By Conor Mihell
"The eye of the storm went right over us," says Dave Freeman. "We were right in it."
Dave and his wife, Amy, were sea kayaking the Atlantic coast midway along New Jersey's Intra-Coastal Waterway when Hurricane Sandy approached landfall in late October. The Freemans are in the homestretch of a three-year journey dubbed the North American Odyssey. The 11,700-mile sea kayaking, canoeing, hiking and dogsledding expedition is part of the Freemans' Wilderness Classroom, a nonprofit that shares outdoor adventure with students through blogs, podcasts, online photos and videos, and in-person presentations to school groups.
Having survived the exposed shorelines of Maine and New England and just reached the protected waters of the ICW, the Freemans finally felt a sense of relief from wind and waves of the open coast. But the 9,000-odd miles of paddling they've completed so far hardly prepared them for Sandy, and the barrier islands offered scant shelter from one of the biggest storms to ever hit the northeast.
"The wind picked up on Sunday [Oct. 28] and we knew we didn't want to be anywhere near the water," says Amy, chatting by Skype for Vermont, where the Wilderness Classroom is currently taking a few days to share their experience with school groups. The pair had arranged to do a presentation about their trip through New Jersey Kayak, an outfitter in Barnegat, N.J. With officials imposing a mandatory evacuation of coastal areas, outfitter Bill Stage invited the Freemans to stay at a friend's house inland.
When Sandy hit on Monday, the Freemans could only imagine the scene of carnage on the coast. The winds died on Tuesday, so Dave and Stage (pictured above) crossed police barricades and paddled "through a flooded forest" to inspect the damage. Stage's kayak shop was "flooded by three to four feet of water and there was literally tons of debris covering their property," says Dave. Amazingly, Stage's fleet of kayaks survived the storm without damage or loss.
Although the sheltered ICW was calm enough for paddling by Wednesday, Oct. 31, Dave and Amy felt obliged to help Stage clean up the pieces for four days. "We felt the need to stick around and reciprocate," says Amy, shown below during the cleanup. "There was a real need for bodies to haul things around. We feel lucky to have this connection with the kayak shop. It was a place where we could be of help. We know how to move kayaks around."
Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy quickly became part of the Freemans' Wilderness Classroom message. "We've been in some natural disasters but the scope of this is so large," says Dave, who plans to be back on the water this week. "We've woven the storm into our experience and students have already responded [by raising money and supplies for victims]. Millions are out of power and so many homes have been destroyed. It's pretty overwhelming ."
Check out some video of the Freemans' storm cleanup work in Barnegat, N.J.
Read CanoeKayak.com's previous coverage of the Wilderness Classroom: