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‘We Made It’

After paddling more than 250 miles the hand of warriors known as “Stovall’s Rangers” make it to Key Largo with a song.

[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
From left, Terry Tomalin, Lawson Mitchell and Toby Brown toast each other and their accomplishment after finishing the race at Key Largo.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001

KEY LARGO -- We stopped a mile off the beach and lined up our kayaks four abreast.

Tomalin, standing, plans an early departure with partner Jon Willis after making camp Saturday at Flamingo in southern Everglades National Park.
"We made it," George Stovall said. "Let's look good at the finish."

We had paddled more than 250 miles through wind and waves, braved sunny days and bone-chilling nights, camped when we could, pressed on when we couldn't, fueled by only a few swallows of tap water and soggy energy bars.

As we paddled toward shore, I suggested we sing the theme from Bonanza; then somebody reminded me it didn't have words. Then Stovall suggested we sing Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

"You know, from the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now," he said.

I reminded Stovall that song didn't have words, either. But it was an honest mistake. Little or no sleep, combined with 12 to 14 hours of strenuous exercise seven days in a row, will do that to you. Your mind detaches from your body. It's the only way to deal with the pain.

"Stovall's Rangers" start the final day of their 273-mile journey.

"I know. How about Long, Long Way to Key Largo," Mitchell suggested. Good choice, we all agreed, and started singing.

Me and me pals, we took a trip

Down the coast for a little bit

The little ditty, sung to a calypso beat, had powered us across the water of Florida Bay on the final day of our journey. Without each other, we would have never made it.

Kayaker Toby Brown writes in his journal after making camp at Flamingo.
Back in Chokoloskee, the halfway point of our trip, we were saddened to learn that Dexter Colvin, an original member of our little band we called "Stovall's Rangers," had moved on without us. Colvin, a veteran kayaker who paddled despite having no legs, liked to travel alone and often through the night. We knew that two sailboats competing in the WaterTribe Challenge had made it to Key Largo, but we all agreed it would be only fitting if Colvin was the first kayaker to cross the finish line.

"Good for him," Stovall said. "He deserves to win."

But for us, the race was far from over. We still had to make it through the Everglades, a distance of more than 70 miles, in less than 24 hours. So we set out with the afternoon tide and paddled through the 10,000 Islands well into the night.

About 10:30 p.m., with a full moon on the horizon, we stopped at Highland Beach and pitched camp on a narrow spit of sand, a few feet from the water. We pulled our boats up next to our tents, knowing the spring tide would be high.

A few hours later, as I tossed and turned in a damp sleeping bag filled with sand, I dreamed that the water had rolled over my boat and carried away the dry bag that held my laptop computer. So, half asleep, I rushed out of the tent and waded into the knee-deep water. I found nothing.

"What are you doing?" my tentmate, Jon Willis, asked as I slammed a knee into the side of his head.

"I had a nightmare," I said. "I thought I lost my laptop."

"Go back to sleep," he grunted.

After five days, I was beginning to wear on my paddling partner's nerves. They call tandem kayaks "divorce boats" because of the inevitable arguments they create.

"Go left," Willis would say from the bow.

"I am," I'd respond from the stern.

"Not that much," he'd say.

"Then how much?" I'd ask.

The next day, dragging after no sleep from the night before, I reached my limit as we paddled down Joe's River toward Flamingo.

"My shoulders hurt," I said. "My back, too."

Willis didn't want to hear it.

"You want some cheese with that whine?" he said. "Keep paddling."

Ten minutes later I started complaining again. That's when my friend read me the riot act. "You think you have it bad. . ." he began.

As the director of Treasure Island Charities, Willis organizes a variety of events to benefit numerous non-profit organizations, including the Tampa-based Camp Good Days for children who have cancer. Willis' wife, Darline, has been fighting the disease (and winning) for more than two years.

"So think about that next time you are tired and hurting," he said.

Now, sufficiently shamed and feeling like a total wimp, I dug deep and pressed on. A few hours later, we landed in Flamingo, and I rushed to the nearest phone to call my pregnant wife, Kanika.

"I had to go to the hospital today," she said. "They thought the baby was coming early."

So now, feeling like a wimp and a jerk, I vowed to get to Key Largo as soon as possible. That meant a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and a pre-dawn start.

We made good time for the first few hours, but by mid morning we began to run out of steam.

"Okay, what am I?" Mitchell asked. "Animal, vegetable or mineral?"

That game was good for a few hours of paddling through the keys of Florida Bay. Eventually, we lost interest.

"You guys know the words to Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen?" Willis asked. We did our best to butcher the song and sent every wading bird within miles flying for cover.

Then Mitchell started laughing to himself. We all thought the sun had finally gotten the best of him.

"Don't worry, guys," he said. "I do that sometimes ... especially when writing a song."

We spent the next two hours adding to, then fine-tuning his little Caribbean ditty. We sang it again and again, until the afternoon sea breeze picked up and blew in our face; then we sang louder.

It's a long, long way to Key Largo

It's a long, long way to Key Largo

Once on shore, we congratulated each other on our shared success.

"Gentlemen," Mitchell said, "it's been a pleasure."

And an adventure, we all agreed, we might someday repeat, after a hot shower and a cold beer.

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