Why Not Washing Your Hair for Two Weeks Can be Great

Last Wednesday, I celebrated the almost two-week-aversary of me not washing my hair, or taking a normal shower, or using soap or deodorant or perfume or body wash. I proudly proclaimed this fact to my friends at a booth in CVP, figuring that a lot of the hipsters around me with dreadlocks looked like they shared the same accomplishment, and I was in a “safe” place. I was truly proud of this fact, because it represented what I had just accomplished. I had just returned, literally minutes prior, from my second extended sea kayaking expedition in the Florida Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.

            Two years ago, I went on my first expedition to the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands, and other inland bodies of water. Located off the West Coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, this part of Florida is entirely separate from the retirees in brightly colored houses with air conditioning cranked to the maximum and the children screaming in the Tower of Terror at Disney World. Though most people might picture this kind of wildlife when they picture Florida, the state has a whole lot more to offer in terms of exotic creatures and beautiful landscapes.

            On that expedition two years ago, I was a sophomore with a bit of experience kayaking (my family is very outdoorsy) and a desire for some warmth during January’s typically frigid temperatures up North. When I returned, the trip had inspired me to apply to be a hired leader with Johns Hopkins Outdoor Pursuits, our outdoors Experiential Education Program which trains students to take others into the wilderness and guide them towards having an amazing experience worth reflecting on for years to come.

            Fast forward to two weeks ago, and I’m preparing to lead my very first expedition to the very same place: the Everglades. This was the first extended trip that I had so much responsibility for, and I was both anxious and thrilled at the same time. I was dealing with questions of how to convince people to sign up for the trip, how to plan the meals for each day, what equipment we needed to bring, which clothes would sustain me in warm, cold, wet, and dry situations and still fit inside my small weekend backpack. I had our program coordinator Riley and my friend Maddie as my fellow leaders to lean on, and quickly the plan of our trip was beginning to take shape. We’d drive down to Florida with the kayaks and pick everyone up from the airport, do some kayaking, and sleep in some tents. Simple enough, right? That was the general idea; after those factors, it’s up to the people on the trip and the luck of each day to decide what kind of experience we’d have, what sights we’d see, and what we’d take away when we got back to Baltimore.

            At 5:30 AM on January 12th, my cell phone alarm went off. I threw on some soccer pants and my Marmot Fleece, laced up my sneakers, filled up my water bottles, opened up a Clif Bar, and made my way over to the Rec Center where Maddie and Riley were waiting to load the final gear into the truck and the kayak trailer. Then, we were off. With each gas stop, the air around us was getting warmer and warmer. After a few comical stops at Waffle House and South of the Border (a crazy tourist trap with a giant sombrero and lots of weird statues), we arrived at our pit stop for the day: Charleston, South Carolina. Riley’s buddies welcomed us into their home and showed us around downtown Charleston where we had some delicious homey style Southern cooking on a rooftop. Before we knew it, it was time to drive the final leg down to Florida and our first basecamp: Fort Desoto Campground.

            Take the Pinellas Bayway down a long bridge south of Tampa onto a skinny strip of land surrounded by water and you’ll have arrived at Fort Desoto Campground: a palm tree covered expanse of campsites with waterfront views. After we picked up all of the trip’s members at the Tampa Airport, Fort Desoto was to be our new home for the next few days. Fort Desoto is probably the closest you can get to luxury in the outdoors: every single sunset is rimmed with beautiful oranges, pinks, burgundies, saffrons, yellows, greens, lilac and purples alongside fading blue clouds resembling mountain peaks in the sky. Our little green tents nestled behind the palm trees had beautiful views of the water, water that we paddled once at night with flashlights and lanterns to guide us home and once during the day when we ate lunch on Shell Key Preserve and found large, beautiful, intact sand dollars.

            Of course, Fort Desoto wasn’t without its unique challenging factors that made it even more memorable. Fort Desoto is probably owned and operated by a band of highly intelligent raccoons, judging by the evening visitors we had every single day. It got to the point where the raccoons were using tree branches to prop themselves at the perfect angle to try and open the door handle of the truck where they knew we were keeping our food. There were paw prints there to prove it the next day. They ripped through a bag with trash that smelled of food, and snatched a bag of gluten free hamburger buns when we got up for just a second to talk away from the picnic table. They were devious, cackling raccoons and inspired many jokes and ridiculous stories. When the raccoons weren’t plotting a takeover, the wind at Fort Desoto got howling, and our little tents with just a pole and some stakes to hold them up didn’t stand a chance. One night, the tents collapsed from over 30 mile an hour winds and we were forced to set up camp in the women’s bathroom for the night.

            When we weren’t battling the evil ‘coons and the gusting winds, we were out paddling during the day, joined by a team of professional expedition leaders. The Sweetwater Kayaks Team, led by Russell Farrow and joined by instructors Megan and Cynthia, gave direction to our days and taught us the science, the technique, and the joy of paddling a sea kayak. Russell let us know why exactly it’s hard to paddle a kayak straight when it’s windy thanks to some not so complicated physics, told us how to grip the paddle to avoid blisters and use as much power as possible, and how to fit all of our gear in the boat so that it was balanced and stable. After getting through a quick lesson, Russell always beckoned us to get to the water and start paddling. Enough with the talk.

