Testing the Waters: WaterTribe Boot Camp 2019

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Ready to go at Fort De Soto Boat Ramp

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

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Boards Loaded and Ready to Go

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

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Courtesy of WaterTribe.com

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

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

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Courtesy of WaterTribe.com

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

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Crossing the bay
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Clear waters around Shell Key

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

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A tight squeeze
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Wrong way

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

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Drying gear
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Beach camping

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

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Sunset
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Early morning coffee klatsch

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

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

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

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

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Can William Bartram Help Us Save the St. Johns River?

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Misty morning on the St. Johns River

Can William Bartram—Quaker, adventurer, and naturalist—help us save the St. Johns River? In the late 1700s, William Bartram (1739-1832) sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and recorded north Florida’s cultural and natural history in his Travels of William Bartram. Bartram’s words have drawn adventurers, naturalists, and historians to the river and cultivated in them a deep appreciation for local history, flora, and fauna. I  came to love the St. Johns River after paddling in William Bartram’s Wake on a Paddle Florida trip on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County. Most recently, Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created the Bartram Adventure Tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and others can trace Bartram’s route on foot, bike, and boat. On this trip, I realized that William Bartram also forged paths to conservation.

The Bartram Inn, Palatka, FL
The Bartram Inn, Palatka, FL

I was excited when Linda invited me to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. I knew that several days with fellow Bartram enthusiasts would help me better understand why William Bartram’s words remain powerful. In 2016, I met Sam Carr and Dean Campbell on a Bartram-inspired Paddle Florida trip on the St. Johns River. While paddling downstream in a blustery December wind, I learned that Sam, Dean and others designed Bartram Trail in Putnam County  so that people could visit sites that Bartram described. The printed guide, trailside QR codes, and website provide locations, journal entries and commentaries so that visitors can follow Bartram’s footsteps and see (or imagine seeing) what he saw. The Bartram Adventure Tour combines guided cycling, paddling, and hiking tours on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County with a stay in the Bartram Inn.

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St. Johns River map
Sunrise over the St. Johns
Sunrise over the St. Johns

The pre-dawn light woke me early on my first morning of the trip.  I could see the St Johns from my room on the second floor of the Inn, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked outside to watch the sunrise. Mist shrouded the anchored boats and blurred my view of Memorial Bridge that divides east and west Palatka. It struck me that I had never spent the night in Palatka. I had driven over the bridge innumerable times on my way to Crescent Beach, but rarely stopped in Palatka except for gas or snacks. I recalled Linda’s observation from the previous evening, that only when people stop, get out of their cars, and get on the water do they begin to care for the river. Perhaps here was a clue to Bartram’s power, the power of place—his words guide us to magical places on the St. Johns where we can see, touch, and sometimes feel the river’s beauty.

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View from Orange Point in Welaka Forest
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Bartram Trail kiosk
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Hike to Orange Point through Welaka Forest

We had two short hikes that day. First, we walked along the Puc Puggy Trail at the Palataka Waterworks Environmental Education Center. Then, we hiked down a newly cut trail in the Welaka State Forest that brought us to Orange Point and John’s Landing. The trail between these points followed the river and provided the best views of the river. Our trip included a number of ‘Bartram moments.’ Sam read from Bartram’s Travels and explained the significance of a particular place. Hearing Bartram’s  description helped me imagine the landscape he encountered so many years ago.

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Sam reads the Bartram Prayer

On our final stop before lunch, we climbed Mount Royal, a site now confined within the gated Mount Royal Airpark Community. From atop this (excavated) Indian mound, Sam read aloud the ‘Bartram Prayer’ which offers insight into Bartram’s—and his own—feeling of stewardship towards the river and the surrounding land. The prayer resonates with him because it shows that preserving creation reflects the will of God and adds purpose to living on the St. Johns.

Bartram Prayer
Bartram Prayer

Sam claims that Bartram was the “original hippie”—embracing peace, love, and care for all beings, including other people. In Bartram’s description of nearby Six Mile Run (a.k.a. Salt Springs Run), he writes

At the same instant innumerable fish are seen, some clothed in the most brilliant colors . . . all in intercourse performing their evolutions: there are no signs of enmity, no attempt to devour each other; the different bands seem peaceably and complaisantly to move a little aside, as it were to make room for the others to pass by.

Shouldn’t humans emulate the peaceable bands of fish, Bartram seems to say, where all coexist peacefully? Bartram’s care extended to the many Native Americans he met whom, unlike his contemporaries, he viewed as equals. His egalitarian approach to people and nature reflected a Quaker sensibility that would motivate others centuries later.

