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First time out

Sometime before 9 a.m. on a dusty gravel parking lot at St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park, I sat down in a kayak for the first time in my life. Dave, a 71-year-old retired psychology professor from Michigan, showed me how to work the pedals to control the rudder. I adjusted each pedal, then tested the results, scraping the rudder from side to side across the rocks. One by one, each of the other 10 kayakers did the same.

I signed up for this trip through USF Outdoor Recreation, a group that hides out in the bottom floor of the Recreation building, quietly planning up to 12 trips per year. I chose the St. Joseph’s Peninsula trip partly just to see what the group was about and partly for the chance to kayak along what has been called the best beach in the United States.

Our launch on Saturday morning was quite a bit short of tropical, however. We pushed off under a gray sky, but there was hope that the clouds would blow away by noon. Our leaders for the trip, Melissa, Allison and Amy, had all checked the weather reports before leaving Tampa. The forecast from several different sources called for a zero percent chance of rain, an unusual prediction, yet one that we were inclined to believe.

We had seven miles of kayaking before settling down for the night, but the weather was pleasant, and we had plenty of time to make it before sundown. Lunch was served on the water, each one of us holding onto another’s boat just long enough to trade food.

Those who had food aboard became like vendors in a bazaar, announcing their goods to the public.

“Who wants cookies?” Bryan, a USF junior, asked, as Cathi, an English for Speakers of Other Languages professor at Hillsborough Community College, offered me a third bagel sandwich. I took the sandwich and turned down the cookies.

Roughing it

We found our spot on the beach somewhere around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and everyone quickly set up — some more than others. Cathi and her boyfriend EJ had the largest tent, complete with a cushy air mattress for the two of them. None of this escaped Dave’s notice, as he watched their portable condo go up while fumbling with a tiny, one-person tent that he had borrowed from Outdoor Recreation.

“You don’t have room to fart in that tent,” Cathy chided him.After Dave’s tent was up, he walked over to get a better look at Cathi’s.

“I want to admire the upper-class home,” he said. When he got to the entrance and peered in, I heard him call out, “What a palatial mansion.”

“Goddamn right,” Cathi responded from down along the water.

As for my own tent, I considered it more of an upper-middle class dwelling. I had more space than Dave but not nearly as much as Cathi and EJ. Like them, however, I had brought my own, which made all the difference when it came to space.

And it also made a difference when the rain hit.

The benevolent clouds that had shielded us all day from the harsh sun, turned against us slowly. The first few showers offered little more than a sprinkle. But by dinner time, we had a steady pour.

Our leaders had wisely set up the kitchen on the gnarled roots of a pine tree, with two overlapping tarps to shield us from the rain. As the rain pounded down, the women served up burritos that were far too good for camping fare. If there was anything at all that went right on this trip, it was the food, and all the credit must go to Melissa, Allison and Amy. And they operated well under fire. With eight hungry people crowding in on them from under a tarp, each of the leaders seemed just as relaxed as they had been on the water.

After dinner, everyone went to sleep. With the rain coming down, there wasn’t much else to do. I climbed into my tent and discovered a small lake on the floor. So much for my upper-middle- class status. I spent a few minutes arranging my mat so that I wouldn’t get wet, but when I lay down, water was dripping on my head like Chinese torture. My kayak had been more hospitable than this.

Dehydrating in the rain

Sometime after midnight, I woke up with a pulsing headache. I knew it meant I was dehydrated, which I considered as severely ironic. I was surrounded by water from the Gulf side, the bay and now from the constant rain, but I had somehow managed to not get enough water into my body. I guzzled from my water bottle, but by morning the headache hadn’t gotten much better.

The sky had cleared, though, and it looked to be a gorgeous day. We headed over to the Gulf side to see what the beach was like over there. Obviously, this is where St. Joe’s gets its recognition. I’m not sure I’d call it the best beach I’d ever seen, but it is certainly one of them. The sand, as Amy pointed out, is just like snow, and the place was virtually empty. We played around in the waves a bit, and then made our way back to camp for lunch.

Sunday was much windier than the day before, so we knew the kayaking wouldn’t be as easy. With my headache still clinging on relentlessly, I wasn’t looking forward to the sevenmile return trip. I had this idea that if I kept myself busy with paddling, my headache would go away, so I sat in the kayak and pushed the waves behind me as fast as they would go. I started a little later than the others, but soon I was passing them, one by one. I didn’t think about lunch and only stopped once for water (a bad idea with dehydration playing a factor). Within a few hours, I stopped looking behind me to see where everyone was. I couldn’t see them anyway. I considered turning back and waiting; this was, after all, a group trip, but I really just wanted to get off the water. Plus, without the constant paddling, I was sure my headache would come flooding back.

When I finally made it back to shore, I swear I could have kissed the beach. I had some time before the others made it back, but it passed quickly while I watched a trio of kids try to catch a pelican with a fishing pole.

The attack

So, it was Sunday night, and as far as I could tell, everyone was beat. Whatever excitement the rain hadn’t killed, the seven miles plowing through sea spray did.

But we had much to look forward to. We were back to the civilized world, and each of us could at least expect a shower. Anyone who has experienced camping in Florida will tell you that a shower is the most divine, yet necessary luxury on such a trip. Plus, we were told that spaghetti was slated for dinner. After the success with Mexican food, I was eager to test out Italian.

We pulled the van into our campsite, ready to settle in for our final night away from home. The location was less than ideal, with almost no space for tents and no view. We poured out of the van skeptically, not really certain how to deal with the situation.

Almost immediately, we were hit by what can only be called a swarm of mosquitoes. Scattered around the campsite with no real direction, we transformed into some kind of second-rate, unchoreographed step team. I lifted a knee and slapped my ankle, then my thigh. I didn’t have enough hands to get all the mosquitoes on me.

“I am not sleeping here tonight,” Allison said to no one in particular while frantically hanging her shirt.

Melissa called a meeting to put Allison’s resolution to a vote. If we decided to leave the camp, then that would be it. We’d get back in the van and head home as fast as the wheels could take us. I knew where I stood on the issue.

We continued slapping madly as Allison ran over.

“Ok, who is not sleeping here tonight?” she gushed.

Eleven hands went up.

USF Outdoor Recreation can be reached at 974-5557.

Contact Dustin Dwyer at