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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.

Apalachicola Rivertrek 2021: Dam to Bay by SUP

Team Rivertrek 2021. 16 paddlers, 106 miles, and an abundance of love for the Apalachicola River. Over 5 days, from the Woodruff Dam in Chattahoochee to Apalachicola Bay, our team bonded with the river and with each other. When I dismounted my paddleboard in Apalachicola, I did so with a much deeper appreciation for the river and the ecosystems it crosses.

Loaded board

I joined Apalachicola Rivertrek to learn about the river and to raise funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper monitors water quality, coordinates volunteers, and mounts legal challenges to preserve the river and its environs. In addition to its beauty, the Apalachicola River and Bay is considered one of five biological hotspots in North America. In 2021, I paddled the first two days of Rivertrek, and I knew then that I wanted to join the team in 2021. Paddling the length of the river over 5 days was—literally—an immersive experience in the river’s moods from dam to bay.

Ready to launch
Jim Woodruff Dam
Test packing

Our journey began in the town of Chattahoochee, just south of the Florida-Georgia line, where Georgia’s Chattahoochee River becomes Florida’s Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee River starts in north Georgia, flows through metro Atlanta, and continues south as the Georgia-Alabama border until it reaches Lake Seminole and the Jim Woodruff Dam. Once in Florida, the Apalachicola River streams into Apalachicola Bay and then the Gulf of Mexico. Each day we paddled approximately 21 miles miles, about 4-5 hours on the swift-moving Apalachicola River.

Day 1: Chattahoochee to Sandbar just above Alum Bluff

Day 2: Sandbar to Estiffanulga

Day 3: Estiffanulga to Sandbar just above Gaskin Park

Day 4: Sandbar to Hickory Landing Campground

Day 5: Hickory Campground to Apalachicola

Like glass

Florida has hills! The first two days revealed things not typically associated with Florida: hills and fall colors. After 6 miles, we passed Torreya State Park, a Florida backpacking destination, and looked up at Gregory House, an 1849 mansion, later moved to the park. We camped on a sandbar that night just upstream from Alum Bluff, a 135 foot geological anomaly in Florida. Erosion over millenia exposed a section of the earth’s crust, including fossils. We continued past more bluffs and a waterfall until we reached Bristol Landing, a small park with a much-anticipated flush toilet.

Gregory House in Torreya State Park
Approaching Alum Bluff
Alum Bluff
A waterfall!
More bluffs
Bristol Landing

Just downstream, we passed under the Highway 20 bridge, the last bridge over the Apalachicola River until the bay. Soon after, we made a quick detour into Sutton Lake and Bayou to see the tupelo and cypress trees. Unfortunately, deadfall prevented us from paddling too far up into the bayou, but even our short visit let us peek into this swamp ecosystem.

Houseboats on Sutton Lake
Sutton Lake and Bayou

Later that afternoon, we reached Estiffanulga County Park where we camped in a small park. That night Riverkeeper volunteers treated us to a paella dinner, and we realized that noone would lose weight on this trip between these dinners and an endless supply of cookies. Later FWC gave a hands-on talk about reptiles, and we all got to handle snakes.

Our view from Estiffanulga
Building clouds
Floating dog kennel

Although wind and clouds threatened us one afternoon, our weather was mostly sunny, perfect for swimming and bathing during our breaks. Most days we had one lunch break and two cookie breaks on the plentiful sandbars. These sandbars make the Apalachicola an ideal river for multiday trips—plenty of campsites.

Time for a swim
Drying gear
Board at rest
Anyone got a signal?
Time for a break

On our third night, we camped just upstream of Gaskin Park. Again our intrepid volunteers treated us to dinner: the Apalachicola Riverkeeper support boat, source of an endless supply of food, produced a pot of gumbo!

Home sweet home
Dinner arrives
Setting up

On our fourth day, we ascended Sand Mountain, which gave us beautiful views of the river and a chance to stretch our legs.

Sand Mountain
Climbing our mountain
After the climb

Unlike the natural bluffs upstream, Sand Mountain is the product of dredging by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The dredging process cut off a slough, thus interfering with natural water flows. According to the Riverkeeper, sloughs help circulate water and nutrients through riverine systems in a process similar to veins and arteries in our bodies.

The Apalachicola Riverkeeper is part of a team working to restore three sloughs. Ken Jones, project manager and our support boat driver, explained the process to us in Douglas Slough.

Ken Jones
Finding the slough
Douglas Slough
East River Slough
East River Slough
A happy camper

On our fourth day of paddling, the river transitioned to a coastal environment. We had fewer sandbars and fewer breaks. On our final night, we camped at Hickory Landing Campground, a 1 1/2 mile paddle up Owl Creek. In October 2021, I explored this area when the Rivertrek was rescheduled due to high water. We paddled nearby Devon, Owl and Black Creeks and learned from Riverkeeper Doug Alderson about distributaries: channels that distribute water away from the main channel, out into the watershed.

Just 22.2 miles to go
Entrance to Owl Creek
Ever-growing load
Low country boil

That night Riverkeeper volunteers set a high bar: a low country boil! The promised cold front indeed rolled through but our feast and warm clothes kept us going on the final leg to Apalachicola Bay.

Railroad Bridge
Our promised fanfare
Perfection
The end is in sight

Doug promised us fanfare when we reached Apalachicola, and he delivered: a band and plenty of beer. I know that my next visit to Apalachicola will include a visit to the Oyster City Brewery. After goodbyes to new and old friends, Harry of Harry Smith Outdoors, shuttled bodies, boats, and board back to Tallahassee. Like most good trips, it went way too fast. Even though we paddled the entire Apalachicola River, I felt like I only had a glimpse into what this region offers. I’m already planning my next trip.

The Suwannee 230 Race: From the Swamp to the Gulf by SUP

Foggy morning paddle

7:30 am, Griffis Fish Camp, Fargo, Georgia. At Rod Price’s signal, 11 racers launch into the trees of the Upper Suwannee River, paddling towards Bill’s Fish Camp in Suwannee, Florida, 230 miles downstream. Four SUPs and seven kayaks entered the 2021 Suwannee230. Some aimed to beat a previous record, others liked myself just wanted to finish within the 100 hour deadline. The river was at approximately 54 feet, meaning that we would have good flow.

Ready to launch Photo credit: Kevin Veach
Courtesy of Georgia Rivers

Griffis Fish Camp sits 14 miles upstream of Fargo and just downstream of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where the Suwannee River drains from the Okefenokee Swamp. The current was barely discernable as we paddled through the maze of trees in the early morning light. Within the first ten minutes—when I still had company, my fin snagged on a root, and I fell in. I was surprised, knowing what lies below the surface. Someone, water triber Derek, I believe, commented, “Well, you got that out of the way.” A perfect response—I climbed back on the board and continued. At the start, I had others to follow as I picked my way around the trees. But not for long.

