Thursday, July 18, 2019

Maine Wrapup. End of Summer countdown begins.

We've been back from Maine for a few days now and aside from re-aclimating to the situation where you still feel sweaty all the time, even inside of buildings, I will say things are going well.  Charley had his first year-round swim practice Tuesday morning and even more exciting than that JAMES finally after a year of waiting was allowed to be evaluated for year-round swim.  He swam an hour-long practice with a handful of other kids his age and listened carefully to the coach's instructions the whole time.  I chatted quietly with the coach while he stood by, wrapped in a towel, looking angelic for the verdict.  When I turned around and told him "You're in!  Nice job!" he screeched "YES!!!!" along with what would be called a fist bump if it was your entire body.  Afterward he kept talking about how tired and happy and hungry he is.  I'm so excited for him.

Ryan declared this weekend "easy weekend," which was nice and necessary after awakening at one o'clock in the AM (Central) on Saturday to catch our flight.  Charley took a four hour nap on Sunday afternoon while the rest of us met up with friends at the splash pad downtown.  Because it was easy weekend we also bought everyone ice cream and then took eight kids to get pizza (Charley had woken up by this point).  Easy weekend is the best.


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And now for a randomly assembled sample of the hundred or so pictures I took in Maine this year. Some milestones: The kids all went back to sea and science camp again, Charley and Wes did two weeks and James and Mary did one. They did the usual learning to sail (or practicing sailing in the boys' case) and also this year because we went to a different session, they learned all about Maine fisheries. Mary came home referring to every floating paper cup as "marine debris" and cautioned us against attempting to sail in the "No Go Zone," or directly into the wind. Charley and Wes got lots more experience sailing boats themselves and I'm just so amazed by their confidence and ability. They also went on field trips to the Coast Guard station and the aquarium. Whenever I muse that maybe they would like to take a week off one year they look at me like I have three heads, so this is definitely a Thing now. James, Charley, Wes, and my niece S all did the swim test, in which they swim all the way across the harbor and back. It used to be that if you completed the swim test you didn't have to wear a life jacket in the boat, but now it just means you get the customary cup of hot cocoa and five bucks and you don't have to wear a life jacket on the dock if an adult is with you because 2019.

The rest of us who were not at camp spent a lot of time lounging around, going on beach trips, checking out the Maine Maritime Museum (which is AWESOME), eating inappropriately, reading good books, and hiking. Due to the warmer than normal water temperature (hmmm, I wonder what is causing that) the jellyfish population exploded this year and for the first week of our trip we could usually find at least ten of them around the area where the kids usually swim. At first we just helped them avoid running straight into them but after some stings we realized James has an unusual reaction that includes headaches and swollen neck lymph nodes (because of course) and we finally had to ban him from the water when it seemed like the reaction was escalating each time.  The way he tells it, the second time he was stung the jellyfish "Was hiding on the bottom and then looked up and said 'Oooh!  It's a CHILD!' and then swam up and grabbed me by the arm.'"  He also said that jellyfish "feel like the softest towel you could ever imagine but then when you let go YOU FEEL THE PAIN!"

I am wondering if I now need to write "jellyfish allergy" on all school paperwork now because that is super normal. 

We went on a long sweaty hike in the woods and then, as a consolation for not being allowed into the ocean, snuck him into a nearby resort that has a pool and let him swim there one afternoon. This was nice for all of us because it is beautiful and you can order a local craft beer and basket of fries while you watch your kid.

We did some tubing.

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And ate some enormous cinnamon rolls to cheer ourselves up when Ryan went back to Texas.

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Spent some time exploring a century old schooner (The "Mary E"!) at the Maine Maritime Museum.

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Made sand forts with Maine friends.  Not pictured: James used dead jellyfish as decoration for his moat.  My sister asked him later if the jellyfish who wrapped itself around his arm was mad because James "made a sand castle with its friends."  Shortly after this picture was taken lightning struck something very close by, so close that I barely had time to think "Hmm, that looked close" before the enormous BOOM shook everything around us.  I've never seen kids move so fast.  It was more like levitation than running.

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Ryan and James spent a bunch of time sailing.  The day Ryan left I found James crying in bed because he wanted to go sailing with Ryan.  James managed the boat all by himself, by the way.  Little awesome scrappy little kid.

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Wes made a model boat with my dad and then we all went to the dock to watch him christen and launch it.

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He literally christened it.

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We were all delighted to discover that Mary is finally tall enough to go up in the Pemaquid Point lighthouse.

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And spent a bunch of time exploring the rocks there.

