The following originally appeared on my blogspot blog, and I wrote them while on my circumnavigational trip. In the interest of consolidating information relevant to people looking to paddle the coast of Florida, I have imported all of them here and deleted the blogspot site, which I never liked. Often these posts were written hastily while in public libraries since neither Dan nor I had a smartphone. I'm not sure how much useful material a potential CT paddler can glean from them, but I hope you enjoy them.
Well, it’s T-minus nine days and there is a lot of good news!
Craig’s List delivered! A woman responded to the ad I posted and has agreed to meet me when Dan & I arrive in Key West and I’m going to sing “I Would Paddle 500 Miles…” to her. I
didn’t think I would have any luck because hurricanes caused mandatory evacuations of the Keys soon after I put up the ad. After all, who searches the CL personals section during times like that,
unless they’re looking for an ad that says, “SWM seeks WF to huddle in fear with while our homes are swept into the sea.” Nevertheless, Craig’s List delivered!
More Good News!
Weeks ago Dan and I went shopping and got most of the gear Dan will need on the trip. He can borrow some equipment from me, but there was so much he needed. Luckily we were able to find
everything he needed reasonably priced… except for a kayak. I spent the following weeks obsessively checking Craig’s List for kayak ads, and just when I thought all hope was lost I spotted a
kayak that was exactly what Dan and I were looking for. I jumped on it immediately and bought it last Saturday morning (Dan was at a wedding so I got it for him). So we struck gold on Craig’s
Even More Good News!
All preparations for the trip have been completed. The biggest tasks were the completion of a comprehensive guidebook, having it bound, and the mapping out of every waypoint for every stop along the route. This last task was the most important part of my preparations. It involved finding locations in my guidebook using Google Earth then copying and pasting the GPS coordinates into a Word document. That document is a quick reference mileage chart that I will keep on deck with me while paddling. It lists almost 500 sites along the coastline, what services are available there (water, groceries, hotel, camping, et cetera), mileage between each site, and the GPS coordinates. I have also pre-programmed my GPS unit with these 500 waypoints. All of this took two weeks of non-stop work from the moment I got home in the afternoon until I went to bed. Completing this work was not the end of my prep however. There were dozens of little tasks that added up to a great deal of work such as formatting and laminating the quick-reference chart, cutting line to tie up on-deck gear, test packing everything, and so on.
My dad asked me a few weeks ago how being this close to departure compares to the same time just before the AT. The answer is, they're not comparable at all. My prep for the AT was completed months in advance and I was extremely confident in those preparations. This afforded me an incredible peace of mind. For months while on my lunch break I would go out behind my building and lie down under a tree, close my eyes, feel the sunshine, listen to the wind rush through the branches, and imagine that I was on top of a mountain. I haven’t experienced any similar serenity in the past few months. There is so much more to do this time around. To hike the AT you really just need the right gear and the right attitude. All the homework has been done for you. This trip has required a great deal of independent study, plus there have also been pressing family obligations, my house is currently being remodeled, and I’ve had to get Dan ready in a very short amount of time. I haven’t had much down time (nor time to write any blog posts, for which I apologize). I feel like I’ve been working non-stop every day, today included. Hitting the water at last will be an incredible release. I can’t wait.
I've got 15 minutes at the computer before the library closes so I'll try to make this quick!
Dan and I are at mile 92, and have camped at a hotel for the night. We're feeling strong and things are looking good, but it was difficult getting here. As some of you already know we did not leave Brandon that Friday as we had planned because of a family emergency. We tried to make other plans throughout the weekend, but one by one those fell through. Ultimately Dan and I decided to rent a car and drive to Pensacola by ourselves Monday morning. We got to Big Lagoon State Park to begin our trip but not without some mishaps. The park closes at sunset (5:00pm in this part of the state), and at 4:30 we still had an hour's drive to go. Dan called the park and a ranger said they might not close the gate until 5:30. We knew if we made it in time it would be by the skin of our teeth. It didn't happen. By 5:40 when we got there it was very dark, the gate was closed, and we didn't have a backup plan, so we had no choice but to sneak into the park. It was surprisingly easy. We picked a campsite at random and set up in the dark, then I had to take the rental to the Pensacola Airport and drop it off. I took a cab back to the park, and the driver was a really cool guy. His name was Assif, he was the owner of the cab company, and told me amazing stories about hiking in the mountains of Pakistan, where there are 9 mountains with peaks above 25,000 feet. He has traveled all over the world and I really enjoyed talking to him.
The next day we realized that our randomly chosen campsite was VERY far from the water (you can see this on the SPOT page). Fully loaded the kayaks are about 100 pounds each, so after a very brief and backbreaking attempt to carry them to the water we went looking for help. That was how we met our first Trail Angel of this trip. A firefighter from Kentucky named Dave carried us and our boats down to the boat ramp in his pickup. We couldn't have done it without him. So finally, at noon on Tuesday the 11th, we were on the water. We faced a strong headwind that day and camped on an island for the night. The next day was horrendous. The winds were intense and the waves were impossible. Immediately that morning we had to cross the channel between Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island, and there were 7 foot swells breaking in 2 directions. As we went up and over the swells we got that roller coaster feeling of your stomach leaping into your throat. As we struggled, the Blue Angels were practicing above us, which was awesome. We survived, but the rest of the day was just as challenging, and it took all day to do just 11 miles. Dan was disheartened, and through the wind and waves was composing my eulogy while trying to figure out how to make my death look like an accident.
Since then the weather has been clear, sometimes windy, but nothing as bad as the terrible horrible no-good bad day, which is what we're calling day 2. Its surprisingly cold, and as the day comes to an end the sun drops like a rock and the temperature falls dramatically, but we'll survive. I wish I could write more, but the library is closing. I'll try to update again soon!
