Visitors chime in:
*hope your both well. love reading your travels. mike
*Hey you two! I just got off the phone with Sandy at Keaton beach Marina. She said you passed through just the other day. Cyndi and I play to do the Bend over the first week of March, and I am making some reservations. Perhaps we will cross paddles on the next trip.
-Dave (from the Chesapeake Paddlers Assoc. in Washington D.C.)
*Dave - what a small world! You'll love the trail. email us so we can send you some more info: firstname.lastname@example.org (Hi, Joanne, Hi, Marcy!)
-Bill & Mary
*Y'all just have way too much fun!!! Wish my job was that fun. What's life going to be like when you have to settle down on the Shore?
-Joanne - is that you?
*Happy New Year Bill and Mary--and belated Happy Birthday Mary-- You guys look great! I'm enjoying your adventures via the blog. Can't wait to see you both. Paddle On!!
-Marcy in VA
*Please let me know you arrived safely in Steinhatchee. I went to Hagan's Cove (honking my horn) this morning to see if you wanted a ride, did not find you in the 30 knot winds!
-Sandy Beach Keaton Beach Marina 850-578-2897
*Yes, Sandy we made it to our port in the storm, Steinhatchee Landing Resort, around noon today. It is a real comfort knowing you were concerned for our safety. Good people here on the Big Bend.
Florida's Big Bend
Here's the full account of our 10-day adventure on the 100-mile Big Bend Paddling Trail.
Day 1 (Jan. 10, 2006)
No sandy beaches here. The Big Bend is primarily marsh and thus, substantially undeveloped. We’re following Doug Alderson and Liz Spark's trail guide, as well as reading chapters from Doug's new book, “Waters Less Traveled.” Two chapters a night, in the tent, by flashlight. Quite cozy.
Having met Doug, paddled with him, and enjoyed his hospitality and quiet environmentalism tinged with Native American philosophy, we find paddling "by his book" provides a wonderful context to our adventure.
After being with so many loved ones over the holidays, I confess we felt a tad lonely setting off for five days of wilderness camping. But this is what we do, and we love having the luxury of relishing in past good times, while musing about future get-togethers. And ultimately, Bill and I love being together on the water.
OK, enough of the mushy stuff.
It takes a day to get back into the rhythm of loading and unloading the boats, setting up camp and cooking on the ground. What’s more, after a month or so of feasting and merriment, we decided this trip would be "stimulant free," sans coffee and with mostly organic food. We’re also without Internet, television, sports and cell phone reception.
Doing without all this is a little scary, but not nearly the hardship faced by characters in Doug's book - the suffering Seminoles at the hands of soldiers, and the suffering of Spaniards at the hands of Indians, mosquitoes, hunger and thirst. All fascinating stories that took place right on these shores. We’d never know about them if not for Doug’s excellent research and story telling.
We begin our journey at Econfina State Park, which technically is not the trailhead (that's at Aucilla River Landing, 10 miles to the north), but we were told Econfina was a more secure place to leave our car. And if anyone’s seen that ‘Bru, it’s got our life in it. Secure is good.
A later start than we’d hoped (noon-ish) had us a little anxious, trying to cram everything into our boat hatches - five days of food and water (we’re restocking about 2/3 of the way at Steinhatchee) plus clothes, tent, fuel, sleeping bags, games, books, laptop... You get the picture.
I’ve brought too many clothes. Bill’s incredible patience is about done, I can tell. (Julie, sorry for that brief email. Bill literally was "tapping his foot.") Anyway, as we’re pushing off from the ramp, an elderly black man with two fishing poles in the water breaks the tension:
“Good luck, and God bless ya, wherever it is you’re going,” he said.
A late start meant we had an out-going tide (these coastal rivers have a downstream current as well as a tidal current; they don't always match, so having them in-sync is a treat).
It's an easy, 1.5 mile coast out to the mouth of the Econfina. Lined with palms and live oaks drapped in Spanish moss, the water brown with tannin, the Econfina is a pretty river and very quiet except for a few fishermen.
I’m startled out of my reverie when something slips into the water ahead. Suddenly, every floating log I see looks like an alligator.
When the Gulf of Mexico opens up, the quiet really sets in. The water is smooth as glass, not a ripple except those formed by the paddle and boat. On the horizon, there is little differentiation between sky and sea; they melt together. You hear things long before seeing them: a far-off motorboat, a duck flapping its wings on the water’s surface. Now and then a loon cries.
We can already see our first night’s campsite: Rock Island eight miles off. Nothing to do but paddle, think and chat.
Bill tries out his Christmas present: waterproof binoculars. I marvel at my new spray skirt keeping my butt dry.
Then something we read in Doug’s book comes to mind and I say out loud: “So, what do we do if one of us is bit by a pygmy rattlesnake?”
Bill is thoughtful for a minute. “Well, you get on the radio with a mayday call, give our location for the closest boat to come get us.”
“What else? Do we elevate the limb – or no – doesn’t that send the poison to the heart?” Guess we’d better brush up on that first aid book tonight. And what about that snake bite kit we keep meaning to buy?
After several hours during which the island seemed to get no closer, we can make out trees on the 20-acre lump of stone. There’s a little sandy landing area cut into the hard, volcanic-like limestone, and there’s the trail sign.
Something’s splashing just to the left of it. Bill sees a fin circling, diving and re-appearing. An alligator? I shriek. A Shark! Bill calls out.
Then we hear the whoosh of air. It’s a dolphin! What a nice welcome and good harbinger for our first night on the trail.
The next night a river otter is our escort to the trail campsite on Spring Warrior Creek. We start to wonder if Doug and Liz arranged to have animals greet paddlers at every campsite. Reading Doug’s book in the tent about the next campsite on Sponge Point, I fear it may be a wild boar.
We rise before dawn, hoping to get an earlier start for a change. The fog is like pea soup and we can see the mist in our headlamps.
The tide is outgoing on Spring Warrior, which works in our favor, until.... we pass the Fish Camp where three older men are eying the retreating water.
“How’s it going?” Bill calls.
“It'd be better if water was going the other way. But I guess your boats can go anywhere.” They were waiting to get their fishing boats out.
“It’s working for us now.” I agreed.
No sooner had I spoke and around the next bend, oyster bars rose where last night had been a small bay. It took some careful maneuvering, and several scraped bottoms to get out of the creek.
The quietest time I've known has got to be paddling in a heavy fog along the Big Bend. Except for the oyster bars, we couldn’t make out any landforms: sky and sea were one. It felt a bit like Maine, except here, we didn’t hear any foghorns.
The weather radio said the fog would lift at 10 a.m. Well, one weather channel guy did. The other weather channel guy (they're relly computer-generated voices, but one sounds a little more "professional" than the other), said 11 a.m. By 9:50 the fog had only gotten thicker. The sun was a barely perceptible orb high in the sky.
