Testing the Waters: WaterTribe Boot Camp 2019

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Ready to go at Fort De Soto Boat Ramp

Can I paddle 300 miles in 7 days on a paddleboard? Do I want to attempt this feat? The WaterTribe Everglades Challenge is “an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats” from Tampa to Key Largo, approximately 300 miles. The shorter Ultramarathan—the sprint version—extends the 67 miles from Tampa to Placida. The Watertribe blend of endurance, navigation, and expedition has tempted me ever since I first learned of this event. In January 2019, I attended the WaterTribe Boot Camp in Fort De Soto Park to see if I had the right stuff to enter the race in 2020.

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Boards Loaded and Ready to Go

The Boot Camp format consisted of a talk by Chief followed by a paddle and camping trip on Shell Island. Chief’s talk covered a range of topics critical for both starting and completing the challenge safely. A paddle or sail down Florida’s coast through the Everglades and Florida Bay is a serious undertaking. I already own and carry much of the safety gear based on my kayak training, but he reinforced the idea that critical gear should be carried on our bodies or PFDs. In my 5* BCU class, Gordon Brown emphasized the same point as we practiced on-water boat repairs. Chief’s mantra regarding GPS devices stuck with me: Two is one, and one is none, an accurate reflection of my experience with marine devices. Salt water and GPS’ do not play well together.

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Courtesy of WaterTribe.com

Chief also posed a question that each of us can only answer for ourselves. What are your goals in this challenge—to win your division or to finish? To me, finishing would be a victory. As Chief spoke, I did the math in my head. The event is almost 300 miles, and you have 8—really 7—days to get to Key Largo. The final party is in Key Largo on the 7th day, and I am not one to miss a party. That means approximately 45-50 miles per day. Can I handle the mileage and pace for 7 days straight? I have a year to figure that out.

My first challenge was finding a trail name. All long distance paddlers and hikers need a trail name. Through hikers on the AT and PCT have creative names, and I wanted a name that would also work for my upcoming AT hike. So I became Flamingo, and Janice chose HighTea in homage to her British heritage.

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Courtesy of WaterTribe.com

After Chief’s talk, the group headed to the beach where an array of boats and boards lined the shore. I was relieved to see another paddleboard there, but I was surprised to see so many sailing Hobies. I had assumed there would be more kayakers or canoers. One kayakers was incredulous when I revealed that I had a kayak at home. Why a paddleboard, he asked? I don’t think I can answer that, other than that I love the freedom of standing on a SUP.

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Crossing the bay
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Clear waters around Shell Key

We launched from the boat ramp for the short paddle to Shell Key. Chief had sent us coordinates and waypoints for the campsite on Shell Key and for several paddling options. The Challenge itself leaves from a beach facing the Tampa Bay shipping channel, and crossing a shipping channel is always nerve-wracking. For the Boot Camp, the weather was sunny and warm, and the water glassy, but conditions are rarely that benign for the Challenge.

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A tight squeeze
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Wrong way

Plan A involved paddling through a mangrove tunnel, then through Bunce’s Pass to the outside of Shell Key. We paddled around a small island searching for the promised mangrove channel. We made it about 50 feet then realized it was a dead end. Since it was too narrow to turn around, we paddled backwards—fin first which might turn out to be a useful skill. On to Plan B, we crossed the shallow flats, passed the motorboats lining Bunce’s Pass, then headed north to find out campsite.

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Drying gear
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Beach camping

Our group camped midway up the beach. It’s hard to believe this level of wilderness camping exists so close to St. Pete and Tampa. I set up my 1-person tent that I bought for the Appalachian Trail. Packing like a backpacker is crucial to SUP expeditions. The weight must be balanced and centered. The Hobie Mirages might carry 80 pounds of gear, but I can only carry approximately 30 pounds, including water, on my board. One new tip: pool noodles. From now on, I’ll stow them in my gear bags to increase flotation in case of capsize. One of the best parts of the Boot Camp was picking up tips about gear and packing. The other part: the people.