            After our first paddling day right off of the beach at Fort Desoto, where we practiced our skills and explored some beautiful mangrove islands, Russell brought the group up North to the Weeki Wachee River. The Weeki Wachi, a clear tidal river, boasts one of Florida’s most unique treasures, and one of the things everyone was most looking forward to see: manatees. Since it was unseasonably cool in Florida a few weeks ago thanks to this Polar Vortex thing going on, the manatees had swum inland from the Gulf of Mexico to seek warmer water in the river. We were almost guaranteed to see at least a few. When we arrived at Hospital Hole, a trench in the river that reaches almost 150 feet deep, we were immediately greeted by multiple manatees and thousands of fish. The clear water in the river gave us a beautiful view of the hole, where all the fish flanked its edges like the dragons do in How to Train Your Dragon. The first manatee poked its head out of the water, a giant majestic creature gliding under our boats. We got lucky enough to see a mother and baby travelling downstream, though we didn’t touch any manatees (that’s a Federal offense).

            After the Weeki Wachee, we got a chance to hike out to Deep Hole at Myakka State Park South of Fort Desoto, where a couple hundred sunbathing alligators sat across the shore as turkey vultures fought over dead fish. When the entire group moved, the alligators got startled and about 30 of them rushed into the water. Because it was so cold, the alligators didn’t have nearly as much energy as they do in the summer months, making it safer to be so close to them. We got lucky enough to witness an alligator swallow an entire fish and heard the crunch as it bit into its meal. A flock of white pelicans flew overhead and small egrets stepped cautiously into the water. We just stood there and watched, awed at the huge amount of creatures to see in one place. We couldn’t kayak at Myakka because the water level was too low for our boats, but I’d love to go some day and see everything up a little bit closer.

            Each of these shorter day trips led to our final mission: our four day expedition through the Florida Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. Each of the day trips gave us a chance to get used to longer days of paddling, to see some amazing wildlife that we couldn’t see elsewhere, and to get accustomed to life in the outdoors. On the expedition, we’d be packing all of our personal gear including clothes, sleeping bags, and everything else we had with us as well as tents, pots, pans, food, bottled water, and the trash we created within our boats. We packed every nook and cranny full of these items, and when they wouldn’t fit in the compartments in the boats called hatches, we were forced to shove bags between our legs. We carried our much heavier boats down the boat ramp at the Coon Key Marina in Goodland, Florida (and laughed about the name Coon Key, remembering our Fort Desoto raccoon friends), and began our journey.

            On the first day, we paddled about 8 miles around the mangrove islands to our ultimate destination of White Horse Island. White Horse sits on the Gulf of Mexico in the northern part of the Ten Thousand Islands, and anyone can camp there anytime they want, as long as there’s a spot to set up a tent. One of the coolest parts about camping in that area is that no reservations are required or fees to stay the night; you’re just encouraged to be courteous and give other campers ample space. If others are occupying an island you wanted to stay on, just find another one. There’s ten thousand of them, after all.

            Our spot on White Horse was perfect. It had ample trees to hang drying clothes on, a beach area for nighttime bonfires, protection from the gusting wind, and the most picturesque view of the sunset every day. You literally could not take enough iPhone pictures of every angle of this island to capture how almost laughably perfect it was, though I did try. Even the multicolored thorn bugs that kept trying to bite us made a postcard worthy picture when they were lined up on a tree branch outside the tents.

            Every morning we saw dolphins jumping in front of the sunrise. If that’s not the textbook definition of paradise, I’m not sure what is. White Horse is one of the larger islands, with plenty of room to pull kayaks up on shore when the tide comes in. But these islands are in such a dynamic area, constantly subject to storms and tides and changes in weather, that sometimes the habitable parts disappear within a few short years. Russell told me that Cape Romano, an island I had camped on two years ago, was practically all but washed away by the tide. It was strange to think that a place I had lived on for almost two days had evaporated underwater in just two years.

            We kept White Horse as our base camp, which let us paddle around with a little less baggage every day—to Pumpkin Bay and the Pumpkin River where we saw one of the oldest Indian burial mounds and searched for clay shards like archeologists, to Panther Key where we lounged on the beach and saw a few sea turtles poking their heads up, around Desolate Key where a hermit had been living, and through thousands and thousands of mangrove islands. Meanwhile, Maddie, Riley and I were teaching different paddling strokes, the best ways to set up tents, how to use tiny Whisper Light stoves, where and how to relieve yourself in the wild, and the theories and practices of “Leave No Trace”, or leaving nature the way you found it, undisturbed by human touch.

            When we reached Coon Key Marina on our final day of paddling, no one wanted to get out of their boats. I always say that after a few days on the water, your kayak starts to feel like a part of you—especially when it’s your own personal method of transportation, the only thing linking you back to society (if you do want to go back). I named my boat “El Pelicanté”, which is a Spanglish combination of the word pelican and “picanté”, the Spanish word for spicy. I got the inspiration from its bright orange hull, the pelicans we saw while paddling, and the spunkiness of the trip. We encourage everyone to name their boat, and each comes from a different story or inspiration.

            After washing the boats and the gear, we changed into dry (still dirty) clothes, and headed back to St. Petersburg where Russell’s kayak shop is, for our final night. After a late night of conversations and bonding, the trip was over; soon we would all be home, and get the chance to shower and wash off the salt and dirt and sweat of the past two weeks. But I still didn’t shower until after I’d headed over to CVP for a beer or two. Because I was proud of my stench. Sometimes, it’s really kind of awesome to not wash your hair for two weeks—I recommend it. 

Hey all, I'm Jenna! I'm a senior with a passion for writing, fitness, health, sustainability, the outdoors, creativity, and really freakin' bright colors.