The route the guide books say, had me staying at a hotel tonight but when I looked it up it was $200 a night and they didn’t do one night. I went looking for another place and with the help of google earth I found one that looked like I could paddle up to it. It was a mile and a half out of the way but for $50 I could make it work. I paddled through the intercoastal getting passed by some nice boaters who would slow down and others who obviously owned the waterway. I took a break and called my dad to let him know my plan since I knew he was in the area heading to Naples to meet my mom. He didn’t answer which I thought was weird since he would have been in the car and his phone would have rang over the Bluetooth. I kept going out of the canal into a large bay. After a while my dad called back. When I answered he said look to your left. It took me a while but I finally spotted him. He had been driving around trying to find me. He sure did. I was about a mile off shore. I had a better view of the shore than him and said to meet me at a bridge a little further down. He couldn’t see the bridge and had gotten back in the car and drove further down. I found a marina with a restaurant a little further down and we met up there. We had lunch and caught up but I had to get moving to try and get to the hotel by dark. I was meeting them in a few days to take a break for Christmas so we would have plenty of time to catch up later. While we were eating lunch I got a call from a Florida number. I didn’t know the number but figured I probably should answer it. It was a doctor from Sanibel Island who was a friend of the guy I met twice back around Longboat. He said his friend told him I might need a place to store my boat and that he would be able to help out. I was floored. I told him I would keep in touch but that would probably work out. I continued on till I turned off the main course and headed up the back waters to where the hotel was. It was a lot tighter than it looked on the map. It was dark by this point so navigating was kind of difficult. I finally made it and was able to find a gap in the mangroves to pull my boat out of the water. I chained it up to some palm trees and grabbed the luggage cart. It felt kind of weird loading all my kayak gear on a luggage cart but made it easier than taking multiple trips.
Paddled in the intercostal fighting a current and wind all day. The wind is blowing from the south and there is no end in sight. Everyone has been warning me about the “cold front” that is moving in this week. It’s supposed to get down in the 40s. Even though I have been living in Ohio where 40 is a heat wave in December, mix in wind and waves that is a recipe for disaster. Getting wet and staying wet at that temperature is a sure call for hypothermia. Not something I signed up for while paddling in Florida. I can wear extra clothing to help prevent it but with head winds, paddling is next to impossible. The next week is definitely going to be a challenge. When pulling into Venice I stopped at a restaurant to use a flush toilet before heading to my campsite. It was a tiki bar on the water but the bathroom was in the nice restaurant so I got some looks walking through. I stopped at the tiki bar for a coke and heard 2 couples talking about RVing. They were discussing if the campgrounds in the Keys were open. I of course ease dropped trying to get some information. I have been trying to decide if paddling to the keys is an option. Reports are that most of the keys were hit badly but Key West is restored because it’s a money maker. I didn’t get any real answers and took off to Snake Island to camp. It’s right in the middle of Venice. When I pulled up it was empty. I walked over to the other side where there were several people hanging out. I asked if I was allowed to camp on the island. They said I would have to ask the mayor. And he just so happened to be there. He said I had to file for a permit, and it took about 3 weeks for approval. I was concerned at first but then replied with “ok, so how much cash?” They said I got the point and I realized I had walked up on the community of the Snake Island Republic. It’s a group of locals who go out to the island and hang out at sunset. We chatted for a while before I went and set up camp. I was definitely jealous of the “community” that they have. With being nomadic for the past 6 months, having a group of friends around is definitely something I miss.
