Weekending: Kayaking Through Hell and High Water

You know that feeling when you wake up from a nightmare? When you’re heart’s pounding, and you’re frantically trying to figure out if what just happened is real? Yeah, that happened last weekend, but it was real. I was wide awake.

I can’t think of a time I’ve been more terrified than last Saturday.

Bill’s birthday is July 15th, and this year, it landed right after our big move from California to Florida. After the pain in the ass that is moving across the country, the two things that really killed us were how expensive it was and how much STUFF we have. I heard Bill complain about this for over a month, so I knew that I needed to get creative with his gift this year. He wouldn’t want me to spend very much, and he sure as hell wouldn’t want me to bring any more stuff into our house. (Oh, how different we can be sometimes…) So after racking my brain and researching for days, I finally settled on something that I thought my sports- and exercise-loving husband would get excited about: a four-hour kayaking tour of Fort Myers Beach and the surrounding area. I found a good deal with a local company and booked it, still a little insecure at not having something physical for him to unwrap. 

After trying to surprise him by scheduling it without him knowing, I failed miserably three times and finally gave it to him over homemade birthday paella during our candlelit dinner. He seemed pretty happy with it. Mission accomplished.

It took a few weeks to find a time to go – the first weekend Bill just plain old needed off, then he hurt his back playing basketball – but last weekend it finally worked out. Or so we thought. We got up early, which in our household is 8 a.m. with Bill’s work schedule, and headed down in the direction of the beaches to meet our tour guide. We pulled up to a group of eager kayakers who were mildly disappointed. A thunderstorm was hovering right over the beach where our kayaks were pointing, and our guide informed us that we needed to wait it out a little bit to see what it was going to do. A stroll down Fort Myers Beach and an hour and fifteen minutes later, we finally got the go ahead to come back and push off. When we arrived back at the dock, we were the only two there. Where was the rest of the group? Nowhere to be seen, but maybe they had decided to reschedule. The guy took us over to our boats, and I noticed there were only two, quickly realizing we were on our own. Okay, not the end of the world. The guide started to describe the best places to explore, and his directions were so lengthy and complicated that I had to ask him to repeat them again. He then told us that he had printed out some maps, but they had blown away. Um, I’m sorry… What? Apparently, printing them off again was a little too much, so he sent us out without them. But as he was explaining this, three dolphins swam by a few feet into the river, and I instantly ignored the red flag feeling in my gut. Mistake #1.

We shoved off anyway.

IMG_6128Well, the trip started out well. The water was calm as we headed down the river channel to where the bay opened up, myself repeating his instructions in my head. There was wildlife all around us, and everything was going exactly as I expected, as I was snapping away with the camera on my iPhone. Observe, a wild pelican.IMG_6129

The uneasy feeling soon returned, though, as we paddled out into the bay. The wind seemed to have lingered after the storm had passed through, and the water was choppier than expected, but still manageable. We hooked to the right as instructed, looking ahead for what the guide had called Bunch Beach. We were told to pass the beach in search of an inlet that would lead us to the mangrove tunnels. Well, as it would turn out, that beach was not only quite a ways farther than he lead on, but it was also the longest beach known to mankind. “Just on the other side of the beach” turned into an hour of hard paddling through rougher and rougher water. Soon I was getting pushed closer and closer to the beach, the waves crashing over the side of the kayak and soaking me through. It only got worse until all of a sudden I was washed up on shore, BEACHED even, utterly and completely surprised to find myself amid large, flat, gray rocks. That was until I looked down, and the surprise turned to horror as I found myself swarmed with not rocks, but the most alien-looking creatures covering the sand and sliding toward my boat. As I would later find out by Googling “flat gray shell beach animals” – impressive, I know – they were Atlantic horseshoe crabs that looked a little something like this:

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(Image via http://bio1151b.nicerweb.com/Locked/media/ch33/horseshoe.html, as I was too scared for my life that I did not take a picture and got the hell out.)

