By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: East Clubhouse Beach.
Finish: Little Rabbit Key.
Distance: About 16 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 7.5 hours; average pace 2.1 knots.
Dawn broke early, with rose-streaked clouds. After the claustrophobic feel of the darkness last night, the water of Florida Bay stretched endlessly in front of us in the early morning light. The open water seemed to present us with infinite options for our day’s route.
But looks are deceiving.
In Florida Bay, the water can be very shallow—so shallow that even a kayak’s few inches of draw are too much, especially at low tide. And—as we would find out—you can’t just hop out and walk. Even when it’s overgrown by grass, the bottom is muddy, and you’ll sink, up to your knees or higher. A solo paddler could easily get stuck and have to wait, perhaps hours, for the tide to come in…
The trick lies in locating, and remaining inside, the channels carved into the muck. Most are formed by the natural movements of the water; a few are deepened and maintained by humans. The more important passes through the shallows are marked by stakes.So today, we’d need to find and follow the channels leading to today’s destination: Little Rabbit Key, a campsite key in the middle of the bay, half-way across to the final goal of the trip at Key Largo.
Once we’d breakfasted and cleaned up, we were ready to launch. Right into… a steady headwind that strengthened through most of the day. Nothing super-severe, maybe 12 knots or so. But enough to kick up the waves and slow our pace to just over 2 knots. This was frustrating. However, Little Rabbit Key wasn’t all that far away. We had plenty of time—or so we thought.
So off we paddled.
Sun, waves, sky. Sun, waves, sky. Sun playing peekaboo with the clouds that came and went overhead. Waves. And sky. And more waves.
And off on the horizon, a barely perceptible line of dark green dots-and-dashes: the keys of Florida Bay. But which ones?
We’d stare at the charts and GPS and make our best guess as to the names of the keys. Most of the time, it turned out we were right. A few times, though, the dots-and-dashes rose up into unfamiliar configurations, and we’d have to revisit the charts to get our bearings. And we’d pass the islands, and paddle onwards toward new dots-and-dashes.
All throughout, we struggled to stay within the channels. Sometimes we were misled, and found ourselves on a shoal. Sometimes we could cross over the shoal to the next channel. Other times we’d have to cast about to locate deeper water. Fortunately, the tide was coming in, so the shallows got just deep enough to keep us from running aground.
As usual, we ate lunch on the water—it’s a good thing we’re accustomed to that. It was a strange feeling to have land so distant on the horizon—yet so close underneath our boats.
So we paddled and paddled, as the sun sank lower in the sky. Finally we located a low blob on the horizon, at the end of a trail of blobs. Little Rabbit Key!
Just as the sun was setting, we pulled up to the island. Or almost. There was a shoal, just a few inches deep, blocking access to the island. We had to make a longish detour around it to pull up to the campsite, which was marked by a wooden dock jutting out into the water, with a tiny but solid beach alongside. Farther inland, there was a picnic table and a couple of port-a-potties. (Alas, there were no actual rabbits—none that we found, anyway.) We decided to set up the tent near the picnic table, a short walk away from the boats.
But the island was ringed in mangroves, and we worried about bugs.
Fortunately, our bug gear was up to the challenge. And after the sunset faded, we set about making camp and dinner,
happy to have the picnic table to cook from.
As we trekked back and forth from the boats to the tent, I noticed something unusual on the trail: tiny sparks of electric blue glowing like luminescent jewels. They seemed to be embedded in the trail, but when I looked away and looked back again, they appeared to have moved.
I knelt down and realized they were… spider eyes, reflected in the glow of our headlamps. The tiny spiders froze when the light hit them, then quickly scuttled along when our headlamps turned away.
I was enchanted. I don’t mind spiders—in fact I kind of like them—but I’d never seen blue-eyed ones before. It seemed a good omen.
Here are more photos from Day 5 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.