From Ocean City to Fells Point, a grueling kayak journey for a cause

The Scunny Memorial Paddle, which ran from Sept. 16 to 21, turned out to be even less fun than Christopher Furst, a marketing director for Power Plant Live, thought it would be. And the novice kayaker didn't go in expecting the 175-mile kayak trip was going to be a day at the beach.

"In all honesty, it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I've played every sport, baseball, football," Furst said, "but this was sheer endurance, paddling eight hours a day in an uncomfortable position." A week after finishing the journey, Furst said, he was still recovering.

It rained heavily on the first day, which the eight kayakers took as a bad omen. There were days of 30- and 40-mile paddles, when the only thing that kept them going, Furst said, was getting to the next stop.

And on the trip's last day, with the Baltimore harbor nearly in their sights, there was a shark. "I saw what looked like a dorsal fin," Furst said. "And then I saw his head pop up."

Not that Furst hadn't been warned. There were shark sightings the year before, in the first year of the Scunny Memorial Paddle, when six kayakers journeyed from Baltimore to Ocean City.

But for Furst, it was all worth it.

"I just cant wait to get going for next year," he said. "I felt lucky that they invited me to do it."

The unique fundraising event is named for the late Patrick "Scunny" McCusker, the tavern owner and philanthropist known as the unofficial "Mayor of Canton." McCusker, who lived in Cockeysville with his wife, Jackie, and two children, was perhaps best known as the proprietor of Nacho Mama's, the Tex-Mex restaurant he opened in 1994 on O'Donnell Square in Canton, when the now-popular neighborhood was unfamiliar territory.

In the days and months following his untimely death in 2012, McCusker was remembered by friends, employees and customers for his outsized personality and philanthropic efforts, particularly those directed toward the Believe in Tomorrow Children's Foundation, which houses and supports families of children who travel to Baltimore for medical treatment.

An avid kayaker, McCusker organized and completed several kayak long-distance fundraisers for Believe in Tomorrow over the years. His first Baltimore-to-Ocean-City kayak trip was in 2006.

The idea for a Scunny Memorial Paddle was hatched by Jason Mislan, a bartender at Max's Taphouse, who recruited five other friends of Scunny for the inaugural journey in 2013. The original six, all of whom returned for the 2014 paddle, were "Delaware" Dave Powell of Mama's on the Half Shell, Jeff Mason of Elliott's Pour House, Beth Roche of Macky's Bayside Grille in Ocean City, Joe Wandishin of Sliders Bar & Grill and C&R; Pub in Federal Hill and Stephen Twilley of Barcocina.

Traveling with a captain, Tyler Cole, who escorted the kayaks in a pilot boat, the six made their way up the Chesapeake from Baltimore where they broke east through the C&D; Canal into the Delaware Bay. From there they paddled south toward Lewes, Del., Rehoboth Bay, and finally the Little and Big Assawoman bays. Through a series of launch parties, and a Scunny Memorial Paddle website, the kayakers raised awareness, and nearly $60,000 for Believe in Tomorrow.

For this year's trip, which began Sept. 16, the original six were joined by two newcomers — Furst and Shawn Paradise, a bartender at Kali's Court Mezze in Fells Point.

The kayakers reversed their course, this year traveling from Ocean City to Baltimore, where they were greeted in Fells Point by a phalanx of family members, co-workers and other well-wishers, some of whom were on a chartered water taxi as they entered the Baltimore harbor. This year the paddle raised just over $60,000 but another $15,000 is expected to come in soon.

Among those waiting on the Fells Point pier was Jackie McCusker, who remembered greeting her husband at the end of similar kayak trips.

"It only seems like a second ago that my husband, Scunny, pulled in. So, it made me feel so proud," McCusker said. "It made me feel that he's looking down so proud that this still continues. I don't know that he would have guessed that."

Jackie McCusker said the kayakers might inspire people to do their own version of charitable fundraising.

"If this is something that can be done year after year in the name of Believe in Tomorrow, my husband's favorite charity — my husband's only charity — then, Godspeed," she said. "I love that everyone takes the initiative to continue that."

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