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.
Shoals, Slow Flow, and a SUP on the Suwannee 230
7:30 am, Griffis Fish Camp, Fargo, Georgia. Paddlers in 18 watercraft—canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards—eager to start the Suwannee230. The Suwannee230 is a 230 miles race, from Griffis Fish Camp, just downstream of the Okefenokee Swamp, to Suwannee, Florida, where the Suwannee River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
The exposed sandy banks—flooded during last year’s race—hinted at the obstacles that we would paddle over, under, and around. In last year’s race, higher water obscured the river’s path, and several paddlers detoured into the maze of trees. This year, the lower water made the course clear but exposed obstacles we paddled over last year.
In the morning’s low light, we navigated the twists and turns of the Upper Suwannee, its character vastly different from the broad Lower Suwannee. I missed the boost I had enjoyed in earlier paddles. But no rain—even from Hurricane Ian—meant slow flows and a sporty collection of obstacles, shoals, rocks, and trees.
Soon, the entire group portaged portaged over a log that blocked the entire river, entertaining the campers drinking their morning coffee. On that first day, I paddled around blockages, slithered under trees, and tried to avoid catching my 3″ gummy fin on submerged branches.
Day 1 goal: to reach Big Shoals rapid, a mandatory portage, before dark. Yet, despite my obsessing over this portage the previous night, it was surprisingly easy in the dark. The sign, somewhat obscure in the daylight, reflected brightly under my headlamp’s glare. I hauled my board and gear, stuffed in a backpack, up the bank, along the short trail, and back down the rooty slope to the area beyond the rapid. I had packed minimally to reduce my time on the portage and was on my way by about midnight.
By this time, any ambient light had faded, and darkness shrouded the river. Columns of fog swirled around me, like dust devils, as if the river wasn’t already creepy enough. I paddled gingerly, knowing Little Shoals was less than a mile ahead. And, although I prefer letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, I turned on my headlamp and shined my bright dive flashlight around, even though I would hear the shoals before I saw them. Red eyes and yellow eyes all around—nothing creepy there. For the rest of the trip, the song “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” ran through my head.
I thought I was prepared, headlamps, a dive flashlight, and my gummy, flexible fin. All of my rough water training stresses preparation, to avoid the “and there I was” situations. And yet there I was—running shoals in the dark on my 14′ SIC RS paddleboard which turned out to be remarkably sturdy. I lined my board over the first set as a tandem canoe with far superior lights flew by. Back on the board, I alternated paddling and shining my light as I navigated the remaining shoals.
Just before White Springs, a final shoal sheared off my fin, and I called it a night. I shone my light to find a campsite—the reason I carry that light, and found a sandbar to call home. I woke at 4:30 am to a pair of canoes—again, with better lights—navigating that shoal and went back to sleep for another hour.
Day 2. At the springhouse I retrieved the food and water I stashed. I had little sleep that night, and ambitious plans of a big mileage day faded throughout the day. I craved sleep, and I fantasized about sleep throughout the day. Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Suwannee River State Park, and finally the jarring lights of Advent Christian Village before I reached Dowling Park River Camp. And then I slept.
The next morning, Janice, director of Paddle Florida or perhaps an angel, brought me coffee and lasagna. To reduce gear, I didn’t bring a stove so hot coffee was heavenly.
Day 3—I needed big miles, at least 70. A cold front was coming, and I was about over the Suwannee—this year’s race was more demanding. But fortified by a good night’s sleep, coffee, and lasagna, I was ready to tackle the miles. Past Branford and Gornto Springs park, then darkness. As in the previous nights, I let my eyes adjust to the swath of light that revealed the river’s curves. And I read the water in this light for disturbances, branches for example, that could snag my fin. More than anything, I didn’t want to fall at night.
I briefly “rested” at the Hart Springs boat ramp, where camping is prohibited. My Spidey-sense woke me at 4:18, 12 minutes before my alarm. And 12 minutes before the police cruised by, where I stood, holding my paddle and not camping.
Day 4—a mere 35 miles to Bills Fish Camp. I launched into the darkness. My watch read only 2.1 mph. Stupid GPS watch. I stopped and restarted my course. Still slow. D’oh! I turned around and magically my speed doubled. All the other boat ramps had been on the left. Not that one.
At Fanning Springs, I stepped off the board and experienced a few seconds of “sea-legs.” Balancing in the dark—without visual markers—is harder than I thought! Several hours later, I surfed a downwind course as the cold front rolled in. So much fun, but I knew I would pay. I was so close to the finish when headwinds flipped my fun into a slog. Head down, I tucked into the vegetation and pushed through the final four miles.
