As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barriers islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.
A blinking red light in Suwannee, Florida warns that County Road 349 dead ends here, at the water’s edge. Surrounded on three sides by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Suwannee might as well be an island. The closest town, Old Town, is almost 25 miles away down a stretch of road bordered by swamp, marsh, and water. People come for the water, the chance to live, work, and play where the fresh water of the Suwannee River mingles with the salty Gulf of Mexico. But no one forgets for long that the waters that give also take away.
Photographer Anne Ledbetter and I came to Suwannee to learn about the famed Suwannee River and the people along the river. In 2016, we teamed up for the River of Dreams project, exhibited at Gainesville’s Matheson History Museum, to document lifeways, past and present, along the St. Johns River. Now, we’re focusing on the ‘river people of Florida,’ looking at people and places in Florida’s varied riverine cultures. So why not begin with the terminus of the iconic Suwannee River?
Anne and I arrived at Bill’s Fish Camp and Motel on a rainy evening. When we called to say we might arrive after 5 pm, they said not to worry, that the key would be in the room. Florida’s fish camps offer a taste of the ‘Old Florida,’ the quirky pre-Disney Florida that is slowly disappearing. We relaxed on the screen porch with a glass of wine and considered our options which were rapidly shifting.
Ominous clouds hinted that rain might be the dominant theme of our trip. We had hoped for sunny weather to showcase the beauty of the river and the town. The car was loaded with paddling gear so we could photograph different parts of the river. But, who wants a book full of gray rain shots? In reality, though, the rain taught us about life at the edge of the Gulf.
That first evening, Anne and I walked down the road, hoping the advertised Salt Creek Restaurant both existed and was open on a Monday night. In the quarter-mile walk to the restaurant, only one car passed us. I commented that I could lie down and take a nap in the middle of the road and probably be safe. County Road 349 divides two bodies of water: the fresh water Suwannee on the left and Salt Creek on the right, both flowing to the Gulf. Fortunately the restaurant was open as promised, and the food was terrific. Only a handful of people were eating that night, but the large deck in the back suggested that the town’s population multiplied on holidays and weekends.
That evening and the next morning, Anne and I walked around the town, trying to get pictures before the rain began again. The few people we saw driving around waved or stopped and said hello—it’s a friendly place. And peaceful. I imagine that Suwannee feels much different when fishing boats line the boat ramps in high season. When we visited in the summer, the quiet felt relaxing and I could see why people move there. That and the fishing.
We saw a range of homes in town, from trailers to single family homes to large (probably weekend) homes. Many of Suwannee’s buildings were raised—even the Baptist Church. Flooding and storm surge are constant threats, and nobody in Suwannee has forgotten how Hurricane Hermine pummeled the Gulf coast two years ago.
Eventually the deluge began. It rained and rained. For hours, the radar was a kaleidoscope of green, orange, and yellow. Water pooled on the road, covering it entirely in some places. We were soaked. At that point, we realized that the kayak and paddleboard would remain on the car. No pretty river pictures that day.
We drove to the Suwannee Library Technical Center to look at trail maps and regional information. While we spoke with the librarian, other residents dropped in. One man asked to use a copier, and someone else called asking about a notary. One woman, noticing that Anne and I were restless in the rain, invited us to an exercise class at her church. The school bus driver pointed out that the children ride the 24 miles up 349 to Old Town to go to school, a long drive for young children. Seeing how the library provided a hub for residents, I realized that the rain taught me so much about life in this river town. And this is why I enjoy fieldwork, to step briefly into other worlds, lives, and perspectives.
After the rain subsided, we drove east on CR 349 towards Fanning Springs. This part of the Suwannee watershed feels remote today, but it must have been virtually unreachable before this network of roads and bridges. Fanning Springs State Park holds the ruins of the first bridge to span the river. Once the people on either side of the Suwannee were connected, they held a square dance on the bridge to celebrate.
We didn’t get what we came for, but we got what we needed. A reminder of the power of rain, water, and flooding and how the flows of these waters shape human lives. One library patron pointed out that recent rains had saturated the ground and made further rainfall or storm surge especially dangerous. The water has nowhere else to go but onto roads and homes, as we have seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Florida is a state of water extremes, alternating between flooding and drought, something to remember as we march into the final lap of hurricane season. Suwannee’s blinking light and the guard rail below keep us out of the water, but it can’t keep the water off the road.