I have no desire for Dan to be the Teller to my Penn, so this blog entry will be all Dan. Take it away Dan:
Since the last posting we have trudged onward and are now at mile 135 in beautiful Mexico Beach. We have paddled from those first daring days near Perdido Key, to the wind swept shores of Spectre Island, out into the Gulf and past the breadth of of Tyndall Air Force Base. No easy task I can tell you. The paddling has become much easier as this incredibly foolish and ultimately very rewarding trip has progressed. The days are getting shorter and the nights colder, but we are past most of our big mileage days. Just recently we left the sprawling condo-scape of Panama City for the more rustic scrub wilderness, and I must say it is beautiful in it's stark and struggling demeanor. We have seen dolphins a plenty! They all seem to be going in the same direction as ourselves, leading to the conclusion that somewhere along our path there must be some great dolphin city where they teach themselves to do tricks and the seas are full of fish. Our next major run in with civilization will be in Carrabelle, where I am looking forward to seeing my sweetheart Elizabeth. The last two days the wind has been against us but we have managed. Last night we stealthed at a place we are calling Lost Briar-Storm Island. Our maps as it turns out, were largely complied in a age before automobiles were widely in vogue and subsequently the coast has changed as you go farther from the dredged-up-from-the-depths dunes that protect the condos. The GPS has been an incredible help, the SPOT is also helpful however, it seems to not hold onto points for more than a few days. This is a problem we will have to figure a fix for. As the ice-cream store/ internet cafe is closing soon, we must go. Thank you all for your support. And to Elizabeth I send my love.
Mike again -
Well, Dan seems to be in a good mood, because he didn't mention how horrible its been lately. There was a small craft advisory 2 days ago, with 5 foot seas and 26 MPH wind gusts, so we took the day off. We went to a bar near the park where we camped and are working on a song called "Salty Old Jacket." Yesterday was rough, because even though we had a GPS and NOAA maps, we had no idea where we were and how far we had gone, because storms have re-shaped the coast, closed passes, and made islands into peninsulas. The storm damage is extensive and breathtaking. Its also been very cold - 2 nights ago it was at or below freezing so Dan and I filled our water bottles with hot water and put them in our sleeping bags. It was a great idea. We're at a spectacular hotel tonight (there is a 4-post bed in the room), which will probably be the nicest place we stay this entire trip.
Till next time,
our last posting was made in the town of Mexico Beach, and now we are in the small fishing community of Carrabelle, at mile 210. We paddled for 7 days after Mexico Beach without taking a day off
and there's a lot to tell you about.
We left Mexico Beach late in the morning because I took some time to do laundry (a must!) but we had a short six miles to paddle that day and while the sky was gray the water was calm. We shot across the bay to the tip of St Joseph's Peninsula State Park for our largest open water crossing at the time. The park is mostly undeveloped, and like the previous two days paddling along the Tyndal Air Force base, it made us think about what the Florida coast was like before the condos and town homes that line the shore in places like Destin. We camped on the beach, and had time to collect driftwood to make the best looking camp fire ever. There was an incredible forest behind the dunes and a spectacular sunset that night. It was some time around then that we noticed the water had changed dramatically. The Emerald Coast is aptly named, as the water is crystal clear and tinted emerald green. Adding to the stunning look is that the seafloor is endless white sand, unbroken by rocks, grasses, or even shells. Just before Mexico Beach the water became brown, and the seafloor became thick with grasses. So we've left the Emerald Coast, and are now in the "Forgotten Coast."
The next day we headed to a campsite at a disused fire tower at the end of a long dock. It wasn't much of a campsite, and in fact there was a prominent sign that read "Dock is not intended for public use. Please keep away." We camped next to the sign, but were confident that if anyone gave us a hard time about it, we'd just show them the State of Florida guide that said we could camp there. The next morning we had to carry our gear and kayaks across St. Joseph's Peninsula from the bay side to the Gulf side. The guide book describes this as a "challenging portage." This is a reckless understatement. It is a nearly impossible portage. There is a large seawall that prevents a straight shot across the land. Instead, we had to carry the gear along a busy road until the seawall ends, then cut through thick brush to reach the water. It took all morning, and nearly killed us. I kept saying to Dan that this was the last portage on the trip - we'd never have to do this again. He doesn't believe me.
Once we were on the water it was great. We had an easy ten miles to do and passed a beautiful lighthouse and rounded Cape San Blass, which means we're officially "over the hump!" The next couple hundred miles are what people call "Old Florida." There are very few towns, and they are sandwiched between wildlife refuges and other protected lands. That night we stayed at an old RV campground that reminded me of the fish camp my parents owned a home at when I was young. We heard that a restaurant down the road was not to be missed, so we hiked there as the sun set. The sky was intensely red as we walked west along the road - the most amazing sunset I've ever seen. Some kids in a golf cart picked us up and gave us a ride to the restaurant, and everything we heard was true. This place, Indian Pass, was so amazing. The menu is small, but its the most incredible seafood you've every had. And they had Guinness. And its on the honor system. One wall is a cooler, like in a gas station, and you grab drinks yourself. Waitresses take your order and bring your food, but when you pay you go to the register and tell them what you had. There was live music (the guy was playing Johnny Cash), it was packed, and we met some great people. Shout out to Anne, and thanks for the offer! That night was our Thanksgiving Dinner, and it was completely unexpected and wonderful.