Sure enough, at 11 a.m. blue patches began to appear and I switched from headlamp to sunglasses, sunhat and sunscreen. I guess the professional sounding guy had it right over the “local guy.” Bill said we should do an NPR esssay on the personalities of the weather band "DJs.”
We were looking forward to a long stop at Keaton Beach, and it did not disappoint. The community park has a nice sandy beach, a few picnic pavilions, a bathroom, outdoor (though cold) shower, and across the street, the Keaton Beach Hot Dog Stand.
After a pit stop, that's where we headed to satiate our Cola jones. Two large Pepsi's with crushed ice - god, it tasted good. We slurped down the first 32-ouncers, and got right back up for free refills. It seemed like nothing else would do.
While at the restaurant, a friendly woman with a big smile got up from her table and asked if we were doing the paddling trail. She was excited to hear about our trip -- turns out, her name is Sandy Beach (no fooling, that’s her real name), and she is chairman of the local Chamber of commerce. What a great, bubbly ambassador for the town of Keaton Beach.
We couldn’t get cell phone service, so we walked about a half mile up to the marina to use the payphone. Who should we find next door, but the tourism office, Chamber of Commerce and Sandy Beach (turns out her family owns the marina).
She and her colleague, Scott Beech (no relation, different spelling), wanted to hear all about the trail. They’d had a father and son come through the week prior. They had heard alot about the 105-mile trail when it was established last year, and while Sandy dreamed of doing it someday with her daughters, Scott cheerfully said he preferred a motor on his boat.
Sandy offered to give us a ride back in her golf cart, and we accepted. I apologized for our odor, since we hadn’t had a shower in several days. She very politely said she didn’t smell a thing, but said we might be able to use the bath house at the RV park right across from the marina. Great!
We quickly retrieved our camp towels and soap from our boat and Sandy drove us back again. We indulged in fine hot showers before departing on an easy, hour-long paddle to the next primitive camping spot on Sponge Point.
Thursday had turned into a brilliant, sunny day, with little wind and we relished our good fortune (and odorlessness) as we paddled.
Again, we wondered what our harbinger would be this night. Then Bill spotted a white pelican, the first we had seen on the trip. They're the larger of the two pelican species, and when floating on the water, wings tucked under, they kind of look like a big white sponge cake with a duck's head. At least that's what Bill said.
(Bill takes over the tale for a few days:)
Sponge Point is a small, beautiful beach that fronts the wide Gulf. The campsite is in a grove of oaks and palms. Next to the point is an area called Hagens Cove, where shallow sea grass beds make for some of the best scalloping on the Big Bend coast come late summer.
Our evening was idyllic. Mary cooked dinner on the beach and we took a sunset walk, checking out fresh holes made by wild boars.
I fretted slightly over a crack in one of the tent poles and listened warily to weather predictions. Still, only a slight whisp of wind rustled the tent fly as we bedded down for a good night’s sleep.
Heavy fog and an outgoing tide greeted us that next morning. We frantically packed our kayaks, all the while watching the tide recede. Within an hour, at least a tenth of a mile or more of exposed mud flats lay between us and enough water to even float our boats.
Determined and slightly peeved that we'd misread the tides, I slogged each boat out to the water's edge, and then ran three or four shuttles of gear out to the boats.
We poled and pushed our kayaks some two miles offshore before finding enough water to make paddling comfortable.
Mary kept a steady ear on the weather radio. The forecast was going from bad to worse: rain and a southwest wind for the remainder of this day. The next day, although sunny, would bring cold temperatures and 30 knot winds, with gusts to 40 knots.
The weatherman's calm, computer-generated voice belied little emotion, but the term "gale force winds" certainly made us fret.
Terms like this prey on your mind as you paddle. The increasing wind rushes in your ears and talking is a useless endeavor -- an exchange would consist of one person shouting, the other cocking their head, cupping their ear and saying, "Eh? What's that?".
So all you can do is think things like, "I wonder what paddling in 30 to 40 knot winds will be like?"
Oyster beds that materialized out of the mist forced quick decisions about which direction to turn: Landward, where eventually we'd run out of water, or seaward, where deeper water carried its own risks, namely bigger waves and the possibility that, out of sight of land, we would become disoriented in the fog.
Intermittent rain bursts lashed at us. We cinched our hoods down tight, leaned into the wind and paddled forward.
On a good day, we average about 2-3 miles an hour. Big Grass Island lay just about that distance away, but it took three solid hours before we pulled up onto its beach for a pit stop. I spotted two eagles sparring mid-air across this low-lying island. One was an osprey; the other looked like a baldy. I grabbed my "nocs" and headed over for a closer look.
While investigating the birds, I scanned nearshore waters. The channel between Big Grassy Island and the mainland was a sheen of mud flats and long oyster bars. We chose to stay on the Gulf side of the island, farther off from land.
Dallus Creek campsite lay another four miles down the coast. We forged on. Bands of rain came and went, each one accompanied by a wind surge, sudden and intense. At one point, I swear it felt like my forward strokes were simply holding me from being blown backwards.
Like Sponge Point, the camp at Dallus Creek sits on a piece of high ground in the marsh, an island of trees in an otherwise uniform and bleak landscape. Unlike Sponge Point, however, this campsite lacked the tall trees of a hardwood hammock - live oaks and cedars -- that make for good protection in high winds.
Mary made the call and I concurred without my usual contrarian debate. We would continue up Dallus Creek to a boat landing hoping to find better shelter from the high winds.
Although camping isn't really allowed here, it was a wise move in the interest of safety. We found a nice, though isolated, park with covered picnic pavilions,a port-jon, and the best part - shelter from the wind.
The difference in a mere 24 hours was simply amazing. From an idyllic night on Sponge Point, we'd paddled into a monster cold front. Where it had been sunny and breezy, now it was cold, foggy and rainy. And the winds were predicted to increase severely that night with thunderstorms.
Steinhatchee Landing Resort, our destination the next day, lay some 12 miles down the coast. The tide cycle of morning lows and afternoon highs dictated we had to leave no later than 6 a.m. if we were to have enough water to get out of Dallus Creek (at low tide, these creeks are simply exposed mud, with a shallow ribbon of water running out in a thin channel) and have enough time to complete the trip by sunset.
Further complications awaited us on the water. First, we would have to paddle northwest, direct into the headwind, in order to reach water deep enough to allow us to turn southeast and run down the coast, wind at our backs.
Topping it all was a line of sand bars and oyster beds about two miles offshore that formed a dividing line between shallow 2- to 4-foot water to its landward side, and 11- to 13-foot water on its seaward side.
