|We had just left Biscayne National Park after paddling three days out on the keys on the east side of the park. Now we had driven about 75 miles further south to Key largo and John Pennekamp State Park, arriving in late afternoon. Set just off the busy U.S. 1 highway in dense gumbo limbo, sea grape and other tropical trees, we set up camp in the small, closely spaced camp sites.
The park has about 70 campsites concentrated in a single area, a small beach, a few trails, two picnic areas and a kayak launch. But the focus is clearly on the excursion boats, snorkel, dive and glass bottom, that haul people out three times a day to the reefs six to seven miles offshore. We were not here for that. We were looking to do some paddling.
Each campsite has water and electrical and garners a large contingent of snow bird RVs who seem to spend most of their time inside their huge motor homes, instead of boating or diving or otherwise actually using the facilities that surround them.
After spreading all our gear out to dry and reorganizing everything back into the van, we set up out tents on the back end of the gravel driveway that served as our site. It was going to be hard sleeping on the packed ground and buggy with the tents backed up against the heavy growth of trees and bushes. With everything squared away we headed out to the main road and turned south until we came to the Tower of Pizza restaurant. There we had a huge hand tossed pizza from the obviously Italian owners.
There are several short canoe trails that wander through the mangroves to the east of the developed areas of the park. A small poor map is available at the kayak concessioners stand, but I recommend buying your own chart of the area. The marine chart for the Upper Keys has enough detail to serve, but a smaller scale map or Google Earth satellite photo would be useful for some of the smaller leads and changed passages that you will find. The kayaks available here are sit on tops. A few canoes are available as well. Rental kayaks are restricted to a fairly small area. You should be able to cover the entire allowed area in two to three hours. We were interested in a much longer trip, but we started out on these trails headed south from the park.
We paddled the twisting trails through the mangroves, finally coming to a boat channel and some development on the southern boundary of the park. Signs indicated that the rentals needed to turn back here, but we had own boats so we continued south and came out to an open and extremely shallow bay. The calm water reflected the silver of the partly overcast morning. A few young mangroves were establishing themselves in the shallow water, hoping to start a new mangrove island and fill in the open bay.
We were planning to circumnavigate the large island on the east side of the park coming back to our start point from the north. The circular route would be about 14 miles total length.
The question was which way to do the circle, clockwise or counterclockwise. The morning winds were from the northwest, so there was some discussion as to whether we should go around clockwise as that would minimize the upwind portion if the winds stayed from the north. But I decided to go south then east then north, counterclockwise, as that would give us the most time paddling down sun. If you paddle down sun it is much easier to see things in the water like sharks, fish and rays. Besides, the southeast trades are the dominant wind here and sea breezes often develop by mid afternoon. There was a good chance that the wind would turn around, which in fact it did, so we had booth down wind and down sun for the better part of the day.
The bottom was covered by a thick mat of turtle grass. Near the deep water channels the hideous prop scars blasted through the delicate turtle grass ecology spoke of the ignorance, stupidity or complete obliviousness of some boat operator. These prop scars last for years before the barren trenches are reclaimed by the slow growing grasses.
We turned north and followed the coastline through shallow water. A small shark spooked from between my kayak and the shore and raced right for my boat. He attempted to pass underneath the kayak, but there was no room. His head got stuck. With a loud thwack of his tail against the hollow fiberglass hull, he sped off around my bow and out toward deeper water. The sound was really loud and his antics made me laugh. A small stingray followed the shark after raising a cloud of sediment from his resting place on the bottom. The angle of the later fall sun over our right shoulder made it easy to see all these things as they happened. The sea grass meadows covered all the flats, making the water very shallow. In some places, only the deeper water usually found near the mangroves allowed us to pass at all. The agitation of the currents around the roots helps keep the water a little deeper here than further away from the trees.
About half way up the shore we found a small outcropping of coral along the shore where we could exit the kayaks, stretch our legs and have some lunch. In the little pools left by the retreated tide were jellyfish, minnows and blue crabs. Along the shore the ibis ran from place to place, probing the mud with their elegantly curved beaks.
The wind had died down and was nearly flat calm. This preceded the establishment of the sea breeze that would last the rest of the day. The water was nearly flat making the visibility through the water even better. Strands of sargassum type weeds grew up from the bottom and then turned at a right angle once they reached the surface, buoyed by little sacs of gas.
Just north of our lunch spot we found a small mangrove creek. The low tide made it possible to explore well up into the tight and frequently low overhangs of the small waterway. We paddled several hundred meters before we were stopped by a profusion of mangrove roots. While the water continued to flow on and perhaps clear to the other side of the island, we were done. We had to turn around in a wide spot and go back the way we came.
We followed the marked boat channel back down to John Pennekamp State Park. There was a lot of traffic passing along the channel as sport fishing boats returned from the open sea, eager to get to the dock. In the narrow twisting passages sometimes with short sight distance, it was prudent to stay near the bank. but you do not want to get too close to the bank as they often shallow precipitously and a wake from a passing boat can give you a surprise surf experience.
Back out in the open once more we again turned north and round a couple small points until we came to a marked boat channel leading back toward the interior. A bone fishing flats boat was being poled through he shallow water. Designed to go over extremely shallow water these boats are not usually the once causing the prop scars as their occupants are interested in preserving the sea grass meadows that support the game fish they are seeking. Usually it is the casual boater who blissfully churns up the fragile bottom on his quest for the most direct route to his destination.
We followed the mangrove channels south until we came to an open bay. The wind had come up to about 10 to 12 knots and this made the last part of our 14 mile paddle an upwind effort. Moored on the southern end of the bay were the sailing boats of the Florida Keys chapter of Outward Bound, the outdoors youth training organization.
