This year I’ve become more and more interested in longer distance paddle trips, to take everything I’ve learned from my outdoor travels and bring it into an area where I’m not so comfortable has been a wonderfully wild experience. After a trip down Labyrinth Canyon with Kokopelli last summer, my confidence on the water grew and a seed of wonder was planted. In my mind packrafts have opened a lot of doors for the modern day adventurer. Before dragging a kayak into a remote canyon or on a plane for that matter weren’t options for your every day dirtbag. But now there’s whitewater rafts I can fit inside my backpack and ocean worthy kayaks, I can put into a duffel bag and take anywhere my heart desires.
And so we did. I wrote Kokopelli and told them I had an idea I was planning that I couldn’t do without them and they were on board.
It’s kind of wild to look back sometimes, as someone that was scared to get in a pool as a kid I never imagined I’d one day find myself planning a route around an island in the Caribbean. At this point I’ve planned for plenty of wild endeavors, but circumnavigating an island in the ocean isn’t exactly in this mountain boys wheelhouse. I’d come to learn while it wouldn’t be easy, people have done it, some at record times even. But this was a funcation, no FKT’s would be taking place. I decided we’d go for our own record and hit the drawing boards. Jordan and I purchased tickets and Operation MAKT USVI was underway.
Day one – X’s on the calendar would soon stack up and before I knew it there I was loading 2 weeks worth of gear onto the Redhook Ferry. There was a twist of excitement in my stomach looking across the channel from Saint Thomas to Saint John. The island got bigger and bigger and our starting point of Cruz Bay came into view. We would kick our attempt at a MAKT (most awesome known time) off with a round of rum drinks and start inflating our boats. We chose the Kokopelli Moki 12 foot IK for our journey. With multiple storage areas behind the seat and in front of my feet I was able to fit most of my gear below deck. I’d place my dry pack and water drom on top using their included tie down system. It also sports a spray skirt which is crucial to protecting these pale legs mostly, but would add protection should we get rough seas. The paddles, the pump and a nice foam seat with a drink holder and pockets also fit in the bag. We take a quick dip before we clip in our skegs and head out towards Lindt Point. The crew and I would set out on a clockwise path. In these islands the wind can shift but for the most part there is a constant trade wind. That meant for the first half of the trip we would be paddling into the wind. My thoughts were to tackle the winds while our arms were still fresh and on the second half of the trip we could ride the wind and relax a bit more.
We weren’t even halfway out of Cruz and I was already feeling like a million bucks. Most of the other folks we were sharing these waters with were on very expensive yachts and sailboats. There I was paddling my newly appointed USS DIRT around on my own terms, getting to know this place in the wildest manner, for free. Over the years walking has taught me when I move through a place with my own body I get to understand it and know it so much more. I’ve learned paddling gives me that same feeling. Paddle after paddle we were making our way around paradise in the slow lane. Bobbing up and down in that big blue Caribbean Sea. We would go for relatively low miles our first day, stashing our boats in the jungle like forest and heading to a point to cook our meals. Our evening entertainment, a pretty quintessential island sunset. Dinner was great and the views were even better. We all kind of sat there in awe at times that first night, as one should when dream trips become a reality.
Day two – I crawl out of my tent in a friend’s yard and head for the beach with coffee and breakfast supplies. To me this is it, my nirvana isn’t a 5 star room with clean sheets and fancy things. It’s waking up in the dirt to a million stars outside my bug net, falling back asleep to the distant crash of waves. It’s waking up with the birds, there’s a bunch of deer on the beach and the golden light of the morning is painting everything around me. I think of my jar of magic inside me, sometimes life diminishes it but right now the jar is filling back up and I want to hold onto this moment forever. We polish off every last bit of coffee, slam down our breakfast burritos and get to loading the boats back up. Today the MAKT continues, we paddle through the shore break and head for a bay loaded with sea turtles and a beach bar.
