My girlfriend C.J. and I arrived on the beach for our regular Wednesday kayaking excursion. C.J. had taught me to kayak the summer before, and now we had an outing scheduled every week. She was already retired, but because I still worked, we usually kayaked at the end of the day. We drove separately and met at the put-in around 5:30 p.m. We were going to explore a place called Lighthouse Lakes near Port Aransas, Texas. Lighthouse Lakes was Texas’ first-ever paddling trail where you can meander through a black mangrove estuary and extensive seagrass flats that have outstanding birdwatching and local fishing. It is named for the historic 1857 Lydia Ann Lighthouse, which can be seen in the distance. Normally, we couldn’t get far into these wetlands because it was so shallow that our kayaks would bottom out on the oyster beds. If you’ve ever paid good money for a kayak, you know what a painful sound that is, to hear the scratching and scraping of the bottom of your boat on an oyster bank! But our area recently received about 10 inches of rain and the wetland trails had plenty of water for fishing and kayaking boats. When there was enough water, there was actually a marked water trail to follow, much like a hiking trail only for paddlers. This part of the Gulf Coast is known for its spectacular wildlife, and being September, the northern migratory birds had already started to arrive for winter. So, we had the great good fortune of plenty of water allowing us to get far into the wetlands, lots of exotic shorebirds and migratory birds to spot, and the weather was perfect: warm, dry, and clear skies. We were excited! We planned to paddle in for about an hour until sunset, and then come back out and eat dinner at our favorite burger spot just down the road.
These wetlands are separated from the mainland by a major ship channel called the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. This waterway is an impressive piece of engineering. It’s a man-made canal that runs 1,300 miles parallel to the shoreline along the entire length of the Gulf Coast, from Brownsville, Texas down at the Mexico border, to St. Marks, Florida. It creates a protected ship channel around the entire Gulf and connects important port cities along the way. We had to cross this waterway in our kayaks at 90 degrees and paddle as fast as we could, because the bigger boats and especially the ships barreled down it quite rapidly and could be on top of us before we knew it—they couldn’t shift direction to avoid a collision nearly as quickly as we could.
Once we were safely across, we entered the wetlands area. It’s like a maze in there, with little finger lakes separated by mounds of thick seagrasses, but no solid ground to beach a kayak or canoe anywhere. You have to paddle in and paddle out; no camping or overnighting is possible. It’s an easy place in which to lose your bearings because all the water trails look the same after a while. Making it more difficult to navigate was the fact that there were only a few cuts through the grasslands to the main ship channel, so you could only enter and exit the wetlands in a few select places.
There we were, mindlessly weaving in and out of these water trails. I was photographing the birds, we were exclaiming at our good fortune at being able to experience this part of the coast, and just enjoying the evening. C.J. had her Schnauzer Kamper with her, and I had my two Chihuahuas Rhoda and Frida with me, all three in doggie life vests. Because we were only going to be out an hour or so, we left most of our gear back in our vehicles: our cell phones, the wetlands map, bug spray, extra water, dry clothes and towels, etc. We each had one bottle of water with us, and I had my camera and binoculars.
At some point we realized that the sun was starting to set, so we decided it was time to head out. We turned our kayaks around and started to backtrack our movements. Or so we thought. In our excitement, we had lost track of which trails and turns we had taken and got totally turned around. Try as we might, we could not find one of the few cuts that would allow us to exit the wetlands, cross back over the ship channel, and get back to the mainland. Since C.J. had been kayak fishing in these waters many times before, I trusted that she had a good sense of where we were (heck, I knew I was lost!). She was in the lead kayak, and I’d hear her shout out, “OK, here we are. This is it, we’re good.” And not 10 seconds later I would hear: “Damn!” At some point I realized, “Oh my God, she’s lost too!” Panic started to set in pretty quickly for me, because the sun was below the horizon now and all we had was its residual glow to navigate by. We started to paddle more and more frantically in every direction, trying to find our way out. All we could see for sure is that we were either moving toward, or away from, that lighthouse. We were getting exhausted by all the unexpected paddling, worry, and confusion, and the fact that neither of us had eaten since lunchtime that day.
To our horror, we lost the final glow of daylight. I finally said what needed to be acknowledged: “C.J., we are screwed. We are not getting out of here tonight.” After a brief pause, she replied, “You’re right. We are screwed. I’m so sorry.” She felt responsible and mortified, because not only was she the more experienced kayaker, she also was a certified kayak safety instructor.
Reality slowly sank in for both of us, that we were not getting home that night, and we had to somehow spend the night in those kayaks. We started to take inventory of what we did have with us and made a game plan. We had: one whistle, a camera, binoculars, a bit of rope, about a cup of water each in our bottles, and a towel that my dogs were sitting on, which by now was soaking wet. We came up with one ground rule: we don’t make any move that we don’t both agree on. From here on out we had to operate as a team. We took the bit of rope she had and tied the back end of her kayak to the front end of mine so we wouldn’t get separated in the night, and we agreed to try to anchor in one place. I said, “C.J., if I learned anything in my years of being in the Sierra Club, it was this: when you are lost, you park it. Don’t expend your last energy reserves trying to get yourself out of the bind you are in. It’s much harder to find a moving target than a stationary one.” So we tried to anchor ourselves in the mud with our paddles (the deepest water was less than a paddle deep) in the largest finger lake we could find, our reasoning being that it would be the most likely place to encounter a fishing boat in the morning.