The next day, Thanksgiving Day, we paddled along St. Vincent Island, which is a wildlife refuge where enormous Asian Sambar deer live. We didn't see any deer, but made great time and spent the night across a channel from the island. Dan and I were walking along the beach looking for a good tenting spot when Dan almost stepped on an enormous rattlesnake. Who knew that rattlesnakes lived at the beach? Of all the creatures we were worried about on this trip, rattlesnakes were not one of them. The beach was also filled with large white crabs that live in burrows in the sand, and seem to think that by ducking and not moving they cannot be seen. One crab tried to run past us but because they run sideways and cannot see where they're going he ran into the side of Dan's tent.
After Rattlesnake Point, the temperature warmed considerably, which has brought out the bugs. I've never experienced sand gnats before, but they're the most awful things on earth. They're tiny - they look like flecks of pepper, and because of their small size they could never bite something as large as ourselves. Luckily for them they don't have to. They spit acid onto you and then slurp up the dissolved flesh and blood. So not only is it itchy and maddening, its also disgusting. We were so plagued by they things that we didn't eat dinner that night because we didn't want to leave our tents (in order to run the stoves). In the morning we made a mad dash to the kayaks and hit the water without breakfast. Not to make it seem like everything is terrible, but that day a front rolled in on us and brought with it rain and angry winds. I don't know what to say about the night's destination, St George Island State Park - the rangers had a flippant attitude and didn't care at all that we were going to be paddling through severe weather, and we had a hell of a time finding our campsite for the night. We finally found the site close to nightfall in the rain. But all is well now. We met Dan's girlfriend Elizabeth in Carrabelle, we drank some beers, had a good time, and are clean and rested now. Tomorrow we're going into Tate's Hell State Forest, paddling up the Crooked River. Sounds awesome huh?
So the title of this post is "sirens and sea madness," but I haven't discussed any of our creeping insanity yet. I've got to wrap this up soon, but let me just leave you with these anecdotes: one day while paddling I said to Dan in all seriousness, "I don't even own an orange shirt." Dan said, "What about the shirt you have on?" I was wearing an orange shirt. When I looked down at myself I knew I was losing my mind. Also, one afternoon Dan and I both heard what we thought was a girl calling out to us, but there was no one around. There was nothing for miles except the wind and the waves. Sirens and sea madness, I'm serious.
So this is the last time we'll have an opportunity to get online for probably two weeks, so we won't be making any blog updates until mid-December. Cell reception will also be spotty during the following weeks, so don't worry about us. We'll keep updating the SPOT every night.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Dan & Mike
Dan and I are in the small village of Keaton Beach, at mile 340. We've had an incredible time since leaving Carrabelle, and we've been so lucky that we're feeling guilty. We don't know what we've
done to deserve such a turn of good fortune but there are intense storms today and we're safely hunkered down in a phenomenal beach house. This is going to be a long one, so here's what's been
We got a late start out of Carrabelle, hitting the water around 11:30. Granted, we're never early risers. Other hikers on the AT complimented me on my dedication to sleeping in, and I've carried that lazy spirit into this trip. We wake up with the sunrise around 7:30 each morning, but don't get out of the sleeping bags for another half an hour or forty five minutes. After that it takes us about an hour and a half to eat breakfast, break down camp, and pack the kayaks. We're on the water at 10am consistently. So Elizabeth saw us off, and we headed up the Crooked River. The route we're following takes paddlers away from the coast just this one time, probably because there are no camping opportunities or hotels east of Carabelle. This inland trek is a worthwhile detour as the Crooked River is a wild place. Like most Florida rivers tannins in fallen leaves stain the water, but the Crooked River looks like raspberry ice tea rather than coffee. At first the river winds through tidal marsh lands that we though would never end. At low tide, the grasses and mud are steep walls on either side of the river, and with no other place to break for lunch we made sandwiches in thick sinking black mud. Eventually the marshland fell away and the river entered the Tate's Hell State Forest. This is how the forest service explains the name Tate's Hell:
"Local legend has it that a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate, armed with only a shotgun and accompanied by his hunting dogs, journeyed into the swamp in search of a panther that was killing his livestock. Although there are several versions of this story, the most common describes Tate as being lost in the swamp for seven days and nights, bitten by a snake, and drinking from the murky waters to curb his thirst. Finally he came to a clearing near Carrabelle, living only long enough to murmur the words, "My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell!" Cebe Tate's adventure took place in 1875 and ever since, the area has been known as Tate's Hell, the legendary and forbidden swamp."
Sounds foreboding, but it was beautiful. Yellow and red leaves filled the trees along the banks, and soon we reached that night's campsite. A series of hunting campsites are strung along the river, and ours was a wide grassy area under a canopy of pines, sporting a picnic table and a fire ring. In the first moment of Trail Magic, a stack of cut firewood had been left next to the fire ring. Because of our late start we got to the campsite at sunset and the temperature was falling fast. The fire we made was awesome, and would not have been possible without our stroke of good luck. After a cold night we continued up the Crooked River towards Ochlockonee River State Park. (It’s pronounced auk-lock-knee. Just forget about that other O.) It was an unremarkable and enjoyable day of paddling, with only a distant forest fire and the collapsing remains of a railroad bridge punctuating the day. The next day we paddled just eight miles and neroed at an RV campground so that we could resupply.
*A quick aside to explain some terms for those of you who are unfamiliar: A zero day is a day that we don’t do any paddling. We paddle zero miles, and so we call it a zero day. This term can easily be integrated into everyday life. That Sunday where you had planned to get a bunch of stuff done but instead woke up hungover and watched a marathon of “America’s Next Top Model” on VH1 – that was a zero day. So a nero is a near-zero day, where we paddle a few miles, but cut the day short in order to get stuff done.
