From Sail2SUP in the Keys

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Towing the paddleboard—it is behaving well here

“Should it stay or should it go”— my paddleboard presents logistical challenges for Kevin and me before any sailing trip. I can’t conceive of a sailing trip without the SUP—especially a trip to the Florida Keys. The sailboat allows me to paddle in otherwise inaccessible places. Kevin, on the other hand, focuses on the practicalities of towing a 10 1/2′ board behind an 18′ sailboat. On our recent trip to the Keys, I prevailed and the paddleboard made the trip. The clear, calm, and shallow waters of the Keys are perfect for paddleboarding (To Sup or Not To SUP). I’ve seen rays, sharks, and barracuda from the vantage point of my board, especially near the the biologically rich mangroves.

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Clear waters near the mangroves

We were aiming for the Keys backcountry, a remote shallow area on the Gulf side which is characterized by mangroves and small islands. Several years ago, we camped and paddled to the Mud and Snipe Keys. This time we hoped to reach Content Key, one of the outermost islands, after anchoring overnight at Little Pine Key.Keys Backcoutnry NOAA 11445.pngOn December 28, we left our slip at Sombrero Resort and Marina in Marathon and headed north towards Little Pine Key. We motor-sailed under the high point of the Seven Mile Bridge, then sailed with favorable winds to Little Pine Key.

The winds and currents made our 15-mile journey pass surprisingly fast, and we reached the southwest side of Little Pine Key mid-afternoon. After a short scouting sail around our anchorage, we dropped anchor less than 100 feet from the mangrove shore, a mistake we discovered when the bugs came out for dinner. In our small boat, our very sophisticated anchoring technique involves me jumping into the water, towing the boat to a good location, then jumping on the anchor to set it. (Perhaps not ASA procedure, but effective.)

Once we were settled, I inflated the board and paddled around the bay. My inflatable Uli Steamroller works well for sailing trips. The board can be stowed away easily, and the soft rubber won’t hurt the sailboat when it is being towed. The still weather let me do both a sunset and sunrise paddle.

After a calm night in our floating tent, we knew our luck was about to change. A front with predicted winds of over 25 mph and gusts of 30 was moving into the area. Forecasters used terms like “surging winds” that put us on full alert. We re-evaluated our goal of Content Key and pointed south towards the protected harbor of Bahia Honda State Park. Bahia Honda Park is a jewel of the Florida State Park system, and it is always a treat to visit the park.

Our detour to Bahia Honda State Park gave us an unexpected bonus: News Years Eve on the Molasses Keys with our friends Monica and Frank Woll of Florida Bay Outfitters.  So, on yet another unnervingly gusty day, we sailed east from Bahia Honda to the Molasses Keys, only a 7 mile sail. Nonetheless, sailing into strong easterly gusts challenged us and pushed the limits of our—and KneeDeep’s—capabilities. Eventually we motor-sailed, only leaving our 150 Genoa up. This arrangement worked well until it didn’t—when the motor inexpicably stopped. A large sheet of plastic has gotten wrapped around the propeller.

While Kevin controlled the boat, I hung from the ladder and disentangled the plastic. Not quite as easy as it sounds, especially because the boat was still sailing and we were headed to shore. This incident reinforced some lessons from what I think of as ‘my year of plastics.’ My experiences on Exxpedition in the Caribbean (There is No Magical Place Called Away) and on Shuyak Island in Alaska (Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska) taught me a great deal about the dangers of marine plastics.

Tropical paradise awaited us at the Molasses Keys—rum, hammocks, and clear skies! And almost no garbage—Frank and Monica routinely clean up these islands. The Molasses Keys are privately-owned by Frank and Monica, but camping is permitted. To do so, please contact Frank and Monica through the Friends of Molasses Keys page on facebook. We spent a glorious New Year’s Eve camping on the larger of the two Molasses Keys and heard fireworks usher in 2017.

New Years Day revealed some highlights of paddleboarding and snorkelling in the Keys— calm and clear waters.  Circumnavigating Molasses Keys can be a challenge paddling through the waves on the south side.

Too soon, it was time to sail back to the marina then head back north. As always, the Florida Keys are a magical place, whether sailing, SUP’ing, or just sipping on a beer. The paddleboard gave us a number of challenges; for example, it flipped several times in following seas while being towed. Nonetheless, the board has earned its keep—it almost doubles our space while at anchor! The board stays.

