I finally finished paddling the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail on February 17, 2020! I am officially the 31st person to complete the trail. The Florida CT Hall of Fame Yes, I know it has taken me nearly a month to write about it, but I needed some time to relax and thoughtfully think about my voyage.
I partnered up this leg with John Pretzell because he needed to complete this section as well. We decided to meet up at Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola, Florida and paddle east towards Apalachicola. As you know, I stopped last year at Indian Pass after getting flipped in the breakers on a particularly windy day. Due to the complicated nature of our trip I didn’t end up at Indian Pass this time. I’ll do my best to explain why.
Since we both had vehicles, we decided it would be best to shuttle between launching and ending points each day, if possible, and work our way down the coast in that manner. To be perfectly honest, it’s a lot of work paddling the trail using this method. Every morning and evening you are loading and unloading your gear into different vehicles and then driving roundtrip an hour to an hour and half roundtrip. It’s not very relaxing at all. It does have it’s advatages though. You can leave behind most of your gear and just take water and food with you, leaving you with a pretty light load to paddle. This method also allows you to paddle with the wind and/or current almost every day. You end up sacrificing the camping experience. Personally I enjoy paddling a full day, setting up camp, and just kicking my feet up and relaxing near the water until the sun sets and then resting in your tent. Anyway, we woud paddle west to east some days and east to west others. Every evening it would take us a couple of hours to figure out what direction the wind was blowing, time of the tide, which direction we should paddle and how are we going to connect to our previous route. For me it was stressful and frustrating because I was so tired from paddling almost 20 miles that day. Honestly, because of this method, this section the the paddling trail was not fun for me at all. It felt more like work rather than an experience. Long distance paddling, for me, should be a spiritual journey.
Our first day on the water was a near disaster. Some very strong thunderstorms were blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico and high winds and tornados were expected. I still don’t know why we decided to launch but we did. It was narrow between the mainland and the barrier islands so the wind wasn’t a problem until we reached the inlet at Pensacola Bay. The swells and breakers were pretty big thanks to a southwest wind coming in around 25mphs. Luckily the wind was pushing us along so it was pretty quick shooting across the inlet but it was a rollercoaster ride for sure! This is where things started to take a turn for the worse.
The storm was hitting us in bands. You would get hard rain and high winds for a while and then it would calm down. However, it was starting to lightning. The wind had pushed us away from the shoreline so for safety reasons I decided to paddle as hard as I could to the nearest shoreline. John’s kayak was 19 feet long and fast so he was almost always a half mile ahead of me and I couldn’t see him anymore because of the rain. By the time I reached the shore he was already there and looking for some kind of shelter but there was nothing. I noticed a building with a flag on it in the distance and figured it was the ranger station for Fort Pickens. We decided that was the best place to stop and figure out what to do. I was soaked and starting to get cold as the afternoon dragged on. From the ranger station we still had about 9 miles to go to our campsite. There weren’t any other options so we paddled on. The wind shifted and was blowing directly east creating some dangerous whitecaps. When paddling with the wind you have to be very careful about swells approaching from behind. They will very quickly grab the stern and turn you sideways and often times roll you. It takes a lot of skill and effort to stay straight in those situations. At this time, the wind was blowing hard and we were almost surfing the waves and we paddled east. Upon approaching a bridge I could barely keep control of my kayak so I darted around this little point and got out of the wind in a little bay just before Pensacola Beach. John was waiting for me there. I refused to go back out in the waves and go underneath the bridge. It was way to dangerous at this point so I made the call to go ashore in Pensacola Beach and Uber the last 5 miles to my car and call it day. Not to mention I was soaking wet and feeling hypothermia setting in. That night we ended up sleeping in our cars because the temperature dropped to 38 degrees and the wind was still blowing almost 30 mphs.
The following days were much better and we managed to paddle 18 to 20 miles a day. We camped on a spoil island one night but most of the time we stayed at campgrounds or hotels. We decided to sleep in our cars at the SR79 bridge going into the West Bay in Panama City Beach. The paddling guide listed a restaraunt called BFE (Best Food Ever) as a place to camp. Upon arriving there it was actually called Something Salty. They were closed so we set up camp behind an old firetruck at the edge of the propery. Not long after falling asleep I was awakened by a sheriff’s deptuy yelling at us to get out of our tents with our hands up. As I unzipped my tent flap I could see the red dot from his tazer pointing right at me, so I was a little nervous. Fortunately the young man turned out to be a pretty nice guy and he informed us the property owners where there and wanted to speak to us. I grabbed the paddling guide and met with the owners. Turns out they owned the property next door as well, Boondocks. We showed them the camping site and how it gave permission to camp there, but the people who ran BFE had been gone a couple of years! The property owners didn’t know about the Florida CT but they agreed to let future paddlers camp there if they needed to do so. That’s a great thing because camping in that area is very limited due to an urban setting.
Paddling the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail has become my greatest adventure so far. It is an extremely challenging water trail with many different eco-systems. You experience everthing from isolated paradise to busy beaches in the city and a plethora of wildlife encounters. I’ll never forget the wilderness that is Florida.