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Sunset
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Early morning coffee klatsch

The WaterTribe draws kindred spirits. After all, only so many people want to paddle from Tampa to Key Largo in any vessel, much less a paddleboard. After the sun set, we gathered around the campfire and traded stories. Though people came from all walks of life, it was a congenial and helpful group. I now understand why people come back year after year.

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Abandoned boat near Bunce’s Pass
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Skyway Bridge
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Cargo Boat in the shipping channel

The next morning, I drank coffee as the sun rose, a luxury I might not have during the Challenge. To make miles, I assume that I’ll be on the water before dawn. Most people savored the slow morning and moved on to their own adventures by 10 am. Janice and I paddled around Mullet Key to see the launch site. As we headed back, the wind came up, a premonition of future conditions.

I have no doubt the Everglades Challenge will be difficult, probably one of the hardest things I will ever do. Between now and Challenge 2020, I’ll hike the Maine section of the AT and kayak Alaska’s Inside Passage which will prepare me. I’ll also train on the paddleboard and consider what size and length board will work best for me. I already know that my 12′ Fanatic is too slow. But I look forward to the next year of training, planning routes, and figuring out gear. Do I have the right stuff? I’ll never know unless I try.

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Traveling through Time on the St. Johns River

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The glassy St. Johns hold its secrets

Rivers were once America’s highways, carrying people from place to place. But rivers also let us journey through time, revealing the stories and histories of those who have gone before. Looking out over a glassy St. Johns River, I wonder what stories the river holds. People have lived and worked on the St. Johns River for millennia, including Paleo-Indians, European colonists, and Cracker homesteaders. The St. Johns reveals their stories to archaeologists and historians through artifacts and written records. What can we learn about these layers of history, from the recent past to pre-historic times, by being on the river?

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Bartram Inn Postcard

I came to Palatka to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. In the late 1700s, William Bartram, Quaker, naturalist, and adventuer, sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and described the people, flora, and fauna he encountered. Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created this tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and adventurers could visit sites that naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823) described in his Travels of William Bartram. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County guides adventurers to these sites on foot, bike, and boat. Reading Bartram’s words is one thing, but seeing these sites from the seat of a kayak brings these stories to life.

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A kayaker’s view

On the water, I can almost imagine a time when the river was Florida’s main highway. Today, the Memorial Bridge in Palatka spans the St. Johns, and Highways 17 and 19 parallel the eastern and western banks. But this network of roads and bridges did not exist for Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Bartram, or the Native American populations who preceded them.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)
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Palmetto Leaves

In her 1872 work Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe writes

St. John’s is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.

The key phrase is “the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.”  Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land travel difficult and dangerous. Imagine the snakes, gators, and spiders under foot. Until industrialist Henry Flagler (1830-1913) developed the Florida East Coast Railway in the early years of the twentieth century, the St. Johns River remained Florida’s “grand water-highway” for good reason.

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A Bartram moment on the St. Johns

On an overcast day, Bartram enthusiast Dean Campbell met us in Welaka for a six-mile paddle. We visited several springs, including Welaka Springs and Satsuma Springs. Today we cool off in these springs, but once they were sources of life.

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Welaka Spring with QR code
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Satsuma Spring Run
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Satsuma Spring vent

Just beyond Welaka, we paddled past the remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant which figured in Dean’s own family history. After church, his family used to eat Sunday dinner there followed by an afternoon cruising the river on their boat. The restaurant is now in disrepair, like many fish camps along the St. Johns.

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Remembering times from the recent past
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Remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant

Boats, docks, and homes in varying stages of disrepair hint at the recent past, but the river itself holds evidence of the distant past. The day prior, diver and archaeologist Mike Stallings displayed some of his finds, including a mastodon tooth. Mike and others have found pottery from the St. Johns culture, a native American culture along the river dating from 500 BCE until the arrival of Europeans. The St. Johns River near Palatka is fossil-rich because the river level has varied over thousands of years, from 400 feet above sea level to 40 feet below.

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Treasures from the St. Johns

This was not a wilderness paddle—homes, fish camps, and marinas lined the shores, illustrating that even today, many people rely on the St. Johns River for their sustenance and livelihood. The day before, Sam Carr had commented that Bartram didn’t forge any new trails. In fact, William Bartram traveled along a river that was home to multiple populations, including settlers, plantation owners, and Native Americans.  Bartram wrote extensively of his encounters with the different native populations he met. The west side of the St. Johns River, known as the “Indian shore,” was less populated than the east side, where British colonists and plantation owners had settled. Bartram, however, rarely wrote about the plantations lining the shore, and he certainly encountered European settlers. He mentions Stokes Landing (Spaulding Lower Store) and Rollestown (Site 7), but his Travels portray a landscape unsettled by Europeans.

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Bartram mural in Palatka

In Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe offers advice for northerners heading south for the winter, but her words betray a concern about the sheer numbers of snowbirds  arriving in Florida. Dean thought that William Bartram held similar concerns. Painting the landscape as harsh and unforgiving slowed the migration of newcomers. Remember that only the relatively recent development of air conditioning made Florida’s climate bearable to all but the toughest. As Florida’s population surpasses 21 million, the sea level continues to rise, and development runs unchecked, Stowe and Bartram’s concerns are prescient.

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Tourists on a steamer

Paddling the St. Johns River is an opportunity to be immersed in history—literally, if you capsize, which I do not recommend. The St. Johns River holds the stories of generations of people who have lived before us. Following Bartram’s trail helps us imagine their lives in Florida’s many pasts.

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Palatka is the city of murals

 

Bartram Adventure Tour postcard
To learn about the Bartram Adventure Tour, watch the video.

From the Caribbean to Alaska to the Keys: My Year of Plastics

 

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Plastic caught on our propeller

Plastics, big and small, dominated my life last year in 2016, from the Caribbean to Alaska to the Florida Keys. On New Year’s Eve last year, to cap it off, a large piece of plastic wrapping caught on the propeller and cut the motor on our sailboat. As the boat drifted dangerously close to rocks on the edge of Bahia Honda, I held on to the boat ladder with one hand and worked to free the plastic with the other (To Sup or Not To SUP). It ended well, and we sailed on to a fine New Year’s Eve on the Mosquito Keys with our friends Monica and Frank. But it was a fitting end to my year of plastics.

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Photo credit: Monica Woll

The previous February, I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics (On a 72′ Sailboat, Searching for Ocean Plastics). I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. On the Seadragon, we used a manta trawler to collect microplastics, and later the water would be filtered and the particles analyzed.

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Jannica at the microscope in Seadragon saloon
Exxpedition in the Caribbean
Hauling in the manta trawler
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Filtering for plastics particles

Caroline winching2This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic. By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?

The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and local environmental groups.  These interactions were trip highlights for me.

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Trinidad beach clean up team

In the summer, I traded my bathing suit for a drysuit to chase down the wild plastics of Alaska (Alaska: Where the Wild Plastics Are). Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network, a community-based non-profit specializing in marine debris advocacy in the Kodiak Archipelago, had coordinated teams to clean up Shuyak Island by sea kayak.

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Tom with one day’s debris

During our two week shift, our team of seven collected, hauled, and dragged the marine debris that travels from Japan and points east. Shuyak Island is the northernmost island in the Kodiak Archipelago, and the winds and currents of the Gulf of Alaska deposit tons of marine debris on its shores each year.Shuyak NOAA Chart

 

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Unloading the float plane
Kodiak brown bear
Brown bears on the beach