The winds today were said to be a bit higher so we get an early start , and get back in the groove of things. As the day warms up I count the bay’s and admire beaches from a new perspective as we make our way to our first stop. We have to be mindful of reefs, currents and big waves through some stretches. Before I’m halfway in the bay I’m already seeing the large seagrass beds, and within minutes seeing turtles come up for air. I paddle a little faster towards shore, stash my kayak in the shade and we head out to cool off and admire those gentle giants from below. After some time enjoying the water and the sun, we walk over to the beach bar to reward ourselves with some strong rum treatment and fresh food! I slide the bartender a big tip and they oblige to let us stash our kayaks for the night. You see sometimes during an attempt on a “Most Awesome Known Time” its perfectly acceptable to veer a little off course, climb a mountain and join a reggae festival for an evening. With our heavy sandy packs loaded, we headed for the legendary Windmill Bar. They offer a campground and are known not just for one of the best sunsets but the best music on the island as well. We pitch our tents, and head down to the festival to continue the rum buzz and good times. Timing is wild. My pal Bubba Love from South Carolina is playing up here this week and wooing the crowd with his angelic voice. I look out to the bays and beaches a thousand feet below me we had paddled through yesterday and smile. Life sure is something.
Day three – Rum. It provides a little extra courage sometimes and maybe had a little something to do with me skipping my rainfly last night. Now I sure did sleep cozy as can be until around 5:45… when the monsoon rolled in. I’ve never seen a tent fill up with water so fast. I usually wear my headlamp around my neck while I sleep incase of an emergency but alas…rum got me again. We scrambled to get the fly on in the dark but by the time we did I was already soaked. I grabbed my soap and took a shower, I was already halfway there.
We would slow play the morning as waves of storms passed. No sense in trying to paddle in rough conditions. So we made an extra big pot of coffee and grilled up some breakfast at the campground. By 11:00 the storms would start to thin out. We had a pretty big section ahead of us. It was time to top off our water supplies, grab our kayaks and head for the wilder side of the island. The crowds on the beaches, along with signs of civilization begin to thin as we head for Mary Point. Before we take on our next leg we park our boats on a little sliver of beach, to recharge our arms and dry out some clothes. Next up we round another major part of the island and feast our eyes on views of the BVI, Tortola and Jost Van Dyke. Coming out of Mary Creek the winds really picked up and tested us during our last bit of paddling. I wanted to show the crew one of my favorite sunset spots before we headed over the ridge for camp. After finding a stash spot for the boats, we grab our packs and head a few hundred feet above the bay. Up a winding trail, a mongoose scurries in front of me, there’s all kinds of local flowers and cactus blooming. The humming birds and bees are buzzing in and out of them. It’s kind of confusing to feel these summer time highs in February, but I’ll take it. This is Paradise. After a few more switchbacks the forest starts to clear and reveals the ruins of an old mansion atop the peak. Wild goats take it over but scamper down the mountain as I walk through. A sunset feast takes place, we digest our food, sip on rum and the smoke of Cuban cigars fills the old manors porch. After, we embark on a star lit hike to a nearby friend’s place, it’s an instant lights out kind of night as my head hits my bed roll.
Day four – We are back at it alpine start style, over the same ridge to catch the first light of day. We make a round of fresh coffee and watch the colors of the day illuminate distant storms. It’s a two cup kind of morning. This is our final day of bad wind, as well as our longest paddle so far. A wave of storms comes right by us leaving a show of rainbows, I couldn’t believe how many were popping up. We took it as a sign of good luck and headed onward toward the East End.
As soon as we came around our first point we were hit with the wind we would be facing for the day. I knew instantly today was going to push us. The channel between us and Tortola was moving water against us too. At times we would opt for adding mileage and duck into bays, in trade for getting out of the wind. As the day went on, it just turned up, which means so did the waves. Our arms were pumped, at times it felt like a losing battle and if you stopped to take a break you would find yourself blowing backward and losing ground. We decide to pull into Brown Bay for a rest break, and re-up on sunscreen. I’m proud of this crew. Time in the sun is starting to add up, we are all on the tail end of our food supplies and we’ve been drinking warm / hot water for over 24 hours now. Despite us being beaten up by the wind, spirits remain high. We charge back out into the sea for another round. I fix my eyes on the next point and fade into a trance of paddling and breathing. One point and then the next. I have marks of the bays and points on a notepad I keep in my seat pocket. I’ve been counting each one so I know where we are, which ones are good to rest at, which ones might have danger and which ones offer up back up routes / portages. Points and points pass by, and before you know it we are finally on the other side of the trade winds!
