When John Blonsick embarked on his 150-mile Patriot Paddle from Sanford, Florida, to Jacksonville last week to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, he thought it would be fun. A ten-day workout. His first task was to paddle the length of Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida behind Lake Okeechobee.
Lake George is six miles wide, 12 miles long.The temperature hung at a mild 70 degrees, the mosquitoes had left for the winter. Didn’t seem all that tough to of a job.
Yes, he’s a former naval aviator, so he’s no stranger to hard work. But he retired from the Navy in 1991, and now he’s 50 years old and flies for Delta Airlines. Paddling a kayak for six relentless hours into a headwind taxed his body and made him appreciate his cause.
“I was paddling straight into a 20-mile-per-hour wind with two-foot swells,” he says. “My back was killing me, my ass was singing, my arms were aching. But I was thinking: at least I have the body to do this.”
He set off on October 25 from the south shore of Lake George and hopes to finish November 8 or 9 when he reaches Jacksonville. He makes about 35 miles a day, rarely stops for lunch, and tries to avoid to the alligators and water moccasins. For the gators and snakes, he carries a K-Bar knife and machete. For overnight bivouacs, he carries a tent and sleeping bag.
The St. John’s River is 300 miles long and drops all of 30 feet from its source to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a slow, lazy river, flowing at about 0.3 miles per hour, and tannic acid from decaying organic matter has dyed the river brown.
“This is just one big, murky swamp. It’s blackwater,” he says. But it’s not the gators and snakes that concern Blonsick. “There are these amoebas that live in the sediments at the bottom of the lake, and if they get up your nose, they can kill you. So I don’t really swim in it.”
Blonsick is originally from Miami and flew C-130s out of Roto, Spain, while he was in the Navy. His father also served in the Navy, aboard the USS Osborn. To Blonsick, the Wounded Warrior Project is an effort to avoid the situation that veterans found themselves in after Vietnam, the Korean War, even World Wars I and II.
So Blonsick packed his kayak, did a few test runs to see what kind of mileage he could make on the river, and started raising money for the trip and for WWP. But he’s not good at asking for money (according to him), and most of his donations have been personal contributions, not the corporate donations he was hoping for.
When he docked at a redneck, backwoods marina few nights ago, the proprietor allowed him stay in a rental cabin for free. And when he got out of the shower, he found nearly a hundred dollars in cash outside his door that people had left for him, unsolicited and without his knowledge or prompting.
“It’s been fun,” Blonsick says. “I’ll tell you what, though, the people are why I’m doing this. It’s got to be a symbiotic relationship.”
— Will Grant
To donate to the Wounded Warrior Project through Blonsick’s Patriot Paddle go HERE.