Florida Bay – Better Bring Your Navigation “A” Game

It was great to get into Flamingo but Flamingo is also one of the filters for the EC and the UFC for those that go on the inside.  If you come on the inside like we did, you have to portage your canoe and gear around the dam that separates Buttonwood Canal from Florida Bay.  The distance of the portage is not that great which is a blessing and a curse.  A blessing in that it is only about a quarter of a mile if that.  A curse in that you have to spend a bunch of time unpacking all of your gear, assembling your portage cart and then portage it all to the  ramp where the whole process reverses itself.  The distance is so short that you first think oh I will just carry my boat over there.  The problem with that thought is that normally your muscles are already in a weak state from all the paddling you have been doing and you are really taking a chance of pulling a muscle. Can you imagine being an EC contestant and you pulled a muscle that caused you to DNF and you were only 30 miles from the finish?!  I would be one pissed off individual and I would have no one to be pissed off at except myself for taking that risk.

It seemed like everyone had decided to sleep for the night at a pavilion by the inside boat ramp and then portage everything over in the morning.  My wife calls me the ultimate boy scout because I am always trying to be prepared and I prepare for the worst.  I just couldn’t get to sleep thinking about the portage and I didn’t want to be rushing packing and unpacking in the morning.  Hey, I am not a banana so I don’t have to be one of the bunch.  I decided to do the portage that night.  This gave me the opportunity to do the portage at a leisurely pace and I was able to have my boat ready to go the way I wanted it to be.  Everything organized and everything in its place.  The disadvantage to this was that I would have to sleep by my boat near the outside boat ramp and there was no pavilion there.  It didn’t look like there was a chance for rain and I was pretty exhausted so sleeping on the ground without a tent wasn’t a real problem.  I at least picked some ground to sleep on.  Last year I saw Whitecaps sleeping at this ramp and he was sleeping on the concrete.  He is one tough individual.  So I got into my sleeping bag and  just rolled up in my pouch to keep the dew off me.

The 4:30am alarm came too soon.  I just rolled over and fell back to sleep.  Rod and Stripbulder had to do their portage and I knew they would wake me up when they got their boats over to the ramp.  Funny that they did the same thing I did when their alarms went off.  So we ended up launching two hours later than we had planned.  Why rush when the weather isn’t going to be great anyway?  Shoot, why even turn the weather report on.  I knew what it would be… “This is the National Weather Service.  The forecast today at Flamingo Bay and the surrounding Florida keys is winds 10-15 knots with gusts of 20 knots.  Winds will be out of whatever direction Rod, Bill and Stripbuilder are heading to.”  The sad part of this is that seemed to be the weather report for most of the UFC.  I guess God wanted this UFC to be a character builder for us.

This is a picture of us heading out into Florida Bay.  The interesting thing is that the water depth where we were was only about 18.”  That is what makes Florida Bay so challenging to navigate through.  It is very shallow and waves build very quickly.  You have all these very shallow banks that can prevent you from getting from one body of water to another.  There are very narrow passes through these shallow banks with names like Tin Can Pass, Twisty Mile, Crocodile Dragover, Jimmie Channel and Manatee Pass.

These passes are marked with these markers that local fishing guides put up.  These markers are very small and hard to locate if you are any distance from them.  Oh, and these shallow banks have an interesting characteristic to them.  If you run up on them and think you are going to get out and pull your boat over them, think again.

You will sink down to your waist in   thick muck.  It is like quick sand.  I know one Watertriber who takes snow shoes with him to be able to walk over these shallow banks.  Now he has a small sailboat that gives him  the room to carry them.  Not so for small kayaks and canoes.  I have heard Florida Bay called the arm pit of the keys because all the nasty stuff flows into the bay and settle out in it. Oh, and then there are the sharks that seem to be rather plentiful in the bay. Not that it is all bad in the bay.  Florida Bay is where the water starts to become very pretty and very clear. At least you can see the bottom when you are running up onto it.  With all that said, now you can also understand why most Watertribers do not try to cross Florida Bay at night. No one wants to spend the night out there.  Especially after hearing about the night two very seasoned veterans had when they tried and got stuck.