Back to the story: So this was our last opportunity to buy groceries until Steinhatchee, 110 miles away. We took a taxi to a nearby grocery and stocked up with nine days worth of food. With everything ready to go we ate dinner at a restaurant next to the campground that stood over the water. The restaurant has been destroyed by storms and rebuilt many times, and the story goes that it was originally built over the water so that it could sell alcohol in an otherwise dry county. Apparently the county line ended at the shore. After dinner we ran into the owner of the campground, her grandson, and some of their friends. They were extremely nice and we stayed up far too late talking, but Dan had a really great time. He was in his element.
That night a front came in and brought with it rain, strong winds, and the cold. We waited for a lull in the rain that next morning then quickly broke camp and hit the water. There was heavy fog and drizzle so visibility was the worst we’ve experienced on the trip. In a broad sense visibility is not crucial since the GPS will get us to where we need to go. However, that day there was a maze of oyster bars and shoals to negotiate. Our destination was the town of Spring Creek, and to get there from the direction that we came required following a slow twisting channel around the shoals (which are like islands, except that they are only exposed at low tide). Finally we exited the maze and approached Spring Creek. We drifted over a huge swelling turbulence in the river, and realized we’d found one of the many springs. Dan put his hand into the water and remarked, “It’s warm!” The spring water was much warmer than the cold bay, and it warmed the entire creek. I was so cold I was tempted to jump into the creek to warm up. We kept going, and approached the RV park that was in the guide. The rain and wind had ended, but the sky was grey, and the banks of the creek were filled with vultures and crows. (By the way, what do you call a flock of crows? A murder of crows – seriously.) Dozens of vultures were perched on one house, and Dan asked me if I though the place looked spooky. Of course it was! After going on shore we couldn’t find anyone to talk to about staying the night. None of the RVs had a vehicle parked next to them, no one answered when I knocked at a nearby house, there was an abandoned derelict building next to the boat ramp, dogs ran around the muddy lot, and a few chickens were wandering around. Dan said, “This is like a zombie movie, like when we were paddling a zombie plague came through here and everyone’s dead. We’re the only ones left.” A car honked in the distance, and I imagined a crow plucking the eye out of the driver’s corpse, causing it to fall onto the car horn. Both of us yelled out “HELLO! HELLO!!” Only silence. Eventually someone drove up and pointed us in the direction of the proprietor’s trailer. I spoke to him and made sure we could set up, and then we began to speculate about something else. There was a car parked next to the boat ramp with a kayak rack on the roof and a bumper sticker said, “I’d rather be kayaking.” There was also a Tallahassee Community College sticker. That got my mind racing.
“Check this out Dan, this person’s all about kayaking, who do you think it is?”
“I don’t know,” Dan said.
“Do you think it’s a girl?” I asked.
“I don’t think so Mike.”
“Come on, it could be a girl.”
“No it’s not gonna be a girl Mike.”
I was adamant, “It could be a girl – I bet it is a girl. She’s gonna be a tall blonde totally into kayaking, and she’s going to be like, ‘Oh my God, you guys are kayaking all the way around Florida, that’s so awesome, let’s hang out.’ “
Dan laughed at me. “Yeah Mike, and she’s gonna be like, ‘Oh, I lost all my clothes is a terrible kayaking accident!’ ”
“Whatever man, it’s totally gonna be a girl.”
So we began to set up camp and then a kayak pulled up to the boat ramp. Immediately I realized Dan was right. No tall blonde. “Hello fellow kayaker!” I said to the guy. “Hi,” he said and walked up to us, “Mike?”
“Yeah,” I said. Then it hit me.
“I’m Doug Alderson,” he said. And I lit up. “OH! Hey, nice to meet you!”
Doug Alderson is THE Doug. The guy who wrote the guide we’re using. The guy who scouted the route and is the director of the state’s effort to create a circumnavigational paddling trail. I emailed him before we started the trip because there was a trouble spot that I had questions about, and we’ve emailed back and forth since then. He’s been following our progress and showed up to surprise us. There’s a famous restaurant in Spring Creek that Dan and I were going to hit, and Doug offered to buy us dinner. The restaurant didn’t open for a little while so we had some time to kill and the proprietor came out to talk to us. His name is Lee Spears, Doug knows him, and Doug is familiar with the area from his youth. Lee told us stories about what life was like for fisherman before the 90s era net-ban, and showed us around the derelict building, which was at one time a crab processing house. Lee’s family has lived in Spring Creek since the Civil War, and is an amazing guy to talk to. He’s related to everyone in every nearby town, including the owner of the RV camp we had been hanging out just the night before. He loves to tell fishermen tales of catching 30,000 lbs of mullet in an afternoon, et cetera, but what I loved was that he showed us the skeleton of a whale that washed up on shore when he was young. We also saw a picture of him that looked like it had been taken decades ago, and he was pretty old in the picture. Doug said what I was thinking when he asked, “So how old are you Lee?”
Over dinner (the restaurant was amazing by the way) Doug, Dan, and I talked about the trail, how we’d been fairing, and about helping Doug add to the guide when we’re done. Doug thru-hiked the AT southbound when he was 18, so he knows what trail life is like. If you’re wondering, Dan and I are not the first people to kayak the entire coast of Florida. According to Doug there was a guy who did it before he created the guide. This guy just winged it, stealth camping wherever he could and fishing for his dinner every night. He went all the way to Virginia – so mega kudos to that guy. There is also another guy circumnavigating Florida, named Matt, but he is coming from the other direction. Matt has a blog: www.sunshineexpedition.com and originally the plan was that his girlfriend, another friend and he were going to paddle the length of Florida then thru-hike the Florida Trail. I’m not sure what has happened but his girlfriend and the other friend are no longer on the water. We expect to run into him soon, and we've have called him, but we haven’t talked to Matt yet. This being said, Dan and I are the first to use Doug’s guide and go in the intended direction of west to east. Meeting Doug was great. It was like meeting Ford Prefect. In a future posting I’ll have more about Doug – he’s written a great book about the Big Bend that everyone should read.
