Tag Archives: Florida

Circumnavigating Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel sunrise

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad and I used to joke that in Florida, the wind and current are always against you: the “Florida rules” of kayaking.

So when I planned a circumnavigation of Sanibel Island (13 nautical miles, give or take), I knew better than to apply “New York rules”. In favorable conditions you can complete a circumnavigation of Manhattan (26 miles) in 6 to 7 leisurely hours (averaging around 4 knots). So in theory, you could zip around Sanibel in four hours, plus stops.

Clockwise around Sanibel Island

But in Florida, you’re lucky if you can average much more than two to three knots, unless you’re doing a one-way run with wind and current consistently in your favor. Even then, Florida conditions have a way of confounding the best-made plans—as I was about to re-discover.

To get around Sanibel Island, I figured a conservative 7 hours, maybe 8, just to be on the safe side. I had picked a perfect day: Not only was the air temp in the 80s,  and water temp in the 70s, but the winds were predicted to be a modest 7 mph (6 knots). If I timed things correctly, I should be able to travel up-coast on the flood and down-coast on the ebb.

The first inkling that Florida planned otherwise came the day before my trip, when I was checking the tides to decide which direction to go (clockwise or counterclockwise) to catch the flood and the ebb as I’d planned.

What was this? The mid-day low tide was missing entirely (see tide chart below). That meant no matter what I did, I’d be paddling against the current for at least half the trip. Still, I figured if I launched by 10 AM with the predicted light breeze, I’d make it home by dark.

Where did the midday low tide go?

Just to be sure, though, I packed a headlamp… and a backup headlamp… and a GPS… and boat lights. Good thing, as it turned out!

That morning, there was a lively dumping surf on the beach; not big waves, but strong ones. So I was pleased to make a successful surf launch, and set off a few minutes after 10. The sun sparkled off the waves, the moderate breeze was behind me, and I was flying up the Gulf towards Captiva Island, propelled by the rising tide.

In what seemed like no time I reached the bridge separating Sanibel from Captiva. I briefly entertained the notion of continuing on toward the next inlet, but it would add miles to the trip, and if my calculations were correct, I’d be traveling against both the wind and the current soon. So I regretfully decided to turn in as originally planned. (Good thing!)

Idle speed, no wake…

As I passed under the bridge, the environment made the usual shift from “outside” to “inside”. Outside—on the Gulf coast—are rolling swells crashing onto long sandy beaches. Inside, the water is placid and peaceful, gently lapping the roots of mangroves.

I paddled past a cormorant blinking lazily on the sun atop an “idle speed” sign. Up ahead… was that a tiny island made up of gray boulders? No, it was a tightly packed flock of pelicans roosting together on a sand bar.

Passel of pelicans

A little further on, I tried to take a photo of some white birds in trees (either ibises or egrets, I couldn’t tell from the distance).  But characteristically, though they tolerated my approach without fear, the sight of the camera sent them flapping away.

I rounded the western point of Sanibel Island and began heading east down the coast. Up ahead I saw a fin lazily slicing through the water. Was that a shark? Dolphins typically arc up and down, disappearing for long moments, then reappearing with somewhere else. But this fin was moving in a level horizontal motion…

It wasn’t until I saw a fine spray and heard the characteristic gasp that I was confident the fin belonged to a dolphin.   I paddled up close and got a shot, then continued on my way.

Not a shark

True to my prediction, I was paddling against both the current and what seemed to be a light, but stronger-than-predicted, breeze. I was now moving quite a bit more slowly, and having to work harder at it. Seemingly endless mangrove swamps and keys unspooled to my right. My mind spun free, and for long stretches of time, all I thought about was the next stroke.

Slowly, a line of electrical poles appeared in front of me, linking Sanibel with the mainland. I remembered with a jolt when I’d seen them last: In the middle of the night during the Everglades Challenge. The first traces of the hallucinations that would dog both me and Vlad at night had just begun; I had begun hallucinating a giant George Washington bridge overhead. (Vlad was seeing pop-up decoy ducks on the waves).

