Paddleboarding the WaterTribe Ultramarathon: Flamingo Style

Fort de Soto camping
Launch day -1

Cape Haze Marina to Snake Island (Venice Inlet) and back, approximately 60 miles. This was Plan B for WaterTribe  2020. At 3 pm, I launched my loaded 14′ board and headed north. Finally, after a year of training, testing gear, and creating routes, I, aka Flamingo, joined the tribe of Kindred Spirits. Kindred Spirits because not everyone considers paddling or sailing the Everglades Challenge (270 miles in 8 days) or the Ultramarathon (62 miles in 35 hours) a vacation.

Launch
Boards and boards lined up for launch
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Gearing up (Photo credit: Chris Sheridan)

Twenty-four hours before, all participants gathered on Fort De Soto’s east beach for briefings and an extensive gear check. If all went well, a flotilla of sailboats, kayaks, and paddleboards would launch at 7 am the next morning, cross Tampa Bay, and continue south. Stiff winds blew as we unloaded boards, boards, and gear, and we all hoped the winds would lie down by the next morning. A small craft advisory would be enough to delay, or worse, cancel the event.

Southwest Florida (Courtesy of NOAA.gov)

The wind did not lie down. Tribers, friends, and family gathered in the predawn darkness, hoping for a 7 am launch. Under cover of twilight, the water looked calm. But it was the swells of Tampa Bay, beyond my line of sight, that concerned me. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that, given these winds. Race director Chief and race manager PaddleDancepeannounced a delay, then another, and ultimately, the option of Plan B. Those in the Everglades Challenge could launch anywhere below Tampa Bay, and Ultramarathoners would do an out-and-back from Camp Haze. Like many, I opted for Plan B. I might not have gone if there was no Plan B. So, Kevin and I packed up and drove to Cape Haze.

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My one picture: Sunset somewhere north of Stump Pass

Nervous energy and excitement propelled me out of Cape Haze Marina and northward. I had no idea whether I could finish the race in time or if I could paddle that far. I had never paddledboarded more than twenty miles in a day and only twice in the dark. But I settled into a comfortable rhythm and recognized landmarks from previous visits. Paddling felt good. To pass the time, I sang loud and proud, creating mashups of random songs. I thought I would be afraid when darkness fell, but I wasn’t. I paddled on.

My Inreach Track

Somewhere past Englewood, I met other Tribers, who wondered why I was heading north. Several were concerned that I was lost or disoriented until I explained Plan B. First I saw fellow paddleboarders Staright and ChesapeakeTJAM, then Kayakvagabond and other kayakers. After Manasota, I entered the ditch, a rock-walled canal that circles Venice Airport. It wasn’t easy. I fought both wind and tide going north. At that point, I was determined to reach my turnaround point and take advantage of the wind and tide heading south.

Somewhere in the ditch that I realized I could complete this race. Around 10 pm, I stopped at a boat ramp in Venice to consult my charts, eat, and put on warmer clothes. Surprise—Snake Island was much closer than I thought. I crossed Venice Inlet where I saw Conquistador. Then I circumnavigated Snake Island where I think  I saw a group of Tribers known as the ‘flock’, and then I headed back south. No more questions about why I was headed north! Back through the ditch, wind and tide at my back. The ditch is a seriously creepy place, especially in the middle of the night. Beyond the ditch, I heard several other groups making camp. Not long after, I found a sandy spot, set up my bivy, and grabbed several hours of much-needed sleep.

Sup on Indian Key
14′ holds plenty of gear

I had been thinking about Watertribe ever since I attended Chief’s Bootcamp in 2019. Listening to Chief and others revealed the combination of necessary skills and conditioning. In summer of 2019, I paddled the coast of Alaska and hiked a portion of Maine’s Appalachian Trail. These trips taught me to pack light with no-fuss meals. I made multiple trips to the 10,000 Islands and Everglades where I tested gear combinations and practiced navigation. During this time, a shoulder injury, ironically from my hike and not paddling, convinced me to set my sights on the Ultramarathon rather than the longer Everglades Challenge.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD
Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

Body or board—where to carry gear. In practice paddles, I shifted items back and forth between body, board, and belt before settling on the right balance. Multiple pockets on my NRS Chinook PFD, designed for fishing, held small food and safety items I wanted close. A Hipster Wave hydration belt kept water off my back and added pockets for energy bars. A large Yeti bag held my repair kit, food, and camping gear. I am grateful to the Tribers who were so generous with advice as I made gear and training choices.