Suwannee River Map
Suwannee River Visitors Center, Fargo, GA

I paddled silently and alone towards Fargo where I passed one other paddleboarder with his support crew at the Suwannee River Visitors Center. It was the last time I saw another paddler. (One paddleboarder started an hour late, and I never saw her on the water.) At mile 36, I passed the Rte 6 bridge, our first checkpoint. I recalled a previous trip with friends where this distance was the mileage for a multiday trip. Perspective.

Big Shoals Rapid

Day 1 goal: Big Shoals, approximately 60 miles in. Big Shoals Rapid, a rare Florida class lll, loomed large in my imagination. I had run it years before in a whitewater boat, but knew that its limestone shoals would destroy my paddleboard. I camped on a sandbar about a mile above Big Shoals State Park because I didn’t want to brave the portage trail at night. Early the next morning, I paddled to the portage trail on river left. I needed three trips to carry my gear and board but the portage was easier than I thought. Being self-supported meant I carried more weight, but it also gave me flexibility in camping. A good trade-off, in my view.

Completing this portage was a huge psychological boost. That and the rapid’s fast flow propelled me towards my second’s day’s goal: Dowling River Camp, Paddle Florida, and food. I had only completed about 56 miles the first day, and I wanted to reach the halfway point by the second night. I quickly passed Checkpoint 2, White Springs, 66 miles, and headed for Checkpoint 3, 104 miles, Suwannee River State Park.

I paddled on, playing mind games with myself. I could eat after 5 miles; I wouldn’t look at my Garmin watch until I rounded the next bend. I needed to paddle at least 65 miles that day. From my Watertribe training, I learned to count in increments of 10 or 15 miles, so I could divide my day into large chunks. I passed the Spirit of the Suwannee , and I passed wide sandbars that invited camping. I spotted plenty of gators and even a bobcat perched on a branch overhanging the water. Just before dark, I passed Suwannee River State Park and got my lights ready for night paddling. Just 15 more miles until Dowling River Camp. Janice Hindson, Director of Paddle Florida, promised me a beach campsite and a plate of stew. That was all the motivation I needed.

A yard sale, campsite, and beef stew

The almost full moon lit the way until the blazing lights of the Advent Christian Retirement Village blinded me after hours of relative darkness. Just around the corner, Janice’s lantern welcomed me to a sandy campsite and stew. She offered to warm the stew, but but no need for that. I was ready to eat and be off my feet.

The moment I realized I forgot my breakfast cookies Photo credit: Janice Hindson

After a good night’s sleep, coffee, and plenty of snacks, I headed back downstream for my last full day of paddling. I hoped to camp within 50 miles of the finish that night, somewhere between Branford and Fanning Springs. That meant I needed to paddle at least 60 miles that day.

My view
Flooded ramp for Adams Tract River Camp

That day, I passed familiar names—Royal Springs, Troy State Park, Convict Springs, and eventually Branford, checkpoint 5, with 76 miles to go. The twisting upper reaches of the Suwannee had given way to wide long stretches as it neared the Gulf of Mexico. I still hadn’t seen any other paddlers, although I heard that one was within an hour of me. In the end, it was a race against myself—could I complete the course?

Old railroad bridge
Glass

As darkness fell, I thought about campsites. Sandy bluffs had given way to a swampy coastal environment with few campsites other than landings and county parks. I passed Gornto Springs State Park and shortly thereafter found a landing ideal for a short “rest”. Shortly before 5 am, as I was making my coffee, a white SUV pulled in. The police? Was I being rousted? I doused by stove and light and began packing my bivy and gear. Fortunately, it was not the police, just some guy idling the engine at the boat ramp, a familiar sight. He left, and so did I.

Sunrise and almost done

Maybe not surprisingly, my shortest day felt like the longest. In the darkness, I chased down the one piece of gear that was not tied down, and my feet began to ache.

The river became even wider and more coastal as I passed Fanning Springs, Checkpoint 6, mile 197, and Manatee Springs, just 25 miles from the gulf.

Working lunch

At 4:20 I reached the finish line, at 80 hours, 50 minutes, a winning time in the Women’s SUP division and well under the 100-hour deadline! As I paddled into the canal towards Bill’s Fish Camp, two men rounded the corner in a canoe. I must have been tired—I didn’t recognize my husband.

Photo credit: Kevin Veach

Photo credit: Suwannee230 FB page

I enjoyed the solitude of the Suwannee230. It rarely felt like a race because I was alone. I knew that Scott and the kayakers were way ahead, and I had no idea about the other two paddleboarders. I appreciated being immersed in the river’s ecosystem as it journeyed from swamp to sea. And what a way to kick off my training for the The Everglades Challenge in March: Flamingo paddles on!

Everything But the Apalachicola

Cash Creek

Boards, boat, and gear loaded for Apalachicola Rivertrek 2021, a 106-mile paddle down the Apalachicola River to benefit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. Mother Nature had other plans and dumped inches of rain on the southeast, flooding the river and our campsites. Our trip was postponed until November 10, but Janice and I were ready for an adventure and headed west to Florida’s Panhandle. The delay allowed us to explore multiple ecosystems around Apalachicola Bay that we might never have discovered otherwise. Yay Plan B!

Ride the bore tide.
Miss anything?

As the storms raged, we brainstormed, poring over paddling options described on the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Florida Paddling Trails Association, and Florida Circumnavigation Saltwater Paddling Trail websites. So many choices.

After two days hiding out at the Carrabelle Beach RV Resort, which I highly recommend, we joined our group at the Hickory Landing Campground near Sumatra, Florida. This Apalachicola National Forest campground provided easy access to Owl Creek and other creeks near the Apalachicola River.

The following morning, Doug Alderson led us a short distance down Owl Creek to Devon Creek, accessible only during high water. Owl and Devon Creeks, like other nearby creeks, are black water, filled with the tannins of decayed vegetation. We meandered through the trees until we reached a swamp and could go no further.

Less than a mile downstream from Devon Creek, the Apalachicola River flowed on. I poked my nose out into the current—it was swift.

Later, Janice and I paddled upstream on the slow-moving Owl Creek and further upstream on Black Creek. Georgia Ackerman and Doug Alderson of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper were terrific resources on local paddling. Additionally, the Riverkeeper website, as well as the FWC and Forest Service‘s websites also provide maps and paddling guides to the forest and the bay.

