June 4. Ken Chamlee. The front half of my kayak lifted completely out of the water and dropped into the wave trough with a loud smack, sending spray in opposite directions. The wave washed to my belly and past, but my cockpit skirt kept the boat from filling. The wind was whipping in our faces, so I gave my hat a tug, lowered my head, and kept digging. This was the crucial point of the day—where the river meets the ocean at Tybee Point.
A current flowing out, a tide shifting to come in, and a 15-20 mph wind driving us toward the beach before we completed our wide swing around the jetty and moved safely away from the rocks--all these had to be dealt with before we were done. “The Savannah River is not going to give us up easily,” Clyde yelled to me over the wind. “Whoo-hoo!” I yelled back, our now-common cry for those moments of sheer fun or time-to-get-with-it-and-paddle. This was definitely both.
Suddenly two kayaks in front of me stopped moving, dead in the water. What the heck, I thought, and then—bam—I’m grounded too. We were 500 to 600 hundred yards from the beach, still trying to make the turn around the point. I rocked myself backwards and forwards—nothing. I tried pushing off with my paddle but I was still stuck. Oh, great, I thought. I do not want to get out of my boat in these waves and drag it to deeper water. “Just use your hands,” Graham yelled, and that gave me leverage that the paddle blade could not. Soon we were all free of the unseen sandbar and paddling toward a rally point a safe distance from the jetty, and there we would begin our solo tacks into the surf.
Last night was a hot and sticky beach night. I slept restlessly—partly uncomfortable and partly anxious about the finish of the trip. After breakfast we had our last class session—a piece by Gary Snyder called “The World Is Places” and an photo essay titled “A Passion for Rivers.” We have learned that place is both transient and permanent, and that who we are is not only where we’ve been, but how well we have listened, how we give and receive with grace, and how honestly we value the world that is ours, day by day or mile by mile. What photographer Tim Palmer says of his work, is a capsule of the VOR mission: “to bring a greater depth of understanding to something that so many take for granted.”
We drove our boats to the Savannah Hyatt which graciously let us use their dock to put in. After all of the worry about huge container ships and bow waves and propeller wash, we passed no moving cargo ships on either day of our paddle through the harbor. The first few miles down the front channel went quickly, but after lunch the wind started up and our 5 mph pace dropped to 1 ½. It was slowing going but eventually there was the Tybee Island bridge, the water tower behind the campground, the flag at Fort Pulaski, and, finally, the lighthouse.
At the rally point we grouped into a pod and paddled constantly to stay even with a designated spot on the beach. Clyde and Margaret Ann took the tandem in first with the VOR flag flying proudly. He then became the beachmaster and gave signals for each of us to begin the paddle home. Merek went next, then John Wargo and Jenna. One by one we angled toward the shore, watching the waves so as not to get turned over, and then right at the end turning with the surf and riding it home. All made it in safely, and no one rolled. We had done it! 363 miles from the mountains to the sea, under our own power. As soon as all the boats were dragged out of the incoming surf, we all took a plunge in the Atlantic, whooping with excitement and joy while friends and parents snapped pictures.
Tonight at the campground we feasted on a low-country boil of shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes. Many friends, parents, and grandparents joined us for a slide presentation of the trip, produced and organized over the last 48 hours by Brian and James. What a great show they put together! Later, when it was almost dark, we had our last circle-up and talked about what the trip had meant and how we had mattered to each other. We each attached a small piece of rope to wrist, ankle, or neck as a symbol of our solidarity and the bond of friendship and achievement.
“All the rivers run into the sea,” the Bible says, “but the sea does not fill up.” We fourteen adventurers are filled up today, however, with rich experience, intersected lives, and humble gratitude for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. While we savor our accomplishment, we say with anticipation, “Here’s to the next Voice of the Rivers!”