Things looked very different in the bright light of early afternoon, but one thing that hadn’t changed was the frustrating slowness of my pace. I recalled how the Ding Darling preserve seemed to go on forever, the mangroves dark against the starry sky. Now they were dark green against bright blue, but it still seemed as though I was inching along.

And there was something else: The wind was picking up. There were small whitecaps everywhere, and the placid water had become choppy. When I caught sight of a flag on a boat, it was usually straight out and flapping crisply. The predicted 6 knot wind had become more like 16 knots.

It was coming from the south, which meant I could shelter from it by staying close to the mangroves—except where there were shoals. As I drew closer to the embayment right before Tarpon Bay, I realized I had to make a choice: Either cut straight across the embayment (and deal with the full force of the wind), or go a couple miles out of my way to keep out of the wind.

Lighthouse in late afternoon

I decided to cut across.

After a few minutes, maybe half an hour, a boat pulled up to me. “Are you okay?” the captain asked. “It’s pretty windy out!”

I explained that I was fine. (Note to concerned boaters: if a paddler is making steady progress with regular strokes,  not attempting to attract your attention, the chances are extremely good that she is fine. Even if she’s alone. Even if she’s a woman!)

Still, it was good of him to check—and he was right, the wind had picked up. Nearly every swell sported a wind-against-current whitecap. It was definitely bouncy!

Slowly, slowly, I pulled across the embayment, and once again approached land. Thankful for the shelter, I set my sights on the next milestone: The Sanibel causeway. Once again, my mind flashed back to the last time I’d seen it from the water: In the middle of the night, surrounded by bioluminescence. Four years ago.

It seemed like another lifetime.

I passed under the bridge without incident, and began pulling towards the lighthouse. The sun was low in the sky by this time, but I was still fairly confident I’d make it home by dark. How far could it be? An hour, tops?

I stopped to take pictures of the lighthouse, where people and pelicans clustered in a happy riot. Then I rounded the tip of the island, skirting the predictable chop at the point.

Home stretch!  It would be a straight shot up the beach from here. The only challenge would be locating which, among the seemingly identical condos, was the place I was staying.

The wind had died down slightly, and the current was at last with me once more, but I was still riding swell after swell. Trees, houses, and white sandy beach unspooled to my right. And the sun sank slowly in the sky.

I stopped to take a photo as it sank behind Knapps Point. Lovely, but it meant that for sure,  I’d be paddling home in the dark.

Sanibel sunset

I put on the headlamp and kept going, as the sky faded into purplish dusk. Before long  stars began to appear. The moon was waning,  last quarter, so I knew better than to expect the help of moonlight.

Slowly the buildings blurred into the night sky. Where was the condo? Even with the headlamp, the silhouettes of the condos seemed frustratingly similar. Which one was mine?

Finally I picked a location that I thought looked good, and did a surf landing.

I dragged the boat up the beach and looked around. There was a sign: Hurricane House.  I remembered the location: just a bit short of where I was staying.

Could I walk there, pulling  the boat along in the water behind me using the tow rope, as I’d done in the past?


The surf was too strong; the first incoming wave swamped the boat. Damn it! Now I had to drag the boat back up the beach and empty it.

After doing that,  I launched again and paddled further up the beach. I glimpsed down at my deck, and realized that the wave that had swamped the boat had also washed away my chart. Double-damn it! (Note to self: When making surf landings in the dark, stow chart inside deck bag.)

Oh well. I could always order another one. I kept paddling, into the deepening night.

After about fifteen minutes, I pulled into shore again. Once again, I dragged the boat up the beach. Once again, I looked around.

This time I saw the silhouette of someone—a woman—on the balcony. I asked her for the street address, which she gave me. Figures! This time I’d overshot.

By now it was pitch dark. I got back into the boat and paddled back in the direction from which I’d come. Suddenly the silhouettes to my left began looking familiar: Two palm trees… a big space… and a cluster of palm trees.

This was it! Third time’s a charm. Sure enough, that was the silhouette of my condo.

I checked my watch after dragging the boat up the beach. 7:45 PM. It had taken me nearly 10 hours to travel a dozen nautical miles (including about 45 minutes of going back and forth in the dark).

