Just a short paddle from St. Augustine to Moses Creek, an oasis of calm along the Matanzas River. I’ve driven across the wide Matanzas River many times on my way to the beach and wondered about its many tributaries. In early December, my chance to explore. Four people, three kayaks, one paddleboard, and one dog launched from the Butler Park West boat ramp, paddled down and across the Matanzas River (aka the ICW), and up Moses Creek to a primitive campsite.
Months before, in the heat of the summer, we had scouted the campsite and floated for hours in the calm water below. Roseate spoonbills filled the trees along the creek, leading us to dub the site the ‘Roseate Riviera.’ The December cold, however, had driven them to warmer climes, and the trees were empty. Moses Creek runs through the St. Johns Water Management District’s Moses Creek Conservation Area, a tidal marsh with a mix of local ecosystems. The area has a mix of biking, hiking, and paddling trails and is one of the few places that allow primitive camping.
After setting up camp, we paddled up Moses Creek, passing a picnic area and another campsite. My previous paddling trips to the area mostly revolved around Dale William’s Rough Water Training Sessions in which we practiced surf and rescue skills in Matanzas Inlet. I had been wanting to explore the inshore waters, in part because of their rich history.
I knew that Fort Mose Historic State Park lay upstream on the Matanzas River. Fort Mose (pronounced Mo-say) commemorates the first free black town in the “what now is the United States.” As described by the Florida Museum, “in 1738 the Spanish governor established the runaways in their own fortified town, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, about two miles north of St. Augustine, Florida.” African-Americans gained their freedom by reaching Spanish-held territory, a lesser known part of the Underground Railroad. The Bitter Southerner‘s “The First Floridians” places the site in historical context and asks what might have been if the Spanish had retained control of Florida. I look forward to learning more about this rich history.
We paddled upstream until the creek narrowed, and the tide turned. Even though Moses Creek’s tides were not that strong, the tidal flows are the Matanzas River are significant, so we timed our paddling accordingly.
The following day, we explored some of its extensive trails on foot. We walked from our campsite on Moses Point to the picnic area directly across, about 4 miles each way. Closer to Highway 206, we saw off-road bike trails which looked fun.
We returned home the next morning, again timing our paddle with the tides. Even though we were mere miles from St. Augustine, Moses Creek felt remote. Before this trip, I hadn’t given much thought to these water management district conservation areas, but, in retrospect, I realize that I had hiked in the Rice Creek area in doing research on the Bartram Trail. I recently paddled up the nearby Rice and Etoniah Creeks which were beautiful. These conservation areas, dotted around the state, are a hidden gems for primitive camping, hiking, and paddling. More to explore in our amazing state.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
What can alleviate the insanity of 2020 better than sandbar camping, good friends, and no wifi? By 9am, November 4—the day after the election, Jill, Liz, Jennifer, and I paddled away from the noise and into the solitude of the Apalachicola River. Over the next two days, our team of four—three kayaks and one paddleboard—would cover the 45-ish miles from Jim Woodruff Dam to the Estiffanulga Boat Ramp.
Our journey began in the town of Chattahoochee, just south of the Florida-Georgia line, where Georgia’s Chattahoochee River becomes Florida’s Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee River starts in north Georgia, flows through metro Atlanta, and continues south as the Georgia-Alabama border until it reaches Lake Seminole and the Jim Woodruff Dam. Once in Florida, the Apalachicola River streams into Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Why the Apalachicola River? Jill needed to complete the first two days of the Apalachicola Rivertrek, and the rest of us stepped in as good friends to “help”. Every October, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organizes Rivertrek, a 5-day, 106-mile paddle from Chattahoochee to Apalachicola Bay. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper, headed by Executive Director Georgia Ackerman, monitors the health of the river and bay, and Rivertrek raises funds support this mission.
However, in keeping with the spirit of 2020, Hurricane Sally broke the trip in half and pushed the second half of the trip into November. So, Liz and I were happy to “help” Jill and Jennifer paddle from Clyde Hopkins Park to Estiffanulga Boat Ramp where they would join the rest of their team. And Liz and I would return home.
Shortly after we launched, we passed under the I-10 bridge and left “civilization” behind. The Apalachicola River is wide and flows swiftly. At times, we saw evidence of the barge traffic that once plied the river, but mostly, and surprisingly, we had the river to ourselves.
