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, barrier 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.
Rivers were once America’s highways, carrying people from place to place. But rivers also let us journey through time, revealing the stories and histories of those who have gone before. Looking out over a glassy St. Johns River, I wonder what stories the river holds. People have lived and worked on the St. Johns River for millennia, including Paleo-Indians, European colonists, and Cracker homesteaders. The St. Johns reveals their stories to archaeologists and historians through artifacts and written records. What can we learn about these layers of history, from the recent past to pre-historic times, by being on the river?
I came to Palatka to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. In the late 1700s, William Bartram, Quaker, naturalist, and adventuer, sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and described the people, flora, and fauna he encountered. Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created this tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and adventurers could visit sites that naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823) described in his Travels of William Bartram. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County guides adventurers to these sites on foot, bike, and boat. Reading Bartram’s words is one thing, but seeing these sites from the seat of a kayak brings these stories to life.
On the water, I can almost imagine a time when the river was Florida’s main highway. Today, the Memorial Bridge in Palatka spans the St. Johns, and Highways 17 and 19 parallel the eastern and western banks. But this network of roads and bridges did not exist for Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Bartram, or the Native American populations who preceded them.
St. John’s is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.
The key phrase is “the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.” Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land travel difficult and dangerous. Imagine the snakes, gators, and spiders under foot. Until industrialist Henry Flagler (1830-1913) developed the Florida East Coast Railway in the early years of the twentieth century, the St. Johns River remained Florida’s “grand water-highway” for good reason.
On an overcast day, Bartram enthusiast Dean Campbell met us in Welaka for a six-mile paddle. We visited several springs, including Welaka Springs and Satsuma Springs. Today we cool off in these springs, but once they were sources of life.
Just beyond Welaka, we paddled past the remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant which figured in Dean’s own family history. After church, his family used to eat Sunday dinner there followed by an afternoon cruising the river on their boat. The restaurant is now in disrepair, like many fish camps along the St. Johns.
Boats, docks, and homes in varying stages of disrepair hint at the recent past, but the river itself holds evidence of the distant past. The day prior, diver and archaeologist Mike Stallings displayed some of his finds, including a mastodon tooth. Mike and others have found pottery from the St. Johns culture, a native American culture along the river dating from 500 BCE until the arrival of Europeans. The St. Johns River near Palatka is fossil-rich because the river level has varied over thousands of years, from 400 feet above sea level to 40 feet below.
This was not a wilderness paddle—homes, fish camps, and marinas lined the shores, illustrating that even today, many people rely on the St. Johns River for their sustenance and livelihood. The day before, Sam Carr had commented that Bartram didn’t forge any new trails. In fact, William Bartram traveled along a river that was home to multiple populations, including settlers, plantation owners, and Native Americans. Bartram wrote extensively of his encounters with the different native populations he met. The west side of the St. Johns River, known as the “Indian shore,” was less populated than the east side, where British colonists and plantation owners had settled. Bartram, however, rarely wrote about the plantations lining the shore, and he certainly encountered European settlers. He mentions Stokes Landing (Spaulding Lower Store) and Rollestown (Site 7), but his Travels portray a landscape unsettled by Europeans.
In Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe offers advice for northerners heading south for the winter, but her words betray a concern about the sheer numbers of snowbirds arriving in Florida. Dean thought that William Bartram held similar concerns. Painting the landscape as harsh and unforgiving slowed the migration of newcomers. Remember that only the relatively recent development of air conditioning made Florida’s climate bearable to all but the toughest. As Florida’s population surpasses 21 million, the sea level continues to rise, and development runs unchecked, Stowe and Bartram’s concerns are prescient.
Paddling the St. Johns River is an opportunity to be immersed in history—literally, if you capsize, which I do not recommend. The St. Johns River holds the stories of generations of people who have lived before us. Following Bartram’s trail helps us imagine their lives in Florida’s many pasts.
Salt Springs Run hints of old Florida, before Disney and development transformed the land. The scrub landscape bordering the run offers a glimpse of the Florida William Bartram encountered centuries ago. Paddling this river lets me escape the twenty-first century for a little while.
I launch at Salt Springs Marina and slide my paddleboard onto the calm water just below the head-spring. The water is cloudier than the last time I visited a year ago, which saddens me. Heavy rains and over-pumping from the aquifer have degraded many area springs. But even so, Salt Springs rarely disappoints.
