Friendly Creatures: Kayak Camping in Florida, Part 1

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina


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All set to launch!

“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.

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A pink wedding cake: the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach, a landmark visible from miles around

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.)

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The straw hat and mosquito netting in use later on in the trip…

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.

It held.

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!

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On the evening before the trip…

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… we wade through the warm, shallow water at last light

Day One

Everglades Challenge Part 1 St. Pete Beach to Egmont Key

Day 1 — St. Pete Beach to Egmont Key

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On the first morning, we pack the boats on the beach

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!

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Launch time!

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.

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Finally, Florida paddling!

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!

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Into the wind. Somehow, the big waves never make it into the photos…

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.

Yeah, right.

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.

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Into the interior…

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… which however turns out to be remarkably civilized: the red brick roads of Egmont Key

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?)

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Along the road…

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!

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Turtles (actually, gopher tortoises), caught in the act

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.


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Johna, turtle whisperer

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!

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We walk out to the Gulf side of the island…

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… onto a deserted beach

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Johna exploring

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Vlad under the cabbage palms (photo by Johna)

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.



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Ruins of Fort Dade

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Gun emplacement

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!.






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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…)

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Our camp on the beach at dusk

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Overhead, birds fly to the bird preserve, home for the night

(More photos from the trip are here and here.)

Next in Friendly Creatures —>

92 responses to “Friendly Creatures: Kayak Camping in Florida, Part 1

  1. It is a very exciting story, Turtle Whisperer, we look forward to the continuation.
    All the best,


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Hanna! And turtles were far from the last “friendly creatures” we ended up making friends with…


  2. What an exiting reports and again beautiful photos ! Greetings from Anja :)


  3. Keep in mind, whenever you are in water but overhead is a canopy of tree cover, water moccasins are known to fall out of the trees and into boats. These are mean, mean venomous snakes. Just be aware!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Dena! We did NOT know that–so good to be aware.

      Love your blog, by the way. Particularly enjoyed the brown bear = dangerous storm symbolism.

      Maybe with your newfound dream-interpretation powers, you can tell me what the significance is of always dreaming about kayaking—indoors! :-) (It’s usually someplace like a mall, that inexplicably also has a network of canals. It’s fun paddling past all the people!)


      • There should be no reason for that to be symbolism. MAKE IT HAPPEN! I’d love to kayak in a mall.

        For the record, I would love to mention that most dream interpretations involving water are symbolic of body and soul/spirit. I have no clue, to be honest, but I’m quite jealous that you seem to manage cleansing your spirit in your sleep, and in a mall. Both of those stress me out! haha


  4. I’ve been away from my usual web haunts for a while, and return to find this terrific adventure unfolding. Great story and beautiful photos. Egmont Key looks quite amazing.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Welcome back! And yes, Egmont Key IS amazing. I highly, highly recommend a visit (while it’s still there). There are ferries that appear to run from the mainland if you don’t want to paddle across Tampa Bay…


  5. Oh boy what an adventure! You’ve got us hooked. Many years ago I canoed the Everglades….. Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures!


  6. Love vicariously enjoying your trips from my desk! What was the cause of the chine bar separation?


    • At the very front of the frame of the boat, there is a bolt that couples the front ends of the two chine bars to the central plate that forms the bow. This bolt had sheared through previously, and been replaced with a plastic tie, which now apparently also snapped when the boat was fully assembled and Johna pressed hard on the footpegs. (Of course, all this was happening inside the skin so that we couldn’t see what was happening.) The result was that the front sections of the chine bars were able to slide an inch or two forward (until arrested by the skin) relative to the middle and rear sections, which stayed put, so opening up a gap in the chine bar…


      • Yikes! Have a Wisper with a brace plate attached to a rib but good to know what can go wrong w a folder! Thanks.


        • There’s a lot of redundancy in these boats so that, when the different little attachments that hold the large parts together start falling off ( :-) ), there are still enough mutually supporting parts that the boat holds firmly together, especially once the sponsons are inflated and the skin tightened. But there are some weak spots, and this appears to be one. Remember, though, that this is a very old K-Light (first generation, not the newer K-Light that Feathercraft returned to making later) and as such a pretty bare-bones design. I think the later Feathercraft boats, even the smaller ones, became much sturdier…


  7. Terrific pictures, exciting tale though I’m scared for you both amongst snakes, alligators etc. The turtles are adorable..just as are you two. Keep smiling, stay safe. (Gosh! my maternal streak is surfacing…tut-tut.)


  8. ……forgot to ask;- what’s the story behind Fort Dade?


    • Briefly (from Wikipedia):

      “At the start of the Spanish-American War, Fort Dade (named for Major Francis L. Dade, who was killed in a battle in the Second Seminole War) was established on Egmont Key to protect Tampa Bay from a Spanish attack. It consisted of several coastal artillery batteries protecting the main ship channel into Tampa Bay, as well as a secondary channel to the south of the island. A hospital at Fort Dade was used to quarantine all American soldiers returning from Cuba for ten days. During World War I Fort Dade was used as a training center for National Guard Coast Artillery Units. The fort was deactivated in 1921. Egmont Key was put to military use again during World War II, as a harbor patrol station and an ammunition storage facility.”

