As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barriers islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…These are words I hope never to say, but there I was in Charleston Harbor hailing the United States Coast Guard. I pulled my marine VHF radio from my PFD, or life jacket, and requested medical assistance for a 62-year old male with chest pains and dizziness. Fortunately, this call was only part of a training exercise. The designated victim—my husband—played the role of victim in our rescue scenario. Nevertheless, seeing my husband stretched out on the deck of a 45′ Coast Guard Response Boat Medium reminded me that someday one of us might need to make a similar call.
Kevin, myself, and five others came to Charleston to participate in a kayak-Coast Guard training exercise. Every April, Scott Brown and Jeff Atkins run the Joint Incident Management Program prior to the East Coast Paddle Sports Festival. Scott is a retired army officer and helicopter pilot who conducted combat search and rescue exercises, and Jeff is a kayak instructor and park ranger in South Carolina. Scott designed this exercise to help the coast guard and paddlers partner in real rescue situations, so the training works both ways. Kayakers learn the correct language to hail the coast guard and guide the rescue boat and helicopter to their location, and the coast guard personnel learn how to locate and assist people in small boats.
Our team of nine gathered in Demetre Park gathered at 7:30 am on a windy morning. Several days before, we ‘met’ on a conference call to go over call signals, safety protocol and the morning’s program. I had been checking wind and waves daily, hoping conditions would be small enough to conduct the exercise but big enough to be somewhat realistic. As soon as we arrived, we prepared our boats and gear to launch in case the weather deteriorated. Everyone carried VHF radios, tow belts, contact tows, and a variety of rescue and safety equipment, including extra clothes and first aid kits. We paddled out to a day mark, a navigational marker, in the area of ‘Middle Ground’ between Castle Pinkney and Fort Sumter, to prepare for exercises with the coast guard boat and helicopter.
First we practiced ‘rafting up’, that is, holding our boats together. In case of an actual rescue, gathering the boats both makes us visible to rescuers and also provides stability to care for a victim and call for help. In rough conditions, a victim who is ill or has sustained an injury such as a shoulder dislocation will not be able to remain upright and needs the support of at least one other kayak. Another paddler might tow the entire raft to prevent drifting into a hazard. Kayakers frequently use the term ‘raft up’ when we want or group to come together, and I had never considered whether this term is useful to others. One participant associated with the Coast Guard pointed out the term ‘raft’ is meaningless to the Coast guard. Another wondered if they might not look for a large gray raft, not a group of kayaks. Scott warned us to avoid jargon—“Use plain language.” Lesson learned.
At 10 am, on military time, we began our exercises with the Coast Guard boat and helicopter. I made the first Mayday call, requesting help for Kevin’s “heart attack”. I noted our location, the number of people in our group, and our problem. And the Coast Guard always asks if everyone is wearing a PFD. After approximately ten minutes, the rescue boat arrived—this might be much longer in a real situation. Lee and Ted stabilized Kevin’s boat and brought him parallel to the rescue boat so that he could be lifted on board. Doing so gave the crew practice working with 16’ kayaks in rough seas and helped us understand how to help the coast guard help us.
Next, the part we had all been waiting for— the helicopter ops. Imagine being injured and floating out to sea on an out-going tide. A helicopter flies overhead, but can they see you? From a distance, the bright white, yellow, and orange colors of our kayaks are specks in a vast ocean. A helicopter or boat might see the smoke from our flares, assuming we carried them, and most of us carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). Search and rescue helicopters fly multiple search patterns looking for survivors, but we can increase our odds by guiding the aircraft using our VHF radios. Each of us practiced directing the USCG HH-65 Dolphin —‘right turn, stop turn, we’re on your nose,’ learning the language to best communicate with the crew. Then an Aviation Survival Technician “rescue swimmer,” with fins, snorkel, and helmet, jumped from the helicopter and swam to our boats, sharing tips on how to be spotted from the air. The helicopter crew raised and lowered him on the hoist, replicating what might happen in an actual rescue. If Kevin’s heart attack were real, the crew would have placed him in a rescue basket, raised him up, and immediately began medical treatment, probably saving his life.