Shortly after daylight, I crawled out of my mangrove nest, inhaled several canned coffee drinks, and hopped back on my board. Perhaps a little less sprightly than yesterday afternoon. I had lost an hour due to daylights savings time. Ugh! I wanted to reach Cape Haze Marina before noon, my deadline.

The last few hours were a grind. I fought a headwind, or at least it felt like I did. A boat named Fat Bottomed Girl sailed by. But I knew that I would make it. My husband Kevin waved me into the marina, and I was done. Checkpoint captain Lori Bell greeted me with a paddle. I was tired enough to think it was a wooden spoon. Why was she giving me a spoon?

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Exhausted but happy
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Done!

Now I’m looking towards the Everglades Challenge 2021. Both the Ultramarathon and the Everglades Challenge demand endurance, navigational skills, and familiarity with wind and tides, and that is part of the appeal for me. Seeing the swells on Tampa Bay made me realize that I need more training in rough water. Lots of time on the water. Now that’s a prescription I can handle.

Beers at the Finish
Best beer with best husband ever

SUP Training Camp in the Keys

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Glassy seas in Key Largo

Paddleboard training in the Keys…sign me up! Scott Baste, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida Keys,  posted a Winter SUP Camp focused on strokes, speed, and efficiency. The timing was perfect. I had been training for the Watertribe Ultramarathon, a 62-mile race from Fort De Soto to Camp Haze Marina. But I knew I had gaps in my skills, and I really really wanted to get faster.

New boards
Trying out new boards!

Part of the fun: trying out new gear! Testing shorter paddles and narrow boards made for a wobbly, but surprisingly dry, start.

Jill getting feedback
Jill getting feedback
Practicing strokes
Practicing strokes
Coach Scott
Coach Scott

Once we got our board, or sea, legs, the real fun began. Scott began with land drills to improve our strokes. Then we practiced, paddling up and down the canal behind his shop incorporating what we had learned. Later, we reviewed our progress, analyzing form and strokes through video footage. The camera doesn’t lie.

Key Largo mangroves
Key Largo mangroves

 

Shallow waters
Shallow waters

That afternoon and the following day, we practiced our skills on Tavernier Creek and nearby waters. The wind was gusting from the west around 20 mph, so we kept to the sheltered Atlantic side.

Eddy
Any eddy will do. Photo credit: Scott Baste

As we talked technique, Scott pointed out the rich biodiversity of the mangrove shallows. Eagle rays, barracudas, and bonnet head sharks, among others, swam around and under our boards. Paddleboards provide a perfect vantage point for viewing wildlife.

The following day, Paddle! the Florida Keys sponsored a SUP race and a post-race mini-clinic taught by Zach Rounsaville of Orange Beach, AL. Watching the race and joining the clinic revealed a new side of paddleboarding to me: racing and stroke finesse. In the clinic, Zach worked on body mechanics to make the forward stroke more efficient, and I am still working to incorporate what I learned.

Mangroves
Nine Mile Pond canoe trail

On our final afternoon, we paddled on the Nine Mile Pond kayak trail near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. High winds still challenged us, but I saw an ecosystem entirely new to me: Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ ‘River of Grass.’

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River of Grass

 

Where's the trail?
Where’s the trail?
Getting low in mangrove tunnels

As we ducked under branches, I picked Scott’s brain about Watertribe. So far,  Conquistador (his Watertribe moniker) is one of two people to complete the 270-mile Everglades Challenge on a paddleboard. Completing the Everglades Challenge requires a broad range of skills, including navigation, backcountry camping, paddling in wind and waves, and endurance. I’ve been paddling in Everglades and 10,000 Islands to enhance my skills, but gaps remain. Nonetheless I (Flamingo) will be on the beach in Fort De Soto next March for the 2021 Everglades Challenge.

