By Carri Randall

Just wanted to share my first kayaking experience with you. Greg, my boyfriend, came by after work on Friday, and I knew we were going camping AND kyaking when I saw everything loaded on the Jeep. We had talked earlier about seeing each other perhaps that evening. Next thing I knew I was packing “to go somewhere,” but Greg wanted the destination to be a complete mystery. I am not too efficient at packing in a hurry, but with Greg around I may get the hang of it real soon. An hour later I was dumping my Siamese – Apollo- food and saying farewell as I was zooming out the door – in my power chair this time! Greg strapped it down to the frame of the pop-up camper’s trailer and off we were: 2 kayaks, 1 bike, 1 power chair, and a camper.

It’s beginning to get dark and Greg’s will to hold back our destination is now becoming clearer to me. Most campgrounds have gates that the rangers lock at 6:00pm. We were headed North on I-75 so it either meant we were going to Silver Lake or White Springs. Silver lake feeds into the Withlacoochee River and is about an hour and a half North of Tampa. White Springs is in North Florida, about four and a half hours away. Both campgrounds have no gates, so entry is possible at anytime. I could not pry it out of Greg so I decided we were headed to Silver Lake AKA Withlacoochee State Forest (since neither of us had eaten dinner yet) and it takes about an hour to set up camp.

Before I knew it, we were there. But where was there? It was a long, winding, DARK, dirt road that needed to be grated for all of the thousands of ripples were jarring my vision, which had not adjusted from the interstate lights to total darkness. Then a 150 pound doe leaps across the road about 25 yards ahead of us! She was a beauty. Greg saw an armadillo (I missed it) and then I saw a grey fox – which Greg said had to be a coyote. All I saw was a large size animal that at first glance appeared to be a dog, with a bushy grey tail, until it turned it’s head back towards us and I saw it’s jawline – narrow and long. I still think it was a fox, and Greg was just trying to scare me about coyotes in the woods.

We finally staked out our campsite – Lot 32. I thought we would never get the camper into the lot that was lined with poles (the diameter of utility poles, about 2 foot protruding from the ground) to keep us within our number 32 Lot. It was tricky since the ground was uneven, but we were finally parked. It was a beautiful night – the sky sparkled with stars all around.

I don’t remember the last time I saw so many stars. The lake actually looked silver with the moon shining so brightly upon it. A short time later everything was popped out, put in it’s proper place, and locked down. We actually had a good spot – centrally located to the bath house and lake.

It all seemed almost perfect until about 50 Boy Scouts arrived. Every cricket and leaf falling to the ground became mute to the excited and boisterous boys. At 9:00 pm Greg and I were debating whether to pack up and move camp to the secluded part of the campground where all of the fifty foot motor homes were plugged into outlets, with digital lanterns disguised as satellites sitting out like they were really supposed to be there. We decided we were just too tired to do it all over again and hoped for the best. By 10:30 we could hear the leaves dropping like soft rain on the canvas again. It was music to our ears. I still don’t know how those Scout Leaders got all those boys to be quiet so quickly.

The morning began with the boys laughter and excitement in the air again. As much as we all wanted the quiet to return, it was actually nice to hear and see the kids so excited to be outdoors. About an hour later as Greg and I started off to breakfast, we passed the Scouts as they were out for a hike down the long, sandy road. We knew that they would sleep like logs that night because they were going hiking.

As we came back to camp, I saw a minivan spinning it’s wheels trying to free itself. Greg LOVES to pull people out when they get stuck. He stopped in the road and calmly gets out and offers assistance. I could just tell he was hoping for a “yes” so he could “lend a hand.” The 4 or 5 teenage boys were pushing the van and a man was at the wheel trying to get it out one last time before letting Greg help. Greg went to the back of the Jeep to get his tow strap out of the back and I turned around and caught a gleeful smile on his face. He handed one end of the strap to the man, who started to wrap it around his plastic bumper. Greg politely guided him to slip it through the frame of the minivan. Greg hooked the other end to the Jeep and pulled slowly, but firmly. We were not making much progress when Greg said it felt like the guy had his parking brake on. Greg revved the engine and popped it into gear again. The van slid out of it’s hole on all fours. The guy thought he had released his parking brake when really all he had done was popped the hood. Don’t we all hate those moments when we feel really stupid at the time, but those moments become memories when we can laugh at them later.

Back at camp, I felt free again once I climbed into my chair. Isn’t it funny how at times I can despise the chair for being dependent upon it, yet when without it, I yearn to feel it’s power of freedom again?