The Salt Springs Marina sits at one end of a large pool. To the left lies the headspring itself and just downstream a pack of motor boats have anchored for an afternoon of swimming and sun. I turn my right, downstream, away from boats and people. It only takes one river bend to step back in time and imagine how William Bartram felt when he floated down what he called Six Mile Springs. On my first trip to Salt Springs, I paddled In William Bartram’s Wake on Paddle Florida’s 2015 Bartram History Paddle. Dean Campbell and Sam Carr, designers of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County, regaled us with Bartram lore as we paddle down Salt Springs Run and up the St. Johns River to Palatka.
In 1766, Quaker naturalist and explorer William Bartram and his father John Bartram encountered Salt Spring Run while exploring the shore of Lake George, a wide spot in the St. Johns River. They rowed upstream against the slow-moving current until they reached the head-spring which they called Johnson Spring. Their journal entry, dated January 24, 1766, describes the oak hammocks, cypress knees, and pines that still characterize this run. Today, adventurers can paddle, hike, and bike sections of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County using maps and QR code that identify sites mentioned in Bartram’s travel journals. Site 28 marks the entrance to Salt Springs Run on the western shore of Lake George. Both University of North Florida’s Florida History Online and Bartram Trail in Putnam County provide ecological, historical, and literary commentary on the specific sites Bartram visited.
Today, Salt Springs Run is part of the Salt Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest, easily reached by Highway 19. In the time of Bartram’s Travels and even well into the early twentieth century, most people travelled by boat. The dense and swampy Florida landscape made overland journeys difficult and dangerous. To reach Salt Springs, the Bartrams rowed up the north-flowing St. Johns River and up what we call Salt Springs Run.
William Bartram returned to Salt Springs in 1774 and again floated the spring run. But his observations and “romantic imagery” after this second descent reveal so much more about Bartram and his enchantment by the spring.
“But there are yet remaining scenes inexpressibly admirable and pleasing. Behold, for instance, a vast circular expanse before you, the waters of which are so extremely clear as to be absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether; the margin of the bason ornamented with a grat variety of fruitful and floriferous trees, shrubs, and plants, the pendant golden Orange dancing on the surface of the plellucid waters, the balmy air vibrating with the melody of the merry birds, tenants of the encircling aromatic grove.” (Travels)
William Bartram’s ornate language captures the magic of Florida’s springs. I see the magic on my friends’ faces when they plunge into a spring’s clear waters. Bartram’s flowery descriptions likely influenced writers and poets far beyond Florida. Scholars have traced Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan to Bartram’s description of Salt Springs.
Salt Springs, like all Florida springs, flows from an ancient sea, deep under the Floridan Aquifer, passing through limestone and karst caverns. Coleridge’s sacred Alph could very well be our own Salt Springs Run. Who isn’t captivated by our springs?
Even though the water was more tannic than my last visit to Salt Springs, in my mind’s eye, I envision the crystal blue flow that William Bartram must have seen–the water that is “absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether.” I’ve seen this clarity on the Ichetucknee, Naked Springs at Gilchrist Blue, and Cannon springs during the Ocklawaha drawdown, so I know what is possible.
My father recently passed away at Oak Hammock in Gainesville, FL, after struggling with dementia for several years. After he died, so many residents and staff at Oak Hammock spoke fondly of my father, whose Charlie Brown smile lit up the room. My mother and I worried that nobody knew my father as we knew him, in the past. But they loved him as they knew him, as he was in the last years of his life.
I’ve only known and loved the springs in their current state. My husband Kevin tells me how much cleaner they were when he first came to Florida over twenty years ago. Still others reminisce about their clarity before air conditioning made Florida newly habitable and brought millions of new residents, including myself. I love them as they are.
Salt Springs Run is an out and back paddle, and fortunately paddling back upstream to the marina is not difficult. I paddled past the marina towards the headspring where motor boats congregated just beyond the ropes marking the Salt Springs swimming area. After the solitude of the spring run, the competing stereos emanating from the boats was jarring, but we all have our ways of loving Salt Springs.
William Bartram’s words illustrate how some visitors responded to a landscape alien to them. I’m interested in landscapes and the people who inhabit them, past and present. Paddling on the waters that Bartram described helps me imagine the springs in a former, more glorious state. Even though I love the springs as they are, I know we can do better. Perhaps if we can expand our ecological imagination, we can find the will to restore and repair our springs.
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!”