Such a sudden and sharp change in depth, coupled with onshore winds, would mean breakers and surf. That in turn carried the risk, should we get caught in it, of our boats being turned sideways and flipping.
It was a restless night at Dallus Creek Landing. Bedtime at 7 p.m. may seem early, but we anticipated a 4 a.m. wake up and a 5 a.m. launch. I tossed and turned, my ear tuned into the sounds of a car or truck driving down to the landing. It's funny, when you're out here, it's often the human animals that worry me more than any wildlife.
Day 5: Dallus Creek to Steinhatchee
We woke up an hour late, grabbed a shotgun breakfast and launched by 6 a.m. Sunrise was more than an hour off, and all was still pitch black. Mary paddled in front of me and my headlamp lit up the reflective striping on her jacket; it was the brightest thing around.
We moved downstream with the current, testing the water depth with our paddles. A shortcut proved unwise and left us stranded on a mud bank. We backpaddled and found deep water again.
Out of the shelter of the creek, the wind smacked our boats and bodies. In such conditions, Mary has trouble keeping her light Kevlar boat from turning downwind. We coupled up with a 30-foot tow rope. This served not only to keep Mary's bow turned up into the wind, but kept us near one another, reducing the risk one of us would be blown off course.
We'd soon learn that when things happen in 30 knot winds -- like getting blown off course -- it happens quickly.
Sunrise burned off the morning mist. In the northwest sky, the moon was round and bright. It was a moment to appreciate, both sun and full moon in the same wide sky.
As we approached the offshore sandbar and oyster beds, we opted to move farther offshore. Out upon the horizon, we recognized what a sailor friend calls "marching elephants" -- waves cast against blue horizon, big enough to appear like a line of elephants nodding their heads, trunks waving up and down. It's a warning for big, big water, usually waves three, four feet or higher. In this case, higher.
It took only a taste of the big stuff to force a recalculation. We turned landward and shot through a break in the sandbar, propelled by wind and crashing waves. Safe in the shallow water, it was calm.
Our peace, however, proved short-lived. Within 10 minutes, our boat hulls scraped against oyster shells. We had run out of water.
Struggling out of the boats, we grabbed our tether lines and walked up onto the sandbar. Cold water (somewhere in the 50s) lapped around our shins.
A sudden sharp gust of wind ripped my paddle from my grip and it sailed downwind. Mary lunged and grabbed it, a miraculuas stab that saved me from losing not only an expensive piece of equipment, but also my sanity. I was beginning to feel frayed around the edges.
On the deep water side of the bar, surf waves crashed into our boat. On a surf launch, you want to point the bow of the kayak into the waves, time the intervals between each wave, and then push off between wave sets.
Always is the risk a wave will turn the boat sideways, and another quickly following will roll the boat over, with you still in it. The outcome can be a dislocated shoulder.
We launched without incident, however, and paddled on into deeper water. It was then I looked down to my GPS, on the boat deck, and realized, with a drop of my heart, that the batteries were dead. With Mary serving as a breakwater, I found the spares and installed them. It took only a couple of minutes, but when we looked up again, the sandbar had disappeared. We were into deep water again.
The best I can recollect, the waves, at about five feet height, came at us from behind, in sets of three. First, we tried running with them. The first wave lifted our sterns high into the wind; the wind would catch that stern and begin turning the boat sideways.
As we braced and ruddered to maintain a down-wind line, the second wave would rock the boats and continue trying to turn us.
The last wave in each set proved most dangerous, as it washed over our decks, soaking us up to our chests. To maintain balance, we'd lean into the wave as it passed
over us. Then, suddenly, it was gone, and we'd regain balance and prepare for the next onslaught.
It took all of about a minute to realize we were on the edge of our comfort zone -- nay, exceeded it -- by a bit. "We've got to get out of this," I screamed back at Mary. She responded, "Head toward shore. Head for the flats."
We paddled for a good half-hour, 40 minutes. Our decision to head back into land complicated things; we were now crossing the big seas, thereby placing our boats at certain points sideways to the breakers. I've never moved my hips back and forth so much in my life -- Elvis impersonators, eat your heart out.
Once in shallower, calmer water, we rested. I looked at Mary. She looked at me. I can't tell you how upset AND proud I felt at that moment. Upset that we had taken a risk that big. Proud that we'd made it, prouder still of Mary. Everytime I had looked back at her, there she was, mixing her low braces and hip flicks to keep that skinny little boat upright. She, too, had been watching me.
"Impressive hip movement, there, Bill," she said with a tight smile. "Same," I replied. "Let's not do that again," she said. I agreed whole-heartedly. "No problem," I said.
As we approached the mouth of the Steinhatchee River, the bottom smoothed out and wave heights decreased to normal, nearshore rough water. We took a bead on channel markers leading into the River and slowly, painstakingly, worked our way upstream. Mother Nature would not quit and, up to the last possible moment, blew her best stuff at us.
I screamed to no one in particular, "Leave us alone." But you can't curse at her. You have to respect her. So I just kept paddling.
Enroute up to the Steinhatchee Landing Resort, the wind finally turned in our favor. The river's meandering put it squarely at our backs. I could hold the paddle high above my head and let wind catch the blades, pushing me forward without taking a stroke.
Warmth crept up beneath my fleece hat and my scalp tingled. I lifted my spray skirt and sponged out the water that had puddled inside the cockpit. My rainpants were wet, but the Smartwool long underwear beneath them kept me warm. My feet - that's a different story. They were numb.
We pulled into a boat slip at a commercial marina, sheltered from the wind between two boats, took out our snack bars and sat there, quiet.
It was 10 a.m.
Steinhatchee Landing Resort Day 5
From here, Mary takes up the story of two glorious days at Steinhatchee Landing Resort, and the final leg of our journey on the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail.
Our streak of animal greeters continued at Steinhatchee Landing Resort. As the bows of our boat scraped the soft mud-and-shell shoreline, two ducks waddled down the embankment. We smiled and said "Hello." They watched from a safe distance as we unloaded our boats, stripped off wet clothes and stiffly walked up to the
I had one goal in mind: To sit on the couch in a blanket and watch movies the rest of the day. And that’s exactly what I did. (There was a Jennifer Lopez marathon going on.) Bill watched football later on, and then we slept in a high, soft bed filled with pillows. Heaven!
(If asked what I miss most on wilderness trips, it’s pillows!)
After settling into our Spice Cottage, we called Patty at the resort's front desk. She'd been so worried about us, she had called the Coast Guard, who in turn had called Keaton Beach Marina. That's where Sandy Beach told them she’d met us, we were prepared with marine radios, and we even had a solar panel to charge the batteries!
