Maybe it was the intensity of the high noon sun. Maybe it was that hint of concern in Tony’s voice when he handed us the emergency radio with the foreboding “you won’t need this but take it just in case” phrase. Or maybe it was the three-foot waves crashing on the beach while neither Abigail nor I had the foggiest idea of how to transport a kayak through the surf. It was probably all of these elements wrapped up together that gave our trip that exhilarating but perilous edge.
The day before, all of our plans seemed to be falling in place. It was early March and time for a long-awaited adventure. For months, Abigail and I had plans to canoe down North Florida’s remote Suwannee River, known for its high bluffs and countless freshwater springs. The week before our trek conditions looked perfect—the water level was just right, and the weather looked clear and spare except a few sprinkles of rain. Then, scant days before our paddle, the weather took a nosedive—the forecast showed high winds, rain, and possibly a tornado. Needless to say, we rerouted, and like true snowbirds, we looked on the doppler radar for the sunniest place we could find. With no plans, and still thirsty for a backcountry excursion, we headed further south.
I had heard once of the Ten Thousand Islands chain off the southwestern tip of Florida and that it had ample camping and excellent paddling. As we drove, we devised our new plan: we would rent a kayak overnight, paddle out to a mangrove island, watch sharks and sea turtles swim in the shallows, and gaze up into a star-filled night sky. We called local experts, read some Google reviews, and fashioned a brand new adventure in the course of a few hours. As we drove south and south and south some more, we left North Florida’s rain behind us and stepped outside to an 80-degree scorcher at Tigertail Beach, where Tony would rent us our kayak and we’d set off toward Kice Island and everything would go as planned.
The Ten Thousand Island coastline is a jigsaw puzzle of mangroves and sand bars. There are no reliable maps of the area because of how frequently storms reshape the geography—blocking off channels, creating passageways through the mangroves, or even erasing some islands entirely. Google Maps’ satellite imagery gives one the most accurate view of the current geographic conditions. The ephemeral state of land here hints at the area’s lack of development. From Kice Island, the only human structures in sight are the Cape Romano Dome Homes, the skeletons of four concrete buildings from a 1980s development scheme, crumbling relics of the last time human hubris tried to tame this ocean-ruled territory.
From the Google Maps vantage point, this area did indeed look like a paddler’s paradise—sandy beaches, shallow bays, and mangrove channels bound to be teaming with marine wildlife. Reality, though, seemed to sink deeper into our psyche with each paddle stroke as we strained our way over the open ocean toward Kice Island—into the wind, the island almost imperceptible on the horizon. All of our gear was strapped to our sit-on-top tandem kayak, wrapped in trash bags to keep it dry. Small waves caused our kayak to rock side to side. At one point, a bottle-nosed dolphin dorsal fin emerged just feet from us, hinting at the size of sea creatures lurking below. After the first hour of paddling, the island looked absolutely no closer than when we started.
When we reached our destination, things only got worse. Hoards of gigantic mosquitoes and miniscule biting midges lurked in the now-stagnant air, biting our ankles, wrists, faces, and any mere suggestion of exposed skin. We built a hasty fire, snapped some pictures of a lovely sunset, and cooked dinner, hoping at least our tent would offer some respite from our perpetual blood donations. We sighed with relief when the tent’s walls kept out the mosquitoes—but soon found ourselves still scratching at the midges that could squirm their way past the apparently not-so-fine mesh of our cheap tent.
The following morning brought calm waters, no bugs, and some spectacular views of herons hunting for hermit crabs and black skimmers flying low against a hazy pink sunrise. Was it worth the journey? It depends on who you ask.
For spring break this year, Abigail and I again looked south, hoping to recycle our paddle plans for the Suwannee River and its bug-free river camps. Again, everything looked perfect—until a weeklong rainstorm hit just before our trip, flooding both the river and our hopes of finally paddling our route. This time we decided to stay back and postpone the trip, trusting that a few week’s time should lower the river levels. We’re cautiously optimistic (if that, really). Having learned our lesson after not one but two thwarted paddle trips, we now have a backup plan in place. But if all else fails, there’s always Tony at Tigertail Beach, and yes, Tony, we’ll take the bug spray.