On our final day, we drove south towards the bay to the tidal Cash Creek and High Bluff Creeks. The open marsh landscape contrasted well with the forested landscape around Owl Creek and the Hickory Landing Campground.

Cash Creek Courtesy of FWC

From the Cash Creek launch, we paddled about a mile to a Y-intersection where High Bluff Creek split off from Cash Creek. We followed the twists and turns of High Bluff until it split into fingers in the marsh. As it narrowed the flow picked up, testing our boat and board control skills as we avoided logs and deadfall.

At the Y, we paddled up Cash Creek which took my breath away. My height on the SUP put me at eye-level with the flowers.

I felt like we were paddling through a painting, our own version of the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, surrounded by fields of yellow flowers. And we had a touch of fall, fall for Florida, that is.

Although we were initially disappointed that Rivertrek was postponed, this trip gave us a chance to paddle different rivers and to meet members of the Rivertrek team. At a moment’s notice, Doug and Georgia assembled Rivertrekkers and volunteers for a fun weekend, complete with banjo music! I’m more excited than ever about Rivertrek and the Apalachicola River and Bay. And next time, I’m finding oysters.

And, one more month.

If you would like to contribute to the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, you can do so on the Rivertrek team page (just scroll down to my name): http://apalachicolariverkeeper.org/rivertrek/. Or please mail a check to the riverkeeper, noting my name: Apalachicola Riverkeeper, P. O. Box 8, Apalachicola, Florida 32329

Rivertrek 2021: Let’s Save the Apalachicola River

Apalachicola Riverbank

On October 6, I will join the 2021 Rivertrek team to paddle the 106 miles of the Apalachicola River, from the Georgia-Florida border to the Gulf of Mexico. This five-day trek raises funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper to help them protect the river and bay. Last fall, I spent two days on the Apalachicola River and was immediately hooked (https://floridawaterscapes.com/2020/11/29/apalachicola-sup-2020-style/). I knew then that I wanted to join this team. 

 Every fall, a team of paddlers embarks on this journey.  The Apalachicola Riverkeeper advocates for the health of the Apalachicola River and Bay through a variety of efforts, including water quality monitoring, fighting oil and gas drilling in the region, and public outreach, among other things. Everyone benefits from a healthy riverine system, and who doesn’t love Apalachicola Bay oysters? Contributions support the outreach, education, and advocacy efforts of Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

 If you would like to contribute to the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, you can do so on the Rivertrek team page (just scroll down to my name): http://apalachicolariverkeeper.org/rivertrek/. Or please mail a check to the Riverkeeper, noting my name:

Apalachicola Riverkeeper, P. O. Box 8, Apalachicola, Florida 32329

 Thank you for your support.

Reposted from November 2020:

Apalachicola SUP: 2020 Style

Morning on the sandbar

What can alleviate the insanity of 2020 better than sandbar camping, good friends, and no wifi? By 9am, November 4—the day after the election, Jill, Liz, Jennifer, and I paddled away from the noise and into the solitude of the Apalachicola River. Over the next two days, our team of four—three kayaks and one paddleboard—would cover the 45-ish miles from Jim Woodruff Dam to the Estiffanulga Boat Ramp.

Maps and points on the Apalachicola Blueway (courtesy of Apalachicola Riverkeeper)
Door to door service from om Harry Smith, Harry Smith Outdoors

Our journey began in the town of Chattahoochee, just south of the Florida-Georgia line, where Georgia’s Chattahoochee River becomes Florida’s Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee River starts in north Georgia, flows through metro Atlanta, and continues south as the Georgia-Alabama border until it reaches Lake Seminole and the Jim Woodruff Dam. Once in Florida, the Apalachicola River streams into Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Load and launch at Clyde Hopkins Park, Chattahoochee, FL
Jennifer prepares to launch

Why the Apalachicola River? Jill needed to complete the first two days of the Apalachicola Rivertrek, and the rest of us stepped in as good friends to “help”. Every October, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organizes Rivertrek, a 5-day, 106-mile paddle from Chattahoochee to Apalachicola Bay. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper, headed by Executive Director Georgia Ackerman, monitors the health of the river and bay, and Rivertrek raises funds support this mission.

However, in keeping with the spirit of 2020, Hurricane Sally broke the trip in half and pushed the second half of the trip into November. So, Liz and I were happy to “help” Jill and Jennifer paddle from Clyde Hopkins Park to Estiffanulga Boat Ramp where they would join the rest of their team. And Liz and I would return home.

One of many anchored houseboats along our route

Shortly after we launched, we passed under the I-10 bridge and left “civilization” behind. The Apalachicola River is wide and flows swiftly. At times, we saw evidence of the barge traffic that once plied the river, but mostly, and surprisingly, we had the river to ourselves.

For most of its length, the Apalachicola River forms the boundary between Eastern and Central time zones, and my watch alerted me to the change when I veered towards one side or another. However, just before the river joins the bay, the boundary between zones veers sharply—and inexplicably—westward away from the river. Why? Florida lore (and historical research) credits developer and financier Ed Ball (1888-1981) for this anomaly. Ball wanted his Wakulla Springs hunting lodge and his Port St. Joe paper mill (30+miles west) in the same time zone, and, in true Florida style, Ed Ball got what Ed Ball wanted.

Who drew that line? (Courtesy of ESRI.com.)

The high water propelled us downstream, averaging 4-6 MPH with little effort. Some sections featured scraggly trees still recovering from Category 5 Hurricane Michael that shredded the panhandle in 2018. In other sections, willows highlighted the coordinated efforts of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, EPA, and the University of Florida, among others, to reduce sandbar erosion.

Recovering trees

By 3pm, we found home for the night, a sandbar with ample space for socially-distanced tents. Plenty of time to swim, relax, and set up camp.

Time to chill
Liz vs the Sawyer squeeze
Home for the night

We paddled about 20 miles our first day, leaving about 20 more for the second day. Given the river’s flow, we relished a relaxed morning, drinking coffee and drying dew-soaked gear. That’s how it started anyway.

A slow morning
Manatee pajama envy
Run!

I was barely into my first cup of coffee when Jennifer pointed to her Pocket Rocket stove, now engulfed in flames. “Run,” Liz yelled, and we sprinted to the far side of the sandbar. Seconds later, a large boom echoed across the river valley, perhaps causing some to wonder if hunting season had started early. A gas leak? A bad O-ring? We’ll never know. And we never found the piece that blew off.

Alum Bluff
Topography in Florida!

Just downstream from our campsite, we passed Alum Bluff, a 135′ high sandbar that towers over the river. The heights of Alum Bluff and Torreya State Park were the biggest surprises of the trip for me–actual topography in our flat state.