When life, limb or vessel are at risk, that calls for a Mayday. This is nothing to take casually. Asking for help puts other lives at risk, the rescuers and other victims, for example. However, in an emergency such as a heart attack far from shore or a serious injury, calling for help saves lives. While debriefing after the exercises, we debated about what situations call for a Mayday. In our second practice round with the coast guard 45’ Response Boat Medium, I played the victim, a 57-year old woman with a dislocated shoulder. Was a Mayday call necessary, we asked? As usual, it depends. If we had been surfing 50 yards off Folly Beach, then no because my friends could help me ashore and call 911. I would get medical care within the ‘Golden Hour.’ On the other hand, if we were a mile off-shore in an out-going tide, my inability to paddle would place the entire group in danger if we drifted into bigger conditions. In that case, calling the coast guard would reduce risk for the entire group and perhaps prevent a multi-victim rescue.
Ultimately mitigating risk is the best way we can help the coast guard and ourselves. Reducing risk begins the moment we plan the activity and does not end until everyone is home safe. This means asking questions, even ones that might seem intrusive. Is all equipment functional, and are all members of the group healthy and prepared for existing conditions? For kayakers in the coastal Southeast, understanding tides, sandbars, and currents is critical. In a incident or capsize, will we drift towards safety or out to sea? Scott adapted a set of questions from Eric Soares’ Sea Conditions Rating System. These systems quantify risk, making assessment less subjective and easier to communicate. Answering these questions helps avoid complacency, especially if we know an area well.
Practicing with the Coast Guard was fun and instructive—everyone loves helicopters, but someday the call might be real. I’ve rehearsed Mayday calls several times, learning radio protocol in low stakes situations. I hope these drills will steady my hand and voice if one of my friends is injured or ill, when we desperately need help. My friends and I carry rescue and safety gear on our PFDs and in our boats, and we practice rescues in a range of conditions. We train for the worst and hope for the best. On any given day, you just never know what might happen, and we want to be prepared. Thanks and a big shout-out to the crews of USCG HH-65 6526 from Air Station Savannah and Response Boat Medium 45709 from Station Charleston.
Paddling down the Bear River into St. Catherines Sound, the ocean and sky extend as far as my eye can see. St. Catherines Island to my right, or south, and Ossabaw Island—my destination—to my left. Georgia’s barrier islands hug the coast like a strand of pearls in the rough, and Ossabaw and St. Catherines are two of the finest of the string stretching from Tybee to Cumberland. Georgia’s barrier islands themselves are part of a larger chain—the Sea Islands—that extend from South Carolina to north Florida. The expanse of sea, sky, and beach give the illusion of wilderness, that my footprints on the beach are the first to land, but I know better. The sea has washed away the footprints of multitudes, including native Americans, enslaved Africans, colonial English, and, finally, the wealthy families who preserved these gems.
Paddling the Georgia coast is a bucket-list item for many kayakers, but wilderness that beckons makes the trip logistically difficult. Most islands south of Little Tybee either strictly regulate or prohibit camping, so it’s either paddling with a guide or stealth camping (not advised). So, when Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia invite me to join their trip to Ossabaw and St. Catherines, I said yes. Marsha is a certified Ossabaw guide, so our group was permitted to camped on Ossabaw while we learned about this biologically- and historically-rich island.
Way too early one morning, our group of seven gathered at the Kilkenny Marina in Richmond Hill. After loading our boats with four days of food, gear, and wine, we launched onto Kilkenny Creek for the seven mile paddle to our campsite. Riding the out-going tide, we paddled down Kilkenny Creek to the Bear River which carried us to St. Catherine’s Sound and the southern tip of Ossabaw Island.
We took a break before the day’s greatest challenge—finding the creek that led to our campsite. We paddled out and around the ocean side of Ossabaw, looking for the creek. Kevin and I had hoped for some surf on the sandbar that protected the island, but the wind was calm, with little swell that day. Finally Ronnie spotted the creek near a large deadfall. Fortunately we had enough tide to reach our campsite, about ten minutes upstream.
The ebbing tide revealed our next challenge—climbing up the slick mud bank. I found a clear patch, aka gator slide, and dragged my kayak up onto the grass. Victory—only half my drysuit was covered in mud! While the rest of the group came onshore, a small gator swam back and forth across the creek, staking claim to our launch.
