Paddling Pursuits

ADD TO FAVORITES
Kayak along the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail or the Great Calusa Blueway for a close encounter with nature.

We live in a maddening world. You want to analyze it? Go take a course. You want to escape it? Go find a kayak. You don't have to own one. This is Florida with water everywhere. There's hardly anyplace you can't rent one.

Paddlers have taken their cue from hikers and cyclists to avoid getting lost, adapting the lingo and the techniques developed by land trekkers with their trails and greenways. Paddlers now have their blueways, typically complete with logo-styled mile markers and maps or at least one or the other.

One blueway, mapped some 20 years ago by a Wakulla County paddler inside the barrier islands of north central Florida, has become the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail that's newly becoming part of a statewide offshore perimeter trail.

One section sure to be linked will cover Estero and San Carlos Bays in southwest Florida, where Lee County has recently mapped the two sections of its Great Calusa Blueway.

These two blueways are altogether different. I recently escaped for a couple days in each.


BIG BEND SALTWATER PADDLING TRAIL

Low in the water, I felt sublimely beneath the radar of that maddening world, paddling free of billboards, free of talk radio. This portion of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail is part of the lower extension that passes through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge where the delta of that celebrated stream empties.

I felt as abruptly changed as if I'd leapt off the #4 Bridge crossing into Cedar Key. Every time across that bridge before I had looked to the flats and islets that extend beyond the horizon. Different from built-up Florida, it was a realm still "out there." Now I was in it, emotionally stirred by a two-bladed paddle. I stroked away from the winter quiet of Cedar Key into silence.

A chill wind blew at me 15 miles an hour, gusting to 20. Two-foot waves slapped water over the bows. I marveled at the stability of the boat in these conditions and at my insignificance. I was an ex-Coast Guardsman accustomed to turbulence. I felt myself as safe as in some maternal lap. Islets were no longer mere green patches seen from ashore but lee shelter and markers, too, for gauging how fast I might be paddling. I took heart that I wasn't moving backwards.

Wildlife distracted me from my dogged strokes. An eagle, swallow-tailed kites and a magnificent frigate bird soared. I saw egrets and flocks of ibis. Dolphins chased mullet into shallows. Where I rested on an islet beach, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings and willets strutted. The fins of black drum and redfish cut the surface of the islet bay. Behind the mottled brown and green of black needle rush and spartina grass rose a maritime hammock that supplies elevation in this otherwise mostly flat but never boring waterscape. These hammocks of salt- and heat-adapted trees - oaks, palms and pines for the most part - define Florida everlastingly.

After some eight miles, the wind never let up. I quit for the day where I'd planned to break only for lunch. Shell mound, where I quit the first day in the Big Bend, is a 3,000-year-old shell midden created by archaic cultures, offering shady hiking trails, scenic vistas and excellent birding. From 40 feet high, wilderness extends beyond the delta fringe of the Suwannee River to open Gulf of Mexico. Everything - the near shore, the isle edges, the oyster bay - appears random, yet the sum random effect feels irresistibly ordered, appropriate and worth cherishing.

Differently, the next day dawned sunny and soft. I paddled from Cedar Key to Atsena Otie. The name in Muscogean means cedar island. A century ago, the cedars supported a thousand people in pencil making. The crossing is a scant six-tenths of a mile in semi-open water but it's the varied character of the island that compels visits. High walls of greenery surround small bays. You can lollygag looking up to osprey and eagle nests; chicks, I'm told, visible in spring. Mullet jump endlessly.

Push your boat a few strokes into one of the cul-de-sacs and you're at the foot of an island trail. A slight climb onto this shell mound leads to a historic graveyard topped by great shading maritime growth. Gravestones date from between the presidencies of Jefferson and Wilson. A shady path leads through remnants of a former pencil factory and homes destroyed by a hurricane in 1896. A fishing dock extends. Weekends, boaters crowd the beach. Midweek, approached from the graveyard landing, the beach seems an explorer's private reward. Only canoes and kayaks can make it into the cul-de-sacs, and then only with helpful tides. Otherwise, oyster bars close off access.

The view paddling back is unlike anything elsewhere in Florida. Cedar Key's restaurants up on pilings and surrounded by piers loom high and Brighton-like in their fancy shapes and bits of color. I relished the languor of a no-wind crossing, stroking easily. Even the roar of a passing motorboat fit a languorous state of mind, for me merging with memories of propjets revving up for takeoffs worlds away.

Stroke by easy stroke, selective memory played to a faraway mood.


