Day 22 September 30 – First Day on the ICW

This Sunday was an important day for a number of reasons.  First, it was the end of 3 nights staying in the Renaissance Hotel in Portsmouth, during which I washed my clothes, ate high caloric meals and purchased detailed charts for the next 500 miles or so.  Because these charts were so large (6′ by 40 inches), I sent forward the last 3 and kept the first 2 that I will need over the next two weeks.  I then cut up the two that I kept to make them more manageable.  Second, it represented the start of going down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), and 750 miles to  Jacksonville.  After 8 AM Mass at a Catholic Church, I got all of the gear from the hotel and used a cart from the Tidewater marina where Katie had been locked up against a white picket fence near the set of dumpsters that served the boat owners.  I had been worried about how to get Katie back in the water, but there was a corner near where she lay, that had some sand above water once the tide started going down, around 11:30 AM.

By noon I was there, easing Katie down into the shallow water, then packed up all of the gear.  The sun was out, with a gentle northwesterly breeze, and after sending Grace an email at 1:15 that I was off, we headed down the Elizabeth River, past large naval and industrial buildings, some with navel vessels clouded in secretive wrapping behind which work was being done even on a Sunday.  Later, I passed what appeared to be destroyers and an aircraft carrier, being repaired.  Eventually the cranes and buildings receded and the landscape resumed a more natural look, still with periodic large commercial enterprises and barge locations.  I headed down the southern branch, past Chesapeake, and eventually turned left into the breeze towards the Virginia Cut, the first of several canals built by hand in earlier centuries.  I was so happy to be in the ICW and off the Chesapeake Bay!  Several large power boats moved passed me, most slowing down to reduce their wake – I continue to be amazed at the amount of money that has been spent on these vessels.  After a couple of breaks, I arrived at the Lock on the western edge of the town of Great Bridge, and as requested, hailed the lockmaster over my VHF radio on channel 13 to announce my arrival, and my intension of going through the lock.

At 4:30, the lock opened, and I thought I should advance ahead of two yachts behind me, but as I entered, I realized that I had jumped the gun, and then a boat was coming out.  In order to avoid getting too close, I headed to the side where the gates were located, and got too close.  I reached out to grab what I could to slow me down, and was rewarded with several barnacle cuts on my right hand.  I had not worn my gloves this day, which ended up being a mistake.  Anyway, I moved to the far right inside the lock, grabbed onto a metal ladder, and soon I was moving into a canal that goes through Great Bridge.  Another kayaker I had spoken to suggested that I stay at the park for the night, but I could not find confirmation that this would be permitted, so I left the kayak with a nice couple fishing off a dock, and ran to find something to eat for dinner.  After 45 minutes, I returned and thanked Richard and Valerie for watching Katie, and resumed paddling down the canal to the east to look for a good place to camp.  After around mile 15, a man in a rowing shell told me about an abandoned Boys Scout camp ahead on the left, and recommended that I camp there.  I continued to paddle on, trying to find a good opening, but in the growing darkness, it was difficult to find.  I decided to head towards a tiny piece of beach, and there, I saw a break in the bushes into a dark stand of trees, beyond which was a bit of a clearing.  I decided what I really needed to carry up the steep bank, which included my sleeping pad, pillow, sleeping bag, clean clothes, toiletry bag and some water for washing and drinking. With my headlight on, I put up the tent and got ready for bed.  I made sure that Katie was secured at both ends, tied to dead trees lying on the beach.  That was a good thing, because twice during the night, two large barges came through pushed by tugboats lit up like Christmas trees, creating a high swell that crashed into the shore.

As I lay there, happy in my tent, I gave this day a 4.  I had travelled 15 miles in just an afternoon, and thought this was a very good sign about how much progress I could make.  I had to be in Coinjock by Tuesday night as I had arranged after speaking with Grace, to have someone take me from that village on Wednesday around the large Albemarle Sound (14 miles across) and drop me in the northern end of another large piece of water, the Alligator River.  There are several large bodies of water in North Carolina, and this was the largest, and one that I did not think I could negotiate safely.  But as the Alligator River goes south, I thought I could follow the shoreline until the next canal.  I had 35 miles to do in two days, but the weather forecast looked threatening, so I resolved to try to paddle as far as possible the next day.  Little did I realize what a challenge that would be.

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Day 18 Wednesday September 26 – Final Day on the Chesapeake Bay

The first thing I remember as I emerged from my sleep and opened my eyes in the predawn, was the wind.  Inwardly, I groaned.  This is what I had feared.  And I knew that the wind was pushing the waves onto my little beach, which meant a tricky departure.  I waited in my hanging tent for some additional time to pass, allowing brother sun to emerge and shed his light on my surroundings.  I stretched out my muscles and especially my back.  I then packed up everything in my camping area, and in two trips managed to get it all out next to the kayak, which had stayed above the high water mark overnight. As is now my habit, I checked the camping area twice to be sure I was leaving nothing behind.  After packing almost everything into and on the kayak, I sat on some dry seaweed and had my bowl of cereal.  As I looked out over the oncoming waves, a bald eagle flew over my head about 100 feet.  I have seen quite a few of them during my time on the Bay.  This one decided for whatever reason to entertain me as I ate.  He did summersaults, wheelies, and other acrobatic maneuvers for a couple of minutes, until he flew away. I took that as a good omen to offset the challenging weather.  I decided to pull the packed kayak over to the left into some weeds, where the waves were not so big.  There I managed to get in and put on the spray skirt before a wave could fill the cockpit with water, and then I shoved off backwards, and we were on our way.

I resumed our northwesterly direction up into the North River, finding myself in very shallow water, with the strong wind and waves giving me some real challenges.  I passed a number of houses on my right, with their docks sticking out into the river.  My original plan was to paddle well up the river until the shoreline turned west, allowing me to follow it until the southwest wind and waves would allow me to cross with relative ease, but as I proceeded along, I felt the force of the waves ease, and decided to shoot across 2/3 rds to my target.  The crossing was a little more than a mile, and as I proceeded I noticed that there were larger waves coming straight up the river that I had not noticed when I made the decision to cross.  I again used the technique of going exactly straight across the direction of the waves, and watched them closely as I paddled with strong power strokes, using occasional bracing srtokes to keep upright.  I took advantage of the situation to resume saying the Rosary out loud, which is what I always do when things get a bit dicey.   I was soon through the deeper water, and could tell when I was again in shallower depths, and headed to a beach to relax and appreciate the successful crossing.  It was very calm on this side of the river, and I took a picture which looked like the river was a calm lake – very deceiving!

