I originally planned this trip as a solo trip for this time last year but my only window of opportunity between house renovations and company found several days of small craft advisories and generally bad weather forecast for a week and I was unable to go. Over the summer weekday paddling trips I told Norm and Bea of my plans and invited them to come down for some fun in the sun during the cold New England winter. Neither were sure at the time but things came together in November and they surprised me by making plans to come down and we finally picked dates that coincided with a holiday weekend to give that extra day. And so they arrived in Tampa on the night of the 9th Jan.
I have made numerous trips by kayak and canoe in the Everglades area of southern Florida but had never ventured into Florida Bay before. The Bay is mostly part of The Everglades National Park and is comprised of the water between the Florida mainland and the Florida Keys. The whole area is very shallow, you'd have to scour the chart very carefully to find anywhere more than 10 ft deep and in fact there are many areas where it is not even possible to paddle a kayak, and there are many marked channels that even themselves are only a few feet deep. There are a lot of "1"s on the chart for low water depths ! The tides in this area are also confusing. They are easily influenced by strong winds and are a combination of the regular Atlantic tides and the Gulf tides making for some weird double high tides and long periods of low tides. I had tide info printouts from NOAA from 3 different areas of our trip but as there was only 1 ft between highs and lows and we encountered strong winds, I found them confusing. The area would appear to be protected but as we found out, it could be brutal paddling with nowhere to shelter from the wind and sometimes nowhere to get out of the kayak for lunch or to stretch. Here is a link to the Everglades National Park Florida Bay brochure... http://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/u ... spread.pdf
The National Park has 4 primitive campsites in Florida Bay, 2 are small islands (or keys) and 2 are raised wooden platforms called "chickees". There is also camping at the State Park at Long Key, on the Florida Keys island chain. Combining all these sites we made a circular tour of the bay. The National Park sites can only be booked 24hrs in advance and cost $10 for the permit plus $2 per person per night so for 5 nights the total was $40. Long Key State Park have " walk in" only sites that we called on the day from the middle of the Bay, it cost $8 per person. In Key Largo there is a great paddling outfitter, Florida Bay Outfitters http://www.kayakfloridakeys.com/
who have large selection of kayaks for rent, a kayak/canoe launch and a safe place to leave the truck for a week. Norm and Bea both needed to rent so this was a convenient place to start our trip as it was only a short-ish paddle to our first night stop.
Norm has hundreds of great pics of the trip and Bea was snapping a few shots too so they plan to post the pics.
A brief summary of our trip is as follows...
9th Jan.. Pick up Norm and Bea at Tampa Airport.
10th Jan.. Spend the day doing last minute shopping and calling National Parks for our camping permit and organizing gear into dry bags.
11th.. Leave early for the 4 1/2 hr drive to Key Largo, fill out paperwork for rentals and squeeze a ton of gear into 3 skinny boats. Norm and Bea chose Wilderness Systems Tempest 170's. Hit the water around 2.30 heading for North Nest Key and our first night of beach camping and spectacular sunsets! 8.4 nautical miles.
12th.. An east wind gave us a nice downwind run all day. Caught some nice surfs and it was neat paddling in the heavy warm rain squalls that passed us. Navigated through some shallow passes that were marked by stakes. After a floating lunch we arrived at our destination, Shark Point Chickee. We had covered 17.4 nm between 9.30am and 3.30pm. That night thunder storms rolled around for hours and it was a little worrying to be stuck in a tent on top of a tall platform, in fact the tallest point for many miles around !!
13th.. Left our camp towards the Flamingo Ranger Station in fog, so we were relying on compass only. The fog burned off eventually and after following the long "Tin Can Channel" we arrived at the pink building of Flamingo. There is a small marina store there so we stocked up on bread, water, beer and chips for our salsa (the essentials). We had lunch there and Bea bought us all an ice cream. We visited the ranger station then back to load up. Norm had a close encounter with a manatee and managed to get some close up pics. A few hours later we were at Johnson Key Chickee, our camp for the night. We snorkeled to clean off and cool off and back up on the platform watched the sea life below, including a few Stingrays and a Nurse Shark. Another spectacular sunset ended a great day. we paddled a total of 14.4 nm.
14th Jan.. Woke to a damp foggy morning, were we in Florida or Maine ?? Today was the day of the long crossing to Long Key on the Florida Keys chain of islands. It looked like we would be relying on the compass for the day, the wind shifted to the north so once again we had a push all day. To the east was a large very shallow grassy bank that we had to avoid or risk being stuck til the tide came in who knows when, so we were aiming to follow a dog leg course to avoid the grass and try to pick up the marked intracoastal channel about 10 miles to our south. By taking our time and trusting our compass we eventually picked out the channel markers and had made it out of the shallows. For a while we couldn't see any land whatsoever, it was a neat feeling. As soon as we arrived on Long Key we spied a small beach to land on for lunch then it was another 2 miles round to the Atlantic side of the island to our site at Long Key State Park. We camped on a wooded platform and enjoyed the cold showers after a long day. We had paddled 18.1 nm of which 14 nm were open.
15th.. After breakfast we re filled the water for the rest of the trip and headed out on the sheltered side of Long Key. As we turned north the wind was now against us and it was foggy again so back relying on the compass. I had marked numerous channels that were visible on Google Earth but not marked on charts, one we were going to try today around the Buchanan Keys but it turned out to go through the island under the mangroves and was impassable. We skidded passed anyway and eventually arrived at our destination, Little Rabbit Key, our own private island that took all of 3 minutes to walk around. We had heard it was good snorkeling so we spent the afternoon circumnavigating by snorkel. There were plenty of fish and a surprising amount of lobsters. We paddled 13.8nm.
16th.. Breakfast early as today was going to be "THE LONG DAY" of the trip and the wind was paying us back by blowing against us all the way. The surfing we had enjoyed for 3 days now became a hard slog, I looked at my GPS at one point and we were doing 1.9 kts! We persevered and took shelter behind islands when we could but it was usually 4 or 5 miles between these breaks. We packed lots of snacks instead of stopping for lunch and this is what kept us going all day. The 15 to 20kt wind produced some big chop and we were frequently washed over by the rogue waves. The warm water, constantly changing color of the sea and the sunshine made up for it. North Nest Key finally came into view and it seemed to take forever to get there but we finally made it around 5.30pm after 9 hrs on the water. We had gone 21.9 nm, it seemed like 30 !
17th.. We all slept well and rose late. It was a 2 coffee morning and we spent half the morning relaxing and savoring the last morning camping on the beach. A 3 hr paddle brought us back to civilization, waterfront bars, cigarette boats, jetskis etc. Back at the outfitters, Norm and Bea bought up half the store and after another 4 1/2 hr drive we arrived back at my place in Sarasota. We had gone 7.8nm on the water.
It was an excellent trip, personally I enjoyed the navigational challenge, especially the long crossing, and also the downwind surfing in a fully loaded kayak and of course the excellent company of my weekday paddling buddies. I'm glad they could make the trip.
We paddled 101.8 nm in total and I think we experienced every type of weather (except the cold stuff). Attached is a google earth image of our actual gps track and the campsites we used.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy Norms pics.