Ossabaw Island Foundation manages two primitive group campsites for visitors, and our campsite was far from the island’s few buildings. We can thank the Torrey family from Michigan for preserving Ossabaw island. The family bought the island in 1924, and their daughter Eleanor Torrey West created the foundation in 1961. In 1978, the families deeded the island to the state of Georgia, creating Georgia’s first Historical Preserve. Several other Georgia barrier islands also followed similar gifting patterns, including Cumberland and St. Catherines. Because these islands passed directly from the families to the state of Georgia, they remain largely undeveloped, and visitors experience the ecosystem of coastal hammocks.
The coastal ecosystem is not shy. From the moment I stepped out of my kayak, it swarmed around my head, dive-bombing my drysuit in search of exposed skin. The gators, no-see-ums, and mosquitos made clear that I was merely a link in their food chain. In fact, shortly after my trip, actor Will Smith, filming Gemini Man on the Georgia coast, lamented that “y’all gotta do something about these bugs.”
The marshes and estuaries are biologically rich, fed by the seven-foot tidal flows of the Georgia Bight. The concave curve of the southeast coast funnels the tidal flow into the center, near Savannah and Tybee Island. Fish, clams, oysters, and shrimp thrive in the nutrient-rich mud of estuaries, nourishing birds, mammals, and humans. These islands once supported large populations of native Americans, followed by waves of immigrants from Spain, France, and England. The English, in turn, enslaved Africans for their rice plantations, favoring west Africans who had created novel techniques of tidal irrigation in Gambia and Senegal.
Today, these flows draw kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders for river mouth surf. The ever-changing sandbars St. Catherines Sound and the Back River near Tybee Island, for example, create rough water and waves that are fun for surf and rescue training. Storms and hurricanes frequently rearrange the sandy ocean floor so that surf patterns can change from one week to the next. Even islands disappear and reappear. Just last year, Hurricane Irma created an island now named Little Blackbeard. I had heard that the sandbar near St. Catherines had some of the best surf in the area, so I hoped for some waves when we crossed St. Catherines Sound from Ossabaw to St. Catherines Island. No such luck.
We landed on St. Catherines, like Ossabaw, minimally developed. But sitting on the beach, none of us could have guessed that lemurs roam this coastal forest. As a child, I visited St. Catherine’s as a child and learned about the New York Zoological Society’s (or the Bronx Zoo, as we called it) rehabilitation programs. St. Catherines Island hosts several animal rehabilitation programs as well as field schools in archaeology and ecology.
Please let there be surf on the way home, I thought. The incoming tide rewarded our patience as waves broke over the sandbar for a short surf session. We didn’t linger long — dark clouds loomed in the western sky.
The next morning, we fought a stiff wind back to the marina, reversing our journey. For several years, I’ve looked longingly across Waussau Sound, wanting to continue south towards Sapelo and Cumberland, to learn about their unique histories and cultures. Seeing Ossabaw has whetted my appetite to see the rest of Georgia’s barrier islands. To quote Marsha, it’s “Ossabawesome!”
Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.
We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.
With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.
We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.
Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]
An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.
Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.
The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.
This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.
And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.
The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.
On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.
Visiting Anna Maria Island and Cortez, Florida reminded me just how much Florida’s histories, cultures, and ecologies are bound to the sea. Heavy winds and water torpedoed our original plan of sailing and anchoring near Tarpon springs. So, on Spring Break Eve, Kevin and I changed course to small boat sailing and onshore exploration of southwest Florida. The white sands and clear water of Anna Maria Island had enticed us for years, and the promise of renting sunfish and lasers at Bimini Bay Sailing sealed the deal. We loaded our car with gear to cover almost any imaginable water activity and headed to our last-minute booking at Silver Surf Resort in Bradenton Beach.
The next morning, we drove to Bimini Bay on the north end of Anna Maria Island where we met Brian and his fleet of small boats. Anna Maria Island is small-scale and relaxed, especially compared to neighboring Longboat Key. Bimini Bay Sailing, however, carried relaxed tropical paradise to a new level, and the ducks and cat that adopted Brian seemed to agree. We discovered a slice of heaven on this mangrove-ringed tip of land, and a small water-based business living light on the land and sea.