Arriving back at the launch beach, we loaded up our boats at the empty facility and returned to camp to a nice hot shower. Then it was back out to the restaurant for spaghetti and meat balls.
We decided to paddle across wind to Lignum Vitae Key and then on to the Twin Keys and then back, a less strenuous cross wind 16 mile paddle. We pulled the boats off the top of the van, loaded our gear into the kayaks and parked the van under a tree on the side of the very large lot. Lignum Vitae Key and Indian Key are part of the state park system. They preserve both history and flora of the native Florida Keys. Lignum Vitae Key is the least disturbed ecology of any of the upper Florida Keys. A house and grounds are preserved on the island as Lignum Vitae Key Botanical State Park. A tour is conducted twice a day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Private charter boats from nearby marinas or your own boat is the only way out there. The facility is very kayak friendly with its special area for landing.
The next day we headed south about 24 miles to Indian Key Inlet to a free sand beach launch for a paddle out into the Florida Bay on the west side of the Florida Keys. This day a light norther had come in and it was blowing from the north north east at 10 with occasional gust to 15. We modified our ambitious 20 mile paddling plan which had included a northerly section from the launch to Sand Key, then out to Crab Keys, Panhandle Key, Twin Keys, Buchanan Keys, Lignum Vitae Key and return. With a later than intended start and the strong wind that was going to be too much.
If we had paddled east from our launch instead of west we could have visited another state park Indian Key Historical State Park. This park is only accessible by canoe or kayak due to recent hurricane damage, but you can visit the remains of a settlement created to develop a economic horticulture for south Florida. The settlement was burned by Indians in an attack that featured the only known use of ordinance by native Americans.
We had just stumbled onto what was available at Lignum vitae Key and hadn't really planned to include the tour in the days activities, so we continued to paddle over the flats. A huge flock of cormorants created a rolling aerial attack as it hounded a school of fish as they made for deep water on the other side of the islands. Rows of plastic pipe jammed into the ground provided resting places for a few of the odd birds while the rest returned to the nearby shore laded with freshly caught fish.
We paddled across the turquoise water of Florida Bay. Every 50 meters was a float for a lobster pot. How a single lobster could ever hope to escape being caught was beyond comprehension. We could not figure out how there could be that many lobsters to support that many pots. Then we came to the boundary of the Everglades National Park that is just a couple of miles from the highway. It was clear that all the lobster pots were drawing from the vast reaches of the park where lobstering was prohibited. We continued to paddle to the Twin Keys over the 10 foot deep waters.
We reached the keys and paddled to the south side of the southern most key. The water was very shallow, causing us to carefully paddle through the inches deep water. In the lee of the island, the water was glassy flat reflecting the sky and mangroves lining the shore. The warm still waters were colored by algae growing in the well fertilized waters overlying the decaying leaves of the mangrove island.
With my relief bottle having disappeared out of reach somewhere in the interior of the kayak, I needed to get out before starting the return journey. Placing my paddle as a bridge, I lifted one leg from the cockpit and stepped onto what looked like the most solid piece of the bottom. NOT! I was in the thick oozy slime up past my knee. My Mion sandal was not cinched tight and was in danger of being lost as I tried to extricate my foot. I tied lifting my foot straight up with a steady pull. Even supported by the other leg still left in the cockpit, I couldn't pull hard enough to even budge the foot caught down in the slime. Only by oscillating the foot up an down was I able to slowly work my foot back up out of the muck, sandal still on. A glob of smelly grey mud double the usual size of my foot took five minutes of washing to clean up.
We pried our way through the shallow water, disturbing the bottom as little as possible. With the tide at low, we almost got stuck. But sticking to the edges of the mangroves and ducking through little breaks in their green ranks, we finally made it to the other side of the island. Between the two islands is a deep channel that allows boats to follow a marked course between the deep water on either side of the bank.
Having been thoroughly stymied in that attempt I was resigned to using my sponge as an emergency relief mechanism, washing it out as soon as we reached deeper water. We paddled back east to Shell Key and a smaller key to the north with a mostly shallow passage and a deeper channel in between them. Shell Key has a little lagoon in the interior, but there is no access to it that I could see. We enter Shell Key channel and headed back downwind toward how car at the launch. I was able to do a little sailing with my home made sail, but without a rudder, I lost a lot of speed each time I had to correct course by dragging my paddle in the water.
For the last day of paddling we decided to hit the kayak trails around Pennekamp again and to paddle some of the other mangrove channels in the park. The chart was a little too large scale and somewhat out of date as a channel that showed as clear had grown over to be impassable. The east side of the park has an extensive area of mangroves that would provide hours of exploration. We spent about half the day there.
We returned late to our camp. We placed the boats back on top the van and tied them down securely for the long drive home. We hit the tents for some rest before leaving in the early morning. The night was still and sultry and the no-see-ums had once again invaded our tent. After laying there sweating and itching, we decided to leave early, so we got packed up the tents and sleeping gear in the dark and started on our return on the empty roads and freeways in the air conditioned comfort of our vehicle. With our early start we returned home a little sooner than expecteda fter the return trip which took just a little less time than our trip south. Our early arrival gave us time to ease back into our routines before the start of a new week.
In the afternoon we drove down over the Keys Highway to Seven Mile Bridge. At the parking area we walked out over the water on the abandoned raodway built atop the old reailroad tracks. From the bridge you could easily see dozens of speckled rays flying through the water underneath the many spans. the sun set at the end of the bridge, emphasizing the westerly slant of the Overseas Highway and the southern set of the sun as it approached the winter solstice. We headed for the Outback Restaurant and celebrated our victorious tour of the upper keys with a big prime rib dinner.
Here is a video of this trip......