Even so, Sandy was worried enough about our safety to drive out to Hagen's Cove, near Sponge Point, on Friday night and honk her horn, hoping we were still there. We'd moved onto Dallus Creek by then, but the gesture left a deep and grateful impression on us.
I guess the Coast Guard felt comfortable enough with the information provided not to send out a search boat. We didn't learn of this until we landed, but it really put our minds at ease, to know that people were worried about us out there on the water. It's a testament to the folks who live along the trail route, how they look out for the visitors passing through their towns.
Day 6: Day of Rest.
The seventh may be the day of rest, but we couldn't wait that long. The morning was sunny, in the 30s, and we could hear the wind gusting above the treetops. We were very glad not to be out on the water anymore.
After breakfast we explored the Landing, a unique “Cracker-style” community/resort built by Dean Fowler in 1990.
The cottages and homes are all built in a hybrid Victorian Florida Cracker style, with lots of trim, colors and the traditional lines of the old Florida pioneer homes. But unlike the early log cabins, inside are all the amenities.
The honeymoon cottages have Italian marble, gas fireplaces opening to both the bathroom’s whirpool tub and the living area. Beams, trimwork and mantles came from an old hotel Dean salvaged up in Georgia, his home state.
Dean then drove us to Steinhatchee Falls (just three feet high, but whitewater’s pretty scarce in Florida), where he brings his guests to kayak back to the Landing. Then we went four-wheeling in his Buick LeSabre to where the Steinhatchee River disappears into underground caves. Many Florida rivers are like this, with sections above ground and below.
Dean's lovely wife, Loretta, joined us for lunch at the locally famous Roy’s, at the mouth of the River overlooking the Gulf. (The owner told Dean she had seen us paddle in yesterday, and thought we were crazy. Again, small town!).
Turns out, Loretta runs the Steinhatchee River Inn in town, which caters to the fishing crowd.
Dean explained his goal in building the Landing was to create a resort that fit in with the local community – a fishing village – and Florida history. So he’s incorporated things a 1920s village would have: barnyard animals, unpaved streets, a chapel -- even a home with the outward appearance of a general store. He’s kept native vegetation, and planted more of it. Families come year after year to fish and relax.
He owns about 11 of the houses, the rest are privately-owned. Some are occupied full-time, while most are available for overnight lodging. He’s building a new pool, spa, and boat slips.
That afternoon, I was emotionally ready to plan the rest of the trip. We wrote down the tides, the forecast and the campsites, packed our food and clothes.
Day 7. Once More Into The Breach.
We reluctantly left the Landing on an outgoing tide and paddled three miles to reach the Gulf. Without 35 knot winds and bone-numbing cold, I could take time to look at the homes lining the river, from shaky fish camps with rusted roofs, to new multi-million dollar places.
Even the Big Bend is being discovered by second-home boomers, and the contrast in affluence from the locals to the come-heres is staggering. But, on with the paddle...
We passed under the new bridge, the highest point in town, where folks park to get cell phone reception. A man came out of his stilted house and called inside – Hey, you gotta see what’s out here! He waved down and wished us luck. Sea kayakers are still an unusual sight here, I guess.
We find a sandy spot for lunch near the mouth of the river – smoked mullet we’d bought in Steinhatchee. Finally, we got to taste what all these fishermen are going after night and day. It was tasty.
Compared with two days prior, Deadman Bay (I’m glad I didn’t know what it was called on Saturday’s horrific paddle), was like another world now: smooth and calm. The sun was warming things up towards the high 60s.
Feeling cocky, I said: “I could paddle all day with weather like this.”
About an hour later, a stiff headwind kicked up from the southeast and I could eat my words. The rest of the day was a rather monotonous work-out across a wide stretch that Doug Alderson, in his book "Waters Less Traveled," nicknamed Monotony Bay.
As we pulled into Sink Creek to our campsite on a “tree island,” a bald eagle perched in a tall tree was our animal greeter for the night.
We plan an early start so we can beat low tide in the shallow creek, but first we go a quarter mile upstream to a landing.
Doug's book explained this spot was where familes would meet to trade. Farmers from inland would come to the coast with produce and goods, and swap them for fish caught by local watermen. They’d set up camp for weeks, smoking the fish and packing it away.
Today, there’s a primitive boat ramp at the spot, linked to the main roads by old rutted dirt forest roads that make for a nice leg-stretcher, if you have the time. Cooler still, there's a freshwater spring boiling up at the source of Sink Creek.
For thousands of year prior to farmers and fishermen, Native Americans had used these landings. In fact, they may have helped create them by discarding oyster shells over the millenia. Some speculate that the “tree islands,” which are a hammock of dry land in the middle of a prairie of marsh grass, were created this way.
It’s kind of eerie to think of how many people have camped on the same spots we have over so much time: Indians, Spaniards perhaps, fishermen, drug smugglers in the 1970s and 80s.
The tide is quickly dropping and we hustle to get out of the creek. I decide to listen to the weather. It’s shocking.
Southeast gale force winds by late morning, with possible thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes. Oh – and those would be headwinds for us.
I start cursing as we pole through low tide. We could have another mile of this, and then be stuck out in the Gulf with horrific weather coming.
With flashbacks of Saturday’s adventure, we throw in the towel, turn around and slog back up to the campsite for another night. Personally, it is a real low point for me – we had packed up for nothing. But, it was the safe thing to do. As a small consolation, two bald eagles now perched in the same tree greet us upon arriving back at camp.
Honestly, we’re not used to being at camp for a whole day. What shall we do? I’d brought my laptop on this trip – the first time in the kayak – in a special dry bag that fits inside my hatch. We have four juiced up batteries, and I go to work on an article that’s due soon.
Bill writes in his notebook, walks to the other side of our tree island several times to see what the weather’s doing, holding out hope that we might still leave. But the tide won’t let us now. Where there was once a flowing tidal creek, now rocks and sandbars block the way.
The wind picks up from the south, but we’re nicely sheltered on the north side of the island. No thunderstorms ever come (or hail), but several small showers send us dashing to put stuff away several times.
“The sky’s spitting at us,” says Bill with disgust. I sense we both secretly wish we had left this morning, but we agreed there would be no regrets. With a forecast like that, you have to play it safe.
The sun actually comes out, and we hang our wet stuff up to dry. That night, we have enough batteries to watch a DVD in the laptop: March of the Penguins. As predicted, the gale force winds arrive – but now from the north bringing a cold front. Where our tent had been sheltered in a south and west wind, now in the north wind it was open and exposed.
Years back, Bill had been caught in his tent during a micro-burst. Then, the wind had snapped the poles and collapsed the tent as he lay inside. Ever since, he's carried a deep-seated fear of wind and what it can do.
