Our Keys Challenge trip continues from the start of our road trip on 8 January. Anyone who travels Florida will recognize the Blue Angle jet at the Florida Welcome Center as you enter the state near Pensacola. Pensacola is home to the Blue Angles, which are the greatest possible recruiting tools for the Navy and Marine Corps aviation programs. They began flying in 1946, and were officially sanctioned by the Defense Department in 1949. The squadron does around 70 shows across the country each year during their March to November flying season. If you’ve never seen them perform, definitely add them to your bucket list. My favorite part of the program is when one of the jets disappears from view. The absence is worked so well into the program that it occurs without you realizing it even after seeing the program many times and expecting it. With a little sleight of hand, the team dazzles the spectators and draws their attention forward as the missing jet silently makes a low altitude approach from the rear of the viewing area and suddenly, and I mean SUDDENLY, materializes directly over your head as the pilot jams the throttle and everyone in the crowd jumps a foot off the ground. The spectators’ responses range from tears to excited cheers and applause. The whole show is an exciting and very moving experience.
Florida Welcome Center, I-10 at Pensacola
The Spanish played many very important roles in the history of Florida. The English were actually here longer, but Spain put a stamp on the state that endures to this day. It will be seen in the architecture throughout the state, and especially in St. Augustine, and even in modern construction, such as this Welcome Center, which seems part Spain and part Margaritaville.
My first destination in Florida would be to visit David and Margie Hawkins in St. Johns County. After the long two-day drive from Oklahoma, it was great to spend a day of rest with them before heading for the river. Besides the opportunity to visit friends along the way, they were graciously willing to help me with a problem. There’s no opportunity to train for a long paddle or practice ocean paddling in Western Oklahoma, and an attempt to start a long paddle trip with no muscle preparation is doomed to failure, as I learned last year. Then a change in the Florida Keys Challenge schedule compounded the problem. The first two days were supposed to be about nine miles each, with the longer legs scheduled later in the trip after we had a chance to build up to the demand. A campsite problem made it necessary for the staff to combine the first two days into a single 18.6 mile leg the first day. Besides trying to paddle on the Canadian River at Stinchcomb and the Great Salt Plains Lake, I planned to do a paddle on the St. Johns River and Charlotte Harbor at Punta Gorda for some minimalist preparation prior to arriving in the Keys.
I intended to launch Ibi from the Gibson Dry Dock marina at San Mateo from which I had sailed on the St. Johns, but the rocks and low tide made this impractical. Before going to a local ramp, I visited with Tommy Kight, the marina manager and friend, and got a chance to see his new shop. For years, Tommy has helped raise long-forgotten relics from the bottom of the river, from sunken wrecks to cypress logs.
"Growth of a Thousand Years"
Standing at the rear of the shop was a ten-foot piece of wood that would make any woodworker’s heart beat faster. It was from a cypress log that had probably laid in the mud of the river bottom for a hundred years, and was probably growing when Columbus arrived in the New World. I took a picture of the knot, simply to add more interest to the picture, but the texture throughout the rest of the plank was a perfect run of tight growth rings and grain that speaks of native woods long gone.
E. Stuart Hubbard wrote of “Harvesting the Growth of a Thousand Years.” Lumbering was the largest Florida industry in the state’s infancy, and millions of board feet of swamp cypress and longleaf pine were shipped from the Wilson Cypress Co., in Palatka, for destinations around the world. Wilson’s was the second largest sawmill in the world, and it felled virgin timber from 1893 until it closed in 1944, and worked 600 employees at 75-cents to a dollar a day. The mill used tugs to tow large floats of logs up and down the river, and invariably a few logs would escape and eventually sink to the bottom. You would think Florida would welcome the removal of these huge river hazards from the river bottom, but ever vigilant for a dollar, they charge a salvager $5,000 for a salvage permit, plus another $5,000 annually for renewal. Tommy also had a piece of longleaf pine with 32 growth rings to the inch, versus the 3-6 rings per inch found in any wood currently available.