On our first day, the winds were too big for small boats. Our friends Jill and Scott joined us with their sailing kayak rigs, so we kayak-sailed and paddled boarded in the bay. The wind subsided on the following days, and we sailed the trimaran, sunfish, and lasers.
By midweek, the wind drove us onshore, and we headed to the fishing village of Cortez and Mote Aquarium. My research on the St Johns River taught me a great deal about people and their ties to their river economies and ecologies. Now I hoped to learn more about these relationships in a coastal environment.
“The grill opens at 11:30, but the bar’s open now.” The self-appointed welcoming committee cheerfully called out as Kevin and I walked into the Starfish Dockside Restaurant. The Starfish Company and Dockside Restaurant lies in the heart of Cortez, Florida, described as a “real Florida fishing village.” We heard about Cortez several years ago from a sailing friend and were curious to visit this piece of old Florida existing as a counterweight to Tampa’s urban sprawl. Cortez sits just across the bridge from Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, but it felt another world and perhaps another era.
Despite its location in the middle of vacationland, Florida, Cortez remains a working fishing village and reminds visitors that many Floridians have—and still do—live intimately with the sea. A statue of a fisherman and a sign describing the history of Cortez mark the center of the two-block historic area.
In the post Civil War 1800s, commercial fisherman of English heritage relocated from the coastal Carolinas, drawn by the “wealth of fish, scallops, and other seafood.” They named the area the “Kitchen” and developed a a thriving fishing and processing industry, shipping fish to Tampa and Cedar key by rail. A sign outside the Starfish Company showcases the harvest from the sea.
“The place names on the map are a symbol of the proud tradition of commercial fishing in Cortez. They constitute a form of local knowledge that is derived from years of fishing the inland waters. Some of the names have been passed from generation to generation. Although the origins of such names have faded from memory, their daily use by Cortezians reminds us of the fishing folklore heard time and again on the docks of Cortez.”
As we ate our grouper sandwiches, the fishing boats made clear that this was indeed a working harbor. The Starfish Company is fairly small, but the larger Bell Fish Company and Cortez Bait and Seafood are nearby.
That Cortez remains viable is a testament to their tenacity. Over twenty years ago, Florida instituted a gill net ban, which pitted commercial fishers against sportsmen, a move that devastated many small coastal fishing villages. Cortez adapted and survived, but I wonder how fishers and others will adapt to the growing threat of marine plastics.
After lunch, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Longboat Key, one island south of Anna Maria Island. Driving past the sterile gated communities that lined Longboat Key heightened our appreciation for the friendliness and lack of pretention of Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Even so, our presence as tourists reminds me that our hotel and others have pushed fishers and other workers inland off the coast.
At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Kevin and I joined the others who opted for an onshore day. We saw seahorses, sharks, otters, and turtles. But, most striking and stunning, we saw sculptures composed of marine plastics as part of the “Sea Debris: Awareness through Art.” When I walked inside the whale rib cage, I didn’t realize at first what I was seeing. Then, I realized what I was seeing: the ribs were constructed of detergent bottles.
I heard people muttering how sad it was, and I hope projects like this help us recognize the linkages between our use of plastics and the about the state of our oceans. Several years ago, I had my ‘year of plastics,’ where I learned about microplastics in the Caribbean seas and I hauled larger plastics off the Alaskan coastline.
Traveling around Florida constantly demonstrates me how our lives are intimately tied to our waters, rivers, and seas. Yet some now that warn that our “Coastal Environments are Collapsing“. Exhibits such as “Sea Debris” reminds me of their fragility, that so many lives and livelihoods, whether Brian’s sailboat rentals or a fishing village, depend on their health. What are we willing to do to insure the well-being of our waters and those that live in them and work on them?
“Noone’s ever done that before,” exclaimed Trent from Canoe Outpost-Peace River. We had called the outfitters to shuttle us on our SUP expedition down the Peace River. Despite this winter’s unusual cold, Janice, Jill, and I hoped the window between Christmas and New Years would be warm. Jill and I had paddled through a cold front in Cuba in early December, and we were ready for the tropics. We chose the Peace River because its southern location offered warm temperatures, and its sandy banks promised wilderness sandbar camping. In November 2016, our trio camped from our paddleboards on the Rock Springs Run in central Florida. It was time for a new SUP adventure.
