The Best Kayaking Trip Ever – A Survivor’s Story

Kayaking on the Rainbow River: ON a much different kayaking excursion :)

Kayaking on the Rainbow River: ON a much different kayaking excursion :)

I originally wrote this on May 20th of 2007 and am posting this today. I am posting because a friend on Facebook said that I should write about this experience…and I already had :).  It is one of my favorite stories, it was horrible going through it all but today I think it is hilarious. It is a pretty long post so go grab some coffee and Enjoy!

The Best Kayaking Trip Ever – A Survivor’s Story

The Benevolent Trainer,TBT, aka Chris, and I share the same birthday. I am eight years older than him but we were both born on May 14th. This year we decided to do something in honor of our birthdays. We both love to kayak but we had not ever gone kayaking together. Chris was nice enough to stake out all the different kayaking places in central Florida. He was specifically looking for scenery, challenge and not to far out from Orlando. Where I usually go, Rainbow River, is pretty far north of Orlando. Chris even borrowed a two-seater kayak and a Lincoln Navigator from a couple he knows, Mr. & Mrs. C. They were very kind to extend the use of their resources and we felt truly blessed.

Chris thought it would be fun to explore The Black River. We got to the drop point and we were surprised to see that no one else was there. As we untied the two-seater kayak, love bugs swarmed the Lincoln we were in and got all inside the interior. Nasty, messy. Every May the love bugs (don’t know their real scientific name) swarm over Central Florida. They are EVERYWHERE and annoying. They are nasty to clean up and really do a mess up your car when you drive. Even so, we went down to the water and instead of The Black River, it was more like The Black Dribble.

We only went down 50 yards or so and back. In that short span we:

  • Had to lay completely backwards into the kayak as we tried to clear the first obstruction of fallen trees.
  • Crashed through the second obstruction of fallen trees and brush. There were only the top branches of the trees coming up through the plane of water so we had to go through them, not around or under.
  • Five paddle strokes later we were going under a bridge that was being expanded. The pile driver thing started up right about then. It was excruciatingly loud. No seriously… like painful.
  • We pressed forward and had to clear two more man made obstructions, one on each side of the bridge. The water in between was nasty and stagnate.
  • After clearing those we went about 3 paddle strokes to the next trash filled obstruction. It was huge and there was no getting through it… and we got stuck in the Florida muck.
  • Frustrated, I jumped out of the kayak to pull us out and sank in the muck up to around mid-thigh level. Not lying and it was all I could do to not scream so loud that the aliens on Jupiter could hear. Yes, there are aliens there and yes, I can scream that loud.
  • The only true thing about the black river was that the water was black. I was NOT a happy camper and told Chris so, repeatedly. I am sure he was thrilled. We turned back and had to go back through all that just to get back to the car.

Oh there is more … so much more …

I asked Chris if he just wanted to pack it in and go to the beach. He said, “No, we are close to another river that will be better than this.” He wanted to try something new and this other place, Kings Landing, he had been to many times before. While we were disappointed with The Black River, we were glad to be close to somewhere else that was a well-known place for canoes and kayaking. Also, Kings Landing is King Springs which feeds into Wekiwa springs, so I knew that those waterways were more than a trickle. But I also knew that they had a lot more wildlife, seriously wooded and dark water (not clear.) Dark water is where all KINDS of things live, including alligators, water moccasins, larrrrgggee Big Ass Spiders etc. I knew all that but as we were leaving the Black River I said, “Well, at least we can say the worst part of our day is over.”

Chris prophetically stated,”Don’t say that … you never know what else could happen.”

This would be the point in the post where I would sarcastically say something like, we should have gone to the beach or we should have not gotten out of the house that day or something like that. In reality though, what follows was the worst outdoors experience I have had.

We put the two-seater kayak in at Kings Landing and headed out. We took one of the kayak paddles and it broke down into two so we used them like canoe paddles. It started out great. The current was smooth, it was more narrow than what I am used to with the Rainbow River but it was lush. I have a bit of a phobia with dark water. I don’t think I can connect it with any childhood trauma or anything like that. I think it is just a genuine irrational fear of water I can’t see through and all the potential teeth and fangs that reside in it. So, when it would get murky or dark I would just look toward the shore or the water lilies and pretend I was made of titanium.