I had never seen anything so hideous before in my life and began screaming, all while trying to push my way back into the water with my paddle – a tough feat when fighting the breaking surf. When I finally got myself back out where I needed to be, I didn’t know what else to do than just paddle my little heart out in the direction I was unsure I should even be going in the first place. Well, Mistake #2, as I found myself way ahead of BIll and alone, still shaken up from my wash up the shore. But I finally found the inlet and sat in silence while I waited, and when he finally caught up he wasn’t happy with me, but at least we were back together and out of rough water. IMG_6132

We headed up the river to what we thought would be our destination. After that little adventure, we were pretty stoked to be there.IMG_6133We soon came to a bridge so low we had to duck to glide under it, but what we found on the other side was a little disappointing. We could only go about yay far into the so-called mangroves before we had to turn around.IMG_6131The “amazing tunnels” our guide had been touting left much to be desired, and we voiced our complaints loudly as we turned around to head back. Mistake #3, as the universe was about to invite us to put our money where our mouth is. About halfway back to the bay, Bill capsized. My immediate reaction was terror, as we are in Florida and only God knows what could be in that water. But as he made his way safely to shore by a conveniently located boat ramp, he did not get eaten, and I lightened up enough to snap a photo and laugh (just a little). IMG_6134

As he climbed out of the water and emptied his sinking kayak, we noticed a tour guide had just met up with two men at the boat ramp, and the group was preparing for a tour. A guided tour. Like I thought we were getting. This lady’s schpiel seemed pretty legit, so I urged Bill to ask her if there was another way back to our starting point than heading back out the way we came. She pointed us in the direction of the mangrove tunnels from which we just came, directing us to glide back under the bridge, turn right, head through the lagoon (sounds pleasant), and through the passageway to on the other side. “It will put you out right by the Fort Myers Beach Bridge.” That sounded a lot more enjoyable than the first two hours of our trip, so when Bill turned to me and said, “Do you trust her?” I replied with an emphatic “Yes, let’s do it.” Looking back, this was Mistake #4, as my answer should have been “No way, man. Let’s not.” 

It looked as if we made the right decision, especially gliding through the calm waters into the gorgeous lagoon. Looks pretty friendly to me.IMG_6140Arriving in the lagoon, fish were jumping everywhere, and I immediately spotted a giant egret poised up in the trees. On the other side, however, the passageway she had described was nowhere to be found, and we seemed to have reached a dead end. This is when, as if on cue, the woman came into the lagoon and called out, in complete smug seriousness, “I’ll show you the way for 50 bucks.” She tricked us, the witch. But just then, I spotted a small pink ribbon hanging from a tree in the distance, which our original guide had briefly mentioned marked the way for kayakers. As we headed towards it she disappointedly yelled that we were right on the money, and although I was nervous heading into the small covered mangrove tunnel, I was sure it couldn’t have been that bad, right? WRONG. 

Surrounded by mangrove tree branches and roots to the left, the right, and above, the space was a little tighter than expected, but doable. Cool, even. That is until Bill called from behind, “Um, Ash? Just keep looking straight ahead okay?” Uh, why? “Just do it, okay?” Well, of course, I looked, and I was terrified to realize that the mangrove trees surrounding us were crawling with thousands and thousands of tiny black tree crabs that looked like spiders, a little something like this:

Mangrove Tree Crabs

(Image via http://www.easttennesseewildflowers.com/gallery/index.php/Seashores, because again – too terrified to even think of taking a picture.)

There were lines of them climbing up the trees to our right. They were sitting in every crevice to the left. They scuttled and scurried across branches a foot above our heads. I let out a small groan of fright as I realized that there was no way out but forward. It was so narrow that I couldn’t see Bill behind me, and there was no place to turn around. Through the crab-infested trees was our only choice.

Then the way became narrower. And the branches above us got lower. The roots hanging down began to block the way, and the only way through was to slowly navigate this way and that, leaning to the side here and ducking down there to avoid hitting the branches all around us. It was obvious that one small bump could potentially drop at least fifty crabs on our kayaks. That, I could definitely not handle. This is about when I started crying. It got to the point where I was shimmying down in my kayak to make myself as horizontal as possible to clear the branches. Gliding under the low-hanging bark meant the crabs were scurrying inches from my face, and I starting wondering when I was going to wake up.

Well, I most definitely woke up. About thirty minutes into this detour from hell, after just clearing one of the most difficult maneuvers so far, I heard splashing and choice expletives come flying in from the back. “Bill, are you okay?” I asked through tears. “BILL?!?!”

“Um, sort of. YES. Yes, I’m fine. That was just a really low branch.”