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The pirates came and left buried treasure!

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A storm came and blew all the jellyfish out to sea so James and Mary spent an afternoon back in the water.

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The kids explored this confusing device at the museum.  You could call a list of numbers and hear someone tell you about historic lighthouse keepers.  It was a great exhibit, but once they'd called all the numbers they started dialing 911 and cackling merrily when the operator came on and said "the number you have dialed has been disconnected."  If you let it sit long enough "Charlie from the Coast Guard" would call you and warn you about a big storm on the way.  It was the highlight of their lives.

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Mary and her schooner.

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Ryan and I walked over to spy on the kids sailing and I guess we weren't so inconspicuous because Wes started waving when he saw us.  That's him with the tiller!

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James read this entire Junie B Jones book in one sitting and was SO PROUD.

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I just want to eat this one sometimes.

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In the almost week we've been back we've already had music lessons, doctor's appointments, church meetings, pool days, and driveway parties.  Yesterday was RIDICULOUS hard and I finally texted a friend, picked up a fancy prosciutto and goat cheese pizza for the grown ups, ordered a few cheese pizzas for the kids, and hung out at the pool for a few hours.  We returned home to find our neighbors and Ryan all set up in the driveway with a pack of kids milling around on bikes.   Two weeks from today is our first of four back to school nights and school will start right after that.  I am NOT ready.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sea Kayaking Family Wilderness Adventure: Part 2

On the first morning on Little Chebeague I was awakened by James.  "Mom.  Mom.  Mom.  MOM.  Mom!!"  When I opened my eyes I was looking at six wiggling legs sticking out on either side of James's thumb and forefinger, which were about three inches from my eyeballs.  "Mom.  I scratched my back and I felt THIS little guy!"  It was a tick.  Not a deer tick, thank goodness.  We opened the tent flap and threw him out into the grass.

Everyone was already awake and making coffee and oatmeal at the fire pit.  Joe told us the day's plan was to leave our campground set up and row all the way around an adjacent island (Long Island) then stop at the ferry terminal so we could run to the store for s'more ingredients.  This meant we would save a ton of time not packing and unpacking and also that we would be rowing empty kayaks around, which would be easier.

Continuing the theme of the military history of New England (1859-1945) we crossed over to the end of Long Island directly across from our campsite to check out a wooden ship that had been sunk intentionally in a channel to block access to the port of Portland by German U boats during World War Two.  We could see it the night before, the ribs of the boat sticking up eerily at low tide as the sun set.  Apparently the channel separating Little Chebeague, Long Island, and some other islands, was used by the US Navy to house an armada of ships all ready to go.  Portland is not a large city, but it was a strategic one during the war because it was the closest point to Europe.  It was a little hard to not get bogged down in how awful people can be to other people when you're looking at all of the creative ways to shoot at each other.  The kids just thought it was awesome and loved running around pretending to shoot things.

On the ocean side of Long Island, Joe showed us how to paddle through narrow gaps in the rocks as the waves came through, which made for a fun little obstacle course he called "Rock Gardening".  It went like this: he paddled his lightweight single kayak gracefully through a narrow gap, then we would follow in our giant tandems, get stuck, then laugh hysterically waiting for a wave.  Eventually we got the hang of it.  The kids started begging for lunch around 10 AM, so Joe took us to a sandy beach to stretch our legs and have a granola bar from the large dry bag full of them he kept in his kayak.

Mary spent much of this break carrying a dead horseshoe crab around like a teddy bear.  This is not a normal experience for a suburban female child in the south, in case you were wondering.

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After our break we paddled the rest of the way to the ferry landing, which was exciting for me because it featured both portapotties AND a convenience store whose sign advertised one of our favorite Maine breweries.  It was big enough to see from the water and when we passed it on the first day the kids all considerately shrieked "MOM!  They have SHIPYARD!!!  MOM!!  BEER!!"

I took lots of pictures of James and Mary because their proportions with their life jackets and hats were extra adorable.

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We ate lunch at the ferry terminal dock and then went for a walk to look for some more World War Two fortifications.  The trail across the island went through a marshy area next to a beaver dam, which was pretty, except that once we were too far in to turn back we were swarmed by hundreds of flies.  Not like normal house flies, but these huge, meaty, buzzy biting flies.  We had no choice but to trudge forward swatting them away with our hats.  It was like that scene from Harry Potter with the Cornish pixies.  Joe and the big kids and I emerged on the other side and stood on the road listening to Ryan trying to coax a screaming Mary to keep walking.