By far the earliest I have been up the entire trip. I was packed up and ready to paddle before the sun was up. I had to wait for the sun to rise to see the water conditions to decide if I was going to take the ocean or the bay. At first light I decided to take the side which was my first choice. I had forgotten how beautiful this key is. While there are houses and hotels, none of it is tacky. I continued down seeing only a few people on the beach. I actually counted them, 100 in the 10 miles of beach front. That included about 30 at the resort at the south end of the island. Another reason I love this island. It was like a paddle down memory lane. I finally paddled up to the resort where I used to work. I was the Recreation Manager. Or as my friends called it The Director of Fun. I was responsible for the beach, pool, water sports, and kids program. The resort has since closed and fallen into disrepair. It was once the number 1 beach and tennis resort in the world. President George W Bush was staying there when the 9/11 attacks happened. It was hard to see what used to be a thriving resort, fenced off and rotting. The only part you could see were the parts I was responsible for. The place where I spent a majority of my time while living in Florida. The pool that I got licensed to operate and fought day in and day out to keep spotless now growing 5 foot weeds in dark slimy water. The palm leaf tiki hut that I shared a beer with celebrities under now just stick frames. A beach where I once led an egg toss of 200 plus people completely empty. It was a surreal feeling. I instantly wanted to start cleaning. I would have never thoughIi would see it look like that in my entire life. But then again I never though I could or would be able to live my life with out drinking. After several pictures and even more head shakes I climbed back to my boat and paddled on down the beach in silence. I reached the end of the island and turned inland. I pulled off at the New Pass Bait shop to talk to my old bait shrimp dealer. When I pulled up I heard some one yell my name. I should have been alarmed but by now nothing really surprises me. It was a guy who was sitting next to me yesterday eating after I crossed the bay. He definitetly knew all the hot spots around the islands since we kept running into each other. I went in and caught up with the shrimp man as I always do when I’m in the area. I didn’t stay long as I was meeting a friend next door for lunch. I paddled over to the restaurant and tied up, taking prime dock space up and pissing off people in $100,000 boats but I figured I earned it. It was great catching up with a like minded person who kept reminding me to enjoy the journey and just go with the flow. I think the waiter might have been getting upset as we were taking the table up for too long but we weren’t going anywhere. I wish I could have stayed longer but I needed to get going to find a campsite as the map made them look far and few in between. I cut through the bay paddling under the Ringling Bridge right next to the Sarasota skyline till I got to a narrow channel. It took me a while of paddling around to find a break in the mangroves and dry land to set up. Luckily I saw a perfect spot to set up. The bugs were back and I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to camp there but it was tucked back far enough that no one would bother me.
Probably haven’t been this anxious or hyped for a paddle since going through Baton Rouge on the Mississippi. Crossing the Tampa Bay you hear horror stories. People tell you to hit it fast and keep your head on a swivel. They also say to not cross it unless it’s perfectly flat early in the morning. That was the plan. I had about 3 miles till I hit the actual bay crossing. It was a little choppy for those 3 miles but I figured it had to do with the barrier island so I pushed on. When I hit the edge of Fort Desoto I had to make the decision. It was still a little choppy across the bay but I figured it was now or never. I floated out and when my watch chimed 10 am I hit play and blasted Hells Bells and dug in. It wasn’t terrible but definitely tougher than I would have liked. I found the rhythm of the waves and paddled into them. It took me off course and I had to correct often. For about 3 of the 6 Miles I was rolling up and down over the waves. When I would be at the bottom of the set, the waves would pull be taller than my flag pole on both sides and I was completely blinded. I had scoped out the channel before I took off to make sure no tankers or cruise ships where coming in or out. Luckily I had checked because I was blinded when I was in the bottom of the wave set and could only see a wall of water. I finally got my eyes locked on the Rod and Reel Pier on Anna Maria Island and headed for it. The last mile the waves kicked out to a small chop and guided me in. It was an interesting moment paddling up to the restaurant that was the first place I went when I moved down here 11 years ago. I had gotten drunk there several times. I pulled up on shore and walked the long pier to the restaurant. It was like walking a plank. I got some food and was ready to take off when I heard back from my best friend from the islands that he would be there in an hour. I sat on my boat and answered tons of questions. I felt like a tourist attraction but didn’t mind at all. My buddy arrived and we went to eat again. I thought about eating again but I just ate up the conversation. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have friends from my drinking days that are still just as strong to this day. No matter how much time passes it seems just like yesterday. I had to get moving to cover the miles to where I planned on camping. And if I wanted to get there by sunset it was going to be a push. The sun was out and high. I was sweating and realized that it’s December. But a cold front is moving in. I made it to the Cortez bridge and docked and ran up to the Circle K to grab some drinks. I used to frequent the Circle K regularly. (I will stop referencing all the places I used to drink to save time.). I paddled the last two miles around Anna Maria and made the turn into the gulf as the sun was about to set. I went under the draw bridge and landed on the north end of Longboat Key. The key that I called Home for 2 years. A place that still holds a huge part of my heart. A place where my addiction and isolation took off. The north end know as Beer Can Island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Not just because of sentimental reasons. There are dear trees sticking out into the water that look like something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The sunset was amazing. It was like the key was welcoming me back and congratulating me for so many different things. A few people were spread out over the key watching the sunset and slowly starting to leave. I hung around and scouted out a place to set up my hammock after it got dark so no one knew I was there. I found a nice spot tucked away behind a natural shelter some one made and hid my boat and loaded my gear into the shelter to hide it from sight. I could hear a guy and girl a little ways down the beach having a good time. I decided to go over and just let them know I was hanging out over here (no pun intended) incase they saw a light they didn’t freak out. I’m guessing they won’t even remember they saw me in the morning but no judgement since that used to be me.