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Puc Puggy (‘Flower gatherer’) Nature Trail (Site 6)
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The team at Puc Puggy Nature Trail

On our final day, we met another Putnam County resident who has taken William Bartram to heart. Biologist Mike Adams has been restoring the region’s native plants, including longleaf pine, for over 20 years. He and his family bought and preserved a tract of land on the St. Johns River.

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Saturiwa, named for a Timucuan chief
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Downstream from Palatka on the St. Johns River

A passing cold front thwarted our plans to pedal the 13 miles from Palatka to Saturiwa, so we grabbed our raincoats and piled into our cars. Under the eaves of his broad porch, Mike explained how he had come to love Florida’s diverse landscape and William Bartram.

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Mike Adams dressed as William Bartram
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The Carniverous Pitcher plant (Sarricenia)
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Native fern
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A slippery walk down the boardwalk

In his William Bartram persona, Adams outlined his conservation program and described the design and construction of his house and surrounding buildings. As he pointed out the details of the house, including this inlaid compass, I thought of yet another Bartram lesson: the mix of science and beauty. The sciences, arts, and humanities were not always considered as separate endeavors.

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Compass showing the orientation of the house

I recalled a discussion with University of Florida historian Steve Noll during the Center for Humanities in the Public Sphere summer program for high school students. William Bartram, Noll pointed out, embraced both the humanities and the sciences, and he communicated his scientific findings in artful, if not flowery, language. The blend of science and story, along with ethics, history, and beauty, can help us save our Florida waters. Artist Margaret Tolbert’s Aquiferious is one example, using a holistic approach to showcase and, hopefully, save our springs.

William Bartram’s writings have motivated these Putnam County residents to conserve land, create the Bartram Trail, and follow Bartram’s path on land and sea. We only protect what we know and love. Getting people on the water and into Putnam County helps the river and the people who live there. William Bartram has become an environmental ambassador for the St. Johns River in Putnam County. He still has much to teach us.

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

 

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Traveling through Time on the St. Johns River

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The glassy St. Johns hold its secrets

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

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Bartram Inn Postcard

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

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A kayaker’s view

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

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

In her 1872 work Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe writes

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

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

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A Bartram moment on the St. Johns

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

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Welaka Spring with QR code
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Satsuma Spring Run
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Satsuma Spring vent

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

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

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

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Treasures from the St. Johns

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

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Bartram mural in Palatka

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

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Tourists on a steamer

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

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Palatka is the city of murals

 

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

Old Florida and New Plastics in Cortez, FL and Anna Maria Island

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A  mermaid’s welcome to Starfish Dockside Restaurant

Visiting Anna Maria Island and Cortez, Florida reminded me just how much Florida’s histories, cultures, and ecologies are bound to the sea. Heavy winds and water torpedoed our original plan of sailing and anchoring near Tarpon springs. So, on Spring Break Eve, Kevin and I changed course to small boat sailing and onshore exploration of southwest Florida. The white sands and clear water of Anna Maria Island had enticed us for years, and the promise of renting sunfish and lasers at Bimini Bay Sailing sealed the deal. We loaded our car with gear to cover almost any imaginable water activity and headed to our last-minute booking at Silver Surf Resort in Bradenton Beach.

Maop of Southwest Florida
Courtesy of Google Maps

The next morning, we drove to Bimini Bay on the north end of Anna Maria Island where we met Brian and his fleet of small boats. Anna Maria Island is small-scale and relaxed, especially compared to neighboring Longboat Key. Bimini Bay Sailing, however, carried relaxed tropical paradise to a new level, and the ducks and cat that adopted Brian seemed to agree. We discovered a slice of heaven on this mangrove-ringed tip of land, and a small water-based business living light on the land and sea.

Bimini Bay Sailing sign
Bimini Bay Sailing
Roosting birds
Roosting birds
Bimini Bay Trimarans
Trimarans in Bimini Bay
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Beach launching

On our first day, the winds were too big for small boats. Our friends Jill and Scott joined us with their sailing kayak rigs, so we kayak-sailed and paddled boarded in the bay. The wind subsided on the following days, and we sailed the trimaran, sunfish, and lasers.

Scott in the bay
In the bay
Kevin in laser
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Setting sail
Launching the sailing kayak

By midweek, the wind drove us onshore, and we headed to the fishing village of Cortez and Mote Aquarium. My research on the St Johns River taught me a great deal about people and their ties to their river economies and ecologies. Now I hoped to learn more about these relationships in a coastal environment.