So we said good bye to Doug and thanked him for the three years of work he put into the guide. The next day was sunny and clear and the water was calm, a welcome change from the day before. We passed a lighthouse around lunch and spent the night on a tiny crescent moon shaped island. (The island is home to what Dan and I are calling the Little Poop Monster, but that’s a long and silly story.) The next day was a monumental day: the compass needle turned SOUTH. The panhandle is over! We’re in the Big Bend! This place is a paddling destination in and of itself.
The excitement was short lived, however. After a few incredible days the weather turned nasty. We left our third campsite in the Big Bend, a beautiful place called Spring Warrior Creek, and faced a horrible 20mph headwind. That was yesterday, and we had flashbacks of the Terrible Horrible No Good Bad Day. Just like that day we ate wind and fought for every inch of forward movement. Only this time we were mentally prepared for the challenge, and we’re a lot stronger. A lot stronger. I fought harder yesterday than on the Terrible Day, and I was afraid I was going to pull my arm out of its socket. That means the winds were exponentially worse yesterday than on day two. Two of my hiker buddies from the AT asked if the physical changes on this trip were similar to what we experienced on the AT, and they are. Our bodies adjusted to the physical demands of the trail after about two weeks, and we’re noticeably stronger and paddling faster. However, despite our strength, the wind defeated us yesterday.
After fighting for an hour to advance just 1.4 miles, we pulled onto shore near some houses. Our goal was a marina/hotel about two miles away, not a great distance, but I walked up the road a bit to see if I could get a view of the place. All of the homes here are on pilings, and I saw a man working under his house. I asked him if he could tell me where the marina was, and he started to tell me, but then said, “Ah, look I’ll just give you give you a ride.” His name was Rick, and in a weird small world moment, we learned he knows The Doug. We loaded the kayaks into his pickup and he gave us the scoop on the local politics. There’s been an effort on the part of the marina and a land owner to develop an enormous amount of wetlands and seagrass beds into an even larger marina, which ultimately failed do to local opposition. He talked us out of staying at the marina, in other words. He instead directed us to a local realtor’s office who supports environmentally responsible development. If you’re going to be in the area of Keaton Beach check out www.beachrealtyfla.com They gave us an amazing deal. Really amazing. Too amazing to say here. So currently I am lounging in the living room of a beach house with three bed rooms, eight beds, a full kitchen, laundry, cable TV, a dock, a porch, boat ramp, BBQ grills, and art on the walls. The front of the house faces the gulf and the back of the house faces a canal. Do I need to say more? Currently the wind outside is fierce and we’re very lucky to be in a house built on pilings. This morning at 6:30 I woke up to the house swaying in the wind. As I type we are watching the water rise over the dock, and a neighbor tells us a storm surge is expected at midnight. I can’t imagine what we would do if Dan and I were camped out on say, the island we were at two nights ago. At minimum we’d be wet and anxious. Running into Rick yesterday was the best thing that could have happened to us. Doug, Rick, his wife, and all the folks at Beach Realty Gulf Coast are trail angels and we’ve been experienced a whole lot of trail magic this week. Sometimes I don’t believe how fortunate we are.
Till next time!
Dan and I are in Brandon, home for Christmas. My dad picked us up yesterday from a boat ramp near Yankeetown and we got in late last night. We expect to be in town until January 2nd, then we'll be back on the water. Pictures are coming soon, I promise. Have a very merry Christmas!
I've realized that the posts up to this point have been like a play-by-play accounting of what has happened to us each day. In the coming days I plan to write a more reflective posting about the
experiences of the trip, such as what we've learned and how we've changed, et cetera but first I wanted to get you up to date on what happened after we left Keaton Beach.
While I was writing the Trail Magic post the storm was howling outside and the house shook from the gusts. We went downstairs for a while and sat under the house watching the rain come in vertically. We realized then that living on the beach isn't all breezy relaxation. Life for the people who live on the coast is punctuated by moments of fear that their homes could be seriously damaged or destroyed by winds and flying debris. Its not just hurricanes, but any decent sized storm. At the end of the road there was a pole showing the height of storm surges for each category of hurricane and an emergency siren. This was the first time we noticed an emergency siren, but in the following weeks we'd spot numerous identical ones.
In the morning the skies were dramatically blue and empty of any clouds. There wasn't any wind and the sun was shining bright. To our surprise the canal behind the house seemed drained. The night before the water had risen and flooded our boat ramp, but that morning the water level was so low that the boat ramp was unusable. A few feet of mud and oysters were between it and the water. We managed to launch the kayaks and followed the canal out into the bay. In the bay the water wasn't any deeper. We knew that in the Big Bend low tide could present problems for us, but until that day we hadn't seen conditions like this. The entire bay was about eight inches deep and the seafloor was thick with grass. Progress was slow through the bay since we couldn't get the paddles fully into the water and the grasses seemed to drag against us. We paddled like this for miles, until we were far out of the bay and Keaton Beach faded into the horizon. That wouldn't be the last of the shallows however. In the afternoon we approach an island and decided to go around it on the bay side rather than the gulf side. That turned out to be a poor decision. At the time we were still a little nervous about being far from shore. Along Tyndall Air Force base currents had pulled us pretty far out without us realizing it, and paddling back towards shore against the current had been nerve wracking and tiring. We wanted to avoid a repeat of that situation, but the Big Bend is a totally different place than the Panhandle. The water between the island and the mainland grew shallow but was still manageable, but once we were too far along to go back the water became about two inches deep. We were stopped in our tracks. In what would soon become routine, we climbed out of the boats and dragged them behind us as we walked through the water. Eventually we passed the island and got into deeper water. It wasn't long after that that we spotted the white pole marking our campsite for the night. The place is called Dallus Creek, and from the beach a small path through needlerush takes you into a hardwood hammock. The hammock is essentially an island, since all around it is marsh. I went up to investigate the site and discovered something disconcerting. Dan was coming up the path.