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Friendly Everglades gator

This is why I was so happy when Scott announced his Winter SUP Training, and I hope there will be more of them. SUP is still a relatively new sport, and training opportunities seems focused on racing and SUP surf. Paddleboarders are venturing into conditions, including coastal, whitewater, and multiday expeditions, typically paddled in kayaks or canoes. Some skills such as navigation are transferable from kayak to SUP, but others might require a SUP-specific focus (paddling in wind, for example). I need to work on paddling a loaded SUP through swells, a skill I have in a kayak. As the SUP world grows, ideally SUP-specific training opportunities will follow. Right now I’ve got my eye on a SUP trip down the Salmon River, an entirely different form of the sport. These are exciting times for paddleboarders!

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The world from a SUP

 

Lessons Learned by SUP and Sail in the Ten Thousand Islands

Camp Lulu cloudscape
Camp Lulu Key cloudscapes

With the wind at our backs on a blustery day, Kevin and I rode the current toward our White Horse Key. anchorage. Kevin manned KneeDeep ll, our 22′ O’Day sailboat, and I rode my 14′ A’u paddleboard down Coon Key Pass towards the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t get far though. Somewhere between channel markers 4 and 6, we reversed course, paddling and motoring upstream against a 20 mph headwind, and returned to our launch site in Goodland, Florida. Why? The little things. In Tom Noffsinger’s assessment of a kayak training that devolved into a shit-show, he demonstrates how small mistakes can lead to mayhem. In our short time on the water, Kevin and I realized that our small errors had the potential to cause big problems. After re-evaluating our plans and a good night’s sleep, we sailed and paddled through the Ten Thousand Islands/Everglades for four wonderful days. And we learned some important lessons along the way.

Ten Thousand Islands
Ten Thousand Islands (Courtesy of nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/)

What went wrong? Kevin and I had pored over charts, plotting a course from Goodland to Pavillion Key in Everglades National Park, complete with multiple bail-out points. Our trip would combine SUP and sail and fulfill some specific goals: Kevin wants to hone his solo-sailing skills, and I am training for the 2020 Everglades Challenge. We loaded the car, attached the trailer, and headed south.

En route, the heavens poured down, and the trailer brakes froze up. We arrived late into Goodland and discovered that the marina was closing early the next day, Christmas Eve. The next morning, we rushed to step the mast before the wind kicked up. In short, we were frazzled.

Staging at Calusa Marina
Staging at Calusa Marina

I loaded my gear on the paddle and paddleboard, and we were off. Big winds and following seas towards Coon Key Pass, and it felt great to finally be on the water. But soon the rush and chaos of the past 24-hours caught up with us. We had neglected critical details. Kevin hadn’t set up the anchoring system, and I had buried my compass. We needed a do-over. That night and over the next several days, we discussed our mistakes and what we had learned.

Kevin emerges from the hold
Kevin emerges from the hold
Board and boat nestled up snug
Board and boat nestled up snug

The next morning, we woke to blue skies and fair winds and headed out to the Gulf. The night before, we re-evaluated our route, tested our VHF radios, and set up board and boat for paddling and solo sailing. For Kevin, this meant rigging the anchor for solo-anchoring, and I took the time to set up my navigation gear. One lesson learned: stop and re-assess when conditions change. Both the weather and our emotional states had changed, rendering our planning obsolete. In our rush to launch, both of us had misgivings, but neither of us spoke up.

Kevin setting anchor
Kevin setting anchor
Mangrove beach
Mangrove beach

Our destination that night: an anchorage near White Horse Key. I paddled, and Kevin sailed out Coon Key Pass into the Gulf, around mangroves and keys, and into the bay near White Horse Key. We tested our VHF radio communications as Kevin headed out into the Gulf and I circumnavigated islands, trying to increase my mileage. We were able to give each other frequent updates regarding location and heading. One challenge: balancing the needs of very different watercraft. On days with little wind, my board can easily outrun our sailboat. On windy days, a very different story. More factors to consider when deciding upon our course each day.

Sunset near White Horse Key
Sunset near White Horse Key

Combining paddleboarding and sailing has been a goal and a challenge for us. In our White Horse Key anchorage, over a glass of wine, or perhaps more, we realized yet another lesson learned from the first day: Too much, too soon, and all at once. We should have practiced each skill first, e.g., solo anchoring, rather than learning several things at once.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD
Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD
View from a board
Taking in the scenery

My challenge: working with safety gear and electronics while standing, without benefit of a kayak deck. The Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades are fantastic places for paddleboarding, but paddling in these wilderness areas requires safety considerations. In addition to extra food, water, and clothing, I also carried an emergency bivy and a Garmin Inreach. I tested my new NRS Chinook Fishing PFD which has plenty of nooks and crannies for PLB, VHF radio, GPS, and knife, among other things.

KneeDeep ll through the mangroves
KneeDeep ll through the mangroves
Mangrove point
Mangrove point

We woke to clear skies the next morning and agreed to meet for lunch at Round Key, a little speck on the charts near Camp Lulu Key. We paddled and sailed all morning, Kevin out into the Gulf, and me up and around Panther Key. As our meeting time neared, the skies darkened, and the wind picked up considerably. A squall was approaching. I radioed Kevin and told him I was taking shelter on a beach a mile north of Round Key. Round Key, as we discovered, was little more than several scraggly trees, surrounded by shoals and floating white pelicans. Little shelter for boat or board in a storm. Yet another lesson in choosing a meeting spot.

More white pelicans

Camp Lulu Key
Camp Lulu Key
Three cheers for Kevin's bug screen
Three cheers for Kevin’s bug screen

The storm passed, and we anchored near Camp Lulu Key that night. Kevin’s well-designed screen house protected us from the no see’ums, aka flying teeth. Camp Lulu Key lies on the border between the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park. As I passed, I saw campers setting up their tents. The west-facing beaches of the Ten Thousand Islands make perfect campsites. Though I stayed on the sailboat for this trip, I have enjoyed camping here in the past. On my next trip through this area, I will be self-sufficient, carrying all my gear on the board.

White pelicans near Indian Key
White Pelicans near India Key
View from a board
Taking in the scenery
Roseate Spoonbill Takes Flight
Low low tide
Flying Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate spoonbill flying

Back home and so many lessons learned. Kevin and I both advanced in both our individual and team abilities. Neither of us journeyed the miles we had hoped for, but we learned a great deal about coordinating a sail and SUP trip. Our plans met, and largely survived, reality. Our biggest take-away: slow down and take time to go over everything. In retrospect, we should have gone out to breakfast, drank more coffee, and re-assessed our plans on day 1 in Goodland. In the end, our trip was fantastic, but things don’t always turn out that way.

Roseate Spoonbill on the wing
Roseate Spoonbill on the wing

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.

bird

 

 

 

From Sail2SUP in the Keys

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Towing the paddleboard—it is behaving well here

“Should it stay or should it go”— my paddleboard presents logistical challenges for Kevin and me before any sailing trip. I can’t conceive of a sailing trip without the SUP—especially a trip to the Florida Keys. The sailboat allows me to paddle in otherwise inaccessible places. Kevin, on the other hand, focuses on the practicalities of towing a 10 1/2′ board behind an 18′ sailboat. On our recent trip to the Keys, I prevailed and the paddleboard made the trip. The clear, calm, and shallow waters of the Keys are perfect for paddleboarding (To Sup or Not To SUP). I’ve seen rays, sharks, and barracuda from the vantage point of my board, especially near the the biologically rich mangroves.