We arrived by float plane and saw a mother grizzly and three cubs on our first day. For the next two weeks, we collected  — literally — tons of garbage (Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska.) We spent several days cleaning Dead Bird Beach, a two-mile stretch that faced southwest. In addition to a variety of small skeletons (hence the name), Dead Bird Beach was littered with plastics, ropes, and nets. The large plastic objects and buoys were easy to spot, while the nets and smaller plastics blended into the sand, rocks, and wood. Some objects were immediately identifiable—water bottles, fishing lures, and fly swatters. A Wal-Mart shipment of fly swatters and mini-basketballs marked with team logos had fallen off a cargo ship several years prior. Other materials less so, such as the Japanese fishing baskets and bait buckets carried by the tsunami. We learned that light items such as water bottles are driven by the wind while heavier items such as baskets float just under the surface and drift with currents rather than wind.

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Water bottles and tangled nets
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Dawn with logo flyswatter
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Cutting away nets on a rainy day
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Piles of super sacks

We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom collected the bags later that summer with a landing craft. (Super sacks are woven polypropylene bags, approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′.) We labelled each bag with the appropriate two-mile segment for analysis by NOAA and the Island Trails Network. Tom had warned us about the amounts of debris we would find on Shuyak Island, but it still surprised me that we found over ten thousand pounds of ropes, nets, and plastics in two weeks. I recalled reading Religious Studies scholar Kimberley Patton’s book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean in which she explores the longtime human habit of throwing our waste into the sea. Perhaps it mattered less two thousand years ago, before people owned so much stuff.

Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective that that of Exxpedition, and I learned how larger plastics and debris migrate with wind and current. Nonetheless, the marine debris in both Alaska and the Caribbean primarily comes from somewhere else until it reaches that magical place called away. But my experiences in the Caribbean and in Alaska have made me even more concerned about threats to our water, especially those at home in Florida. Perhaps, at one time, the sea washed away all evils, but today, the garbage we throw in the water comes back to haunt us.

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Sunset over the Florida Gulf

An Oasis of Bees, Chickens, and Gardens in Kansas City, Missouri

For something completely different, visit  City Creatures Blog to read about chickens, bees, and gardens in Kansas City, MO. I visited Cherith Brook Catholic Worker while researching my new book Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence.

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Cherith Brook mural

When I reached Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Missouri, I did not expect to see chickens loose on the driveway. I’m not sure why I was so surprised—other urban Catholic worker communities I visited had backyard chickens. But it was a dreary day in a dreary neighborhood, and I had driven through the east side of Kansas City, with little sign of animal life or greenery. Cherith Brook’s chickens, gardens, and beehives were an oasis of nature on their city block. Read more.

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Backyard chickens

On TRAK to Adventure in Tofino, BC

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Team 2020 (Photo credit: Jamie Sharp)

How does a skin on frame kayak respond to rough water? What better place to test a redesigned TRAK kayak than Vancouver Island? The TRAK Team 2020 had come to play in the surf and give a final round of feedback on the new TRAK 2.0.

Nolin Veillard, founder and managing director of TRAK kayaks, had invited the team to come for a surf camp and a chance to learn about TRAK 2.0’s new features. Half the team already owned TRAK kayaks, while the rest were new to TRAK. My husband Kevin and I bought one of the earliest TRAKS for a self-supported kayak trip through the Exuma Island in the Bahamas where we snorkeled and paddled in paradise (TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE). We loved the boat as an expedition boat, but I was curious to see how it would hold up to wind and waves.

Most of our team had met virtually, on group chats and a group forum, but I was looking forward to meeting everyone in person. In addition to Team 2020, Hans Trupp had coordinated the event, and Fabio Raimo Oliveira and Jamie Sharp had come to help us become better surf instructors. And most important, Buffy Trupp fed us gourmet meals.

Nolin had reserved an assortment of lodges, yurts, and campsites the Wya Point Campground and Resort, just at the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. My home for the next several days was Yurt 14, which, conveniently, was also the group headquarters for meals and meetings. (Since my gear was trapped in Delta’s black hole of lost luggage, I was thrilled to stay in the yurt.) Our yurt was just yards from the Pacific beach, and forest went right up to the edge of the beach.

