Kayak the Florida Keys

Exploring the Dry Tortugas

These half-dozen lumps of sand and coral set amid the Florida Straits lie 70 miles west of Key West.

Upon one rises Fort Jefferson, a 10-acre brick and concrete fortress built in the mid-1800s, obsolete before it was ever finished, but no less awe-inspiring.

Three miles west of the fort is the true westernmost Florida Key, called Loggerhead. Off the west side is “Little Africa,” a coral patch reef that blows and snorkeling paradise we've visited, out of the water.

Thanks to the Sunny Days Catamaran on the way out, and Yankee Freedom II, on the way back, we were able to take our kayaks to this remote bastion of American soil and paddle for three days.

Here's an excerpt from Bill's tape recorder that he carries in a drybag on the deck of his boat:

"The clouds have grown on the horizon to the south, providing dark relief to the strangely dead shadows of trees on Long Key. Magnificent Frigatebirds circle up high, high up, descending down to rest on a tree and then take off again. A strong sun streams through the heavy bank of clouds, shooting a curtain of rays through to the water, creating a backdrop to the island.

“Someone once told me a ray of sun that touches the ground is a highway for a recently departed soul. I like that thought.

"I'm looking at the Frigatebird's sillouhette against the sky. It has the tail of a sparrow, forked. The outline of the wings against is like a prehistoric bird, with the span of a vulture. Beak is long and narrow with a hook at the end. The span of the tail widens and narrows depending on the flight pattern.

“The red bulb at the throat displayed on some of the birds roosting is the male showing off. They make a drumming noise audible even this far out in the water.

"From afar, the fort stands silent and alone. Lighthouse black. Dark holes, the eyes of the fort, staring out. Clouds above, water below. Sand around. Turquoise blue water. All the colors even more dramatic on this cloudy day."

The Tortugas were a little bit of paradise Mary and I will carry with us through the cold days up north. May there be a litte bit of island paradise in everyone's Christmas this year.

To our paddling friends and hosts in the Keys – Dave & Lynda, Cynthia & Dave, Frank & Monica, Greg, Steve & Melissa, Joel, Emily, Rick, Christine, Micah, Ian & Steph, Sarah & Greg, Robert & Colleen – thank you all, and a have a safe, healthy and peaceful holiday.

*Wow you guys are really getting around. This sounds soooo exciting. Want to trade lives for a while? by the way, that halloween candy is still waiting to be mailed... got an address yet?? jn

Dispatch from Key Largo, Thanksgiving Weekend

This town gets a bum rap from some people, I guess because of the haphazard stores and signs lining Route 1. But make no mistake: Mary and I love this place, and for good reason. It's a small town, the people are friendly and... well.. hell - there's only one road. How bad can that be?

We arrived Monday before Thanksgiving, and our first stop was at Florida Bay Outfitters, MM 104.5 . Frank Woll (the owner) and Steve Snyder, aka "Seeker", were out front power-washing the sign.

The front yard of the shop, ringed by chain-link fence, I like to call the "bull pen." The day we came, it was emptied out of all the miscellaneous boats stored there. New boats hung from the outside wall. The shop had a fresh coat of paint. Frank's selling the business (anyone with a spare $500 G's, email me!) and the post-Wilma clean-up has proven a good opportunity to give it a face lift. It looks good.

After FBO, we headed for Publix, the supermarket. Enroute, we called Capt. Robert. Turns out, he was in Aisle #5, shopping! We met inside and talked awhile, enough time to make a date for happy hour on Wednesday. Mary bought some carnations and the checkout lady flirted with me about buying flowers and we joked back-and-forth and pronto, I'd fast-forwarded five months from last June when we left here, and it seemed like we never left. I wish we hadn't.

Next, it was down to Mile Marker 92, where Dave Williams and his wife, Lynda (a jolly good Brit) manage the campground at the Elks Lodge. Dave's a Maine guide and works at FBO in the winter. Lynda's a fellow tree-lover and a wonderful friend. Their perch on the Elk's property is a prime piece of real estate overlooking Community Harbor in Tavernier. And although Wilma took away the Elk's dock, it's still one of the best spots I've seen for enjoying the Keys famous sunset.

We're "guests" of Dave and Lynda's for a week or so, and enjoying their hospitality. That includes home-made soup, pancakes, movies on the iMac and some quality paddling. They're generous to a fault, which includes tolerating us rising at pre-dawn hours because.. well, because we're so damn motivated!

Tuesday and Wednesday, we spent down around Marathon doing mop-up work on the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas (more on that later). Then we were back in Key Largo Wednesday to meet Capt. Robert. Our one-time downstairs neighbor Stephanie bartends at Sharkys and she joined us and filled us in on damage Wilma wrought on our former address, 32 N. Marlin. Both downstairs apartments were flooded. Stephanie and Ian were forced out, as was the other tenant, Christine.

Which brings me to another wierd point about how small this town is... we're listening to music and a bunch of young'uns sit down near us. We old folks turn on the charm and in no time I learned one of them, an intern at Dolphin Cove, is a room-mate with Christine, our old downstairs neighbor. It doesn't stop there, folks: this intern is from Lynchburg, Virginia, and after a spirited sales pitch, she bought a Hiking Virginia guidebook (we ALWAYS carry extra copies) as a Christmas gift for her dad. I go to happy hour and make $20 bucks. Not bad!

So in a period of three days, we meet most of the people we knew on a daily basis when we lived here. Connections, happenstance, whatever -- it's so Keys. Like today, Saturday: Mary runs into our good paddling buddy Cynthia in the Winn-Dixie parking lot, Ian in the post office parking lot, and Steve and Melissa inside.

That's why we love it here. Everywhere you go, you meet good friends.

*Keep up the great work you guys! I'm still living vicariously through you. I loved the bit on the Dry Tortugas. Do you have any more photos of it? I think it was used as a prison during the Civil War? Be safe and have more fun! Love, Cousin Dahr :)

Dec. 23: The road around Florida apparently leads through New York, which is where we find ourselves on this eve of Christmas Eve. The scenery is white, but instead of sand beaches, it's snowy fields.

We've traded the kayaks for cross-country skis, the clothes of summer for layers upon layers of long underwear. It's all temporary, however. Come early January, we'll pick up where we left off, circumnavigating the Sunshine State for "Wild Florida Islands."

Florida Keys
Thanksgiving to Christmas found us in the Florida Keys doing finish work on the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas (The Globe Pequot Press, 2006). Projected publishing date is.... Spring 2006.

It's a great product, one made all the better by the collaborative nature of building and fine-tuning these charts between our partners, Mapping Specialists, Ltd of Madison, Wisconson, The Globe Pequot Press, our paddling friends at Florida Bay Outfitters, and ourselves. Everyone is excited for this, and all I can say is, "Keep the Faith." It'll be out soon.

We couldn't leave the Keys without a few iconic experiences:

-sailing out to the reef on Dragonfly with Capt. Robert and our assistant-in-training, Richie Prado;

-a two-night trip to the Dry Tortugas;

-the Islamorada Christmas Parade & the Key Largo lighted boat parade (the kayakers won a prize!);

-hearing Micah play at the Outback;

-topped off with a blissful night at Cheeca Lodge & Spa (we're trying hard to keep that Cheec-Aaaahhh feeling alive).

Bike-kayak event in Marathon to raise awareness for the paddling trail.