Wagon Wheel and the Mobile Delta

September 2008 I drove to Fairhope, Alabama to go on New Staff Training for Outward Bound Discovery.  It was a nine day expedition style training that had us paddling somewhere around/near/in the Mobile delta.  Most of the trip can be captured in one word, "mosquitoes."  There were lots and lots of mosquitoes.  In fact, for a couple nights I just slept in my rain gear.  It was the best way to prevent myself from being eaten alive in my tent.  It didn't matter how fast you zipped and unzipped the door, they got in.  Ah, but that's a story for another post.  This post is about a very long paddle.

Our group was placed on "Final" the last night on the river.  Our trainers said "good-bye" and paddled off into the dark of night.  We'd see them again at the takeout spot.  Unfortunately, the person assigned as navigator that night was blind as a bat after the sun went down.  We had about 15 miles to cover.  All we had to do was get to the takeout by 8am the next morning.  It was around 10:30pm when our trainers left us with an inspiring note to help us along the way.

We had barely slept the day before.  Most of us were running on about four hours of sleep or less.  And we had already covered over 30 miles in the past thirty-six hours.  We also had one trainee who had hurt his back.  In lieu of this we made "power cats" with our canoes.  This basically means you strap two canoes together.  That way we could operate with three paddlers for each power cat.  We figured we'd keep that up until people got really tired and then we would make a raft.

There were a couple funny moments just prior to our decision to become a raft.  One of our guys had fallen asleep while paddling.  This did not stop him from paddling, mind you.  Several of us used this as amusement for quite some time.  We were able to coach him enough so that he would still paddle in his sleep.  We even came up with a chant for him, "Put your paddle in the water and pull."  Every so often we'd have to remind him to get the paddle in the water.  At one point he tried to argue with us that he wasn't asleep.

Finally more people were getting tired and falling asleep.  Unlike our sleep paddling friend, they weren't able to multi-task.  We pulled all six canoes together and rafted up.  In this formation we only needed four people awake at one time.  Everyone else could sleep.  The idea was that we'd trade off every so often as people needed a break.  Two of us ended up staying up the whole night paddling.  Ok, I didn't paddle for thirty minutes, but I spent that time keeping the other all-night paddler awake by chatting with him.

It was amazing how you can just get into a rhythm paddling and forget you are tired.  We rotated sides of the raft to switch arms a couple times, but besides that it just became very mechanical and meditative.  It was a beautiful clear September night in lower Alabama.  Orion was rising in the eastern sky.  

At one point in the night one of the non-paddlers started singing Wagon Wheel.  It seemed an appropriate genre of song for a paddle down the delta.

Headed down south to the land of the pines
And I'm thumbin' my way into North Caroline
Starin' up the road
And pray to God I see headlights

I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin' me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I'm a hopin' for Raleigh
I can see my baby tonight

And after a long nights paddle we arrived at our takeout two hours early!  We were all hoping to take a nice nap at the dock while we waited for 8am to arrive, but our trainers were there waiting.  Fine, I've had four hours of sleep in the past 48 hours, what's a few more before a nap?  Before we left the dock, our instructors gave us beads to pass out to another member of our team.  We were supposed to give it to someone and then say something about what they did to help the team during our Final paddle (or something like that...it was early in the morning and I was tired).  I still wear mine on my necklace. It reminds me of a great night of paddling, of a brief escape from the craziness of life, and of some great people I was blessed to travel with.

After the bead ceremony we loaded up our gear and boats on the trailer and headed back to base.  After gear clean-up we were given time for lunch.  Most people ate really quick and then found a place to nap.  To a visitor the base must have looked like a war zone.  There were people crashed out in the front and back lawn of the base.  We had just laid down in the grass an fallen asleep.  It was one of the best naps I've had in a long time.

(Serious Finger!)

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