Years ago, when Ethan was very young. Bill said that he wanted to send him on an Outward Bound trip when he was older. Outward Bound is an amazing organization that was developed during World War II by Kurt Hahn. It was developed to help seaman to deal with the harsh conditions. To build character, confidence, and the ability to survive in those conditions. For many years now, it has helped both youth and adults all around the world to do things they never thought possible. In July 2010, at the age of 14, Ethan went on a two week trip to the Smokey Mountain National Forest near Ashville, North Carolina to backpack and mountain climb. Scary stuff for both child and parents. He returned a new kid. Almost a man.
In October 2012, Billy came up with a “GREAT” idea, at least in his mind. Brennan and I had been having a hard time making it through his tween years with a constant battle of wills, remember he is me in male form, and Bill thought an Outward Bound Parent/Child trip was just what we needed. I disagreed.
First of all, I am not a camper. I have always said that my idea of camping is going to a Howard Johnson. In other words, I don’t camp. Ever. At least I thought that was who I was. Secondly, how would I deal with my Ostomy? I didn’t want people to know about it, and I didn’t know how I would deal with hiding it with no bathroom facilities…….and in a canoe. The trip was a four-day camping, and canoeing trip through the Everglades. Hours and hours, miles and miles of canoeing, and camping on little islands at night. But with my recent experience-it-all attitude. I couldn’t say no.
The day after Christmas 2012, with a fever brewing and illness setting in, Brennan and I left on a plane headed to Fort Myers, Florida. Bill said that maybe we should cancel since I was getting sick, but I wouldn’t do it. We had already had to cancel a major family vacation that summer to deal with a mysterious stomach virus I had for a month. I wasn’t going to do that to him again, so off we went. That night in the hotel my fever seemed to spike. I don’t know how high, but I had chills and asked Brennan to cover me with a second giant, down comforter, then popped a few NyQuil. I was going. Period.
The next morning I woke up feeling a little better, but not…”Hey! Let’s go paddle a canoe 10 or 15 nautical miles and be on, possibly, alligator-infested dark water until 10pm tonight”……kind of better, but that was what this was all about, right? Doing something you didn’t think you could. If I got too sick, they had people that could come get me. I never did tell them how sick I had been. I just asked if it was okay if I had cold medicine with me, as our paperwork said they had to know what everyone had medication-wise. This rule was generally for the kids on trips, as the counselors doled out medication when parents weren’t included.
After our half-day of getting to know one another, team-building, and loading boats, we were on our way. Sunset would hit about an hour after we left, and I asked for aspirin, saying I had a headache, but knew my fever was starting again. Luckily, that was the last time I would have a fever. The remainder of the trip was just cold symptoms and bodyaches.
That first night, because of our late start, we paddled through the dark Everglades until 10pm. They had started the trip by mixing up the groups, and I was in a canoe with a 13 year old girl. A tired, young girl, who had to go potty. Together we were a sad team that first night. We were always at the back of the canoe pack, and crossing the big bay areas in the dark was scary! Maybe more for me than her, as I had someone else’s child with me! The area was full of Mullet fish, but everytime I heard a “plop” in the water, I feared being followed by an alligator. I was also worried that the rest of the group wouldn’t realize how far behind we were, and that we weren’t with them anymore. On the last large bay before the island we were to camp on that night, God and I had a little chat. He came through for me. Good guy that he is.
As dawn broke on that second day, I woke from my sleep under the tree I had hung my mosquito net from to birds chirping and flying overhead. I will never forget it. It was beautiful. It was the first moment that I thought…. “I got this.”
We had breakfast and cleaned the dishes, packed up our stuff, had a group meeting with charts and compasses and planned our route for the day, loaded the boats, and we were on our way again. On this day, the boats were filled with either two kids, or two adults. Another long day, and 15 to 20 nautical miles later, we arrived at a peninsula on a small island on the Gulf of Mexico. It was dark, but only about 7pm, and the winds were pretty rough. The canoes were slamming into the beach on the wrong side of the peninsula from where we had to camp. We had to get out of the canoes to pull them around the tip of the peninsula, over razor-sharp, crushed, oyster-shells-of-death. We were required to wear tennis shoes at all times, and now I knew why. Brennan was behind me with another young man, maneuvering their canoe around the beach. God and I had another chat. Luckily, we all came through unscathed and we spent the night sleeping on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. We awoke to a beautiful sunrise.
The final day of heavy paddling was a test. We had to plan our route, use our compasses, and help each other to arrive at our destination without help from our counselors, who followed at a distance. It was a shorter day, and we were in the boat with our own child. The route ended at The Everglades National Park where we went ashore, ate dinner, and wrote notes to our child, or the child to the parent, to be mailed six month later. We discussed what we had learned about each other and how the experience had effected us. Following dinner, the children were to direct the adults on how to turn our five canoes, and the boards that were stored in the bottom of them, into a floating island to camp on. The adults were required to follow the children’s directions without comment. We paddled the “island” to just outside the park limits to camp for the night. Each of us had an area of about 2 ft wide by 7 ft. long to sleep and store our stuff on.
As as I said, I was still experiencing cold symptoms. I had run out of medication, and this would be the first night without it. As I fell asleep, I apparently started snoring. Loudly. Brennan elbowed me in the back. I stopped. Fell back to sleep. Another elbow in the back. Repeat. I wanted to sleep. I was exhausted. Finally, I fell asleep, apparently acceptably quiet, and so did everyone else.
It was COLD that night. Really cold. I was so glad that I had Bill to snuggle up behind. Until I realized…Bill wasn’t there. That would be one of the guy counselors I was spooning with. Aaaaaaah! Turn towards Brennan…go back to sleep. Still cold…..so glad Bill is snuggling up to me…..”Wait a minute….! Now he is spooning with me!” Awkward! Apparently they had warned the kids that this might happen, due to the space limit, but forgot to tell the adults. In the morning, when we woke, I apologized for the unintentional spooning, and for what Brennan called my snoring. He said it sounded like I was “calling to the whales.”
After breakfast, we paddled back to the park on our floating “island.” We passed by individual canoes going out for the day. We looked like we were rolling in from the ocean, and got a kick out of the look on people’s faces. We cleaned the canoes, and all the equipment, then we met to talk about what we had learned and how we felt we had grown as individuals.
By the end of the trip, we were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, but we had achieved great things, and seen some amazing sights. We had learned how to read compasses, and nautical charts. We learned how to navigate the hundreds of small islands in the Everglades, and use natural landmarks to identify where we were. We had made and cleaned up three meals and a few snacks a day, and packed and unpacked canoes more times than we wanted to count. We had worked as a team. Four adults, four kids, and two counselors. We had also seen beautiful wildlife, phenomenal sunsets and sunrises, a bright, big, full moon, and been visited by dolphins.
After returning to the hotel in preparation to fly home, I would summarize the trip on Facebook. Perfectly. “It was amazing and miserable, frustrating and enlightening, ugly and beautiful. I hated it and loved it. It was the most precious time with my little man.”
No one can ever take that time away from us. No one will ever know how awesome it was. We will never be the same.