There are several “milestone” locations on this trip, reaching the Ohio, the Mississippi, New Orleans, Florida line, Tampa Bay, but they don’t compare to reaching Longboat. I’m not even sure if where ever I finish will compare to what it means to me personally to get here. It only took several years of addiction and 2,690 mile to get back here.
All great things must come to an end. But not right away. We loaded my boat in my buddy’s truck and threw his paddle board in on top along with beach day gear. We headed to Saint Pete Beach and set up the tent and claimed our spot. Then headed back to where he picked me up and got dropped off. His wife and kids went back to the beach and we started paddling towards them. Our other friends met us there. It’s always nice having someone to paddle with. We had a few miles before we cut out into the ocean. We did our best to find the crew on the beach. Finally we saw his son running towards us on the beach. He hopped in the front of my boat for the last 50 yards. It was my first passenger! We pulled our boats up on the beach and enjoyed a lazy Sunday at the beach. It was just like old times. But eventually everyone started leaving one by one and it was time for me to continue my journey. We said our final goodbyes and I paddled off south and they went back to there lives. I only had a few miles to the north end of the Tampa Bay crossing. I found a nice spot and set up camp as the sun was setting. I laid in my tent reflecting on the whole weekend. Getting to go out Friday night, have a lazy Saturday morning and a Sunday beach day. All the things I used to do with my good friends. But this time I didn’t have to drink and I could still enjoy it, if not more. It’s always hard leaving friends after an amazing weekend together. It made me realize how lonely it can really get out here. It probably didn’t help that I watched as the large cruise ships took off out to sea. They were lit up and even though I couldn’t hear a thing other than the waves crashing on the shore, the sound of the passengers laughing and having a good time rang out. I know in the end I will appreciate it but it doesn’t mean it makes it any easier in the moment.
Probably my favorite day of the trip so far. Waking up in a house with friends spread out all over just like old times was amazing. We had a monstrous breakfast and sat in the back yard soaking up the sun drinking mimosas. Well none for me but it was really like a flash back to the “good old days” when I lived down here. We sat around telling stories and talking about plans for the day. We should do this, we should do that, well I need to go home first. Let’s meet up later. Having been a part of this conversation I knew we probably wouldn’t meet up later so I was just enjoying the time spent together. We finally split ways and went about the day. The rest of the day was spent going to the grocery and watching my friends' sons hockey practice. It was a little weird watching hockey in Florida but still a great time. We ended the day grilling steaks and watching football. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day than with good friends.
Only a few miles to get to my extract point is sometimes harder to judge than 20 Miles. I dilly dallied long enough and got on the water. I made it to the boat ramp right before noon as I had planned. My college fraternity brother was there a few minutes after and we loaded my boat in his truck and were off to Tampa. It was like transporting back in time. Crossing bridges over the water, many I have done hundreds of times, many of them I probably don’t remember. I used to live on the south side of the Tampa Bay and drive the hour over several times a month to hang out with my old college crew that had relocated down here after school. It felt just the same except I wasn’t intoxicated. We got to his house where his wife and kid were waiting. Another one of my college friends. We caught up and got lunch and waited for their other kid to get off the bus. The last time I lived down here I probably would have avoided hanging out simply because I couldn’t do what I wanted around kids. A short time later two more college friends came over. The band was officially back together. The 5 college friends who had lived down here 10 years ago were back together finally. Time hadn’t skipped a beat. We played cards like we used to. Except we were playing Uno this time with little kids but it was just as intense and trash talk was flowing. The kids went to grandmas and we continued to party. We walked down to the “strip” on the island. It was the same island we used to party on every weekend. Sure enough when we walked by the first restaurant I saw someone I knew. Another person from college in Ohio who had moved down here. We stared at each other for a while before we realized what was going on. I remember giving her advice on Tampa in a Bar in Columbus right before she moved down here. She was just as shocked as I was and told me that she had been following along online and now I was here. We continued on to a bar and parked the crew on the patio for drinks and appetizers. The stories were flowing heavier than drinks. Not drinking wasn’t a problem, I was just enjoying the moment. Before we closed out and walked back I walked to the 7-11 to get some drinks for the morning. That was an interesting experience. I used to stumble into that 7-11 at all hours. Even though it’s been years, my muscle memory kicked in and I walked straight to the back to the beer section. It was an eye opening situation but quickly made a turn and was back on course to what I was looking for. I went back to meet my friends and we started the walk back to their house. We were strung out over a block talking and walking. Getting time to talk to each other one on one. Normally I wouldn’t remember these conversations but I will keep these memories with me forever. We got back and hung out in the back yard drinking and telling stories till 2 AM. I finally went to bed and they stayed up solving the world’s problems. I didn’t need to dream tonight because I was living in one today.
