By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
“And I want to see a manatee,” Vlad said.
We were discussing our goals for our upcoming kayak camping trip along the Gulf Coast of Florida.
The primary goal was to familiarize ourselves with the route of the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile race from Tampa Bay to Key Largo that we hope to paddle next year.
It’s held every March, and is open to all forms of small non-motorized boats, whether human- or wind-powered (the wind-powered boats usually win). There’s no fixed route—competitors simply need to get themselves from the start to the finish in the space of 8 days, although they must check in at three intermediate checkpoints.
It sounds straightforward enough, but there are plenty of reasons it’s called a “challenge” (including a few that we learned on this trip).
First is the sheer length, which requires paddlers to clock upwards of 30 nautical miles per day. Then there’s navigation, particularly if you opt for traversing the mangrove swamps in the Everglades. Your sea kayaking skills need to be up to snuff as well, since at least part of the route will take paddlers out on the open Gulf. Making and breaking camp quickly and efficiently can be its own challenge (as we were soon to find out).
And finally, there are the dangerous animals: Alligators and snakes, but also raccoons (which reportedly love to steal kayakers’ food) and all manner of smaller biting and stinging critters, from mosquitoes to scorpions.
We’d originally intended to paddle the Everglades Challenge this past February, but Hurricane Sandy knocked those plans for a loop by damaging Pier 40, our customary launch place. Since we couldn’t paddle for much of the winter, we were woefully out of shape.
And to be honest, we weren’t really ready to tackle the Everglades Challenge. We’ve done a lot—but we’d never participated in a Florida race that required kayak-camping.
That’s why we decided to start with a trial run: this trip. Our goal was to spend a week or so doing a stretch of kayak-camping along the route of the Challenge, to get a feel for the terrain and what we’d be facing.
And, as Vlad noted, to experience some of the wilderness, including those dangerous creatures. On the bright side, we hoped to see a manatee (or two). As it turned out, we met more creatures than we’d bargained for!
For this practice run, we brought our folding kayaks with us on the plane from New York. Since we’d have just under 7 days for the entire trip (including getting the boats to the launch site, assembling them, packing them with camping gear, food, and water, and then reversing the whole process at the end of the trip), we knew we couldn’t make the full route. But we hoped we’d make it most of the way.
The plan was to start from the Don CeSar hotel on St. Pete Beach, just a few miles north of the official starting point of the Everglades Challenge on Mullet Key, at the mouth of Tampa Bay. We arranged for a car pickup at the second checkpoint of the Challenge, at Chokoloskee Island, about two-thirds of the way through the Challenge course. And we noted an alternate pickup at the next checkpoint in Flamingo, quite near to the end of the Challenge—just in case we made it that far.
We’d return to the same hotel, the Don CeSar, at the end of the trip, to get a good night’s sleep and repack for the plane trip home.
In between? We’d figure that out as we went. But to make sure we had plenty of options, we mapped out a dozen or so possible camping spots, using Google maps to validate they were actually places we could land (ha!), and noting the GPS coordinates in my brand-spanking-new GPS. (The old one died at the very end of the Long Island circumnavigation last summer.)
We went shopping in St. Pete Beach the day before our launch and had what we hoped would be the perfect amount of food—not enough to make the boats unbearably heavy, but enough to stave off hunger during the trip. And we had all the usual supplies—plus a huge straw hat for me and mosquito netting for us both, recommendations from books on Florida paddling. Protection against those dangerous creatures!
We figured we were pretty prepared. And come on, it’s Florida-–how hard can it be?
The first test of that optimism came as we put the boats together on the eve of our launch. The process shouldn’t take more than an hour at most, but three hours in, we were still sweating and struggling (and yes, swearing under our breaths, particularly after we each managed to skin our knuckles on both hands).
Things didn’t improve when I sat in my finally-complete boat to adjust the footpegs—and immediately felt the pegs slide along the inside of the boat.
That’s not supposed to happen, and it’s potentially serious.
When I investigated, I found the chine bar supporting the footpegs had sprung a half-inch wide gap.
That may not sound like much of a big deal, but in kayaking, footpegs are far more than a place to rest your feet. You actually move the boat forward with your footpegs—they channel the power from your paddling strokes into the prow of the boat. So loose footpegs were more than an inconvenience—they were a show-stopper.
What to do? We couldn’t figure out why the chine bars had separated (though I had some suspicions—which turned out to be correct).
But after scratching our heads for a bit, we came up with the idea of strapping the pegs to the kayak’s nearest rib, thus forcing the two ends of the separated chine bars back together. We tightened the straps on both sides, and I tried again.
Still, it was not an auspicious omen: Who wants to start a long voyage with a boat held together with ingenuity and string?
The second challenge came when we checked the forecast for launch day.
“Hmmmm…” Vlad said thoughtfully, as he read through the NOAA marine forecast.
I didn’t like the sound of that. “What’s up?” I asked.
“We may get a little wind tomorrow,” he replied.
He wasn’t kidding. The forecast called for 12-15 knot winds, gusting up to 20-25 knots, strengthening in the afternoon.
Worse, it was coming from the south—exactly the direction into which we would be heading—so it would slow us down.
We’d be crossing Tampa Bay—a seven-mile stretch of open water—in the teeth of this wind. And I noticed the NOAA predictions for wave heights of “under a foot”. Something raised an alarm in the back of my brain, but I couldn’t quite place it.
Well, we’d paddled in strong winds before, and one-foot waves are no big deal. Besides, otherwise the day would be ideal—not too hot, not too cold, with just enough cloud cover.
We decided to proceed with our plans.
