Adventure, Sea Kayaking, Texas

Kayaking in Bad Water

Ken, my kayak mentor

Ken, my kayak mentor

“I owe you an apology,” Ken said.

He pulled his boat closer to mine, matching my pace. We had just come into the harbor from the heaviest seas I’ve ever kayaked. The big waves knocked my little boat around for miles. The harbor, protected by a wall of rocks, seemed laughably calm by comparison.

“An apology? Why?”

Ken opened his mouth in a guilty grin.

“When we started out today, I didn’t think you would make it.”

Ken is 81 years old. He’s been kayaking for 20 of those years, and that makes him one of the more experienced paddlers on the Gulf coast. He’s mentioned in books, been the subject of magazine features, and a Veracruz, Mexico-based sea kayak company even named one of their boat models after him. Not a bad C.V. for someone who started post-retirement.

Whatever fame Ken may have earned, however, is invisible when you talk to him. If you saw him at Paddle Fest you’d think he was just one more weekend hobbyist having a day off. But you might notice that everyone knows him—and many have learned what they know from him. He’s just plain easy to get along with.

That isn’t why I asked him to teach me. Last winter I spent months researching kayak schools, instructors and tour companies across the Texas coast. Ken’s name kept coming up again and again, and finally I contacted him. I told him my plan to paddle along 1,000 miles of Mexico as the next leg of my journey.

“I could teach you to do that.”

“How much would you charge for lessons? By the week, or month or…?”

He laughed. “No, just show up. I go paddling every single day. If you break anything you’ve bought it, but you can tag along for free.”

That’s a pretty good sales pitch.

For most people, kayaking is safe. It takes a little while to get your balance down (most new paddlers end up in the water at least once) but in the bargain you get a fast, agile, unsinkable boat. Take it out for an afternoon fishing trip, or a tour along the coastal marsh on a sunny day, and chances are you won’t get hurt unless you’re drinking.

But safety evaporates quickly if you’re going on a sea voyage. You can spend days on the water at a time sleeping in the boat as you go, or you can hug the coastline and put in to shore every night (that’s the choice I prefer). Both options demand skills: I’ll need to surf my kayak on 10-foot waves, muscle through surf to get to open water, roll completely undersea and back up again, and turn 360-degrees in driving winds without tipping over. That’s to say nothing of navigating, gauging the weather or avoiding collisions with ships and rocks.

Our first day out together I learned to “brace.” This is a seemingly magical process where you slap your paddle on the surface of the water and it supports you as if you’re pushing on a solid floor. That went well enough, so Ken told me I was ready to roll.

I did not feel good about this.

“Do you tend to panic when you’re underwater?” Ken asked.

“Not generally.”

He found this hilarious. I didn’t get it: I’ll gladly cannonball off a dock, but rolling means turning your kayak upside down while you’re in it. Going underwater is less than relaxing when you’re pinned there by a 19 foot fiberglass wrestler.

But here’s the secret of adventure: everybody is scared as shit. Adventurers have exactly no less fear and no more bravery than anyone else. All we have is more determination. That’s where all the good fireside stories come from—a gritting will to keep trying. If you keep not quitting long enough, eventually you look like a genius.

I told Ken we should do it.

Me on the water.

Me on the water.

I didn’t drown on my first attempt at rolling, nor today with four foot waves (small by Gulf standards, but enough that Ken told me many experienced paddlers wouldn’t have gone out). I don’t move like a fish—sometimes I’m about as graceful as a kid playing pirates—but being out there on the water holds an excitement, a true sense of exploring.

I can’t yet say whether the 1,000 mile paddle will really happen. I could simply walk to Mexico, and that would make it very easy for other people to join me (for a day, a weekend or a few hundred miles). A kayak expedition is not so easy to join. It takes thousands of dollars of equipment per person, and extensive training. Both options would be grand, would be truly worthy of the word “adventure,” but only one option is really accessible. What matters more, companionship or great deeds?

An inner voice tells me I must help other dreamers go on journeys too. If my own journey doesn’t do that, I think it might feel rather less than heroic.

Did you know you can kayak with Ken Johnson? He offers tours and instruction.

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Adventure, New Orleans, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure

Kayaking the Mississippi River at New Orleans

They say the waves will knock you over, the currents will kill you dead.

But this afternoon I’m picking up a kayak and putting it in the Mississippi River, there to cross wind, waves and shipping lanes from New Orleans to Algiers Point.

When I started my adventure over 1800 miles ago I vowed I would only advance myself using the power of my own body. That means paddle, pedal or walk. A bicycle took me this far but you can’t bike on water (not this far from my native Wisconsin).

And the thing is, the bridge here ain’t built for bikes.