Life is all about timing. And that was the case today. I had about 17 miles planned through the beaches of Tampa. I had looked up different gas stations and restaurants to stop at to get some snacks before I get off tomorrow to meet friends for the weekend. I figured I would just paddle for a bit then see where I should stop. I made it about 5 miles to Clearwater and decided I could stop at a Walgreens for snacks and hit a water side restaurant later in the day. I had been to Clearwater several times. One of the most memorable non-memorable times was my epic spring break road trip my second senior year of college. I don’t think this town has ever recovered. I tried to find a place to dock to run up to Walgreens for 5 minutes. I asked at a jet ski rental place and the guy rudely told me the only place was a restaurant dock. I paddled back and tied up. The dock had a gate that wouldn’t let me in unless it was unlocked electronically. The signs posted everywhere said that you needed to have a time stamped receipt from the restaurant to get back to your boat. I was a little worried and confused about how this was going to work. While I was standing there 2 tattooed guys came up on a boat and one of them called the number to open the gate. We made small talk about my trip and the gate still hadn’t open. A yacht pulled up with about 6 people on it. We had 9 people and a dog standing there looking at this gate. The guy called again and they buzzed us in. We all walked towards the restaurant and I figured I should probably buy something to get back to my boat. Since I haven’t used a washing machine in a month or showered in a week I decided I should probably sit outside. The two guys with the dog were outside too and one of them told me to join them. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I thought about politely declining and lying saying I had some online work to do or something but I agreed to join them. They were asking more questions about my trip and then one of them asked why I would do something like this. I told him I had been wrapped up in drugs and alcohol and finally got my life back and decided to do it. Then the guy said he had been sober for 22 years. My jaw dropped. The conversation and everything about the whole situation changed. It was like I was back in Columbus hanging with friends except for a lot better weather. We were done eating and I realized I needed to get back on the water to make some miles. Our waitress hadn’t been back in a while and one of the guys said he had taken care of the check. We left and it was like parting ways with old friends. I hit the store and got back on the water. I checked my phone and had gotten a Facebook message from the one guy saying it was nice meeting me and to keep it up. A little bit later I got a text from the sober guy saying he was sorry he didn’t think of it earlier but if I wanted I could stop at his place that I was passing in a few miles to shower, do laundry, sleep in a bed. I thought about it but wanted to get in a few more miles and with getting all that tomorrow I respectfully declined but was very appreciative. I made it to my island campsite at sunset and was still amazed about my day. If one little thing had changed, I would have never have met those guys. If the hurricane hadn’t have pushed me off the water for so long. If I had started my trip in Montana instead of Ohio. If I had not taken a day off a few weeks ago. If I had camped on one island further last night. If I would have left camp 5 minutes earlier or one minute later this morning. If that idiot in the big boat would have slowed down and didn’t cause me to stop as he threw wake at me. If the jet ski guy would have let me dock there. If I would have decided to sit inside instead of outside. So many things could have changed the opportunity to meet those guys but they didn’t. And now I have an amazing experience and new friends that I didn’t have when I started the day. The adventure gods work in mysterious ways that I don’t understand but when things like this happen I definitely don’t question them.