DSCN0080Before this trip I had seen two alligators out in the wild before. One HUGE one sunning itself on the bank of a creek near a two lane highway we were driving down. The second one was in a lake in downtown Lakeland. The one in the picture to your right actually.

I know … Florida … right

So, when we saw a gator plop into the water to our right, disappear and the reappear to the left of us and swim away. That was a bit of a thrill. If I can see them … that’s bad enough but knowing they are there and not seeing them… that pretty much stinks really really bad.

paddle paddle paddle paddle.

Before and after that, Chris and I had some good quality conversation. Just two guys talkin’ stuff.

After the 2004 Hurricanes (Charlie, Jeane and Frances) a lot of trees fell over this particular waterway. They went through and instead of trying to remove them they cut out the middle part over the water. So in the narrow areas you would see a log sticking out over the water securely anchored by the roots. It was cleanly cut and then directly across would be the top part of the tree with its part of the log going down into the water. There were a lot of downed trees in the water in the more open spaces and the branches poking up through the water. Sometimes you would see them but other times you can’t and would feel them scrape the underside of the kayak. We passed into the Wekiwa springs area and the waterway became much more narrow. Chris saw a baby alligator and was excited about that. At that very moment I noticed we were taking on a LOT of water very quickly. The only things I remember from that point forward was asking if we were sinking, Chris said yes and then I just remember hitting the water. We capsized and the last snapshot I saw before plunging into the dark depths (about three feet) was everything we own flying up into the air and hearing Chris yell, “Don’t freak out!…”

I freaked, we capsized, the kayak sank.

Some important things to note …

  • We were about 40 minutes from where we put in.
  • We hadn’t seen a single person on the river.
  • We had seen plenty of alligators.
  • There was a snake on the log to my right.
  • The water was dark.
  • We lost our shirts, shoes and towels.
  • My camera was ruined, his phone disappeared
  • My legs got cut up (nothing deep or needing stitches), bruises.
  • Food ruined … gone, Except for his mothers cookies, we love Tupperware.

It was decided that since he weighed less than I and was stronger that he would empty the kayak (of water) and try to paddle it back up to where we put in. I would stay on the log to the left, opposite the other end of the tree that had a snake on it. He would take the kayak up and get a canoe and come back to get me.

After the initial nightmare of trying to pull the kayak out of the water and he sinking in the muck draining it, I watched him paddle off, I said a quick prayer for his safety. I stood on the log and surveyed my surroundings, and took stock of what I actually had with me. I had on my bathing suit…that was it for clothes (barefoot). No food (except for his mom’s cookies), no water, no phone, no watch … I did have sunblock though. The water was murky when the sun hit it but completely dark without sunlight (clouds). It was Florida muck up to the very dense impenetrable under brush. There wasn’t any “shore”. The log I was on was very thick and supported by other logs in the water underneath it. It had been a huge tree because the root system was taller than I. The snake on the other side was sunning itself and didn’t even move while the two humans lived out their drama. We put into the water around 2pm. We capsized, my guess would be around 2:30 or 2:40. I sat on that log for the next hour and a half, two hours and didn’t see a soul.

As I stood on the log, I was a bit freaked out and upset. It got really quiet and the forest seem to come back to its own life. Birds calling, lots of plopping in the waters around me. I heard the baby alligator Chris had seen earlier before I actually saw him. He emerged to my right about three feet away…maybe a foot long. He, let’s call him Jr., started calling again and I literally said out loud, “listen you little brat…shut up! I have no desire to meet your siblings and especially not your Mom!” He politely obliged but didn’t move a bit. He stayed on his branch sticking up out of the water while I stood on the log.

Again, I was distressed. I prayed a lot. Near the beginning though I did have a moment. A moment where I saw the beauty of silence, of being stripped of all modern convenience and standing right in the middle of God’s creation as a part of it, not just as a part of mankind having dominion over… because I certainly did not have “dominion” over it at that moment, but I was a part of it. There was a moment when the sun was just right, the wind coming through the trees was calming and I heard His Voice. He said a few things one of them was that this part of creation was very important to Him, it’s not just about mankind and our lives and creativity. We, mankind: men and women, are the pinnacle of His earthly creation but His Creation is a LOT bigger than us. That moment was clearly impressed on my mind and soul.

