Taking on the Florida Keys Challenge
January 12-22, 2012
My timing was perfect.
I joined the Paddle Florida Keys Challenge at Long Key State Park just after sunset as dinner was being served. "Hurry, get in line, Doug!" Bill Richards called to me even before I stepped out of my car. I quickly greeted paddling friends and was introduced to several new ones.
After a glass-calm opening day from John Pennekamp State Park, the group had encountered fierce winds over the next two days and one paddler took an unscheduled swim. Still, spirits were high, the cool weather was keeping bugs at bay, and no rain was in the immediate forecast. An unfettered panorama of stars lay across the vault of sky overhead. As a steady breeze rustled through the palms, I lay in my tent that night with an eager anticipation to begin paddling the remaining 78 miles to Key West.
In the morning, Monday, we embarked for Curry Hammock State Park eleven miles away with a strong wind at our backs. It was a good way to warm up my sea legs since my trips during the past couple of years had mostly been on calm rivers. As we crossed the 2.5 mile stretch of open water at the Long Key Channel, the waves kicked up to an irregular chop. Waves lifted up my bow and stern and rocked me from side to side. My legs shook a bit as they always do when first encountering rough water. Fear. It's natural. In a kayak, it must be faced by paddling and pausing at the right times and being firmly entrenched in the boat with thighs and hips, feeling confident in your craft, your skills, and your companions. As a back-up, we had the Coast Guard Auxiliary shadowing us in a small boat, so there was no need to worry. Plus, several paddlers were in radio contact with each other.
More choppy waters greeted us on the way to Knight's Key the next day, Tuesday, but a lunch stop at Sombrero Beach couldn't have been better. Palm-lined with bright white sand, this was a tropical a beach as you could ask for, perfect for the many folks in our group from northern states. According to Bill, just less than half of the group was from Florida. Sixteen were from Michigan, 7 from Georgia, 3 from Vermont, 2 from Alabama, 2 from New Jersey, 2 from Virginia, 2 from Tennessee and one each from Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Oklahoma and West Virginia. January in sunny South Florida—who could ask for more?
Several scurrying iguanas added to the tropical flavor at Sombrero Beach, even though they are exotic pests that compete with native wildlife. The Florida Park Service is trying to rid them from the state parks, trapping hundreds. One large iguana at Bahia Honda is being called "Godzilla" due to his ability to evade capture.
We took the sheltered Sister's Creek the last three miles of our journey to the campground. Several paddlers branched off to explore thick mangrove tunnels in Boot Key while a few others occupied stools at the waterside Burdines bar and restaurant. The Keys are fun that way, offering several diverse choices.
Launching on Wednesday, I busted my butt at the slippery launch from Knight's Key. It was the only thing that marred an otherwise perfect day. I was the sweep boat for the Seven Mile Bridge crossing, and most of it was a glass calm. Waters were clear and the once choppy ocean became a giant aquarium. Large orange Bahama starfish, stingrays, corals, sponges, sea grasses and fish could all be seen. Some of us explored the historic Pigeon Key, once used as a base for railroad workers. The Florida Keys Challenge was being made on the centennial of Henry Flagler's Over-Sea Railroad reaching Key West, so the railroad history had extra relevance. Eight century-old buildings on Pigeon Key are being well maintained for educational and historic purposes, and one houses the Railroad Museum. Several thousand men were involved in building the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad.
A few folks paddled between the old and new bridges of the seven-mile crossing while others stopped at Molasses Key, an overnight stop along the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail around the entire state. Lunch was on another uninhabited island, Money Key, as idyllic an island as you could ask for with a sandy beach and palms. The Coast Guard Auxiliary was kind enough to ferry Jan and Sally to the island—along with our lunch—since there is no road access.
After lunch, Monica Woll of the Office of Greenways and Trails in Key Largo guided a few of us on a tour of other islands on the way to Bahia Honda State Park, including Rachel Carson Key, named after the famous environmental scientist. It pays to take your time and paddle in the rear, and I labeled the sweep section of the trip "Margaritaville" to connote the laid-back mood.
