Thursday, January 26, 2012
I just returned home at 11 pm last night (Tues., 24th) after my 3,743.l mile road trip to the first Florida Keys Challenge. If you are just tuning in, please go back and read from 6 January. Jean did a great job of keeping everyone updated on the highlights of the trip, but also did a wonderful background on each of the keys that we visited that will add to your understanding and appreciation of the area. I’ll take you through the event with a fleshed-out “boots on the ground” account (or butt on the water, in this case) along with the pictures from the trip. I hope you enjoy it, especially the pictures.
I would be most remiss if I didn’t mention those who were most helpful in making the trip possible, such as Gus Bianchi, David and Margie Hawkins, and Joe and Ruth Kliment, and of course Jean. First, Gus Bianchi made me aware of the event and of PaddleFlorida.org. If you visit their site, you will see the wide selection of trips they make possible, including the Florida Keys Challenge. PaddleFlorida is a non-profit educational organization with the mission of promoting paddling in Florida, water conservation, and wildlife preservation. If you check under “about/contact us” you will get to meet the people that make PaddleFlorida work. Most of them are volunteers who really pour their hearts and souls into making the trips possible and making the details of every day a reality, often under difficult circumstances. We all really grew to be amazed by their commitment and appreciative of their efforts. Thank you all.
The first question is usually, “Would you recommend this to a friend?” The answer: “Absolutely.” There are several reasons why these trips play such an important role. First, they allow paddlers of nearly any skill level to participate in an event that will greatly improve their skills under the safest possible conditions. Paddlers are given the opportunity to try things that may be new to them, or may be a bit beyond their current skill level, while enjoying the security of a large support system. Sooner or later, regardless of what waters are frequented, a paddler will get caught out in conditions for which they may not be prepared. The varied conditions encountered during such an extended and supported trip build confidence and skill that make a paddler safer, and which otherwise may take years to acquire under normal paddling conditions alone.
Second, you spend your time with people with a wide range of experience. You learn from some by simply watching what they do, while others actively provide pointers and training, like the afternoon of instruction in wet exits, self-rescue, and rolling that occurred off one of the beaches.
Third, one of the best pleasures is getting to spend your time and share your experiences with a group of like-minded people that also share your love of nature and paddling. We had paddlers from New York, Georgia, Montana, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and of course, Oklahoma, and I may still have missed one or two.
Fourth, especially in the Keys Challenge, it is the best way to gain access to places normally closed to individual paddlers and campers. The Keys are densely populated by both residences and businesses, making stealth camping, commercial camping, or even just getting ashore impossible. Much of the shoreline is razor-sharp limestone or mangrove. What is accessible is generally private property or closed to access for conservation reasons. Commercial campgrounds require reservations a year in advance, and may charge $80-100/night just for primitive tent space. Trying to arrange access to nightly camping can be exhausting to impossible. Being part of a larger, organized event, opens up places otherwise inaccessible.