For most of its length, the Apalachicola River forms the boundary between Eastern and Central time zones, and my watch alerted me to the change when I veered towards one side or another. However, just before the river joins the bay, the boundary between zones veers sharply—and inexplicably—westward away from the river. Why? Florida lore (and historical research) credits developer and financier Ed Ball (1888-1981) for this anomaly. Ball wanted his Wakulla Springs hunting lodge and his Port St. Joe paper mill (30+miles west) in the same time zone, and, in true Florida style, Ed Ball got what Ed Ball wanted.
By 3pm, we found home for the night, a sandbar with ample space for socially-distanced tents. Plenty of time to swim, relax, and set up camp.
We paddled about 20 miles our first day, leaving about 20 more for the second day. Given the river’s flow, we relished a relaxed morning, drinking coffee and drying dew-soaked gear. That’s how it started anyway.
I was barely into my first cup of coffee when Jennifer pointed to her Pocket Rocket stove, now engulfed in flames. “Run,” Liz yelled, and we sprinted to the far side of the sandbar. Seconds later, a large boom echoed across the river valley, perhaps causing some to wonder if hunting season had started early. A gas leak? A bad O-ring? We’ll never know. And we never found the piece that blew off.
Just downstream from our campsite, we passed Alum Bluff, a 135′ high sandbar that towers over the river. The heights of Alum Bluff and Torreya State Park were the biggest surprises of the trip for me–actual topography in our flat state.
We stopped for a quick break at the boat ramp in the town of Bristol. Shortly after, we reached Sutton Creek and Bayou on the river’s west side and took a side trip up this sleepy creek. Stands of tupelo trees arched over still water, providing a feeling of stillness and gravity.
Despite our leisurely morning, the day had passed quickly. Time to find a campsite. Our goal—a sandbar two miles upstream of our take-out at Estiffanulga Boat Ramp. Estiffanulga Boat Ramp was mile 63, and the sandbar 65. We pulled over around mile 70 and coordinated charts, watches, and mileage.
The miles ticked by. Around mile 65, what looked suspiciously like our sandbar barely peeped out from under the water. That wasn’t going to work. We paddled on, looking for possibilities.
It was not to be, and Estiffanulga County Park would be our home for the night. We rounded the final bend and saw the boat ramp—and two tents being set up. Two other members of Rivertrek had arrived for the next morning’s rendezvous.
The rest of the Rivertrek crew arrived the next morning, along with Georgia Ackerman and the Riverkeeper boat. Liz and I waved goodbye as they resumed their journey towards Apalachicola Bay. 2020 was not yet done with Rivertrek though. As Tropical Storm/Hurricane Eta pinballed around the Gulf of Mexico, the Rivertrekkers changed their plans once again. But, as all paddlers know—all plans are contingent, and nature bats last. Nonetheless, I envied them as they headed south, and maybe 2021 is my year for Rivertrek.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Part of the fun: trying out new gear! Testing shorter paddles and narrow boards made for a wobbly, but surprisingly dry, start.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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!
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.
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.
Car and boat at the Pink House
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It started with a Jimmy Buffett concert, but it became much more than that. Our Plan A: paddleboard and sail our way from Big Lagoon State Park to Jimmy Buffett’s performance in Orange Beach, Alabama, exploring the bays and lagoons around Perdido Bay. Results: Plan A slid to Plan B, then to C, D, and E. We made it to the concert, but Plans B to E brought us to people and places along the Flora-Bama borderlands that we never envisioned. And, in the end, our trip was richer for it.
Gainesville, FL: Saturday, 6 am. Big Lagoon State Park boat ramp, 5 pm. Storms rolling across the panhandle had already delayed our departure: Plan A -> Plan B. Kind strangers at the Bruce Cafe helped us repair a blown bearing buddy on our trailer. Plan B -> Plan C. Finally, Big Lagoon State Park.
Fishing for dinner
Early the next morning, we launched KneeDeep ll, our 22′ O’Day, and motored west through the narrow ICW to Perdido Bay. We hoisted our sails in Perdido Bay, crossing back and forth from Florida into Alabama and back again, in the light afternoon breeze.
So many firsts. We navigated the shoals protecting Palmetto Cove and dropped anchor…seamlessly. A happy surprise since we hadn’t practiced anchoring with this boat. I inflated my paddleboard and paddled off to explore nearby creeks. Inflatable SUPs make perfect dinghies for small sailboats.
Another first: paddling and sailing independently, navigating to a designated location. The following morning, Kevin raised the sails and single-handed the boat, and I paddled up Soldier Creek, where we met two hours later. We each carried a VHF radio and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), and I carried my new Garmin Inreach in my PFD. All good practice for my upcoming kayak trip to Alaska’s Inside Passage and next year’s WaterTribe Challenge.