I could feel the sunburn on my cheeks, and my hands were blistered.  And of course, I’d lost a chart.

But I was home. And it had been a splendid paddle, “Florida rules” and all!

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Island: Part Two

By Johna Till Johnson


The “Everything Tree” on Panther Key

In the bright light of full morning, I sat down to make coffee and breakfast… and had a rude shock. The Jetboil, which had worked perfectly well last night (and in pre-trip tests), now would no longer start.

This wasn’t catastrophic, but it was somewhat serious. You can start a Jetboil with a match.. but I’d brought just a handful of stormproof matches with me.  And I only had freezedried food, which required hot water to cook.  So I’d either have to cut short my trip, or curtail my eating—neither of which seemed ideal.

Normally I’d have been panicky. Well, actually, normally we would have fallen back on Vlad’s rickety stove, which he always packed even after we converted to the Jetboil. But there was no longer a “we”, and Vlad’s stove was somewhere back in New York. So that wasn’t an option.


From Pumpkin Bay to Fakahatchee and back

Instead of panicking, I took a close look at the mechanism. It basically works by placing a voltage across the gap between two pieces of wire. Current arcs across, and generates a spark. Close inspection revealed that one of the pieces of wire was encrusted with something, which would preclude any sparking.  I carefully filed it off with my knife, and tested.

It worked!

I sat back on my heels and smiled with satisfaction.  Perhaps it was my imagination, I but I could feel Vlad smiling, too.  I would have morning coffee—and a hot breakfast!

And then…what?

As the water for the coffee boiled, I savored a totally unfamiliar sensation: Complete freedom, with no deadlines or constraints.  I could paddle wherever took my fancy, go for as great or small a distance as I chose.

I could… freepaddle.


Paddling on the “inside”: Calm, clear, quiet

Russell had mentioned an Indian shell mound up by Pumpkin Bay, and said you could camp there. After inspecting the charts, I decided that would make a nice excursion for today. If I could find the shell mound (and it was indeed camp-able), I’d spend the night there. En route, I’d check out the other keys to see if they held attractive campsites, in case the shell mound didn’t work out.

I had a plan! And options.

I finished breakfast, packed up, and launched.

Paddling “inside” the Ten Thousand Islands is very different from paddling in the Gulf. The water is quieter, and it can feel almost dreamy at times, as you glide along under the mangroves.  Today was warm and calm, and I arrived at the Indian shell mound earlier than anticipated, in the early afternoon.

More accurately, I overshot the shell mound, going far enough up the Pumpkin River to get tangled in overhead branches before turning around, and ultimately sighting the (very narrow) landing spot. After securely tethering the boat to a mangrove, I scrambled up a short rise and into…

…a field of golden reeds, drying in the sun.

It was eerily quiet.


Reeds at the Pumpkin Bay Indian mound

Not that it’s exactly noisy out among the mangroves, aside from the occasional boat motor or croaking sea bird—but this was a special kind of quietness, charged with a low-key, but very real energy.  It was beautiful, and sad, and…not precisely hostile, but not welcoming.

I wandered around taking pictures, trying to decide if I wanted to camp there, and thinking  about the Calusa Indians who had inhabited the area until the mid-1700s. They were by all accounts quite fierce.  I suspected they would not have appreciated my presence overnight.

It was almost as if they were saying to me, “Thank you for appreciating our space, now go home.” Moreover, Russell had told me about hearing a Florida panther scream one night when he had camped there. I was prepared to deal with sharks and gators… but panthers?

Beautiful  as the place was, I wanted to return to the outer islands.  I decided to return to White Horse Key.

I had no trouble finding my way out of Pumpkin Bay  and arrived at White Horse Key by late afternoon, with plenty of time to make camp, cook dinner, and watch the sun set over my former campsite.


Sunset over Gullivan Key

I fell asleep watching Venus glimmering brightly beside the tiny sliver of the waning moon.