One of the highlights of the week-end was the first official kayak trip. Greg pulled the kayaks to the lakes’ edge and I crept up to it trying not to become stuck in the muck. Greg set me gently into the hull, adjusted the foot pegs so I could “steer” the rudder with my legs and adorned me with a life vest. I braced my thighs against the inside of the kayaks’ hull. My chair was parked at the base of a giant tree not too far away, with the battery unplugged just in case a curious child was lured to it. Greg wrapped a tow line around his waist and tied it off to the front of my kayak. A young teenage boy had followed us to the bank of the lake to offer us assistance. Greg offered him a kayak lesson upon our return. He excitedly agreed to meet us when we got back.

Within minutes we were off floating gracefully and freely upon the lake. As Greg paddled us along I was able to sit back and take in the beauty of the lake which fed into the river. Before long we were dodging large rocks and tree stumps acting as nature’s obstacle course within the river. Greg would tell people along the way that he could only afford one oar and had to tow me along the way or that he was towing me down river, and I would be the one to tow us back up the river against the wind. Most people were fun-loving and said they wanted to be in my spot. At times I would think to myself – they really don’t know what they are asking for? But how should they? The chair is parked miles away on the river bank and only Greg knows my legs and arm do not work so well. I appeared to them as anyone else enjoying a beautiful day on the river. And then I forgot for a while that I could not paddle myself and began to try to steer the kayak with my legs.

I had traded my foot rests in for foot pegs and the resistance of the rudder’s cable sent a message to my muscles to try to work. Only twice did I have to move my feet off the foot pegs to give my legs a good stretch. On one bend of the river, Greg had to make a hairpin turn to avoid the bank and a log on the other side. I pushed my right leg down with my hand to help out. We cleared everything fine and neither of us fell out once. If it were not for hunger pains, we would have stayed out on the river all day.

After about an hour and a half, we turned around to head back to camp. One guy fishing asked us to paddle by again because after we had floated by he had caught his first and only fish. If there had not been another boat coming our way I think Greg would have done it. As we were passing an old tree limb in the water, I counted 4 baby turtles sunning themselves. As I looked back there were 2 more – mom and dad, perched together on another limb attached to the same old tree. What a great picture that would have been!

As we got closer to camp, the hungrier we got – talking of dinner plans as we floated back up river. Greg began to think of ways to mount a trolling motor to the back of my kayak. He said he’s seen hand controls similar to the ones on my chair that could be attached to the motor. He began to scratch the idea when I told him I would be able to out run him. There’s nocompetition between us, really. It’s all fun and games, which makes it really neat. Our kayak trip ended back where we started, but with a lot of fun and sun in between.

When we returned, John, the teenager I spoke of earlier was trying to control his excitement of his first kayak lesson. Once I was back in my ground transport, I went back to camp to retrieve a paddle for John. I introduced myself to John’s parents and asked if he could go out in the kayak and if he could swim. His parent’s were happy to see him excited about something other than a video game or the computer. They walked back down to the lake with me to deliver the paddle and for mom to take pictures of her son kyaking. I think she was just as excited as John. When Greg and John returned, Joe, John’s dad, was ready for his kayak lesson. Greg later told me they went as far as we did down the river. They were all very appreciative of the kayak lessons and Greg loves to teach people about kyaking.

Greg went to the store and bought groceries to fix dinner. And was it great. He made so much we ended up taking it down to Joe, Korin (John’s mother), John, and 4 of their friends. We talked as we sat near the camp fire. The stars were shining bright again tonight. Joe gave us a piece of plywood (brought it by as we were almost asleep in the camper and almost scared us to death thinking it was either a large animal or someone trying to nab something) so that I could get into the bathhouse (there was about a 3 inch step that I couldn’t clear and had to have Greg help me up the step each time. I stopped the ranger and asked him to make it more accessible, but he never did. The bathhouse itself was accessible with a large shower stall and roomy toilet stalls. Once I got the plywood, I could get inside by myself. What a relief to not have to depend upon Greg or someone to help me get inside.

I woke early the next morning about 2am to the owls “hooting” to each other. I thought about going outside to try to look for them, but was too exhausted to transfer back into the chair again. Greg said he heard the raccoons fighting during the night. You could still hear the leaves falling on top of the canvas above us.

The next morning we were woken by children’s voices filled with fun and laughter. Greg started breakfast – oatmeal and bacon. It was good since it was still a little chilly from the frigid night time air. We moved slowly and took our time to pack up. The boyscouts and others had already left the campground and we wished we could stay another night.

So, another adventure for the books. I wonder what the next adventure will be…………….