We found a five story tall submarine observation tower in someone's front yard and then found a school with a water fountain and a playground and JUST IN TIME because Mary was DONE.  The kids were rejuvinated by the monkey bars and were able to walk back to the ferry landing.  James joined some local kids jumping off the pier at high tide.

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And then it was a quick paddle back across the channel to the campsite where bum bum buh bum!

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We thought the kids should get a treat too because we're not total monsters.

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Charley followed Joe around a little bit slash a LOT.

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Wes invited James and Mary to go swimming with him (!!!).

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Ryan made us a yummy dinner.  Mashed potatoes with stew (Amy's vegetarian for Charley and Dinty More mystery meat for everyone else).

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Mary asked me sincerely what we were going to have for dinner after this "little snack."

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Joe made a fire out of wood he harvested from other islands and carried back on the kayaks and then we finally got out the s'mores stuff for the traditional making s'mores barefoot in your bathing suit activity.  The chocolate bars melted in the kayak so Charley figured out to put them in a ziplock bag and submerge them in the freezing ocean water to "freeze" them again.

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It looks so peaceful.  And it was.  As peaceful as anywhere with four kids is.

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When things got restless and squirrely I attempted to get everyone to go to bed but James and Mary were WILD in our tent and I could hear a continuous string of loud nonsense from Charley and Wes's tent.  Ryan and Joe hung out by the fire talking into the night and then either it was the exhaustion of paddling all day or the Benadryl but they finally all fell asleep.  I could see the moon out of my tent window!

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Monday morning we woke up and broke camp after breakfast (Charley made this inviting oatmeal platter for us), cramming all seven sleeping bags and pads, two tents, clothes, remaining food and water, and other associated equipment back into the boats and set off for Peaks Island for some bunker fun. 

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Either Joe felt sorry for me because I had been paddling Mary around without any help the whole time or he was concerned about my abilities because he let me use his single kayak and jumped in my boat with Mary for the last day of paddling.  There was also no wind and no waves, so the last day was a super easy for me.  The kids were flat out DONE, but good sports, and Charley and Wes at least made an attempt to keep up with us until Ryan finally tethered their kayak to his.  That means for the last half of the last day Ryan was pulling three kids and two boats around with his arms.  This is probably why he responded with less patience than usual when Charley and Wes had a paddle fight in the middle of the ocean.

A highlight of the first crossing (the same crossing that had been so hard for Mary and me on the first day) was a seal that swam straight toward us and several dolphins that we could see breaching in the water.

Our first stop for the day was Battery Steele, a concrete bunker the size of a large strip mall that is tucked into a hillside on Peaks Island.  The tide was low and it was really choppy, but Joe said the complicated (scary) landing would be worth it.  He had us come in one by one and stood in the water ready to grab each boat.  We had to pick our way up a long, slippery hill to get to the road and both Mary and I ate it a couple of times.  Joe handed us a headlamp and a bottle of water and pointed us in the direction of the trailhead.  I had no idea what we were looking for, but was picturing the small bunkers I saw on the beach in Normandy.

Battery Steele is absolutely enormous, with a three hundred foot long dark tunnel connecting open areas where two huge cannons were once located.  We picked our way down the dark tunnel and poked our heads into the side rooms.  The kids were SO GROUCHY you guys, but Ryan and I were transfixed and no one wanted to turn back.  Fights are more fun when it is pitch black and everyone's voice echoes.

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Made them pose for a tense picture at the end of the tunnel.  The tiny rectangle above Wes and Mary is the other end of the tunnel.  It was insane.

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After some lunch, it was time for a quick paddle back to Portland.  The wind and tide were both in our favor and it was easy work to get back to the beach.  We entered the harbor with a half dozen beautiful old schooners, working fishing boats, modern sailboats, and kids' sailing camps out for the day.  It was beautiful and sunny with a perfect breeze.

It was a strange feeling when we approached the beach where we had started out two days prior.  I remembered feeling so nervous and sort of ridiculous when we started, just hoping I could keep up and not embarrass myself.  I worried that the kids would freak out or be uncooperative and I didn't know what to expect from our guide.  As cheesy as it sounds, going back to that beach we were like different people.  As I told Ryan, "We keep telling the kids what a great job they're doing because they're doing this big hard thing, but I think we need to give ourselves, middle aged weekend warriors with desk jobs, some credit too."

