Most winters, Grand Rapids is the southernmost place Cyndy and I travel.
On November 11th we boarded a plane in Traverse City and two days later landed at Georgetown Airport on Exuma Island in the Bahamas.
Our vacation to the tropics would be a week of kayak paddling and camping on island beaches with ten others as part of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
The next day we launched four tandem and four solo kayaks in the clearest water I have ever seen. Sometimes a bright green shimmering, sometimes a striking blue and in shallow water just plain clear.
The day was almost windless and the sweltering heat was somewhere in the upper 80’s.
This would be the weather pattern for much of the week – hot humid air, light winds and blue skies with some clouds.
It wasn’t a strenuous trip, but we were out on the water most of the day. The actual paddling can take as little as two hours, with breaks for eating, swimming, and snorkeling.
The beaches were covered with white, fine-grained sand – really, I’ve never seen such beautiful and pristine sand areas.
Our itinerary took us back and forth between islands, sometimes with crossings of about three miles. Oddly enough, we could see the seabed almost everywhere – giving us a chance to get an up-close look at manta rays, sea turtles, clams and giant starfish.
In the afternoon we chose a beach to set up camp, unloaded our kayaks, pitched tents and then swam.
Enduring the heat was the hardest part of the trip. We almost never had shade and the tents were small sweat lodges. At night the interior of the tent was like a sauna.
One afternoon we left the tent door open to cool it down, and that night I had to expel three Hermit Carbs from inside the tent.
It could be worse. We heard stories about another trip in the Bahamas where a snake crawled in through an open tent door and was spotted by the camper that night. Other incidents included a boa constrictor climbing up between the fly and the tent and scorpions found in shoes. We saw a six inch centipede with spikes or antennae on its head clinging to the outside of our tent netting.
The heat was so intense that nobody thought about sunbathing. If you had to be outside, you went into the sea, which was so warm you never felt cold. It was most comfortable to sit on the bottom of the sea, the water was up to our chests or necks. It was the best swim I have ever experienced.
Dawn came around 6am – perfect to start our days. Twelve hours later it was dark.
Each evening we would gather on the beach to watch the sunset – spectacular clouds, illuminated or silhouetted against a bright orange background. Then the stars would appear, so clear in a black sky, with only the tiniest bit of ambient light coming from the city of Georgetown. We placed a glowing Luci light in the sand and sat in a circle around it, telling stories, telling jokes and sometimes just quietly enjoying the night.
On our last night, we remembered all the creatures we had seen – and there were several dozen.
Manta rays were widespread.
Lying on the seabed, often covered with a layer of sand, they slid away as we approached. We were warned to rub our feet while walking lest we step on them and risk being stabbed by the barb on their tails.
Sharks inhabited these waters and we all had a close encounter.
I was wading from shore with a few others when we saw a four to five meter shark coming our way.
When it spotted us, it turned away but kept swimming close.
We yelled at the others on the beach and they all immediately took off. Everyone wanted to see a shark. Curiosity trumped fear. The shark swam towards Cyndy, getting within 15 feet of her before diving into deep water.
Apparently our last campsite was a perfect habitat for iguanas.
These lizards, with beaded skin and large claws about the size of cats, moved slowly around our tents and gear. While I was sitting in a camp chair reading, one approached me to within five feet.
Normally this might have startled me, but these reptiles showed no inclination to be aggressive.
What we never saw during our kayaking week were other people. Not even boats came within a mile of us.
I suspect the intense heat and biting sand flies will keep most would-be campers from enjoying this otherwise tropical paradise.
The bugs, most like our no-see-ums, were aggressive at dawn and late afternoon into evening. The pinprick-like itching bites were annoying. Liberal use of insect repellent, wearing long sleeves, pants, and head nets made buggy times bearable.
By the end of our trip, strangers we’d only met a week before now felt like close friends.
Once again, NOLS provided Cyndy and I with a wonderful experience.
It’s been that way on every trip—seven for me and nine for Cyndy.
We’ll be doing it again next July when we head north for a week of sea kayaking in Alaska.