The 106-mile Peace River flows south through Polk County into Charlotte Harbor. Sixty-seven miles has been designated as the Peace River Canoe Trail, but many paddlers—like us—opt for the 31 mile-long wilderness section from Zolfo Springs to Arcadia. Few roads intersect this part of the river, and this stretch feels isolated and remote.
We launched from the public boat ramp in Zolfo Springs on a pleasantly warm Florida December day. I left my car downstream in Arcadia at the Canoe Outpost, and they shuttled me back to Zolfo Springs in their school bus. They provided detailed maps and descriptions of where we could—and could not—camp for the next two nights. In general, the right side of the river was fair game, while the left side was off-limits beyond gathering firewood. The Canoe Outpost owns several sites along the river that offered campground-style camping, but we wanted to camp more primitively. Just in case, paddlers needed a reminder, a sign in the bus warned people that they were entering the ‘True Florida,’ the kind that will hunt you down and eat you.
When I returned to the launch, Janice and Jill had loaded the boards with our camping gear, food, and water. After a few adjustments, we set off. We knew we would have some company on the river. A Boy Scout troop from Palm Beach was preparing to launch their aluminum canoes and would paddle the same stretch as us.
We aimed for about 12 miles our first day, about 7 miles upstream of Gardiner. The last third of our trip—between Gardiner and Arcadia—was more residential and offered fewer camping opportunities, so we planned our mileage to stay in the wilderness section as long as possible.
Paddling this section felt blissfully remote. We heard no road noises, and only the occasional mooing reminded us of the ranch land that border the Peace. The drive from Tampa to Zolfo Springs on central Florida’s rural roads suggested a similar isolation, or perhaps desolation, as we sped through miles of Mosaic phosphate mining.
Mosaic’s mining activity has contributed to lowered water levels in the Peace River. We checked the link provided by the Canoe Outpost site to confirm that the water level was high enough for our trip. Water levels matter even more for paddleboards than canoes and kayaks. Submerged branches reach out and grab the fin, resulting in unplanned swims.
The river meandered through a scrub landscape, alternating between straight sections and hairpin turns. The low water level exposed the limestone structure of the riverbanks, making us aware of Florida’s permeable geology. The river was so still in places that it was difficult to distinguish the landscape from its mirrored reflection. Only the leaves floating past revealed the river’s current.
After several hours of paddling, we found a perfect sandbar campsite. Since the Boy Scouts passed us in their canoes, we hadn’t seen anyone else on the river.
Firewood was plentiful enough on the sandbar for both an evening and a morning fire. Coaxing a fire from the previous night’s embers makes me glad for the skills I developed and later taught at Camp Green Cove.
The day warmed up, and we set off downriver towards Gardiner. The day before, we saw a number of baby gators basking on the riverbank, but downriver, the mama gators were out and about. Not a good place to fall off the board.
And the birds: ibis, egrets, bob whites, great blue herons, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills. One trip highlight for me was a flock of wood storks flying overhead, with two roseate spoonbills in the mix to add a touch of color. I’m never quick enough with a camera to catch such moments, but then no picture could do it justice. Bearing witness was enough.
We paddled on, aiming to camp downstream of Gardiner. We passed a run-down cabin, with several men sitting outside. One waved, but wordlessly we quickened our pace, as banjo music invaded our imaginations. Several miles down, a sandy bluff welcomed us for the night. Long after we had set up our tents, we discovered a dilapidated abandoned house nearby. Fortunately, it didn’t look like anyone would be returning soon.
On our last morning we paddled the final stretch through a residential area and past Canoe Outpost’s Oak Hill Campground. A number of people were sifting through the sand in search of shark’s teeth and other fossils, a draw for many Peace River paddlers.
Soon we arrived at the Canoe Outpost in Arcadia. Janice and Jill continued onto the the public boat ramp about 1 1/2 miles downstream. The outfitters not only helped me load my board onto my car, they also washed it!