That means there’s only one way across. And today’s the day.

One of our neighbors on the crossing. Photo by Drew Jacob.

What About the Ferry?

There is a free ferry from Canal Street to Algiers, and I’ve taken ferries before.

When I completed the last 80 miles down to the end of the river I used ferries and it was not cheating. That was because I went as far as the road goes on this side of the river before using one to cross over; everything on the far side was bonus. Plus, I reasoned, I’ve been on both sides of the river and crossed it many times by bicycle (on bridges). Technically, I’m on the far side of the river from where I started—I’ve already crossed it on my own power.

But as I depart these sacred banks that logic’s feeling thin. I’m about to go 8,000 miles using my muscles; why skip the few thousand yards that lie before me? Can I really live with that when this is all a distant memory?

Probably not.

So, no cheating! The ferry is a tempting option, but this time it’s not a bonus to my planned route. It’s in the way of my planned route.

I have to cross the Mississippi River on my own power.

Hazardous Voyage

Today’s expedition would be impossible without the intrepid Jessica Broome. You might remember her as the wingwoman who put up with me on the road to Venice. She had never biked more than 10 miles at a go and suddenly she torpedoed 160 in just a couple days.

We’ve reserved a kayak for two.

(Once we get across, we’ll go to the Dry Dock Cafe where we had our first date; then back to the water for the return voyage.)

The thing is, Jessica has no idea just yet if she’ll actually be sitting in that second seat or not. Her kayak experience is limited, and the people of New Orleans are doing everything they can to scare us out of our plan. Some of the hazards (and solutions) include:

  • Strange cross-currents near obstacles like dams or trees (we are not boating near such obstacles)
  • Strong winds that can kick up serious waves (kayaks are built for this; point the nose into the waves and paddle hard)
  • Undertows that pull you under, never to be seen again (unless you are wearing a life vest, which we are)
  • Giant ships (these follow the marked shipping lanes and I have crossed shipping lanes before; it’s just like crossing a street but slower)

Don’t let my parentheticals fool you: I’m intimidated by the waves we might face, and the wind will make paddling hard. Jessica is going to make a spot decision whether she’s in that boat or not, and I’m just as happy to see her waiting for me on the far side (via car) as I am to have her as my co-pilot.

I’m used to people warning me I’m about to die. There’s something in human nature that makes us repeat these things. Only the worst stories are covered, only the tragedies stand out; the dangers then become our gospel.

When one woman who has never paddled told me I couldn’t make it by kayak, she didn’t have the slightest air of doubt: she was sure she was schooling me. How do you respond to repeated, exaggerated, and well-intentioned alarmism?

Biking on water. Once again Jessica proves me wrong.

Biking on water. Once again Jessica proves me wrong.

A Preview

I don’t actually get on my bike and leave New Orleans till Saturday. When I do, I will take the ferry across the river—because I’ll know I already crossed that segment on my own power. Saturday will be a day for a morning sendoff party, a bicycle parade to escort me to the ferry dock, and 60 miles of hot, humid wind in my face as I zoom toward the town of Houma.

For today, let’s hope the weather cooperates: Plan B is a midnight bike ride over a freeway bridge. I’d prefer the 40 foot waves.

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Adventure, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

What I Fear Most About The Kayak Trip

Photo by Éole Wind.

When I get to Texas I will give up the bicycle and switch to boat. Every leg of my Adventure must be powered by my own body, and the Gulf of Mexico will be done paddling.

Here is what I fear most about the kayak trip.

  1. Running out of water. The first 200 miles after crossing into Mexican waters there will be no one. The first town is Tampico and until we reach that there’s nothing but deserted coastline. Not even farms. I always wondered about that on maps and now a more experienced kayaker has confirmed it. 200 miles could easily be 8-12 days of paddling and it will likely be the toughest part of the whole trip. Obviously, being alone heightens the risk in many ways but the most urgent one is water: we have to bring our own and ration carefully, with nowhere to take on more fresh water on the way.
  2. An accident. People have so many fears for me on this trip such as hurricanes, storms and cartels. We won’t be out in hurricane season, we will stay ashore if there are severe storms and the cartels just aren’t known for preying on kayakers. But every morning we are going to have to paddle fiercely to break through the surf and get out to sea, and every evening we will have to ride big waves back to shore like surfers. There’s so much potential for something to go wrong during these crucial, wind buffeted times—especially with rocky shores. It’s a matter of training and experience, knowing how to handle your kayak, but the training curve is steep.
  3. Personality conflict. This is the first leg of the Adventure where I’ll have co-adventurers and the idea of companionship sounds great. I’ve also been warned, and seen firsthand, how friendships can suffer under extreme stress. We will be living off rations, physically exhausted with daily discomfort and dangers. That makes people mentally tired and grumpy. Little things become big things. Everyone will look to me as the expedition organizer to keep things together. Will we get along?