On our first afternoon, we readied our kayaks for the next day’s paddle. Since I owned one of the first models, I was excited to see the improvements Nolin had made over the years. I was especially happy to see improvements in portability–Nolin shaved almost 10 pounds off the earlier models that Kevin and I dragged through airports. Thank you Nolin!

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Assembling the TRAK
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Inside a TRAK (Courtesy of Awesome Kayak)
TRAK on the beach
Wya Point Beach
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Photo credit: Jamie Sharp

Everyone was eager to get on the water the next day. In the morning, operations manager Jason Guindon demonstrated the newer features, and after lunch, we carried our boats to the beach. The water was calm, with small waves lapping the shore, a perfect opportunity to exchange tips on strokes, rescues, and rolls in skin on frame boats. For me, playing in the surges–rock gardening 101–was a real treat and the most different from my own southeast surf zone. Later, we paddled out beyond the rocks enclosing our cove and saw a massive sea lion guarding his perch.

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Flying over our route

 

The first day’s calm gave way to higher winds and slightly higher onshore waves. Nonetheless, the conditions bode well for our trip to Wickaninnish Beach. The Tofino area, I discovered, is Canada’s surf capital, and Wickaninnish Beach promised good clean surf. We paddled out of the cove and headed towards north. We paddled along the coast, that alternated rocky islands and sandy beaches. I didn’t expect to see so many sandy beaches; my image of the Pacific northwest was all rocky beaches. I had thought the Pacific Northwest was all rocky coast; I had no idea I would see so much sand. After about an hour, we reached a rocky island where the group reconvened. We lingered for almost an hour. Some fixed gear while others took the opportunity to rock garden. The island offered several play spots, and we practiced our skills timing the surges along the rocks. I was impressed with the TRAK’s responsiveness. I had never used mine in situations with rocks and fast moving water.

Soon after we left the island, we paddled through a narrow channel made by rocks, and the conditions changed for the worse. The winds grew stronger, and the water rougher. Boats and paddlers dipped in and out of view as we rose and fell with the swells. We paddled on, watching the coast, but staying out far enough to avoid refracting waves. I felt my boat flex with the waves, but it paddled solidly in these force 4 conditions. This was the test, and the boat passed with flying colors. Finally we rounded the headland and surfed in to shore — after all, we had come to surf. It was an exhilarating day and a new challenge for many, but we all agreed that our boats had passed a critical test of seaworthiness.

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Coming in for a landing
Coming ashore
On shore
TRAK flag
TRAK flag
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A trailer of TRAKS

 

We had so much fun that we returned to Wickaninnish the next day.  The conditions had calm considerably, but everyone was happy to have a day just to surf. Fabio and Jamie gave up pointers on surf instruction, but the highlight was playing in the waves. That night we debriefed over fish and chips from a food truck in Tofino and prepared to head home.

On our final morning, we disassembled our boats and offered a final round of feedback on the TRAK. I was sorry to say goodbye to so many new friends, but we are already planning new surf adventures. TRAK’s Kickstarter campaign is well underway, while we eagerly await the unveiling of TRAK 2.0.

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Our successful Kickstarter campaign

St. Johns Headwaters: Finding Wildness in an Engineered Waterscape

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Dawn on Blue Cypress Lake

Anne and I rose early to catch the early morning light on Blue Cypress Lake.  A late afternoon storm had skunked us on paddling the night before, and we were determined to get on the water. After a quick cup of coffee, we lowered boat and board into the water and paddled through the glassy waters, silently, heading towards the trees that give Blue Cypress Lake its name. (The  cypress trees did indeed look blue in the early morning light.) The day was so calm and quiet, I felt like I had melted into the scenery. Other than the one large splash that made both of us jump, the lake was dead calm.