As a precaution, he goes outside and stabilizes the tent by tying guy-lines to nearby trees. My hero!
We rise before dawn to catch that darn tide. Skip our usual hot tea and pop granola bars in our life jackets. The wind is pretty fierce, but at least it will be at our backs, it’s sunny and the radio says it will calm down as the day goes on.
I put on three layers: long underwear, paddle jacket and NRS touring jacket, neoprene socks, paddling gloves and fleece hat. Pretty much every stitch of clothing I have.
With a broadside wind, it’s a lot of work to get out of the creek, and then we have to go out almost a mile to get deep enough water to start heading south.
But then it’s a sweet, sweet ride and we hardly have to paddle. Feeling giddy, I turn to Bill. "Man, this is a sweet ride," I said. Bill smiles and nods.
"You want to make some sweet jumps?" I ask him. He bursts out laughing. Somehow, Napoleon Dynamite has become a pop culture referenece point.
We make it to Horseshoe Beach in incredible time – it’s only 11 a.m. and we've paddled about 12 miles! It’s going down to 28 degrees tonight, so we’ve decided to get a motel. I’m dreaming of a hamburger and a glass of
The tide’s too low to pull up to the beach park recommended in the trail guidebook, and it forces us far offshore to find a channel that leads into town. When we arrive, like a beacon, is the Horseshoe Cafe (turns out to be the only restaurant in town), with a sandy area to pull up on.
Sam, an old, black Lab, is our animal greeter today. He comes to the seawall shouting his greeting. But trust me, he’s all talk. As soon as I pet him, he calms down.
Inside we go for a hot meal. They actually have a wine list featuring Florida wine by Dakotah Winery, nearby. Perhaps a tasting is in our future.
From the waitress we learn that Tina’s Dockside Inn, located a block behind the cafe, rents rooms. We can leave our boats where they are. Turns out we landed in the best spot possible, after all. The park would have required a half-mile walk to reach the restaurant and Inn.
We also learn Sam is a “community dog.” His owner moved away, and the people in the house near where we landed feed him and have a bed on the porch for him. By the size of him, it looks like everyone feeds him.
Tina’s is a very modest fish camp, but it has everything we need: heat, hot water, a soft bed, cable TV, and a kitchen. We sleep like bugs in a rug, as it dips below freezing outside.
(Note: there is camping at Horseshoe Beach County Park, or paddle 1.5 miles south to Butler Island, an official trail campsite)
Day 10, last one.
Sunny and cold, the weatherwoman says, so I load up the triple-layers again. Sam greets us at the water wagging his tail and barking urgently, as if shouting: “Do you know how &X@! cold it is!!” He won’t shut up until both of us have given him a good rubdown. He poses for a photo.
Today is the day we’re supposed to start seeing some real beaches and islands with palm trees. We’ve been told we’ll start seeing the northernmost occurrence of mangroves when we get to the Cedar Keys.
But we’re already starting to miss the marshy trail that “kicked our butts.” We’ve enjoyed the diversity of habitat: marshgrass, pine forest, live oaks, hammocks. There’s no other place like the Big Bend in Florida: More than 100 miles of virtually undeveloped coastline, but for a handful of fishing villages. I'd say second only to the Wilderness Waterway in the Everglades for out-there wilderness travel in Florida.
But for now, there’s one more challenge: low tide in Horseshoe Cove and a mine field of oyster bars! The bigger ones are on the chart; most are not.
Several times along the trail we’ve experienced that stomach-turning sound when sharp-edged oyster rock tears into fiberglass gel coat. Try as we might, we just couldn’t see them when the water was muddy or tannic. I’m not looking forward to looking at the bottom of my boat.
(We learned winter here brings lower than normal tides. Perhaps early spring is a better time to do the trail.)
Our lunch stop is Shired Island (pronounce “shared” locally) County Park, which we’re told has a “real” beach, and palm trees.
Unfortunately, we arrive at low tide, and have to slog through some mud to get to it. Two young girls are having a blast digging in the sand, waiting for high tide with their boogie boards. They don’t care the water’s about 58 degrees. They could be in Miami Beach.
The girl's mother watches, soaking up the sun after several days of cold weather. They’re from Georgia (seems most tourists on the Big Bend are) and are camping here at this beach park.
The Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge begins here, so there’s no more primitive camping from now on.
Off Shired Island, it’s just a few minutes to Big Pine Island and it’s sister, Little Pine. They have nice white sand beaches and palm trees – also good places for a lunch break and leg stretch.
Nearing Suwannee we see more and more white patches among the marsh and we can paddle closer to shore.
As on the first day, I notice the sounds among the quiet: gentle lapping of the Gulf, the rustle of needlegrass, the cry of a loon, a mullet jumping (they always make me smile). Why these fish jump is a mystery, but it is a joyful sight. You can just here them shouting, "Weeeeee" as they sail out of the water once, twice, sometimes three times in a row.
As we pull up to the Salt Creek take-out in Suwannee, we’re disappointed not to have an animal greeter for the first time in 10 days. Then, they find us: no-see-ums! They’re greeting us by invading our eyes and ears.
With haste, we take just our valuables and leave the boats for the half-mile walk to Bill’s Fish Camp, our lodging for the night.
We must look a sight to the few cars that pass. We tally the numbers: 10 days (8 of them paddling, 2 of rest), 100-plus miles, seven nights of camping.
By pre-arrangement, Mark Gluckman, a local trail enthusiast who, along with his brother David, pioneered the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, meets us and drives us back to our car, in Steinhatchee.
His brother wrote a book on sea kayaking in Florida, and Mark himself wrote the chapter on the Big Bend trail. In addition, he's worked with the Suwannee River Water Management District to inventory the district's land, conceive trails and greenways, and help localities build them.
For all that, he's eager to hear about our experiences, and get feedback on how helpful the guidebook was to us.
Then he drops the bombshell: We're actually not done with the trail. Officially, it ends in Suwannee. Unofficially, David and Mark have extended it south to Cedar Key, and then on to Yankeetown. We’ll get to both of those locations -- but by Subaru, not kayak! We’re ‘bout done and tuckered out.
Back at Steinhatchee Landing Reort, Dean asks everyone out to dinner at Fiddlers seafood restaurant. Jim Hunt, the owner, comes over with a smoked red snapper dip he just made. It’s delicious.
At the end of our meal (all had grouper with various sauces like caper and lemon-dill), Jim invites us into the lounge for a special performance - a touch of "Steinhatchee culture" as he says.
“What's he play?” I ask Loretta. She shrugs her shoulders and smiles.
Jim announces we’re going to see some real local entertainment – the “gut-bucket.” He’s standing with one foot on an upside-down five-gallon wash-bucket, with a broom handle and twine attached to it. The bartender cues a country song and Jim plays the thing like a one-stringed up-right bass!