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Clear waters near the mangroves

We were aiming for the Keys backcountry, a remote shallow area on the Gulf side which is characterized by mangroves and small islands. Several years ago, we camped and paddled to the Mud and Snipe Keys. This time we hoped to reach Content Key, one of the outermost islands, after anchoring overnight at Little Pine Key.Keys Backcoutnry NOAA 11445.pngOn December 28, we left our slip at Sombrero Resort and Marina in Marathon and headed north towards Little Pine Key. We motor-sailed under the high point of the Seven Mile Bridge, then sailed with favorable winds to Little Pine Key.

The winds and currents made our 15-mile journey pass surprisingly fast, and we reached the southwest side of Little Pine Key mid-afternoon. After a short scouting sail around our anchorage, we dropped anchor less than 100 feet from the mangrove shore, a mistake we discovered when the bugs came out for dinner. In our small boat, our very sophisticated anchoring technique involves me jumping into the water, towing the boat to a good location, then jumping on the anchor to set it. (Perhaps not ASA procedure, but effective.)

Once we were settled, I inflated the board and paddled around the bay. My inflatable Uli Steamroller works well for sailing trips. The board can be stowed away easily, and the soft rubber won’t hurt the sailboat when it is being towed. The still weather let me do both a sunset and sunrise paddle.

After a calm night in our floating tent, we knew our luck was about to change. A front with predicted winds of over 25 mph and gusts of 30 was moving into the area. Forecasters used terms like “surging winds” that put us on full alert. We re-evaluated our goal of Content Key and pointed south towards the protected harbor of Bahia Honda State Park. Bahia Honda Park is a jewel of the Florida State Park system, and it is always a treat to visit the park.

Our detour to Bahia Honda State Park gave us an unexpected bonus: News Years Eve on the Molasses Keys with our friends Monica and Frank Woll of Florida Bay Outfitters.  So, on yet another unnervingly gusty day, we sailed east from Bahia Honda to the Molasses Keys, only a 7 mile sail. Nonetheless, sailing into strong easterly gusts challenged us and pushed the limits of our—and KneeDeep’s—capabilities. Eventually we motor-sailed, only leaving our 150 Genoa up. This arrangement worked well until it didn’t—when the motor inexpicably stopped. A large sheet of plastic has gotten wrapped around the propeller.

While Kevin controlled the boat, I hung from the ladder and disentangled the plastic. Not quite as easy as it sounds, especially because the boat was still sailing and we were headed to shore. This incident reinforced some lessons from what I think of as ‘my year of plastics.’ My experiences on Exxpedition in the Caribbean (There is No Magical Place Called Away) and on Shuyak Island in Alaska (Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska) taught me a great deal about the dangers of marine plastics.

Tropical paradise awaited us at the Molasses Keys—rum, hammocks, and clear skies! And almost no garbage—Frank and Monica routinely clean up these islands. The Molasses Keys are privately-owned by Frank and Monica, but camping is permitted. To do so, please contact Frank and Monica through the Friends of Molasses Keys page on facebook. We spent a glorious New Year’s Eve camping on the larger of the two Molasses Keys and heard fireworks usher in 2017.

New Years Day revealed some highlights of paddleboarding and snorkelling in the Keys— calm and clear waters.  Circumnavigating Molasses Keys can be a challenge paddling through the waves on the south side.

Too soon, it was time to sail back to the marina then head back north. As always, the Florida Keys are a magical place, whether sailing, SUP’ing, or just sipping on a beer. The paddleboard gave us a number of challenges; for example, it flipped several times in following seas while being towed. Nonetheless, the board has earned its keep—it almost doubles our space while at anchor! The board stays.

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Learning to Love a Landscape

When I moved to Florida 9 years ago, Like many new Floridians, I was all about the beach and the surf.  I moved to Florida as a whitewater paddler. So, I raced out to the beach whenever I could and surfed my whitewater kayak in the waves at Crescent Beach. I loved Florida’s tidal waters and estuaries, and what could be better than playing in the surf in December and January—especially after many long winters in the north. It took a while to fall in love with Florida’s rivers and springs, but when I did, I fell hard.