The next river to cross was Ware River, on the other side of Ware Neck Point.  As I rounded that point, I was back in the wind and waves, moving again in the northwest direction.  The chart was very misleading, as most of this river was very shallow.  I decided to attempt an earlier crossing than originally planned, and follow the shallows as far across as I could, then came down to a sand bar called Windmill Point, where I had a quick lunch and took another picture of Katie sitting on the sand.  I realized with concern that if she started off without me, she would sail quickly by herself across much of what I had paddled that day, so I immediately rigged up a safely line to be sure that I was connected to her while paddling.  There are almost no limits to what you can worry about on this voyage.  At the same time, I had to appreciate the amazing amount of distance I had come in just 24 hours.  I could see before me, the very long stretch of woods far in the distance, from way over on my left, to across the beginning of Mobjack Bay way to my right.  And in the process, I had crossed 3 meaningful rivers.  That helped pick up my spirits, and allowed me to resume the journey with a little bit of extra energy.

It was 3 more miles to the next river, the Severn, which runs out of the west, and as I came around Crab Neck, the wind really was strong in my face, forcing me to put a great deal of effort into each stroke.  Most of the northern part of the river was again very shallow, making progress quite difficult.  I decided to take the chance to go across, first heading towards a marker southwest of me, and once reaching that point, then heading east with the wind.  That tactic worked like a charm, and I relaxed as I went with the wind and waves towards the next point that lead me to go southeast down Guinea Neck.  This area was full of marshes and nooks and crannies.  I crossed over a number of coves, and used my GPS to find the water trail past Big Island, where I found myself looking at the big York River.  While tired, I was elated that I would make it to my destination well before nightfall, which is good because I had consumed virtually all of my water during the day.

Two miles later, I turned up Perrin River, and looked for the marina where the moving truck was due to pick me up.  However, after I got out of the kayak, I learned that I still had two more miles to go.  I could not believe that I had made that mistake.  I called the marina I was supposed to be at, and they told me they had no food there, nor was there anywhere I could put up my tent and stay overnight.  And the Crown Pointe Marina, where I found myself, had a nice stand of trees right there.  I just did not want to get back in that kayak and paddle another two miles into the wind and deal with any more waves.  As I wrestled with what to do, I made an effort to calm myself down, and just let what will be will be.  The Lord will show me the way.  Just then, a SUV pulled up, and a man got out.  I went over and introduced myself, gave him my card and told him about my dilemma.  He was one of the boat owners, and called himself “homeless” and “disabled”.  Kenny and his wife Claudia lived full time on a one galley boat in a slip in the water in front of his car.  He gave me some of his good water, and he told me that there should be no problem my staying overnight in the woods.  He was having some people over later for dinner, but he said he had something special for me.  He rummaged through the back of the truck, and pulled out a cooked crab.  He said, “Here, have some of these crabs”.  I took it from his hand, and was at a loss for words, as I could not figure out how I was going to eat it.  I declined more crabs, which surprised him, and then walked over to a picnic table.  There I called Brian H at the moving company, and left a message that I wanted to change the pick-up point for tomorrow.  I just hoped this would all work out.

Kenny told me not to pull any of my camping gear out of the kayak, as there was a local man working on a fishing boat within sight, and he was watching me with a suspicious eye and furthermore, he knew the owners of the marina.  I followed his advice, and just sat there at the table, eating the crab (delicious), disposing of the shells in the water, and making phone calls.  The suspicious man came over to look down at the kayak, which was 100 yards away, talking to some of Kenny’s guests. I could not make out what was being discussed, but eventually, the man left in his red truck and I felt things were turning my way.  I unloaded the kayak, standing in the muck, throwing each item up on to the bank.  I quickly put everything in my two mesh bags, so it would look orderly for any boat owner driving by, then went across to another part of the marina that had a boat ramp, put $10 in the fee box, and carted Katie around back to the boat owners building, which housed the bathrooms and shower facilities.  I brought over the bags, so everything was nice and neat, and out of sight, but ready for the pickup tomorrow.

Just then, Kenny’s guest came over and introduced himself.  Billy C. was also a boat owner, with his crabbing boat next to Kenny’s.  He was amazed at what I was attempting to do, and he said he would be honored to have me as his guest, and to use the facilities.  He gave me the necessary code to get in.  He then told me that his wife had brought some chicken, and they would be pleased to let me have some.  Wow, this was getting better and better!  I quickly put up my tent among the mosquitoes and then joined my new friends.  They let me join them – Billy’s son was also there, and I entertained them with stories from my walk many years ago.  After two pieces of chicken, and as darkness was coming, I excused myself to take a shower and get changed.  By the time I got out, all was quiet at the Kenny’s boat, and Billy and his family had left.  I went to bed, having heard from Brian that the change of pickup location was no problem.  There was a deep sense of both relief that my time on the Chesapeake Bay was over, and one of accomplishment for having paddled a total of around 192 miles, including the 23.4 miles this day.  I rated the day a 3, notwithstanding the difficult wind/wave conditions.  And tomorrow, I would start my way down to Portsmouth VA for a few days of R&R, and to get ready for the next set of adventures with the start of Mile 0 on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).

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Tuesday, September 25

Tuesday morning, I awoke to another clear, sunny day.  I packed up, thanking the Lord for having given me another good camp location, watching over me as I slept, and for giving me all of his blessings that I have received on this voyage so far.  My mind reflected on how John O. and his wife Nancy had come into my life, truly as an “angel”, there to help me get through what challenges lay before me.  A good example, is the conversation that John and I had last Saturday while I was staying with them.  We were talking about how I did not want to kayak around Hampton Roads, across the James River.  According to the Water Guide, “this hugh harbor is home to vessels of all kinds: commercial, military, foreign and recreational.  Not for the faint of heart, this nautical freeway can become a free-for-all…” Hampton Roads is also home to the world’s largest naval base, a major shipbuilder and several great commercial ports.  The busy port cities of Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth generate an amazing amount of traffic, with a large bay to have to cross.  John agreed and we decided to arrange for road transportation through this area.  John had made some calls over the weekend, but would not know anything definitive until Monday afternoon, so last night, he confirmed that a moving company, The Other Moving Company, would be willing to take me sometime on Thursday from the York River Yacht Haven, not too far from the bridge going across the York River, to Portsmouth VA which is located around mile 0 at the ICW, for $120. That meant that I had to paddle around 45 miles this Tuesday, Wednesday, and if necessary, Thursday morning.  During the paddle on Tuesday, he confirmed the details of the contact at the moving company, Brian H., and requested that I call him later to arrange for the actual pickup.  So I knew what I needed to do.  I finished my breakfast and looked out over the calm water in front of me, but the strong southerly wind told me that this was going to be another tough day, as I had to paddle around 12 miles almost straight south.

