More than 15 years ago, on the banks of the Chattooga River, I watched a petite woman gracefully kayak through vicious whitewater rapids without overturning. I ached to try. That is, until an instructor casually said that I first had to learn to "roll," a 380-degree spin that along the way puts you underwater while your body remains lodged in the boat - a move you might expect from a drunken duck.
Being the definition of "klutz" and as cold-blooded as a gecko, I envisioned myself becoming a homemade Popsicle, stuck upside down in a freezer tray. In that crystalline moment, kayaking became an Eskimo word for "water torture."
Not until moving to sunny Florida, where the water is generally as warm as bathwater and whitewater is a rarity, did I begin to reconsider. I also realize that one of the great advantages to kayaking is that you can use it as an excuse to explore any area of Florida. I'll toss my pride out the window along the way, knowing that if I can pass Kayaking 101 without falling overboard, I'll get it back.
FIRST QUARTER: RECOGNIZING GOOD ADVICE
Our trip begins on the northern end of Amelia Island in Fernandina Beach. My husband, James, and I drive about 25 minutes south to Little Talbot Island State Park, home of Kayak Amelia.
Owner Ray Hetchka, who could be Grizzly Adams' brother, is jovial as he lines up our group of 12 on land and shows us how to hold the paddles, stroke and use the water guards to keep from getting drenched.
Still on land, we climb into our kayaks, and Ray explains how to adjust the footrests. Once in the water I learn these are as crucial as stirrups on a saddle. (Your foot pressure helps steer.) After we nose our kayaks into the water, Ray rocks each one to give the rider a feel for their balance. I manage to stay afloat. Good sign.
We paddle along the edges of the spartina salt marsh as Ray identifies vegetation, birds and an old plantation house on the distant bank across Simpson Creek. After an hour we rest on a small sandy shore, swim, get to know the other kayakers and eat some of Ray's giant chocolate chip cookies, one of which could feed a family of five. Little worry of calories. At this point in our trip, Simpson Creek has merged into the Fort George River and the winds and currents have picked up.
Our destination is the boat ramp just before Fort George Inlet, which opens the river into the ocean. We cross the channel with no problem, but once we reach the other shore I can't seem to stop. The wind pushes me into the sand banks while the rest of the crew grows smaller as they near the boat ramp ahead. I'm mortified. But with the advice of an amused bank-side fisherman and the determination not to quit, I rally. I make it to the boat ramp just in time to join the rest of the crew.
SECOND QUARTER: GOING WITH THE FLOW
About 15 miles north of Milton by a two-lane county road is Adventures Unlimited, outfitter for our first unguided kayaking trip.
Inside the camp's log-hewn outpost store, I sign up for a seven-mile trip on Coldwater Creek. (Adventures Unlimited also offers kayaking on the connecting Blackwater River.) A young camp worker drives us upstream to our launch point, unloads our boats, gives us some landmarks and wishes us fun. We want nothing more.
We quickly learn that on Coldwater Creek you are never far from a bank. Rarely, if ever, are you in water above your head. The clear spring waters allow you to see the sandy bottom, and a constant current means you never have to sweat to progress farther downstream.
That's not to say it can't be challenging. The freshwater kayaks are shorter than the ones we had used with Kayak Amelia, thus allowing them to be more responsive and easier to maneuver. I exploit this and pretend that I'm finally conquering whitewater, using my imagination to turn the ripples into rapids and the underwater stumps into jutting rocks that require skilled navigation to avoid. Kidding aside, the minor obstacles make it a great place to get a taste of freshwater kayaking without having to learn to "roll."
THIRD QUARTER: STANDING UP TO THE MOON
Now comfortable in these narrow, shallow boats, we head to Kayaks, etc. (now the Florida Outdoor Center) in Vero Beach. Every full moon during winter months, the kayak outfitter offers a tantalizing moonlight package on the Indian River Lagoon Estuary.
The tour starts at 5 p.m. After a brief kayak refresher course and gearing up, we paddle through a canal lined with posh homes, pleasure boats and screened-in swimming pools. Once into open waters, we cross a channel and paddle around islands inhabited only by birds and small animals. An anhinga preens in a mangrove as we paddle through an opening between two islands.
It's dusk when we reach our dinner destination. A campfire is blazing and the aroma of grilling steaks and shrimp wafts our way. We finish our delicious meal as the sun disappears over land. With small flashlights attached to the front of our kayaks, we begin our two-mile journey back to the mainland. What was mere beauty turns magical as our kayaks slice through the water's darkly mirrored surface.
FOURTH QUARTER: STEERING CLEAR OF OTHERS
On Sanibel Island, we join up with Tarpon Bay Explorers in the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the nation's largest mangrove ecosystem and a gateway to the Great Calusa Blueway, nearly 100 miles of clearly marked waterways and trails.
Our guide, Paul, is president of the local Audubon Society. He weaves colorful tales of the history of Florida's complex waterways as well as identifying the bay's resident and migratory birds. On our short paddle to the beginning of the trail, we spot a bald eagle, an osprey, a loon, a gypsy vulture and ananhinga. Large mullet leap from the waters and spider crabs scurry up the barnacled channel markers.
Since I am practically a professional kayaker at this point, my husband tolerates sharing a boat with me. But once we enter the narrow, winding, saltwater path through the mangroves, co-crewing becomes a little harder. James, sitting in back, insists on doing all the steering, and wants me just to paddle straight ahead (not unlike our roles on car trips). But when I see a tree limb three feet from my face (which is often), I can't help but steer away from it. After some scolding, I paddle straight and switch to front boat driving: "Tree ahead!"
After an hour of paddling interspersed with brief stops, we reach our turnaround point. Paul gathers us together for some final comments and then sets us loose. We're allowed to not only paddle back at our leisure, but also keep the kayaks the remainder of the day.
Better yet, now with my pride back and a new definition for kayaking - relaxing, fun water exploration - I want to kayak all day.
With more than 1,260 miles of coastline, 1,700 rivers and creeks, 7,700 lakes and more than 700 springs, Florida has no shortage of places to kayak. Here are some more outfitters that can help you navigate.
American Canoe Adventures: Located in White Springs on the Suwannee River, where you'll find Florida's only Class III whitewater, this operator rents kayaks and transports you to your launch point.
Econfina Creek Canoe Livery: Based in Youngstown, this northern Florida outfitter will rent you a kayak, give instructions and transportation to this beautiful spring-fed creek.
Florida Bay Outfitters: This Key Largo outfitter offers a kayak/snorkeling combo trip.
Visit Palm Beach: Offers a variety of excursions, including several beginners kayaking tours, in Palm Beach County.
PADDLING THE 'GLADES
You haven't seen the Everglades until you've paddled through it in a kayak.
The stealthy nature of this slender craft allows you to visit crevices and dark recesses of the cypress swamp that would otherwise be inaccessible. See baby alligators vie for a sunny spot on the canal bank. Catch a deer grazing on a saw grass prairie.
You don't have to be Tarzan or Jane. You don't even have to have any experience kayaking. Children as young as ten (accompanied by parents) safely make this trip.
Everglades Rentals and Eco Adventures in Everglades City provides equipment and guided tours. The kayaks are mostly sit-in types, up to 14 feet in length, which allow easy navigation through the narrow mangrove tunnels.
Everglades Rentals and Eco Adventures runs one kayak tour daily during the summer at 9 a.m. During winter months, November -April, they run three tours daily – morning, afternoon and night. Trips are four hours long; snacks and water are provided.