The Florida Keys are made up of some 1,700 islands. From just outside of Miami to Key West, this archipelago stretches about 150 miles. It’s here where I found some unique saltwater kayaking opportunities stretching from Cow Key to Key Largo. I realized that kayaking in this vast area is not the same game twice after accumulating lifetime memories.
Kayaking through Cow Key Channel
The two hour, 1.5 mile roundtrip through the Cow Key Channel beginning at US 1 MM (mile marker) 4.1, just outside of Key West, with Lazy Dog kayak guide Bethany involved a steady current that’s heavily influenced by the two daily high and low tides coming from both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The firm breeze helped to counter the muggy conditions. Bethany and her four-legged companion Tucker served as our guides, the latter coming because this outfit is made up of dog owners who encourage kayakers to bring along Fido.
Through her guidance as we kayaked open waters, a natural mangrove creek and one “hurricane hole” (a pond surrounded by mangroves that offer more protection from hurricanes), I got an up close and personal view of primary Red Mangrove trees, whose prop roots filter out about 95 per cent of the saltwater while the trees leaves sacrifice themselves to filter out the rest of the salt so the trees can have “potable” water. Their death means decomposition in the channel, which creates the soil ingredients to build up the small islands.
In my 12 foot Perception model, I heard the soundtrack of osprey, Great Blue and White Heron as I paddled through the waters, ranging in depth of two to ten feet. Bethany often stopped alongside the mangrove growth to educate our group about the plant and animal life thriving here, letting us hold them. Creatures like the prickly-feeling Florida Spiny Sea Star, and the Sea Cucumber, which has the feel of its vegetable counterpart. She was excited when she came across a government-protected Queen Conch, a large creepy-looking snail that would make the subject of a good horror film.
My kayaking trip wasn’t without its warnings, like not getting into the channel, where it would be hard to fend myself against the stronger currents and motorized watercraft, plus to not touch the dreaded Fire Sponge, who clutches to the mangrove roots and has the sting of a jellyfish.
Venturing to the Key with “no name”
Just four miles off of US 1 at MM 30, I found a more isolated, off the beaten path world, where I kayaked roundtrip over a couple of hours from Big Pine Key to No Name Key (where the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was staged). The winds whistled through the palms on a mostly cloudy morning and afternoon, helping to keep the heat and mugginess in check. Our guide from Big Pine Kayak Adventures, Bill Keogh, has kayaked some 800 of the Florida Keys.
Keogh’s four-footed friend joined, a friendly mixed breed named Scupper, who quickly won my fondness. As we set off from Big Pine Key, the scent of sulfur permeated my nostrils because of the decomposing seagrass which this Key catches from Florida Bay. Getting to the Key with “No Name” meant crossing the channel’s choppy waters (about a 1/3 mile long) in a 12 foot Vapor that weighed 50 pounds.
When I looked down into the more shallow waters, I caught the sight of flat Turtle Grass, round Manatee Grass, and soft-looking Shoal Grass waving back and forth. Being out in this wide channel heightened my sense of isolation from the hustle and bustle only a few miles away. My eyes took in the sight of a kettle of Turkey Vultures heading south for winter. Arriving at No Name Key, we paddled into a deep mangrove forest via a very narrow creek, so narrow that I dismantled my paddle into halves, using one along with low-hanging branches to navigate hundreds of feet. But awaiting my camera was a camouflaged Yellow-Crowned Night Heron flying around from tree to tree as well as a variety of crabs climbing the densely-packed branches. This trip was a “long, but pleasant” mile in waters ranging 1-18 feet in depth, offering me more solitude and sights of other small islands like Porpoise Key, Mayo Key, and Water Key.
Pelting rain en route to Boot Key
“Kayak Dave” said this about how one paddles a kayak, “It’s like sex, so long as you’re having fun, it doesn’t matter how you do it.” He admonished me to turn my body more instead of my elbows during my three mile roundtrip to and from Boot Key (where Radio Marti broadcasts to Cuba take place) as light to moderate rain pelted me from above the first half of my journey. Thunder and lightning thankfully weren’t part of the storm. We started out at Sombrero Beach on Marathon’s Vaca Key, facing the Atlantic. This Key is named for “the cow of the sea”, that being the manatee. Vaca is Spanish for cow.