“The grill opens at 11:30, but the bar’s open now.” The self-appointed welcoming committee cheerfully called out as Kevin and I walked into the Starfish Dockside Restaurant. The Starfish Company and Dockside Restaurant lies in the heart of Cortez, Florida, described as a “real Florida fishing village.” We heard about Cortez several years ago from a sailing friend and were curious to visit this piece of old Florida existing as a counterweight to Tampa’s urban sprawl. Cortez sits just across the bridge from Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, but it felt another world and perhaps another era.

Despite its location in the middle of vacationland, Florida, Cortez remains a working fishing village and reminds visitors that many Floridians have—and still do—live intimately with the sea. A statue of a fisherman and a sign describing the history of Cortez mark the center of the two-block historic area.

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Statue of Florida waterman
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Heritage sign in the center of Cortez

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In the post Civil War 1800s, commercial fisherman of English heritage relocated from the coastal Carolinas, drawn by the “wealth of fish, scallops, and other seafood.”  They named the area the “Kitchen” and developed a a thriving fishing and processing industry, shipping fish to Tampa and Cedar key by rail. A sign outside the Starfish Company showcases the harvest from the sea.

Harvest sign

“The place names on the map are a symbol of the proud tradition of commercial fishing in Cortez. They constitute a form of local knowledge that is derived from years of fishing the inland waters. Some of the names have been passed from generation to generation. Although the origins of such names have faded from memory, their daily use by Cortezians reminds us of the fishing folklore heard time and again on the docks of Cortez.”

As we ate our grouper sandwiches, the fishing boats made clear that this was indeed a working harbor. The Starfish Company is fairly small, but the larger Bell Fish Company and Cortez Bait and Seafood are nearby.

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The regulars know the drill at the Starfish
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Pelicans hoping for a handout
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Fishing boat

That Cortez remains viable is a testament to their tenacity. Over twenty years ago, Florida instituted a gill net ban, which pitted commercial fishers against sportsmen, a move that devastated many small coastal fishing villages. Cortez adapted and survived, but I wonder how fishers and others will adapt to the growing threat of marine plastics.

After lunch, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Longboat Key, one island south of Anna Maria Island. Driving past the sterile gated communities that lined Longboat Key heightened our appreciation for the friendliness and lack of pretention of Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Even so, our presence as tourists reminds me that our hotel and others have pushed fishers and other workers inland off the coast.

At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Kevin and I joined the others who opted for an onshore day. We saw seahorses, sharks, otters, and turtles. But, most striking and stunning, we saw sculptures composed of marine plastics as part of the “Sea Debris: Awareness through Art.” When I walked inside the whale rib cage, I didn’t realize at first what I was seeing. Then, I realized what I was seeing: the ribs were constructed of detergent bottles.

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Plastics!
Plastic turtle
Plastic turtle
Plastic jellyfish
Plastic jellyfish

 

I heard people muttering how sad it was, and I hope projects like this help us recognize the linkages between our use of plastics and the about the state of our oceans. Several years ago, I had my ‘year of plastics,’ where I learned about microplastics in the Caribbean seas and I hauled larger plastics off the Alaskan coastline.

Traveling around Florida constantly demonstrates me how our lives are intimately tied to our waters, rivers, and seas. Yet some now that warn that our “Coastal Environments are Collapsing“. Exhibits such as “Sea Debris” reminds me of their fragility, that so many lives and livelihoods, whether Brian’s sailboat rentals or a fishing village, depend on their health. What are we willing to do to insure the well-being of our waters and those that live in them and work on them?

Kevin
Sailing Kevin

 

 

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

 

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Plastic caught on our propeller

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

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Photo credit: Monica Woll

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

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

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

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

Emily and our Trinidad beach clean up crew. Trinidad environental activism
Trinidad beach clean up team

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

Dead Bird Beach, Alaska
Tom with one day’s debris

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset
Sunset over the Florida Gulf

Paddleboarding to Paradise: Caladesi Style

Is Caladesi Island State Park paradise? It just might be. Beaches, mangroves, birds, and dolphins — what’s not to love? And it’s even better with a paddleboard.

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Boat and board

Is Caladesi Island State Park paradise? It just might be. Beaches, mangroves, birds, and dolphins — what’s not to love? And it’s even better with a paddleboard.