Janice and Jill looked a bit stunned when they arrived at the boat ramp. They had seen Amphibious ATVs plowing through the river just upstream from the ramp. Who knew?
As we loaded the car, our minds had leapt ahead to the tacos at Chuey’s Taqueria and Ice Cream in Zolfo Springs. That meal alone is worth a return visit.
This 31-mile section of the Peace River is a perfect 2-3 day paddleboard camping trip. Depending on water levels and river conditions, paddling the upper sections would make a longer trip. While paddling down the Peace River, it’s hard to believe that we were close to some of Florida’s most populated regions. But, Florida’s waterways, once our highways, offer us our best chance to experience wilderness.
We landed in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba, our flight approximately half as long as our wait for a Cuban visa in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only would we paddle and snorkel in Cuba’s warm, clear water, but we would visit an island that has been essentially closed to residents of the US for my entire life. Kevin and I had been thinking about Cuba for several years, and Tommy Thompson’s Cuba Adventure Company trip promised a blend of nature and culture. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration had blocked individual people-to-people tours to Cuba, but group people-to-people tours were still permitted in December. Cuba…only 90 miles from Florida but a world away.
Tommy cheerfully greeted our group and introduced our Cuban guide, Bernie, who would help us understand life in Cuba. Tommy suggested that we practice patience, flexibility, and understanding when things didn’t go as planned, a prescient warning for our paddle on Lake Hanabanilla. As Tommy and Bernie explained the week’s program, our Chinese-manufactured tour bus carried us south towards our first night’s stop. We arrived at our government-run hotel and were told that all guests had been shifted to a nearby hotel. Our first lesson in flexibility.
Once ensconced in our rooms, we quickly found the hotel bar and its mojitos. We discovered that all Cuban bars serve Havana Club rum, not Bacardi, which is known internationally. (For a detailed explanation on why, check out the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten, Penguin Group, 2008.) Cuban mojitos tend to be much less sweet than those served in the US.
The next morning we woke up to driving rain and the news that the axle on the kayak trailer had broken. Surely this development was related to the patience and understanding Tommy mentioned.
After some delay, we loaded ourselves and our gear into our transport: a Russian army truck filled with rows of hard plastic seats. Rolling over the unpaved roads left no mystery about the term “Russian massage.” In Cuba, I found, almost any transportation is good transportation. Transporting both goods and people is a serious challenge for Cuba because both cars and fuel are in short supply. This leads to food shortages and makes it difficult for people to get to their jobs.
Slightly worse for wear, we arrived at Lake Hanabanilla ready to paddle. The rain had given way to clear skies, and we launched on a glassy lake. However, the dark clouds that glowered over our destination foretold a stormy paddle. Soon, we struggled against wind and waves as a squall passed over us. Wet and weary, we landed at our “glamping” site and settled in for the evening. By far, this day’s paddle and “glamping” was the most challenging part of the trip.
By noon the next day, we dried out our gear at a hotel overlooking the lake. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of fried fish and tostones at a paladar, a family-run restaurant unlike most of the government-run establishments geared to tourists. Many of Cuba’s tourist establishments were originally built for visiting Soviets back when USSR and Cuba were strong allies. Cuba’s economy drastically changed when the USSR withdrew economic support in the early 1990s. Today, Cuba’s tourism economy is growing, including visits from Russians nostalgic for the Cuba they remember.
The next morning, we drove to Guama, our launch site for our next paddle. Adjacent to our put-in lay what every paddler wants to see: a crocodile sanctuary, fortunately surrounded by a chain-link fence. For mere pesos, they allowed us to feed the crocodiles by dangling meat on a homemade fishing pole over the fence. (No, this would not happen in the US.) The sound of the snapping jaws resounded over the lake.
We went next door for an obscenely large lunch, including sauteed crocodile. (Tastes like gator.) During our stay, we had numerous large meals in restaurants geared to tourists. Since Cubans receive rations for limited quantities of food, the over-feeding of tourists was unsettling. In general, Cubans live on very little, approximately $30-40 per month, which means that most people must somehow supplement their official salary. It is not unusual for surgeons, for example, to drive a taxi to make ends meet.