Caves, puffins, and clapotis…the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland is a kayaker’s dream, a bucket list destination for many. In an uncharacteristically warm and sunny July, our group of eleven explored arches, islands, and headlands in Dingle’s coastal waters by day and pubs by night. With an all-star team of Dale Williams and Debbie Kearney of Tybee Island, Georgia and Nigel Dennis and Eila Wilkinson of Holyhead, Wales, how could our trip not be great?
On our first day, we launched from Ventry Harbor for a shake-down paddle along the coast. We shared our launch with a group of Irish children taking swimming lessons. Clad in wet-suits, groups of children jumped off the pier to tread water, a good exercise for those living close to cold water. (I felt very warm in my drysuit.) Seeing the children and the boats around the harbor reminded me how much Ireland’s history, culture, and economy is tied to the sea. I learned more about Ireland’s marine heritage when we paddled to the Blasket Islands later that week.
For many visitors to the Dingle Peninsula, visiting the Blasket Islands is a highlight. Arriving by kayak made it even better. The paddle across the channel was short, maybe 45 minutes. After surveying the tidal flow, we set our ferry angle and paddled first to Beginish Island, then to Great Blasket itself. Nigel promised us seals, and there they were, swimming around the rocks just offshore. They popped up around us like Whac-A-Mole, sometimes they surprised us, and sometimes we surprised them.
After visiting the seals, we landed on the sandy beach of Great Blasket. The blue water was so clear, so Caribbean-like that I finally gave into temptation and went for a swim—in my drysuit.
From the beach, we climbed up a steep path to a group of stone buildings. We heard rumors of coffee, and they were true! One building held a much welcome coffee and snack shop, which we all appreciated. A smaller unpainted building housed a weaver who spun her own wool and knitted scarves and hats. She lives on the island through the summer, until fall storms halt the ferry service. I bought a hat made from the wool of a Jacob sheep, a four-horned sheep that called Beezelbub to mind.
Great Blasket has no permanent residents now, but until 1953, islanders fished and farmed the island. Only ruins remain of their homes, but I can only imagine how difficult it was to eke out a living on that rocky soil. And to get back and forth from the mainland. In addition to fish and farms, the island also produced important Irish writers in the 1920s and 30s who chronicled the islanders’ lives.
The Blaskets consist of six islands. One of the smaller Blaskets—Tearaght—loomed in the distance, almost taunting us. When Eila planted the seed of paddling beyond Great Blasket to Tearaght, I couldn’t resist. It would be a big day, but it also a big adventure.
We were on the water, crossing to Beginish by 9 am, early for us. We passed the seals and paddled along the outer coast of Great Blasket, exploring caves and arches along the way. After several hours, we crossed from Great Blasket to Inishbro, where the caves, arches, and cliffs became even more spectacular. One cave looked like a cathedral. The tall cliffs, the swell of the ocean, and the birds—the experience was overwhelming at times, it was that beautiful.
We crossed from Inishbro to Inishvickillane across a channel where the current, oddly, consistently runs in a westerly direction. A small landing with an iron ladder served a lunch spot while a baby seal provided our lunchtime entertainment. Fortunately, the wind and tide remained favorable for the hour-long crossing to Tearaght.
We saw puffins near Inishbro, but nothing could have prepared us for the avian show on our crossing to Tearaght. Puffins and gannets flew overhead and dove around us. It reminded me of being in a butterfly garden—but with puffins. What could I do but laugh?
Reaching Tearaght felt like a real accomplishment, although we still had to get back though. The island rises sharply from the sea—there were no easy natural landing spots. Someone had carved steps into the rock face, but those steps ended well above the water level. The lighthouse on the island is the westernmost building in Europe and sits 84 meters high. Tearaght also boasts the steepest railway in Europe. I’m still not sure why it was built in the first place. Our return paddle was long as we passed Inishbro and Great Blasket, but we certainly earned our Guinness that day.
The following morning, our final day in Dingle, we realized our luck had changed. Clear skies gave way to wind and clouds, more characteristic of Ireland’s weather. We had been remarkably lucky. Dale warned us that Dingle’s steep cliffs make it a committed paddle—heavy weather could have kept us off the water for several days. Our group has trained in rough water skills, navigation, and tides, so we could play in the swell, rocks, and clapotis. But we also know our limits.
So, on our last day, we played around the rocks, caves, and arches near the entrance to Dingle Harbor. We rode swells through arches and explored deep caves. Paddling back to the harbor, a fierce headwind reminded us how lucky we had been.
