Most winters, the farthest south Cyndy and I travel is Grand Rapids.
On Nov. 11, we boarded a plane in Traverse City and two days later landed at the Georgetown Airport on Exuma Island in the Bahamas.
Our vacation in the tropics would be a week of paddling kayaks 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 into the clearest water I have ever seen. Sometimes a brilliant shimmering green, at other times a striking blue, and in the shallows, just purely clear.
The day was nearly windless and the humid heat somewhere in the upper 80s.
This would be the weather pattern for much of the week — hot humid air, light winds, and blue skies with a scattering of clouds.
It was not a strenuous trip, but we’d be out on the water most of the day. Actual paddling might be only two hours with breaks to eat, swim and snorkel.
The beaches were covered with white fine-grain sand — truly I have never seen expanses of sand this beautiful and pristine.
Our travel route led us between islands, sometimes making crossings of around three miles in length. Curiously, we could see the sea bottom almost everywhere — giving us a chance to get up close viewings of manta rays, sea turtles, conch shells and giant starfish.
In the afternoon, we’d select a beach to make camp, unload our kayaks, set up tents and then swim.
Enduring the heat was the hardest part of the trip. We almost never had shade and the tents were little sweat lodges. At night, the tent interior was like being in a sauna.
One afternoon, we left the tent door open to cool it down and that night I had to eject three hermit carbs from the tent’s interior.
It could have been worse. We heard stories about another Bahamas trip where a snake crawled in through an open tent door and was discovered by the camper that night. Other incidents involved a boa constrictor climbing up between the fly and the tent and scorpions found in shoes. We did see a six-inch centipede, with either stingers or antenna on its head, clinging to the outside of our tent netting.
The heat was so intense no one even considered sun bathing. If you had to be out, you went into the ocean that was so warm you never got chilled. Sitting on the sea bottom, water up to our chests or necks, was the most comfortable place to be. It was the best swimming I have ever experienced.
Dawn came around 6 a.m. — perfect for starting our days. Twelve hours later it was dark.
Every night we’d gather on the beach to watch the sunset — spectacular clouds, lit up or silhouetted against a brilliant orange backdrop. Then the stars would appear, so distinct in a black sky, with only the smallest bit of ambient light coming from the city of Georgetown. We’d place a glowing Luci light in the sand and sit in a circle around it sharing stories, telling jokes and sometimes just silently enjoying the night.
On our last night, we recalled all the living creatures we’d seen — and there were several dozen.
Manta rays were common.
Lying on the sea bottom, often covered in a layer of sand, they’d glide away as we approached. We were cautioned to scuff our feet as we walked, so we wouldn’t step on them and risk being stabbed by the barb on their tail.
Sharks inhabited these waters and we all had one close encounter.
I was wading out from shore with a couple others when we saw a shark about four of five feet long, coming in our direction.
When it detected us, it veered away but continued to swim near.
We hollered to the others on the beach and they all immediately headed our way. Everyone wanted to see a shark. Curiosity trumped fear. The shark swam toward Cyndy, coming within 15 feet of her before angling off to deep water.
Our last campsite was apparently perfect iguana habitat.
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 came within about five feet of me.
Normally, this might have freaked me out, but these reptiles, showed no inclination to be aggressive.
What we never saw were other humans during our week of kayaking. Not even boats came within a mile of us.
I’m guessing that the intense heat and the biting sand flies keeps most would-be campers from enjoying this otherwise tropical paradise.
The bugs, most like our no-see-ums, were aggressive at dawn and during the late afternoon going into the evening. The pinprick itchy bites were annoying. Liberal use of insect repellent, wearing long sleeves, pants, and head nets made the buggy times tolerable.
At the end of our trip, strangers we had only met a week earlier, felt now like close friends.
Once again, NOLS had provided a wonderful experience for Cyndy and I.
It’s been that way on every trip — seven for me and nine for Cyndy.
Next July, we will do it again as we head north for a week of sea kayaking in Alaska.