Then I went right back to freaking out. Chris was gone for a very long time and somehow I just knew he was in trouble.

My mind started whirring and I was trying to think through all the possibilities. Could I walk back? It’s swampy, sub tropical dense vegetation … no. Could I swim through the fangs and teeth…? NOOOO. Could I sleep on the log … yeah but what about the black bears? … NOOOO… my neighbors were snakes, alligators, and black bears.

Oh … my!

I had only eaten Planters mixed nuts so far that day, I wasn’t hungry but I was … freaking out. Then I remembered that Chris is diabetic. My earlier feeling of him being in trouble magnified a million times over. I knew that he had not eaten much and that we had exerted a LOT of energy trying to get the kayak upright and drained. If he had to dump the water out of that big kayak several times, his blood sugar would get screwed up. Then I really freaked out. I prayed for God to send someone to him to help him. I knew that there were plenty of people in plenty of situations a lot worse than mine but I prayed for God to send some encouragement that everything would work out.

Within two minutes a man came up in a one seater cockpit kayak and he was a pro. Everything you could need on the river he was wearing on his life vest. He asked, “what are you doing up there?” I told him what happened and he said that he wasn’t planning on coming up this far but did and said he would go up to see if he could find Chris.  The pro said that it was 4:30, so I guess I was up on that log for almost two hours. He paddled off in the same direction that Chris had gone.

I was a little calmer and I prayed some more. I know the following is going to sound cheesy but it brought some comfort. I sang Amazing Grace more out of just needing to do something peaceful. Singing that song always brings me peace…every time. Jr. the baby gator loved it. He tried to sing along at one point until I told him to shut it or I would strangle him.

Apparently I don’t have grace for gators.

I then was getting really paranoid and was going to get off that freakin’ log one way or another. Jesus is on my side so if I swim and get eaten… I’ll just seem Him sooner, if He wants me to live, I will live. Or maybe I can try to peer through the underbrush… I know me and I was about to get off that log one way or another. I prayed again for the Lord to give me some direction and encouragement, and literally within the minute I heard a woman laughing. She and her boyfriend were canoeing up from the Wekiwa area. Their goal was King’s Landing! They looked at me and like the River Pro asked, “What are you doing up there?” I explained the situation and before I could even ask they offered to take me back up to the place where we started this epic adventure. I was so relieved. The woman had tattoos and one of them was a sparrow with her sisters initials in its mouth. I learned that her sister died in a car wreck a month before.

Eventually we ran across The River Pro and he informed us that Chris was towed by another couple in a canoe. I thanked The Pro very much. He went well beyond where he had intended for the day. But, a little further up, I saw the kayak almost completely submerged on a part of the river that actually had a small shore. We got all the way back to the place where we started and I saw Chris and the couple that rescued him looking to see if it was me. Chris yelled out and I waved my hand, and he literally fell to the ground exhausted. We got out of the canoe, I thanked my rescuers and offered to take them to dinner, they said no and not to worry about it… it was a boaters’ courtesy and I just need to do the same for someone else in need.

Will do…in a nice clear swimming pool …

Then I looked at Chris and he had “that look.” I was friends with a DJ in Dallas who had diabetes and twice that friend had “the look” where they were in desperate need of sugar. His eyes were glassy, he wasn’t thinking clearly, he wasn’t able to communicate well (scattered) and it was a little scary. I told the people who had helped us that he needed food and they gave him a sandwich and chips. I forgot to mention that when I was on the log, what little food we had left fell in the water but Chris’ mother had sent along cookies in a tupperware container … that floated!! So I had to jump back in the water to get it and quickly scrambled out. We lost a few more of the food items but those cookies in air tight Tupperware were rescued. Chris really needed them at that moment and tore into those. I had a couple myself.

Now… do you think this terrible story ends here? Silly you … of course not.