The worry and preparation were all worth it.  In an interview posted on the outfitter's website, Joe says he likes to push beginners a little bit to help them grow.  There were moments even during the trip when I wondered if we could really do all these hard things he was asking us to do, but we did them anyway.  It was exhilarating to get back to that beach where we started and realize that we had done it ALL.  The huge waves, the wind, a giant thunderstorm, two nights of primitive camping with four kids, beach landings, rough rocky cliff landings, upwind, downwind, against the tide, crossing near giant ferries and working fishing boats and speeding motorboats--I even got swamped by a breaking wave that crashed right over my kayak.  I was proud of us.

And also it always cracks me up when we've been in the wilderness for three days and we roll back into civilization stinky and unkempt, while everyone is lying freshly showered on their clean beach towels and enjoying the sunshine.  I waited patiently in the water, sitting in my salt-encrusted shorts and absolutely filthy shirt while a mom in a chic black one piece led an adorable and clean little toddler out of the way by the hand.

In important news, the kids were most ecstatic to have their lovies back.

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Joe told us he hopes we will do this again next year and that we should definitely ask for him.  Saying goodbye was awkward and effusive because we all enjoyed the trip so much and wanted to stay in touch.  I stopped short of looking intensely into his eyes and telling him "You are Uncle Joe now."  But I wanted to.  Because Joe is awesome.

I'm not sure how we can swing another two nighter next year, but I'm already scheming.  As usual my scheme involves relocating to the east coast where our lives will surely be just as exciting and fun as they are in the summer all year round when we try to layer mittens and snow shovels and work and school on top of everything else (not really).  It's extra hilarious because I am typing this on the porch and had to go get my fleece because it's a chilly sixty-eight degrees with a light breeze.

I cannot wait to go again.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Sea Kayaking Family Wilderness Adventure: Part 1

One day when I was feeling restless this spring I planned my childhood fantasy sea kayaking trip in Maine online, plugged all the details into a query form on an outfitter's website, and pushed send.  It couldn't hurt to find out, right?  I assumed it would be prohibitively expensive and that they would say Mary was too young (even though I rounded up to six, which I felt like I could do because she is tall and articulate and will be six in just a few weeks), but a few short hours later an email popped into my inbox with a very reasonable per-person quote and an assurance that "usually we like kids to be at least seven, but six could work probably."  So I sat on this knowledge for a few weeks until Ryan innocently asked me what I thought we should do for our fifteenth wedding anniversary.  "Well..." I began.  "I looked into what it would take to take the family on a three day sea kayaking trip through Maine's islands, and this is how much it would cost per person and this is what it would include."  This strategy proved to be far more effective than the time I texted him "Let's go to Puerto Rico for fall break!" at ten AM on a Monday morning, because he immediately said "Sure!  Sounds great!"

You might be thinking that something like this would require a longer conversation, but if we waited to make decisions until we had time to adequately talk them through then we would never do literally anything.

I was initially incredibly excited that we were going to be doing this as I continued firming up our arrangements with the outfitter.  About a month ago I began to quietly panic that we were doing something dangerous or foolish or traumatizing to the kids.  My hobby became reading things on the internet about taking kids sea kayaking and it sounded reasonably doable, except that some of our kids are on the young side and also you can die from hypothermia in Maine even in the middle of July.

Finally, Saturday was the day we were to leave Portland with a few extra pairs of underwear, a ton of fleece jackets, and like nine bags of groceries.  We had found small aluminum trays (originally designed for escargots) to use as our camp dishes, brought a backpacking stove from home, loaded up on sunscreen, and made sure everyone had water shoes.  I took very seriously the strident warnings on the website to WEAR NO COTTON, lest we all succomb to hypothermia in the middle of July, and found the kids all wet suits.

I was determined to not be high maintenance or ridiculous and was extremely proud of myself when our guide, Joe, told us we were "light packers".  Though--he told us we were light packers before he got out the gear we were borrowing, which was six sleeping bags, six sleeping pads, two tents, six kayaks, six life jackets, six paddles, and six spray skirts.  Once THAT pile was amassed, it was clear we were squarely in the ordinary zone when it came to packing.

Squeezing all of that into dry bags was a PROJECT.

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A confusing project that led to the discovery of an entire dry bag with a single box of granola bars inside and a situation in which none of my clean clothes showed up until bedtime on the second night.

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As part of our rental, we had a guide who planned our route, taking into consideration things like tides, wind, weather, and our SUPER NOVICE skill level.  He stayed with us the entire time, camping with us, eating with us, paddling with us.  This was enormously reassuring whenever I started feeling nervous about the trip, and it also ended up being a really wonderful part of the adventure.  I mean, the kayak guide randomly assigned to our family WAS AN ACTUAL THERAPIST what could be better than that?  He was kind and patient and so, so nice to the kids.  He bought us s'more stuff and made fires.  He shared his granola bars and peanut butter with us and pointed out all the best places to go to the bathroom behind rocks on the beach.  He had a first aid kit that came in handy when James broke out into a crazy rash and when Mary scratched her leg on a rock. He also knew what the heck he was doing and planned a route that took us to our island campsite with plenty of time to set up the tents before the giant thunderstorm came (more on that later).