My friends and my now-husband raved about the springs and the rivers of north central Florida, and I wondered what the fuss was all about. I had floated down plenty of rivers in Iowa, where I had lived before. I wanted to surf!2014-03-15 17.33.46.jpg

On our first date, Kevin and I paddled on Juniper Springs, along with biologist Stephen Kellert and a group of biology graduate students. Soon, we paddled up and floated down the Ichetucknee spring run, which I loved. Looking down from my boat, I saw fish and manatees swimming below me.Manatees on the Ichetucknee.jpg

I began to learn the rich history of Florida’s waters and explored the sheer variety Florida offers. We paddled and camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, visited rivers and springs, and continued to surf in the Atlantic. But now, the springs have stolen my heart——seeing the tannin line where spring meets river, paddling under the trees on the Suwannee Rivers, and swimming in the springs along there Santa Fe River.Suwannee

I didn’t realize how much I had come to love the springs until a recent visit to Oregon, a place we had wanted to visit for years. Kevin and I sat by the river in the spectacular Columbia Gorge, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the sunset. But I was homesick. I had spent my summer paddling on different springs, and I wanted come home. And as soon as I came home, I took my paddle board to the Ichetucknee and felt at home.

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Strange and Wonderful Everglades, Pt. 2

We paddled from the Everglades City Ranger Station on an unseasonably warm December morning, riding the tide 9 ½ miles towards our campsite on Lulu Key. Melodi, Scott, Jill, Kevin, and I are all seasoned wilderness paddlers, but we signed up with Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural history of the region. Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours regaled us with the strange but true stories of human, plant, and animal life of the Everglades.

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Don gave us the option of a mangrove tunnel or white pelicans. The pelicans won unanimously, so we headed out Indian Key Pass towards Indian Pass Key. As we neared the island, we saw hundreds of white pelicans crowded on the beach. I had never seen a white pelican before—they are much larger than brown pelicans. Coached by Don, we remained a good distance from the beach to avoid spooking the birds.

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We paddled slowly, watching for signs that the birds noticed us.If a number of birds started moving towards the water, we would back off. We paddled slowly around until we were able to land on the outer edge of the island, unseen by the birds, and watched the mix of brown and white pelicans, just hanging out doing what pelicans do. If a number of birds started moving towards the water, we would back off. We paddled slowly around until we were able to land on the outer edge of the island, unseen by the birds, and watched the mix of brown and white pelicans, just hanging out doing what pelicans do.

 

After we left Indian Key, we went west along the outside of the islands until we reached Lulu Key, our home for the next three days. Lulu Key sits on the boundary of the Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands. Kevin and I had paddled to Lulu Key from Goodland, Florida on an earlier 10,000 Islands trip, but had never approached from Everglades City.

 

Today was New Years Eve. I had heard about the legendary New Years Eve celebration on Lulu. Mike Ward, now represented by a pair of white shrimper boots, had homesteaded on Lulu Key for years and took care of the island—much like Naked Ed on the Santa Fe River in north Florida. A number of people had been on the island for several days, and a row of tents lined the beach. Later tonight, friends would gather for happy hour and later an impressive fireworks display.tents

We found space at the far end of the beach and set up our tents with a water’s edge view. Our hard work done, we floated in the balmy water for the rest of the afternoon.

One of our strangest neighbors on the beach—sea pork, a gelatinous looking blob that is not edible.  It looks like a squishy rock underwater. Sea pork.jpg

(http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/24422254)

This blobby creature apparently has the beginnings of a spine at the embryonic stage, making sea pork a distant relative. (A new perspective of strange relatives.). Don also showed us carnivorous mollusks that stalk and eat other mollusk, surprising all of us, especially the vegetarian, since we assumed most mollusks and shelled creatures were scavengers.

Lulu Key treated us to beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Greeting the sunrise with a cup of coffee is one of my favorite parts of camping.

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The next day—New years Day, we paddled the short distance to Picnic Key where Don had seen rare African orchids in bloom.  We beached our boats and walked about fifty feet inland, to the edge of the swamp.Africaorchid2.jpg

No orchids were blooming at the time, but we saw a number of orchid plants. The tiny seed pods had traveled with the wind, from Africa to Florida, and found fertile soil here, making me wonder about the term ‘invasive’. What counts as a native plant?