The initial hour was not too bad, as I was still in the protected waters of the Milford Haven.  The breeze from the south freshened, and I knew that when I re-entered the Chesapeake Bay, I would get pounded.  At the end of the string of small barrier islands to the east, I was back out in the Bay, the strong wind in my face, and the waves coming straight at me.  It felt like a very slow pace, but I could see I was making some progress, but at the cost of a lot of effort.   Each paddle stroke had to be a power stroke, with occasional bracing.  It was approximately 12 miles to the point at which the Mobjack Bay would start, at which time I would start heading almost in the opposite direction, northwest.   I took advantage of every nook and cranny along the coast, looking for any space that gave me a break from the strong winds and waves.  What a slog!!!  I just kept going, saying the Rosary, and thinking about this huge Bay.  I had totally underestimated what an effort this would take.  I was unprepared for these normal weather conditions on the Bay.  Kayakers stay in cute upper reaches of nice creeks and rivers, not what I was trying to do.  I said out loud, “Bay, you win, I lose.  You are just too much for me!!!” Occasionally, tears would well up in my eyes as I thought about where I was, and what I was attempting to do.  Doubts entered my mind.  What is someone almost 66 doing out here???  I took rests when I could, trying to keep my arms and legs, and particularly my back, loose.  I asked Mother Earth, why was she making this so difficult?  Shortly thereafter, as I approached Potato Neck, I noticed that the height of the waves had dropped down to 1 foot.  This immediately made the paddling easier, even if the wind kept up its pace.  I looked to my left, and saw the reason- – the waves were breaking on shallow sand bars out in the distance.  I crossed Horn Harbor to a protected beach in front of some small houses and RV’s, and took my lunch break.  After some peanut butter on pita bread, an apple and a V-8, I lay down to stretch my back.

After 15 minutes, we were back paddling, across one more cove and then on to the southern point.  I saw my first pelican earlier that morning, but when I arrived at the point sand bar that went out into the Bay on my left, there were whole flocks of many birds, including pelicans.  I took a picture of Katie with the birds in the background.  It was 1:45 PM, and this was definitely a turning point.  I started up the other side of this peninsula, and now the wind was coming from behind me on my left, together with the waves, and while much easier, I still had to keep my wits about me. Even though this whole area was very shallow,  I dropped the skeg halfway down to improve Katie’s stability and we moved up the west coast of Mobjack Bay.  I could see in the far distance trees bordering this large bay. There are four rivers to cross, the first one being the East River.  Given the direction of the wind and waves, I expected to have to paddle well up that river, until I found a safe place to cross, but half way there, I took the chance and successfully crossed, using my increasingly capable kayak strokes.  Over the channel I pointed the kayak so that I was parallel to the direction of the waves, which is easier than going into them.  As I reached shallower water, and knew that I could stand, I headed south west to finish the crossing.

As this had been a long day, and a hard one, I decided to find a camp around 4 PM, and saw a tiney beach with some trees located a small distance behind.  I secured Katie, and went to check it out.  There were high bushes surrounding the beach, which I had to literally crash through.  Much of this material was dead, so I broke enough to generate a small path through to the trees.  There I found a perfect location to hang up my tent, on two cedar trees.  I went back to get what I needed, and pulled Katie up to the higher waterline, as the moon has been getting more full, affecting the level of high tide.  After a nice dinner of noodles and tuna fish, I called Brian at the moving company to confirm the arrangements, no answer so left a message on his machine.  I then called John to update him.  A quick call to Grace, and then as the sun went down, giving me another beautiful sunset, I retired to my tent.  There, I gave thanks for all my blessings (in spite of brother wind, who has not been nice), and watched the wind strengthen and whip up the boughs of the cedar trees above me until a worried sleep finally came over me.  My last thoughts of the day were about the sound of the waves crashing on the exposed beach.  I gave the day a 2, due to having to slog through most of the day, but really, I had made good progress – around 22 miles.

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Monday September 24 – Day of Risk

John, Nancy and I were up early – John had to attend a bank meeting at 7:30 and I wanted to get an early start.  The kayak had been mostly packed Sunday, so after a few things put away, I was ready to go.  Nancy took some photos that she would mail to Grace.  As I left, I noticed the wind was picking up, even though the creek outside their house was calm.  As I came out of Antipoison Creek, the wind was much stronger than what I was anticipating.  I paddled across Little Bay and through a short cut in Fleets Island that brought me out to the Rappahannock River. Even though I was only a few hundred yards away from the northern shore of the river, the waves were 1 foot high.  This was not what I was expecting.  I continued to paddle west to Mosquito Point, that juts out into the river.  I decided to check out the bridge far to the west, and try to determine if that would be a better alternative.  When I saw how long the bridge was, and saw large whitecaps on the waves passing under that structure, I knew that would not be a better alternative.  I was uncertain how to proceed.  Then a message crossed my mind – “I will see you though to the other side”.  I knew this was a spiritual message from our Lord, and it repeated itself several times.  With little in the way of alternatives at this point, I turned the kayak to the south to the first flashing red buoy.  The distance was about 2.6 standard miles across.  As I proceeded with the freshening wind at my back, I tried to figure out what direction to head towards.  As I reached the first buoy, large swells came into the mix from the Bay to the east.  At the same time, for whatever reason, there appeared irregular large waves heading down the river coming at me from my right.  So I realized with increasing concern that I would have to deal with 3 different wave patterns.  The most consistent were the ever increasing waves from the wind at my back, so I decided to head downwind, following their lead, and focusing my efforts on the other waves.