Amid an uproar of clapping and hooting, Jim notices we’re both wearing Crocs on our feet – the same exact color! This earns me the privilege of playing the gut-bucket! What a great ending to our Big Bend experience.
for trip-planning contacts and resources.
Big Bend Blog
Feb. 9, 2006
Homasassa Springs, FL
We were told the St. Martin’s Keys were remote. But from John Brown Fishing pier, it looked to be about four miles out the St. Martin’s River and then about a mile or two of open water.
As soon as we launched, we saw a dolphin pass by. The old fishermen on the pier didn’t like it much; they scare the fish away, they said. But we were buoyed by the greeting, the sunshine, an outgoing tide and a tailwind.
As we literally floated out of the river, we saw a small bald eagle, a kingfisher, cormorants, ducks (wish we were up on our ducks!), osprey, herons and egrets. A virtual schmorgashborg of bird life.
There’s a group of white ibis “chicken-pecking” in the shallows, among some snowy egrets. And then, we spot dozens of white pelicans bobbing on the sparkling blue water.
This is a rare sight for us – we’ve only ever seen them in the Everglades. They’re much larger than brown pelicans, and when they fly over, you can hear their massive wings whooshing and kind of squeaking. They’re brilliant white all over, except for black on their wingtips.
Bill points out out they feed differently from brown pelicans. As they float, whites dip their big bills into the water the fish. Browns dive from high up in the air – sometimes several stories high - and hit the water with a huge splash.
We move on, and soon see our first red mangrove since we left the Keys. We’d heard these are their northernmost limits. They’re on the short side – we’d heard that some freezes in the 1980s really cut them back, but between the reds and the black mangrove, the St. Martin’s Keys are covered with them.
Traversing the flats in low tide, we see other signs of a warmer climate. Golf-ball-sized coral, loggerhead sponges, turtle grass beds. Shallow water, clear s bell, reveal an ever-changing mosaic of hard and soft bottom communities.
This is stuff we know – more like the Florida Keys kind of flora and fauna. It’s a sign we’re moving south, and we’ll welcome the warmer temperatures.
But we’re also entering much more populated areas, and soon enough, we’ll be missing the vast marshgrass prairies of the Big Bend, the expanses of water and going entire days without seeing a boat.
Feb. 8, 2006
Today we paddled from Crystal River Resort right into King's Bay, a wondrous freshwater bay, fed by warm springs that maintain a bath-like 72-degrees year round.
The air was much colder, however, and it felt good each time my fingers on the paddle shaft dipped into the water a bit.
Despite clouds and rain, we were determined to circle the islands in the bay, protected by the Crystal River NWR for wintering manatees.
You can't get out on these half dozen islands, and you must obey the no-access buoys off shore each one. These areas are the manatees' sanctuary, safe from powerboats and curious divers and snorkelers.
Signs instruct in the offense of pursuing, touching or otherwise gentle giants, which can weigh up to 400 pounds.
After seeing all thise, we knew it was pretty remote we'd see one, what with the gray sky and choppy water. And then, as I rounded one of the islands (that didn't have buoys), I came upon what I thought were two smooth, oblong-shaped boulders.
But they submerged, and as they did, I noticed the prop scars on their backs - nearly every manatee has these battle scars. They're caused by the propellers of motorboats that hit these slow moving underwater giants.
Then, with a flip of its gigantic tail, one of them sped right underneath the bow of my boat, nearly capsizing me!
I suppose it would have served me right for getting too close, even if it was by accident. And it wouldn't have been so bad to take a warm springs bath!
Feb. 7, 2006
Crystal River, FL
Small world story: man with kayaks on his truck came over to talk about our boats. He was heading to the Bogey and Bacall kayak race down in Key Largo! Bill used to work at Florida Bay Outfitters, the host of the race. We told him to say hi to everyone. Wish we were there! Hope it was a huge success.
It seems that we only post the good things on this adventure blog, and we're pretty quiet when things aren't going so well. So, here's what’s been happening the last two weeks:
We’re stuck on the Big Bend! It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day – speaking of which, which way did Punxsutawney Phil vote this year?
We stopped traveling for a week to work on a crushing writing deadline. When we resumed camping and paddling again, we were hit with three days of torrential rain and thunderstorms.
Rainfall in some areas measured more than seven inches; in St. Petersburg, the weight of collected rainwater collapsed the roof at a Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Our own home – ie, the tent – couldn't handle it either, and leaked the first night. Everything, including our new down sleeping bag, was wet.
Fortunately, we were staying at a wonderful state park: Rainbow Springs, with a warm rec room where we could work and a laundry room! And the friendliest staff ever (thanks for everything!)
The second night, the tent really rebeled when we tried to move it to higher ground. A tent pole broke and we had to pack up everything in the rain and head to a motel (found an adorable place called Two Rivers Inn - the life-sized statues of the Blues Brothers outside drew Bill in).
Not having the tent was the last straw, and there was some serious grumbling about packing it in and heading home. Why are we doing this? we each wondered. Certainly not the money, we're pretty much in the negative. Oh yes, the glory: We'll have three books on Florida when we're done!
A cold front followed the rainstorms. Not just early a.m. frost, but little flakes of ice on our kayak straps the other morning. Then the air conditioner on the car broke (not that we need it now, but we surely will soon, as we head south.)
Today is looking up. the sun in shining (even though it's still cold), the air conditioner merely needed freon; our replacement tent poles are being overnighted to us (thanks to Mary’s Mom and Dad!), along with mail and some new gear (that always makes Bill feel better): cold weather paddling pants.
Today we’re set to paddle around islands in King’s Bay. We can launch right from where we're staying at the Crystal River Resort There’s a good chance of seeing manatees, which flock to this site by the thousands because the water emerging from natural springs is 72 degrees.
The next few days we’ll investigate the St. Martins Keys, about four miles offshore. There’s a hope that we will see (or hear) some Whooping Cranes as we paddle through the marshes of the Chassahowitzka NWR, and if we can get someone from the refuge to spare a few minutes of their time, we’ll post a write up on the recovery efforts for this endangered species.
If the paddling has tapered off, the off-water work hasn’t. Bill joined four folks from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission on a fish-counting trip. That involved running seine nets in shallow water offshore of the Cedar Keys to collect juvenile fish. He’ll post something on that in a few days. Likewise, there’s information coming on the Waccasassa Bay State Preserve and a little introduction to Florida natural springs.
But for now, back to the maps!
Words of encouragement appreciated!
I marvel at all the birds we now know, compared to when we first came to Florida. All we knew were brown pelicans.