We stopped for a quick break at the boat ramp in the town of Bristol. Shortly after, we reached Sutton Creek and Bayou on the river’s west side and took a side trip up this sleepy creek. Stands of tupelo trees arched over still water, providing a feeling of stillness and gravity.

Sutton Creek
Sutton Bayou

Despite our leisurely morning, the day had passed quickly. Time to find a campsite. Our goal—a sandbar two miles upstream of our take-out at Estiffanulga Boat Ramp. Estiffanulga Boat Ramp was mile 63, and the sandbar 65. We pulled over around mile 70 and coordinated charts, watches, and mileage.

Checking charts and a little break

The miles ticked by. Around mile 65, what looked suspiciously like our sandbar barely peeped out from under the water. That wasn’t going to work. We paddled on, looking for possibilities.

Where’s my sandbar?

It was not to be, and Estiffanulga County Park would be our home for the night. We rounded the final bend and saw the boat ramp—and two tents being set up. Two other members of Rivertrek had arrived for the next morning’s rendezvous.

Our evening view
The four Musketeers
Apalachicola Riverkeeper boat

The rest of the Rivertrek crew arrived the next morning, along with Georgia Ackerman and the Riverkeeper boat. Liz and I waved goodbye as they resumed their journey towards Apalachicola Bay. 2020 was not yet done with Rivertrek though. As Tropical Storm/Hurricane Eta pinballed around the Gulf of Mexico, the Rivertrekkers changed their plans once again. But, as all paddlers know—all plans are contingent, and nature bats last. Nonetheless, I envied them as they headed south, and maybe 2021 is my year for Rivertrek.

And they’re off

Paddleboarding the Lower Keys

Paddling the Florida Keys felt like entering a dreamscape—the horizon stretched out endlessly over calm clear waters. Kevin and I had come to the Lower Keys for a real vacation, defined as no training, no ambition, and no goals. The Lower Keys, broadly defined as the islands west of the 7-mile bridge to Stock Island (MM40-5), offer paddlers miles of bays and tiny islands to explore—perfect for Kevin’s 16′ Dagger Meridian kayak and my 14′ SIC Maui RS SUP.

Sunrise from our room aptly named ‘Flamingo,’ my watertribe name

Kevin and I checked into Parmer’s Resort, located north of Route 1 on Little Torch Key, MM 28.5. This location gave us easy access to numerous paddling routes both bay/gulf side or oceanside, or north or south of Route 1. Almost every morning, I paddled my SUP right from Parmer’s, and from my paddleboard spotted schools of parrotfish just north of the resort. That perspective is one reason I love paddleboarding so much. I saw parrotfish, nurse sharks, barracuda, baby black tip sharks, and a fairly sizable bonnethead.

Where Should We Paddle?

Over the week, Kevin and I explored areas around Little Torch Key, Knock ’em Down Keys, Little Swash Keys, and Big Pine Key. We carried paper charts as well as a GPS for onwater navigation, but prior to paddling we consulted both the GO Paddling app and the FPTA website for information. GO Paddling provides information about and directions to launches across the US. The Florida Paddling Trails Association (FPTA) website offers more detailed information about specific routes across the state of Florida. FPTA provides a brief description of the route and its difficulty, the launch site, and kmz files. The kmz files can be translated to gpx for Garmin or imported into a variety of navigational apps.

Perhaps my favorite trip was our launch from Cudjoe Key, home to Fat Albert the blimp, where we explored the Little Swash Keys. We paddled, floated, and watched fish until darkening skies hinted that it was time to return to our launch site.

As we paddled under Fat Albert, Kevin noticed that Fat Albert was descending. I looked up and, indeed, Fat Albert was getting lower, a unique and slightly disconcerting experience. Later, we discovered that Fat Albert is lowered when storms approach, so it turns out to be another source of weather information. Fat Albert was initially set up to counter drug-smuggling. I wonder if the presence of the restaurant Square Grouper at the end of the road is a commentary on its effectiveness.

Wind and Tide

Each day when deciding where to paddle, we checked wind and tide predictions. This is especially important for paddleboards because, in general, SUPS are more affected by these conditions than kayaks. Inflatable SUPS even more so. There are no shortage of apps for wind and tides, but few apps give information for tidal currents in the US. Boating HD (or Navionics) offers speed of tidal currents in some locations in Florida, mostly larger passes such as Boca Grande Pass in SWFL.

While tidal variations in the Florida Keys are generally not large, currents can be swift in small channels. And some areas are impassable at low tide, especially on a paddleboard with a fin, such as the south end of Little Torch Key.

The winds blew in a southerly direction for most of the week, so we launched from the north ends of the islands when we could. Fat Albert was flying high in clear skies when we droves to the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key. This kayak launch brought us to the Knock ’em Down Keys, just across the Kemp Channel from Cudjoe Key.

Splendid Isolation

Kevin and I love this part of the Lower Keys because it feels so remote. Few houses dot the northern ends of these keys, and it was quiet. We saw very few boats and very few people.

There’s More Than Paddling

We visited the Turtle Hospital in Marathon where the rehabilitate and release a variety of turtles. Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center brought us the Florida’s cleanest reef to snorkel. Other than looking beautiful, coral reefs help buffer coastlines from storm surge. Kiki’s Sandbar provided great food and drink as well as a reality check. The boat and placard demonstrated the tenacity of immigrants and refugees to reach the freedom of North American soil.

Next Steps

Kevin and I have been to the Florida Keys numerous times before, first with Paddle Florida and then later with our 18′ sailboat KneeDeep 1. In those early visits, we explored with our sailboat and my 10 1/2′ inflatable paddleboard, and each time we quickly realized the limits of our skills and equipment. Now, with years of SUP and sailing expedition experience under our belts and better equipment, we’re eager to explore the more remote islands of the Lower Keys. We always say that all our trips are scouting trips. I suppose we had more ambition that we thought.

A fate to avoid

Donkeys, SUP, and Basket Weaving on Ossabaw Island

Photo credit: Kathryn Lapolla

Just a short paddle from Skidaway Island in Savannah, Georgia, lies Ossabaw Island, offering a glimpse into Georgia’s cultural and ecological history. I had kayaked and camped on Ossabaw Island several years ago with Ronnie and Marsha of Sea Kayak Georgia, but I hadn’t seen the buildings or explored the island’s interior. When Kathryn Lapolla of Savannah Coastal Ecotours invited me to join her and a group of basket weavers from Tennessee on Ossabaw Island, I leapt at the chance to return.

