By Jen Aiken
When they crossed the finish line in 2020, Bay Paddle participants Bryan Kent Gomes (BKG), ClearSharkH2O’s Environmental Education Coordinator and Chris Hopkinson, Bay Paddle Founder, weren’t quite sure if the Bay Paddle would happen again in 2021. Fortunately it did, and the event grew to include nine teams that raised over $100,000 for oyster restoration. It turns out though, that the 2021 Bay Paddle was vastly different from last year. What started as just two avid water enthusiasts, BKG in a kayak and Chris on a stand up paddleboard (SUP), paddling nearly 200 miles of the Chesapeake Bay to raise money for the Oyster Recovery Partnership became a much bigger event in 2021 with about 90 participants.
Can you imagine traversing nearly 200 miles of the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, two years in a row? As a fellow Environmental Educator for ClearSharkH2O, I sat down with the legend himself, BKG, to dive deeper into his experience paddling the Bay for the second time. Through a handful of questions, I was able to hear first-hand the experience, perspective and emotions that Bryan had along the journey. BKG’s credentials as a standout environmentalist and a Wilderness First Responder, along with his good-nature and commitment to inspiring a passion to protect and preserve Maryland’s waterways, allowed him to truly excel in his role and participation in the 2021 Bay Paddle.
While last year’s paddle required a lot more physical training to prepare, this year proved to be a lot more of a mental challenge. That shift involved becoming a safety coordinator, which included creating the evacuation plan for all ports for the paddlers, as well as being the “sweep boat” -– keeping an eye on those at the back of the paddle group. These roles required BKG to be observant, methodical and responsible as he was in charge of ensuring the security and well-being of others. In order to make sure that he was at his peak in these roles, BKG had to take care of his needs first – staying well hydrated, eating enough food for energy and being comfortable. He ramped up his gear a bit this year to include cushions for lumbar support in his Hurricane Sojourn 135 kayak as well as gloves to minimize the severity of blisters – yes, he still got some….seven to eight hours/day of paddling over eight days will do that. Radio communication among participants and the support boats as well as daily check-ins with others was instrumental to the success of the 2021 Bay Paddle.
Not only did Bryan boldly step up and excel as the safety coordinator, he was also part of the Broadneck Paddlers, which consisted of teachers from the Broadneck Peninsula. So instead of just cruising along, BKG practically had to have eyes in the back of his head since this year’s paddle involved a lot more people. When asked about a powerful learning experience he had along the way, BKG responded with “practicing patience.” Patience became the name of the game. He also really enjoyed the energy and camaraderie that came with almost 90 paddlers embarking on what was an inaugural adventure for almost everyone, except the intrepid veterans, BKG and Chris.
To complicate things a bit, Tropical Storm Ida decided to roll through Maryland on September 1st and 2nd. On the first, storms and a small craft advisory forced everyone to take a day off from paddling. On the second, there were still winds blowing nearly 25mph that created conditions that weren’t favorable for most of the sea-faring vessels. So, instead of just sitting out another day, Bryan showcased his adaptability and go-with-the-flow attitude and led participants into the serenity of the Pocomoke River. There, the paddlers enjoyed the beauty and calmness of the river which was surrounded by majestic bald cypresses. This unexpected detour helped to mitigate any disappointment that the paddlers may have had from not being able to be out on the Bay. It proved to be a perfect side adventure cruising along the nooks and crannies of the Pocomoke River. This is just one of the 150 rivers that brings freshwater into the vast Chesapeake, where it mixes with the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. Once these waters meet, it creates the glorious brackish water that Bay creatures and Marylanders love and enjoy.
Along the journey, Bryan was constantly reminded of the smallness of humans and the incredible and undeniable power and allure of the Chesapeake, Maryland’s National Treasure. Fauna sightings included bald eagles, a variety of fish, brown pelicans and a sea turtle that thankfully was chomping on a jellyfish and not a plastic bag. On the last day, as the paddlers disembarked from Cape Charles and made their way to the Atlantic Ocean, the paddlers had a few extra fans/fins “cheering them on” – Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. These summer visitors to the Bay splashed and played, adding to the joy and satisfaction of the final home stretch for the exhausted and proud participants. It was almost as if the dolphins were celebrating with the paddlers as they concluded this memorable experience.
One of the most profound differences from 2020 to 2021’s Bay Paddle experience for BKG was the loss of his beloved mother earlier this year. Her never ending support and pride in the accomplishments of her son was truly missed. Karen Gomes’ legacy of her love of nature, animals, music and adventure shines through in Bryan, along with a great sense of humor. There isn’t a day that goes by that her loss isn’t felt, and going into this mentally and physically challenging experience without his mother left a noticeable void. In honor and remembrance, BKG wears a beautiful whale fluke necklace that he carved from bone while on a trip to New Zealand. It had been a gift to his mother years ago, but now it adorns his neck, a steadfast presence and reminder of his mother’s love. In a way, it parallels the steadfastness and constant presence that the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay provides us all. That week on the Bay is an experience that not many can say they have had or will ever have. To accomplish such a physical feat entails harnessing the mental strength and will to overcome adversity and power through, even when you’re grief stricken, exhausted or overwhelmed. It’s through this extraordinary mindset that BKG emerged humbled by the Bay’s charm and full of gratitude for his mother and for Mother Earth.