I woke up on my deserted island to realize that it wasn’t as deserted as I thought. When I looked out of my tent I saw 2 people walking down the beach just a few feet from my tent. It took me a while to figure out where the people came from. I noticed a boat anchored off shore a ways down. It was definitely a confusing moment but it wouldn’t be the last for the day. I got moving as I had made plans to meet up with an angel who is the 5th person to complete the entire paddle around Florida. It was a beautiful day to paddle. I cruised on the inland side of a chain of islands. The water was clear all day and I could see fish darting around under my boat. The sun was blazing and hitting the water just right that it looked like I was paddling on a reflective sea of shinny liquid silver. I made it to the tiki bar that was on a causeway. As I sat there I felt like I was at a tropical resort. They had island music playing and kayakers were paddling around in the beautiful water bay. At one point a hobie Cat sail boat went by. I waited for a while and decided to order some food while I waited. I knew there was a possibility that the people I was meeting might not make it so I ordered another round of tacos. The waitress suggested that the quesadilla was good. I said sure. Bring them both. We got talking later and she said the kitchen guys thought I was going to just sit there all day and order food. I explained that I had worked up an appetite in the 2,600 Miles it took to get there. My new paddling friends showed up and we got to business talking adventure. In casual talk he and his wife said they had done the Appalachian Trail. Then he started rattling off the other big trips he had done and I was impressed. When he said his next one was only 600 miles I felt comfortable. Most people can’t imagine doing 600 miles but after a few trips over 2000 it’s nice to talk to other people who think the same way. We talked until the sun set, then I paddled off into the sunset a mile to an island camp ground. I quickly set up and called into the board meeting for the Seraph Fund. It’s always good to see the progress that we are making. As I was laying here I could hear the waves start crashing on the shore different than usual. The normal night sounds were off. I figured it might be a trash panda in my boat or something. I shined my head lamp over towards my boat by the water, and a light shined back from out in the water. I was confused again. I figured it was a fisherman a ways off. The noise of the waves kept getting closer. And the light would turn on and off. When I noticed it was really close I got out to investigate. I walked to the waters edge and saw it was a guy on a paddle board. Well he was standing in the water next to it peeing. I said hello and said it was a nice night for a paddle. He agreeed and asked if I wanted a beer. I had just sat at tiki bar by the water for almost 4 hours and didn’t drink. And now I’m in an island alone at 11PM and a guy comes out of the dark and offers me a beer. I said I was good and he proceeded to tell me he had plenty. I politely told him that’s ok. Then we had a good talk for a while never actually being able to see each other. I finally cut the conversation off and he paddled back into the dark. I went back to to my tent thinking about how confusing it was that just when I went to bed thinking I was the only person on the island, random people just showed up.
After pulling my boat back through the mud followed by a mile walk in ankle deep water, it was an 11 mile paddle out into the Gulf to North Anclote Key. I passed several houses on stilts a few miles off shore out in the middle of the water. Some of them looked run down but others looked kept up. I think it would be amazing to stay on them for a night but no one invited me so I just kept paddling. The closer I got to the Key, the water color changed. It went from dark blue to turquoise green. You could see the line where the water changed just like a sign that said welcome to paradise. When I landed on the white sandy beach it was official, I was in paradise. I hopped out before my boat crashed the shore to avoid getting swamped by the tiny waves and pulled my boat ashore. It felt like a movie when explorers are in the small boat coming ashore after reaching a new land. I didn’t even unpack before I went exploring. I walked to the tip of the island and made the turn. Several seashells were scattered along the shore. In the distance I noticed something right off shore. When I got closer I could see that it was a sunken sailboat. This really made me feel like an explorer. I went into the ocean and swam for a bit. I realized it was the first time I have gotten in the water since I got back on the water. Mainly because it was the first beach I came to and I didn’t feel like there were any alligators or jellyfish. The sun slowly dropped into the water as I set up camp and there were several times I just stood there and watched the beauty of it. I realized that with no access to this island besides personal boats, I would probably be alone out here and I was perfectly alright with that.
Open ocean most of the day. The weather was ideal. I knew I was in for a long paddle but was ready for it. It is really hard to focus on the total distance but if I break it up, then it goes pretty well. The water wasn’t exactly glass today but it had a metallic look which is always a joy to paddle in. I decided to hit a restaurant about 18 miles in. Since I was getting closer to constant civilization I took advantage of it. As I paddled into the Little Harbor I noticed the blue tarps on several roofs. It’s a sure sign of hurricane damage. The further south I get the more damage from Hurricane Irma I am noticing. I ate and took off to finish my day as the sun was falling. It’s always a joy to paddle when the sun is setting but it comes at a cost. You have to find and set up camp in the dark. I knew there was a park where I could camp a few miles further. I made it to the turn off right when the sun set and paddled through the side water to reach the campsite. It was a pavilion built by air boaters. It was nice to have picnic tables, concrete, and a roof. The only problem was about a 30 yard mud drag to get off the water. After 22.5 miles, dragging my boat through the mud was the last thing I wanted to do.