These fears don’t hold me back. To me, fear is something to give you consideration: it says here are the issues you need to address. Right now is the time to make plans and preparations so that these risks will be minimized. We will learn to deal.

What I Want Most

Despite the above I look forward to this trip with happy excitement. There are many things I look forward to: days at the beach training, the thrill of riding a wave, paddling into small fishing towns, eating street food after dark, seeing dolphins leap beside me.

It will be good.

But of all the things I hope to see and experience on this trip, there’s only one thing I want the most:

Fellowship. 

I believe adventure is a life-changing practice, and I want to share it with others. There must be more people out there who have the bold or reckless spirit to commit themselves to the journey; who have a quest without, perhaps, a cause. How many times I’ve experienced great joy (or hardship) in private moments on the road—and wouldn’t the joys be sharper, the hardship lighter, with strong-hearted companions?

To adventure is not to find heaven, but to discover earth; it is to fall in love with our fickle, wonderful world and her many highs and lows.

I’d like to meet the kind of soul that takes a chance on the love affair.

Right now there are two individuals tentatively planning on joining me. That makes three of us putting paddles in the water this winter, three of us crossing the face of the sacred earth.

I wonder if there are more of us.

If you’re interested in joining the Adventure you should email me. We’re training in Corpus Christi, Texas this fall, then paddling 1,000 miles to Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. Interested? Email me at [email info removed—adventure is over!] Not sure yet? More information here

Please tell others.

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

How to Cross Mexico Safely

I was a stranger and this guy had a gun. He told me he took it everywhere so he could shoot whoever tried to mug him.

I told him I was camping out at the County Fairgrounds.

“You’re not gonna wake up,” he told me. “There’s stabbings there every night.”

But the police said I could camp there. They thought it was safe. He laughed.

“Go anywhere else. You don’t know this town. You’ll get robbed!”

I asked if I could camp in his yard instead. Of course not. So I went to the Fairgrounds.

It seemed really nice. I showered, I met the other campers and I slept all night in a windstorm. It was cold but the cold wind never did try to stab me.

That was in Mississippi. A white man named Whitman said I was going to die. He knew all the black people and how bad they all were. They all had knives. I only saw their kids learning to dance in the park and then some of the teens listening to music in cars. I guess they keep the knives really well hidden.

“They’ll cut your head off,” everyone says about Mexico. A lot of Americans tell me that. They sure know a lot about Mexicans.

But the dangers of Mexico are real. The top 200 miles of that country are a war zone. Foreign travelers aren’t really targeted but someone traveling alone on the highways would really stand out. Mexico is one of the safer countries I’ll cross on my journey—safer for an American than the US is—but parts of it are not safe at all.

Options

I basically had three options for how to cross Mexico on my own power.

  1. Bike it. I can make 50-90 miles a day and if I reach hostels before sunset I can just tear through the danger zone. I think this would be a poor way to go because it’s essentially fleeing from one of my favorite cultures.
  2. Pilgrimage. I could join a pilgrimage headed toward the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. We’d be on foot and I’d be in a large group, with a spiritual purpose, which is probably safer. I love this idea but it would also veer me away from my course toward Yucatán.
  3. Take to the sea.

Guess which one I chose.

Something like this.

Something like this.

Kayaking

Dawn lights up the waves like crowns on enemy kings. The weather report is clear—eat quick! Slam that coffee. Up, to the water, up!

The tide is going out and our little barks with it. We face the surf, those pounding walls of water diving into shore. They want to take us back; we are not going back. Paddles in the water, struggling from the hip, struggling from the back, arms taut and hair drenched in foam. Is this to trade one fomhór for another?

There is no other way: to reach the open sea we must break through the surf.

Out on the open, science is our concern; check the compass, point the bows, re-check the weather; are all heads present?

We go so far we cannot see land. Here the water is calmer. It is slow oliphants, not charging bulls and rams; it is the heaving shoulders of sleepy giants.

20 feet up on the swell; a glimpse of horizon, a blast of wind; drop back to the trough 20 feet below. A few paddle-strokes will do you but stay together mates, stay together.

We go like this for some time. There are snacks at sea, cameras come out of drysacks, distant boats are sighted and avoided.

Dolphins jump beside us. Did you know that dolphins will escort kayakers on the open Gulf?

Perhaps it’s sunset, perhaps the GPS says it’s time to make our camp. A hard starboard and we cut toward land.

Now the surf is with us, that hammering crashing wall will carry us to our beds—but it is not tame, no it is not tame. It is on the backs of bulls now, the churn of the stampede that we ride. Like Pamplona we make our run.

