Packrafting Around the Island of St. John

Story and Photographs by Steve Yocom, @Steve_yocom

Packrafts have opened many doors for the modern-day adventurer. Now that there are whitewater rafts and ocean-worthy kayaks I can fit in a backpack, I can go anywhere my heart desires. And so we did. We began planning our route around the island of St. John in the Caribbean. This would be a fun-cation. No fastest known time's would be taking place. My friend Jordan and I purchased tickets, and Operation Most Awesome Known Time, US Virgin Islands, was underway.

Day One

We load two weeks' worth of gear onto the Redhook Ferry. There's a twist of excitement in my stomach, looking across the channel from Saint Thomas to Saint John. The island gets bigger, and our starting point of Cruz Bay comes into view. We kick off our most awesome known time with a round of rum drinks and start inflating our boats. We chose the Kokopelli Moki 12-foot Inflatable Kayak for our journey. We could fit most gear below deck with multiple storage areas behind the seat and in front of my feet. I place my dry pack and water dromedary bag on top and tie them down. The Moki also has a spray skirt, crucial to protecting these pale legs and protecting in rough seas. We clip in our skegs and head towards Lindt Point. The crew and I set out on a clockwise path, first heading into the prevailing trade winds. On the second half of the trip, we can ride the wind and relax a bit more. Most of the other folks we're sharing Cruz Bay with are on expensive yachts and sailboats. Here I am, paddling my kayak, the USS DIRT. Paddle after paddle, we're making our way around paradise in the slow lane. We go for relatively low miles on our first day and stash our boats in the jungle. We head to a point to cook dinner. We sit in awe, watching an island sunset pop off.

Day Two

I crawl out of my tent in a friend’s yard and head for the beach with coffee and breakfast supplies. The golden light of the morning is painting everything around me, including the deer on the beach. Right now, the jar of magic is filling up inside me, and I want to hold onto this moment forever. Today the most awesome known time continues. We paddle through the shore break and head for a bay loaded with sea turtles and a beach bar.

We’re not even halfway into the bay and I see seagrass beds. Then, we see turtles coming up for air. We get to the shore and stash our kayaks in the shade. Then we head back out to cool off and admire those sea turtles from below. Afterward, we head to the beach bar to reward ourselves with strong rum and fresh food! I slide the bartender a big tip, and they let us stash our kayaks for the night. With our heavy packs loaded, we leave the beach and head for the legendary Windmill Bar. They offer a campground and are known for one of the best sunsets and the best music on the island. We pitch our tents and head to a music festival to continue the rum buzz and good times. I look out to the bays and beaches a thousand feet below me. We just paddled through that yesterday. I smile. Life sure is something.


Day Three —  Rum.

It provides a little extra courage and may have caused me to skip my rainfly last night. I slept cozy until around 5:45, when the monsoon rolled in. We scramble to get the fly on in the dark, but by the time we do, we're soaked. I grab my soap and take a shower. I'm halfway there already. We make a big pot of coffee and grill breakfast at the campground, watching the storms pass.

By 11:00, they'd started to thin. It's time to top off our water, grab our kayaks, and head for the island's wilder side. The signs of civilization begin to thin as we head for Mary Point. Next, we round another major part of the island and feast our eyes on views of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola, and Jost Van Dyke. We find a place to stash our boats and head uphill to one of my favorite sunset spots. A mongoose scurries in front of me. Local flowers and cacti are blooming. Hummingbirds and bees buzz in and out of them. After a few more switchbacks, the forest clears to reveal the ruins of an old mansion. Wild goats scamper away as we arrive. After a sunset feast, we sip rum and smoke Cuban cigars on the porch. Afterward, I’m asleep as soon as my head hits my bed roll.

Day Four

We climb over the ridge at dawn to catch the first light of day. This is our final day of headwinds and our longest paddle. A wave of storms comes right by us, leaving rainbows everywhere. We take it as a sign of good luck and head toward the East End.

We're hit with the wind as we come around the first point. Later, it picks up even more. Our arms are pumped. When we stop paddling, we go backward. We pull into Brown Bay for a break. Time in the sun is starting to add up. We're on the tail end of our food supplies, and we’ve been drinking warm water for over 24 hours. Despite all this, our spirits remain high. We charge back into the sea for another round. I fix my eyes on the next point and fade into a trance of paddling and breathing—one point, then the next. I have notes on each bay and every point in a notepad. I’ve been counting each one, so I know where we are. I know which ones are good to rest, which might have danger, and which offer backup routes or portages. Finally, we’re on the other side of the trade winds! The other night, we flirted with using my rain tarp as a sail. Now is the time to try it. Chris rigs the long end of the tarp to a paddle that Jessie locks into her kayak. Jordan and I tie our paddles to the other sides of the tarp. We all lash our kayaks together. We get out of the bay and lift our “tarpsail” into the wind! After four days of paddling, we lay back and relax while our boats cut into Coral Bay. There's cheering from shore. After getting into deeper water, a sailboat approaches. Looks of concern melt into smiles as they realize we aren't a sinking ship.

