Heavy Duty Heroes

So much to write; so little time. Where to begin?

The Fort Hood chapter of Heroes on the Water just had their most recent kayak fishing event this last Saturday, and things went well considering the fact that we are still a relatively young chapter and therefore still learning the ropes. Thinking back on it now, there were some good lessons learned, certainly by me, and maybe even by others, so I felt compelled to jot down some notes about the event with an eye on passing on those lessons and improving our future events. Here are some of those notes:

Heavy (Part 1)

Every now and then, just when I start to fancy myself an experience kayak paddler, I make a stupid mistake and reconfirm my status as a newb. In the most recent example, I grossly underestimated the weight of a kayak trailer, and the enormity of this mistake sunk in when the tongue of the fully loaded trailer fell on my foot and nearly broke it.

The trailer’s actually a very nice one, a state of the art Trailex UT-1200 aluminum build trailer with a wide base and a low profile. It can hold sixteen, neatly nested, sit-on-top kayaks, and I remember first seeing this trailer a few months ago at another HOW event and thinking (ironically) how it looked to be really lightweight.

When the day came for me to pick up the fully loaded trailer I was alone, but didn’t give it much thought, after all, it was an aluminum trailer. How heavy could it be? It wasn’t until I lifted the tongue off an upright cinderblock where it rested and tried swinging it over my truck’s hitch, that the shock of its weight hit me.

Because I wasn’t expecting it to be so heavy, I didn’t have a good grip on the tongue and my feet were all wrong. I quickly aborted the lift and tried pushing the trailer’s tongue back over the cinderblock, but I ended up letting go of it too soon. The tongue skidded off the cinderblock and onto my foot after which all illusions of the trailer’s lightweight characteristics vanished.

The next 10 seconds took an eternity, but I think I let out a pitiful sounding scream and immediately pulled back on my foot, only to discover it was firmly pinned under the trailer’s tongue and wouldn’t give. So with my foot ablaze in pain, I summoned up just enough composure to lift the tongue off my foot and set it back onto the cinderblock, only this time, much more carefully.

I must have drawn enough attention (and perhaps some suspicion) that soon a man stopped to check on me. He’d driven by earlier and saw me fiddling with his neighbor’s kayak trailer, so he decided to stop and ask what I was doing. I explained how I had permission to use the trailer and because I knew his neighbor’s name, he accepted the explanation. That’s when I finally asked for his help in hitching the trailer to my truck.

It turns out I didn’t break my foot as I originally thought, but let’s just say four days later it’s still swollen and a little tender. Those kayaks proved to be critical, though, to the success of our event so I guess you could say it was worth the pain. If there is a saving grace, it’s that there was no one around to see me drop the trailer on my foot and scream like a little girl.

Rain

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that I have the worst luck when it comes to rain? For example, rain was forecasted for our chapter’s inaugural event last year, and though it never really materialized, the forecast resulted in a lower than expected turnout. And later in our first year we ended up cancelling another two events because the public lakes we planned to use were all closed due to flooding…from rain.Now with our latest HOW event only a few days away, Saturday’s forecast called for 80 percent chance of rain and so when the leadership team met the Wednesday before to go over final preparations, the first topic of discussion was whether or not to postpone.

I tried to rationalize it. After all, weather forecasters in Texas sometimes get it wrong. Plus I kept telling myself that if the air temps were mild, kayak fishing could be done safely in the rain (as long as it wasn’t accompanied by lighting or high winds).

Then the next day we finally got a break when the forecast models had a line of rain projected to hit Belton Lake in the overnight hours between Friday and Saturday and then another more severe line of rain Saturday afternoon, which meant we had a potential window of good weather from sun-up to mid-afternoon. With a little luck, I thought, we might just be able to pull it off.

After talking it over with the team, we decided not to postpone the event, and then all that remained was to see what Mother Nature threw at us on Saturday.

Kayaks

Because the Fort Hood chapter is a relatively young one, we don’t yet have a big fleet of kayaks. That will come with time as the chapter grows and gains more support, but for now we depend on the generosity of the Texas kayaking community, and in some cases we depend on our fellow HOW chapters. When the number of paddlers started to exceed the number of kayaks we had, the Fort Worth HOW chapter stepped up big by loaning us a trailer (a heavy one one) full of kayaks.