The final hundred yards. What speed! The beach looms pink before us, come in at an angle now, turn it to the side—there is no reason to rough up your boat.

Come aground, stow that gear; who’s scouting town and who’s making camp tonight? We need street food, we need cold agua. Welcome ashore, bold spirits, welcome ashore.

How?

The plan is this: reach Texas. Get a sea kayak. Learn to use it. Kayak 1,000 miles from Texas to Coatzacoalcos (see map), stopping every night at a different town or beach.

Considerations:

  • I will be a fluent Spanish speaker before crossing the border,
  • I will cross legally and abide by the 6 month maximum stay in Mexico.
  • I will train extensively in sea kayaking before making the voyage.
  • Assume I will procure all reasonable navigational and safety equipment.
  • Some cartels have boats, however as one experienced Gulf kayaker said: “Kayak jackings are distinctly less common than carjackings.”
  • I would prefer not to go alone.

I leave New Orleans in late June, and will arrive in Corpus Christi, Texas around August 7. I plan to practice on kayaks until late 2013 or early 2014, then begin the voyage.

I invite you to join me. 

The Open Call

I believe the myths are real. I believe we can do great things.

Adventure is my path to that. Adventure tests me, frees me, shows me to shatter past my limits. We are capable of great things: to adventure is to breathe them every day.

It’s not always pleasant. It’s not always safe. The adventurer shies away from unnecessary risk, makes every precaution, but when risk is unavoidable—we grin into the wind.

But it is to live, it is to know, it is to know the self, it is to know the self triumphant.

Often I say: there is no call to adventure. There will be no owl with your invitation letter; no wizard will abuse your door.

Today I prove myself wrong.

I invite you to adventure. I’m giving you notice. The true call is silent, it is urgent, it is in the blood: you feel it if you have the call. You must decide for yourself.

But today, one adventurer is reaching out to you. Come with me. Meet me in Texas, we will find you a boat; we will train together; we will do something great. It may not set records, it may not change history, it will challenge every limit we have, we will throw ourselves to that challenge because—

To adventure is to experience myth.

If you feel a call don’t put it off. Email me to discuss it; whether it’s right for you, individually. We don’t need to make a firm plan just yet. Let’s just talk options.

I’m drew@roguepriest.net and I would like to adventure together.

If you’re a new reader you may enjoy the report on the adventure so far.

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Adventure, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure

The Danger of North Mexico

I find myself back on US soil and there are only 3 months till I start the Great Adventure. It’s time to make decisions.

One of the most troubling segments of my trip has always been northern Mexico. Mexico as a whole is a very safe, friendly country (in my opinion) but along the US border the drug war rages on and it can be extremely dangerous to foreigners.

My planned route takes me down the Mississippi River. I start in mid June and aim to reach New Orleans by Hallowe’en, allowing a leisurely pace. I expect crossing the US to be relatively safe, with “relative” being the crucial word.

After dallying in New Orleans I’ll head down the Gulf coast through Texas. In this area, if all goes well, I’ll meet up with fellow adventurer Mitchell Roth. (That’s right, if the Great Adventure becomes a video game it will have a two-player mode.)

And after New Year’s we’ll cross to Mexico.

By following the Gulf Coast we won’t hit the very most dangerous spots, but we’ll go through some bad stuff. Friends have begged me to take a bus from the border to Tampico or San Luis Potosí, effectively cutting 500 miles off my walk. I know there has to be another way.

So Mitch and I brainstormed.

Bear in mind that the rule for the Great Adventure is that everything needs to be powered by my own muscles. That doesn’t strictly mean walking-only. In fact, I plan to bike part of it, because biking is fun.

So what about paddling?

The vision that Mitch and I now have is to buy two sea kayaks. We’d have to take some time on the Texas coast to be trained and put in a lot of practice. Then, when we’re ready, we’ll sea kayak along the Gulf—always in sight of land—all the way to Veracruz.

We’ll still need to go through customs when we cross the border. There should be a way for small vessels to enter port legally; if it doesn’t apply to kayakers we’ll need to find a way to cross by land at Matamoros. These are the kinds of details we’ll work out a hundred miles from the border.

In a way we’re trading one set of risks for another. But the dangers of the sea can be tempered by gear, training and attention. There’s something about it with a powerful appeal: every afternoon we put ashore in a different pueblo, find a place to sleep, and enjoy the beautiful evening. In the morning we go out with the tide, or take a week to bask on the beach before going on.

That’s the plan. Two kayaks, salt in my hair and the final tan I’ll ever need. My readers are my brain trust, and if you have thoughts or suggestions I’d love to hear what you think.

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