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Learning to Love a Landscape

When I moved to Florida 9 years ago, Like many new Floridians, I was all about the beach and the surf.  I moved to Florida as a whitewater paddler. So, I raced out to the beach whenever I could and surfed my whitewater kayak in the waves at Crescent Beach. I loved Florida’s tidal waters and estuaries, and what could be better than playing in the surf in December and January—especially after many long winters in the north. It took a while to fall in love with Florida’s rivers and springs, but when I did, I fell hard.

My friends and my now-husband raved about the springs and the rivers of north central Florida, and I wondered what the fuss was all about. I had floated down plenty of rivers in Iowa, where I had lived before. I wanted to surf!2014-03-15 17.33.46.jpg

On our first date, Kevin and I paddled on Juniper Springs, along with biologist Stephen Kellert and a group of biology graduate students. Soon, we paddled up and floated down the Ichetucknee spring run, which I loved. Looking down from my boat, I saw fish and manatees swimming below me.Manatees on the Ichetucknee.jpg

I began to learn the rich history of Florida’s waters and explored the sheer variety Florida offers. We paddled and camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, visited rivers and springs, and continued to surf in the Atlantic. But now, the springs have stolen my heart——seeing the tannin line where spring meets river, paddling under the trees on the Suwannee Rivers, and swimming in the springs along there Santa Fe River.Suwannee

I didn’t realize how much I had come to love the springs until a recent visit to Oregon, a place we had wanted to visit for years. Kevin and I sat by the river in the spectacular Columbia Gorge, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the sunset. But I was homesick. I had spent my summer paddling on different springs, and I wanted come home. And as soon as I came home, I took my paddle board to the Ichetucknee and felt at home.

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Strange and Wonderful Everglades, Pt. 2

We paddled from the Everglades City Ranger Station on an unseasonably warm December morning, riding the tide 9 ½ miles towards our campsite on Lulu Key. Melodi, Scott, Jill, Kevin, and I are all seasoned wilderness paddlers, but we signed up with Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural history of the region. Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours regaled us with the strange but true stories of human, plant, and animal life of the Everglades.

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Don gave us the option of a mangrove tunnel or white pelicans. The pelicans won unanimously, so we headed out Indian Key Pass towards Indian Pass Key. As we neared the island, we saw hundreds of white pelicans crowded on the beach. I had never seen a white pelican before—they are much larger than brown pelicans. Coached by Don, we remained a good distance from the beach to avoid spooking the birds.

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We paddled slowly, watching for signs that the birds noticed us.If a number of birds started moving towards the water, we would back off. We paddled slowly around until we were able to land on the outer edge of the island, unseen by the birds, and watched the mix of brown and white pelicans, just hanging out doing what pelicans do. If a number of birds started moving towards the water, we would back off. We paddled slowly around until we were able to land on the outer edge of the island, unseen by the birds, and watched the mix of brown and white pelicans, just hanging out doing what pelicans do.

 

After we left Indian Key, we went west along the outside of the islands until we reached Lulu Key, our home for the next three days. Lulu Key sits on the boundary of the Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands. Kevin and I had paddled to Lulu Key from Goodland, Florida on an earlier 10,000 Islands trip, but had never approached from Everglades City.

 

Today was New Years Eve. I had heard about the legendary New Years Eve celebration on Lulu. Mike Ward, now represented by a pair of white shrimper boots, had homesteaded on Lulu Key for years and took care of the island—much like Naked Ed on the Santa Fe River in north Florida. A number of people had been on the island for several days, and a row of tents lined the beach. Later tonight, friends would gather for happy hour and later an impressive fireworks display.tents

We found space at the far end of the beach and set up our tents with a water’s edge view. Our hard work done, we floated in the balmy water for the rest of the afternoon.

One of our strangest neighbors on the beach—sea pork, a gelatinous looking blob that is not edible.  It looks like a squishy rock underwater. Sea pork.jpg

(http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/24422254)

This blobby creature apparently has the beginnings of a spine at the embryonic stage, making sea pork a distant relative. (A new perspective of strange relatives.). Don also showed us carnivorous mollusks that stalk and eat other mollusk, surprising all of us, especially the vegetarian, since we assumed most mollusks and shelled creatures were scavengers.

Lulu Key treated us to beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Greeting the sunrise with a cup of coffee is one of my favorite parts of camping.