Done! Despite the low water and obstacles, I beat my previous time by over two hours. My training with Coach Larry Cain and Paddle Monster paid off! Still plenty of room for improvement, but the training and a reduced gear load really helped. Next up: Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail (CT) and the Everglades Challenges. See you on the beach.
SUP and Sail Under the Sunshine Skyway
SUP and Sail in Tampa Bay in August? But why? The weather swings between dead calm and squalls, making both sailors and paddlers cranky. But we needed to test our Sanibel 18 sailboat—KneeDeep 1, newly rebuilt after two years languishing in the yard. So off we went, boat and board, to Terra Ceia, Florida at the south end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Our mission: prepare KneeDeep l to be our floating home for upcoming sailing and paddling trips. On our SUP and Sail trips, Kevin sails, I paddle my SUP, and we meet at a designated anchorage at the end of the day. A good test of our navigation skills as well as our relationship. With an 14″ draft, KneeDeep l is ideal for navigating the shoals of southwest Florida and the Everglades. But if our larger sailboat, an O’Day 222, is a floating tent with a vestibule, KneeDeep l is a floating bivy. A floating bivy that will shelter us for West Coast Trail Sailing Squadron trips and, more important, house Kevin during the Everglades Challenge in March while I’m paddling.
Terra Ceia and the south end of Tampa Bay was new to me, so I consulted Florida Paddling Trail Association‘s (FPTA) website which suggested several routes. Additionally, the Manatee County Paddling Guide offered routes as well as information about local history and the ecosystem. Brooke Longeval also shared a route around Rattlesnake Key and Emerson Point. In the end, I created my own routes, but these resources gave me a start.
Over the four days, I paddled to Emerson Point and around Rattlesnake Key, under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and partly across Tampa Bay towards the large American flag on Mullet Key, the start of the Everglades Challenge. The afternoon storms limited my range—I never wanted to be too far offshore when the inevitable storms blew up. And after a 52-mile training paddle the previous weekend, I needed to ease my way back into my Paddle Monster workouts. But I feel like I barely scratched the surface of the paddling this area offers.
In past years, Kevin and I have done multiday SUP and sail trips to southwest Florida, the Ten Thousand Islands, and the Everglades. Each trip has been a learning experience, both for Kevin on the boat and me on my board, and we debrief after each trip. What have we learned? What went wrong, or could have but fortunately didn’t? Our expedition sea kayak training has given us skills in open water, navigation, and marine communication as well as lessons in self-reliance. The latter is especially important because we are alone on our individual crafts, often miles apart. In particular, during the Everglades Challenge when I will be paddling and camping from my board, and Kevin will single-hand the sailboat.
Terra Ceia is a small community in Manatee County surrounded by nature preserves, including the Terra Ceia Preserve State Park and the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve. Many of the areas I paddled were shallow grassy flats that provided habitat for juvenile fish, baby sharks, rays, and manatees. One day I ate lunch surrounded by a pod of manatees, and another morning I watched baby sharks stalk their breakfast, tiny fins thrashing left and right.
I hadn’t realized how significant this area was to Native American history. Terra Ceia and Emerson both house ceremonial mounds in which archaeologists have discovered multiple periods of Native American culture. The Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site is accessible by both road and water, the backside anyway.
After paddling and sailing under the August sun, Kevin and I met most afternoons for a float.
Sailors and paddlers are never happy—either too much wind or too little. One afternoon, we floated and commented on the beautiful cloudscapes. But in the beauty lurks danger. I wondered if we weren’t tempting fate. Of course, we were.
The inevitable happened—a storm blew up over Bradenton, and Kevin rode it out on the boat while I, safe at the house, followed the storm’s progress on my phone. A stark reminder of how fast Florida’s weather can change.
Over adult beverages that evening, we pronounced our shake-out cruise a success. Kevin determined what KneeDeep l needed, and I explored the south end of Tampa Bay. Our next step: preparing KneeDeep l for multiday trips into the remote and shallow waters of the Everglades. We’ve done these trips on our larger boat, but how will this smaller boat fare in rough conditions? Let the training begin. March and the Everglades Challenge will be here before we know it!
A Early Start to Everglades Challenge 2023 Training
At 7 am, Chief gave the signal: the Everglades Challenge had begun. To my left and to my right, kayaks, sailboats, and one paddleboard launched into Tampa Bay, beginning the 300 mile journey to Key Largo. Despite my excitement and preparation, I stood on the beach, intimidated by the wind. The wind rose, and Chief offered me a Plan B start, meaning that I could start further south. I wasn’t sure how far I could go or even if I was still in the race, but after months of practice and training, I was grateful to be on the course.
I launched mid-afternoon onto Charlotte Harbor from Burnt Store Marina, a place I knew from a previous Sup and Sail trip with my husband Kevin. I hugged the shore as best I could, but any exposure gave me a taste of the larger conditions I had avoided.
