A group of Florida men and women swept its way down the Intracoastal from St. Augustine to West Palm Beach to honor a Palm Beach Gardens woman who died in 2016.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the condition of the mother of one person in the group that paddle-boarded to West Palm Beach from St. Augustine. Rachel Buckley's mother is struggling with Alzheimer's disease. The story below has been corrected.
JUNO BEACH — Barbara Golden says she found "healing" in the calm of early morning paddle boarding after years of caring for her mother, a Palm Beach Gardens resident who was stricken with Alzheimer's disease.
And so, on a Thursday morning in June, she beat on, one sweep at a time, the last in a rainbow of nine boards and kayaks that slowly made its way down the Intracoastal Waterway to West Palm Beach from St. Augustine.
Golden and a group of long-distance paddlers traveled the 248 miles with Something I Will Never Forget, a fundraising effort aimed to raise awareness and funds to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. The experience allowed the group to share advice on caring for those with dementia, work toward their own best health and raise $4,000 for research.
The effort that the fundraising and the trek have taken isn't lost on this group of Baby Boomers, most of whom discovered the pains and joys of paddling in middle age. Their exhilaration, though, was clear as they bounded out of their crafts near the boat ramp at Juno Beach Park, raising their arms in triumph as they hooted each other on.
"We did it!" they exclaimed in unison. The trek formally ended Friday, June 21 at Currie Park in West Palm Beach.
Golden’s mother, Eleanor Holland, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. Her children helped to care for her until she died at age 84 on Nov. 22, 2016. A work opportunity introduced her to paddling, and soon she started going all the time, gradually working up to 10 mile trips.
One day Golden was chatting with a friend when they decided to form Something I Will Never Forget, spurred on by her friend’s wish to “just go and paddle.” They hoped the experience would allow those suffering to work through their pain together while preventing the onset of their own dementia, Golden said.
They have found others that connected with the mission along the trek.
Rachel Buckley, 59, of Boynton Beach read about the trip on Facebook and was “immediately drawn to it.” She decided to use her time off from teaching classes to drive up to Daytona Beach and paddle with the group.
Buckley’s partner was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's and her mother also is struggling with the disease. The time spent in nature has been good for her psyche and shown her areas of Florida she never had seen.
“It’s been a magical experience,” Buckley said.
The trek from St. Augustine to Palm Beach actually has been about 20 separate paddles over the past nine months. All have been meaningful but also strenuous, Golden said.
Most of the days on the June leg of the trip have been in the 90s, and “most of us are in our 60s,” she said.
The 10-mile days proved tough on the legs, so members sometimes traded off from boards to kayaks. The only breaks came in the form of stops on sand spits to reapply sunscreen and eat chicken.
By the end of the day, the 60-year-olds have been exhausted from the physical challenge that comes with balancing for four or five hours each day. “When you’re paddling, it’s like you’re on a sail,” Golden said. “You feel every little thing.”
Hot-weather rain storms brought additional challenges, Golden said. The group got caught in a rainstorm Saturday in Fort Pierce, unable to turn back before “the heavens opened up” and the downpour began, she said. A friend has followed the paddlers in a pontoon boat for much of the journey, assisting those with less experience or needing a break, Golden said.
Though challenging, the journey pushed Golden toward healing, she said, and brought surprise into her life.
The groups took time to veer away from the course and paddle through mangroves or watch passing dolphins. One day a loggerhead turtle popped its head out of the water to greet the paddlers.
“I thought it was a human head,” Golden said.
After they push the boards ashore, one paddler played on the swings. Another fished right off the dock, pulling bait and a rod right off his board. They know how to have fun, Golden said, and the point is, after all, to enjoy life: to keep their bodies in shape, their minds sharp, to stave off Alzheimer's and the effects of dementia for as long as possible.
“I don’t want my children to experience this,” Golden said. “I want my children to know how to deal with it, emotionally and physically.”
The pilgrimage was a way to continue to make them proud, to ensure that she can continue to watch her children grow.
“It’s the final homage to them in terms of creating awareness.”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.