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The next day—New years Day, we paddled the short distance to Picnic Key where Don had seen rare African orchids in bloom.  We beached our boats and walked about fifty feet inland, to the edge of the swamp.Africaorchid2.jpg

No orchids were blooming at the time, but we saw a number of orchid plants. The tiny seed pods had traveled with the wind, from Africa to Florida, and found fertile soil here, making me wonder about the term ‘invasive’. What counts as a native plant?

Don also pointed out a small field of sea purslane, an edible plant with a slightly salty taste. He later showed us a native Florida coffee plant; its beans were so small that making a cup of coffee would be a Herculean effort, though perhaps worth it under the right circumstances.

seapurslane.jpgWe continued paddling around Picnic Key until we came to a tunnel leading to a hidden lake.

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On our final day, we paddled through the interior islands back to the Everglades Ranger Station.stillwaters3.jpg

The day was still, and the water glassy, but the clouds told another story. Our three days on Lulu Key were warm and sunny, but a system was moving in. The next day would bring a cold front, with rain and dropping temperatures. Before we reached the Ranger Station, we had a final float, luxuriating in the warm water before we all headed north to the Florida winter awaiting us.

This trip whetted my appetite for the Everglades, and I realize that I have quite a bit to learn about human and natural history. Maybe we’ll come back for next year’s New Years Eve celebration.

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Everglades Part 1: Paddling a Re-inhabited Landscape

On December 31, our kayaks packed and loaded, our group of six left the Ranger Station at Everglades City and headed for Lulu Key. Lulu Key  straddles the borders of the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades.  Interestingly, though we wanted a wilderness paddle, to spend New Years Eve ‘away from it all’, we entered an area that has hosted waves of residents, from the Calusa to turn of the century homesteaders and outlaws to contemporary visitors. stillwaters3All of us are experienced wilderness paddlers, but we went with Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural histories of this region. We all knew that Don is a self-proclaimed story-teller, and, over the three days, Don regaled us the strange and bizarre habits of people, plants, and animals.

I had just finished reading Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Mathiesson, an historical novel about Ed Watson—farmer, entrepreneur, and possible serial killer who homesteaded on the Chatham River in the Ten Thousand Islands. Mr. Watson apparently killed his hired men instead of paying them—a rather chilling austerity measure, and this book depicts the wild west character of life in this remote part of Florida in the early 1900s. As I read the book, I recognized some of the rivers and keys from previous paddling trips, but I had yet looked into the region’s history before.  The store on Chokoloskee Island run by Ted Smallwood, a character in Killing Mr. Watson, is now a museum about Chokoloskee history.

Camp Lulu Key is relatively easy to find because it is on the exterior, on the gulf. Without map, compass, and gps, it would be easy to get lost. And, for several hundred years now, people have come to this area of Florida to disappear, escaping the law or persecution, among other things.Fakahatchee area.42 From Lulu Key, we paddled north, inward, first to West Pass, matching the shapes on our charts to the land masses we passed. We wove our way through passes and channels, all lined with mangroves. The subtly different shades of green alerted us to the narrow channels between islands.

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We rode the incoming tide to Fakahatchee Island, home to a small fishing community in the early 1900s. We beached our kayaks on the boat landing, after receiving permission from the two men who were camping there. Anderson GravestoneInland, we found a small cemetery with headstones mostly from the Daniels and Anderson families. The islands hold other ruins but the ubiquitous mosquitos discouraged us from further exploration. Although there has been no official settlement on Fakahatchee Island for decades, the island shows evidence of recent habitation.Fakahacheecamp4 copy

We left the boat ramp, circumnavigating the island counter-clockwise and saw the cistern and the pilings that once supported the fish-house, where the homesteaders kept their fish on ice. Today, pelicans and other birds appreciate the perch.pelicanonmangroave

The other side of the island exposed the layers of shells that the Calusa had much used to build up the island, centuries before. Fakahatchee was one of the higher elevations among these low-lying islands, and the mounds laid by the Calusa provided habitat for turn of the century settlers and later campers.

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After we left Fakahatchee Island, we wended our way back through the mangrove islands, now fighting the tide, and finally reached our camp on Lulu Key in time for the sunset. I was glad to be back in the open, on the gulf. The interior is beautiful, but its convoluted and quiet passages remind me that the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades can still provide refuge for those who wish to slip away into the wild.