her pink blush was fading from a dark sky, that I felt despair in my heart. It was my only moment of low morale on the trip. Suddenly the air was cold, with or without wind shelter; suddenly the bay, which had seemed like such a calm and pleasant place to paddle in the afternoon, looked endless and untrustworthy. I became keenly aware not only of how isolated I was, but that if something was wrong—if my gear wasn’t enough to keep me warm through morning—there was no way to leave at night.

The temperatures were predicted in the low 40s, even the high 30s (European readers: that’s really effing cold.) I thought of chilly nights in my hammock when it was ten degrees warmer than that, and I cringed. I wished I had someone to talk to, to cheer me up. But that was not to be.

It’s funny how the human heart changes with comfort. Resigned to an unpleasant night, I started up my cook stove. The first bite of hot food lifted my spirits. Once I’d eaten a full meal I had almost recovered from my sudden despair. And then I looked up.

The moon grazed across the sky, both her horns up, setting slowly from the peak of the heavens to the edge of Baffin Bay. I always salute the moon when I see her, but I have rarely seen her in such queenly glory as this. The Texas sky, far from towns and light, and the silent rippling bay made the perfect dark mirror in which to scry her.

Still chilly, still sore, I was suddenly aware of the great beauty in every direction from me, and the incredible rareness of the scene. How many human beings will ever have a chance to do as I did, to paddle out onto the bay as silent as a gull, to camp alone on the deck of a forgotten house, and to watch the heavens put on their display with not a single soul to share it with?

When I crawled into the tent that night, I discovered it was warm and luxurious. I didn’t even use all the blankets. Waves lapped beneath me and, sometimes, a bird would cry out. Wrapped in a borrowed sleeping bag I fell into peaceful dreams. In the morning I would move slowly: there was no better berth in the world.

Andre on the first night of the kayak adventure

Me on the first night. Photo by André.

There’s more to tell about the kayak trip, and I’ll tell it soon. What do you want to know?

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, Mexico, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

Riding the wind from Texas to Mexico

Traveling by Kayak

Kayaking with a friend. Photo by Ken Johnson.

One thing I’ve learned on my Adventure is the need to accept changes, to follow the wind. This entire excursion in Corpus Christi has been a lesson in patience, starting with unhappy times that forced me to question my journey. It followed an uncomfortably familiar arc: arrive at a new place with no friends but lots of high hopes, find all my plans difficult to implement, and grind to a frustrating halt—only to make friends and build a happy new life.

This is hard because, as my friend the Wandering Dragon points out, I like to be in control of my life. In fact, I like to be in control of things generally… which leads to a lot of tussling with the people I like the most. An iron stubbornness is a good quality when you’re forcing a plan to work against all odds, but it doesn’t make life easy. Over and over, I tend to choose the hardest way to do things.

Want to travel the world? Let’s do it all on body power. 

Want to leave New Orleans? Fall in love there first. 

You get the idea. I always have a vision for how I want things to go, and often I lay down a route to that vision that includes, well, challenges. Then I get frustrated when the plan derails. (Though I’m also relentless and patient in nudging it along till it finally works).

Recently I decided to try something different. My guiding principle for the last month has been, what’s least stressful? 

So when my one-week return to New Orleans turned into two weeks, I just shrugged and enjoyed it. Sure, I needed to get back here to plan a kayak trip that was quickly falling apart. And I needed to vacate my rented room by the 1st, so the trip had to be planned by then… and I needed to reach Mexico by March 5th so another plan would work… but I just took it as it came. If I had to, I would cancel the kayak trip and do this leg by bike, which would be faster and take less preparation.

It wasn’t what I envisioned, but things had changed. Instead of agonizing over my damaged plans, I decided to enjoy the extra time with my friends and sweetheart. And I did.

I went with the wind.

And it turns out I had no reason to fret over the proposed kayaking trip. Sure, my paddling partner for the next 160 miles pulled out—but that means he’s offered me the use of his (far newer, higher performance) expedition kayak, the Epic 18. I get a free upgrade.

Meanwhile, since I’m going it alone I can choose my own route, and I get to take the sheltered, lonely, meditative Laguna Madre instead of battling down storms on the open Gulf. As Ken pointed out, between the boat and the route I’ve removed the two biggest risks from the whole plan.

Before I even got back to Corpus, my roommate texted me to say that I can stay a week into March rent-free. And my host in Mexico? Their schedule changed from “get here before March 5” to “get here March 8 or later.”

Thank you, wind.

So here’s the plan for the foreseeable future: Monday morning I depart Corpus by kayak with a tail wind. I make my way along the Texas coast for four or five days, camping out at night. When I reach Port Isabel and the border, Ken meets me in a car. He takes the kayak and I get a bus ticket, heading onto Mexico.

This bus trip won’t erase any miles from my body-powered expedition—eventually I’ll be right back at the border, ready to walk or cycle—but it will serve as an advance scouting run, followed by a sabbatical to write, focus on my career, and master my Spanish. Those are the things that will help make the next leg less stressful.

At least, that’s my plan for now. But, you know… plans change.

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Adventure, Photographs, Sea Kayaking

10 Miles, 9 Pictures

I told you I had a sidequest to complete.

10 missing miles, in need of a bike ride.

This post is to let you know I made it. Those ten miles are done.

But since I’m a writer, not a photographer, I failed to get even a single photo of the big event. Instead, here are some pictures of Jessica and me kayaking.

Ken teaching Jessica… something complicated? Maybe?

Yuh!

This basically exemplifies Jessica’s spirit better than anything I have ever seen.

Heh.

André

Jess.

D’aww.

All photos by Ken Johnson. Thanks Ken!

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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