Florida's East Coast

March 28, 2006
Today we met a real Florida cowboy. As part of the research for our Florida Beach Access Guide, Bill arranged for horseback riding on South Hutchinson Island beach, near Ft. Pierce. It’s one of only a handful of Florida beaches where this activity is allowed.

Alan Hayes gave me “Speedy,” who fortunately didn’t live up to his name. Bill mounted “Cheetah,” a rodeo champion. Alan pointed out that if Bill let her, Cheetah would be a mile down the beach before we knew it.

Turns out there are many rodeos – and many cowboys – throughout Florida. It’s not all about beaches, retirees and condo-building.

Friendly with people and gentle with horses, this “Marlboro” man started the program with the parks and rec program 12 years ago at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park.

Alan took us at a slow walk about a mile south along the beach. As the surf splashed on the horses’ legs, Alan explained that the saltwater is good for their feet – he hasn’t had a case of hoof disease in years.

He told us Florida is one of the top producers of beef in the nation, and talked some about the work of being a cowboy. It’s hard sitting on a horse for eight hours at a time (“your bottom half pretty much goes numb”), but he wouldn’t trade the lifestyle or the values it’s instilled in his children and grandchildren for anything.

An hour was just long enough for our tender butts, just as Alan had said it would be, and our legs were wobbly on dismounting (now we now how first-time kayakers feel.) The surprising thing was how relaxed we both felt from the gentle bobbing, looking out over the Atlantic, and Alan’s pleasant conversation.

We were glad to have the unique experience to horseback along a Florida beach – with all the new construction starting on this island, we hope it will continue. But just as special was meeting an authentic Floridian.

Alan gives rides ($35 each) at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Sundays, but give him a call and he can sometimes arrange other times (call 772-468-0101).

Biscayne National Park
March 10, 2006
While we lived in the Keys for two years, Elliott Key wasn’t on our radar as far as paddling. Yet this large island in Biscayne Bay is truly a Florida Key, one of the topmost of the 100-plus-mile chain of coral islands stretching from Miami to Key West.

Elliott can get crowded with power boaters and partiers on the weekends. We timed our trip to arrived on a late Sunday afternoon, just as the day-trippers began leaving. What we found was an idyllic, fantastic paddling destination with clear water and shady island walking trails (mosquitoes notwithstanding).

The biggest challenge turned out to be an 8-mile open water crossing of Biscyane Bay from the National Park Visitors Center near Homestead. Of course, we chose a day with a 15-knot headwind, which turned the bay pretty choppy. The rangers weren’t too thrilled with us going out, but we perservered. Another challenge is crossing the Intracoastal Waterway. Some of these boats get up to 100 mph.

An alternative to paddling there is a tour boat that deposits both day visitors and campers (with kayaks by pre-arrangment).

We set up camp right at the edge of the bay, hoping the wind would keep the bugs away, which it did. Our hearts sank a bit when we heard of a group of 20 “spring breakers” on the other side of the island.

Joel, a charter Duck Head from Maryland and a paddling buddy from Key Largo, joined us on this trip. We were all hoping for a primitive - and quiet - island experience.

After dinner, some of those notorious spring breakers mosied up to our site, asking about our boats. Turns out they were the Outdoor Adventure Club from an upstate New York college. They had rented a glass bottom boat to come out for a week.

It did my heart good to know there are college kids who choose island camping for spring break instead of partying on the beaches of Daytona or Miami.

We also met Dave Covill, a guidebook writer who was researching a book about the highest points in every national park in America. He and his wife had fought their way through the mangroves that day to find the highest point in Biscayne Bay NP. (I think he said it was all of 6 feet. We can't tell you where because he's still working with the park about publishing the site). Judging by their legs and forearms, they had the scratches to prove it.

We exchanged cards and websites, and the three of us agreed it was kind of nice camping with other folks to visit with.

Next morning:
I’d brought along “Charlotte’s Story,” the memoir of a woman who spent a year living with her husband on Elliott Key during the Depression (1935).

We’d kayaked more than 15 miles the day previous, and my greatest wish was to sit and read that book. Bill and Joel hatched a plan for exploring the southern half of the island. From their proposed route, I knew it was going to be a 20-mile day, even though they assured me it wouldn’t (I know my husband pretty well by now).

I waved good-bye, then found a shady spot to read. When I got tired of sitting, I took a walk to the other side of the island, found the spring breakers, and a nature trail through the mangrove. I had it all to myself.

Island life is intoxicating. One moves slower, finds little reason to do much at all. Sit and stare at the aqua-emerald water. Read a book. Take a slow walk through the hardwood hammock. Don’t break a sweat. Contemplate the sky, and later the moon and stars.

Island life certainly has its challenges (bugs and weather), but many rewards. It turned Charlotte from a silly “flapper” to a capable survivor.

If only I could stay here, like Charlotte, scavenge on the beach for what we need, learn to catch, cook and clean our own fish, and perhaps find their old key lime grove to tend.

