“Kindly remove your toe from my nose. Thank you.”
Those were the first words out of my mouth one morning 20+ years ago. I was on a 10-day kayak trip through the San Juan Islands with a group of fellow campers attending one of the Teen Adventure camps put on by the summer camp I had attended since 3rd grade. Those words were spoken to my paddling partner, who at 14 had already hit 6’3”.
There is, of course, more to this story.
About a week before the morning in question, and shortly after one of those “group bonding exercises” you always read about and pray you won’t have to participate in, we had gathered on the beach to conduct our “flip test.” This is where we paddled out as a group, rafted up (pulled our kayaks up next to each other and used our paddles to hold us all together), then one by one released from the raft and flipped ourselves into the water to test our ability to get back in said kayak should this happen on the trip (say in the wake of a ferry, or perhaps during a storm with 6’-8’ swells…more on that later).
What the counselors failed to alert us to is the fact that the waters in this part of the Puget Sound stay at a crisp 50 degrees all summer. Even this close to shore. With the air temps in the 80’s. When the body of a male human hits water this temperature, the first thing that tends to happen is that his testicles run for higher ground, seeking refuge somewhere between his chest cavity and his throat.
Now, this being a YMCA camp, and us becoming a tight-knit group and caring for each other and all that, the first thing we were instructed to do was check in with our paddling partner.
When one’s testicles have sought shelter in one’s throat, speaking can be…troublesome.
“CROAK aarrggghhh yoouuu CROAK ooohhh kkkaaa, CROAK!?!?” apparently wasn’t what they had in mind. Yet that’s all either of us could get out.
Once some semblance of acclimation has happened, which takes somewhere between 15 seconds and for-fucking-ever, the voice finds its way home, kicks out the testicles that have been squatting in the throat, and communication becomes possible again.
However, by this point, all feeling has left the extremities and the hands become either blobs of jello or completely rigid, claw-like structures.
Right, back to the flip-test. The process we were to use is what’s called the “buddy rescue.” This entails working together to get the kayak righted, then one partner swims around the boat and prepares to brace it, while the other partner uses their paddle to brace while simultaneously kicking themselves onto the kayak deck. Then all one has to do is slip gracefully into the cockpit and prepare to brace for the second person’s re-entry.
Or you know, not.
I mentioned that my partner was 6’3” at 14, right? Coordination for this guy literally meant getting through a day without tripping over his own size 13 feet.
Being the captain (he didn’t fit in the back, where the pedals you steer with are), I went first and got in on the second try and set about bracing. He then proceeded to make ~437 attempts to get himself the hell back into the boat.
Aaand our trip is off to a roaring good start.
Fast forward through the first couple of lovely days paddling, watching the resident Orca pods breach ~100 yards from us, and just generally loving life. Then the summer storm rolled in. Now we’re beached at a campground that’s technically already full, the only available site is intended for 4-6 people and we’re 12 + 2 counselors.
If you’re familiar with the concept of Blue Tarp Camping, you know what comes next.
We string our tarp between trees (well two trees, a signpost, and the side of what used to be a pit-pot, yep, we were camping behind a decommissioned crapper), lay out the other one as a ground cloth, and proceed to pack ourselves in like the sardines we always dreamt of becoming.
One counselor, the one who was apparently spatially challenged, proceeded to point to each of us in turn and say “you, over there, head on that end.”
And it is thus that I woke up the next morning with the big toe of my 6’3”, size 13 wearing paddling partner disturbingly close to my left nostril.
And that was only the first of what turned into 3 mornings spent on this beach, it seems a summer storm the likes of which we were beached by hadn’t been seen in those parts for many years. The San Juan Islands are *technically* in a rain shadow cast by the Olympic Mountains, so *technically* they see far less rain than down in Seattle.
By morning #3, let’s just say tensions had risen and we were all more than ready to get off this beach. Luckily for all of us, the beach, and all the other poor souls who had been trapped alongside us dozen teenagers…the storm broke and at 5:30 that morning we set out. Yep, you read that right, we had to be up, packed, and speaking moderately coherent sentences by 5:30.
Now, at 40, I’m able to do that. 16 year old me…AHAHAHA, NO.
We set out and headed for our pickup point back on our home island. We had to cross one of the busiest ferry channels in the islands to get there. As we headed out, the water was glassy smooth so there were no worries to be found. In fact, the counselors were so sure of everything they allowed the two smallest campers, who happened to be best friends, to paddle together.
What could go wrong? This, this is what could go wrong:
The instant we crossed that channel the wind picked up a bit. Then the water seemed to start…swelling a bit. The instant the lead counselor put away the radio after checking in and verifying our arrival time…all hell broke loose. And by hell I mean ferry wakes started crossing with 6’-8’ swells and the rain started coming down sideways.
We all realized the danger we were in when the counselor’s only instructions were:
“get your asses to the beach, NOW!”
I have few distinct memories of what happened next, there are snippets of trees going horizontal as our kayak went up the sheer faces of those swells, rocked over the top, and slid down the backside. Paddles were hitting air more than they were digging into the water. In the end, after what felt like 2 weeks we hit the smooth waters of the inlet where our pick up beach was located.
The aftermath of this story involves one broken rudder (when those two tiny kids managed to beach their kayak on the wrong beach), 12 exhausted teenagers, 2 exasperated counselors (one of whom was also wet and sandy after one of the aforementioned exhausted teens dumped him out of his kayak 2 feet from shore), and a long-ass bus ride back to the showers…I mean camp.
No, I mean showers.
Do you have any idea how bad 12 teenagers smell after a week of camping?