Before trying to explain what it was like, it is useful to have some understanding of the characteristics of a kayak.  Each paddle stroke will push the kayak to the opposite direction.  When a wave comes behind you at an angle, you will find the kayak moving in the opposite direction, going into the wave but leaning outward.  In order to gain stability, Katie has a skeg, which acts as a dagger board, coming down from the stern (rear) of the kayak.  You can use a paddle blade as a brace, either using the back of the blade to glide over the water (as long as you are moving forward!), or you can pull your paddle through the water at an angle so that it ends up pushing you up as well as powering you forward.  As these waves approach, the kayak wants to tip in various directions, and with my weight and the heavy load, it would normally capsize.  It is up to me and using these various paddle strokes to prevent that capsize.  There were very few boats around in case that happened, so the worst would be that I would have to use my emergency phone to send a distress signal. So let me see if this gives you an idea what it was like for almost 40 minutes.

The kayak is moving forward on the front of a wind wave.  A large wave comes from my left and lifts the kayak up.  I lean into the wave, attempting to counteract the tendency for the kayak to lean to the right.  I use a left power stroke to straighten out the kayak.  The boat gains some velocity, when I see an even larger wave coming from my right. I use a back bracing stroke on my left to get ready for the impact.  A combination of waves from both sides lifts the kayak a couple of feet, giving you the impression of being shot upwards.  At that point, the kayak is very unstable – the skeg is likely out of the water. I try to use a power stroke on the right to get more stability.  There is so much instability, I abandon that power stroke to use a left bracing stroke, and the two waves move on.  I straighten out our direction, so that we are again moving with the wind waves.  What I have described takes just a few seconds, and is repeated hundreds of times during the crossing.

The far shore comes more clearly in view.  I am 1/4 there, then 1/3, then 1/2, then 2/3, and then 3/4.  My brain is no longer thinking – I am on total automatic response.  The whole time I am saying the Rosary, going through two of them, praying out load while experiencing one of the most frightening moments of my life.  I thought several times that I had promised Grace and other friends not to take these kinds of risks, and here I was, with no alternative but to get through it.  As I got closer to the shore, my right leg gives a hint of a charley horse.  My right arm is aching from the exertion.  500 yards away, and I see that I am in shallower water, and with the wind at my back, if I capsize here, I can swim ashore.  Upon reaching the other side of the river, I find a small beach out of the wind, and get out of the boat.  I am totally exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional effort, and overwhelmed with thanksgiving, for getting across that river.  I spent some time thanking God to having helped me through that experience.  It felt like a graduate course in kayaking.  But the day was not over – it was only beginning.

I paddled through the rough waves and wind coming from my left as I pushed 2 miles to Stingray Point.  There I turned southwest into a great calm.  It was as if the wind and waves had disappeared.  I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch in Deltaville, coming up on my right.  I arrived at a marina, and decided to check out the possibilities.  I tied Katie next to some dinghies where the mud was easy to walk on, and went to the office, where an older gentleman stated that I would have to pay $11 to use any of their facilities, including the use of a bicycle that I would need to get to a restaurant.  I explained what I was doing, and gave him my card, and after a brief conversation, Tom N. nicely waived the fee.  So off I was again on a bike, happily going to lunch.  When I got back, I went to tell Tom that I had returned the bike, and he said he had something for me.  He gave me a copy of a book of poems that he had published about grandfatherhood, and the sea.  He briefly shared with me his life story and growing up in Michigan.  He worked two days a week at the marina, and he called it the best retirement job in the world.  He shook my hand, and genuinely wished me Godspeed.  And with that, I was off to resume the journey.  Next up was the much smaller Piankatank River, but which is still a mile across at the south end of Stove Point.  There I faced the similar weather conditions as that morning, but with smaller, more manageable challenges.  I could not believe I was going through this again, but I approached this challenge with more determination and confidence, albeit that I was more tired.  I continued south until I entered Milford Haven, a piece of water like a river just south of Gwynn Island.  IJohn, Nancy and I were up early – John had to attend a bank meeting at 7:30 and I wanted to get an early start.  The kayak had been mostly packed Sunday, so after a few things put away, I was ready to go.  Nancy took some photos that she would mail to Grace.  As I left, I noticed the wind was picking up, even though the creek outside their house was calm.  As I came out of Antipoison Creek, the wind was much stronger than what I was anticipating.  I paddled across Little Bay and through a short cut in Fleets Island that brought me out to the Rappahannock River. Even though I was only a few hundred yards away from the northern shore of the river, the waves were 1 foot high.  This was not what I was expecting.  I continued to paddle west to Mosquito Point, that juts out into the river.  I decided to check out the bridge far to the west, and try to determine if that would be a better alternative.  When I saw how long the bridge was, and saw large whitecaps on the waves passing under that structure, I knew that would not be a better alternative.  I was uncertain how to proceed.  Then a message crossed my mind – “I will see you though to the other side”.  I knew this was a spiritual message from our Lord, and it repeated itself several times.  With little in the way of alternatives at this point, I turned the kayak to the south to the first flashing red buoy.  The distance was about 2.6 standard miles across.  As I proceeded with the freshening wind at my back, I tried to figure out what direction to head towards.  As I reached the first buoy, large swells came into the mix from the Bay to the east.  At the same time, for whatever reason, there appeared irregular large waves heading down the river coming at me from my right.  So I realized with increasing concern that I would have to deal with 3 different wave patterns.  The most consistent were the ever increasing waves from the wind at my back, so I decided to head downwind, following their lead, and focusing my efforts on the other waves.

Before trying to explain what it was like, it is useful to have some understanding of the characteristics of a kayak.  Each paddle stroke will push the kayak to the opposite direction.  When a wave comes behind you at an angle, you will find the kayak moving in the opposite direction, going into the wave but leaning outward.  In order to gain stability, Katie has a skeg, which acts as a dagger board, coming down from the stern (rear) of the kayak.  You can use a paddle blade as a brace, either using the back of the blade to glide over the water (as long as you are moving forward!), or you can pull your paddle through the water at an angle so that it ends up pushing you up as well as powering you forward.  As these waves approach, the kayak wants to tip in various directions, and with my weight and the heavy load, it would normally capsize.  It is up to me and using these various paddle strokes to prevent that capsize.  There were very few boats around in case that happened, so the worst would be that I would have to use my emergency phone to send a distress signal. So let me see if this gives you an idea what it was like for almost 40 minutes.