I hadn’t realized that if I was having trouble navigating through this hellhole, my 6’7″ husband was probably not having a great go of it either.

Then it hit me. “Bill, are you still in your boat?”

“No. No, I am not.”

“ARE YOU IN THE WATER?!?!” 

Instant sobbing. Like, audible gasps, terrified mumbling, whimpering-like-a-small-puppy, SOBS. Not only were there tree crabs taking over the forest around us, not only were there horseshoe crabs infesting the shores, not only could we not see the bottom of the dark muddy water… But we live in Florida. I am not any sort of expert on Florida wildlife, but I do pride myself on my vivid imagination. This looked like prime alligator territory to me. My husband was in the water, I could not see him, there was absolutely nowhere for him to get back in his kayak, and I was scared for his life. I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it out alive before. Now I was SURE that we wouldn’t. 

So I continued to paddle at a snail’s pace (that was a joke, since of course my kayak was steadily gathering snails on the sides as well during all of this… get it?), I could hear Bill falling farther behind as he waded through the murky water. A cacophony of ows, ahhhhhs and ouches could be heard from behind me, and we spent the next terrifying minutes of our marriage engaging in a dialogue to the tune of ARE YOU OKAY YES I’M OKAY ARE YOU OKAY I THINK SO ARE YOU OKAY YES ARE YOU? each time praying that the other would answer. Every rustle I heard in the trees caused my breath to catch. Every stick in the water caused Bill’s life to flash before my eyes. It finally got to the point where I could hear the panic in Bill’s voice when he asked if I could see the end of the tunnel, and I knew I needed to find it to make both of us feel better. After an hour of this, it finally appeared.

When I pulled out of the trees, I was relieved to see a calm river channel yet again, complete with jumping fish and roosting birds, except we were not where the guide had promised we would end up. Having no time to worry about being utterly lost, I turned my boat around to look back down the tunnel. I couldn’t see Bill. IMG_6137It sure looks pretty in that photo, but let’s get a little closer. This is the widest, tallest part. I was just in there. For an hour. My husband was still in there. With the crabs. And the imaginary (maybe) gators. And I am weeping like a child while taking this picture.IMG_6138Ever the drama queen, I began screaming wildly for Bill, still sobbing, and I didn’t hear a response. I knew he must be so far back that he couldn’t hear me, and the minutes that followed while waiting for him to round that corner were the longest of my life. He finally made it, but our struggle was not yet over.

It soon became clear that even here there was no shore for Bill to use to get back in his kayak. He was still in the water (IN FLORIDA), and I urged him to grab on to the back of my kayak so I could pull him. He did and held tight to his kayak with the other hand. Luckily, around the first bend we saw enormous houses along the water (each worth millions I suppose), and each with their own boat dock. It was no easy feat dragging another person and a water-logged kayak over to the closest dock, and ever the rule-follower, I was sure we were going to get caught. Bill tried climbing out on the first dock, but quickly smashed his toe on the wooden posts under the water before realizing there was no way to get back in his kayak. So again in the water he went, and I dragged him to the next dock. which had a kayak launch built right in. After hoisting himself out of the water and struggling to get his water-filled kayak up on land, and after losing his beloved Minnesota Twins hat down the river – which I promptly paddled frantically in pursuit of – I looked back to find Bill safely in his boat. We were still lost, but having managed to keep my iPhone safe in a plastic bag this entire time, I prayed for my network to cooperate. My maps app gave us an idea of the general direction, and we paddled, exhausted, on our way. 

The rest of the story consists of disbelief, weariness, and the longest paddle back. We finally docked our boats, our guide muttering something infuriating about our “little adventure”, and we couldn’t wait to get home. Bill’s feet were bleeding from the souvenir gashes he sustained from God-knows-what in that tunnel, and despite slathering on sunscreen, the tops of my thighs are pretty much third-degree-burned. 

To be honest, it took me so long to write this post because I just couldn’t do it until now. I haven’t been so exhausted or terrified in awhile, and I kept getting anxiety every time I thought about it or relayed the story to someone. However, it IS over, and my only consolation is that I did say I wanted to get Bill an adventure for his birthday. You know, something exciting we could do together. A memory we could keep for the rest of our lives.

Hey Bill! Remember that time I got you the WORST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER? 

