Paddling South Florida – How to Make it Happen


Photos and Story
By Pete Zimowsky


The screech of an osprey grabs your attention and breaks your momentum as your’re paddling across the blue waters of Indian River Lagoon in South Florida.


The white-and-black fish hawk blasts out of a tree, plunges into the water and comes up with dinner wiggling in its talons.


The bird life in South Florida is incredible. The whole scene is a total turnaround from minutes before when we were battling bumper-to-bumper traffic on South Florida’s I-95 and a jammed supermarket parking lot as we grabbed some ice tea, pepper jack cheese and olive-basil crackers for our paddling adventure lunch.


Yet, suddenly, here we were in the wilds of mangrove-lined creeks with a mixture of salt and fresh water teeming with bird life and jumping fish. You could see the bottom of the shallow coves and channels and an occasional crab scurrying away to make sure it wasn’t someone’s dinner.

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge and St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park are only a few miles from subdivisions, high-rises, highways and the elbow-to-elbow beaches.


But what a getaway. They are among dozens of national wildlife refuges and state parks in Florida that are open to paddling. What a way to see wildlife and escape the hoopla of Florida.


My wife and I are whitewater kayakers from the mountains of Idaho, but we visit relatives in Florida a couple of times a year. Once sea kayaking greenhorns, we’ve learned a lot through the school of hard knocks.


After getting foiled in our rental tandem hard-shell sea kayak by powerful inlet currents, getting lost in the mangroves, and sitting out a March squall, we finally found our way to the secluded channels and beach of Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge and St. Lucie Inlet State Park.


What a difference. We had miles of beach all to ourselves to explore, swim and relax.


And, the paddling is endless.


The year before we paddled around Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The year before that, it was the mangrove channels in the Florida Keys in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. “Two other local favorites are the Savannas State Park in St. Lucie County and the Loxahatchee River in northern Palm Beach County,” says Ed Stout of South River Outfitters in Stuart. “The Savannas State Park is a fresh water swamp and is home to many diverse ecosystems. The Loxahatchee River is one of two federally sanctioned wild and scenic rivers in Florida.”


We took his advice on paddling. Also check out a trip right out of Halpatiokee Regional Park in Martin County and see some great Florida hammock flora and fauna.



Areas to paddle
A glimpse of some of the refuges and state parks to get you started:


Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge – This is a coastal refuge that provides some of the most productive sea turtle nesting habitat in the United States. It has mangroves and a pine scrub mainland. It’s located in Martin County near Hobe Sound and about 20 miles north of West Palm Beach. For details on finding it, contact South River Outfitters kayaking shop in Stuart, Fla. At (772) 223-1500; www.southriveroutfitters.com .


Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge – This refuge is really cool because it was the first national wildlife refuge. It was designated in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect brown pelicans and other native birds nesting on the island. The island is clearly marked and you don’t want to intrude on the birds. You can give it a wide berth and watch everything with binoculars. It is located near Vero Beach and Sebastian. For details on how to paddle the refuge and also refuge areas to the north, contact Kayaks, Etc. in Vero Beach at (772) 794-9900; www.kayaksetc.com.


John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – This was the first underwater state park in the U.S. It encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles. It also has mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks in the park’s upland areas. Lots of paddling, snorkeling and scuba diving. Canoeing and kayaking are very popular here in the Florida Keys. The state park is located at Mile Marker 102.5 in Key Largo. Call the park for more information, see http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/
For Information about John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, call (305) 451-1202.


Quick Tips:



- Pack most of your own gear in a duffle bag for the plane. Although most kayak shops provide lifejackets and bail pumps, it’s good to have your own stuff. We take our lifejackets, boat straps, dry bags, Pelican boxes, first-aid and survival kit, and a foam block and strap system for putting the kayak on the roof of a rental car. Some shops provide the necessary stuff for car-top carrying but you never know. You will also want to have a few towels to put between the boat and the car roof so you don’t scratch the rental car roof. A warning: some rental companies frown on carrying gear like boats.


- GPS and computer map programs also help in charting your course before you even leave home. Download waypoints on your GPS before leaving home. GPS is a must in mangrove swamps where everything looks the same and where there is a web of channels going in all directions.


- Carry a small weather radio and leave it on alert while paddling.


- Pack a soft cooler along so that you can pack lunches from deli shops and not depend on eating in restaurants all the time. It crushes down flat in your gear bag. However, it is fun to kayak and dock at a restaurant.


– Try to find a kayak rental shop close to the area where you want to paddle. We once had to carry a tandem kayak on a small rental car for nearly 200 miles and it wasn’t fun. Kayak shops also have the ins-and-outs of exploring local areas and some provide guided trips.


For information on Florida’s national wildlife refuges and state parks, go online at www.fws.gov/refuges; or www.FloridaStateParks.org. It’s best to call and see which ones allow paddling.

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