Ossabaw Island is one of the Sea Islands, a chain of barrier islands stretching from the Carolinas to north Florida. Unlike many of these islands, Ossabaw, St. Catherines and Wassau have remained largely undeveloped. But the structures that remain on Ossabaw reveal both a unique history that parallels that of the Low Country. The island’s beauty obscures a rich and difficult history, including centuries of slavery and later Reconstruction wherein African Americans gained and soon lost access to land. Paddling across the Ogeechee River, I bore in mind that a place of joy to me might yield pain to others.

From the Landings to Ossabaw

Kathryn and I prepared our respective crafts, an NDK Sportive kayak and a 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard, for a 10 am departure. Although the trip was only 6 miles, Georgia’s strong tidal flows make tidal planning essential. Kathryn’s husband Fran had already shuttled the weavers to the island, along with gear and food for the week.

Courtesy of the Ossabaw Foundation

We arrived at Torrey Landing, just a short walk from the Clubhouse where we were all staying. On my last visit, I camped at the South End Beach Camp, a primitive site almost 8 miles away. The Clubhouse with its community kitchen and expansive porch felt luxurious.

Ossabaw Island’s history is similar to that of the Low Country, with waves of indigenous settlements, followed by European settlers. One notable exception was visionary Sandy West (1913-2021) who cultivated the artistic oasis that Ossabaw later became. According to the Ossabaw Island website, archaeologists and historians documented numerous indigenous communities prior to the arrival of Spanish and English settlers. In 1763, John Morel, Sr. purchased the island and brought 30 enslaved people to produce indigo and later sea cotton. After the Civil War, parcels of land were distributed to the newly freed people to farm as part of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, this was a short-lived promise. Soon thereafter, Andrew Jackson rescinded this distribution and returned much of the land to ante-bellum landowners.

Eleanor Torrey West, known as Sandy, inherited Ossabaw from her parents and founded the Ossabaw Foundation to preserve the island. She later deeded Ossabaw Island to the State of Georgia with the provision that it would remain undeveloped. She lived on the island full-time and welcomed groups of artists, writers, and educators to stay for short periods. And that is how I came to be weaving a basket on Ossabaw Island.

I came to Ossabaw to paddle, but I became strangely entranced by the process of making a basket. Kathryn had warned me that the weavers weren’t going to let me go without making one. I was game, but wary, as the least artistic person ever. But with Barbara’s excellent instruction (and mistake fixing), I actually made a basket. I loved visiting with the weavers. They come every year and told island stories of years past.

Donated to the Ossabaw Foundation

But it wasn’t all about basket weaving. Kathryn and I explored the island by boat and board. One day,we surfed the tiny waves rolling in around Bradley Point on the south end.

Another day Fran hauled boat and board up the Bradley River. We rode the tide downstream and back to the landing, looking out for gators and dolphins along the way.

The tidal currents of the Ossabaw River created an endless pool for my SUP practice. As part of my technique training through Paddle Monster, Coach Larry Cain had assigned both land and on-water drills to improve my stroke. I paddled upstream, practicing my catch and exit, floated back down and repeated, again and again. An alligator surveyed my first few passes, until the sun and repetition lulled it to sleep.

Photo credit: Pam Bullock

We also toured the island by land, piling into the back of the Foundation truck. We saw Middle Place, site of the Genesis Project, another Sandy West creation. From 1970-1983, artists and others spent from a week to a year on the Genesis Project, “a cooperative, semi-sustainable community” where they lived “close to the land.” I wish I had learned about the Genesis Project when I was writing Living Sustainably. I found these communities fascinating, but found few in the deep south.

We saw the once-elegant Main House and looked for bird life towards the south end of the island.

Ossabaw had no shortage of wildlife, some wanted and some not. Sandy had introduced donkeys to the island, and they loved their apples and carrots. A less welcome raccoon slipped into the house early one morning and helped himself to granola bars and snacks.

And suddenly, it was time to paddle back to the mainland. Ossabaw is a magical place, revealing so much cultural and ecological history. The fate of Ossabaw Island is in the hands of the State of Georgia. I hope they live up to Sandy West’s expectations.

Training for the Everglades Challenge: 125 Miles by SUP

Ready to launch (Photo credit: Brian Sheridan)

[Reprinted from Coastbusters Newsletter, May 2021, edited by Rick Wiebush, Cross Currents Sea Kayaking.]

“Get the picture. It’s time to go,” as our quintet of two SUPs, two sailing canoes, and one kayak struggled to hold a pose. The rising breeze, harbinger of winds to come. We had come for Scott Baste’s, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida KeysEverglades Challenge (EC) January Preview, to learn the routes, passages, and campsites between Everglades City and Key Largo. A collection of EC veterans and newbies, all of us were eager to escape into the Everglades wilderness.

What my Inreach says I did
Loaded up

This trip would be a series of firsts for me: my first time on the Wilderness Waterway, my first multiple 25+ miles days, and my first solo SUP camping. My 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard carried almost 80 pounds of gear, food, and water, enough to last at least 8 days. A Yeti Panga duffel strapped to my stern held my clothing, camping, gear, and food. My safety gear, including lights, flares, repair and first aid kit, was stuffed into an NRS Taj M’haul deck bag in front. I carried a 3-piece Werner Rip Stick as a spare.

A Seakayaker on a SUP?

Why SUP? After all, I have done numerous training
and coastal expeditions in my NDK Pilgrim Expedition. But I fell in love with stand-up paddleboarding even before I stood on a board, and the board plays well with our sailboat on Kevin’s and my SUP and sail trips. But there is a learning curve. SUP surf and SUP touring/expeditions have challenged me to adapt my kayak skills to a board. Wind and waves affect board and boat differently, for example, and I am experimenting to determine my limits. I recently began a SUP technique training program with Coach Larry Cain through Paddle Monster and am already seeing the benefits. Most important, I like my view of the world from a board.

Brian and sailing canoe striking a pose on the Crooked Creek Chickee

Starting Out: Eight Miles to the First Chickee

Buoyed by a rising tide, the paddle to Crooked Creek Chickee went quickly, and we reached the platforms just before sunset. Joe and I paddled straight there, past Chokoloskee and up the Lopez River, while Scott, Brian, and Don added miles by going up the Turner River and through Mud Bay. Cramming five people’s gear and tents on the platforms is an exercise in geometry—especially after dark. Mangrove forests line the rivers in the Everglades, and there are few spots dry enough for camping. So, the Everglades National Park built a series of chickees, or raised platforms, along the Everglades’ rivers and in Florida Bay.