No monkey business today. Well maybe a little. I pulled off the ramp and headed upstream about a tenth of a mile to a small island. It was covered with monkeys. Yes, real monkeys. I paddled up to get some pictures and one of them came down to the waters edge. He seemed interested in me. The quickness that he came to the edge had me wondering if he was going to swim out to my boat. But then I realized that if they were still on the island this long they probably couldn’t swim. He came to the water’s edge and used his tail to grab a branch and lean out and make faces at me. Of course I made them back. I got a brief history of why they were on the island and it’s because they were originally brought here to study polio cures and kept getting in trouble. One of the people said he wished he could send them to Alcatraz. And 50 years later they are still on the island. I probably could have hung out most of the day but I had to get moving. I headed back to the refuge water way for more paddling by gps. I really don’t know how I could ever paddle through these sections with out a GPS. I would get turned around so fast and lost I don’t know if I could ever get out. I think that’s one of the reasons I have always been scared of swamps. I finally made it out and headed for open water. I was paddling through larger isalnds now and made it to the suggested campsite at sunset. I realized that I was spoiled with National Trail camp sites on the Big Bend Trail. This is a tiny, over grown island with enough spot under a tree for a tent and that’s it. The bugs were so bad that even though it looked like an amazing sunset I didn’t get out of my tent to walk 20 feet to the other side of the island to see it.
I woke to voices of 2 men saying “what’s that kayak doing there? Oh someone’s camping”. They mentioned that I was probably up now with the noise from their motor. They were right. I paddled back the 2 miles to where I turned off my route last night. It was nice to actually see where I paddled in the dark and I didn’t feel like I was paddling a section I had already seen since it all looked new to me. It was a short paddle into Homosassa, a quaint little fishing village. There was nowhere to tent so I got a room and cleaned up. Right after sunset I decided to walk to a restaurant about a mile away. I had looked it up and it seemed like the best one. And since I had nothing better to do I started walking. As I was just getting going a guy was pulling out of the convenient store on his golf cart with a bottle of wine in the basket. He asked where I was going. When I told him he acted like he had never heard of the place. He said he was going to give me a ride if it was close. I said that I had just paddled into town and asked where should I eat. He didn’t tell me he just said get in. I was up for an adventure so I didn’t hesitate. Next thing I knew we were going the opposite direction down a dark road to nowhere. It seemed like it took forever and I was getting a little concerned. Finally we popped out at a place called the Freezer. It was a fishing market that had a dive bar attached. He said to get the snow crab and shrimp and sit at the bar. I walked in and felt at home. This place was hopping. They brought out 2 giant crab legs and about 20 steamed shrimp. It felt great to just sit there and eat with my hands and not have people judge me for once since I started the trip. For a brief moment I thought how great it would be to wash it down with an ice cold beer or 20. But as good as this food was there was no need for that. I made friends quickly while sitting there and before I left I got an offer for a place to stay in Alaska if I ever make it up that way. I walked back to the hotel stuffed and feeling normal again.
I have been thinking about what I should do with my life after this trip. When I stopped in a marina to get a drink the guy asked if I needed gas for my boat. It took me a minute to get that he was joking. I dropped the “I started in Ohio” on them. Then 2 separate people came up to me and said I should work for National Geographic. I thought that was a stretch until I tried to find the campsite and my exploration began. I came off the island this morning and up the Crystal River then worked my way down Salt Creek. It’s just a giant braid of islands and streams. I was checking my GPS constantly to make sure I was on course. When I pulled off to find the camp site I was heading up a creek and no luck. All it was, was marsh land. When the creek ran out I back tracked to the only spot that could have been it. I climbed through the mud and marsh to the clump of trees and no campsite. I decided to just keep going. The sun had set and I was only going on the after glow. One of the guys at the marina told me about a place called Hangover Island that was good to camp. When I found it on the map it was about 2 miles out of my way but by studying the satellite image it was really my only option. I felt like I was playing a video game, staring at my GPS and paddling based off it. Since it was now dark I would shine my head lamp on the shore of the island to see if I could find a spot but no luck. I committed to going to Hangover Island and finally made it. When I pulled up I found a beach. A beach with a large private property sign posted. I went to the next and a sign was there too. Kind of interesting since it was on google maps with a tent symbol. I debated just setting up and if someone said something I would just say I came in at night and didn’t see the sign. There is no way they would believe that but it could be worth a shot. I realized that I probably wouldn’t get any sleep being worried that someone would show up in the middle of the night so I paddled across the bay and found a small place on a bed of sticks. Not ideal but it will have to do. When I looked at my tracker to see the route I had taken today, it looks similar to how I used to come home from the bar. All over the place walking in circles, staggering. But hey, at least I got to explore some and work on my resume for National Geographic.