Chris our most seasoned paddler, who is well versed in the ways of the dirt asks me if my rain tarp is easily accessible. One night at camp we flirted around the idea of using it as a sail. I must admit I was a little skeptical but I am always down to try crazy wonderful ideas. Captain Chris rigged the long end of the rain tarp to a full paddle that Jessie would lock into her kayak, while Jordan and I tied ours to the sides of the tarp. We would all tie our kayaks together and the second we got out of the bay we lifted our “tarpsail” to meet a large tug of the wind catching our sail. Captain Chris would help manage the crew and act as a rudder. In no time at all we were cooking! After four days of paddling, we could lay back a little and relax while our boats cut into coral bay! There was cheering from shore, cheering from us and not long after we got into the deeper water a sailboat approached us. Looks of concern melted into smiles as they too realized we were not a sinking ship but we were the almighty USS DIRT. Likely the only inflatable sailboat on the island. Now right here was another one of those moments you don’t plan for. They just take place sometimes when you roll the dice on a good Ol’ fashioned adventure. The ladies on the sailboat happened to know my friend, Spoonman Ted. When he told them we were paddling / camping our way around the island they offered us an invite to their private beach.
In this great big community of the wild ones there are unspoken bonds, our hearts have shared common loves, we often have shared similar struggles, but we believe in living fiercely and looking out for each other especially when we see our own kind on a journey. At Hansen Bay that came out as trail magic. We paddled up with friends to ice cold beers waiting for us, a beach front fire, there’s good music and an aroma of my favorite kind of back medicine. Dunia lets the gals play with her baby goat. There are several hundred year old tamarind trees giving us shade and Tracy is taking turns showing our crew the bay in a real sailboat. The lines between total strangers and island / trail family begin to blur. I learn Dunia and Thalia’s family have owned this land for a very long time. I sit around the fire and eagerly listen to them tell stories of it all. While some would sell this land and be set for life these two act as it’s keepers. They know the real gold is in the wild places and they aim to share the beauty of the island’s natural side with visitors so they too can know the importance of the wild places. After a very wonderful unplanned day of fun in the sun we swap info, give each other hugs and set off to paddle with friends through late day storms to our halfway point in Hurricane Hole.
Day five – My friend Nina.
I awake a few hundred feet above the bay. The sun is coming up and I’m staring out over the East End and Coral bay. With a cup of coffee and some good friends, I’m back at one of my favorite places on earth. Nina’s sweet wind villa
I met Nina a year ago and almost fell over when I saw she had black and white shepherds too. Nina is one of those folks I aspire to be like. She’s full of the coolest stories and has made this life really count. She was an explorer , sailor, the only female fishing captain in Alaska and to this day still quite the artist. She built her homes with her own hands and is still self sufficient. Her porch is modeled after the front of a boat and if she’s not up there enjoying the views, fixing old instruments for friends or making art you can catch her with a strong cocktail by the pool.
Some folks live inside the lines. Some folks say fuck the box and paint a life of their dreams. That’s why I love Nina. We would spend the next few days with our wild island hero before setting back out to finish the second half of the island. Without surprise before she dropped us off to continue our paddle she said hey guys, want to go jump off this old dock with me?!? Legend has it if you turn down jumping off a dock with someone twice your age the universe will give you bad luck for 7 years. So we downed our drinks and jumped right in with the pack!