We're the almighty USS DIRT! After telling them we're paddling and camping our way around the island, the ladies on the sailboat invite us to their private beach. We paddle up to cold beers waiting for us and a beachfront fire. There’s good music and the aroma of my favorite back medicine in the air. We sit in the shade of hundred-year-old tamarind trees while one of the women, Tracy, shows our crew members the bay in a real sailboat. Dunia lets us play with her baby goat. The line between total strangers and family begins to blur. I learn Dunia and Thalia’s family have owned this land for a very long time. I sit around the fire and listen to them tell stories. These two act as keepers of this land. They share the island's beauty with visitors so everyone who visits can know the importance of wild places. After that, we swap info, give each other hugs, and set off for our halfway point in Hurricane Hole.

Day Five

I wake up hundreds of feet above the bay. I’m staring out over the East End and Coral bay at sunrise. With coffee and good friends, in one of my favorite places on earth: my friend Nina’s sweet wind villa. Nina has been an explorer, sailor, and Alaska's only female fishing captain. She is quite the artist, too. She built her home with her own hands and is still self-sufficient. If she’s not on her boat-shaped porch enjoying the views, fixing instruments for friends, or making art, you can catch her with a strong cocktail by the pool. We spend the next few days with our wild island hero before setting out to paddle the second half of the island. Before she drops us off, she says,” hey guys, want to jump off this old dock with me?!?” Legend says that if you turn down jumping off a dock with someone twice your age, the universe will give you bad luck for seven years. We down our drinks and jump in!

Day Six

The rest of our crew heads home, but Jordan and I continue as planned. Having the wind at our back feels terrific. Once out of Coral Bay, we experience some of the most open ocean paddling so far. The swells are BIG. Jordan disappears as I go up a wave. Next, she's on top of one as I drop. This is fine in open water, but it's different once those swells make it to the rocky shore. We keep our distance from the coastline.

We're covering ground faster than we anticipated. I paddled hard to get to the next beach at many points on this trip. But as we get closer to the finish line, I pause more often. We silently tie our kayaks together and let the wind carry us. We make our way into Reef Bay with enough time to explore some ruins and catch the sunset. This is one of the more remote beaches on the island. From the mouth of the bay, all we can see are large waves crashing onto the reefs. I remember Tracy’s advice about the narrow passage. She said to watch for a buoy. It's right where she said it would be. I smile and say, "Thanks, Tracy." We pull the kayaks onto the beach and explore the trails around the remote bay. It feels as if the forest floor is moving. I stop, only to find that it actually is. Hermit crabs of all sizes, some bigger than my fist, are wiggling across the ground. They have the most vibrant shells I’ve seen.

We reach a clearing containing some impressive sugar mill ruins. We walk through its dusty halls and peer into what might have been. Giant metal gears that horses once turned to make the sugar are all that's left. This is the last night of our trip, and I want to see one more sunset. Just then, a massive bug invasion begins. We layer up and apply loads of bug spray, but the bugs are relentless. We retreat into our bug nets. Unable to cook outside, I eat a smushed peanut butter sandwich for dinner.

Day Seven

We return to our gear and straight into our boats to escape the bugs. My notes show nine more points to cross before the final bend. Then we'll be back in Cruz. There is a chance of storms but a wind at our backs. Ahead, we'll be exiting the national park. We've seen nothing but the natural world for the past few days.

As soon as we cross the line, the hills will become littered with houses and everything I’m not ready to return to. I want to turn around, stay a little longer, and put off the airport lines, crowds, emails, and cold weather at home. We paddle on, and my dreamlike state is interrupted. A big storm is coming over the mountain. The storm shoots fierce wind straight at us. “Keep it on your left and give it your all!” I yell back to Jordan. The rain picks up, and this monster moves in. It gets scary. I lose all visibility of Jordan. This busy bay has big boats moving through it, too. How would they see us? I can’t see two feet in front of me. I keep my boat off the point and keep looking back for Jordan. I know these storms move through quickly, so as long as we stay upright, we'll be okay. The waves are high now. One wrong move could flip us or fill our kayaks. To our relief, the storm passes. I see Jordan paddling behind me. We thank our lucky stars as we cross the final two bays.

Paddling into Cruz is bittersweet. We park the boats at the same beach bar where we started and order our final round of painkillers. Conch fritters and Mahi tacos fill my belly. I deflate my kayak and put it all back in its duffel bag. I wonder where I’ll take this kayak next.


October 31, 2022 — Kelley Smith