The kayak is moving forward on the front of a wind wave.  A large wave comes from my left and lifts the kayak up.  I lean into the wave, attempting to counteract the tendency for the kayak to lean to the right.  I use a left power stroke to straighten out the kayak.  The boat gains some velocity, when I see an even larger wave coming from my right. I use a back bracing stroke on my left to get ready for the impact.  A combination of waves from both sides lifts the kayak a couple of feet, giving you the impression of being shot upwards.  At that point, the kayak is very unstable – the skeg is likely out of the water. I try to use a power stroke on the right to get more stability.  There is so much instability, I abandon that power stroke to use a left bracing stroke, and the two waves move on.  I straighten out our direction, so that we are again moving with the wind waves.  What I have described takes just a few seconds, and is repeated hundreds of times during the crossing.

The far shore comes more clearly in view.  I am 1/4 there, then 1/3, then 1/2, then 2/3, and then 3/4.  My brain is no longer thinking – I am on total automatic response.  The whole time I am saying the Rosary, going through two of them, praying out load while experiencing one of the most frightening moments of my life.  I thought several times that I had promised Grace and other friends not to take these kinds of risks, and here I was, with no alternative but to get through it.  As I got closer to the shore, my right leg gives a hint of a charley horse.  My right arm is aching from the exertion.  500 yards away, and I see that I am in shallower water, and with the wind at my back, if I capsize here, I can swim ashore.  Upon reaching the other side of the river, I find a small beach out of the wind, and get out of the boat.  I am totally exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional effort, and overwhelmed with thanksgiving, for getting across that river.  I spent some time thanking God to having helped me through that experience.  It felt like a graduate course in kayaking.  But the day was not over – it was only beginning.

I paddled through the rough waves and wind coming from my left as I pushed 2 miles to Stingray Point.  There I turned southwest into a great calm.  It was as if the wind and waves had disappeared.  I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch in Deltaville, coming up on my right.  I arrived at a marina, and decided to check out the possibilities.  I tied Katie next to some dinghies where the mud was easy to walk on, and went to the office, where an older gentleman stated that I would have to pay $11 to use any of their facilities, including the use of a bicycle that I would need to get to a restaurant.  I explained what I was doing, and gave him my card, and after a brief conversation, Tom N. nicely waived the fee.  So off I was again on a bike, happily going to lunch.  When I got back, I went to tell Tom that I had returned the bike, and he said he had something for me.  He gave me a copy of a book of poems that he had published about grandfatherhood, and the sea.  He briefly shared with me his life story and growing up in Michigan.  He worked two days a week at the marina, and he called it the best retirement job in the world.  He shook my hand, and genuinely wished me Godspeed.  And with that, I was off to resume the journey.  Next up was the much smaller Piankatank River, but which is still a mile across at the south end of Stove Point.  There I faced the similar weather conditions as that morning, but with smaller, more manageable challenges.  I could not believe I was going through this again, but I approached this challenge with more determination and confidence, albeit that I was more tired.  I continued south until I entered Milford Haven, a piece of water like a river just south of Gwynn Island.  IJohn, Nancy and I were up early – John had to attend a bank meeting at 7:30 and I wanted to get an early start.  The kayak had been mostly packed Sunday, so after a few things put away, I was ready to go.  Nancy took some photos that she would mail to Grace.  As I left, I noticed the wind was picking up, even though the creek outside their house was calm.  As I came out of Antipoison Creek, the wind was much stronger than what I was anticipating.  I paddled across Little Bay and through a short cut in Fleets Island that brought me out to the Rappahannock River. Even though I was only a few hundred yards away from the northern shore of the river, the waves were 1 foot high.  This was not what I was expecting.  I continued to paddle west to Mosquito Point, that juts out into the river.  I decided to check out the bridge far to the west, and try to determine if that would be a better alternative.  When I saw how long the bridge was, and saw large whitecaps on the waves passing under that structure, I knew that would not be a better alternative.  I was uncertain how to proceed.  Then a message crossed my mind – “I will see you though to the other side”.  I knew this was a spiritual message from our Lord, and it repeated itself several times.  With little in the way of alternatives at this point, I turned the kayak to the south to the first flashing red buoy.  The distance was about 2.6 standard miles across.  As I proceeded with the freshening wind at my back, I tried to figure out what direction to head towards.  As I reached the first buoy, large swells came into the mix from the Bay to the east.  At the same time, for whatever reason, there appeared irregular large waves heading down the river coming at me from my right.  So I realized with increasing concern that I would have to deal with 3 different wave patterns.  The most consistent were the ever increasing waves from the wind at my back, so I decided to head downwind, following their lead, and focusing my efforts on the other waves.

Before trying to explain what it was like, it is useful to have some understanding of the characteristics of a kayak.  Each paddle stroke will push the kayak to the opposite direction.  When a wave comes behind you at an angle, you will find the kayak moving in the opposite direction, going into the wave but leaning outward.  In order to gain stability, Katie has a skeg, which acts as a dagger board, coming down from the stern (rear) of the kayak.  You can use a paddle blade as a brace, either using the back of the blade to glide over the water (as long as you are moving forward!), or you can pull your paddle through the water at an angle so that it ends up pushing you up as well as powering you forward.  As these waves approach, the kayak wants to tip in various directions, and with my weight and the heavy load, it would normally capsize.  It is up to me and using these various paddle strokes to prevent that capsize.  There were very few boats around in case that happened, so the worst would be that I would have to use my emergency phone to send a distress signal. So let me see if this gives you an idea what it was like for almost 40 minutes.

The kayak is moving forward on the front of a wind wave.  A large wave comes from my left and lifts the kayak up.  I lean into the wave, attempting to counteract the tendency for the kayak to lean to the right.  I use a left power stroke to straighten out the kayak.  The boat gains some velocity, when I see an even larger wave coming from my right. I use a back bracing stroke on my left to get ready for the impact.  A combination of waves from both sides lifts the kayak a couple of feet, giving you the impression of being shot upwards.  At that point, the kayak is very unstable – the skeg is likely out of the water. I try to use a power stroke on the right to get more stability.  There is so much instability, I abandon that power stroke to use a left bracing stroke, and the two waves move on.  I straighten out our direction, so that we are again moving with the wind waves.  What I have described takes just a few seconds, and is repeated hundreds of times during the crossing.