The Cedar Keys
We’ve been taking a break from “roughing it” for a little while, doing day paddles in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. While we relished the wilderness of the Big Bend Trail, we’re also enjoying the town amenities of this artist’s community, and easy paddles to island beaches.
We also lucked out on the weather – several days of temps in the 70s, smooth, glassy water and very little wind. Only a half-mile from Cedar Key City Park, Atsena Otie is our first stop.
Without weather challenges or the need to put so many miles behind us, we can take time to notice the little things. I sit still in my boat, peering down through the crystal clear shallow water to the bottom. There’s a batfish sitting on the bottom, it’s flippers more like feet that push it slowly along. It seems pretty compelling evidence that animals literally walked out of the sea. Bill paddled over and pointed out the many paths in the mud left by inching welks.
The air is so still, sound carries across the water like a megaphone. I repeatedly hearing the snort of a dolphin’s inhale, but it takes several minutes to finally find it out on the water. It’s so far away I can hardly see it.
Atsean Otie is the only island in the refuge that you’re allowed to enter the interor – the others you must stay on the beaches. A nature trail interprets the town and cedar mills that once thrived here, to the tune of 300 people.
The E. Faber pencil mill harvested most of the cedars on the island (Atsena Otie is the Native American term for Cedar Key), but was itself destroyed in a late 19th century hurricane. All that remains are a few piles of bricks and a cemetery among Spanish moss-draped oaks.
There’s a nice beach on the east side, only accessible by private boat, not by the nature trail. We saw bald eagle and osprey nests there, and a lone eagle high in a tree.
At high tide, you can paddle a tidal creek that serpentines through the island. We found a spot where we could land and walk right to the cemetery, then followed the nature trail to the boat dock, porta-jon, interpretive signs and ruins of the cedar mill.
Next, we head to Snake Key, perhaps named for its coiled appearance on the map. We ate lunch on a small beach with a bald eagle overhead, stubbornly refusing to give up his perch. Here, too is a nice beach, on the east side. On the west side is channel lined with mangroves (the northernmost ones we’ve seen!)
Since we launched that morning, I’ve had my sights on dinner and sunset toast from one of the waterfront restaurants. In particular one called “Ann’s Other Place,” painted yellow with thatched-roofed picnic tables on the upper deck. I already know what I want: steamed clams that this area is so famous for, and a burger so juicy the grease will drip down my chin.
There we head just in time for sunset, which we toast and watch a sunset kayak tour returning across the channel. Turns out this is where the locals flock, at least when there’s not a game at the high school (which there is tonight).
Bill orders a Cedar Key specialty: palm salad. It has hearts of palm, dates, peaches and is topped off with three scoops of pistachio ice cream!
We meet Anne herself taking a break as we’re leaving. She tells us tomorrow’s special is a real favorite: fried mullet, lima beans, and swamp cabbage. Sounds intriguing, but I think I can skip that one!
Appropriately enough, we launch from our Cedar Key lodging, Seahorse Landing, to explore its namesake.
We discover one of the best and longest beaches in the entire Big Bend region: a 1.5 mile stretch of uninterrupted sand with nothing but the Gulf of Mexico in view.
We pass a huge dune ridge covered with palms and huge live oaks. At 52 feet, it’s the highest point on the entire Gulf coast of Florida. Local lore holds pirates buried treasure here, and millenium of native Americans fished and deposited shells in middens.
While you can take dead shells from the beach – and they’re plentiful – you can’t take artifacts of any kind. You’ll see lots of bird life here, which is why the island is closed to visitors during nesting season March 1 through June. The rest of year, you can walk the beach, but not the interior.
That’s just as well, because you’d likely run into water moccosins that are plentiful under the trees. Bill peered into the jungle-like foliage and saw a "ball" of three huge snakes engaged in something. He made me come and look, and from a safe distance, we watched two of them doing quite a tango of wrapping around each other. Mating, must be.
Our final destination is a few miles away and very different from Seahorse. It’s a giant shell midden, made up of layers and layers of discarded shells of ancient peoples. We walk as much of the beach as we can (the shelling is tremendous), until blocked by mangroves.
Then we have our own sunset paddle, about an hour back to Seahorse Landing to spend the night.
Guests can launch from the floating dock or the small beach (watch out for oysters and low tide).
The two-bedroom, roomy condos have all the comforts of home: fully-equipped kitchen, living room with TV/DVD/stereo, and a deck to watch those million dollar sunsets.
There’s a pool, Jacuzzi, exercise room, wireless Internet, and several pet-friendly units available. $150 a night.
The next day we set out on foot to explore the town. We went in and out of a half dozen galleries, meeting people who turn wood, paint, make art glass jewelry and stained glass. And there are another half dozen we didn’t have time for. It seems like everyone makes something here.
I stop to watch work going on in the sculpture garden in Main Street. Carmen Day and Marcia Schwartz are adhering mosaics to the cement wall. A man is working on a giant statue of a fisherman.
They tell me there’s a fine arts festival coming up in April and that there upwards of 30 to 40 artists who live here on Cedar Key. That would explain all the galleries. We purchase a birthday present in one of them, then pop into the post office to get it in the mail, then walk back to Seahorse Landing to cook dinner and watch the sunset. A most enjoyable small town day!
Cedar Key visitor information
Nov. 19 Butterfly tagging in St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge. This isn’t an island, but Bill and I couldn’t pass up the chance to volunteer for the last day of monarch tagging for this year.
We arrived at 5:15 (yes, A.M.!!), with temps in the low 40s and the wind chill made it feel like low 30s.
Suitably bundled up, we headed to the lighthouse on the refuge and met up with David Cook, a wildlife biologist for Florida Fish & Wildlife, and a long-time volunteer named Virginia.
Our goal was to shine flashlights into the trees and bushes, looking for sleeping monarchs and shake them gently into nets.
This went on for about four hours, with more volunteers joining in as daylight came. We found whole clusters of 30 or so, residing on palm fronds, in cedar trees and on a seaside plant called matrimony bush.
We ended up with more than 400, all of which had to be “tagged” and recorded, then set free.
We’d been wondering for days just how one tags a butterfly. Would we be given tiny ankle cuffs? Little nailclippers to notch their wings?
Turns out the process is far simpler: each butterfly gets a small, numbered sticker attached to one wing. There’s an 800-number in tiny print.
We’d also been wondering why, exactly, anyone would want to tag a butterfly. Answer: These monarchs are migrating from eastern Canada all the way to Mexico and researchers want to know more about it. (St. Mark’s is known to be a major stop-over on the route - they "tank up" on nectar from the saltbush).
While the monarchs themselves are not endangered, Dave Cook says the migration is an “endangered phenomenon.” Reasons why include fractured habitat due to development and logging both here and in Mexico.