When the guys returned, I was still reading. They had already paddled 15 miles, and we had agreed to paddle another five north to camp on Boca Chita Key. Joel proclaimed the clear mangrove creeks and flats at Elliott's southern end “spectacular,” and the best paddle he’d had in months.

I could tell it would be easy to talk the tired guys into staying on Elliott another night. But we had a delightful tail wind, and we were sure glad we made the trip when we pulled up into our own private campground on Boca Chita. Other than people sleeping on their boats at the dock, we had the small island to ourselves – with unobstructed views of both sunset and sunrise.

The island isn’t mangrove-covered like Elliott. It was cleared in the 1930s by Mark and Olive Honeywell (THE heating Honeywells) who built several buildings, a picnic pavilion, and an “ornamental” lighthouse – all of coral rock and all still standing. The wealthy couple hosted the rich and famous of Miami here for “picnics.”

In 1939 Olive fell on the island and later died from the injuries. After that, the husband didn’t have the heart to finish the estate. We sat quietly and watched the sun set with the coral rock lighthouse in the foreground, the Miami skyline in the distance.

In the morning, I peeked my head out of the tent to the sunrise and a fresh breeze off the Atlantic. I felt euphoric and scrambled out to get a better look.

We toyed with the idea of staying another night. But our lives were calling. Joel had to get back to work and we needed to resume our northward journey visiting more islands and beaches for our two books.

But first, we’d look for any remains of Charlotte’s housesite. It was destroyed in the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, but maybe we could find the clearing and perhaps a foundation. Based on the map in the book, we paddled past Sands Key to the northern tip of Elliott, just a bit oceanside of the cut between the two islands.

Alas, it was all socked in with smelly (and buggy) sargasso weed, covering treacherous jagged coral rock. Funny, Charlotte wrote not of this, but of walking on the ‘beach’ almost daily. Maybe the sand has washed away in the storms over the last 70 years.

We managed to get out of our boats, our legs attacked by no-see-ums in the wrack, and headed into the jungle. Several hazards awaited us: Poisonwood, broken glass, trash, rusty nails protruding from driftwood, thorny vines – and probably snakes. It’s possibly the most unappealing area on the entire island.

Bill calls out that he’s being followed by a raccoon. Joel declares it a nasty mess and gets his lunch out of his boat. I take out the book again and compare the black and white photograph of the 1 ½ story large wooden house above a beach to the actual island.

Not much resemblance. She wrote that the house was on a “ridge,” which in the Keys means only a few feet higher than the beach. It could have been up there to the right. She mentioned being able to see the dock from the house. I imagine it was on the cut, where the water is deeper. There must have been fewer trees then, is all I can think.

We stand among the wrack on the “beach” and eat our lunch hastily, while the no-see-ums lunch on our ankles. Hop back in the boats only to discover that dozens of sand-fleas (resembling tiny shrimp), have hopped into our cockpits. On the 10-mile open water paddle across Biscayne Bay, we kept popping off our spray skirts to grab frisky sand fleas crawling on our legs.

We had a bit of a tailwind and made the crossing in about three hours – too quickly we left island life and joined the traffic on the Florida Turnpike. As Joel headed south to Key Largo, we trucked north to Miami, where a dinner reservation awaited, courtesy of a travel colleage at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

In an hour we were dining in style at Azul, the hotel’s five-star restaurant (we’d stopped in at the Homestead YMCA for a quick shower and change). The matre’d gave us an outdoor table overlooking the very same skyline we’d seen from our campsite. To say we felt a tad out of place would be an understatement. But we clean up good, as they say, and with no less than five people waiting on us, we were treated like royalty.

A Day in the Old City of St. Augustine

Wow, what a night. First of all, I'll tell you we are in St. Augustine, near the top of Florida. Three more nights of camping and we are outtta here. We hit the pedal to the metal and consolidated about two weeks of work into one, and now we are headed back to Virginia for Easter.

But about yesterday. We got an early, early start because of forecasted rain in the late-morning, throughout the afternoon. Remember that. It's important.

So we paddle and paddle and paddle and get off the water around 1 p.m. and all is good, it's sunny, blustery and just generally pleasant. So I'm like, Mary, let's make it a "town day." We put on our duds and head into St. Augustine, which we think is a great city. We haven't strayed too far from the historic old town part, but there's lots of shopping, coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries, old book stores, etc.

Our first order of business is a cafe con leche, a Cuban coffee with milk. Grande. Man, I'm jazzed. Mary heads off to shop for a purse and other acoutrements, and I head down a narrow cobblestone street in search of an antiquities dealer who specializes in old maps. Very Indiana Jones, I know.

So I browse the place, talk to the old man who owns the store, buy a book, hold off on buying the (very expensive) maps, and get good tips on researching maps of Florida through the state university system. Then it's out back onto the street, where I find Mary - where else - in a coffee shop hooked up to a free hot spot. Not only does she have a purse, but she bought me a new shirt - a real Hawaiian, made in Hawaii. So I slip into an empty stairwell inside an old bank building around the corner and change, and I like it. Then I peruse some nearby shops for a housewarming gift for Rob and Joanne, who we are going to see next weekend. We started this whole trip at their house in Atlanta last fall - watching Hurricane Wilma on The Weather Channel, waiting for a break so we could move onto Pensecola. Now we're ending the trip at their new digs in Raleigh, N.C., where they've moved this spring.