That evening, Monica gave a fascinating talk about the Flagler Railroad and the historic bridges we were paddling alongside. A railroad to Key West, once considered Flagler's Folly, was later viewed as an Olympian engineering feat and labeled "the eighth wonder of the world." It wasn't economically successful, however, and it suffered a slow decline to bankruptcy. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, perhaps the strongest in contemporary Keys history, served as a final blow. But without Flagler showing the way, and leaving sturdy bridge spans all the way to Key West, the Overseas Highway might not have been built. And today, bicyclists and hikers often utilize some of the original railroad spans on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, and kayakers enjoy paddling along the artistic concrete bridge arches built by Flagler.
Thursday was a day off at Bahia Honda State Park. There was no better place to hike trails canopied by sea grape trees, savor ice-cream cones, join other paddlers in yoga on the abandoned bridge overlooking Bahia Honda Sound, and take a snorkeling trip on Looe Key Reef. I also got to try a sailing kayak under the tutelage of Jon Sairs of Vermont. Jon, his wife Ann, and his mother Sally, sailed their BSD rigs for much of the trip since the winds were favorable. John is a dealer for the rigs, www.sailyourkayak.com. Such a peaceful and quiet way to move on the water.
Friday was surfing day. Paddling 18 miles with a 10 to 15 mile-per-hour tailwind means surfing most of the way to the Sugarloaf Key KOA. The only tricky part was in places where strong currents running under bridges would hit the kayak broadside, prompting more rocking from side to side. I had placed some extra weight in the stern of my boat and that helped. Lunch was at the scenic Big Munson Island, managed by the Boy Scouts, where picnic tables are nestled in small tree-covered coves. Shade is always welcome during an open water paddle.
The Sugarloaf Key KOA is one of the oldest campgrounds in the Keys and busy, with a large RV presence, but it also has a spacious tent camping area. Entertainment was provided by Tammerlin—Lee Hunter and Arvid Smith. The skilled duo hails from Jacksonville. "We're looking for any excuse to come down to the Keys," Lee said. We were a tough audience, however, because most people started yawning soon after dinner. It wasn't the music, just the sun, wind and exercise.
It was unusually calm as we paddled out of Sugarloaf on Saturday. The sail kayak folks had to paddle as well. But once we rounded the point of Sugarloaf Key and headed in a westerly direction, our friend the tailwind greeted us ever so gently. Several in the group vowed to make this a leisurely paddle since this was our last full day—20 miles.
In one section, along an unspoiled mangrove shore of the Western Sambos Ecological Reserve, scores of brown pelicans dove for fish, ospreys circled and white ibis probed the shallows. A manta ray shot out from beneath my boat, and a small shark worked the shoreline. This wildlife haven was a welcome treat.
Speaking of wildlife, our last night's camp at Boyd's Campground was fun with lots of spirits and snacks and a lively concert by Rod MacDonald. He was joined by Tammerlin for a few songs and most of us managed to stay awake for both entertaining sets. It was a fun way to spend our last evening together. The only drawback was the talkative and frisky young people in the campsite next to mine. It was difficult to sleep.
We paddled into Key West the next day under clear skies and, you guessed it, with a strong tailwind! A Disney cruise ship passed before us as we pulled into Fort Taylor State Park around the same time that Henry Flagler first arrived on his Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad a century ago. Everyone felt a sense of accomplishment. Flagler had enormous challenges in completing his dream and we had a few of our own, though not nearly as severe. Having a tailwind certainly helped.
As I closed my eyes that night, I could easily visualize the warm faces of my paddling companions and feel the gentle rocking of Atlantic waters along the Florida Keys. The trip would soon become a memory, one cherished by all those who participated and helped to make it a reality.
Besides commemorating the Flagler centennial, the Keys Challenge was noteworthy for other reasons. At 11 days, it was the longest trip in terms of time that Paddle Florida has ever organized and it couldn't have happened without the flexibility and assistance offered by the Florida Park Service. If you've ever tried to get a reservation for a winter campsite in the Keys, you know how difficult it is, but try organizing camping for almost 70 people! Four state parks were utilized for camping—Pennekamp, Long Key, Curry Hammock and Bahia Honda. Fort Taylor State Park served as a fitting end point for the trip. Also, four private campgrounds were used along with a Boy Scout camp.
The Keys challenge was also the largest group to have ever paddled together from Key Largo to Key West in contemporary history and the largest group to have paddled a complete segment of the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. The feat will likely remain a benchmark for years to come.