The morning dawned clear and beautiful—and noisy! There was the splash of pelicans striking the water as they fished, oblivious to the presence of the kayaker on the beach. That was complemented by the hoarse sound of dolphins breathing, as they arced above the nearly still water.

Once again there was the question of where to go next. This time, there was a complicating factor: a front was predicted to roll down from the north in two or three days, bringing with it rain, and more critically, wind. I’d need to find someplace where I could shelter—not right away, but soon.

I sipped my third cup of coffee and scrutinized the charts. Today’s trip would involve scoping out the only official “inland” campsite, at Fakahatchee Bay. If it turned out to be a good site, I’d shelter there for a couple of nights. If not, I’d continue on.

Satisfied with my vague plans, I prepared to launch.

A small motor boat had landed on the beach, disgorging a handful of people, clearly day-trippers in short and T shirts. One of them approached me.  He asked how far I was headed, and when I told him I had no idea, he was apparently stunned.

I smiled. Then I pushed my boat out into the waves.

There was a light breeze and satisfying chop. The keys drifted by to the left, first the length of White Horse, then Hog Key, and finally Panther Key.


Cloud, sky, mangroves…

As I paddled by Panther Key, I felt a pang of disappointment. It looked like a lovely place to camp, with a series of long, low, beaches facing the Gulf. But it was already quite evidently inhabited: tents (some quite large) were up in most of the campsites, and someone had hung a set of Spongebob Squarepants towels out to dry. Camping there didn’t seem to be an option for later that night, not if I wanted solitude.

There were a few empty spaces, though… and anyone who packed Spongebob Squarepants couldn’t be all bad! Maybe having neighbors wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The day passed lazily.  I located the inland campsite with no trouble, but it was clearly an “emergency only” site, at least for kayakers. Instead of a wide swath of beach, there was a short, steep cliff (too high to bring a kayak up, so the boat would have to be tethered on the water, and gear unloaded). And it was covered with vegetation, with no breeze and the persistent hum of mosquitos, even at midday.

Paddling back towards the Gulf, I once again passed Panther Key, with its strip of inhabited campsites.

There was a small fishing boat out front. I swerved out to sea to avoid its fishing lines. “I’ll try to stay clear,” I shouted to the captain, a wild-haired man of indeterminate age. “Oh I’d love to land a kayak,” he replied jovially. “I could mount it on my wall.”

Chuckling to myself I continued along my way, pulling closer to the shore to inspect the campsites. A little further on I encountered a couple of guys, one heavily sunburned and wearing what appeared to be billowing blue Bermuda shorts. He introduced himself as Mark, and we chatted. It turned out the campsites were part of a group of extended family and friends. The group spent a week here every year, relaxing and fishing. “Come join us for dinner!” Mark said. “We’ve caught lots of fish, more than we can eat!” With that, they ambled off down the beach.

I had to admit, the invitation sounded tempting, especially after nearly three days of freeze-dried food. I pulled the boat up on land and started looking for a suitable campsite.

A few minutes later, two women came by and introduced themselves as Carolyn and Eileen. They, too, invited me to stay for dinner—and suddenly, I was decided. I would-why not?


The kayak has landed! First campsite on Panther Key

I dragged the boat further up on land and tethered it to a palm tree. There was a nice snug campsite next to the tree, comfortably large enough for a bivy sack. And a nearby sign would provide just the support I needed to string up the mosquito netting I’d brought with me.

As I unpacked, I listened to the marine radio to monitor the progress of the storm front. The prediction had become considerably more dramatic: from 15 knot winds with 20 knot gusts (which I regularly paddled in), it had leapt to 25-knot winds with 30-knot gusts, which I (and most paddlers) didn’t want to get caught in.

Worse, the front was supposed to hit earlier than expected, by tomorrow night—which meant I needed to be holed up someplace safe by then.

One option was to stay where I was. It was actually ideally situated: facing south (the winds were predicted from the north) with a forest behind me. I mentally stored that idea, then finished setting up camp.


Panther Key friends

As the sun fell, I made my way over to the campfire that my new friends had started. It was next to the root ball of a gigantic overturned tree, which they used as a kind of ad-hoc storage closet. Hanging from the roots of the “everything tree”, or tucked between them, were plates, cups, cutlery, and various random articles of clothing (sunglasses, hats, flip-flops).

