What Kayaking in Cuba Taught Me

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Lake Hanabanilla

We landed in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba, our flight approximately half as long as our wait for a Cuban visa in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only would we paddle and snorkel in Cuba’s warm, clear water, but we would visit an island that has been essentially closed to residents of the US for my entire life. Kevin and I had been thinking about Cuba for several years, and Tommy Thompson’s Cuba Adventure Company trip promised a blend of nature and culture. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration had blocked individual people-to-people tours to Cuba, but group people-to-people tours were still permitted in December. Cuba…only 90 miles from Florida but a world away.

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Courtesy of  World Atlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/cu.htm)
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Courtesy of Bob Bonnen

Tommy cheerfully greeted our group and introduced our Cuban guide, Bernie, who would help us understand life in Cuba. Tommy suggested that we practice patience, flexibility, and understanding when things didn’t go as planned, a prescient warning for our paddle on Lake Hanabanilla. As Tommy and Bernie explained the week’s program, our Chinese-manufactured tour bus carried us south towards our first night’s stop. We arrived at our government-run hotel and were told that all guests had been shifted to a nearby hotel. Our first lesson in flexibility.

Once ensconced in our rooms, we quickly found the hotel bar and its mojitos. We discovered that all Cuban bars serve Havana Club rum, not Bacardi, which is known internationally. (For a detailed explanation on why, check out the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten, Penguin Group, 2008.) Cuban mojitos tend to be much less sweet than those served in the US.

The next morning we woke up to driving rain and the news that the axle on the kayak trailer had broken. Surely this development was related to the patience and understanding Tommy mentioned.

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Russian massage

After some delay, we loaded ourselves and our gear into our transport: a Russian army truck filled with rows of hard plastic seats. Rolling over the unpaved roads left no mystery about the term “Russian massage.”  In Cuba, I found, almost any transportation is good transportation. Transporting both goods and people is a serious challenge for Cuba because both cars and fuel are in short supply. This leads to food shortages and makes it difficult for people to get to their jobs.

Slightly worse for wear, we arrived at Lake Hanabanilla ready to paddle. The rain had given way to clear skies, and we launched on a glassy lake. However, the dark clouds that glowered over our destination foretold a stormy paddle. Soon, we struggled against wind and waves as a squall passed over us. Wet and weary, we landed at our “glamping” site and settled in for the evening. By far, this day’s paddle and “glamping” was the most challenging part of the trip.

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Let’s glamp!

By noon the next day, we dried out our gear at a hotel overlooking the lake. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of fried fish and tostones at a paladar, a family-run restaurant unlike most of the government-run establishments geared to tourists. Many of Cuba’s tourist establishments were originally built for visiting Soviets back when USSR and Cuba were strong allies. Cuba’s economy drastically changed when the USSR withdrew economic support in the early 1990s. Today, Cuba’s tourism economy is growing, including visits from Russians nostalgic for the Cuba they remember.

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The next morning, we drove to Guama, our launch site for our next paddle. Adjacent to our put-in lay what every paddler wants to see: a crocodile sanctuary, fortunately surrounded by a chain-link fence. For mere pesos, they allowed us to feed the crocodiles by dangling meat on a homemade fishing pole over the fence. (No, this would not happen in the US.) The sound of the snapping jaws resounded over the lake.

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Crocodile petting zoo

We went next door for an obscenely large lunch, including sauteed crocodile. (Tastes like gator.) During our stay, we had numerous large meals in restaurants geared to tourists. Since Cubans receive rations for limited quantities of food, the over-feeding of tourists was unsettling. In general, Cubans live on very little, approximately $30-40 per month, which means that most people must somehow supplement their official salary. It is not unusual for surgeons, for example, to drive a taxi to make ends meet.

After lunch, we paddled through mangrove-lined channels to Hotel Guama. I was especially looking forward to visiting Guama and Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake). Fidel Castro had supervised this recreation of a Taino stilt village, and he appreciated the birds and natural beauty of this location. I wish we had more than one night to explore the creeks and bays of this quiet place.