I loved the paddling, but there was so much more—traditional music in pubs, Guinness, and walking along cliffs. What made the trip great, though, was the people, the smiles, and the laughter. Some old friends, some new. That’s why I’m already planning my return.
Paddleboarding through fjords surrounded by sheer cliffs. Drinking pure water from waterfalls. This is why bucket lists were invented. When I discovered SUP Norway’s five-day expedition through Naeroyfjord, or Narrow Fjord, there was no question—I was going, along with four other Floridians. This trip combined three things I love: paddleboarding, expeditions, and travel.
After months of planning, we flew to Norway in June and met our leader Titus Kodzoman and the rest of our team at a campground in Gudvangen. Kevin, Janice, and I arrived by boat which, Titus noted, was cheating since we previewed some of our trip’s highlights. But, I wondered, could the view from a tour boat compare with experiencing the fjord from a paddleboard?
That evening, our team bonded over a welcome barbeque and the ritualized branding of the cups. Titus gave each of us an individually branded cup which we promptly filled with champagne to celebrate our upcoming adventure.
By the following afternoon we launched our gear-laden boards from a small beach in Gudvangen. Titus issued everyone a 65-liter yellow drybag that held most of our gear, including clothing, sleeping bags, food, and tents. We strapped these bags on the front of the boards, centering them for balance. We paddled RedcoPaddle inflatable boards which we stiff enough to carry paddler and gear. To protect the boards, groups of three or four carried the loaded boards on and off the water.
Our first day was cold and rainy, a wintry day for us Floridians. We had debated for months about clothes and gear, and Titus answered a multitude of questions with unfailing good humor. He had posted pictures of smiling, happy paddlers in board shorts and bathing suits on SUP Norway’s Facebook page. They must be Norwegian, we reasoned—and packed heavier layers just in case. I wore most of them that first day, but I was never really cold.
Once we left Gudvangen, the stunning scenery captivated my attention, and I paddled along in awe. I kept looking upwards, craning my neck to see cliffs and the cascading waterfalls. I’m not sure how I didn’t fall backwards.
Over the next few days, we paddled through Naeroyfjord, one arm of the larger Sognefjord, and only 500 meters wide in some places. I see why so many tour boats and cruises ply the route between Flåm and Gudvangen. I enjoyed our boat ride but camping along the fjord was magic.
On our second day, we stopped for lunch at the tiny town of Dyrdal. Arriving by boat is not unusual since the town has no road access. Ferries stop at Dyrdal and other places, bringing people and goods, but I wondered what it would be like living in a place accessible only by water.
Our breakfasts and dinners were mostly dehydrated camping meals, but Titus liked to surprise us with treats at lunch. At Dyrdal, he prepared a Norwegian lunch consisting of eggs, shrimp, salad, and salmon caviar. We squeezed the caviar out of a tube like toothpaste and were hooked after the first bite. Maybe it is the Norwegian equivalent of Cheez Whiz, but we loved it. It tasted like bacon—’liquid bacon,’ we called it. If only I could find it in the US.
The weather cleared up after the first day, but we experienced some unusual winds. Late in the day on our second day of paddling, our tailwind became a headwind, and we couldn’t make that night’s planned campsite around a headland in the wider part of the fjord. It isn’t an expedition if everything goes as planned, so we discussed our options and decided to head back towards Dyrdal that night. It was a good decision—we had a long day but we avoided paddling in the open, choppy waters of the larger Sognefjord when we were tired. Instead we enjoyed a lovely campsite with a wonderful view.
The next morning we woke refreshed and ready to tackle the long paddle to Undredal, our one “town” night in an established campground. Several people elected to take the ferry from Dyrdal instead of paddling, an adventure unto itself. The rest of us aimed for Undredal, around a headland and en route to Flåm. Just before we turned into the main fjord, we battled an intense headwind for about 20 minutes. The wind stirred up the water, and passing tour boats created large wakes as motored by. Around the corner, we received our reward: a downwind paddle to Undredal. Wind at our backs, we surfed down the small wind waves. A very happy group of paddlers arrived in Undredal that afternoon.
The sun shone brightly on our Undredal campground. We laid out our gear to dry while we showered in anticipation of dinner. Titus was taking us to a restaurant for a local meal. A meal that was not dehydrated! The town is known for goats and goat cheese, so it was not surprising that goat stew was the restaurant’s specialty.