Day six – With the rest of the crew headed back home, Jordan and I loaded back up our kayaks, loaded up on sunscreen and got back to finishing the mission. It felt so wonderful to have the winds at our backs. Once out of Coral Bay we were exposed to some of the more open ocean paddling so far and the swells were BIG. This was fine in open water but once those swells made their way to the big sea walls of the coast they would crash with a force I never wanted to experience. We would keep our distance from the coast line more so here along these mean sections of rocky coast. At times Jordan would disappear as I went up and then before you knew it she would be way up on top of one too as I’d simultaneously feel myself drop a few feet. We were covering ground faster than we anticipated. At some points on this trip I was paddling so hard to get to that next beach but now as we neared closer and closer to the finish line I found myself pausing more and more. We tied up in silence and let the wind carry us for a while. What I once thought would be impossible for me, was now right there before my eyes, more special than I could have ever imagined. We made our way to Reef Bay one of the more remote, hard to get to beaches on the island, right on time to explore some ruins and catch sunset. From the mouth of the bay all we could see was large waves crashing onto the bays famous namesake Reefs. I remember Tracy’s advice about the narrow passage to get in and keep my eyes peeled for a buoy. Right where she said they would be, I smile and thank my new friend in my head.
Jordan and I pulled the kayaks up onto the beach and explored the trails around the remote bay. At times it felt as if the forest floor was moving. I stopped only to find that it actually was. Hermit crabs, all sorts of sizes, some bigger than my fists, in the most vibrant shells I’ve seen wiggled across the forest floors. We couldn’t believe how many there were! After a short walk we came to a clearing that hosted one of the island’s most impressive sugar mill ruins. We walked through its dusty halls and peered into what might have been, giant metal gears that horses once turned to make the sugar were all that were left. It’s kind of spooky being here all alone. This is the last night of our paddle and I wanted to get in one more sunset. Little did I know right around that time the island’s most impressive bug invasion would begin. Jordan and I tried to layer up. We used the most impressive bug spray known to man, but still the enemy broke through our lines. We fell back and retreated into our bug net. Unable to cook outside, I had a smushed peanut butter sandwich for dinner. I know it will make the feast at the finish line that much better. I’m sure those bugs could have drove some folks absolutely nutty. To me it’s all part of the journey and if the adventure says in order to have all this wonder and beauty you have to embrace a little suck, then I will wade through the ugly with a smile. It could never outweigh all the magic out here.
Day Seven– Back down to our gear and straight back into our boats because the bugs were still rough! Today we would be rounding the final bend and crossing the finish line. My notes showed 9 more points to cross off and we would have made it back into Cruz from the South end. Chance of storms but a decent wind at our backs. It was hard to leave this Bay. Ahead of us we would be exiting the seclusion of the national park. For a few days I’ve looked over the shore to nothing but the natural world. I know as soon as we cross the line the hills will become littered with houses and all the things I’m not quite ready to get back to . The solitude of the ocean waves and wild creatures of the forest will be replaced with car horns, music and boat engines. This is always the point where I want to turn around. Stay a little longer, put off the airport lines, crowds, the emails, and cold back home. Seven days of getting to be present in paradise is a blessing. This trip and all the little details in between here and when I left that port is going to stick with me for the rest of my life. We paddle on and my dreamlike state is interrupted. As we round our next point a big storm reveals itself coming over the mountain. I tell Jordan to keep it close to shore and we will break once we get out of this busy bay. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The way the storm came over the mountain shot fierce wind down its flanks into the bay straight at us and was pushing us out towards sea. “Keep it on your left and give it your all ” I yelled back to Jordan. I was really hoping we could get across the bay before it hit but the wind and this gnarly storm were pushing her farther back. As the rain picked up and this monster moved in it got scary. I lost all visibility of Jordan and this busy bay had BIG boats moving through it too. How would they see us?! I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. I keep my boat off the point and keep looking back for Jordan. I know these storms move through really quick and as long as she can stay upright she will be okay. She’s a good paddler she will be fine. If for some reason she flips she’s got her PFD on and I could charge out to where ever she might be as soon as visibility comes back and we can get her back in. A million anxious thoughts go through my brain and my heart races. The waves are up and one wrong move could flip you or fill up your kayak. To my relief, the storm passes and I see her paddling, likely shaken up but making her way to safer shores. We thank our lucky stars our training works out and make our way across the final two bays.