En route to Boot Key via Sister Creek, my eyes caught sight of million dollar homes sharing the shorelines with red mangrove trees. The snowy egret were plentiful, but very camera shy when approaching them for a close up shot. My 12.5 foot, 44 pound Cobra Navigator was much more prone to capsize as I navigated through Boot Key’s Red Mangrove creek. The tree branches created such an obstacle that leaning into them wrongly could result in capsizing. It happened to one lady in our group. Her sandal tried to escape out of the creek, but I snatched it up. “No-see-ums” (biting midges) terrorized my eyes inside the still waters, but I was covered up otherwise, avoiding further torture. I caught my first glimpse of a yellowish nurse shark as it swam on the creek bottom.
Kayaking back from Boot Key was more pleasant since the showers had passed, and I could feast on breakfast of uncooked oatmeal and skim milk topped with cinnamon in Boot Key Harbor before returning back.
The longest 1.5 miles to and from North Sound Creek
I had never used a sea kayak until I got to Key Largo. After my roughly two hour adventure was over, I’d never forget the challenges I faced over 1.5 miles. One of the realities of this sport is that weather plays a pivotal role on one’s experience. I set off from Key Largo into Garden Cove in a Current Designs 17 foot, 52 pound sit-in model. The 25 knot winds immediately caused me to drift about in the rough waters either because my foot pedal adjustments made on shore didn’t lock in and/or I didn’t keep my feet fully on them.
It came at a time when I needed to cross an area shared by motorboats; and thus, fear almost got the better of me. But thankfully, my guide Todd of Florida Bay Outfitters and another really skilled kayaker/journalist came back to “rescue” me, getting on both sides of my vessel to readjust the foot pedals. I made my way southward down North Sound Creek, which separates Key Largo from Rattlesnake Key. It was here where I’d see the beginnings of another Red Mangrove island, as numerous Red Mangrove trees were scattered about like an archipelago obstacle course.
For as milder gusts of winds blew this way and that in the creek, I found myself getting stuck against the trees, which meant that Todd had to fall back from the rest of the group to bail me out. I’ll admit that the wind is something that I found hard to deal with. Nonetheless, as we ventured back to Key Largo across the cove, the guide had to tow me in the headwinds part of the way. Still, I had to still paddle my kayak, trying to emulate the strong motions he did in leading me safely, even as the swells hit my boat, splashing salt water on my jacket, face, and mouth. I found shelter against some mangroves while waiting for him to come back with others. During the last part of my journey, I began to feel more comfortable using the sea kayak and foot pedals, which moved the rudder of the kayak in the choppy waters with great precision.
One doesn’t have to be an expert to enjoy this activity, but it’s important to have a skilled guide(s) accompanying you to help keep you safer. I may be initially awkward when operating things like kayaks, but I don’t let that keep me from trying out new experiences, which gave me the chance to appreciate the different moods of waters and weather as well as some of the Florida Key’s natural offerings.
Florida Keys recommendations
I had always wanted to pet a dolphin, and got my chance to at The Theater of Sea, located at MM 84.5 in Islamorada. I was initially greeted by some of the 70 well-taken care of kitties on site in the gift shop before heading to the lagoon, where I got to see nine Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins aged 1-45. Some of them, like 1 year old Skipper, love to be petted. Their bodies are soft, while their noses and fins are solid, but not sharp. You can also have interactive experiences with rays, parrots, and sea lions.
My favorite place dining place in the Keys is The Key Largo Conch House, sensitive to those on more restrictive diets. I cheerfully got scrambled egg whites and oatmeal cooked in skim milk as well as Green Mango tea served in a tea press. Its petite pumpkin pancake appetizers with almonds were quite scrumptious and other specialties include several poached egg dishes, specialty coffees and teas.
My favorite accommodations in the Keys were at Ocean Pointe Suites at Key Largo. The accommodations offered me a full kitchen, free use of the washer-dryer (in the suite), living room, and a comfortable bed along with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. The high speed internet is free, available in the office/dining area that’s open 24/7.
Disclosure: The writer attended a press trip sponsored by Florida Keys Tourism Council, but what he wrote are his impressions and were not vetted by the sponsor. Roy A. Barnes writes from southeastern Wyoming.