Titus initially planned to paddle back towards Gudvangen on our final day, but the winds made that difficult. Instead we opted for a downwinder to Flåm, the larger of the two fjord towns. This was one of my favorite days—the weather had warmed up considerably, and I was ready for a swim. We jumped off our boards and swam in the cold water which, by then, felt great. Swimming underneath a waterfall, feeling the water pour over my head, was a peak experience for me..
None us had thought about what swam below us until Scott founds the ugliest fish ever.
Too soon we arrived at Flåm, along with several enormous cruise ships. What a difference in scale. Our days of isolation in the fjord were over. We piled our boards and gear on the beach, and Titus prepared a final treat: a barbeque lunchwith pølse, a sort of hot dog served with salad and onion bits. I rarely eat hot dogs, but in a Norwegian fjord, why not?
I was sorry our trip had ended but I learned that Norway and the fjords have so many more possibilities for adventure—paddleboarding, kayaking, and trekkinging. I look forward to seeing what new trips Titus develops. We also visited an outdoor store in Voss and learned about the DNT, Norway’s Trekking Association. I’m already plotting my return to Norway, and I know my fellow Floridians are doing the same.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…These are words I hope never to say, but there I was in Charleston Harbor hailing the United States Coast Guard. I pulled my marine VHF radio from my PFD, or life jacket, and requested medical assistance for a 62-year old male with chest pains and dizziness. Fortunately, this call was only part of a training exercise. The designated victim—my husband—played the role of victim in our rescue scenario. Nevertheless, seeing my husband stretched out on the deck of a 45′ Coast Guard Response Boat Medium reminded me that someday one of us might need to make a similar call.
Kevin, myself, and five others came to Charleston to participate in a kayak-Coast Guard training exercise. Every April, Scott Brown and Jeff Atkins run the Joint Incident Management Program prior to the East Coast Paddle Sports Festival. Scott is a retired army officer and helicopter pilot who conducted combat search and rescue exercises, and Jeff is a kayak instructor and park ranger in South Carolina. Scott designed this exercise to help the coast guard and paddlers partner in real rescue situations, so the training works both ways. Kayakers learn the correct language to hail the coast guard and guide the rescue boat and helicopter to their location, and the coast guard personnel learn how to locate and assist people in small boats.
Our team of nine gathered in Demetre Park gathered at 7:30 am on a windy morning. Several days before, we ‘met’ on a conference call to go over call signals, safety protocol and the morning’s program. I had been checking wind and waves daily, hoping conditions would be small enough to conduct the exercise but big enough to be somewhat realistic. As soon as we arrived, we prepared our boats and gear to launch in case the weather deteriorated. Everyone carried VHF radios, tow belts, contact tows, and a variety of rescue and safety equipment, including extra clothes and first aid kits. We paddled out to a day mark, a navigational marker, in the area of ‘Middle Ground’ between Castle Pinkney and Fort Sumter, to prepare for exercises with the coast guard boat and helicopter.
First we practiced ‘rafting up’, that is, holding our boats together. In case of an actual rescue, gathering the boats both makes us visible to rescuers and also provides stability to care for a victim and call for help. In rough conditions, a victim who is ill or has sustained an injury such as a shoulder dislocation will not be able to remain upright and needs the support of at least one other kayak. Another paddler might tow the entire raft to prevent drifting into a hazard. Kayakers frequently use the term ‘raft up’ when we want or group to come together, and I had never considered whether this term is useful to others. One participant associated with the Coast Guard pointed out the term ‘raft’ is meaningless to the Coast guard. Another wondered if they might not look for a large gray raft, not a group of kayaks. Scott warned us to avoid jargon—“Use plain language.” Lesson learned.
At 10 am, on military time, we began our exercises with the Coast Guard boat and helicopter. I made the first Mayday call, requesting help for Kevin’s “heart attack”. I noted our location, the number of people in our group, and our problem. And the Coast Guard always asks if everyone is wearing a PFD. After approximately ten minutes, the rescue boat arrived—this might be much longer in a real situation. Lee and Ted stabilized Kevin’s boat and brought him parallel to the rescue boat so that he could be lifted on board. Doing so gave the crew practice working with 16’ kayaks in rough seas and helped us understand how to help the coast guard help us.