Lulled by the evening calm

A 30 Mile, Windy Day

Our Everglades Challenge Preview started here: a 30 mile slog upwind, not even a real wind by EC standards. I left early, knowing that I am slower than the others. I relished the early morning calm as I paddled up the Lopez River to Sunday Bay, Oyster Bay, and Huston Bay. I followed my GPX track on my Garmin Fenix watch, but the occasional signs for the Wilderness Waterway, the 99 mile route between Everglades City and Flamingo, reassured me that I was on track. By the time I reached Last Huston Bay, the winds and my friends had caught up.

Break time in Huston Bay

Reality set in, when we turned into the wind. The bumpy waters of Last Huston Bay grew to whitecaps and small waves in the long fetch of Chevelier Bay. I paddled my board up and over the waves, grateful for my long board surf sessions on Tybee Island. (When I returned to Chevelier Bay several weeks later, I had my best downwind surf run ever.) The tiny creeks linking the bays offered some respite from the wind and a chance to appreciate the beauty of the region. But, long days into headwinds are the reality of the Everglades Challenge.

Creek right after fav cabin
The cuts offer a break from the wind

The Everglades Challenge

According the website, “The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats. The distance is roughly 300 nautical miles depending on your course selection. There is a time limit of 8 days or less. Your safety and well being are completely up to you.”

A daunting challenge, especially on a paddleboard. But even more important to me, preparing for the challenge has sharpened a range of skills and introduced me to “kindred spirits”, in EC lingo. In 2020, I did the Ultramarathon, the shorter version of the Everglades Challenge, and planned to enter the EC in 2021. (Ultimately, I postponed until 2022.) This 30-mile paddle might have seemed long, but EC days can stretch to 40-50. I was tired when I reached Rogers Bay Chickee just before dark, but I felt surprisingly good both that night and the next morning.

Going It Alone

I faced a decision the next morning: remain with the group until Flamingo or separate and begin heading north to beat a projected front. Given the weather forecast and cumulative distance, I questioned my ability to complete that paddle. I assessed my water supply and realized that I needed to either continue to Flamingo or begin my trek back to Everglades City. I was sorry to leave the group—I loved the banter and cameraderie. But I also didn’t want to risk injury, and I knew that I needed to practice solo paddling.

Mangroves, mangroves, and more mangroves

Alone, I retraced my route through Rogers Bay, Big Lostmans Bay, and Third Bay, then headed west through the creatively named Second and First Bays to the mouth of Lostmans River. It felt strange to be on my own, but also exhilarating. I was confident in my abilities to handle the conditions and navigation, but now I needed to be completely self-reliant. By the time I reached the mouth of the river, the wind had picked up, and the tide was coming in. I made camp on a small beach just north of the river mouth and settled in for the night. It had been a 15 mile day.

Lumpy waters

I placed my tent in vegetation that looked both hidden and above the high tide line. (Despite multiple washings, those leaves still cling to my clothing.) I built a small fire on the beach and reflected on my trip and the solitude. I hadn’t seen anyone after I left Big Lostmans Bay, and the horizon was empty. I was really alone.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

I carried multiple communication devices in case of emergency, including a VHF radio, PLB, and a Garmin Inreach, I also carried two GPS, heeding Chief’s admonition that ‘two is one, and one is none.’ Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Since I had preloaded GPX tracks onto my Garmin Fenix watch, I rarely turned on the GPS instead glancing at my wrist for route and waypoint information.

Day 4: Lostmans to Highland Beach, 26 miles

Where to paddle? The north winds that were giving my friends a killer downwinder would have made my north-bound paddle hell. So, I decided to take advantage of those winds and paddle back up Lostmans River, past Rogers Bay, and down the Broad River to Highland Beach, just several miles south of Lostmans River. By now, some of these bays felt like old friends, but with benefit of tailwind. Bays I had struggled through now passed quickly. That is, until Broad River Bay where I fought for every inch.

Lounging gator

Slightly more active gator

I dragged my board and myself through the bay, down the river, and across the very, very shallow river mouth. I wanted to get as far from the delta and its tidal flats as possible. I knew that the next morning’s low tide would trap me on the beach if I didn’t get far enough up the coast. The west wind pushed me towards the shore, and I felt like I was paddling through mud, which I was. Later, I realized that I had been dragging my fin though the mud.

Tracks of my fin
Highland Beach, several miles south of Lostman’s River
Paddleboard wind block

Highland Beach was my second night solo camping, a skill I knew I would need for the EC. It seemed odd to be so far removed from any signs of people, although I wasn’t fully cut off. I texted Kevin through the Inreach, and frequently checked the forecast on the Inreach, itself a form of entertainment. (In return, the Inreach taunted me with promises of a tailwind.) Further, the occasional chatter on my VHF radio was interesting. But I was never bored.

Unintended relaxing morning

Stalled by Tidal Flats, Then the Wind

Despite my best efforts at an early start, the tidal flat trapped me for several hours. I started a fire and watched the water creep over the mud. Eventually, the water had risen, and so had the winds.

Someone had a bad day

After paddling for several hours, I did the most un-EC thing ever—I declared a beach day. I spent the afternoon bathing and reading on Hog Key. That evening, I burnt through even more of my required fire survival kit. A glorious day.

Somewhere in the Everglades

Day Six: 28 Miles and Too Many People

Northward bound, I passed New Turkey, Mormon, and Pavillion Keys then ran into a group of kayakers from Iowa near Jewell Key. It started to feel crowded!

Perfect paddling conditions

I reached Lulu Key, where I intended to camp, but music-blaring jet skiers were too much after days of solitude. I doubled back to Tiger Key, where multiple raccoon prints alerted me to my evening adventure. I hadn’t seen any critters until then. I stored my food in a bear barrel and my water in a heavy plastic container, and each night I placed my water bag under the weight of the board. The raccoons came out at dusk, not daunted by my fire. I slept with my paddle nearby and woke to a raccoon licking condensation off my board.

Foggy departure

The Last Leg: Tiger Key to Everglades City

Tired, happy, and stinky, I rode the tide into Everglades City. My only complaint: after miles of fantasizing about lunch, Nelys was closed that day.

This trip was an enormous learning experience and confidence builder. I paddled distances unimaginable the year before and explored a remote and fascinating part of the Everglades. It was the culmination of a year of skill-building and training, including SUP and sail trips with my husband and an overnight crossing of Florida Bay in December. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do the Everglades Challenge in 2021, but I’ll be ready for 2022.