"You're going to love this," I said.
"There's no dry ground."
The path to the campsite was swamped with about in inch of water and mud, and we discovered that the campsite was no different. We hunted for some piece of dry ground but found nothing. There was a moment when Dan and I looked at each other and neither one of us knew what to do. Discouraged, Dan walked down the beach to see if there was some other place we could go. Stubbornly I charged deeper into the brush and scraggly trees to find a spot. Then I got lucky, kind of. I found a spot that was comparatively dry, but if you pressed your foot down into the grass water would swell up. We settled for that. Carrying our gear from the boats to that spot meant multiple trips through the mud and Dan was not happy at all.
"Mike," he said, "you'll back me up right, when I tell people that there was a time when my feet weren't muddy and they don't believe me?"
"Absolutely, of course."
With the immediate concern of where to camp settled we thought about how the place had been flooded. It was obvious to us that it had been more than just the hard rain. All of the grass under the trees wad flattened and pointing in the same direction - inland. This, and debris piled against tree trunks made us conclude that the place had been submerged under the storm surge. This was sobering. There was a moment of thinking, "Wow, we're luckier than we thought..." followed by thoughts of complete terror. What if we had been just one day ahead? There was no town... we would have stayed put and not paddled... but if the storm surge really did come at midnight like the neighbor said it would... we'd have been swamped. More than swamped.... I never anticipated something like this. In all my planning, all my research, this possibility was never considered. Sometimes people say I'm fearless, with the implication that I am somehow reckless. And maybe I am fearless, but fearlessness is not an absence of fear, that is naivety. Fearlessness is a mastery of fear, which comes from the confidence preparation and experience provides. This time I was afraid, and the fear grew. When we reached our next campsite we discovered that it too had been flooded, and the next day that campsite had been hit by storm surge, and then the next day. That night at the second campsite I had my first nightmare. In the dream I woke up in my tent at night and it was filled with eight inches of swirling black water. I said, "This is a dream, this is a dream, this is a dream!" and woke up. Dan has had similar dreams.
That first night however, we slept soundly. In the morning Dan got out of his tent before I got moving. "Where's the Gulf?" he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"The Gulf, I can't see it."
"What, is the tide out?" I was confused.
"Maybe, I mean, I don't see the water at all. Come take a look at this, I mean maybe its an optical illusion or something."
So I dragged myself out of the tent, and saw what Dan was talking about. He wasn't exaggerating. I couldn't see the water.
We took this picture to show just how far the tide had gone out. All of that brown behind me was water the previous day.
To the left of where this picture was taken we could see the sliver of what remained of Dallus Creek. It was maybe a quarter-mile away. This meant we had no choice but to drag the kayaks through a quarter-mile of mud. Pictures of that effort are on the Slideshow.
It wasn't the hardest thing we've done, but it was tough, and we made it to the creek muddy and out of breath. The creek wasn't very deep, and once at the mouth we had to get out and drag the kayaks behind us as we walked west through 2 inches of water until we reached water deep enough to paddle in.
Our destination for the day was the small town of Steinhatchee. The paddling was uneventful, except that for the first time we saw sponges growing on the seafloor in great numbers. At times, the seagrass was entirely replaced by large expanses of sponges.
We got into Steinhatchee late in the cool overcast afternoon. We stayed at a marina on the Steinhatchee River in a room that was above a dive shop. When we saw the room for the first time Dan and I high-fived each other because yet again we had gotten lucky. The place had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. In town we bought groceries at a small grocery store inside a BP (which seems to be the norm up there). We also discovered that every street north of Main Street is a dirt road, teaching us the valuable lesson that you cannot judge a town by its Google Map.
It was a Saturday night, and Dan and I had yet to go "out on the town" during the trip, so we decided to find out what Steinhatchee had to offer. The answer was not much. It seems that in winter there are few people around and the year-around residents are not enough to keep many places open. No restaurants were open. Two bars were it, and one closed early. But that one remaining place was packed. We had a great time and met a lot of great people - shout outs to Melissa and Jeremy, you guys are awesome. We stayed out too late however, and were not happy with ourselves when we set out in the morning.
That day's destination was a campsite called Sink Creek, where we found for the second time that the campsite had been flooded by storm surge. It was that night that we first had nightmares. The site was beautiful, and behind the hardwood hammock where we camped was a huge expanse of salt flats where we watched the sunset and ate dinner.
Well, that's all for now. In the next posting I'll tell about meeting Matt, who is also circumnavigating Florida but doing it "backwards," our stay in Cedar Key, and the last few days before getting picked up.
Happy New Year Everyone!
Dan and I are just a few miles from the half-way point at Vanderbilt Beach in Naples. We've had no opportunities to get online since we got back on the water at the beginning of the month. This means there is over twenty days of adventure to talk about - far too much for me to type out in the few minutes of time allotted to me at this library. Also, the reflective posting promised in the last entry won't be forthcoming. The last few days have been pretty eventful, so I'll focus on those after a brief recap of the previous weeks.
