Paddleboarding the Lower Keys

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

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

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

Where Should We Paddle?

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

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

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

Wind and Tide

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

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

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

Splendid Isolation

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

There’s More Than Paddling

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

Next Steps

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

A fate to avoid

Training for the Everglades Challenge: 125 Miles by SUP

Ready to launch (Photo credit: Brian Sheridan)

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

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

What my Inreach says I did
Loaded up

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

A Seakayaker on a SUP?

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

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

Starting Out: Eight Miles to the First Chickee

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

Lulled by the evening calm

A 30 Mile, Windy Day

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

Break time in Huston Bay

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

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

The Everglades Challenge

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

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

Going It Alone

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

Mangroves, mangroves, and more mangroves

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

Lumpy waters

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

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

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

Day 4: Lostmans to Highland Beach, 26 miles

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

Lounging gator

Slightly more active gator

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

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

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

Unintended relaxing morning

Stalled by Tidal Flats, Then the Wind

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

Someone had a bad day

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

Somewhere in the Everglades

Day Six: 28 Miles and Too Many People

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

Perfect paddling conditions

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

Foggy departure

The Last Leg: Tiger Key to Everglades City

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

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

Time for another trip

Navigating Florida Bay by Night

Shark Point colors

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

Florida Bay (courtesy of Google Maps)

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

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

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

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

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

Skating across a glassy sea

What are these strange things?

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

Hidden beaches

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

Our back yard
North Nest camp

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

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

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

Cold front? No worries.

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

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

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

Our track

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

Keeping it classy in the campground

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

Sunburst

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.

sunset
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.’

Everglades
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!

world
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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