After lunch, we paddled through mangrove-lined channels to Hotel Guama. I was especially looking forward to visiting Guama and Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake). Fidel Castro had supervised this recreation of a Taino stilt village, and he appreciated the birds and natural beauty of this location. I wish we had more than one night to explore the creeks and bays of this quiet place.
The next day we headed towards the Bay of Pigs, a place name most of us had encountered in high school history classes. It struck me that, of our entire group, only my mother remembered these events in Cuban and US history. Despite its name, the Bay of Pigs is beautiful, and Playa Largo is known for its snorkeling and diving. We dipped our fins in to see for ourselves.
Signs throughout Cuba remind visitors and residents of the revolution. Prominently placed billboards highlight quotes from Fidel Castro and others, and images of Castro and Che Guevara appear in many locations, urban and rural. The revolution and its heroes dominate the Cuban landscape and historical memory. So, while the Bay of Pigs might seem like ancient history, constant physical reminders bring it into the present.
We spent the last three days of the nature part of our trip in Guajamico on the southern coast. For those of us who salivate at the idea of snorkeling, this was heaven. Each day’s short paddle brought us to secluded beaches surrounded by colorful limestone cliffs, and from there we could don snorkeling gear and swim out to beautiful reefs. One day’s schedule even included a ride on horseback from the beach to our lunch spot, with the Escambray Mountains as a backdrop.
And then the kayaks were put away, and it was time for Havana. Our guide Bernie left us, and Meylin joined us. After a week in quiet rural areas, the sights and sounds of Havana were quite a change. We stayed in a historic colonial building, now Hostal Las Maletas, with high ceiling and tall windows.
In addition to the classic car tour and visiting the historic squares, we visited the Museum of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, the museum had its own interpretation of history and US involvement.
And, of course, we had drinks at Hemingway’s daiquiri bar, La Floridita.
I loved this trip to Cuba, and I feel like I have just scratched the surface. I grew up during the Cold War, and Cuba seemed like such an alien place to me, like the communist USSR and Russia. Yet, I recently discovered that my grandparents honeymooned there, when Americans sought to escape the restrictions of Prohibition. So Cuba is part of my family history as well. This trip fulfilled the spirit of the people-to-people ideal. I’m already planning my return.
I love water. Paddling, swimming, sailing, and surfing——bring it on! But after Irma, was it too much of a good thing? We’ve had droughts in Florida in recent years, and now, for the first time, we flooded. We were fine, but what about next time?
Over a week before Irma hit Florida, weather stations trumpeted dire warnings about a storm that would be wider than almost all of Florida. Kevin and I rarely watch TV, but the approaching storm kept us glued to the TV weather reports. And we prepped and prepped. We bought gas, grilling supplies, and brought critical gear into the house.
We went to One Love Cafe to hear the Shambles on Friday night. Then we waited.
The storm was supposed to hit sometime late Sunday night into Monday morning. Tropical storm winds were predicted for Gainesville. We tracked the storm as hit devastated the islands and moved towards south Florida, messaging with friends throughout the state.
By late Sunday night, we knew the storm’s track had shifted, but neither of us got much sleep anyway.
By midday Monday, most of the rain had stopped, and we went outside to inspect the damage. We were lucky — other than a small flicker, we never lost power.
Flooded in! But we were still really lucky. No major damage. As the winds calmed, we took a water tour of our neighborhood. We paddled across our neighbors yard, out to 16th Avenue, and around the lake behind our house. After being stuck inside for so long, we were all a bit stir-crazy.
And then it was time for Dark and Stormies. After all the hurricane hysteria, we hadn’t touched our supply. We could start our clean-up the next day.
The next day Kevin and I emptied the garage of water, with a Shop-Vac and endless buckets of water.The streets stayed flooded for almost another week, thanks to a disagreement between city and county over drainage. Finally, a truck pumped the water into a sewer several blocks away. And we had our street back.
We got off easy, compared to others. But what about next time? Will rising sea temperatures lead to monster storms? As the map below demonstrates, Florida is a low state and especially vulnerable to sea level rise, whether or not our elected officials “believe” in climate change.
We’re mostly back to normal, and a front of cold, dry air will wrap up the 2017 hurricane season. Now, as we look ahead, do we go back to “business as usual” or think seriously about climate change and how it affects our watery state.