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Reflections of mangroves

The conditions were perfect to sail from Clearwater Beach Marina to Caladesi Island State Park. My inflatable paddleboard was rolled up in the cabin–our last sailing trip to the Keys revealed some downsides to towing the paddleboard (From Sail2SUP in the Keys).  We motored out to the Gulf through Clearwater Pass, then raised our sails, catching a light southerly breeze to carry us north. The carnivalesque feel of Clearwater Beach faded as we sailed along Caladesi Island toward Dunedin Pass, our entry point to the Caladesi Island Marina. We navigated through the narrow pass, then followed the channel markers to the marina. Caladesi Island is only accessible by boat, so the marina is the primary port of entry.

empty boat slips in Caladesi Marina
Slips in Caladesi Marina

As soon as we entered the marina, I knew we were home. We planned to return to Clearwater Beach that night, but I did not want to leave. Plus, we had all of our food, clothing, and water with us — the benefits of a floating tent, as I call our 18′ Sanibel. Although Caladesi Island State Park does not allow camping, you can stay on your boat. So we had our own tropical paradise.

Gopher tortoise
Gopher tortoise
Palm trees
Palm trees

We checked in and paid our docking fee, at $1 per foot, inexpensive relative to most marinas. Then, I inflated my paddleboard and set out to explore. I knew the calm waters around Caladesi Island would be perfect for paddleboarding. The shallow water was clear enough to see fish and the occasional stingray, and the mangroves blocked the wind. I only had time for a brief paddle before sunset, but I paddled in nearby channels and saw a variety of birds.

bird perched on red mangrove
Cormorant in mangrove
pelican in channel to Caladesi
Pelican perched on marker
Egret
Egret looking for food

Since it was low tide, I stayed close to the main boat channel so my paddleboard fin didn’t drag in the mud. Water depth is only a few feet most of the water so most of the area is inaccessible to motorized vessels. Returning to the marina, I crossed paths with the Caladesi Ferry which was bringing the last visitors of the day back to the mainland.

Caladesi Ferry
Ferry leaving Caladesi Island
Caladesi Ferry on Still water
Navigating the channel markers

I returned in time for a brilliant sunset. My husband and I crossed the boardwalk over the dunes and watched the sun dip below the horizon. Caladesi Island is narrow so walking the width of the island takes little time.

The sunset was romantic, but our dinner was not: a Channa Masala boil-in-bag by Backpackers Pantry. Oh well. Still nothing could mar this beautiful place. I slept better than I had in days and almost missed the sunrise.

Marina sunrise
Caladesi sunrise

What a perfect morning — watching the sunrise with a hot cup of coffee. I was so relaxed I felt like I could melt. The calm morning boded well for another paddleboard trip. This time, I wanted to paddle north along the bay side of Caladesi and come back down on the Gulf side.

glassy entrance to Caladesi Island State Park
Navigational markers to St. Joseph’s Bay

I set out following the channel markers, reversing our course of the day before, and soon entered the bay. I watched a dolphin chasing prey through the shallow waters. Since the water was so shallow, the dolphin’s back and fin were exposed as it chased down fish. I’ve seen dolphin circling to round up prey at low tide, but I have never seen so much of the dolphin’s body exposed.

dolphin chasing fish
Dolphin feeding frenzy
fish lea;ing to escape dolphin
Fish escaping dolphin

I watched the show with a group of kayakers who were heading towards the Caladesi. They were looking for the Canoe/Kayak Trail that starts in the marina. FPTA has an interactive map that gives the coordinates of this trail and the Central Florida Kayak Trips website another page that gives logistics for paddling the five miles from the Dunedin Causeway.

Paddle trail sign
Marina paddle trail

The calm waters of the bay are perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding. Sail Honeymoon, located on the Dunedin causeway rents both kayaks and paddleboards, and a number of paddlers were enjoying the waters. Florida Rambler’s blog  Caladesi Island: Kayak to a Wild Beach offers a detailed discussion of the trip as well as logistics about rentals.

fishing gear on kayak
Kayak fishing off Caladesi
Kayakers near north end of Caladesi
Kayakers approach Caladesi Island
ducks swimming around north end of Caladesi
Swimming ducks

The day before, Kevin and I had seen the hull of a boat on a sandbar in the bay. I paddled to this poor de-masted sailboat, lying on its side.

Shortly after I passed the sailboat, I rounded the north end of the island and entered the channel. The water became choppy as the winds and currents met. Most of the small kayaks beached on the bay side, and only longer sea kayaks paddled down the Gulf side.

Sea kayaks on the Gulf
Sea kayaks on the gulf

The Gulf had small 1′ rollers which kept my attention on a 10 1/2′ paddleboard. I missed the stability of my expedition board, but was glad for my previous experience paddling in the surf. I paddled along the shore until I reached the blue umbrellas on the beach. Then I carried my paddleboard across the island, back to KneeDeep, and deflated it for our sail back to Clearwater Beach. My only regret: not staying longer. Caladesi and the neighboring islands are a paddleboarder’s paradise.

Umbrellas on beach
Caladesi Beach
Paddleboard on Caladesi Beach
The SUP has Landed

 

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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