GREAT CALUSA BLUEWAY

Two days along the Great Calusa Blueway of the Lee Island coast couldn't have been easier. The big moment the first afternoon was off Lovers Key State Park past Dog Beach. Six or eight big water dogs half-jumped, half-swam – half-undecided whether to keep dog-paddling after flung toys or find out who this person was in his half-in-the-water boat.

Oysters collected around the mangroves, fiddler crabs in the shallows. The slightest breeze set shadows racing up mangrove trunks like phantom critters. Papyrus-thin bits jiggled from branches. I paddled lazily, struck by the contrast between these mangrove isles and the occasional glimpse of a high-rise resort. Contrast fed my easy mood by the reassuring distance of that "other," the distance which, even though mere minutes by how the cormorant flies, implied a boundary that placed me clearly in that dark bird's wild.

I started late the second afternoon; it was 3:00 by the time I left the park concession desk. The volunteers told me to be back by 5:00. I knew that sufficient light continued past 6:00. That 5 o'clock deadline coaxed out the ornery in me. I went looking for trouble. I almost found it in a narrow pass that broke away from the trail, ox bow-like channels that zigzagged until the water ran out at what looked like a weir on the map. I hadn't taken a map and didn't have a watch. Call it spoon-feeding the ornery.

Did I break away by threading that pass? I forgot to notice while watching wildlife, first a pair of great fish hawks atop a snag chewing over a catch. Off the munch, they whistled and piped. I spooked a green heron and an ibis. The way narrowed and widened. Was I some flatboat Magellan circumnavigating the globe or only some Columbus confusing the Americas for the Orient?

At one point the way led toward that high-rise resort. The next, back toward the sun, then north and away from where I launched. Whatever time it was, I had either broken out of these channels or was trapped by an inevitable end. When I saw myself heading for the high-rise again - though now with my angle offset - I knew I hadn't broken away at all. How many more hairpins, I wondered? I was determined to reach the end.

At the weir I knew I was going to be hopelessly late. I combed the banks for a way ashore to the road where maybe I could thumb a way back for the boat and me. Nothing but tangles of raccoon habitat, hopeless for humans. Responsibility kicked in. These were volunteers I was holding up.

I lit out. I figured 3,000 hard strokes would do it. I swept the water without fatigue or stress. I was into the physicality, one side, the other, pumping, working my upper body, figuring ways to paddle more efficiently. I changed my grip and found a rhythm. 2,000.

I passed markers glimpsed before: a picnic pavilion tossed on its side by high wind, the snag of the fish hawks, an old dock. I flew beyond the pass that early on fed my hopes. 1,000.

When I swung round a point of land, sooner than expected I saw the launch site. At 460 strokes, I leapt out, pulled the boat up, drove to the concession. Closed, but folks at work. Seven minutes late, I saw.

No big thing, they said. Big thing, I said to myself.


BLUEWAYS?

They're everywhere, these paddling trails now rivaling land-based trails in popularity.

There's a new 150-mile Florida Keys Paddling Trail, a Dead River Paddling Trail that's the first phase of a coming 310-mile St. Johns River Blueway. A North Indian River Lagoon Blueway will soon protect lagoon headwaters; a Flagler Blueway will link Flagler Beach to Marineland; and a Polk County system is in the works to connect two chains of lakes with Kissimmee River wilderness.

One blueway will reach residents of downtown Fort Lauderdale condos as accessibly as their lobbies. BURT – the Broward Urban River Trail – will run 25 miles through the New River, past the 1901 Stranahan House, the mile-long Riverwalk, and down the Intracoastal Waterway to John U. Lloyd Beach State Park. Irreverent locals already call it the Broward Urban River Paddle, or BURP.


FLORIDA'S WILDERNESS TRAIL
 
Whether a New Year's resolution or spur-of-the-moment decision, sooner or later every adventurer decides there's no more putting off paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. That's the 99 mapped miles between Everglades City and Flamingo, two-thirds the coastal length of Everglades National Park.

Most folks who paddle the trail will make this a seven-to-eight-day journey that tests self-reliance as much as it rewards the love for adventure. You'll study charts and make reservations with park rangers for overnighting at chickees where there are no beaches for camping. You'll carry everything you need and nothing else.

For sure, you'll do this in winter when mosquitoes are few. Rewards are escape from civilization, the most awesome wildlife – manatees, dolphins, eagles – and unforgettable sunsets.

Me? I'm still waiting for that spur of the moment.

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