As one would expect, moonlight illuminates the water as we paddle north along the shoreline. When cloud cover occasionally cancels out the natural light, though, an eerie, neon green glow from the sticks -- attached to everyone's life vests -- lets the guides keep track of the five kayakers' whereabouts.
The monthly excursion usually begins in front of Waterways Kayak shop on the Intracoastal and ends in nearby West Lake Park, where paddlers follow mangrove trails and view osprey nests and cormorants. Closeup inspection of wildlife and its habitat is one advantage of kayaking compared to other modes of transportation, explains Colleen Guido, one of the guides. Kayaking, she says, "allows you to get into protected areas that motorboats would not be allowed to go in." But tonight's excursion is taking place after several days of rain, and there's barely a breeze, which means the mangrove areas are thick with insects. So an ocean route has been chosen instead.
While the beginners practice basics (such as steering into the waves to prevent capsizing), two experienced guides perform rolls, intentionally dunking themselves while remaining seated in their watertight boats. It's still a frightening sight, because the kayaker completely disappears in the dark, then finally bobs back to the surface.
Meanwhile one beginner inadvertently flips his boat on its side. He doesn't know how to roll and is quickly assisted back into an upright position by the guides, who congratulate him for not spilling his beverage during the encounter. In fact, participants are encouraged to bring refreshments along, although only water and light snacks are suggested. The heavier stuff is usually reserved for the post-paddle outing at Le Tub, a nearby restaurant, where toasts are made to celebrate a successful trip.
Of course each person's idea of "success" depends on his or her expectations. On this trip, designed for beginners, the new paddlers were given plenty of instruction. For example, there's a slight current with which to contend, but kayaking isn't really the strenuous upper-body workout that some had imagined; at least it's not too strenuous if you paddle properly. "Push the end of the paddle out of the water, rather than drawing the other end in," guide Charlie Vickaryous advised us earlier in the evening.
Paddling prowess is all well and good, but beginner Melissa Hudgens is more interested in the social possibilities of a moonlit night. She points out that changes in wind and current create opportunities for getting to know one another. And the following, she claims, is a great icebreaker: "Hi! Sorry that my kayak is about to crash into yours, but "
If communing with nature is someone's idea of a peaceful paddle, it's easy enough to fall back from the crowd and listen to the water lapping quietly against the kayak while taking in a fabulous view of the moon rising over the dark water.
After having paddled up the coast for about an hour, we return to our starting point on the beach, then take the customary walk across the street to Le Tub. Earlier we were advised to hold on to our glow-sticks, but one paddler tosses his luminescent piece of plastic into a garbage can as we walk to the bar.
"You get a free beer with your glow-stick," one of the guides tells us with a wink as we walk in, sending my fellow kayaker to retrieve his. The trashed token is still emitting a faint green glow amid the debris, which makes it easy to find.