By Kathleen Zehler
How many times have we sat on our lanais looking out to the vast waters before us and wondered what is taking place out there? Maybe, wondering when we see a passing boat or kayak if they’ve just returned from searching for sunken treasure, or from some amazing fishing trip. What adventures did they have along the way, how far out in the Gulf did they travel, who did they encounter? Seldom do we question if they have enough food and fresh drinking water, or if are they lost or need help. There is no doubt that many adventure stories could be written about the happenings on the waters around our lovely Paradise Island!
One such adventure unfolded for me on the night of April 20, 2012 as I sat on my lanai at 9:30 PM. It was very dark as I looked out over the Gulf but I could hear the voices of young men carry across the water and faint lights were visible from their kayaks. A gentleman from the neighboring condominium called out to help the kayakers who explained their need to find a place to come ashore. Once they were safely ashore, some disturbing thoughts ran through my mind. What were they doing at sea in the dark in kayaks, were they in trouble or wanting to cause trouble? Should I offer to assist them? So grabbing my flashlight and keys, I hurried to the scene to see what I could do. What unfolded was an adventure for not only the team of kayakers but also for several residents of Marco Island and the Isles of Capri.
I was greeted with all smiles from four young men who explained they were from Algonquin College in Canada. They were doing a 10 day trip called Florida Sea Kayak Expedition. This mission was the final exam for the Outdoor Adventure college program. They stated they are aspiring wilderness guides who have a desire to change the world. They left Everglades City three days earlier and reached their destination of Marco Island exhausted, out of fresh water and supplies. They made camp on one of the nearby islands and four of the seven in their group kayaked to Marco to purchase supplies. It was the first visit to Marco for the team and, although thankful to have reached their goal, they were in great need of supplies. They were also aware of a big storm rolling in so they needed to arrive back to camp as quickly as possible.
The young men, ranging in age from 18-22, were directed to the closest grocery store still open. They were gone for quite some time when I started to worry. “It is easy to walk to that store from here if you are not tired. And, how would the one with a bandaged foot make it? They had traveled for three days. How long have they been without water…wow, did they get lost along the way?” Guilt came over me sitting in my nice surroundings and I decided to take off in my small convertible in search of four young men whom I had just met. Was I crazy? No not really, just concerned.
There they were, at the 7/11, eating hot dogs in the parking lot with eight bags of groceries at their feet. Now I asked myself, “How are you going to put four big guys into your car plus eight bags of groceries?” Never mind they were at sea for the past three days, no showers and full of salt and sand. Ok…these could be my children…and I would want someone to help them! Plus, it’s just a car that can be cleaned!! So we put the top down to stuff all inside to travel back the mile or so to the kayaks. I must share that I have never received so much appreciation for giving a ride to someone…it touched my heart!
The young men went into action. Each had his duties to take care of. Special packing of the kayaks was quickly done as they systematically checked their gear and prepared for departure. Each responded to commands as they entered their kayaks and pushed off. I was amazed to see such organization and training…it was like watching a professional crew take a large vessel out to sea. Each kayak has navigational equipment and a GPS system which can be monitored in Canada, and their location noted on a map. They have special signals to use for dangerous situations such as attacks from sharks, alligators, stingrays, panthers (which they saw along their route), humans, poisonous bites and more. Inclement weather was a big issue at hand, as well. If they were trapped in a storm the GPS system could be utilized to send help as quickly as possible.
The next day I promised to meet them at their next destination, Cedar Bay Yacht Club, where they were to meet Capt. Bubby Hail. They were to go on a deep sea fishing trip as a reward for having reached the goal of the expedition. I planned to take pictures for this article and say a final good bye. But at 11:00 AM they had not arrived. Another hour passed and I feared the worst because the morning had brought a very bad storm with heavy lightning. They were sleeping in the open on an island…many things could have happened.
My friend and I traveled around the island like Nancy Drew trying to find these young men along the water ways as we stopped or called several marinas in search of them. At last they were spotted from a small bridge on Barfield a distance away on Marco River. We were able to get their attention and explain they were almost to their destination…but maybe it was our vague directions of “go under the bridge then take two lefts and you will be there” that threw them off course. Whatever the reason, they ended up passing the marina and paddled into Collier Bay.
They were passing Bill and Karen Young’s beautiful home on the bay when the family dog alerted Karen to the seven kayakers. Karen noticed how exhausted they seemed and offered her dock for rest and fresh water. The men explained it was like something out of a movie to be invited to pull up to the dock of a mansion after baking in 89 degree weather, exhausted from paddling and still not at their destination. Mrs. Young offered them the use of her phone to contact the patiently waiting Capt. Hail and myself. Once we understood what had happened to them, I drove to the location and Capt. Hail taxied his boat there as well. The guys were all smiles when they realized they would still be able to take their long awaited fishing trip and the exhaustion they felt just seconds before seemed to quickly disappear.
They described their fishing trip as one of the best ever. Capt. Hail located some excellent fishing spots where they caught over 27 keepers and a 200 lb Nurse Shark, which they caught and released. The adventure ended back at the Young residence where their kayaks and equipment were well protected. The Young’s saw the men off with grand Marco Island hospitality as they kayaked with their amazing catch to the Isles of Capri.
At the Isles of Capri, Michael Castellano, owner of the Capri Fish House, graciously gave the men overnight accommodations and prepared their “catch of the day”. He made sure they were out of the inclement weather that howled through the islands that night. The feast was amazing as well as the accommodations!!
The group said their trip can be summed up as one of, if not the best, learning experiences they could have hoped for with regard to their group management, communication, timing, efficiency, forethought, and general understanding of wilderness settings and their approach to different environments. Plus, being in warm water was also something they really enjoyed.
Some things they found to be different and unique was having to catch their own dinner since the grocery store in Everglades City had minimal supplies. They had to plan their days around 12-4 PM since it was the hottest time of the day and their Canadian blood wasn’t used to the heat. But the most unique part of the trip was the miles of beaches and the sheer natural beauty of the area and how unique it is compared to what they are used to in Canada. Plus, they wanted to emphasize that the hospitality of the people they met on their adventure was truly very special. It meant a lot to them to have strangers treat them so well and make their Florida Sea Kayak Expedition such a memorable time. They left our islands with a new perspective and many stories to share! You may see more on their expedition soon on YouTube under “Florida Sea Kayaking Everglades 2012”.
It was a joy to meet such fine young men exploring our wonderful islands with modern equipment. But in somewhat of a primitive way, as they were striving to make our world a better place to live, they discovered the wild waters from Everglades City to Marco Island and Isles of Capri. They travel back to Canada with many notes about their travels to expand the knowledge being offered in their Outdoor Adventure college program. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our islands and share our paradise. We hope to see them again in the very near future!
Team members of the Expedition are as follows:
Team Leader: Mitch Beaulieu, Team Leader: TJ Coker, Captain: Duncan McDonnell, Chief: Matt Doswell, Timer: Matt Bianco, Baller: Wayne Bate, and Driver: Liam Coon.