Don also pointed out a small field of sea purslane, an edible plant with a slightly salty taste. He later showed us a native Florida coffee plant; its beans were so small that making a cup of coffee would be a Herculean effort, though perhaps worth it under the right circumstances.

seapurslane.jpgWe continued paddling around Picnic Key until we came to a tunnel leading to a hidden lake.

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On our final day, we paddled through the interior islands back to the Everglades Ranger Station.stillwaters3.jpg

The day was still, and the water glassy, but the clouds told another story. Our three days on Lulu Key were warm and sunny, but a system was moving in. The next day would bring a cold front, with rain and dropping temperatures. Before we reached the Ranger Station, we had a final float, luxuriating in the warm water before we all headed north to the Florida winter awaiting us.

This trip whetted my appetite for the Everglades, and I realize that I have quite a bit to learn about human and natural history. Maybe we’ll come back for next year’s New Years Eve celebration.

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Everglades Part 1: Paddling a Re-inhabited Landscape

On December 31, our kayaks packed and loaded, our group of six left the Ranger Station at Everglades City and headed for Lulu Key. Lulu Key  straddles the borders of the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades.  Interestingly, though we wanted a wilderness paddle, to spend New Years Eve ‘away from it all’, we entered an area that has hosted waves of residents, from the Calusa to turn of the century homesteaders and outlaws to contemporary visitors. stillwaters3All of us are experienced wilderness paddlers, but we went with Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural histories of this region. We all knew that Don is a self-proclaimed story-teller, and, over the three days, Don regaled us the strange and bizarre habits of people, plants, and animals.

I had just finished reading Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Mathiesson, an historical novel about Ed Watson—farmer, entrepreneur, and possible serial killer who homesteaded on the Chatham River in the Ten Thousand Islands. Mr. Watson apparently killed his hired men instead of paying them—a rather chilling austerity measure, and this book depicts the wild west character of life in this remote part of Florida in the early 1900s. As I read the book, I recognized some of the rivers and keys from previous paddling trips, but I had yet looked into the region’s history before.  The store on Chokoloskee Island run by Ted Smallwood, a character in Killing Mr. Watson, is now a museum about Chokoloskee history.

Camp Lulu Key is relatively easy to find because it is on the exterior, on the gulf. Without map, compass, and gps, it would be easy to get lost. And, for several hundred years now, people have come to this area of Florida to disappear, escaping the law or persecution, among other things.Fakahatchee area.42 From Lulu Key, we paddled north, inward, first to West Pass, matching the shapes on our charts to the land masses we passed. We wove our way through passes and channels, all lined with mangroves. The subtly different shades of green alerted us to the narrow channels between islands.

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We rode the incoming tide to Fakahatchee Island, home to a small fishing community in the early 1900s. We beached our kayaks on the boat landing, after receiving permission from the two men who were camping there. Anderson GravestoneInland, we found a small cemetery with headstones mostly from the Daniels and Anderson families. The islands hold other ruins but the ubiquitous mosquitos discouraged us from further exploration. Although there has been no official settlement on Fakahatchee Island for decades, the island shows evidence of recent habitation.Fakahacheecamp4 copy

We left the boat ramp, circumnavigating the island counter-clockwise and saw the cistern and the pilings that once supported the fish-house, where the homesteaders kept their fish on ice. Today, pelicans and other birds appreciate the perch.pelicanonmangroave

The other side of the island exposed the layers of shells that the Calusa had much used to build up the island, centuries before. Fakahatchee was one of the higher elevations among these low-lying islands, and the mounds laid by the Calusa provided habitat for turn of the century settlers and later campers.

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After we left Fakahatchee Island, we wended our way back through the mangrove islands, now fighting the tide, and finally reached our camp on Lulu Key in time for the sunset. I was glad to be back in the open, on the gulf. The interior is beautiful, but its convoluted and quiet passages remind me that the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades can still provide refuge for those who wish to slip away into the wild.