Bryan Wilkinson
Director of Student Life, Burlington, VT

January 3rd – 8pm  
Everyone has successfully rendezvoused at the hotel in Fort Myers after flying in from various locations across the country. Our group size is five students, two Mansfield Hall staff (Bryan Wilkinson and Jasmine Lamb) and two professional guides from Breakwater Expeditions (Angie and Lars).

We are in a small breakfast area of the hotel huddled close together and pouring over maps of the Everglades. Different aromas of pizza toppings hang in the air as we just finished devouring dinner and Lars describes our proposed  itinerary in the 10,000 Islands area of the Everglades. He traces the route with his finger and points out the different Keys or Cayes (small islands) where we’ll be camping.

We talk about canoeing with dolphins, camping on the beaches, and blood orange sunsets.

These images evoke excitement in all of us as the grease from the pizzas allow our wide grins to grow even wider.

January 4th – 9pm

We finished our first day of canoeing and most of the students are tucked in their sleeping bags early after putting away hamburgers and couscous for dinner. They earned a good dinner and a good night’s sleep, and they should be proud of their paddling.

We started at Everglades City and cut across the bay to the mangroves before we made our way to the campsite at Picnic Key eight miles later. The tide was somewhat against us in the mangroves and made the paddling slow going. For a while it felt like we were paddling upriver. We decided to pull over in the mangroves for lunch to wait for the tides to slow and/or change, and Angie brilliantly fed us a lunch of chicken caesar wraps from the stern of her canoe.

While we ate, dolphins were around jumping and chasing their lunch. We saw lots of other wildlife on our way to Picnic Key: brown pelicans, blue herons, ospreys, a sea turtle, and even a Roseate Spoonbill.  It is a good reminder that sometimes taking a break from paddling against the current, and observing your surroundings, is advantageous.

As they always do, the tides eventually turned and once we got more into the Gulf Coast area, the paddling became more wide open and our views only got better. When we got to camp we were treated to a nice westerly sunset, and Jack and I decided to go for a dip before the sunset after we all gathered wood for the fire.

All in all it was a great first day of paddling, and we were fortunate to have amazing weather, nature, and each other’s company. The sounds of crickets and ocean waves serenaded as we laid down in our tents. The stars are brilliant tonight as there is no moon. I decided to leave the rain fly off my tent for a better viewing.

January 5th

We awoke to an overcast day and low tide. The audible crackling of marine life could be heard far away from the beach where the water has receded. After gassing up our engines with breakfast burritos, we hit the open water with the wind at our backs. Most of us were grateful for the overcast day as we had varying levels of sunburn to keep covered today.  

We arrived at Jewel Key in the afternoon. A small little crescent shaped island running north to south with strong winds coming in from the Gulf side. The paddle over was filled with passing by flocks of white pelicans resting on different little “spits of sand” as Lars calls them.

Just before we pulled into the island, we stopped and watched dolphins chase after their lunch. There were 4-5 of them and came about 20-30 yards from our canoes. One dolphin was really determined to eat as we watched it chase a “flying fish” that was jumping out of the water every few yards. It’s amazing to see how fast they can swim when they’re motivated!

We make camp and take time to relax to ourselves. Lars and Angie set up the kitchen and later call us in for an appetizer of brie with apricot jam. We are definitely “glamping” on this trip, being fed such great food while camping. It is definitely not something I’m used to, but it is inspiring me to plan better meals on future trips.

A man on a pedal kayak joins us on the island in the afternoon. He is traveling solo two hundred miles south to Key West on his tiny kayak. While I am sure he’ll have some good stories to tell after that arduous journey, we are grateful that we are in the company of others and have a group with which to share our experiences.

We have great conversations around the campfire tonight staring up at the winter constellations and wiping the remnants of s’mores from our mouths. All of us are starting to get to know each other better and function more as a group, the magic of the evening only magnified as we realized the water and sand was bioluminescent and everything was glowing! We were all laughing and amazed by the blue glow as we splashed and threw rocks in the water or dragged our feet along the sand. One of nature’s finest phenomenon.

January 7th

We awaken to another beautiful sunny day. Wash, rinse, repeat! In the morning, I watched a blue heron patiently stalk prey in the low tide. It looks like a graceful dancer wading through the wet sand.

Today we have a nice layover with plans to explore the island and continue to “work on our relaxation skills.”     

January 8th

We paddled back to Rabbit Key today, which is our last campsite on the trip. It’ll be tough to leave these beautiful islands and head back to the realities of winter. Time has been good to us down here. Slow and peaceful. We had some breakfast sandwiches to power our paddle over here. The winds were slightly against us but the dolphins were surfacing all around us half way over which made the paddle easier. They were so close at one point we could see their sharp dark eyes.

Tomorrow we are waking up early to start our paddle back to Everglades City, so tonight we had a long bonfire feasting on pork tacos and s’mores. We spent some time reliving the trip while the flames danced and the wood popped. It was great to hear everyone’s highlights and perspective.

January 9th

We awake before sunrise and pack quickly which has become routine now. It’s too bad we couldn’t have a couple more days down here as we we have grown as a group. We shove off Rabbit Key just after sunrise and arrive at Everglade City in time for lunch with a brief stop on “Racoon Island” aptly named because of the six or so racoons feeding on the marine life on the outskirts during low tide.

The group paddled strongly; like our paddles were replaced with Michael Phelps’s arms. At one point, I swear there were small wakes from the sterns of all the canoes. We were a motivated flotilla cutting across the open water and making our way through the mangroves. Maybe it was the draw of dry sandless land. Or maybe it was the yearning of technology that powered our shoulders. Whatever it was, we were all able to land safely, unload the boats, and congratulate everyone (especially our guides) for a great time on the water.

Upon reflection, this was a great way for the students to practice both new skills and familiar ones but “in the great wide open” and away from college and Mansfield Hall.  On a canoe trip, executive functioning didn’t mean just having to go back to your room for a forgotten item, it means having to re-pack the entire canoe!  Social communication wasn’t just required for navigating the day, great communication between paddlers was required to navigate the boat in order to get to lunch.  Planning and follow through, a growth mindset, the willingness to work at things which are hard until they become easy (or at least easier), the importance of coaching, the importance of individual within the context of the community – these are all things which this trip helped to highlight, and to show us in a real-time manner that had direct impact on our day-to-day experience.  

The feedback from nature is more immediate: if you don’t paddle the canoe, you don’t make it to camp (which is very different from being able to procrastinate on a paper that is weeks from being due – but also a great lesson that can be applied back in the “real world”). The “learning loop” that happens on these excursions happens  more… naturally … which allows coaching conversations to have a lasting impact. The experience has also created yet another touchstone of shared experiences, as well as examples of goals being set, challenges being met, and successes being experienced – which we can now refer back to, when needed.

Paddling together through the Everglades isn’t the same thing as making the transition to college and independence – but it turns out that a lot of the core soft skills are pretty easily transferred, after all.

We plan on partnering again with Breakwater Expeditions to offer more trips moving forward for the students, and we can’t wait until we can plan our next trip!