FL - Florida Keys - 2004/03/05 - Snipe Keys - 25 miles

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In the Lower Florida Keys lies the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge composed of many mangrove keys separated by shallow turtle grass flats. In the first day trip of a week long sea kayak vacation, we adventure out on a windy day to the Snipe Keys. On the way back we paddle through mangrove lined creeks.

When I awoke in the early morning of my second day at Bahia Honda State park, I could hear the wind through the palms and gumbo limbo trees surrounding my campsite. Yesterday's paddle around Bahia Honda had been a wet and windy adventure. It seemed that we were in for another wind filled day for our trip around the Snipe Keys.

My friends Steve, Mary and Julio arrived the day before at Key West airport. I picked them up there. We spent the evening strolling the streets of western Key West and had a great Mexican dinner in a restaurant on Duval Street. Now they picked through their paddling gear brought on the plane and the few items I had carried in my van. Most of their gear was packed beneath the kayak hatches of the kayaks tied onto the trailer. We were soon driving west from Bahia Honda, back towards Key West, to Sugarloaf Key. We were looking for a launch site at a marina in the middle of Sugarloaf Key. It was supposed to be just past the fire station.

This launch site and almost all the others that we would use this week were listed in the book Sea Kayaking in the Florida Keys by Bruce Wachob (see below), printed by Pineapple Press. This book provides an introduction to Florida Keys kayaking and the flora and fauna of the region. Most of the trips are much shorter than we are generally interested in, somewhere in the 4 to 6 mile region. But the locations and description of the launch sites are very useful as most of them would have been difficult to locate without the information in the book. Also I would have been uncertain whether parking at some of the sites was legal.

We found the Sugarloaf Key Marina behind the fire station just as described in the book. This marina is the location of a kayak touring company out of Key West. There is a nice launching beach and ramp, as well as a rack of touring kayaks. The marina charges $1.00 per kayak and provides parking. This day all the usual spaces were taken by fishing boats and a big camper that had thoughtlessly pulled across four parking spaces. However, they let us pull our emptied trailer onto the grass off the driveway of the associated motel across the canal from the marina.

We carefully entered our boats off of the slick ramp and paddled over the shallow water to the shelter of narrow passage cutting through the mangroves. We were headed Northwest, back into the interior of the Great White Heron Refuge. The southeast wind was blowing at 20 knots. Because the islands of the lower keys are mostly aligned southeast to northwest, along with the prevailing strong winds of winter, we would not be able to get much shelter this day.

The cut through the mangroves had about one knot of current flowing through it. The half tide exposed the support roots of the mangroves lining the banks. We coasted through the short section of low mangroves and were soon out to the other side. There Snipe Key and Turkey Basin lay stretched out before us. We rafted up to discuss which way to go around it. It was difficult to decide which way would provide the best protection for our up wind return trip. We decided to paddle up the east side.

With the strong wind behind us, it took little effort to paddle swiftly over the shallow flats. We looked into the silted water, clouded by the churning of the strong winds. We could still see the loggerhead sponges, skates and small sharks on the alternately hard sand and turtle grass bottom. We paddled along the east shore of the two major Snipe Keys until we reached the congregation of small mangrove islets on the edge of the Wildlife Refuge. There we wandered in and out of the small islands in channels that varied in depth from a few inches to a few feet. The blue sky and dark green mangroves contrasted with the turquoise, emerald and diamond colors of the shallow waters.

In one of the many channels of the Snipe Keys we found one that led to a mangrove tunnel. We followed it for several hundred yards, but were finally turned back by an impenetrable jumble of red mangroves roots. We turned around and paddled back out the way we can in, accompanied by panicked mangrove snappers shooting up the narrow channel. Further around the shore of the island, we found the other end of the tunnel and discovered that we were only a hundred feet from making it through.

We stopped at a small mangrove grouping completely surrounded by white sand. There was about three inches of water covering it. It was apparent from the clean white sand that this area would be dry at low tide. It was a warm pleasant place to stop and have lunch. Julio and I stayed in our kayaks and ate our small lunches in the kayak cockpit. Mary got out and immediately sunk knee deep in the soft ooze. She had difficulty extracting her feet from the muck and almost lost her shoe. The decision to stay in the kayak was a good one.
After lunch we headed back down the same side of Snipe Key that we came up, because the other side had gotten so shallow with the receding tide. The east side had more water, although at times we were feeling the effects of the shallow water as it increased the drag on the kayak's bottom. The strong winds made the paddle back so much longer than the quick trip out with the strong wind at our backs. We ducked into Five Mile Creek and paddled in the relative protection of the mangrove lined creek. Crossing the bay back to the launch site was made most difficult by the low tide that made passage across the shallow bay almost impossible. After Mary's experience out on the Snipe Keys, I did not want to have to get out of the kayak to pull it over the grass covered soft bottom. Not only is it a chore, but it damages the critical grass flats to be walking over it. Fortunately, we were able to pick our way through and regained the other side of Sugarloaf bay. We loaded our kayaks up on the trailer and headed back to Big Pine Key. The Winn Dixie grocery store there provided the ingredients for a great spaghetti dinner. For a first paddle of the trip for Julio, Steve and Mary, it was a long day of hard paddling. As daylight faded and the nearly full moon appeared in the sky, we sat under the waving trees and enjoyed the tropical evening around the camp picnic table. Soon our sleeping bags were calling us and we all retired to an early bed.

Arrival at Bahia Honda and circumnavigation

Day trip to Snipe Key

Rest day playing tourist on Islamorada and Bahia Honda Keys

Day trip to Content Keys

Day trip to Looe Key

1/2 Day trip at Bahia Honda

Day trip to Johnston Key

Day trip to Coupon Bight




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