Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Break on Little Tybee Island

Last week I guided a group from The University of Vermont’s Outing Club on their spring break trip to Georgia. The phrase ‘spring break’ conjures all kinds of images, but I would guess that very few involve chilly rain, freezing temperatures, winds so strong you can’t paddle against them, or pooping into plastic bags. Georgia in the spring can be hit or miss. The previous week was much warmer – warm enough that I packed my summer sleeping bag. I even brought a spring-break-worthy Aloha shirt.

Of course, students in the outing club probably want to have a more rugged experience than those headed to the predictable spring break mayhem further south, which is a good thing, since our trip was no picnic. One might even say some parts began to feel like a bit of an ordeal, especially if one had visions of drunken beach volleyball, or whatever it is they do down at Daytona. But maybe it’s possible that we get a bit more out of some of these more trying experiences. 

We arrived at Skidaway State Park in Georgia late on Saturday night after two long days of driving (three days for me, since I’d started by driving from Maine to Burlington). Sunday was a day to buy food, check-in at Savannah Canoe & Kayak for some local knowledge from Matt & Ben, and then a couple of hours on the Skidaway River, where we worked on basic skills and got our first capsize out of the way. Fortunately, the group was well-equipped with drysuits and good attitudes.

We launched in the rain from Tybee Island on Monday and, not wanting to lug camping gear too far through the low-tide mud, hung-out on a massive sandbar for awhile as the tide rose. This sandbar is, as far as I can tell, the ‘triangle’ that has put Tybee on the map for so many paddlers. Some seem to refer to it as if its name came from some sort of Bermuda Triangle-type demonic influence on the sea state, but seen from above, this pile of sand at the mouth of Tybee Creek is, yes- triangular. For sure though, outgoing currents merge with ocean swells, and I can imagine the shifting sands create all kinds of waves when covered with water and the western wind isn’t knocking-down wave height. 
On Monday at low tide, waves hit the ocean side while the western lee side was calm- a nice spot for a walk.

After our break there, we continued south a short distance to Myrtle Island and found a campsite in a palm grove at the head of a beach littered with the skeletal remains of uprooted live oaks. We anticipated a high, post- full moon high tide that evening, so we tied-up the boats and I watched, a bit nervously, as the tide rose. At its height, the tallest waves sent a surge through the campsite, floating our tied-up kayaks. I waited for it to begin receding before I pitched my tent in the rain.

During the night though, the storm moved out to sea and we had this idyllic beach to ourselves. This was perhaps the most leisurely, spring break-like morning of the trip. We hadn’t decided if we would base camp there or go on to another site, so for the time being, we all just enjoyed the sun and the shelter from the western wind, which hissed through the treetops, but left us mostly untouched. 

Perhaps we were lulled into a sense of ease, so when we launched in the early afternoon for a short, five-mile paddle to Beach Hammock, we were less mentally prepared for what should have been a simple paddle, but turned very challenging when that northwest wind turned out to be right out of the west, right in our face. The first challenge was keeping the group close enough to the beach and not getting blown-out to sea. Less experienced paddlers seldom have a sense of how much easier it is to find even just a little windbreak close to shore, and they tend to not notice how much they’re getting pushed, so I was continually trying to get us pointed-in toward shore, and at times, we moved toward it glacially, almost 
--> unnoticeably .

As a rule of thumb, average paddlers probably paddle anywhere between 2-4 knots, probably on the low side of that if they don’t have much experience, and especially so as the group size increases. And, as a rule of thumb, every ten knots of wind in your face, slows you down one knot. If you add to that the psychological factor of realizing that you’re on a treadmill, making little forward progress, it becomes obvious why many of us decide to just take a day off when the winds pick-up. When we arrived in camp later on, I checked the nearest buoy, and the wind registered at 24 knots, gusting to 30. Probably the really prudent thing would have been to just return to the campsite we’d left, but we proceeded, intent on our destination, still hoping that the following day we would head-up the Bull River and circumnavigate Little Tybee Island. (Little Tybee is considerably larger than Tybee Island and encompasses several hammocks or islands, all connected at low tide by marsh and sandbars). 

Of course, the longer we took, the more the tide went-out, and by the time we neared Beach Hammock, we ended-up dragging kayaks through vast shallows where we couldn’t sink our blades deeply enough to propel ourselves forward. Add to that a long carry as the sun set to get our boats above the high tide line, and we were all ready for a quick dinner and sleep.

The wind howled through the night and the next day looked no better. We decided to head back to Myrtle Island, but not wanting to merely retrace our route, we decided to explore the marsh. It’s worth pointing-out that the charts are at best vague about the latest configuration of sand and marsh, and it can be difficult to know where you might get through. We had all day though, so we just followed twisting tidal creeks, trusting that we might either find a way out to open ocean or inland to Tybee Creek.

Long story short: we didn’t do either of those. We paddled about five miles into the marsh, until well after high tide, and then worried that we might run out of water and decided to head back out, which brought us almost back to Beach Hammock, where we’d started the day, after about ten nautical miles of paddling. We saw lots of dolphins up there though, and people seemed happy about that. 

They weren’t happy though, as we neared the mouth of this creek and the twisting channels leading through piled sandbanks appeared to dead-end, as if the water had all drained-out, leaving us landlocked. At that point, we’d put-off lunch, wanting to savor getting out to the open ocean, and we were all a bit drained. One of the student leaders got out of his kayak and took a look at what would have been maybe a quarter-mile carry over the dunes. But there was still current flowing out toward Wassaw Sound, so I followed it and soon arrived at open water. From there it was only about five more miles to the campsite on Myrtle Island, where we later arrived at a familiar campsite with plenty of daylight. 

They were a resilient group though, and by dinner seemed to have recharged, perhaps even buoyed by having come through another difficult day together. I told them we’d paddled fifteen nautical miles – an impressive day, especially for new paddlers – and this may have charged them-up even more, to realize that they were overcoming circumstances that would have been difficult for anyone.

As I understood the goals of this trip, they lay somewhere between kicking-back on a beach for spring break and having the sort of adventures that outing clubs seek. I think we did both. For the students, I think these were some long paddling days, and I felt a bit bad about it, feeling the need to explain that sea kayaking isn’t always so difficult. But I don’t think they just wanted to sit on the beach all day either. 

For me, the most ordeal-like aspect of it is being attuned to what the students are going through. Sure, I was tired, but I have to admit that there’s something I really love about long, difficult days, and you can’t really dig for that hidden inner strength if you don’t push things a bit sometimes. You know you’ll get through it, and you know that at the end of the day, that cup of tea in camp is going to be that much more satisfying.

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