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We took one last picture before we left and then it was into the water for a quick how-to on paddling.  The rest we figured out relatively quickly as our first job was to cross a busy harbor on a holiday weekend.  The waves seemed huge and scary, but we were told to just paddle straight into them and let the boat take care of us.  It worked and we were all surprised.  After that everyone loved it when a giant tour boat blasted in front of us and made a huge wake.

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The first place on our trip was Fort Gorges, an island fort near Portland that was built sometime after the Civil War.  It was a massive granite structure sticking out of the water and we could not believe we were getting to stop there.  Pictured below: kids with pied piper/kayak guide.

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We charged right up a winding granite staircase through a tower on one side of the courtyard, examined several dark rooms, wound our way around the second story of the fort and up onto the roof, and checked out the largest gun made during the Civil War era, which just happens to be lying on top of an abandoned fort in Maine.

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There was also a very pretty view.

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We stopped for a quick lunch after another hour or so of paddling, this time on a sandy strip of beach on Peaks Island.  Our lunch supplies were still plentiful so we had apples, bagels with peanut butter, almonds, craisins, and pepperoni.  This is our usual backpacking/camping lunch and it is easy, quick, and cheap and also being good for energy and morale.  We ate the same thing the second day but added gummi bears because I like my troops to be delighted.

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After lunch Joe tethered Charley and Wes's kayak to his because he wanted "to get across this next crossing as quickly as possible because it's super rough and there are tons of boats."  He was NOT WRONG about the chop and the wind and the boats.  I was struggling to keep up in the back and Mary was VERY nervous about the waves and the gathering storm clouds and the fact that the other kayaks were getting further away from us.  She responded by shutting down and not paddling at all, which was problematic given it was just me paddling an enormous tandem kayak loaded down with water and camping equipment IN ADDITION TO A FREELOADING CHILD.  Not wanting to make an embarassing scene, I tried singing to her to calm her down.  This worked well, and by the time we made it across (a good football field behind everyone else), I had made it through most of the United Methodist Hymnal and about half of Simon and Garfunkel's body of work, all while paddling as hard as I possibly could.

After that harrowing musical adventure things got easier for about half an hour before the thunder started and we had to make another crossing.  I was hauling ass across the channel when a kid Charley's age pulled up in a lobster boat to tell us that a huge storm was coming.  We kept going towards Little Chebeague, the island where we were to camp, to the sound of thunder becoming more insistent behind us.  Finally, we landed at a campsite and quickly set up the tents and dragged all the sleeping things and food inside.  That storm ended up passing by to the south of us with nothing but a bunch of thunder and a few raindrops.

The campsite was stunningly beautiful, right by the water on an uninhabited island.  The island had a latrine and a fire pit, both of which were great to have during our stay.

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Ryan and Joe took the boys for a walk around the island and I spent some time looking around the campsite and checking out the map before going into my tent to lie down with Mary for a few minutes (Mary CONKED OUT the moment we got the tent up) and when I went back outside, there was a massive shelf cloud was approaching from the west.

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Not knowing where anyone was I just zipped Mary and myself into the tent and hoped for the best.  Soon, the kids and everyone came back and we all hunkered down.  The storm was NASTY, with numerous close lightning strikes and torrential rain.   After an hour of this we peeked out of the tent to find the environment completely changed.  The rough water we'd paddled through was a glass calm, the clear skies had been replaced by a deck of clouds, and a layer of fog hovered just over the surface of the water.  The temperature was twenty degrees cooler than before and the tide had gone out leaving a wide expanse of beach.

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Joe made a fire out of driftwood and some dryer lint he carries for the purpose and we made dinner. First night's dinner was naan pizza, a favorite of mine--naan rounds with either pesto or tomato sauce and Babybel cheese torn up on top. Wes likes pepperoni on his. The fire warmed us all back up and then it was time for bed, which meant squeezing into our cozy tent for four (Ryan, me, James, and Mary; Charley and Wes were in their own tent). Mary fussed and kicked for the first hour or so and then finally dropped off and we were all so exhausted it didn't matter that we were squished and no one had a pillow.

And this has already gotten much longer than I anticipated--because I want to remember every single detail--so I will break it into parts!