Kayaking the Length of the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are an archipelago of about 1,700 islands in the southeast United States. They begin at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula, about 15 miles south of Miami, and extend in a gentle arc south-southwest and then westward to Key West.

After living in the Florida Keys for several years, my “to-do” list stretched to great proportions. At the top of my list has been a desire to kayak through the approximately 1,700 islands lining the southern tip of Florida. I planned to kayak from Key Largo to Key West, camping along desolate beaches.

With plenty of motivation built up by a few naysayers, I departed with only the bare necessities strapped atop my Ocean Kayak Scrambler. I hoped to complete my trip in four days.

The summer elements in the Keys are quite punishing. Heat indexes and humidity levels soar. My days consisted of few interruptions, and averaged about 10 hours of kayaking a day. The contrasting colors of the various water depths made even the most repetitive moments rewarding. Sea cucumbers and sea stars littered the shallow flats, while bonefish, barracuda, bonnet head and nurse sharks kept me company.

The blissful days were balanced with torment in the evenings.
Picturesque beaches tucked tightly between mangroves provided shelter from the wind not only for myself but for fogs of insects as well! The absence of wind at night combined with the humid air encouraged profuse sweating that would rinse all traces of insect repellent from me.

That left me susceptible to the infamous biting midge (aka no-see-um). No-see-ums are tiny (that’s why they are called no-see-ums) and have an uncanny ability to find a way into any bare skin where they dine on blood. The female no-see-ums are like their flying cousins, the mosquito, and require blood for their eggs to mature. Their onslaughts tend to start around sunset, and continue throughout the night. I slept very little.

As I’m realizing how big this shark actually was, it quickly jerks around and swims by again, checking me out.

Channel 2 throughway became my first of five major currents I had been warned of. Luckily I reached the channel at almost tide and the current proved no true threat. The clarity of the water was astonishing. Just as I got used to the fact I would have a relatively easy go in the not-so-strong current, I noticed a 12-foot hammerhead shark swimming by. As I’m realizing how big this shark actually was, it quickly jerks around and swims by again, checking me out. Losing sight of him, I attempt to remind myself of logic and statistics (sharks rarely attack kayaks) to ease my heart rate – kayakers are friends…not food!

I cannot fight the feeling though that at any second I would be sent flying vulnerably into the relentless current with the largest shark I have ever seen. Several minutes pass and as I am staring down nervously looking for any movement below, a frightened Needlefish is spooked out of the water and hits me directly in the chest. I was really glad no one was around to witness my frantic jump or hear my schoolgirl squeal as the wayward fish hit me, nearly knocking me off my boat.

Along the three-mile Long Key Viaduct I wasn’t as lucky with the currents. There was a strong opposing current that taxed my strength just to keep the boat barely moving forward. As I approached the end of the viaduct I paddled with all my might without the slightest advance. My boat finally reached the end of the viaduct and inched along a rock jetty. Crawling from my kayak and collapsing thankfully on solid ground I caught my breath. This was another important lesson on respecting the tide and current charts and the importance of timing in planning my route.

By the third day my hands and shoulders were sore but getting used to the daily routine. My hands had developed protective calluses but my eyes and skin constantly stung from all the sun, saltwater, and insect repellant I slathered on.

The Seven Mile Bridge and Bahia Honda Channels possess some of the deepest channels and fastest currents in the Florida Keys. The area spawns plenty of shark tales as well. Bahia Honda Channel is reportedly home to Moe, a 20-plus-foot-long Hammerhead Shark whose curiosity and size had established his reputation in more than one of the shark tales.

The Seven Mile Bridge and the old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge were amazing sites from a kayak. I was thankful there were no signs of Moe or the dangerous water conditions I had been warned about as I enjoyed the scenery.

Exhaustion ended my day on the south side of Big Pine Key but I was in for a rare treat. After setting up camp, about a dozen Key Deer arrived, poking around curiously at my invading presence. These small endangered deer live solely in the Keys, and stand about 20-30 inches high at the shoulders. There are only between 300-800 remaining. I know people who have lived in the Keys for years who have never seen one of these remarkable animals, and by morning I had seen easily over a dozen.

The next days destination was Lois Key about eleven miles southwest. There were conflicting versions of a legendary island somewhere in the Keys inhabited with monkeys. It turned out Lois Key was in fact home to rhesus monkeys purchased and shipped from India for medical research. They had been supposedly removed several years past, but there was a chance a few escapees might still be on the island. Perhpas Lois Key was that legendary island.

Bright hues of turquoise seas decorated the entire route to “Monkey Island” along with scores of eagle rays and massive tarpon. Perhaps it was just my hopeful imagination, but upon arrival, the island itself sent an eerie presence. I bellowed out my finest monkey calls, but received no reply.

With my last bit of energy, I reach Key West, the end of my journey, at the perfect time. The magic hour of a Key West sunset. Four days of punishing exploration was complete. I was ecstatic.

I reached for my camera for one final photograph – a sunset symbolizing my triumph. Only one small problem. No camera. It must have been pulled out through some tight mangrove maneuvers earlier in the evening. I didn’t get my victory photo, but the memory will stay with me forever. The sense of accomplishment I felt at that moment made all the effort worth it.

Note:Later I did recover my waterproof camera submerged in three foot of water, and 14 miles away.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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