There were around a dozen people: a husband-and-wife couple (Carolyn and Mark), their friend Rob, Carolyn’s friend Eileen, the wild-haired fisherman (Dave),  his partner,  Carolyn and Mark’s 16-year-old daughter Rachel, Rob’s similarly-aged daughter, their boyfriends (who had brought the Spongebob towels), and confusingly, the boyfriend of Rob’s other daughter, who wasn’t there herself. There was also Rob’s dog, Wolfie, and Mark and Carolyn’s dog Bella.


Bella in the seat of honor

Rob offered me a beer, which I accepted gratefully. Even more welcome was Carolyn’s homemade smoked mullet chowder, with freshly caught and smoked mullet and made with potatoes, carrots, and peas. There was also fresh-caught shark, grilled over an open fire.

Warmed by the fire, and delighted by the conversation, I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It had been another entirely unexpected day.

A bit later I said goodnight and headed back to my campsite. Cocooned in my bivvy sack and draped in mosquito netting, I was perfectly at peace. Waves lapped the beach close by, and from farther off came the strains of the guitar music and the faint scent of woodsmoke.  Overhead the stars blazed, and I fell asleep under their benign light.


Sunrise on Panther Key (Wolfie and tree)

The next morning I awoke early to take pictures. I’d already decided it would be a “rest day”: Mark had advised that he and the rest of the crew would be heading out about noon, and I could have one of their campsites. It was perfect for riding out the storm front: I’d move to high ground,under the protective forest, out of the wind and any waves that resulted.


Second campsite: Snug under trees!

After helping my friends pack and saying goodbye, I moved camp, battening down the hatches (quite literally!) in preparation for the high winds that were supposed to hit that night.

Instead of paddling, I went for a leisurely swim, then napped in the late-afternoon sun.

After an early dinner, I tucked myself in to await the storm.


Cherry On Top

By Vladimir Brezina

Cherry on Top

A contribution to a recent Photo Challenge, Cherry on Top.


By Vladimir Brezina

On a Florida beach, different species stake out their respective territories with boundaries virtual—

Black skimmers on St. Pete Beach

or actual—

Still, invasion often occurs…

A monster approaches(Black skimmers on St. Pete Beach, Florida. Story and more photos here.)

A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Boundaries.


By Vladimir Brezina

Mischievous? Thieving is more like it.

Everywhere in our travels through the Florida Everglades, we encountered creatures that wanted something from us.

There were the mosquitoes, of course. But there were larger creatures too. The campsite in Fort De Soto Park, at the start of the Everglades Challenge, was infested with raccoons that, as soon as the sun went down, prowled through the camp without fear in search of food.

But the worst were the crows, those famously mischievous birds. Almost everywhere, as soon as our back was turned, there was a crow trying to fly off—sometimes successfully—with that apple or bag of cookies.

Here are some of the crows that laid siege to us as we were repacking our boats in Flamingo

Expectant crows

And then there are the black vultures of Flamingo,  which—as signs in the parking lot warn—have acquired a distinct taste for the rubber lining around car windows…

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Mischievous.

Chicks on the Beach

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

St. Pete Beach birds 24

On a beautiful Sunday morning, Vlad went out to photograph chicks on the beach.

No… it’s not what you’re thinking!

We were staying at the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach, Florida, where my company had just finished its annual conference. We tacked on a few days of vacation at the end.

And on the last day we heard about something unusual: a patch of beach where black skimmers (a kind of tern) were hatching their chicks. It was about a half-mile or so up the beach to the north, sandwiched right between hotels, roped off but otherwise out in the open, among the sunbathers and beach joggers.

St. Pete Beach birds 1So not too early on a Sunday morning, Vlad and I ventured out to see the skimmers and their chicks.



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Golden Hour at St. Pete Beach

By Vladimir Brezina

Beach scene at the Don CeSar 8

At the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, St. Petersburg Beach, Florida.

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