After shopping, I meet a fellow named Mike in the park. He's a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) man, with great custom aerials of the Timucuan National Park, where we're paddling Monday and Tuesday. After buying a few of his maps and getting some advice on starting my own GIS mapping project, I go back to Mary, who has found a special event listings in the paper. It turns out that in a few hours, there will be a street pagentry in old town called Spanish Night Watch, a ceremonial posting of the guards at the old city gate, firing a ceremonial cannon from the fort, and a parade through the street with torches and candles, all this pagentry in commemoration the Spanish colonial governor's visit to the colony (circa 1600s). St. Augustine, as you may or may not know, is the oldest city in North America, successfully settled by the Spanish a full 40-years before Jamestown in Virginia.

It's only 5 p.m., and the festivities start around 7:45, so we walk back to the car, thinking we'll bag this place. I have the key in the ignition, and Mary's like, Hey, what are we doing? We're going back to a campsite that is empty, it will be dark soon, we'll crawl into the tent, we have no movies. I'm like, Well, I'm not hungry, I'm tired of shopping. I'd just like to hang out and read a book. Well, why not the town square park, she says.

So we get out of the car with book (laptop, in Mary's case) and head back to the very nice park in the center of old town, grab a bench and sit for an hour or two, reading, people watching, generally chilling with aboslutely nothing to do, no pressing needs, wants or desires. I consider letting a homeless man read my tarot cards, but then think better of the idea.

The festivities roll around, and they are lots of fun, but now we're hungry, so we start prowling the back streets and allys for that perfect light-fare, outdoor-seating kind of place. One, two, three, four -- five attempts later, we find ourselves at 9 p.m. at Harry's Seafood. After a 35 minute wait, we are seated in the courtyard under a beautfiul live oak tree (not "alive" but Live Oak, a distinct species like White Oak or Red Oak) near to a guy playing acoustic guitar. The waiter comes around and the first thing he says is, well, my name is so and so, and I hope we can get you fed and out of here before the storms come through. We're like -- storms?

Sure enough, on cue, lightning and thunder roll in the far off western sky. It's after 9 p.m., and the late-morning storms are finally arriving. We laugh and say, Oh, it will miss us, and anyway, we're tough. We camp alot.

Long story short, he's literally standing by our table with our appetizers - a New England Clam Chowder with spinach and shrimp and creole seasoning (very, very good) and the first hint of rain starts falling. We move inside the restaurant, which is packed - packed like the lower berths of the Titanic were packed - and finally manage to secure two perches at the bar, where we finish our meal, one eye on the TV where Baseball Tonight is showing highlights of the day's game, another eye on the outside situation, waiting for the rain to stop.

In a moment of grand illumination, I realize the Yankees have just started their game in California, it's only in the first inning, and I suggest, ever so subtly, to Mary that maybe the rain will NEVER stop, so wouldn't it be better if we just hightail it to the car, where, oh by the way, I can listen to the game on XM radio. Mary says OK, and so we move out.

One, two, three steps out the door and we are drowned. The streets have a foot of standing water and rain pours off the eves of buildings literaly in sheets. (Mary's really glad she didn't get those new shoes.) We make it to the car in about three minutes flat, jump inside and start stripping out of the cold clothes - well, I do. Mary's wearing a dress and it's a bit harder for her. With no discussion needed, she reaches for her phone, because we are bagging the tent idea - surely it has floated away in this modern incarnation of Noah's flood - and we're getting a hotel room.

Uggh, Mary says. Her phone is floating in a puddle of water in an outside pocket of her new purse. She plugs it in and hears a sickening "sizzle" sound. Totally shot. I grab my phone and start calling. Money is no object. The Hilton, which we're parked in front of - full. Hotels associated with the Hilton - Doubletree, Sleep Inn, etc. - all full. The rain stops and we drive around town. It seems every Inn, B&B and roadside motel is full. The only inn with a "vacancy" sign is closed.

Resigned, we drive back to the campground. We should check on the old lady, I tell Mary. A few minutes later, to break the silence, I suggest that maybe we'll end up sleeping in the car. Hey, it's dry.

We pull up to the campsite and our car headlights shine on the tent. It is a bedraggled drooping mess - I'd loosened the fly in the heat of the day so it wouldn't be stretched out. Now, in the rain, the fly was painted onto the tent - not a good situation. With slow resignation, I walk around the outside, tightening the straps and guy lines, and then I unzip the door, expecting to find our nice down sleeping back in a puddle.

Lo and behold, everything - every last bit of our sleeping bag, knapsacks, cords, plugs, books and clothes, are dry as a bone. I'm speechless. Beyond speechless. We have a place to sleep after all. We cozy up like bugs in a rug and Mary reads aloud from "Charlotte's Story" (about a woman who lived on a Florida Key in the Depression) until the thunder from the next storm front drowns her out. And we fall asleep. Only three nights left.