The idea was to paddle south to Mullet Key, then across Tampa Bay, and through Sarasota Bay after that. There weren’t a lot of camping options along the way—our goal was a county park about 30 miles out. We’d have to start early and make good time… despite the wind!
Even though we’d put the boats together the day before, it took us a couple of hours to pack and transport them to the water’s edge. It wasn’t until around 10 AM that we launched through the beach surf and out into the Gulf. So much for an early start!
First order of business: Pump out the boats.
Although the surf was small, we both ended up with quite a lot of water in the boats during the surf-launch. As we pumped, I thought nervously about my jerry-rigged footpegs, the thirty-mile stretch ahead of us, and the forecast winds, and began having second thoughts about the trip.
But soon our boats were water-free, and we were ready to start off for real. We pointed ourselves into the wind—a refreshing breeze at that point—and began to paddle.
The first mile or so was a delight, with clouds scudding overhead, the wind in our hair (hats, actually), and waves tossing us gently.
Then the wind began to pick up. And up. And the waves got larger and choppier. As I watched Vlad’s yellow hat bob up and down, I realized what had bothered me about the weather forecast the night before: No way would wave heights be “under a foot”—not in 15-knot winds, with 20-25 knot gusts. 20-knot winds in open water—you’re talking more like 2-3 foot waves, at least.
And sure enough, that’s what they were. Vlad measures about three feet from the tip of his head to his hips, so when his yellow hat disappeared under a wave I could be pretty sure it was 3 feet high. We were clearly in for some fun!
Moreover, we weren’t making the progress we’d expected. We paddled, and paddled, and paddled, and paddled… and the shoreline inched by slowly to our left. After the third hour my hands, back, and shoulders were feeling it—and we hadn’t even arrived at Mullet Key!
Another hour went by, and we were making our way (painfully slowly) along the beach of Mullet Key. Some beachcombers strolled by slowly, holding hands, ambling at maybe a two-and-a-half mile pace.
They passed us.
Which meant we weren’t going more than about 1.5 knots, maybe less. I checked the GPS. Sure enough, thanks to the headwind and waves, we were averaging 1.2-1.5 knots—less than half the 3 knots we’d counted on.
And the planned campsite was 30 miles away… at this rate, it’d take us a couple of days!
“Well, at least we’ll make it across Tampa Bay,” Vlad said cheerfully. “Of course we will!” I replied.
After another hour, we were exchanging doubtful looks. The afternoon was drawing on, and we hadn’t even started across Tampa Bay. We calculated we had just enough time to make it across the bay before sunset… if we could keep up our current pace… and if the wind didn’t pick up still further (which it was predicted to do).
We rafted up to discuss our options. To the left was the last of Mullet Key—the last stretch of beach before the open water of Tampa Bay. On the one hand, it was a lovely, open stretch of land—and a public park. In theory, a perfect campground.
On the other hand, we were pretty sure there were prohibitions against camping, except maybe in selected spots, and the part closest to us was right smack in front of what appeared to be the rangers’ station.
The other option? Egmont Key, an island that would could see about a mile and a half out in the bay.
“You’ve been there,” Vlad said, “What’s it like?”
I had been there as part of my three-star assessment a month or so before (which I still have to write up!). I had a vague memory of inviting sandy beaches, with a lighthouse off in the distance. Was it inhabited? I couldn’t recall.
“It’s okay,” I said, finally. “Definitely campable.”
With that, the decision was made: We’d head out to Egmont Key.
About an hour and a half later, we landed in a gentle frothing surf on what appeared to be an uninhabited beach. Some signs and a fence marked a bird preserve off to our left. No “no camping” signs, however.
We pulled the boats up to a nice stretch of sand, unpacked a bit, had a snack, and decided to go explore, since we had some time left before sunset.
I left out a bag of apples. We’d repack tonight, and hopefully make things raccoon-proof then. And after all, we wouldn’t be encountering those dangerous creatures until the Everglades, right?
As we made our way down a path that lead into the overgrown woods, we caught sight of a couple of crows on a treetop. They clearly believed in togetherness—whenever one flitted to another tree, the other would soon follow, close by.
“Aww, how cute!” I said.
As I was to find out, looks can be deceiving.
After a few minutes, the path opened up to something we totally didn’t expect: A red brick road.
Out here? On a “deserted” island? Where was it leading to? What was this place? (And why could I no longer keep Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” out of my head?)
Suddenly a flicker of motion caught our eyes. “What’s that?” Vlad said. A gray boulder in the middle of the road… but it moved!
We went closer.
It was a large gray land turtle. As we came up, it cocked its head and stared us suspiciously, but didn’t withdraw into its shell. It seemed surprisingly tame.
We took lots of pictures of it, convinced this was a once-in-a-trip encounter. Little did we know then that it was merely the first in a long series of meetings with friendly creatures!
Then we went on to explore the rest of the island. It turns out that the north end of Egmont Key is the site of the extensive ruins of Fort Dade, a military base constructed around the turn of the last century during the Spanish-American War.
Now a ghost town, it’s a beautiful, haunting place–one that’s slowly being dissolved as Egmont Key itself crumbles under the onslaught of the tides and currents of Tampa Bay. It’s well worth a visit!.
And speaking of visits…
We returned to the beach just as the sun was setting, to discover that our encampment had also been visited.
A pair of crows—presumably the “cute” couple we’d seen earlier—had investigated our gear and located the bag of apples. They fluttered off as we arrived, cawing indignantly.
One apple was ruined, and another was partially eaten, the crow-beak marks clearly visible.
We grumbled at the crows while we finished off the apples. But this wouldn’t be the last of the friendly creatures we encountered on the trip! (That manatee? Stay tuned…)