Time for another trip

Punta Gorda to Cayo Costa by SUP and Sail

Red Sky at Dawn

Tuesday: In the early morning calm, Kevin and I launched boat and board from the Laishley Marina in Punta Gorda, Florida and headed southwest toward Charlotte Harbor. Destination: Cayo Costa and our first trip with the West Coast Trailer Sailing Squadron (WCTSS). Blissfully unaware that those “firsts” would keep piling on, we aimed for our first anchorage, just outside of Pirate Harbor on the eastern side of Charlotte Harbor.

My track from Laishley Marina to our first night’s anchorage, 16 miles

For the past several years, Kevin and I have used our SUP and sail trips to develop individual and team skills. Our increasingly longer and more difficult journeys have pushed his sailing and my paddling boundaries in areas of navigation, endurance, and rough water skills. Once again, this trip of firsts would test our skills.

Before we left home, we plotted out our respective journeys. On my 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard, I anticipated a 12 mile paddle, hugging the shore and ducking into mangroves for wind protection. On our 22′ O’Day sailboat, Kevin’s sail would be considerably longer, given the projected wind direction and the number of required tacks. We planned to meet at the anchorage around 3 pm.

Shelter from the wind

Once I rounded the ‘hump’ of Punta Gorda, the predicted southerly winds arose. Kevin called me on the VHF radio, thrilled at his 6 knots of speed. Thrilled did not describe my mood as I battled against some of the stronger gusts. I ducked into the mangroves, and my chart, GPS, and Fenix watch helped me navigate a path through this very creepy mangrove maze. Shortly after our designated time, we dropped anchor and set in for the night.

Kevin arrives!

Wednesday morning, we paddled and sailed 12 miles to the Burnt Store Marina where we had booked a slip for two nights. Our chance to power the boat’s systems for our anchorage in Pelican Bay on Cayo Costa. Our timing was impeccable and lucky—big winds kept us off the water the following day.

Nestled all snug in their beds

Cayo Costa ho! Friday morning, I awoke eager to begin the day’s paddle. I faced several highly-trafficked crossings, and and I knew I had a short window before the wind came back up. In retrospect, the trip from Burnt Store Marina to Cayo Costa turned out to be one of my most difficult paddles due to wind, waves, and boat traffic. Surprisingly more difficult even than the 25+ mile training paddles I had done. Shortly after leaving the marina, I headed southwest towards the entrance to Bokeelia, an approximately 6-mile crossing. The sidechop and occasional breaking waves challenged my board steering as I struggled to maintain my heading. My early departure had paid off—the wind didn’t pick up significantly until I had almost reached the other side.

Burnt Store to Cayo Costa, 18.1 miles

I followed the channel markers across the north end of Pine Island, past Jug Creek, Back Bay, and finally Little Bokeelia Bay where I saw several boats from the WCTSS. Finally, my destination was near. From Little Bokeelia Bay, I would paddle south of Patricio and Mondongo Islands, cross the ICW, and head slightly north to our Pelican Bay anchorage.

A bumpy ride

By this time, the wind had picked up, and each of the short mile-long crossings was a slog. I have never worked so hard just to see my Garmin watch read 0.0 for speed. For safety, I crossed the ICW south of my destination, meaning both that I had to battle the north winds to the anchorage and that final mile expanded to three. My three hour mile. Though at times I doubted if I could make it, I knew I had to. I stopped on a small key, revised my route, and powered on.

The circus arrives (Video credit: Dan Roeder)

Never have I been so happy to reach an anchorage. We laughed, relaxed, and visited with friends, old and new. A perfect end to a crazy day.

Saturday was beautiful. Some explored Cayo Costa, and others sailed around Charlotte Harbor and around Boca Grande Pass. I discovered lagoons with manatees, and the spring breakers discovered our paradise.

By the late afternoon, the winds has risen, and the temperatures fell. The cold front had arrived. Why didn’t I bring socks? Thank you Kevin.

Our next “first” was almost upon us. We anchored our shallow draft boat just off the beach, as we had the night before. One anchor in front, another astern. Several hours later, after dark, our mistake became apparent as the boat listed sideways. The north winds were blowing the water out of the anchorage, and we almost aground. We rocked the boat and pushed, anything to push the boat into deeper water. Finally, Kevin started the motor and winched in the rear anchor while I rocked the bow. Finally, the bow sprang free, leaving me onshore. Oops. The wind prevented Kevin from motoring close enough to shore. Another Kevin from our group heard the commotion and brought a rope. Finally I reboarded, and we anchored in deeper water. Now that was a first.

Sunday morning was grim. No spring breakers on that cold dreary day. The wind was up again, and we were cold and tired. There would be no sailing or paddling for us. We towed the board and motored back to Burnt Store Marina.

Monday morning, we took the boat out, staging the boat alongside a barge, a very strange first. Doug Buuck of All Marine Canvas brought our car and trailer to us, and we later visited him at All Marine Canvas. Doug had helped us out several times over the week. Meeting him was hands down our best “first.”

Each “first” challenged us develop new skills with wind and anchoring, among others, and the cold front reminded us not to get lulled by the idea of spring. The conditions pushed our abilities to communicate and work as a paddle-sail team even when separated by miles. I’m grateful to have these experiences as I work towards the Everglades Challenge 2022 and more SUP and sail trips with Kevin. And we’re both glad—after this year of Covid, that we have reconnected with WCTSS.

Keeping it classy

Meanderings on Moses Creek

Paddling on (Photo credit: Alicia Windham-Reid)

Just a short paddle from St. Augustine to Moses Creek, an oasis of calm along the Matanzas River. I’ve driven across the wide Matanzas River many times on my way to the beach and wondered about its many tributaries. In early December, my chance to explore. Four people, three kayaks, one paddleboard, and one dog launched from the Butler Park West boat ramp, paddled down and across the Matanzas River (aka the ICW), and up Moses Creek to a primitive campsite.

Time to go

Months before, in the heat of the summer, we had scouted the campsite and floated for hours in the calm water below. Roseate spoonbills filled the trees along the creek, leading us to dub the site the ‘Roseate Riviera.’ The December cold, however, had driven them to warmer climes, and the trees were empty. Moses Creek runs through the St. Johns Water Management District’s Moses Creek Conservation Area, a tidal marsh with a mix of local ecosystems. The area has a mix of biking, hiking, and paddling trails and is one of the few places that allow primitive camping.

After setting up camp, we paddled up Moses Creek, passing a picnic area and another campsite. My previous paddling trips to the area mostly revolved around Dale William’s Rough Water Training Sessions in which we practiced surf and rescue skills in Matanzas Inlet. I had been wanting to explore the inshore waters, in part because of their rich history.

