Key to Kayaking in Florida
…it doesn’t always have to be epic
With a pair of incredibly dull telemark skis resurrected from a dump and a love of the mountains, I found myself ass over teakettle heading down a chute, my jacket filling with snow, coming to a most ungraceful stop at the bottom of the mountain to cheers from the patiently awaiting party. I was completely out of my league, but that was backwoods British Columbia, and I was younger then and yes, it was epic.
What does this have to do with kayaking? Year’s later, while I still don’t know any better, I have come to a realization that not everything has to be grand to be worthy of a great adventure.
This winter, Barry and I went on an abbreviated trip to Florida. Traveling along the overseas highway we reached our base at the not so touristy Big Pine Key where we had rented a very last minute apartment. Our first day included the compulsory sunburn (never said I was any wiser) during a leisurely walk on the beach at Bahia Honda State Park. Arriving back to the apartment we realized we were sharing it with some long-time residents – a sticky-footed and well-fed gecko that occupied the bedroom, and a family of roaches that lived under the kitchen sink. Who wants to cook anyway when you can easily get a cheeseburger in paradise?
Without an agenda, we drove down to Summerland Key where we put-in at the end of a road. Being familiar with how tides can create challenges for kayakers, we were keen to get there at high tide. It didn’t seem to matter this time since there was only about a foot-high tide, besides, as is typical with our explorations, we edged closer and closer to the shallows, running aground on the soft sand and occasionally finding ourselves sitting on shelves of tangled grasses.
We quietly paddled towards the numerous shorebirds and hawks perched on the mangroves and watched them stab at skittish schools of fish. Our paddles scared up juvenile nurse sharks and stingrays, forcing them to dart off in the opposite direction. We meandered in the shallow and sheltered waters fringed by mangroves, as if floating over an aquarium stocked with tropical fish.
Most of the time we paddled in 6-inches of water – and if it wasn’t for all the jellyfish bobbing on the surface, we could have walked. Half way through the day, I realized I was wearing my lifejacket. It seemed kind of silly, but in the words of a wise friend, “not as silly as drowning in 6-inches of water.”– Where was that voice of reason 25 years ago?
On an early morning run, to moderate the effects of all those cheeseburgers, I was surprised at a nonplussed buck standing by the side of the road, which at 3-feet high looked more like a lawn ornament. Big Pine Key is home to the endangered key deer. These miniature herbivores are a subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer and are a highly protected species. With all the signs and warnings on the roads, hitting a deer with your car would have been as sacrilegious as running over a cow in India.
A walk through the Key Deer Refuge showed evidence of the effects of hurricane Wilma in 2005. The storm surge flooded the area with salt water and left behind the skeletal remains of slash pine trees. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the remaining pine rockland stands represent less than 3% of their original extent. The bare trees were perfect perches for the bald eagles, but a troubling reminder of the rising sea levels.
Down the road from our apartment was a large blue freshwater hole set in the pocked limestone. The resident American Alligators appeared to be patiently waiting for handouts at the edge of the observation platform – clearly accustomed to people feeding them.
While we only spent a couple of days kayaking in the keys, the last-minute nature meant that I didn’t have time to do infinite Internet searches for the best places to eat, sleep, walk or watch the sunset. I didn’t have time to read every disgruntled review that was sure to color my perceptions. This trip was wonderfully unplanned, and it allowed us to discover an area that subsides largely on tourism in an uncharted way. We sampled a few different restaurants and resisted buying the obligatory mile marker t-shirts (what’s with that?), drank cheap beer and didn’t worry about where to catch the best sunset. And in case you’re wondering? Sure, Key West was nice and most certainly a bit of a spectacle, but the sunset at Key Deer Refuge was epic!