ScoutingSeptember 2002

The Can-Do Kayakers

By Cindy Ross

A weekend trek to an undeveloped offshore island provides Georgia Scouts with a new kind of challenging and rewarding boating experience.

We stare in amazement as the top-heavy sea kayak rolls over and dumps its occupant, 16-year-old Jason Ronberg, into the river. For a few seconds the Scout flounders in the water, eyes as big as saucers, until his leaders respond with encouragement. "Stand up! You're O.K.," they reassure him.

Soaked and looking discouraged, Jason begins emptying his kayak's flooded cockpit with a bilge pump but soon protests that he is too tired.

However, for Jason and the other Scouts from Troop 7, Savannah, Ga., the adventure is only beginning. They've just launched their kayaks on a weekend trip and are still only five feet from shore.

Islands, marshes, and rivers

The Scouts are participating in one of the Coastal Empire Council's sea kayaking adventures for Scouts age 13 and older. Four weekend trips are available in the spring and fall and weeklong trips during the summer. The program is based out of Camp Blue Heron, near Riceboro in southeastern Georgia, which sits on the edge of a big world of islands and marshes and tidal rivers, waiting to be explored.

The ghost crew includes five Scouts from Troop 7 and three support staff Scouters. Qualified to serve as trek guides, the adults have attended instructional classes, have or are working toward certification by the American Canoe Association, and have spent many weekends exploring the islands on their own.

Prior to the weekend, the boys also attended an orientation session, working on kayaking skills and learning water safety and rescue, menu and food preparation, and campsite setup.

But the workshop didn't include how to paddle heavily laden boats, so the Scouts still have a lot to learn.

We put in on Lincoln River, a meandering stream that is home to sea turtles, flying shrimp, and visiting dolphins. The smells of the marsh are pungent, and the banks have tall, buff-colored marsh grasses that blow in the breeze. Exotic-looking Spanish moss sways from the limbs of the live oaks and seems to wave hello.

The boys take in the sights and smells while trying to negotiate the tidal stream's tight turns. They struggle to remember steering skills, work at coordinating the foot pedals that control their rudders, and fight the wind that has picked up since we launched.

Their trek guides Ken Bragg and Cathy Phillips have taught them how to use these frequent coastal winds to their advantage. The Scouts pop open umbrellas, catch the wind, and are powered along effortlessly. Big smiles cover the boys' faces; now they're having fun!

Strong winds, weary muscles

As we paddle, we watch snowy egrets fly, sandpipers scurry on the banks looking for sand crabs, and pelicans dive-bombing into the water to come up with a fish in their beaks.

For lunch, we remain in the boats and "raft up," lining the kayaks side by side, held in place with a hand or a paddle laid across. The menu is cheese, crackers, summer sausage, and tortillas with peanut butter and honey. We cut slices for each other, pass items across, share. (Based on previous experience, menu choices are all past hits with the boys. They packed the food themselves the night before we left.)

Our route has us circling Cubbage Island, a privately owned, completely undeveloped island. In exchange for permission to camp there, the Scouts will help build a trail around the island's perimeter. Toward the end of the day, the boys' muscles grow weary and the wind is in their faces. After Troop 7's Alex Salter takes a few strokes, he rests, and the wind pushes his craft backward.

"You have to keep paddling," guide Rhonda Stafford insists, and Alex does so reluctantly. She reminds him to sit forward and use his whole upper body to stroke, not just his arms, which by this point feel like Jell-O. Quitting isn't an option.

Staff members Scottie Maceyko and Chuck Eden meet us at our take-out point to help pull the heavily laden boats up the steep bank. But it's the boys' responsibility to set up the solar shower and the dining area, prepare a chili dinner, and clean up.

After an evening by the fire playing games, putting on skits, and telling stories, the boys go to sleep by the light of a full moon, which filters eerily through the hanging moss.

A remarkable change

On the second day, I notice a remarkable difference in the boys' paddling. They have been let loose to explore the marsh, weaving through the islands, turning around when they hit a dead end, and just going off to see what they can see.

And who is at the head of the pack, stroking with smoothness and confidence, but Jason, the victim of yesterday's premature dunking.

It is startling to see how Jason and his fellow Scouts have grown in less than two days, not just in paddling skills but in self-confidence. Experience has taught them to believe they can do something, no matter how difficult or hopeless it might seem at first.

When the trip is over, I look at the program evaluation forms the Scouts have filled out. I chuckle as I read how they were surprised to find kayaking much harder than they thought it would be, but then quickly adding that they would love to do it again.

Jason's comment hits me the strongest: "I learned I can do something if I try hard enough, and there is so much more to life than just hanging out."

In "Coming of Age on the Continental Divide" in the March-April 1999 issue of Scouting, Cindy Ross told about her family's experiences on another type of wilderness trek—hiking with llamas. Read the article at (click on archives).

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