Okay, that was too soon, but we’ll laugh about it someday… right?IMG_6139

Weekending: San Fran Getaway

Sometimes even our most important relationships can fall to the wayside when life gets going, and daily tasks take priority over daily people. Bill and I have admittedly been having a bit of a less-than-ideal patch, what with our schedules and responsibilities and still learning and adjusting to life as a married couple. Our relationship needed a little (or a lot of) TLC, and that’s exactly what we gave it last weekend with a quick, QUICK trip to San Francisco.

In our house, there’s is absolutely no doubt that our loyalties reside with each other… and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Before I met Bill, I had tried and failed to get attached to an NBA team in the way I have devoted my allegiances with the San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants. Alas, the Kings (closest to home) had never won my heart and the Warriors had made a seriously weak attempt at inserting themselves into my periphery on a consistent basis. This meant that Bill, who has devoted his life to sports in every aspect of life from career to hobby to preferred leisure activity, seized the opportunity to gather me up and place me right smack dab in the middle of Timberwolves fandom (with a small amount of help from the adorable Spanish-transport Ricky Rubio… those eyelashes!).

So being incredibly on top of everything Minnesota and sports-related, Bill took the sweet and passionate initiative to plan a trip to San Francisco to catch the Wolves playing the Golden State Warriors. He bought the tickets, booked the hotel, communicated with two of my great friends who live in the bay, AND planned way ahead to take both a Friday and Saturday off. The latter is actually a huge deal in our house, especially after the 4-Months-Without-A-Day-Off-Together Episode of late 2013. So I blocked out my calendar for January 24th and secretly looked forward to it for about a month. Here’s how it all went down!

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Bay Area traffic is no fun, unless you use the opportunity for impromptu wife-imposed dance parties to the tune of Ke$ha’s latest album. I swear to you, I am 100% unashamed at how much I love her train-wrecked songs.

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We met up with amazing friends Ashleigh and Joey, who moved to Daly City last August, at Jasper’s Corner Tap and Kitchen near our hotel and the Powell Street MUNI Station for pre-game snacks and libations.

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Jasper’s offered an cool and modern atmosphere, deliciously elevated pub fare such as mini sliders and pretzels served with gouda fondue, and a great list of beers on draught. Not normally one to partake in tasting flights due to bad experiences with small portions and high prices, I am officially a convert after taking a risk and discovering my new favorite beer. Run to your nearest fancy beer source (my words… I haven’t looked at BevMo! yet) and try out the AVBC Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. Worth. Every. Penny.

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Ashleigh and Ashleigh… Yes, I do have a great friend with the same name, although our heights and dance abilities to the tune of hip hop, urban street jazz, fem, grooving, and house are significantly in opposition. (She’s the dancer, in case you had any doubt. Check out her new Bay Area-based dance company here: Street Adrenaline Dance Company.)

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Next up, Timberwolves domination. Well, sort of. They squeaked by in the last ten seconds or so to pull off a final score of 121-120, finally lifting morale slightly during a horrific run of heart-breaking losses. I was much more vocal (obnoxious, maybe?) than all five of the other Minnesota fans in the entire arena and even Bill, which meant some unwelcomed taunting and cheap digs in my directions from the die-hard Warriors fans of Oakland. I did manage to make it out alive.

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Do you know what’s really fun? Seeing someone you love so much in a situation they love so much. I might even say he was in his element. Adorable.

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Saturday morning brought an early wake-up call in order to take advantage of the free breakfast found tucked away on the 5th floor of our tiny hotel. We snatched up the essentials from the breakfast closet  – no seating area and no room for all ten of the people who came in after us and decided no-they-could-not-wait-for-us-to-finish-and-leave before scrambling for instant oatmeal, generic pastries, and the worst coffee-water I’ve ever had in my life. We plodded back to our dungeon of a room (see terrible quality picture above with absolutely zero natural light) to realize that it was so small that the only reasonable place to sit was exactly where we had just slept. Breakfast in a full-size bed it was!

Disclaimer: I do not mean to throw our hotel completely under the bus, just… slightly. Yes, the room was small and the coffee was terrible, BUT it was a amazingly located practically on top of Union Square and close to the Powell Street BART Station. Plus is wasn’t as outrageously priced as everything else in the area, so if you aren’t planning to spend too much time in your hotel room, checking out Hotel Fusion could be worth it. (But the website is definitely a misrepresentation… It’s more adequate than, say, awesome in reality.)