The far shore comes more clearly in view.  I am 1/4 there, then 1/3, then 1/2, then 2/3, and then 3/4.  My brain is no longer thinking – I am on total automatic response.  The whole time I am saying the Rosary, going through two of them, praying out load while experiencing one of the most frightening moments of my life.  I thought several times that I had promised Grace and other friends not to take these kinds of risks, and here I was, with no alternative but to get through it.  As I got closer to the shore, my right leg gives a hint of a charley horse.  My right arm is aching from the exertion.  500 yards away, and I see that I am in shallower water, and with the wind at my back, if I capsize here, I can swim ashore.  Upon reaching the other side of the river, I find a small beach out of the wind, and get out of the boat.  I am totally exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional effort, and overwhelmed with thanksgiving, for getting across that river.  I spent some time thanking God to having helped me through that experience.  It felt like a graduate course in kayaking.  But the day was not over – it was only beginning.

I paddled through the rough waves and wind coming from my left as I pushed 2 miles to Stingray Point.  There I turned southwest into a great calm.  It was as if the wind and waves had disappeared.  I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch in Deltaville, coming up on my right.  I arrived at a marina, and decided to check out the possibilities.  I tied Katie next to some dinghies where the mud was easy to walk on, and went to the office, where an older gentleman stated that I would have to pay $11 to use any of their facilities, including the use of a bicycle that I would need to get to a restaurant.  I explained what I was doing, and gave him my card, and after a brief conversation, Tom N. nicely waived the fee.  So off I was again on a bike, happily going to lunch.  When I got back, I went to tell Tom that I had returned the bike, and he said he had something for me.  He gave me a copy of a book of poems that he had published about grandfatherhood, and the sea.  He briefly shared with me his life story and growing up in Michigan.  He worked two days a week at the marina, and he called it the best retirement job in the world.  He shook my hand, and genuinely wished me Godspeed.  And with that, I was off to resume the journey.  Next up was the much smaller Piankatank River, but which is still a mile across at the south end of Stove Point.  There I faced the similar weather conditions as that morning, but with smaller, more manageable challenges.  I could not believe I was going through this again, but I approached this challenge with more determination and confidence, albeit that I was more tired.  I continued south until I entered Milford Haven, a piece of water like a river just south of Gwynn Island.  II passed the Coast Guard Station and stopped for water at a boat storage facility next door, where two nice young men helped me fill up two bottles from a well on the side of the building.  A mile later, I found a good spot for camping out – a small beach with a woods behind it, away from any houses nearby.

I had paddled a total of 19.4 miles, using my best estimates measuring the chart, and have decided to rate this day a 2, due primarily to the scary crossing of the Rappahannock River.

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September 21, 22, 23 – Days of R&R

The days spent with Nancy and John O. were very special.  Colin F., a friend met through work, arranged this visit for me.  John is Colin’s best friend from childhood, and is very interested in boating, and the outdoors in general.  Colin joined us from his home in Charlotte NC together with his girlfriend, Christina, arriving that Friday late afternoon.  We celebrated our getting together, and reviewed my write up of that morning, a day that I have rated a 5.  Nancy cooked up great crab cakes and there was a lot of laughter during the pleasant evening.  Saturday, John and I ran some errands, and later he helped me successfully repair a small crack in the yellow gelcoat on the underside of the kayak.  Saturday afternoon, John took all of us out in his 30+ foot boat for a swim in Fleets Bay and a tour of one of the creeks I had passed the prior day.  That evening, Colin treated us to dinner at a Thai restaurant in White Stone.  During the day, the laundry was done, limited food stocks replenished and a fleece blanket purchased for nights now dropping into the mid 40’s.  Sunday morning, we all attended Nancy and John’s church, Grace Episcopal, from where Colin and Christina left to return to Charlotte, 7 hours away.  That night, I repacked everything, removing some items no longer deemed necessary, which Nancy would mail back to Grace.  A nice dinner consisting of filets cooked on the grill, with sweet potatoes and greens was enjoyed by the three of us, by way of a nice sendoff before I have to subsist on my camp food.  John and I reviewed the weather forecast for Monday morning, when I would have to cross the Rappahannock River.  I kept my sense of misgivings about this crossing to myself, but the weather did look quite favorable, with a north wind in the 5 knot per hour range.  Little did I know that my misgivings were to prove accurate.

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Day 13 – The Porpoises Join Me

Despite the long sleep, I felt lethargic, likely due to the considerable distance paddled yesterday.  I looked up through the trees and saw the sky gradually brighten.  It felt chilly, somewhere in the mid 50’s and last night I was just warm enough.  I looked over to the east to see if the sun was up, and it was still getting ready to show itself.  I decided to wait until she was more visible, and warming up my surroundings.  She finally broke through the low clouds in the distance, and I watched the sunlight descend along the tree trunks above my head.  When it got down to around 10′, it was time to get up.

I put on my long sleeve shirt and pants that I left in the tent overnight (I have two such shirts, one warmer than the other, and one pair of pants – the kind that you can take off the bottoms).  This would keep me warmer as I made ready to pack up, and keep the occasional mosquito off me.  I carefully untied the straps that went around the two trees holding up the tent, as both had some poison ivy of some variety.  I made sure that everything was packed from the tent site, so I could take it all in one trip back through the woods to the sand bar 100 feet away – too many prickers to come back for a second trip.  Katie was high above the low tide, waiting to get started.  After putting all of the gear in its proper place in the kayak, I checked the area twice thoroughly, as is now my habit, and once strapped in, sent my usual morning message to Grace that I was setting off.  It was 8:30 AM as I slid off the shallow beach area, and set off across Indian Creek.

The day was full of promise – a slight north breeze moving across the still waters, that undulated with small swells reflecting the early morning sun.  I only had 5 or 6 miles to go to reach John and Nancy O.’s house, which I had been told is located well into the last of the 4 creeks that come out of the west into the Bay.  Most of the water is quite shallow – at times less than 1 foot deep.  I decided to paddle directly across the channel, as it was so calm.  I started saying out loud my Rosary, as I like to do when I start out and also when I cross open water.  I was lost in the cadence of the prayer when I suddenly heard the sound of air coming out of a blowhole.  I looked to my right, and there was a porpoise 12 feet away rising above the green water.  It was a light gray and showed me its back before softly submerging.  It took a few miliseconds to realize what a special visit this was.  Another few seconds went by, when several porpoises broke the surface around me, moving in in the same direction as the kayak, and staying just out of range of my rythmic paddling strokes.  Their waves rocked the kayak, and my anxiety rose, but I continued to say my prayers, louder this time, trusting that all would end well.  I then could see them dive under the boat.  The four of them resurfaced  at the same time with military precision, two on each side close to the bow of the kayak, and all four blew air simultaneously at the peak of their rising.  It was all amazing.  Once more, one came up on the left about 20 feet away ahead of me, as if to say, good bye, and then they were gone.  Shortly afterward, I reached the other side of the channel, and found myself in very shallow water again.