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Deck at Middleton’s Fish Camp
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Moss hanging form the trees
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Another storm rolling in
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Glassy calm on a windless morning

We had spent the night at Middleton’s Fish Camp, right on Blue Cypress Lake, in a cabin that backed onto a canal. Although Blue Cypress Lake is not far from Vero Beach and the more developed coastal area, the lake felt isolated and remote. We had come to take pictures for our River of Dreams exhibit at the Matheson History Museum (Winter 2017). Most people, however, come to Middleton’s Fish Camp to catch large-mouth bass, catfish, and speckled perch (crappie), among other things. Jeanne Middleton, who writes the fishing report, the armored catfish, relatively unknown in Florida, draws fishers from Suriname where the fish is considered a delicacy.

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“Nature held in trust”

Anne and I had come to Blue Cypress Lake and Middleton’s Fish Camp to explore the headwaters region of the St. Johns River. Officially the headwaters is somewhere in the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, a swampy area that lies just south of Blue Cypress Lake. I had hoped to paddle from the actual start of the St. Johns River, but I learned that noone can really pinpoint the exact start of the river. Vince Lamb, a nature photographer and environmental activist, noted that “somewhere two drops of rain fall, and one heads to Lake Okeechobee and the other heads north into the St Johns.” Many people consider Blue Cypress Lake itself to be the headwaters which, in terms of paddling and navigation, it is. 2016-10-03 11.09.55.jpg

The road north from Blue Cypress Lake towards Fellesmere parallels the river as it moved through a series of canals. On Sunday afternoon, boat trailers lined the canal, but the stormy weather and a Monday morning had driven off the fisherman. In Fellesmere, we stopped for some ‘Old Florida Cuisine’ at the Marsh Landing Restaurant.

Fueled by swamp cabbage soup and Cajun-spiced catfish (noone had heard of the armored catfish), we aimed for Stick Marsh/Farm 13, a reclaimed area known for its bass fishing. Created in 1987, Stick Marsh/Farm 13 is one of many Florida messes, like the Everglades, where our tax dollars fund both destruction and restoration at the same time. Writing about the St. Johns River Restoration Project and Stick Marsh, bass fishing guide Jim Porter describes the project as “Saving a Friend.”At one point, Stick Marsh was heavily stocked with bass and crappie, and now the area “is synonymous with trophy bass and other fishing.”

This entire area near the headwaters struck me as a confusing mix of wilderness and engineered landscape. Blue Cypress Lake itself has few access points and felt remote—even Middleton’s Fish Camp felt removed from the nearby more developed coastal areas. But the roads and the canals—obviously engineered—also felt remote and wild as well. The day before, sitting at Camp Holly near Melbourne, Vince had told us that the upper—or southern—part of the St. Johns River is much wilder than the lower, that there is more development along the river as you go further north. It is much easier to do a wilderness paddling trip along the upper St. Johns.

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Canal near Stick Marsh

Engineered or not, the headwaters region of the St. Johns River is a beautiful and wild marshy waterscape, and Blue Cypress Lake took my breath away. Each section of the St. Johns River has its own beauty, and the river and the people who live, play, and fish on the river tell me their stories. I look forward to learning more of these stories as I explore the St. Johns and its tributaries and springs for our “River of Dreams” exhibit.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska

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Excited for our ride to Shuyak Island

On Sunday, June 12, I awoke early, excited for my first ride on a float plane. We were headed for Shuyak Island State Park to collect marine debris using sea kayaks. Shuyak Island is the northernmost island in the Kodiak Archipelago, and the winds and currents of the Gulf of Alaska deposit tons of marine debris on its shores each year. Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network received a grant from NOAA Marine Debris Program, and months ago, we had applied to participate in this great adventure—paddling in Alaska, float planes, abundant wildlife, and a chance to give back to a sport we love. How could any of us pass up this opportunity?