The rain prediction was right on point. I woke to my tent shaking with rain beating down. I decided to make it a traditional Thanksgiving and just lay around and do nothing all day. Just because I am alone on an island in the middle of the gulf doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy American tradition of eating and doing nothing on Thanksgiving. The major difference is that I wasn’t around friends and family. I did catch a break in the storm to go out to the beach and eat my traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I have been carrying a precooked meal of turkey, stuffing and gravy, along with a can of green beans and instant mashed potatoes mixed in a ziplock bag to round out my meal. I had flipped my kayak over to prevent it from filling up with rain and used it as my dining room table. I reflected on what all I’m grateful for. While I could name things all day, the main thing I am grateful for is that I don’t have to live the way I used to and that I can be alone and actually enjoy myself. It was great sitting by the water enjoying my meal but the break in the weather didn’t last long and I had to retreat back to my tent where I spent 23 and a half hours of the day. But I was glad that I got the opportunity to get out for that 30 minutes if not for anything else but to get a picture of me eating my feast.
The bugs were out of control again this morning. I packed up and got on the water as quickly as possible but continued to scratch for about an hour of being on the water. When I finally made it out of the bay and into open water I checked my tracker to see how far I had gone to get an idea of what the day would look like. I was cruising at 4 mph average. I haven’t hit this pace for quite some time. I figured I would have an easy day. After a while I felt like I was slowing down. I couldn’t figure out why until I looked down. I was in pretty shallow water even though I was a few miles off shore. I don’t need much water to stay a float unrestricted but if I don’t have over about a foot or two then it slows me down tremendously. I could have gone further out but that would have put me way off shore and the effort to get there wasn’t worth it. Mentally it was a struggle and I felt like I would never make it. When I saw a chain of islands I knew after that it was about 3 miles to the spillway where I thought I would camp. I stopped on one of the islands to stretch and check my maps to know exactly where I was going. I realized that it had suggested to camp on one of the islands. The island they suggested was 2 over closer to the mainland. It was 3/4 a mile to get there. I debated paddling it but found a decent spot to camp on this island under some trees and was lined up for tomorrow to paddle directly across to the break in the spillway. So instead of having to paddle back tomorrow I just made camp. While I was getting a fire going I noticed a lizard darting around. At one point he was in the rock fire place while I had a fire going. I kept hearing a noise like ruffling leaves while I sat there and figured it was another lizard. I couldn’t ever see it when I would turn on my light. I finally caught it in my head lamp near my food bag. But it wasn’t a lizard. It was a mouse! It wasn’t big enough for me to consider it a rat. He ran off and I was worried that there might be more and they were hungry enough to chew through my tent at night to get my food. It was kind of overcast but being close to the water I figured I would leave the rain fly off my tent for a good breeze. While I was laying in bed about to fall asleep I checked the weather for tomorrow. Rain was on its way. I’m glad I checked the weather instead of waking up to being soaked and trying to get my rain fly on after it was too late. It was calling for rain from about midnight on. 100% most of the day tomorrow mostly in the morning. I checked the radar and it didn’t look good. I realized that I might be stuck on this island all day tomorrow and maybe even longer. I put my rainfly on and staked it down the best I could in preparation of a storm. I fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the rain pounding my tent hoping that the storm would pass and I could get off the island tomorrow.
I got out early to hopefully beat the storms. The idea of being in the middle of the ocean with no where to pull over and get off the water when a storm hit had me very anxious. I loaded all my gear up on my body and walked the block to the harbor. I clipped as much as I could to my lifejacket to free my hands to carry bags. I’m sure it was an amusing sight seeing me walk down the street with bags hanging off my body. It was low tide when I got there and my boat was hanging from the dock over mud since the water was low. I wasn’t expecting to see a harbor with barely any water. It took some effort to free my boat and lower it down to the ground. Luckily I had my long rope attached and was able to pull my boat over to the ramp and load up. I paddled through the only channel through the tunnel and into the ocean. It was a fairly heavy chop but I pushed through knowing I had to keep moving to beat the storm. After a few miles the wind stopped and the water was basically glass. For some reason I didn’t make as fast of time that I would have expected with flat water. Between the overcast and fog it felt really weird all day. When I made it to the river where the campsite was supposed to be, I got turned around trying to find it. When I went a little further I saw it. It looked like an old moonshiners camp. A pieced together wood and metal roof between a few trees. The no-see-uns were so bad and with rain coming my way I couldn’t get the tent up quick enough. I put it up as much as I could under the shelter and dove in and didn’t come out till morning.