Next, the part we had all been waiting for— the helicopter ops. Imagine being injured and floating out to sea on an out-going tide. A helicopter flies overhead, but can they see you? From a distance, the bright white, yellow, and orange colors of our kayaks are specks in a vast ocean. A helicopter or boat might see the smoke from our flares, assuming we carried them, and most of us carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). Search and rescue helicopters fly multiple search patterns looking for survivors, but we can increase our odds by guiding the aircraft using our VHF radios. Each of us practiced directing the USCG HH-65 Dolphin —‘right turn, stop turn, we’re on your nose,’ learning the language to best communicate with the crew. Then an Aviation Survival Technician “rescue swimmer,” with fins, snorkel, and helmet, jumped from the helicopter and swam to our boats, sharing tips on how to be spotted from the air. The helicopter crew raised and lowered him on the hoist, replicating what might happen in an actual rescue. If Kevin’s heart attack were real, the crew would have placed him in a rescue basket, raised him up, and immediately began medical treatment, probably saving his life.
When life, limb or vessel are at risk, that calls for a Mayday. This is nothing to take casually. Asking for help puts other lives at risk, the rescuers and other victims, for example. However, in an emergency such as a heart attack far from shore or a serious injury, calling for help saves lives. While debriefing after the exercises, we debated about what situations call for a Mayday. In our second practice round with the coast guard 45’ Response Boat Medium, I played the victim, a 57-year old woman with a dislocated shoulder. Was a Mayday call necessary, we asked? As usual, it depends. If we had been surfing 50 yards off Folly Beach, then no because my friends could help me ashore and call 911. I would get medical care within the ‘Golden Hour.’ On the other hand, if we were a mile off-shore in an out-going tide, my inability to paddle would place the entire group in danger if we drifted into bigger conditions. In that case, calling the coast guard would reduce risk for the entire group and perhaps prevent a multi-victim rescue.
Ultimately mitigating risk is the best way we can help the coast guard and ourselves. Reducing risk begins the moment we plan the activity and does not end until everyone is home safe. This means asking questions, even ones that might seem intrusive. Is all equipment functional, and are all members of the group healthy and prepared for existing conditions? For kayakers in the coastal Southeast, understanding tides, sandbars, and currents is critical. In a incident or capsize, will we drift towards safety or out to sea? Scott adapted a set of questions from Eric Soares’ Sea Conditions Rating System. These systems quantify risk, making assessment less subjective and easier to communicate. Answering these questions helps avoid complacency, especially if we know an area well.
Practicing with the Coast Guard was fun and instructive—everyone loves helicopters, but someday the call might be real. I’ve rehearsed Mayday calls several times, learning radio protocol in low stakes situations. I hope these drills will steady my hand and voice if one of my friends is injured or ill, when we desperately need help. My friends and I carry rescue and safety gear on our PFDs and in our boats, and we practice rescues in a range of conditions. We train for the worst and hope for the best. On any given day, you just never know what might happen, and we want to be prepared. Thanks and a big shout-out to the crews of USCG HH-65 6526 from Air Station Savannah and Response Boat Medium 45709 from Station Charleston.
Paddling down the Bear River into St. Catherines Sound, the ocean and sky extend as far as my eye can see. St. Catherines Island to my right, or south, and Ossabaw Island—my destination—to my left. Georgia’s barrier islands hug the coast like a strand of pearls in the rough, and Ossabaw and St. Catherines are two of the finest of the string stretching from Tybee to Cumberland. Georgia’s barrier islands themselves are part of a larger chain—the Sea Islands—that extend from South Carolina to north Florida. The expanse of sea, sky, and beach give the illusion of wilderness, that my footprints on the beach are the first to land, but I know better. The sea has washed away the footprints of multitudes, including native Americans, enslaved Africans, colonial English, and, finally, the wealthy families who preserved these gems.
Paddling the Georgia coast is a bucket-list item for many kayakers, but wilderness that beckons makes the trip logistically difficult. Most islands south of Little Tybee either strictly regulate or prohibit camping, so it’s either paddling with a guide or stealth camping (not advised). So, when Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia invite me to join their trip to Ossabaw and St. Catherines, I said yes. Marsha is a certified Ossabaw guide, so our group was permitted to camped on Ossabaw while we learned about this biologically- and historically-rich island.