After getting back on the water Dan and I had to get back into the feel of the trip, which for me took a few days. The physical adjustments came effortlessly but the mental adjustment was taxing, having to re-live all of the stresses that I thought I had left two months in the past. In that first week we stopped in Homosassa, where manatees congregate in the winter. At Homosassa Springs State Park we saw an incredible array of Florida wildlife, including a Florida panther, bobcat, river otter, key deer, manatees, and a hippopotamus. That's right, a hippo. His name is Lou, and he's awesome. Hilarious pictures to come. We also went to the small town of Chassahowitzca, which was up a beautiful spring fed river. That is, we discovered it was beautiful the next day, since we paddled up the river after nightfall. We floated past derelict houses built over the water through a dark echoing forest cave filled with the sound of gun shots. In a whisper Dan asked me if the gun shot had weirded me out, to which I said, "We're paddling in the dark through the middle of nowhere and a gun went off nearby. I'd have to have nerves of steel not to be weirded out."
The route we followed during that time took us through a maze of marsh and palm tree islands extending to the horizon in all directions. Occasionally an abandoned house or fishing shack poked through the marsh grass. Sunsets over the marsh were amazing. It was a great stretch and a go-back-to must.
We had some trail magic during this time when we stayed at Mary's Fish Camp on the Mud River near Weeki Watchee. Everyone there was incredibly nice to us and enthusiastic about our trip. Follow the link to their website and click on "Photo Gallery" to see a picture of Dan and I (near the bottom). We zeroed there on account of a front that came in, and we've had to do that a few more times since.
It wasn't long before the wilderness ended and we were in Pinellas County. We flew through this section, camping on islands most of the time. We had to take a zero day again at Pass-a-Grille due to a horrendous front that came in. On that day we saw some of the worst waves of the trip and were thankful to be out of the water. To everyone in Tampa: we were there on a Tuesday and didn't think anyone would be able to come visit so we didn't make too many calls. Don't be mad at us. Our original plan to camp at Fort Desoto and have people come camp with us ended with the storm.
After the storm the winds and currents changed. It has seemed that for the entire trip the wind came from whatever direction Dan and I wanted to go. The wind was never at our back, but then as we left St.Pete it was. This is both a blessing and a curse, as we discovered. Having the wind at our backs does make paddling easier and we make good time, but it also drives waves into our rear. When we go over a wave nose-first we can control how we approach the wave and have a great deal of control over the situation. When a wave hits us from behind we have no such control. So as we went along the coast we passed over numerous sandbars that extended out perpendicular to the shoreline. The strong winds were driving crashing waves over these sandbars. Some could be paddled around, others could not. Every time we had to go through these patches of breaking surf our nerves were wound tight. As a wave crashed just behind the kayak sometimes we could surf the wave but more often the wave would cause the kayak to fishtail. When driving a car if the rear end swings out you're told to steer into the turn. If we were to do that in the kayak we'd capsize. The wave would strike us broadside and roll us. It was a struggle to keep that from happening, and this situation persisted for days. Dan did eventually capsize one afternoon as we were coming to shore, but he was just a few feet from the beach so it was more irritating than dangerous.
That brings us to our recent experience. A few days ago Dan and I woke up to a calm cool sunny day. We had camped on an island in the bay behind Gasparilla Island and the plan for that day was to paddle through the pass on the north side of the island into the gulf then drift down the gulf side of the island, stopping to see some of the iguanas that live there. When we entered the pass it was like many passes we've encountered. There is a channel of choppy water through the middle of the pass and then there are sandbars or shallow water on either side of the channel in front of the island where there is breaking surf. No big deal. We typically paddling through the chop and go out past the breaking waves then turn to go down the coast. We thought we'd do the same that day. I was about 30 yards ahead of Dan, and as I went further through the channel I realized the breaking waves extended out pretty far. We couldn't go past them and would have to go through them. The waves were 3-4 feet and it looked like there were just 4 lines of breaking waves and then the water opened up and was calm. Again, no big deal. So I turned and started to go through the waves.
The first wave gave me a face full of water and I thought, "great...." I got through the 4 lines of waves, but there was no open water behind them, only more crashing waves. Huh. From the top of a wave I could see over the waves and it looked as if there were just a few more lines of waves before it opened up. "OK," I thought, "Just got to get through a few more...." And I did, but the water didn't open up. The open water was an illusion - there was no open water. Making things worse the waves were getting bigger. This is the opposite of what is typical, the farther out you go the smaller the waves should be. But the waves had grown to 6-7 feet in height - some were bigger. I went over a monster and the kayak fell through the air. There was no backside of the wave to slide down. It was a wall of water. "This is a mistake," I thought after I recovered. "We need to turn around." At that instant a 7 foot wave crashed right at my bow. I pushed with the paddle and hoped to barrel through the wall of foam. I did not. The roaring wave picked me up, spun me, and carried me with it. I leaned hard into it to keep from capsizing and I thought I would capsize until it released me. I look around for Dan and he was right next to me - the wave had carried me back 30 yards to where Dan was. "This is a mistake!" I yelled to Dan, "We need to turn around!" Dan had seen the wave carry me and agreed. I was already pointed towards the shore and started to paddle. I thought, "How the hell are we going to do this with these things hitting us from behind?" We were maybe 100 yards from shore, maybe more. This would be tricky. I turned my head to say this to Dan and saw that he was in the water and that his kayak was upside down. I paddled towards him - he was ok and swimming to his boat. He got to it and flipped it right-side up. I tried to hover close to Dan and stay with him until he got back in, but this was hard in the waves. I didn't want to end up between Dan and the waves for fear a wave would knock me into him.
Dan struggled to get back into the kayak. He almost had it 4 or 5 times, but each time just as he was about to get into the cockpit a wave would hit him and tumble him out of the boat. Practicing re-entry was a lot easier on the Alafia River. It looked like Dan might have to swim to shore. By then the waves had pushed me far from Dan so I began to paddle back towards him. To do this I had to turn - I had been facing directly into the waves, but now my side was exposed. When a big one came up I knew that it was the one that would get me. "Here it comes," I thought. The wave crashed on top of the deck and there was nothing I could do. The kayak rolled and then both Dan and I were in the water. Fortunately for us Dan and I could touch the bottom in between waves. That was comforting somehow. We decided that we weren't in immediate danger and that we would swim to shore pulling the kayaks behind us. So we swam the 100 yards in and washed up on the beach.