Tent at Big Bay ranger station, Alaska
Kevin’s and my home for two weeks
Kodiak brown bear
Brown bears sauntering down the beach

Our team of five had arrived in Kodiak several days early in case Kodiak’s notoriously changeable weather went bad. Dawn, Kevin, and I knew each other from previous kayak trips, and we met Fiona and Kate  at Kodiak Island Brewery the night before. Fortunately. Sunday’s weather was clear and beautiful, and the pilot gave us a tour the land and water between Kodiak and Shuyak. Soon after we arrived, a mama brown bear and her two cubs sauntered down the beach and then up the hiking trail. After sorting out our tents, boats, and gear we paddled out around Eagle Point into the Gulf of Alaska, then surfed the swell home.

Map of Shuyak Island
Shuyak Island Photo credit: National Geographic

Over the next two weeks, we tackled Gulf-facing beaches as well as the protected shores inside Big Bay—the wind and swell determined our daily destinations. Big surf landings onto rocky shores would have been dangerous for both boats and bodies, and we knew that any rescue situation would be difficult and hazardous. An accident that might be a minor inconvenience in highly populated Florida could be life-threatening in remote Alaska.

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Dawn with logo fly swatter

We spent several days cleaning Dead Bird Beach, a two-mile stretch that faced southwest. In addition to a variety of small skeletons (hence the name), Dead Bird Beach was littered with plastics, ropes, and nets. The large plastic objects and buoys were easy to spot, while the nets and smaller plastics blended into the sand, rocks, and wood. Some objects were immediately identifiable—water bottles, fishing lures, and fly swatters. A Wal-Mart shipment of fly swatters and mini-basketballs marked with team logos had fallen off a cargo ship several years prior. Other materials less so, such as the Japanese fishing baskets and bait buckets carried by the tsunami. We learned that light items such as water bottles are driven by the wind while heavier items such as baskets float just under the surface and drift with currents rather than wind.

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A tangle of water bottles and nets
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Wind carries plastic bottles
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Tom with super sacks
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A small beach on a calm day

 

We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom will collect the bags later this summer with a landing craft. (Super sacks are woven polypropylene bags, approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′.) We labelled each bag with the appropriate two-mile segment, and NOAA and the Island Trails Network will analyze this data in the fall.

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Tom with super sacks
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Piles of super sacks in front of headquarters—Big Bay Ranger Station

 

After a week, the winds shifted and intensified, so we moved to the calmer waters of the bay. We worked in teams of two which was sometimes creepy given the possibilities of bears. As we walked along the beaches, we sang out “Hey bear, Hey bear”, the best response being no response. At first glance, these inland shores seemed much cleaner, but we discovered how well the sand and logs camouflaged nets and ropes. In addition to being unsightly, nets pose a hazard to marine mammals, like seals, otters and whales.

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Cutting through gnarly nets on a rainy day

Tom warned us about the amounts of debris we would find on Shuyak Island, but it still surprised me that we found over ten thousand pounds of ropes, nets, and plastics in two weeks. No one lives there, and the island receives few visitors, so all the debris comes from somewhere else. I recalled reading Religious Studies scholar Kimberley Patton’s book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean in which she explores the longtime human habit of throwing our waste into the sea. Perhaps it mattered less two thousand years ago, before people owned so much stuff.

Last February, I participated in Exxpedition, a sailing voyage on the 72′ Sea Dragon, assisting scientists investigating how disintegrating plastics disrupt the endocrine system. Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective, and I learned how larger plastics and debris migrate with wind and current. Nonetheless, the marine debris in both Alaska and the Caribbean primarily comes from somewhere else until it reaches that magical place called away.

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Loading and unloading on our return to Kodiak

On a cold rainy Sunday morning, the float plane brought our crew back to Kodiak and flew a new crew. As we flew away, I looked back at the super sacks on the beach and thought about what we had done. Overall, the trip gave me a terrific opportunity to spend time camping and paddling on a remote island in Alaska and to meet others who share these interests. But my experiences in the Caribbean and in Alaska have made me even more concerned about threats to our water, especially those at home in Florida. Perhaps, at one time, the sea washed away all evils, but today, the garbage we throw in the water comes back to haunt us.