The next day we headed towards the Bay of Pigs, a place name most of us had encountered in high school history classes. It struck me that, of our entire group, only my mother remembered these events in Cuban and US history. Despite its name, the Bay of Pigs is beautiful, and Playa Largo is known for its snorkeling and diving. We dipped our fins in to see for ourselves.

Bay of Pigs battle map
Bay of Pigs Battle map (Courtesy of Latinamericanstudies.org)
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Billboard near Giron, Bay of Pigs

Signs throughout Cuba remind visitors and residents of the revolution. Prominently placed billboards highlight quotes from Fidel Castro and others, and images of Castro and Che Guevara appear in many locations, urban and rural. The revolution and its heroes dominate the Cuban landscape and historical memory. So, while the Bay of Pigs might seem like ancient history, constant physical reminders bring it into the present.

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Sign in downtown Cienfuegos

We spent the last three days of the nature part of our trip in Guajamico on the southern coast. For those of us who salivate at the idea of snorkeling, this was heaven. Each day’s short paddle brought us to secluded beaches surrounded by colorful limestone cliffs, and from there we could don snorkeling gear and swim out to beautiful reefs.  One day’s schedule even included a ride on horseback from the beach to our lunch spot, with the Escambray Mountains as a backdrop.

And then the kayaks were put away, and it was time for Havana. Our guide Bernie left us, and Meylin joined us. After a week in quiet rural areas, the sights and sounds of Havana were quite a change. We stayed in a historic colonial building, now Hostal Las Maletas, with high ceiling and tall windows.

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In addition to the classic car tour and visiting the historic squares, we visited the Museum of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, the museum had its own interpretation of history and US involvement.

And, of course, we had drinks at Hemingway’s daiquiri bar, La Floridita.

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I loved this trip to Cuba, and I feel like I have just scratched the surface. I grew up during the Cold War, and Cuba seemed like such an alien place to me, like the communist USSR and Russia. Yet, I recently discovered that my grandparents honeymooned there, when Americans sought to escape the restrictions of Prohibition. So Cuba is part of my family history as well. This trip fulfilled the spirit of the people-to-people ideal. I’m already planning my return.

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Paddleboards in the Panhandle

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The Choctawhatchee River

Springs, a midnight swim, rope swings, and a water slide — Florida’s Panhandle catapulted me back to my childhood. Who knew that I could laugh so much in three days?

Four paddleboards, one Pilgrim Expedition, snorkeling gear, and loads of food. We pointed the Paddle Florida van west towards Lake Lucas in Chipley, Florida, our base while we explored this area between Panama Beach and the Alabama border. This inland region is dotted with rivers, lakes, and springs, ideal for paddleboarding and swimming, and the Gulf of Mexico is nearby for those wanting a saltwater fix.

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View from our porch

We settled into our A-frame cabin, perched on the shore of Lake Lucas. Later that night, we paddled across the placid lake and lay on our boards, gazing up at the almost full moon. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

I woke up early the next morning–we had crossed into Central time. The moon lingered in the western sky while the dawn’s light was barely visible in the east. Coffee in hand, I sat on the dock and watched the celestial performance until the sun was high.

We planned a full day on Holmes Creek, a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River, and Cypress Springs and drove to the Holmes Canoe Livery and Water Park for a shuttle. While we waited for our shuttle, we enjoyed their water slide and rope swing. I’m not sure any of us have laughed so much in years, as we climbed up the tower and slid down into the water again and again. I could have happily spent the day there.

Rope swing and slide on Holmes Creek
Rope swing and slide on Holmes Creek

We launched at Culpepper Landing and paddled about a mile upstream to Cypress Springs, a local swimming hole. Many other swimmers and paddlers clearly had the same idea. We were not alone, but it never seemed overcrowded–amazing for a sunny summer day. We tied up our boards, donned mask, fins, and snorkel, and swam around the blue hole, diving deep against the rising current and watching the sky through the water’s distortion.

