By Ellie Cahill, March 27, 2020
We knew before it happened that it was going to be a tough day. Each of us had gone to sleep around 8 pm in preparation, after a technically challenging but blessedly shorter day on the water. What we didn’t know was just how challenging the day would turn out to be. We had woken up at 3 am on Turkey Key, a small island in the Everglades of Florida, so that we could load up our boats and depart the beach before sunrise. After eating breakfast with our headlamps on we carried our canoes down to the water, which was nearly 20 yards further away than it had been the night before. By 4:30 am we had finished packing up, and quickly pushed off from the shore.
We struggled to navigate the shoals of low tide for several hours, attempting to cross from island to island in water no deeper than my shins. As the water levels began to rise we gained speed, stopping only for early morning snacks and to watch the dolphins swimming beside us. We had very little time to waste; the beach we were headed to that evening was tidal, and by paddling too slowly we risked missing our tide window – this would leave us having to choose between waiting up to six hours for the tide to return, or carrying the contents of our six canoes across half a mile of shoal, in water too shallow to paddle through. As such, we kept our breaks to a minimum and paddled as efficiently as we could.
The sun rose around 6 am and brought with it several gusts of wind. Waves began splashing against our boats as we paddled on, until the need to rehydrate eventually brought us to a halt. I reached underneath my seat for the plastic milk jug that had been modified to serve as a scoop so that I could empty the layer of water that now covered the bottom of my canoe. Unable to find it, I turned to the boat beside me and asked if I could use theirs. “Of course!” said Max, one of the other students on my course. Reaching under his seat he went to grab his boat’s ‘bailer’, only to find that theirs wasn’t there either. The boat next to his had the same problem, as did the boat next to that. The bailers were nowhere to be found. Max looked at me and I at him, as it dawned on us what had happened. In packing our boats in the dark, we had unknowingly left the bailers on Turkey Key.
“Surely we can do without them?” We turned hopefully towards our instructors. They shook their heads no. “It’s policy.” We looked around at each other. “Can we send one boat to go get them?” asked Hudson, a recent high-school graduate with one of the most determined attitudes in anyone I’ve seen. “I can do it, I don’t mind.” Our instructors shook their heads again. Where one of us goes, we all go. I took a deep breath. It was now 8 am, and we’d been paddling for hours. We’d not gone very far due to the wind and the tide, but we did not want to have to turn back. Still, it was the policy.
We all knew what we had to do. I took another deep breath. “Okay. We can do this.” And with that, we pushed off.
With the wind in our favor this time, we made it back to Turkey Key by 9:15 am, quickly gathering the bailers and pushing off to resume our journey shortly afterward. We were all exhausted, and it was painful knowing that we could have woken up at 6:30 am instead of 3 am and made it to our final destination at the same time. But hindsight is 20/20, and we paddled on.
A 12-mile day turned into an 18-mile day, and we paddled well into the afternoon. Singing and recalling stories of previous misadventures on the trip, we endured by leaning on each other. Pelican puns became the motto (if I peli-CAN do it, you peli-CAN too!), and though I felt as if I were losing my mind, we soon made it to the beach. Luckily, the wind that had helped us realize our mistake earlier that day had been working on another favor – we arrived sheepishly at low tide, expecting to see the worse, only to find that the wind had been blowing the water towards the sand. We would not have to wait until high tide, and we would not have to carry our boats to shore.
Hugs and high fives were exchanged, and I quickly collapsed on the beach. We had woken up at 3 am and paddled for over 15 hours, and my body was telling me that it was dinnertime. The last thing that I wanted to do was unload the canoes and set up our camp. But the day was not yet over, so I soon got up.
Though this story does not compare to the struggles many people face on a daily basis, this was one of the toughest days of my life. Not just physically, but emotionally. Keeping a smile on my face and continuing to push forward was not an easy feat, but it was a necessary one. Looking back, I know this was a test of my ability to persevere, and while I still am learning the extent of that, I can say one thing with certainty: We never forgot our bailers again!