I passed Matlacha at sunset and continued south as darkness fell, heading for Cape Coral and points beyond. Even though navigation was straightforward at this point, the darkness played tricks on me—at one point, I wondered if I was actually heading north. I never realized that Pine Island was so long!
Finally I reached the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and a decision point. Given the easterly winds, I wasn’t sure I could hold my course, and the bay seemed like an awfully big place at night. What I knew rationally was the bridge to Sanibel seemed lit up like a casino, and the twinkling lights marking the different channels disoriented me (and confirmed that I need new glasses.) Even though I had only paddled 21 miles, I decided to make camp and navigate the crossing in the daytime.
As I lay awake at 3 am, listening to the tide lap inches from my bivy, I reflected on what went right and what went wrong. What went right? In the weeks before Watertribe, I winnowed my gear, lightening my load, and repacked it more efficiently, for example, my night paddling kit in a separate bag attached to my duffel. I had tested some of these systems on a trip to Panther Key where I met up with members of both Watertribe and West Coast Trailer Sailors and received some very welcome advice.
What went wrong, or better put, lessons learned? More wind practice. I felt strong enough to push on, but a windy crossing in the dark concerned me. I knew that this was the western end of the Okeechobee Waterway, where boats cross Florida from the Atlantic to the Gulf, and images of barges and freighters filled my head.
When I launched the next morning, small fishing boats rather than the massive cargo ships of my imagination dotted the becalmed seascape, and I crossed without incident to Bowditch Park in Fort Myers Beach.
My Sunday morning dreamscape shattered on the ICW in Fort Myers, which gave life to the term wind tunnel. I fought my way under the bridge and used the hulking steel boats as wind shelter. It pained me to pass Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford Rum Bar and Grill, and but I knew that Doc Ford would just keep paddling. So I did.
In Estero Bay, a parade of pontoon and other boats streamed by, and I bobbed along in their wake. My board felt especially unstable, leading to several unplanned exits, and I didn’t confirm until that night that my fin had disappeared somewhere in Estero Bay. I sat down and paddled, and that led to another lesson learned: sitting works too. Once I was no longer a human sail, my speed increased, and paddling seated should help me handle bigger winds. But as my friend Kathryn helpfully noted, “Some people call that a kayak.” Point well taken.
Later I passed several fisherman who asked where I was going. I replied Wiggins Pass, the first thing that popped into my head. One said “That’s far, it’s windy” and asked if I needed a ride. No thanks, I’m good. And it was. One thing I love about the Everglades Challenge is the self-reliance it demands. I was alone, on a board, on a rocking and rolling Estero Bay. Whatever came up, I just needed to figure it out.
I continued towards Wiggins Pass, wending my way through a series of small channels. A tiki bar loaded with revelers motored by, and another sat anchored in the mangroves. If there ever were an epic illegal camping spot, that would be it. And I paddled on. I reached Wiggins Pass just as Flipper and Foco arrived, happy to share the spot with other tribers. Again, my skill rather than fitness prompted a stop. Once I left the pass, I would be in open water, and there were few, if any, camping options until Gordon Pass. Looking back, since the wind tended to drop at night, I would take advantage of that.
The next morning, I attached my spare fin and aimed for Naples. Rolling waves pushed me for the first several hours, until the winds rose up again. I entered Gordon Pass and fought my way through Dollar Bay towards Marco Island. There I made my final mistake.
At Panther Key, Andy said that if you have an out, you’ll take it. As I paddled towards the Marco Island, Kevin appeared in a kayak. It was just too easy. And that led to yet another lesson. I spent too much time on Windfinder, obsessing about predicted winds. My mistake: looking too far ahead. With some rest, I could have continued and taken advantage of diminished winds. Focus on the present.
2022 was my first attempt at the Everglades Challenge, or perhaps, a head start for Everglades Challenge 2023. (If only it counted for next years derby.) It was a terrific experience, and now I know better where to focus my training. In retrospect, I could have crossed Tampa Bay, and I have paddled successfully in bigger conditions, but I need to do it more of it. Even though some said we faced especially difficult headwinds this year, it seems like it just isn’t an Everglades Challenge without them—unless you’re going the wrong way. So, my prescription for myself: wind, waves, and open water crossings. And see you on the beach next March.
Scouting the Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay
No better way to spend a balmy November week in Florida than paddling the Ten Thousand Islands. Post hurricane season and before waves of northern fronts and tourists. Janice, Director of Paddle Florida, and I both needed to scout for different reasons. Janice for an upcoming Paddle Florida trip, and me for the Everglades Challenge in March. We had done multiple trips to the south, and it was time for a new adventure.
We launched from the Ranger Station in Everglades City and headed northwest towards the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Janice in her NDK Pilgrim Expedition, and I on my SIC RS 14′ x 26. The first day of paddling was familiar from previous trips—Indian Key Pass, Picnic and Tiger Keys, and Camp Lulu Key, where we crossed out of the Everglades National Park.
While Janice and I took note of the various agency boundaries, the birds flying overhead and the sharks swimming below did not. The flora and fauna of the Everglades, Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay are breathtaking. Well, maybe not the raccoons.
After a brazen raccoon cut our lunch break short, we continued past Panther Key to our first campsite: White Horse Key. Despite rumors to the contrary, there are plenty of raccoons in the Ten Thousand islands and Everglades. I’ve met many of them.
The next morning, we continued northwest. As soon as we rounded the corner of Gullivan Key, the hulking buildings of Marco Island appeared. They stalked us for the next 5 days..
The tide carried us up Coon Key Pass towards Goodland and the Big Marco River. After the chaotic boat traffic in Goodland, the Marco River was surprisingly pleasant. We paddled up a ditch and under a bridge to reach Isle of Capri’s Paddle Park, a nice launch site and lunch stop. At this point, we had entered into the Rookery Bay Preserve, whose website has plenty of information about launches, routes, and camping. These waters are ideal for paddlers, plenty of birds and wildlife, calmer inland waters, and much less boat traffic.
From the Paddle Park, we wove our way through a mangrove tunnel and, after a few false starts, emerged near Johnson Bay and the Isle of Capri. We paddled towards the gulf and our night’s campsite on Sea Oat Island. Unlike the Everglades, the water was clear. No wonder people love this area.
On day 3, we continued scouting different sites, but none more important than the Snook Inn, the halfway point on the Everglades Challenge. After an epic fail with one of my (usually good) homemade dinners which I tossed into the fire, I wanted real food. But, as work comes before play, we had some scouting to do. From Sea Oat, we paddled past Keewaydin Island and explored Rookery Bay until we reached the Shell Island launch.
Stuffed with coconut shrimp and the Snook Inn’s famous grouper sandwich, the chop and traffic of Big Marco Pass awaited us. It was a relief to round the corner and paddle parallel to the beaches of Marco Island. We crossed Caxambas Pass and made camp on Dickman Island.
On to Cape Romano, a highlight only second to the Snook Inn, via Goodland. We meandered through the mangrove channels towards Goodland which both gave us more training miles and laid out less exposed routes for Paddle Florida. We stopped for lunch at Goodland, and I remembered one of Kevin’s and my first SUP and Sail trips. We’ve come so far.
Fueled by a power lunch of diet coke and Cheeto Puffs, we paddled towards Cape Romano. We passed Helen Key and followed the Morgan River to Morgan Bay, where our charts dubiously noted a passage between bay and gulf. We didn’t really believe that the passage was where we said it was, but we did want to explore the bay. The tide was falling, and birds walked where we recently paddled. The beach between bay and gulf beckoned. The dome houses could wait until tomorrow.
The next morning, we carried boat, board, and gear across the sand to the gulf, and we paddled to the dome houses just around the corner. I had first seen the dome houses of Cape Romano over 10 years ago while on a kayak camping trip with my husband Kevin. At the time, the buildings were on the beach, but erosion has washed away the sand, and now the domes are in the water.
After Cape Romano, we paddled towards Coon Key and towards yet another Shell Key that the Paddler Florida folks would visit. The weather was changing, and a front was coming. Our timing was good. We set up camp on Panther Key, which set us up for our final paddle into Everglades City.
The tides had rarely been in our favor, and our paddle back to Everglades City was no exception. We needed to reach Everglades City in time for breakfast at Nely’s Corner in Everglades City. To do that, we needed to leave well before low tide at 7 am. Alarm at 4, launch at 5. 7.22 miles to go. One cup of coffee in camp, more at Nely’s Corner. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we paddled east, skirting the extensive shoals around Lulu Key, where we saw headlamps moving as campers began their morning routines. The sun rose over Indian Key as we began to fight the outgoing tide.
We hugged the shore and discovered side channels to avoid the tide. By 10 am, we had unloaded gear and rinsed off at the ranger station. By 11 am, we sat at Nely’s, sated with coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and a to go box of Key Lime pie for Kevin.
This trip was exploratory, long morning coffees and plenty of time to absorb the beauty. My next trip, probably the Everglades Challenge in March, won’t be so leisurely. I’ll be racing through, maybe at night, trying to make the checkpoints in time. Two radically different trip styles, but each bringing its own joys, challenges, and lessons. I’m grateful that I can experience this area in so many ways.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
On our fourth day, we ascended Sand Mountain, which gave us beautiful views of the river and a chance to stretch our legs.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Donkeys, SUP, and Basket Weaving on Ossabaw Island
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.