 

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Cypress Springs
The tannin line
The tannin line
Fins
Fins up in Cypress Springs

After swimming and eating lunch, we headed downstream to our takeout at Fanning Branch Boat Ramp. The spring was cold and I was ready to warm up.

As we paddled downstream, the river changed moods several times. Shallow and twisty-turny, like a creek, then wide and straight. Clear, like a spring run, and, in other places, opaque. Never predictable.

Katie on Holmes Creek
Holmes Creek
Holmes Creek
Reflections

 

Placid waters on Holmes Creek
A hidden spring?
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Cooling off in Holmes Creek

After several miles, we passed the Holmes Creek Canoe Livery and Waterpark, where many people completed their trip. After a short break, we continued downstream for the last four miles of our trip. Once again the river changed moods, and our paddling became more challenging. The Livery warned us that we would be ducking under trees, and they were right. Once we lay flat on our boards, using our arms to weave through a tangle of branches. Several times, we crawled to the front of our board to free the fins  caught on submerged branches, a hazard unique to paddleboards. Several times, I heard the splash of someone going in. Through it all, we laughed and laughed, mostly because it felt good to be in the water. We endured a long paddle that day, about 9 miles, and I was both sad and relieved when we reached Fanning Branch.

On our third and final day, we planned  a five-mile paddle on the Choctawhatchee River, from the New Cedar Log Landing boat ramp to Morrison Springs.  The river was high, possibly at flood stage, and moving fast. Rain had recently soaked the Panhandle, and the high river flow had drowned out Morrison Springs. Nonetheless, Morrison Springs was our take-out, and we hoped that we would find the entrance to the spring, not obvious even under ideal circumstances.

 

We pushed our boards into the swiftly moving current and sped downstream. The Choctawhatchee is wide with few obstacles, unlike Holmes Creek. A fisherman told us the spring entrance was marked by a giant leaning cypress, and hence the quest for the cypress began.

Flooded Choctawhatchee River

Sand bluffs on the Choctawhatchee
Sand bluffs on the Choctawhatchee
Floating camp on the Choctawhatchee
One of many river camps
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Park bench on the river bank

We scoured the river banks for the elusive leaning cypress. Instead we saw floating river camps, a park bench with a view, and sandy bluffs eroded by years of floods. “Is that it?” we asked again and again, each time we floated by anything remotely resembling a leaning cypress. We paddled on, recalculating how far we had paddled.

Finally we came to a boat launch and discovered that Morrison Springs was three miles upstream. No way were we paddling against that current, and a storm was rolling in. A  fisherman, kind enough not to laugh at our predicament, us to our cars. It would have been a long walk to the road.

Coming in for a landing
Coming in for a landing

Boat ramp

Hitching a ride
Hitching a ride

On our way home, we stopped at Ponce de Leon State Park for a final swim. As we dove and snorkeled in this fountain of youth, it seemed fitting to end our adventure here as we had spent the last three days laughing and playing like kids. Being on a paddleboard, so close to the water, jumping off and climbing back on, brought out the kid in all of us.

This short trip offered a taste of paddling in the Panhandle, and it was also a preview of Paddle Florida’s new Choctawhatchee Challenge scheduled for March 2018. I can’t wait to paddle more of this wonderful part of Florida.

Ponce de leon Springs
Revived by Ponce de Leon State Park

 

 

 

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

Happy Valentine’s Day — reposting my story about our kayak camping adventure in the Bahama’s Exuma Islands with our Trak Kayaks.

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By Whitney Sanford. All images ©2014 Whitney Sanford and Kevin Veach used by permission.

After the motorboat drove off, leaving Kevin and I, our boats, and about one hundred pounds of gear off on Big Major Cay (near Staniel Cay), we were on our own for a honeymoon paddling and snorkeling adventure in the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. This was day 1 of a six-day self-supported kayak trip from Big Major Cay back to Barreterre, where we had started. Although we had done several self-supported kayak trips before, the remoteness of this trip called for new levels of teamwork and flexibility; we were each other’s back up and safety.

Read more… TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE