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.
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