That turned out to be a blessing, because despite the predicted rain, the weather held off until the afternoon, and that led to a great turn out, more than 70 vets, volunteers and their family members. One of my biggest fears has always been not having enough boats for everyone who showed up, but between the individual volunteers who showed up with an extra kayak or two, and our sister HOW chapter in Fort Worth, that fear never materialized. At one point just before lunch, I looked out on the lake and realized that every available kayak we had that day was out on the water. I can’t describe the feeling of accomplishment I had at that precise moment. Not for anything I did personally, but for the collective who managed to put on such a worthy endeavor despite all the challenges, which I’m pretty sure all young HOW chapters go through. As I looked out on the water and saw our vets out there paddling and fishing, I thought about HOW founder Jim Dolan and how he has this saying, a unique way of articulating one of HOW’s core objectives, which he eloquently describes as, “Putting butts in boats.”

Thanks to the Fort Worth chapter, we were able to put lots of butts in boats that day and I think Jim would have been proud.

The Paddle Club

One of the Fort Hood chapter’s biggest supporters is Diana Massey and her Waco Paddle Club. Unfortunately, she had a bad cold and couldn’t make it out, but five of her paddlers showed up to help and they proved to be a great asset. They were all strong paddlers and their touring kayaks were fast, which made them excellent safety boats.

We had a few first time paddlers and when one of them, a young woman with PTSD suddenly stop paddling, the wind started pushing her further out into the lake than I felt comfortable with. We watched her from the shore for a bit, and as she continued drifting, I said something to one of the WPC volunteers named Pam about not having a good feeling about this.  Pam immediately got in her boat and quickly paddled over to the woman. They were out of earshot, but I could see them talking for a bit, and then a few minutes later they started paddling back closer to shore, where she enjoyed the rest of her time on the water.
It was a busy day on the lake, and at any given time we had lots of kayaks in the water, but we didn’t worry about our new paddlers because their safety was firmly in the hands of our volunteer guides and safety paddlers, like the ones from the Waco Paddle Club.

Heavy (Part 2)

We strive try to make our events fun, safe and seamless for everyone…and that takes a lot of work by the volunteers, many of them vets themselves. But the events can get big, and then they require more than just a handful of volunteers. Fortunately, the Fort Hood chapter has always gotten support from the local community, like that of the Waco Paddle Club. We were also supported by a young couple who just opened a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) rental business in Waco, and they not only showed up with five SUPs for the use of our vets, they also provided free SUP instruction.
And then there was Copperas Cove High School, who’s JROTC unit offered their services that day. The Bulldog Battalion, as they’re known, dispatched five cadets to help us, and I knew we’d struck gold when I arrived at Belton Lake at 6:30 in the morning and saw they were already there at the boat ramp, waiting for orders. After some quick introductions, I put them to work unloading the kayaks and they made quick work of it. Then they proceeded to outfit the boats with military precision.

Paddles. Check.

PDFs. Check.

Rod n reels. Check.

Bottled water. Check.

This had to be the most motivated group of high school students I’d ever seen. Every time I needed something done, one of them magically appeared, and they not only did things quickly, they did them right.

I’m not gonna lie. As the day wore on I was starting to get tired. We’d been up since 4:00 AM and by mid-afternoon we were starting to drag a little, but the cadets never missed a step. At one point, I asked one of them to run down from the pavilion where we were eating lunch to the boat ramp to fetch a banner for a group photo. Two of the cadets looked at each other with a mischievous grin and then they bolted down the hill in a race to retrieve the banner. Soon they ran out of site and a minute later they reappeared, still racing, this time up the hill back towards the pavilion, with the cadet in the lead holding the rolled up banner in his hand.

After lunch the clouds started rolling in from the south, and at around 2:00 PM we started feeling the first drops of rain. By then most of the vets were done paddling and we had maybe a half-dozen still on the water, and so we started putting away the equipment and boats. This is where the real work begins, at the end of the day when you’re at the edge of your endurance and starting to run on fumes. And then you have to start packing up, first collecting and sorting the fishing gear and safety equipment; moving kayaks, pre-staging them near the parking lot and then finally loading them up and strapping them down.

By the time we loaded the first of the Fort Worth boats, it was beginning to drizzle, and then the wind started to pick up a little, but the cadets never wavered, loading one 60-pound boat after another, and then another, until all the boats were again nested back on the trailer and safely strapped down.
I couldn’t thank them enough for all their work that day. Besides their youthful enthusiasm and gritty determination, they didn’t shy away from the heavy lifting, both figuratively and literally. Their hard work and professionalism was exactly what we needed in order to put on a HOW event that was fun, safe and seamless, and it was an honor to count the volunteers from the Bulldog Battalion among our ranks that day.

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