I woke up not wanting to get out of my sleeping bag. It was definitely cold. And not just Florida cold. It was so cold that I had to put on socks with my sandals (fashion suicide). While I was packing up my boat, my hands were frozen. I wanted to wait for the sun to rise and warm everything up but I needed to get moving. It was a little over 18 Miles to Cedar Key for the day. If I was going to stay in Cedar Key I wanted to make sure that I got there early enough to make it worth it. I really didn’t want to pay the money to get a room in town but that was the only way I could work out meeting up to talk with some other alcoholics and addicts so I figured it was worth it. It was a nice paddle. I saw something pop up in the water at one point. I have seen hundreds of dolphins at this point but today was a first. The fin was deformed. It could have been destroyed my a boat propeller or a shark. I would assume that it was probably a boat that had hit it. I kept a watch to make sure it was swimming OK. If it wasn’t I would have tried to find a local dolphin rescue to contact. It seemed to be fine so I continued on. I found the local public marina and unloaded at the ramp. I had to make a decision to tie up my boat or carry it up the street to the hotel. I didn’t really feel like putting my cart together and dragging it down the street. I found an old dock and chained it up. I put one of my cards in a ziplock and zip tied it to the post incase anyone had any questions. I loaded and clipped all my gear to me and waddled down main street to my hotel. I was able to meet up with a group of like minded people and it was exactly what I needed. I felt centered again. It always amazes me how talking with complete strangers who know exactly what I am going through can keep me balanced mentally.
Delayed start today because of rain but I definitely made up time once I got paddling. I had the wind to my back and was cruising. I was heading for Suwannee for the night. I had gotten a message from the local angel a while ago when I first hit Florida and he had been following up to make sure I stopped through. He told me a short cut on how to get up the river to Suwannee but not to go past a certain point when I arrived. I hadn’t heard back and since I was ahead of schedule I figured I would get there way before him. When I paddled up the river I saw a white canoe with 2 gentleman in it. They told me they had been waiting for me. They said they checked my tracker and saw I was making good time and paddled out to meet me. It was the Angel and his grandson who had come in from Alaska, where he had spent the last 10 years commercial fishing and doing other manly Alasken jobs. They took the lead and escorted me up the river through the canals to the fish camp. I would have definitely gotten lost if it wasn’t for them. When we came to a bridge a little dog started barking at us. He followed along side of us for a while until he jumped in their canoe. I was definitely jealous. We arrived at the fish camp and got my boat out of the water. They had a screened-in pavilion that was for campers that they said I could stay in. I decided to just put my bed roll right on the picnic table. They insisted on taking me to dinner. They paddled their boat back home to get their car and came back to take me to the only restaurant in town. We got talking and found out that he used to live about 20 minutes away from where I grew up. He literally was in the town during the same amount of time from when I was born until I left for college. He name dropped a few people that we knew in common. It shows that it’s really a small world. I got some gator to eat because why not when you are in Florida? I returned to my picnic table for the evening. The temperature was dropping but still not close to as cold as it is in Ohio.
Slower than normal start today. Pretty easy paddle. I did notice a lot of personal fishing boats out today. I guess I am starting to get out of the Big Bend and closer to more consistent towns. Towards the end of the day I came to Horseshoe Beach. A small little town and paddled up to the marina for a Gatorade. They had a little bar attached. I asked if they had food and the store clerk said they had a few things just ask. I went in and was the only person in the bar. Ordered some hot dogs and regretted it right away. The bartender told me it would take a while and couldn’t find the food. I told her it wasn’t a big deal but she insisted. Then she had to call someone to figure out where they were. By this point I wanted to leave but I was in too deep. They were actually pretty good. I had less than 2 Miles to camp and it was another amazing campsite on an island. After getting set up, Isaw a rope hanging from a tree. It looked like a bear bag line to hang my food to keep it away from bears. I thought that was weird that bears would be on an island but I didn’t want to take a chance. When I went to hang my food it all made sense. It was a swing! I spent the next hour swinging back and forth over the beach into the sunset.