I crossed Dymer and Tabbs creeks with ease and traveled due south, literally picking my way through the very shallow water until I reached Antipoison Creek.  The name comes from the legend that the Indians took some of the creek mud and dressed a snake bite experienced by John Smith.  I headed west into the very sheltered creek, where the water was surprisingly deep, and poked around a couple of offshoots, looking for John and Nancy’s house.  I kept checking my I-Phone map, and got it wrong a couple of times.  As I was coming back to go up another small piece of the creek, I saw a woman in a gray kayak paddling towards me.  She called out “Fal?”.  I responded “Nancy?”.  She had seen me passing by going up the wrong direction, and came out to escort me to their house.  It was a great feeling to be there with new friends that I had never met before.

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Day 12 – First full day of Kayaking in Virginia

I awoke around 7:15 after a great night of sleep of almost 12 hours.  This is what happens when you generally go to sleep in the tent when it gets dark, and get up when the sun is up at this time of the year.  The sun reflected off the mist coming up off the river – it was a beautiful sight.  Next to Katie, there was a large hole in the sand with the obvious footprints – a masked bandit had been looking for turtle eggs while I was asleep.  I packed up the kayak, having the last of the cereal, and was on my way at 8:30.  The trip down the river was straightforward – about 6 miles following the coves of the larger bays.  As I approached the mouth entering the Bay, the wind picked up, out of the east.  I was hoping for a west wind, but that was not to be.  I headed south towards Dameron Marsh, which juts out into the Bay by a mile.  That was a slog through some larger surf, and then headed south along its front, where it felt more like paddling in the ocean, with the surf crashing against the marsh.  Once around it became completely calm, out of the wind, with only the gentle swells coming through.  However, further south, the east wind came back into play.  I continued to see Bald Eagles, as I have ever since Day 3 – they are always exciting to see.

I found myself pushing hard to deal with the waves that rocked the kayak.  Due to the surf, I played it very safe, and followed all of the cove contours, watching closely the depth of the water.  My ability to read that depth based on the water color improved.  The water has also been more clear.  At Dividing Creek, I went almost fully around the cove.  This approach requires a lot more “miles” traveled, but it is the only way that I feel comfortable in unstable water.  Later that afternoon, I passed Bluff Pointe, that starts a series of 4 small creeks.  I called John O. to see if it would be ok to come a day earlier, as I had made such good time, but due to a social engagement that he and his wife Nancy had to attend, we agreed I would arrive the following morning.  I found a small sand bar tucked in a small cove between two very fancy houses, and behind the bar, a thicket of woods.  As I was uncertain what camping spots might open up as I paddled around Indian Creek, I decided to grab this opportunity.  Mosquitoes welcomed me to the sand bar, but it did not matter, this was my camp.  I set it up as quickly as possible, and stood on the sand bar, where the bugs were not so numerous.  I put on a long sleeve shirt and long pants which helped, but decided not to bother cooking, but instead eat a Cliff bar in the tent.  As the sky darkened, I watched the clouds through the tree tops go from light pink, to darker pink, to purple, and  before I knew it, I was asleep.  It had been a good day of kayaking, with lots of variety in landscape and paddling conditions.  I rate the day overall a 3.

The landscape in Virginia is definitely different from the northern part of the Bay.  There are more pine trees than before, and generally larger stretches of inhabited land that offer many primitive camping locations.  It feels good to be heading towards the lower Bay.

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Day 11 – Time for a Restart

Grace and I left the Solomons Victoria Inn at 11 AM with the intention of crossing the Potomac River using the 301 bridge that takes you to the Northern Neck of Virginia.  We took route 3 east until 360, and headed in the direction of Reedville, a town located just south of Smith Point, where the southern side of the Potomac comes into contact with the Bay.  I was due to arrive Friday afternoon at the house of good friends of a good friend, to whom I had been introduced over the phone.  I had a little over 2 days to make the distance of what turned out to be 36.1 standard miles.  We reached Burgess, and turned south across the bridge over the Great Wicomico River, which runs east to the Bay.  My chart showed a boat ramp at the bridge, but it turned out to be a private access ramp, whose owner charges an access fee.  I was told to go to a brown house and ask there.  When I rang the doorbell, an older gentleman came to the door, with a quizzical look on his face.  I started to explain that I was looking for an access ramp to put in my kayak, and so that Grace could head out home.  Bill C. wanted to know what I was doing.  When I explained, he said he had never heard of anyone doing something like that, and he warmed up and said he would waive the $10 fee.  Grace drove the car around, and parked near the ramp.  Bill came down to watch. We unloaded all of the gear, except there was something clearly missing – the spare paddle.  We took nearly everything out of the packed car, and it was not there.  We (that is me) had to have left it in Saint Michaels.  My inattention to these critical issues upset Grace, but she could not wait to see me packed and off, so she said good buy, and she was gone at 2:30 PM with a very long drive ahead of her.  Bill stayed and kept me company, took some pictures, and then offered to let me camp on his property if I could not find someplace better.  After thanking him for all of his help, I headed up river to find a place to camp.  I last saw him waving as I left his view.  Paddling under the bridge I decided not to fight both the north wind and the ebb tide for too long, and after about one and half miles, saw a beach with a woods behind that looked like a good spot.