Fort Mose Historic State Park in St. Augustine (Courtesy of Florida State Parks)

I knew that Fort Mose Historic State Park lay upstream on the Matanzas River. Fort Mose (pronounced Mo-say) commemorates the first free black town in the “what now is the United States.” As described by the Florida Museum, “in 1738 the Spanish governor established the runaways in their own fortified town, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, about two miles north of St. Augustine, Florida.” African-Americans gained their freedom by reaching Spanish-held territory, a lesser known part of the Underground Railroad. The Bitter Southerner‘s “The First Floridians” places the site in historical context and asks what might have been if the Spanish had retained control of Florida. I look forward to learning more about this rich history.

We paddled upstream until the creek narrowed, and the tide turned. Even though Moses Creek’s tides were not that strong, the tidal flows are the Matanzas River are significant, so we timed our paddling accordingly.

The following day, we explored some of its extensive trails on foot. We walked from our campsite on Moses Point to the picnic area directly across, about 4 miles each way. Closer to Highway 206, we saw off-road bike trails which looked fun.

We returned home the next morning, again timing our paddle with the tides. Even though we were mere miles from St. Augustine, Moses Creek felt remote. Before this trip, I hadn’t given much thought to these water management district conservation areas, but, in retrospect, I realize that I had hiked in the Rice Creek area in doing research on the Bartram Trail. I recently paddled up the nearby Rice and Etoniah Creeks which were beautiful. These conservation areas, dotted around the state, are a hidden gems for primitive camping, hiking, and paddling. More to explore in our amazing state.

Efficient loading technique?
It only looks remote
Janice and Millie (Photo credit: Alicia Windham-Reid)

Navigating Florida Bay by Night

Shark Point colors

I promised sun, sand, and beach camping. Nothing epic, I said. Yet there we were, on boat and board, paddling overnight across Florida Bay, the 28-ish miles from North Nest Key to Flamingo. But, to put it in perspective, our overnight paddle, including fish with big teeth, side chop, and hallucinations of trees, was less scary than driving home on I-75.

Florida Bay (courtesy of Google Maps)

Several days before, we launched from Flamingo in the Everglades National Park and paddled 9 miles to the Shark Point Chickee. Windy days and the low waters of a new moon made navigating the shoals around Joe Kemp Key challenging, but we followed the Tin Can Channel east towards Shark Point. Learning my way around Florida Bay would help me prepare for the 2021 Everglades Challenge, a 270-mile expedition/race from Tampa to Key Largo.

Our original plan: one night at the Shark Point Chickee, three nights at North Nest Key, and then a final night at Rabbit Key before paddling back to Flamingo. This route gave us proximity to the Everglades Challenge route as well as a campsite with cell service so Janice could phone into her Wednesday night board meeting.

Shark Point Chickee
Janice in our ‘living room’
From boat and board to platform above

We set up our tents on one side and kitchen/living room on the other. The light breeze—perfect for keeping mosquitos at bay—made putting up the tents a challenge as the wind transformed tents into sails. My biggest fear was dropping something through the slats of the platform into the water below. That night, shooting stars danced across the sky, and we saw the multitudes of stars normally obscured by light pollution and moonlight.

The following morning we had coffee under stars and prepared for our 22 mile paddle to North Nest Key. I loaded my gear onto the board while it was on the platform, thinking I could carefully lower it into the water. Epic fail. Janice heard a splash followed by some unprintable language, then another splash as I jumped into the water to right the board. Lesson learned, and a test of my attachment points on the board.

Skating across a glassy sea

What are these strange things?

A picture perfect day as we navigated Crocodile Dragover and Madeira Point en route to North Nest Key. The waterscape near Madeira felt like a painting—a flat expanse of water punctuated by emerging mangrove islands that resembled boats from a distance.

Hidden beaches

We wound our way around shoals and through passes, continuing our trek east. Oddly enough, we missed Lake Key Pass in broad daylight, but found it in the dark two days later. And, in another navigational highlight, we circumnavigated North Nest Key, looking for the camping area. Construction and day boaters had obscured the signs. Oh well, more training miles!

Our back yard
North Nest camp

North Nest Key is the only designated camping spot in the east part of Florida Bay and is considered a ‘ground’ site as opposed to a beach site. Nonetheless, the sand and clear water had a distinct Caribbean feel to it.

Tuesday morning, a dense fog passed through, a good warm-up for our night navigation. We reached the official Everglades Challenge finish—the Pelican Hotel in Key Largo—and ordered lunch from Mrs. Macs Kitchen next door, a 14+ mile round trip, which felt like a rite of passage.

Sated with fish sandwiches and key lime pie from Mrs. Macs, we checked the weather and realized that the predicted cold front was moving in faster than planned. Was heading south to Rabbit Key, then paddling 20 miles north into a really our best option? We re-evaluated our plan and decided to leave immediately after Janice’s board meeting on Wednesday evening. Until then, it was beach life for us.

Cold front? No worries.

We launched at 6 pm onto a blissfully glassy bay. The lingering light allowed us to see islands immediately westward, but soon the light faded and stars emerged. I had attached my red and green navigation lights to my Yeti bag behind me, but left dark the blinding white light on my PFD. Between GPS, my Garmin Fenix watch, and our deck compasses, we found Lake Key Pass that had eluded us in the daylight.

We retraced our path westward past Madeira Point and Crocodile Dragover, taking a quick break in the shallow waters near Madeira. In the long crossing towards Buoy Key, the wind and sidechop kicked up enough to make tracking my board difficult. Just one stroke on the left turned me north, surfing the board, so I paddled and paddled on the right. Far south in the Atlantic, distant lightning punctuated the darkness, revealing the cause of the southerly winds. We trusted the VHF radio weather forecast that placed those eerie storms far far away.

About 10 miles from Flamingo, we saw Flamingo’s red lights. Yet, occasionally those red lights appeared closer, in a tunnel of trees that reminded me of the Narnia Chronicles. My height on the board let me see things I wished were hallucinations. One very large fish, probably sporting many teeth, shot by and bumped Janice’s boat. And strange songs ran through my head, which I dared not sing out loud.

Our track

Finally, that light, our grail, was within two miles! Strangely, both my GPS watch and Janice’s GPS went wonky for about 5 minutes, guiding us in directions we knew were wrong. And suddenly we were back at Joe Kemp Key and entering the Flamingo Marina somewhere around 4 am. We made it!

Keeping it classy in the campground

The next day, we dried gear, ate ice cream, and explored the park. A 28.81 mile overnight crossing was a big accomplishment for us, both in terms of fitness and navigation. I realize that I have much training remaining before the Everglades Challenge, but this trip got me much closer. I hear the drums!

Sunburst