Sure enough, the wind ended up blowing right into our face.  But knowing that Key Largo was right there in front of us gave some extra energy to keep fighting.  If that hamburger at Flamingo tasted good, just think about what was waiting for us in Key Largo.  A hotel room with a soft bed, a great full course dinner, and for me, getting to see Lisa.  Being able to talk on the phone is great, but I am not much of a talker on the phone during one of these events.  Our phone conversations are usually pretty short.  “Hey, how are you doing?”  (That question is really kind of silly if you think about it  And she usually responds by saying, “No, how are YOU doing?”)  She knows I don’t want to spend a lot of time listening to what is going on so she just waits for the usual report and questions…  “What is the weather report?”  “These are my plans for the next two days.”  “I need you to bring me ——— at the next checkpoint.”  “Love You.”  “Bye.”  If the call lasts ten minutes that is pretty long.  It is not that I don’t want to connect with her.  I am just “in the zone” as she says. Glad she loves and understands me.  Seeing her in Key Largo would give us some quality time to catch up and I missed her.

In a group you really can only have one navigator.  You do need someone double checking but only one person can be giving the direction.  Going into Flamingo I had been filling that role, but there were not that many critical decisions to be made.  Once in the Joe River it was pretty easy navigation.  To get to Key Largo from Flamningo there are really two major routes–the upper one and the lower one.  We all had these routes loaded into our GPS’ and we decided to go the lower route.  This worked out pretty well since we were all following the same route.  Until we exited Crocodlie Dragover.  The next pass shown on the chart indicates that you should go kind of east-southeast once you exit the Dragover.  Well, Stripbuilder started to go down almost south and I didn’t understand why.  He was heading straight into the middle of Park Key bank.  This is a picture of what I was looking at on the chart.  I kept asking him what he was doing and he kept saying that there was a pass through it.  This would be great if there was because it was putting us on a more direct route to Key Largo, but I sure didn’t see it on my chart or on my electronic charts.  He was down right stubborn on this point.  I reached a point of thinking ok, what is the worst that can happen? We just get close to the islands near the shallow banks, hope the mud is solid, and we can drag our boats over the bank.  Or, we might have to paddle due south and somewhat out of our way to get around the bank.  Either way, there is a bailout option that is not that bad so I didn’t put up any more resistance to the route we were on. Well what I didn’t know is sly ole’ Stripbuilder had poured over the banks on google earth and had located a small pass that the locals must know about through this bank.  As we paddled up to the bank, sure enough there were these PVC poles stuck in the bank marking a pass through it.  A shallow pass but a pass nonetheless.  We were even able to get on to one of the islands and stretch our legs.  Man did that feel good.  We could see Key Largo, had another seven more miles to go and had plenty of daylight.

The paddle into Sunset Cove in Key Largo went by so slow.  Things look so close but in reality they are so far away and it seems to take for ever to make significant progress.  I mean seven miles sounds pretty close, but when you are doing 3.5 knots that means two solid hours of paddling.  It was great paddling into the cove.  Watertribers were on the dock cheering us on, I could see friends like Jarhead, Whitecaps, and heyyyyyyy, Jungle Jim was there to greet us too.  Jungle Jim and his posse of kayakers had somehow passed us again without us knowing.  It is a big ocean out there.  This is him arriving at Key Largo.  Nice, sleek, Epic kayak.

As I got through the crowd that was helping me  out of my Kruger and there was the person I was looking for the most. Lisa. I was nasty, dirty and I know I stunk to high heaven, but she didn’t hesitate hugging me and welcoming me to Key Largo.  I had reserved a room at the lodge at the finish but she had given it to Jungle Jim and Rod.  She had reserved a very nice room at the Marriott down the road and I think I set a record an all time record unloading my boat.  Rod and I had finished the first leg of the UFC!