Way too early one morning, our group of seven gathered at the Kilkenny Marina in Richmond Hill. After loading our boats with four days of food, gear, and wine, we launched onto Kilkenny Creek for the seven mile paddle to our campsite. Riding the out-going tide, we paddled down Kilkenny Creek to the Bear River which carried us to St. Catherine’s Sound and the southern tip of Ossabaw Island.
We took a break before the day’s greatest challenge—finding the creek that led to our campsite. We paddled out and around the ocean side of Ossabaw, looking for the creek. Kevin and I had hoped for some surf on the sandbar that protected the island, but the wind was calm, with little swell that day. Finally Ronnie spotted the creek near a large deadfall. Fortunately we had enough tide to reach our campsite, about ten minutes upstream.
The ebbing tide revealed our next challenge—climbing up the slick mud bank. I found a clear patch, aka gator slide, and dragged my kayak up onto the grass. Victory—only half my drysuit was covered in mud! While the rest of the group came onshore, a small gator swam back and forth across the creek, staking claim to our launch.
Ossabaw Island Foundation manages two primitive group campsites for visitors, and our campsite was far from the island’s few buildings. We can thank the Torrey family from Michigan for preserving Ossabaw island. The family bought the island in 1924, and their daughter Eleanor Torrey West created the foundation in 1961. In 1978, the families deeded the island to the state of Georgia, creating Georgia’s first Historical Preserve. Several other Georgia barrier islands also followed similar gifting patterns, including Cumberland and St. Catherines. Because these islands passed directly from the families to the state of Georgia, they remain largely undeveloped, and visitors experience the ecosystem of coastal hammocks.
The coastal ecosystem is not shy. From the moment I stepped out of my kayak, it swarmed around my head, dive-bombing my drysuit in search of exposed skin. The gators, no-see-ums, and mosquitos made clear that I was merely a link in their food chain. In fact, shortly after my trip, actor Will Smith, filming Gemini Man on the Georgia coast, lamented that “y’all gotta do something about these bugs.”
The marshes and estuaries are biologically rich, fed by the seven-foot tidal flows of the Georgia Bight. The concave curve of the southeast coast funnels the tidal flow into the center, near Savannah and Tybee Island. Fish, clams, oysters, and shrimp thrive in the nutrient-rich mud of estuaries, nourishing birds, mammals, and humans. These islands once supported large populations of native Americans, followed by waves of immigrants from Spain, France, and England. The English, in turn, enslaved Africans for their rice plantations, favoring west Africans who had created novel techniques of tidal irrigation in Gambia and Senegal.
Today, these flows draw kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders for river mouth surf. The ever-changing sandbars St. Catherines Sound and the Back River near Tybee Island, for example, create rough water and waves that are fun for surf and rescue training. Storms and hurricanes frequently rearrange the sandy ocean floor so that surf patterns can change from one week to the next. Even islands disappear and reappear. Just last year, Hurricane Irma created an island now named Little Blackbeard. I had heard that the sandbar near St. Catherines had some of the best surf in the area, so I hoped for some waves when we crossed St. Catherines Sound from Ossabaw to St. Catherines Island. No such luck.
We landed on St. Catherines, like Ossabaw, minimally developed. But sitting on the beach, none of us could have guessed that lemurs roam this coastal forest. As a child, I visited St. Catherine’s as a child and learned about the New York Zoological Society’s (or the Bronx Zoo, as we called it) rehabilitation programs. St. Catherines Island hosts several animal rehabilitation programs as well as field schools in archaeology and ecology.
Please let there be surf on the way home, I thought. The incoming tide rewarded our patience as waves broke over the sandbar for a short surf session. We didn’t linger long — dark clouds loomed in the western sky.
The next morning, we fought a stiff wind back to the marina, reversing our journey. For several years, I’ve looked longingly across Waussau Sound, wanting to continue south towards Sapelo and Cumberland, to learn about their unique histories and cultures. Seeing Ossabaw has whetted my appetite to see the rest of Georgia’s barrier islands. To quote Marsha, it’s “Ossabawesome!”
Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.
We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.
With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.
We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.
Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]
An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.
Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.
The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.
This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.
And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.
The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.
On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.
Visiting Anna Maria Island and Cortez, Florida reminded me just how much Florida’s histories, cultures, and ecologies are bound to the sea. Heavy winds and water torpedoed our original plan of sailing and anchoring near Tarpon springs. So, on Spring Break Eve, Kevin and I changed course to small boat sailing and onshore exploration of southwest Florida. The white sands and clear water of Anna Maria Island had enticed us for years, and the promise of renting sunfish and lasers at Bimini Bay Sailing sealed the deal. We loaded our car with gear to cover almost any imaginable water activity and headed to our last-minute booking at Silver Surf Resort in Bradenton Beach.