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So since coffee is such a integral part of treating myself when on vacation, shitty hotel coffee just would not do. Yelp-ing nearby coffee shops lead to the exciting discovery of Blue Bottle Coffee Co., which with 1264 reviews yielding a solid four-star rating, I was not going to let myself miss out on. Since Bill does not enjoy coffee in the least and was feeling more or less, um, under the weather – which may or may not have had anything to do with the shenanigans from the night before – I ventured out on my own in search of not-your-average caffeine fix. However, following my maps app left me stumped. I wandered and wandered Mint Street in search of some visual indication that I was in the right place, but nothing jumped out. Disappointed, I turned back toward the way I came for the third time, and the first thing to catch my eye was the street address. And around the corner from the street address was a small group of people huddled in a doorway. And above the doorway, I saw the only marking indicating that roasted bliss was waiting for me was the small (the picture make it look huge) sign serving as their advertising. Small, unmarked, back-alley coffee shop? That had mean only one thing: local secret hidden gem.

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While waiting in line, I hurriedly gathered as much info as possible to make an educated order. What I found? Exotic (and expensive) coffees from around the world and a new technique I had never seen for brewing the perfect cup. I almost ordered an $8 cup of regular coffee just to experience the siphoning myself. However, I went with my favorite in order to compare, and when I asked what flavors they had for their nonfat lattes, the barista replied, “We don’t have flavors for our coffee,” and looked at me with a sly smile as if to say I was in for a treat.

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Well, hello beautiful. Care to walk me home?

With short pit stops at the seven-story Macy’s and the most beautiful Crate&Barrel on the planet, I made it back to the hotel to find Bill chipper and ready to head out on our next adventure. When the grizzly bear is hungry, it’s time to feed him lunch.

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But on the way to lunch, we drove past the Civic Center, which was quite obviously being used for rally purposes. Curious for a new experience, we spontaneously pulled over to listen in on the happenings of a major gathering of people who did not quite share the same opinions or values as I do.  A big city demonstration was new to a small town girl like me, and I was slightly uncomfortable but glad we stopped. I highly recommend being a silent observer in this type of situation, as you get the other perspective sans confrontation.

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After subjecting my friend Laura to a gushing rave about my new obsession of cornmeal crust pizza earlier in the week, she recommended we visit Little Star Pizza. We ended up both on Divisadero and in cornmeal-crust heaven, if one should exist.

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The vibe inside was conducive to giddy anticipation and happiness, generally.

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We ordered the deep dish, half Little Star, half Classic. This masterpiece is what ended up in front of us.

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The crust was divine. The composition, intriguing, with toppings first, then cheese, and lastly the sauce on top. This little piece is about to meet its maker.

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The verdict? Good to the very last bite. Which I ate. Clean plate club. I told Bill that this is becoming one of our “spots”, even though we live four hours away.

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Plans to meet one of my bridesmaids, Shelby, and her boyfriend Joe at Crissy Field lead to Bill’s first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. Welcome to the pride and joy of Northern California, Minnesota Boy!

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A walk along the ocean brought us amazing views of the bridge…

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Up close…

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And in the distance. It was so beyond great to catch up with Shelby and Joe, and meet their new bundle of personality Charlie, that we chose to extend our afternoon together as much as we could.

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With a pitcher of sangria of course! Hanging with Shelby is always a reminder to love the simple life, with some of my best memories consisting of impromptu afternoon drinks with absolutely no agenda and no worries allowed. Our final date at Hayes & Kebab was no different, and I left content with life as it is… and slightly tipsy.

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As we packed ourselves up in the car to leave, this sweet little thing seemed to be bidding us adieu. I couldn’t help but sneak a photo, having been utterly obsessed with The Little Mermaid growing up. Max here just tugged at my heartstrings.

The four-hour dive went quickly. Both of us had to work the next day (Sunday), he with his normal anchoring schedule and myself with a speech at a career symposium. And even though we both wished the weekend wouldn’t end, would last just a little longer… I couldn’t help but feel closer to him than ever before. It’s amazing what spending time focusing on each other can do, and now I’m floating through the week with these new memories on my mind. This trip was no longer bittersweet, as they often have been in the past. It was just sweet.

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Billy, what do you say we do this again soon?