I followed my usual routine, which after securing the kayak,  is to set up the hammock tent first, inflate the 3/4 Thermorest pad, take out my Wiggy’s sleeping bag, so that everything is more or less ready for sleeping when it gets dark, which is now around 7:30 PM.  I then cooked up some hot water on my small Zip Stove, which burns twigs and pine cones with the help of a small fan powered by a AA battery.  With the decaf coffee made, I then proceeded to cook up some black bean soup.  I drank a small can of V8 and took my multi-vitamin.  After supper, I cleaned the dishes with some beach sand and river water, and prepared to wash myself.  This is something that I try to do each night, wash using a small sponge and fresh water, then putting on a change of clothes, except this time, I decided to keep what I had on, as it had been such a short trip.  Next, I took all of the bags that had some kind of food (back-up bag with most of the food, the breakfast bag and the lunch bag) and tied them up in a tree so none of the smaller animals could get to them.  I then strung a line up to hang up my wet gloves, life vest, kayak skirt etc.

Sometime later in the evening, I awoke to hear a loud noise from what had to be a large deer.  I could tell I was camping in his spot, and could hear him testing my scent, snorting, clearly annoyed that I was there.  He approached from another direction, but then he decided that he would have to find someplace else that night, and then he was gone.

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Day 6 through 10 September 14 – 18 Days of R&R

Many months ago, I planned on taking some days off after the start of the kayak trip, partly to rest, but most important, to spend time  with Grace.  This turned out to be really important after a very hectic time preparing for retirement and the start of the voyage.  What a Godsend!  We stayed at the Two Swan Inn, in the Magic Room facing the boats, and our time was indeed magical.  We made a  conscious effort not to do a lot, but rather just spend time with each other.  Quiet moments treasured.  And this, with the backdrop of not knowing when we would see each other after Sunday, when I was planning on resuming the trip.  Sunday morning came much too quickly, as it usually does.  After Church, we packed up to cross the Bay Bridge.  We had already decided not to test my kayak skills in crossing the 5 miles or so across the Bay on my own.  Due to the late hour, we decided to find somewhere to stay overnight around Deale, across from where St. Michaels is located.  We ended up at a very nice resort in Rose Haven, just north of Chesapeake Beach, which had a beautiful beach from where I planned on leaving in the morning.

For some reason, I decided to check the NOAA weather advisory for that part of the Chesapeake  Bay, and when I read the report, I realized that a big storm was coming our way Tuesday, with strong winds beginning that Monday afternoon from the South, with high waves leading into really serious weather on Tuesday.  I shared this news with Grace, and told her I was unprepared to take that risk on the western side of the Bay, especially with the lack of coves and the high walls against which I could be pinned.  Instead, we agreed to drive down to Solomons Island, where we took a room at a very nice B&B, called the Solomons Victorian Inn for two nights to wait out the storm, which came right on time.  As of this writing, we are getting ready to pack up and depart for Reedville, south of the Potomac River.  Due to continuing high wind from the north, I will not try to paddle the southern shore of that river, but rather kayak up the Wicomico River to find a place for the night, with the expectation of visiting friends for the weekend near Irvington VA.

While I am disappointed that I will not have paddled the entire length of the Bay, I will have paddled close the the amount of miles that it takes to motor the entire length.  Safety is far more important than any particular feat.  And, weather permitting, I hope to complete the voyage down Virginia’s western shoreline all the way to Newport News.

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Day 5 September 13 2012 – Arrival in Saint Michaels!

At first light, I was up, excited about getting to my destination for the week, and seeing Grace.  Everything was organized around Katie for a fast departure, and I was on the water on my way by 7:15 AM!   I caught the outgoing tide down the Chester River, past Queenstown, as I headed towards the Kent Narrows, the piece of water that separates Kent Island from the mainland.  This island is also used by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  I approached the narrows with the tide behind me, and cruised over to one of the shellfish packing houses just before the bridge.  I saw some old pile timbers, and decided to tie Katie up in some quiet water out of the way.  As I got out, I was in 18 inches of water covering old oyster shells.  As I walked along the water at the edge of the grass, I saw under water several crabs darting away from me.  I decided to stop for some hot breakfast – I had not eaten anything in anticipation of a great breakfast cooked by someone other than me.  However, as is often the case, one’s expectations are not met.  All of the restaurants in the area, and there are some really good ones, only serve lunch and dinner, as some one explained to me, so that they can make their money selling beer.  So here I was, at 10 AM, looking for breakfast and there was no place interested in serving me that breakfast.  I went over to sit on some steps near the marina office, and a young man came out, named Brian.  After I shared with him what I was doing, he got very excited.  Brian has been up and down the ICW “50 times or more”, and has been all the way to Venezuela and back.  He told me there was one place that I had to spend time, where the restaurant is famous, and where boatmen come from all around to share their yarns.  He said, it is called Coinjock, in North Carolina, and I should spend at least a couple of days there.  I was surprised at the location, as that is the site where I am sending my first parcel through the mail near the start of the ICW.  He shared with me some additional great places of interest.  He then said that there are remarkable things to see on the ICW, and that most people just try to fly though and thus miss what there is to see.  He advised me that the key is not trying to move quickly through, and he thought going in a kayak was a perfect way to see all of it.  He then told me to take full advantage of the tide and proceed south to St. Michael’s as quickly as I could, and I took his advice.  I gave up the idea of waiting for lunch, but took advantage of the restrooms (with showers) before leaving, just to shave 4 days worth off, which felt just great.  I went back to the backwater area where Katie was waiting for me, and we were soon off padding under the bridge and past the Wildfowl Trust of America.  I crossed over the bay area to Hoghole and down a couple of southerly peninsulas.  There was one time, when I rested, that when I got out of the kayak, I had difficulty standing up.  Either my legs were stiff from not moving, or I was too used to the motion of the kayak, but I floundered around until I plopped into the water on my butt, laughing at the sight that no one else could see.  The anticipation was building, so I called Grace to let her know that I should be there around 3:30 to 4:00 PM.  I was hoping that this would be a conservative estimate, but with the tide changed and the wind now coming out of the SW, my progress slowed noticeably.  I crossed the Miles River to Deepwater Point, paddling with a vigorous stroke through the increasing wind and wave action.  At 3:45 I called Grace to tell her that I was standing on a small sandy beach outside of the harbor.  Three minutes later, I came around the bend to see her waving excitedly at me.  There are no words to express how great I felt, to have come so far to see someone so dear.  I decided to rate this day a 5.  The 22 miles paddled make the week’s total 92 miles, which is not very efficient, as the direct distance for boaters is 63 miles, but I had to follow the coves, and there was the unfortunate lesson in Day 3 that cost me 13 miles.  But, I was happy and relieved, and so looking forward to a few days of true R&R with my sweetheart.

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