For about the first 2 hours of darkness, we blew our brains out on that whistle every time we thought we heard a powerboat or an air boat. I remembered that my camera had a strobe effect on the flash, so we also tried signaling with that. Nothing. No response. No one was coming. We had failed to give a “flight plan” to anyone, so no one knew where we were, when we should be expected back, and what to do if we did not return. C.J. was single but dating no one and lived alone, so no one would be expecting her home. I lived alone and was dating someone, and had told him I was going kayaking with C.J., but that was it—no details whatsoever. I hoped at some point he’d miss me and start wondering where I was! We berated ourselves over and over for acting like such amateurs—we knew better than this! We knew what to do, what safety and emergency gear to take with us, how to file a plan with someone, and we ignored it all. After all, we were only going out for an hour or so, right? But complacency got the better of us.
Once I realized we weren’t going anywhere for the night, I eventually started to relax. I told myself, “You’re just going to have to suck it up and get through this the best you can.” We kept our spirits up during the night by playing a game I reserve for long car trips when you have totally run out of things to talk about. It’s called the Question Game: you can ask any question you want about me and I have to answer honestly. Then I get to ask the same of you. As you can imagine between two women, it can get deep and personal pretty quickly, and we got to know each other very well that night. We also tried to think positively, to think about ways in which this could be so much worse (no alligators in these waters! haven’t seen a snake yet! no weirdos out here! at least it’s not storming! neither of us are injured!). And, we even laughed a lot. I have to say, it’s probably the only time in my life when I’ve found myself in a dangerous situation because of multiple bad decisions, and yet we worked together beautifully. No blame, no accusations, no hysterics were expressed. We were two good friends who realized we had to rely on each other to get through a bad situation, and I’m very proud that we survived with our friendship not only intact, but even stronger.
Eventually, the mosquitos started to attack. As I said earlier, the area had recently received a lot of rain and the mosquitos were ferocious. We were both in sleeveless tops and shorts, so they had lots of munching ground. I had the dog’s wet towel with me and tried to cover my legs with that, but soon I started to shiver and I worried about hypothermia, so I decided letting the mosquitos have their way with me was the lesser of two evils. The dogs were also tormented by the mosquitos. Rhoda and Frida would deal with them by lunging at them, trying to catch them in their mouths, which made the kayak lurch and rock wildly. The only thing that would make this night worse, I thought, was if the dogs caused us to capsize. Keeping them under control was a fight all night long. They too were all wet and starting to shiver, so I had to snuggle them up in my lap so they could get some of my body warmth.
Then, of course, there was that. At some point, we all had to pee. There was no getting around it. What does one do? When you can’t get out of the kayak because there are no landing places and you don’t dare step out anyway because the mud underneath can be treacherous…you just have to go. In your kayak. The worst indignity of all was holding the pups on my lap and all of a sudden realizing, “Oh my God, C.J., Rhoda just peed on me.”
Slowly, finally, we convinced ourselves that the horizon was getting lighter and the sun might be coming up. C.J. had been reassuring me all night long, saying “Don’t worry. We will get out of this. There will be fishermen early in the morning. We just have to find that first boat.” Sure enough, she was right. As soon as we had enough light to see by, we start paddling frantically in the direction of the first motorboat we heard, hoping to cross paths with them and get some help. We missed the first boat, but finally saw two kayak fishermen in the distance and signaled them with our whistle and flailing our arms in the air. Obviously, this wasn’t normal behavior for the kayaking set, so they stopped and waited for us to see what was up. When we caught up with them and told them we’d been lost out there all night long, and could they please point us in the direction of one of the main channel cuts, they couldn’t believe it. All night? No cell phone or GPS? No map? How was that possible?
Our grim and exhausted faces must have answered their questions, because they quit asking and pointed us in the direction out. As it turned out, we weren’t that far from the wetlands exit, but in the pitch darkness we just couldn’t see it.
We crossed back over the ship channel and paddled ashore to where our cars were parked. I’ve never been so glad to see a stretch of beach in my entire life. When we tried to stand up and get out of the kayaks, we couldn’t straighten our legs and fell back into the water. After about 15 hours in a cramped, sitting position, where we couldn’t stand up or even change positions, our leg muscles seemed to have atrophied! I staggered around the beach like a drunk as I unloaded my gear and tried to stow my kayak on my car carrier. We met up with three fishermen on the beach just setting out for the day who couldn’t believe what they saw: two women covered in mosquito welts, wild salty hair, reeking of pee, stumbling around on the beach, and three frantic dogs. What a sight we must have been! We were so weak that they helped us load our kayaks on our vehicles and were probably quite worried that we intended to get behind the wheel and drive.
While I was able to drive straight home, get something to eat, take a shower, and get a few hour’s rest, my crazy friend had a dental appointment down in Mexico that very day, a 3-hour’s drive away. I could not persuade her to call and reschedule that appointment. She went home, showered, and hit the highway after the night we’d had. She admitted to me later that she had to pull over a few times as she almost fell asleep at the wheel.
The harsh lessons we learned that night about water safety, preparedness, communication, and pure common sense are too many to count. This one ranks high on my list of The Most Miserable Nights of My Life!