Paddling in the Keys a magic experience

April 6, 2012 

To the uninitiated it looks like a toy. Twelve feet of purple formed plastic, pointed at both ends with a dip in the middle and a hatch both front and rear. But to those who know, that 60-pound piece of plastic is the pure, distilled essence of freedom in the Florida Keys.

I bought my kayak, secondhand, to celebrate my independence after 20 years of marriage. He was a flats guide and I’d gotten to know the Keys sitting in front of a monster outboard roaring a shallow-draft boat across the flats. The other aspect of flats fishing — poling the big hull across the flats — had awakened in me a desire to savor that silence and connection to the wildlife of the Keys.

It seemed only natural to evolve into a kayak paddler. The boats are easy to paddle and can take you to the most out-of-the-way places where larger boats could never go.

My own kayak is an Aquaterra Prism, and though they are now marketed under a different name, I strongly recommend them for a recreational paddler such as myself. They are lightweight enough for one person to heft on top of the car. They track very nicely, heading straight forward under even the most rudimentary paddling knowledge. And they only draw about two inches of water, meaning that you can take them just about anywhere.

My purple boat has been my connection to the waters surrounding the Keys since I first launched it in 1996. But my approach is a little unorthodox. There are a lot of hardcore kayakers here — and all over the country, for that matter — who look upon paddling as a sport in itself. I see it as a way to wander into unexplored secret places. The front hatch on my boat is usually reserved for my snorkel gear. The rear contains everything from towels and a change of clothes to food and sunscreen. Of course, there is always a life jacket in there somewhere.

My first trips explored the waters all around my former home on Big Coppitt. Just offshore of Boca Chica Beach are a series of coral heads. Once you perfect your ability to climb back into a kayak in deep water, there’s nothing more exhilarating that jumping over the side in a snorkel, fins, and mask. I raise a dive flag and attach it to the footrests of my boat. I have a long cord attached to the front of the boat, so I pull it along behind me while I snorkel.

One of the finest aspects of kayaking alone is the experience of seeing the creatures of the Keys without disrupting them with a motor. After a while you even learn to paddle softly, and the sloppy placement of a paddle can reverberate like a diesel engine in your ears. When you’re quiet, birds are less likely to flush when you approach their mangrove perches. If you paddle gently, even the water will remain smooth and clear and you can watch tiny crabs decorating their shells with camouflage or rays languishing on a sandy bottom.

Over the years my kayak has grown to feel like an appendage, like that extra leg that can take me places the other two cannot. It’s always stored somewhere safely out of the sunlight and off the ground. When a hurricane threatens, it’s not been unusual for me to drag it into the middle of the living room, just to be secure in the knowledge that it won’t float or blow away. I left the country in 2000 to live in Central America for a year. It was hard to leave the boat behind, but it was well cared for by a good friend who returned it when I returned.

Of all the experiences over the years, it’s had to pick a favorite, but there is one that certainly stands out as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I was paddling off of Cudjoe Key where Blimp Road ends in a makeshift boat launch. I had spent most of the afternoon exploring the perimeter of Little Knockemdown Key and was heading back to the launch site when a pod of about eight dolphins sidled up to me. I slowed my progress, and so did they, taking turns to swim up alongside my kayak, roll to one side and take a good look at me. If I had reached out my hand I could have touched them, they were that close.

It felt almost holy, that encounter with another species. As I quietly watched them watching me, a baby dolphin from the group rose alongside my kayak, looked shyly up at me, then disappeared.

I imagine I’ll hold onto this purple hunk of plastic until I haven’t the strength left to paddle.

Originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of Keys Living.

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