      A nice gallery of photos of the ruins of the fort is here.


  9. Fun! What a great adventure!


  10. Truly an awesome adventure! Great post, beautiful photos!


  11. Loved the Don CeSar Hotel. That’s some trip!



    I read it until the end. Did you slice off the untouched portion of apple? The photographs are wonderful. the green sea against the blue sky! Just wonderful stamina, BOTH of you! MORE please?


  13. I’m exhausted just reading about your adventures. Phew! Your photos are gorgeous. This is all too much for a homebody like me to wrap my head around. Watch out for those venomous snakes!


  14. I loved your post and photos! I’m so glad you’re sharing it with us. I know how much effort goes into a write-up and photo editing, so thank you!



  15. Love the deserted beach camp. Thats my style of kayak adventure


  16. Terrific photos, excellent post… :-)


  17. Johna , this looks like the type of challenge Solstice was designed for . Will she be part of the kit transported down next year ? I have a couple of Pals who completed one of these challenges or marathons a few years ago and a challenge it was but said it was out of sight and made more than a few friends along the way . I do remember them having to complete a smaller or qualifying challenge in order to get into the longer challenge . Is this still the case ?


    • Yes, I think Johna is planning to bring Solstice for the actual race, or, if transport is too difficult, to rent an equivalent boat down in Florida.

      There is no qualifying requirement for the Everglades Challenge. But there is an even longer race, the Ultimate Florida Challenge—round the whole of Florida—for which the Everglades Challenge serves as a qualifying event :-)


  18. What an exciting adventure, with beautiful images to go along with your story.


  19. nutsfortreasure

    Stunning photos and words


  20. Mad Queen Linda

    I want to create additional logons so I can press like numerous times.


  21. Great trip and story (so far) and I feel like a kid waiting for the next installment. And congrats on the BCU 3 star.


  22. I love reading about your adventures. I hope one day I too can take a kayaking trip in the ocean.


  23. Alligators, venomous snakes, mosquitoes, and scorpions —
    remind me again, this was a PLEASURE trip because?
    Only kidding, this is the sort of adventure the two of you obviously exult in, and give the rest of us vicarious thrills in the recounting. So well told, it’s like a serial and I can’t wait for the next installment — and the manatee —


  24. Although I went to college in near-by Sarasota, FL, I never went to this island. Thanks for sharing and for bringing back memories.


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  26. Wonderful series of photos, and I so enjoyed your adventure tale. :)


  27. Laurie Bleich

    You guys always have great stories-and this one is really good. And beautiful photos.


  28. I used to live in Florida. I love Manatees. Mosquitos love to bite me. I don’t love them. Your trip sounds wonderful.


  29. Awesome photos and story of your adventure. Thanks for sharing and also for checking out my blog.


  30. Wow! What an adventure! At least your ordeal paid off with a beautiful discovery. Deserted beaches are certainly a rarity in Florida. :)


  31. What an experience! I know that you saw some beautiful sights. Reading about the slow paddling was a slightly uncomfortable reminder to me of the time that I paddled 10 miles across Mobile Bay with a group of friends, an event that taught me a lesson on the importance of the right equipment, current and wind conditions. But it all turned out okay in the end and was a rewarding experience overall, as was your adventure. Thanks for sharing and for visiting my blog.


    • Yes, these occasions can be exhilarating or scary, depending on the conditions. This day was actually exhilarating. We did not feel apprehensive, the way we might have in the Northeast. We were just going very slowly. In fact, nowhere on this trip, or our previous paddling trips in Florida, have we yet experienced scary conditions. (It’s bound to happen eventually!) Florida paddling feels benign—in some cases deceptively benign—because of the warm water, sunshine, shallows everywhere onto which you can step out if you need to…


  32. jalal michael sabbagh.

    Beautiful adventure,Glad you enjoyed the trip.Thank you for visiting my blog.Warm regards.jalal


  33. a pleasure to read and hear about you adventures! hope it went well… and that a full recap of the trip might follow? miss u both!


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  35. Wow, I didn’t know you visited our area. Our home is just a block away from the “Pink Tower.” I hope you had a wonderful time exploring the Gulf of Mexico. :)


    • What fun! We’ve actually been down in St. Pete, staying in the Pink Tower and elsewhere, several times in the past year. And we’ll be back again soon—most definitely for the start of the Everglades Challenge in March 2014, but also for another event already this August… :-)


  36. Btw, I was looking at your picture: the first morning where you packed your boat on the beach, and I couldn’t believe it – it’s the beach I see every day when I wake up in the morning. You have been very, very close to me. Well, I really hope you had a wonderful visit in St. Pete Beach. :)


    • It’s a beautiful beach! All that fine sugar-white sand—never seen any like it. Of course, it did get into everything as we were packing the boats ;-)

      Quite a few posts on this blog have photos taken on that beach, on previous visits—for instance, this one, and this, and this


  37. Johna, great post! You have managed to make me homesick for the Sarastoa Bay area, where I went to college. Thanks for sharing your adventures.


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