The next morning, we drove to Bimini Bay on the north end of Anna Maria Island where we met Brian and his fleet of small boats. Anna Maria Island is small-scale and relaxed, especially compared to neighboring Longboat Key. Bimini Bay Sailing, however, carried relaxed tropical paradise to a new level, and the ducks and cat that adopted Brian seemed to agree. We discovered a slice of heaven on this mangrove-ringed tip of land, and a small water-based business living light on the land and sea.
On our first day, the winds were too big for small boats. Our friends Jill and Scott joined us with their sailing kayak rigs, so we kayak-sailed and paddled boarded in the bay. The wind subsided on the following days, and we sailed the trimaran, sunfish, and lasers.
By midweek, the wind drove us onshore, and we headed to the fishing village of Cortez and Mote Aquarium. My research on the St Johns River taught me a great deal about people and their ties to their river economies and ecologies. Now I hoped to learn more about these relationships in a coastal environment.
“The grill opens at 11:30, but the bar’s open now.” The self-appointed welcoming committee cheerfully called out as Kevin and I walked into the Starfish Dockside Restaurant. The Starfish Company and Dockside Restaurant lies in the heart of Cortez, Florida, described as a “real Florida fishing village.” We heard about Cortez several years ago from a sailing friend and were curious to visit this piece of old Florida existing as a counterweight to Tampa’s urban sprawl. Cortez sits just across the bridge from Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, but it felt another world and perhaps another era.
Despite its location in the middle of vacationland, Florida, Cortez remains a working fishing village and reminds visitors that many Floridians have—and still do—live intimately with the sea. A statue of a fisherman and a sign describing the history of Cortez mark the center of the two-block historic area.
In the post Civil War 1800s, commercial fisherman of English heritage relocated from the coastal Carolinas, drawn by the “wealth of fish, scallops, and other seafood.” They named the area the “Kitchen” and developed a a thriving fishing and processing industry, shipping fish to Tampa and Cedar key by rail. A sign outside the Starfish Company showcases the harvest from the sea.
“The place names on the map are a symbol of the proud tradition of commercial fishing in Cortez. They constitute a form of local knowledge that is derived from years of fishing the inland waters. Some of the names have been passed from generation to generation. Although the origins of such names have faded from memory, their daily use by Cortezians reminds us of the fishing folklore heard time and again on the docks of Cortez.”
As we ate our grouper sandwiches, the fishing boats made clear that this was indeed a working harbor. The Starfish Company is fairly small, but the larger Bell Fish Company and Cortez Bait and Seafood are nearby.
That Cortez remains viable is a testament to their tenacity. Over twenty years ago, Florida instituted a gill net ban, which pitted commercial fishers against sportsmen, a move that devastated many small coastal fishing villages. Cortez adapted and survived, but I wonder how fishers and others will adapt to the growing threat of marine plastics.
After lunch, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Longboat Key, one island south of Anna Maria Island. Driving past the sterile gated communities that lined Longboat Key heightened our appreciation for the friendliness and lack of pretention of Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Even so, our presence as tourists reminds me that our hotel and others have pushed fishers and other workers inland off the coast.
At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Kevin and I joined the others who opted for an onshore day. We saw seahorses, sharks, otters, and turtles. But, most striking and stunning, we saw sculptures composed of marine plastics as part of the “Sea Debris: Awareness through Art.” When I walked inside the whale rib cage, I didn’t realize at first what I was seeing. Then, I realized what I was seeing: the ribs were constructed of detergent bottles.
I heard people muttering how sad it was, and I hope projects like this help us recognize the linkages between our use of plastics and the about the state of our oceans. Several years ago, I had my ‘year of plastics,’ where I learned about microplastics in the Caribbean seas and I hauled larger plastics off the Alaskan coastline.
Traveling around Florida constantly demonstrates me how our lives are intimately tied to our waters, rivers, and seas. Yet some now that warn that our “Coastal Environments are Collapsing“. Exhibits such as “Sea Debris” reminds me of their fragility, that so many lives and livelihoods, whether Brian’s sailboat rentals or a fishing village, depend on their health. What are we willing to do to insure the well-being of our waters and those that live in them and work on them?