By Kelli Straka
From peeing off the side of a sea kayak in alligator-infested waters to working as an intern at The Observer News Enterprise and sales associate at Amy’s Hallmark in Valley Hills Mall, life has certainly changed for me within the last two weeks.
Typically when most people think of taking a vacation, a thought of lying out on the beach and avoiding all work possible comes to mind. Yet my summer vacation included traversing 427 miles mostly in a canoe and sea kayak.
Through Appalachian State University’s Outdoor Programs, I, along with 11 others, partook on this journey called Source to Sea, starting at Grandfather Mountain and ending at the South Carolina coast.
Before this trip, the only experience I had overnight camping was backpacking four days in the Pisgah National Forest on a trip called First Ascent, also hosted through Appalachian. Before that trip, I never went camping overnight.
The most common question I have been asked from people hearing about the journey I recently returned from is, “How many showers did you take?”
It’s truly surprising that some don’t consider we paddled more than anyone else will ever paddle in their life, or wonder how in the world we managed to carry six canoes, weighing around 200-pounds loaded with gear, around seven dams. Rather they are concerned with hygiene, but I guess I understand.
And in case you’re wondering, I took at least one shower per week thanks to occasional nights spent at state parks.
But this hygienic concern epitomizes one of the reasons I signed up for this trip, to get away from life’s luxuries.
Trips like Source to Sea build an appreciation for the comforts you have: showers, ice, air conditioning, modes of transportation that don’t require physical labor and plenty more.
Contrary to what some people think, it was nice to get away from a constantly buzzing phone, excessive Facebook updates and trying to figure out who the next manager of The Office is going to be.
The trip’s first day was spent boulder hopping, which consisted of literally hopping from one massive rock to the next while hoping not to fall, but of course I did. Luckily, the group didn’t have to boulder hop with large backpacks, just daypacks.
Six hours later, we made it three miles off the rocks and onto the trail. I was so grateful to get off the rocks; dirt never looked so wonderful before. However, the trail wasn’t a cleared path gracefully winding down the mountain. There were fallen trees to maneuver around with the 45-pound packs on our backs and multiple creeks filled with wobbling rocks to cross.
The first night was probably the best night’s rest I have had in my life. As soon as I laid down, I was asleep. It didn’t matter I was in a two-person tent with three people. I had a sleeping pad, bag and a tent — it was all I needed. When I woke up, I realized we left the rain tarp door open, which explained why my hair and face was drenched.
This gives you an idea of how hard I slept that night: enough to sleep through getting rained on.
Hiking to the next campsite, we passed through Mortimer where we learned the storm we slept through put them out of power for half of the day. Arriving to our campsite, which was also a state park, we finished the hiking section of the trip. Even though we only went 23 miles, we descended two-thirds of our elevation after the first two days.
Our third day began the first official day on the water. This particular section of water was fairly shallow and had waterfalls, which demanded the use of an inflatable raft called a funyak instead of a canoe.
It was also on this day that I nearly escaped death… well maybe not death, but a few bruises.
There was a 10-foot, class four waterfall I almost made a wrong turn on. Before going down the fall, there was a rock, which divided the safe direction and don’t-go-this-way direction. If you went to the left of the rock, you would safely go down the fall, and if you went to the right, you would be slammed into a giant rock.
As I was making my way toward the waterfall, the current began pulling me to the right. Somehow I managed to correct my direction after getting lodged on the rock before the waterfall and made it safely down.
The next day, we transitioned from the funyaks to canoes. And while funyaking was a lot of fun, it was nice to be in calm water and begin getting miles under our belt.
For the next two weeks, we paddled about 175 miles in canoes with some much-needed rest days and two days of sailing scattered in.
My favorite part of canoeing, or the divorce boat as it’s sometimes called, was always having someone me to talk to. There were times when I thought I wanted to push my paddle partner over the side of the boat for steering the canoe into a rock. I guess they don’t call it the divorce boat for nothing.
While sea kayaks were immensely faster and allowed only yourself to blame when the steering wasn’t precise, there were times when you found yourself alone either in the very front of the group or the very back. Keeping the same pace as everyone else was quite difficult.
Conversation was key to keeping your sanity out in the middle of the water with nothing else to occupy your mind other than the 100 itching mosquito bites on your legs (yes, this is a literal number). As well, we exchanged riddles during our 35-mile day.
I don’t think I would have ever enjoyed figuring out which order the cannibals and priests made it over on a boat to another island.
But it was also key to consider what blessings you do have, especially when you’re camping at places we named: camp swamp mud-hole, spider island, jungle island, mosquito island, poison ivy island and even horsefly island.
Despite the difficulty of having conquered: a total of eight portages, 427 miles, a month outdoors, paddling for more than 10 hours mostly every day, battling mosquitoes and horseflies, and suffering South Carolina’s scorching weather, I wouldn’t classify any of these trials as the most challenging part of the trip. By far, the hardest aspect of the trip was living in the moment and trying to enjoy every second.
Kelli Straka is a second-year student at Appalachian State University
majoring in journalism. She is an intern at The O-N-E.