Chris eventually leveled out and told me that someone hit the Lincoln Navigator we had borrowed for the day while we were stuck on the river. A car or boat or something scratched the full length of the Navigator on the passenger side.

Could this day get any worse? Yes, not much but yes.

BUT let me tell you the story of the Brave Chris. He did paddle drag drain paddle drag drain paddle drag drain the kayak. He knew he was starting to get in trouble when he got sick to his stomach. He knew that he was possibly getting to the end of the line of what he could do. Then the couple that helped him initially went past him. He called out trying to get help and they just went on past. The couple did eventually turn around and came to get him. They tried towing the kayak but gave up after a little while. It turns out that Chris knew the guy, he is another one of the trainers that works out of the gym we go too.

Coincidence? No…I am thinking providential. Chris and this guy are built like tanks. They didn’t get the kayak all the way back but it was a lot further along because of them.

Anyway, my phone was in the car. Chris used it to call his friends and tell them that their kayak had a hole in it and someone took a big long swipe all the way down the side of their navigator and didn’t stop to take responsibility or leave a note. His friends, Mr. and Mrs. C, were so kind and gracious. Not one frustrated word came out of their mouth and they were just worried about our safety. Once Chris was fully back to being himself, the owner of the canoe rental place said he would help us go back and get the kayak but he didn’t show up. So, we took a canoe and went back. The sun was beginning to set and it was hard as all get out to drag that thing along. We did pull it about 60 more yards upstream but eventually pulled it up on some private property that had a little beach. No one was home. We went back to the landing and the owner was there. We told him what we did and come to find out … that little beach was his actual house ::: big smile :::

A bunch of his friends were there as well and they were all drinking Budweiser. The owner was very gracious to us but his friends were making fun of us the whole time. Hello, I am not Grizzly Adams and I know when homophobes are making me the core of their derision and jokes. We got the badly scratched up Navigator, pulled up behind the owner on his motorcycle and his friends started jeering him. They said things like, “you be safe and I don’t want to hear you squealing like a pig.” They all laughed,”Yeah!!! don’t be squealing like a pig if you know what I mean.” I knew exactly what they meant. There is a movie made from a book called Deliverance, where several men get lost in the woods and one gets raped. The one being raped was forced at gunpoint to squeal like a pig while he was being raped. I was very angry by their hatred but I didn’t acknowledge that I understood the inference being made. Chris was oblivious.

I was very grateful that the owner of the canoe rental showed zero sign that he was agreeing with or joining his friends mockery and was very nice to us.

We got home before dark fell. I went back to my apartment, Chris went back to his place and we cleaned up and met back at Chili’s to debrief and try to salvage something from the day in memory of our birthday adventure. We both were pushed to our limits physically. He was pushed physically a lot further of course but, I now know what it is like to try and rescue a sinking capsized kayak, maneuver past obstacle after obstacle, tow a kayak, swim in dark water, jump into dark water after lost items. We were both pushed mentally past where we normally go “out in the wild” wise. Again, there are a lot of people in the world with a lot worse circumstances but we were in a bit of danger. We had to depend on others (The trainer couple that helped Chris, The Couple that helped me, The River Pro, The Owner, Mr. & Mrs. C, and we had to keep pushing forward even when the bad events and circumstances kept piling on. There were a lot of bad moments but I think the worst was not when I had to willfully dive into the water to rescue some items that fell in. The worst moment was remembering that Chris was diabetic. That was the worst moment of the day. I hated the thought of him possibly passing out on this river. I was very afraid for him.

He’s a great guy, a good man and friend. In our “debriefing” dinner we talked a lot about what we could learn through this experience. Prayers answered immediately, vulnerability, facing fears to accomplish what needs to be done, asking for help, and singing hymns while threatening to strangle a baby alligator …  (just kidding). I may have lost a very nice camera in the process, but I have gained a memory I will never forget. My friendship with Chris continues on to this day. I know he is going to read this so, thank you for being you and thank you so much for your hard work and courage on that river. I appreciate you more than you know.

… and Chris, next time, let’s just go to the beach (or at least a very safe and tranquil river up north :) )

RandyThe Best Kayaking Trip Ever – A Survivor’s Story

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