The word is spreading, though. If someone finds one of the tagged monarchs in Mexico, they can call the number and receive a monetary reward. In the last few years about a half dozen have been found. Not huge numbers, but proof that that’s where they are going. What’s more, the awareness of the phenomenon has encouraged habitat preservation efforts in Mexico.
The big thrill came when we released the awakening butterflies from the Lighthouse over Apalachee Bay. Fly on, monarchs!
*RP and MR: Please submit your resumes for consideration. Note this is a volunteer position, but one with many perks!
*Bill, I'm confused (as always). I thought that I was a sure bet for the assistant position. Now there seems to be some competition from this so called Mary Rose. Whats up with that? RP in VA "Key Lime Pie!"
*Whats up Bill and Mary? Hope everything is going well. In perusing your photo gallery I see that you got pretty close to a rattle snake. That must have been lots of fun (?). The website is very cool. I'll be posting notes all the time. Later. Ben
Nov. 16 While Mary and I like sharing our crazy adventures, the truth is not everyday out here is a thrill-a-minute joy ride, or an adventure with snakes, mosquitos, alligators, endless tuna wraps and other hazards. Sometimes, our day is about getting the miles in, making contacts, listening and learning. It's the learning that makes it all worthwhile.
We met Doug Alderson, a local paddler and fellow UPF author, at St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge (about an hour west of Apalachicola, or about 40-minutes south of Florida's state capital, Tallahassee).
Doug’s work for the state department of Greenways and Trails involves building the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, a route that begins at Florida's western border, winds its way down to Key West and then north to Jacksonville.
He's also local to the St. Mark's area, with a home he built himself about a half-hour away. (He also just published his first book -- see the link on the side column!)
Doug's familiarity with the refuge goes back to his days as a 19-year-old activist with the Sierra Club, when he successfully blocked clear-cutting in the refuge flatwoods.
Outside his great company, Mary and I were looking forward to a paddle with someone with real local knowledge. Our planned route would take us around Piney Island, a misnamed island if one ever existed, since it's mostly grass, with only a tiny stand of pines.
Based on wind direction, we decided to launch at a pull-off on Bottoms Road. There were a half dozen pick-up trucks parked there - and for good reason. The launch is private, part of a 13-acre inholding in the Refuge.
A few hefty men were set up in lawn chairs, waiting for the fish to walk ashore, I suppose. One man sat on the bow of a boat he'd pulled up onto shore, holding court for the enjoyment of a few friends who'd gathered around. Doug struck up a conversation with him.
Turns out, he was one of the owners, and he and his buddies were fishing. Even so, he said, we were welcome to launch. The man called this launch a "seine yard," so-named for the seine nets they used to catch fish. It was about a half-mile up a creek from the larger Apalachee Bay.
In the middle, the creek channel was deep, but the edges were shallow and muddy. Siene yards, as they're called, were the base for fishing roe mullet; and mid-November apparently is when the locals worked this.
I say "work," but it's a generous description of what was happening on this Wednesday morning. I'd say most of the guys looked looked like Harley bikers, with stove pipe necks and barrel chests. Some were shirtless, oblivious to the chill wind.
Later, a friend of Doug's said that had we arrived when fish were showing, the reception would have been less than kind. Their explanation of fishing roe mullet fit in with on-water activity Mary and I had been seeing throughout the prior weeks.
Off Little St. George Island, for example, the channel at West Pass was busy from late-afternoon to well after dark with fishermen in oyster skiffs running the nearshore current. There, one man stood at the bow, net at the ready; another man drove and a third spotted.
Mary was standing at the shore when a dolphin rushed toward her (or so she thought). He or she was fishing for mullet too, herding them ashore.
I'd always thought mullet was an unglamorous fish, used primarily for bait for big game offshore fish, but it's good eating when fresh, and the roe of the female is shipped to Japan.
Anyway, the owner talked to us as we prepped our boats, applied sunscreen, put on PFD's and skirts, stowed away gear and launched. The others watched as if we were aliens.
Off we paddled on a route that would take us around the south end of Piney Island (Doug kept referring to it as Grassy Island, in truth a better name). St. Mark's refuge is known for wintering ducks, which are found in huge rafts (conglomorates of thousands of birds floating together on the water) offshore, or on lakes and ponds inshore.
We landed once, on a piece of high ground crowded with slash pine, cypress, saw palmetto and sabal palms (the state tree), as well as Yaupon holly, an omnipresent shrub with red berries.
Doug said the leaves were dried by the Creek Indians to make tea. He stripped dead leaves off a branch and handed them to me. I haven't given it a try yet, partly because the last time I tried to brew a plant, I ended up with a pretty good buzz and no good explanation. I'm a little wary of this kind of stuff.
Save for this one clump of trees, Piney Island is entirely marsh, what I’d call "high marsh." It’s not a scientific term, but it fits what I'm about to describe. Rather than there being a segue of saltmarsh cordgrass, which likes to have its "feet wet" all the time, then hay or needle grass, then to land, here, there is a stricter, more defined demarcation. You have water, and then marsh, usually a half-foot or so higher.
Not sure why I'm writing this - may have something to do with how we always compare and contrast things against what we know or are familiar with. Then again, there may be something to this, an idea that I can thread out and perhaps come up with something interesting. This is how my writing sometimes starts -- a simple observation and a question. It may lead somewhere, it may not.
I like to explore when I paddle - probe here and there. I don't mind dead ends, and rarely consider them a waste of time. There is always something waiting for me to discover - some bird I flush, or a sea grass bed that gives the water extra clarity.
We didn't do a whole lot of exploring on this trip, but we did spend a lot of time in good company. Doug, Mary and I talked about books and writing, about the trail Doug is building, and about our natural surroundings.
Doug shared some interesting tidbits: pinfish, he said, cut the sea grass when they eat it (this, after paddling through an area of dense floating grass). This would add, then, to what I call sloughing, and Tova Spector, a state park biologist, called senessing of the grass in the fall.
It's a wonder to me that submerged grass is a plant that shares many characteristics with its brethren on terra firma. Namely that it flowers, and in the fall, sheds its dead portions, like an oak sheds its leaves.
After a long stretch into a headwind with a light rain, we pulled back up to the seine yard. The audience seemed to have grown and they were all staring. One wanted to know how much our boats weigh. Another asked where we'd been, and they were impressed with the answer.
Doug called out: "Whose turn next?" He got lots of laughs, but no takers.
Post Script A day after we paddled with Doug, nighttime temperatures dipped into the high 30's. Doug offered us an empty trailer on his property. I'm writing this at the kitchen table, happy to be inside and not in a tent. Tomorrow we have a 5:15 a.m. appointment at St. Mark's refuge to help tag monarch butterflies. Pray for the butterflies.