The experience was demoralizing, but really the worst part about it, the insult to injury, was that as we pulled the kayaks ashore a devastatingly beautiful girl walked past us, with her boyfriend of course. There we were sodden, freezing, out of breath, and shaken to the core and the first thing we see as we lifted our heads out of the water was this impossibly gorgeous girl. "I've got this all wrong," I thought, "What am I doing out here - I should be spending every day with a girl like her - not out in this garbage." Some of you are probably reading this incredulously saying to yourselves, "That's what we've been telling you Mike!" Yeah, I know, I'm coming around.
So I'm almost out of time. There is an elderly library assistant snarling at me to get off the computer. Ma'am, that is not a library appropriate voice level. Shortly Dan and I will enter the 10,000 Islands, which is the buffer between the Gulf and the Everglades, then after a stop in Everglades City we'll spend a week in complete isolation while traversing the Everglades National Park. Follow us with the SPOT - we won't be able to make or receive calls. Hopefully while in Everglades City we'll be able to get a hitch down the road 6 miles to Ochoppee, home of the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. We plan to hook up with the Skunk Ape seekers and maybe come back with a picture of Florida's Bigfoot.
We are in South Florida now, and the change is dramatic. The easygoing feel of north Florida has evaporated and high-rise condos fill the shoreline. Twice now Dan and I have had to change our plans because we couldn't camp at 2 state parks. Snowbirds and RVers had booked all the available campsites. The parks wouldn't make accommodations for us (we don't need an RV spot after all), so in one instance we had to stealth camp and just yesterday we were forced to do a 26 mile day, which required paddling two hours after sunset. It is inadvisable, unpleasant, and unsafe to do this, especially in the Gulf, but we were out of options. Entering the Everglades where there is no fresh water for a week will actually be a relief.
We have met a lot of wonderful people however, and seen some spectacular places. Cayo Coasta State Park is amazing, and the nearby Cabbage Key is possibly my favorite place ever. Dan and I neroed there to watch the Inauguration and enjoy a Cheeseburger in Paradise. Mega shout outs to Fish and everyone at Cabbage Key, we had a great time. Super mega shout out and thanks to Jack and his friends. Thank you so much. Shout out to Teleela (I hope I spelled that correctly :) ), volley ball was a lot of fun. Shout out to Tom and Roxanne - thank you for dinner we had a great time.
Well that's about all the time I've got. Take care everyone,
I can't believe it's been since January 24th since I last updated the blog. Its been over a month, and that's just too long a stretch of time, but unfortunately I've had no opportunities to get online since then. Dan and I are in the Indian River Lagoon, and loving every minute of it. The water is calm, the boat traffic light and distant, the air cool and breezy, the days sunny, and there are beautiful islands for us to camp on. It is paddling paradise. I realized recently that I left the last post on something of a cliff-hanger, with Dan and I having the most difficulty of the trip, then weeks and weeks pass without word from us. I feel it gives an inaccurate impression of our time so far. Since the capsize day we haven't experienced any high winds or dangerous seas. There have been tiring and challenging days of course - long days against headwinds and two large open water crossings of Florida Bay and then Biscayne Bay. But its as if on the capsize day the sea tried with all its might to stop us and dishearten us and make us quit, but after that last final fight it gave up and has rewarded us ever since.
There is so much to tell from the past month, too much for the time I have. The Everglades was amazing, and probably my favorite part of the trip. We camped at the southernmost point of the mainland US, and enjoyed total isolation for six days. It was also six days without freshwater, which Dan fretted about for weeks before we got to the Everglandes, but really there was nothing to worry about. We came out the other side of the Everglades with two days worth of water to spare - and we never went thirsty. We did the Gulf route, but there is an inland route through the mangrove tunnels that I would love to go back and do.
The Keys were frustrating because there was nowhere to camp and we were winging it most of the time, but on the way back up we knew the area better and had a better time of it. We saw the entirety of the Keys, from Key West to the Ragged Keys, but the beauty of the place is really underwater...
Well, I think I'm about to get kicked off the computer, so I'll leave it at that. The trip will be over in just 17 days or so, and this will (probably) be the last posting until we come home. I'll relate our adventures in more detail then.
Till then everyone,
Dan and I have made it! We reached Fort Clinch State Park just after 6pm on a fiercely windy overcast Thursday, March 26th and we were back home by 1:30am last night. Gen, AJ, Elizabeth, Dan's
mom, my dad, and Doug Alderson were all waiting for us on the beach in front of the fort. Across Cumberland Sound from the fort is Cumberland Island and as we were paddling towards the sound in
the ICW I said to Dan, "That island out there is Cumberland Island - that island is Georgia." Dan nodded in understanding, then two minutes later exclaimed "Oh shit, that's Georgia!" It had taken
a moment before the gravity of the moment crashed down on him. Many mixed emotions in that moment, with 1500 miles behind us and none in front of us, as everyone whose done the AT or similar
Thank you to everyone who supported us over these many months. Mega shout-outs to everyone we met out on the trail, especially everyone in St. Augustine: Heather, Craig, Brandon, Andrew, Beth,
Alex, Jon, Mike, Doug, Dave, Amy, Mustafa, George, Sara, Hawkins, Courtney, & Colin! Be on the look out for more updates in the next few days. Now that I have some time I'll recount in full
everything that happened to us through the Everglades, the Keys, and up the east coast. Many pictures to come as well, this time with captions.
Thanks again for everyone's help and support.