The bays and lagoons around Perdido Bay are perfect for paddleboards, as described by the Orange Beach Canoe Trail. The smaller bays and lagoons, in particular, offer some protection from wind and have less tidal variation. On the other hand, as I followed the twists and turns of one creek, it sure looked like alligator territory to me.
That night, we discovered a local favorite—Ingram Bayou. Surrounded on three sides by Alabama’s forests, no buildings in sight, we slept in splendid isolation.
Jimmy Buffett Concert Day. I paddled from Ingram Bayou to Wolf Bay where we loaded my board and motored towards Jimmy Buffett. Our splendid isolation soon gave way to ICW traffic and the circus-like atmosphere of the Wharf Marina.
By mid-afternoon, land sharks, coconut bras, and hula skirts had taken over. After I accepted a “shot” of a Bahama Mama from a shark, I knew it was time to up our game. We donned our leis and joined a jovial crowd at a pre-concert where we all sang the expected renditions of Buffett covers as well as “Sweet Home Alabama” and heard cheers of “Roll Tide”. I’ve never had a better Cheeseburger in Paradise, and, as always, the show was great.
Back to Palmetto Cove. By boat and board, we returned to our Palmetto Cove anchorage, but conditions had changed. Clouds covered the skies, and small white caps made balancing on my inflatable board difficult. That day tested both our endurance and communication devices much more than the easier days. The NOAA weather report confirmed our suspicions that we needed to find shelter for the following night. Fortunately, the Bear Point Harbor had space for us, and the next day, we secured our boat in an inside slip. Plan C -> Plan D.
Immediately, we knew that Bear Point Harbor was our kind of marina. After an excellent (and not dehydrated) lunch in Flipper’s Restaurant, we met some of the live-aboards. In conversation, we discovered that our new friends—Captain Tinsley and Salty Scotty—docked their sailboat Salty Abandon in Bear Point Harbor. We had met our fellow parrothead sailors in the Wharf Marina and learned about their sailing adventures and the Salty Abandon YouTube channel. Small world indeed.
Thank God the tiki bar is open. By late afternoon, the storm rolled in, and it was time to take shelter in the Bent Oar Tiki Bar. The evening began with their world famous Bushwacker, a milkshake with an unspecified number of rums, and only got better. Alabama Lightning rocked the house, and we danced for hours. People introduced themselves and told us about the band and life in Orange Beach.
Back to Big Lagoon and home. We dropped anchor just east of Spanish Point in Big Lagoon for our final night. Both shores of the lagoon offer paddling opportunities. The Big Lagoon Kayak Trail on the north side weaves through marshes and is mostly protected.
We came to hear Jimmy Buffett and fell in love with the Flora-Bama region. The paddling and sailing was great, but the people we met made the trip. We’ll be back.
I loaded my board and drove to the Youth Camp at Wekiva Springs State Park. It felt like a reunion—Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia, Ashley Brown and Jeff Atkins of Wave Paddler, and Christa Foisy of Paddle NC and more. My kayak buddies had switched from boats to boards.
We learned stuff on the water, and we learned stuff on land. David Hernandez and Will Niemann from St. Augustine Paddle Sports spoke about fishing SUPs, a quickly growiong market segment. These SUPS are large and stable, with hatches, attachment points for coolers, and even a bar to stand up. Not a bad way to spend a day on the water.
Plenty of options each day, ranging from an L1-2 IDW/ICE to coastal paddling to ‘Meet and Greet’ paddles on the Wekiva River and Rock Springs Run.
Chaz Corallo of, ironically, Flatwater Paddle Co. of New Jersey showed us the gear necessary to do battle with rocks, including body armor, helmet and breakaway leash. Not just anyone can style Nantahala Falls on a SUP.
Inflatable boards bounce, not break, on rocks. I can’t say the same about bodies. Body armor seems like a good idea.
One day, we paddled down Wekiva River and up Rock Springs Run which has 3 primitive campsites, perfect for a SUP camping trip. Despite the proximity to Disney and Orlando, this landscape feels primeval and wild.
Road trip to Wekiva Island for fish tacos and beer! Noone left hungry.
New friends, new skills, and a new board for Watertribe. I’m looking forward to Paddle 2 the People, part deux.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s that time of year. The best time of year–Matanzas! Only four more days.
Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.
We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.
With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.
We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.
Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]
An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.
Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.
The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.
This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.
And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.
The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.
On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.