August 9, 2010

The Paleo Route

In keeping with the Paleolithic narrative (to go with my caveman diet) that
eschews regular exercise in favor of frequent but irregular episodes of heroic
exertion (think wooly mammoth, pit, now how do I get it out of there?), I set off
last weekend by kayak for Lover’s Key beach, off Estero Island, a dozen miles
south of around here.

There’s a small dirt parking lot at Big Carlos Pass at the north end of the island
(top map circle), where a short hike with a paleolithically shouldered kayak
brought me to the water’s edge. After waving goodbye to Big Carlos, who was
fishing with some friends from the bridge, I shoved off.

It’s a delicious moment, nudging yourself off dry land into the buoyant glide of
the world’s largest domain. I paused, adrift for a moment, to enjoy the
sensation, and to look around. The pass, flanked to the south by the key, and to
the north by the resorts of Estero Island, opens out to the Gulf. The scale on
Google Maps suggests that the key’s north cape (cap, caput, head) is about a
mile from the pass, but from the kayak it looked farther. There was a very light
chop in the strait, easily negotiable. Having maintained a path toward the
center, to shorten the trek to the beach, a vigorous paddle, with my usual
drifting and watching, brought me into the vicinity of the beachhead in about
twenty minutes time. That’s where things changed.

The open Gulf quickly made its presence felt. Three-foot waves were upon me,
and halfway around the cape a strange eddy seized the kayak. No matter how
deeply I dug in with the paddles, or in which direction I pointed the bow, I made
no progress at all. Paddling into the waves helped a bit, but that direction led out
to sea. Angling across the waves brought me to a standstill, and turning toward
shore brought a volley of slaps from the Gulf that threatened to swamp the
boat. I was hung up at the beachhead, far from the favorite old nook whose
sandy slope awaited my umbrella.

After a humiliating struggle, and with my strength in the tank, I eventually gave
up and let the surf fling me ashore. I scarcely had enough strength by then to
get out of the boat, tripped on the edge of the cockpit, landed in the water. I
tried, for a bit, to tow the kayak along the shallows toward Old Nook, but my
strength was gone. I summoned what determination was left and dragged the
boat ashore where I collapsed on the sand. A gull flew by and laughed.

There I lay, on the hard sand by the water, in exhaustion’s giddy abandon,
letting the waves wash over me, focused on the odd sensation of the sand under
the prominences of my body - ankle, knee, hip - dissolving away beneath each
retreating wave. Soon I would be half buried and turn to driftwood...

Eventually I roused myself, got up, grabbed my bag and umbrella, turned the
kayak over to drain, and headed south along the beach. I found my spot. The
same one I always use. Some erosion had taken place since my last outing
there, it usually does. I was still a little more spent than I’d realized. Turning the
sand screw, a device that anchors the umbrella, took a couple of goes. I’m fond
of my umbrella. It’s big. A small market umbrella, really, scarlet, decorated with
an embroidered Coca Cola logo with its famous fishtail script. I don’t know where
it came from. It’s tall enough on its two-piece pole to let you stand up beneath
it, and stride off directly into the ocean, and back.

The midsummer heat in Florida, if you’re inclined to enjoy it at all, acquires an
intensity from which a kind of sweetness emerges. Hot and sweet, that was the
prevailing mood of my lay about on Lovers Key. I swam in the ocean, drifted off
on the sand. I found a couple of nice shells.

By late afternoon storm clouds were brewing to the east. I didn’t want to be on
the water in a thunderstorm. Gathering up whatever shreds of optimism and
paleolithic imperative remained, I made for the boat. The prevailing winds were
blowing in from the gulf, the paddle back to the pass should be painless. I
pawed around in my bag but couldn’t find my T-shirt. It wasn’t in the boat. It
must have blown away. I scanned the dunes. Nothing there. No matter, it was a
warm day, and I had no plans to stop at Tiffany’s, or church, on the way home.

The beachhead’s gaze was evidently still fixed toward the pass, and the kayak
slid across its profile with ease. But now a wall of leaden sky had arisen just
beyond the bridge. Jagged streaks of lightning, like the route line on my map,
flashed down from cloud to horizon. I looked around. An amphitheater of storm
clouds was forming to both north and south. Imagine yourself on a pitcher’s
mound under a clear sky. The stadium surrounding you on three sides is a
storm. It soon occurred to me that my paddles, poking alternately into the
ozone-laden air were the highest objects in the vicinity. I dug in. “At least my
death will be instantaneous,” I thought and the thought gave me some comfort.
But the comfort was quickly offset by the vivid presence of the “my death” in the
thought, which forthwith drove me to Shelter Strand (see map) to think a bit

What to do. I surveyed the sky. Had I over-reacted? The clearing overhead
remained. Was I turning my back on divine providence? A flash and a loud crack
of thunder interrupted that speculation. I grabbed my bag and umbrella,
dragged the kayak into the scrub, flipped it over, and began to hike to the pass.
The plan was to make it safely to the truck, wait out the storm somewhere and
return, possibly the next day, to retrieve the boat. It seemed unlikely it would be
found, at least until the weather cleared. So why didn’t I get on with it? I sat
down on the sand. I looked wistfully back at the kayak, so faithful, swift… and
abandoned. A heart possessed of more intrepid stuff than mine.

Does compassion confer courage? Can you feel compassion for a kayak? I can’t
quite name everything that drew me back out onto the water. But whatever it
was gave my heart wings. A bit of rain was starting to pock the surface, but the
storm hung back, and I felt oddly exultant. By the time I reached the pass, it
was raining. By the time I got the boat and gear ashore, and the truck backed
up to load, it was pouring. With the salt washing out of my hair and burning my
eyes I struggled the boat, which had gone slippery and fish-like in the windy
rain, into the truck bed. Nothing worked. It took four tries to get the straps
threaded into the winches. I couldn't get the paddle to break down, so I had to
jam that in the bed too, hoping it wouldn't fly off on the highway. Everything
else went helter-skelter into the truck, while the wind kept trying to slam the
door on me. I was drenched to the skin, on the verge of a chill, and wondering
whether some passing microbe might exact what the storm had spared. I threw
a dry towel on the driver’s seat and got in.

The door closed with a reassuring chunk. Sliding off dry land into the smooth
buoyancy of a river is one sensation. Climbing into the quiet, dry, cab of a truck
in a storm is another. I started the engine and with that, command was
transferred from the elements to me. The headlights sprang to life, the wipers
swept the storm aside, and I rolled through the deep puddles, crunching gravel,
and scaled the steep incline to the highway. Visibility was limited, but the
highway soon morphed into the town road, lights appeared, a shower and dry
clothes awaited me at home. But I had found, it delighted me to contemplate, a
kayak route to a remote corner of a favorite beach. And a bit more Paleolithic
exertion, and grace, than expected.