At 1,515 miles, Florida's circumnavigational paddling trail is one of the longest water trails in the world. Like most long-distance, human-powered enterprises, through-paddling the Florida CT requires serious determination—and a little help from friendly people along the way.
Florida paddling trail coordinator Liz Sparks says 20 "hardy souls" have completed the entire CT since 2006. Over that period of time, "a small, casual group of folks have emerged and been dubbed 'Trail Angels,'" notes Sparks. "They have become true friends to the paddlers who spend day in and day out pounding away to complete the grueling CT journey. Trail angels make themselves available to offer kindness to strangers, in small and large ways. They sometimes offer meals, hot showers, a shuttle to a soft bed, and small comforts to make the journey extra special.
"There are typically no more than two to four CT through-paddlers each year so the effort to reach out to them is not much," adds Sparks. "These paddlers typically begin their journey in the Panhandle at the Alabama border in the fall/winter so they can time arrival in the Everglades and Keys when the temperatures and bug factor are most favorable."
The trail angel model is nothing new. Similar informal networks of hiker and paddler supporters have cropped up on the Appalachian Trail and along the Mississippi River. Florida trail angel Dan Thompson says he's been inspired by the through-paddlers he's met. That's a big reason why he "offers assistance and hospitality to other paddlers that don't expect it, but really appreciated," says Thompson, the CT's trail angel coordinator.
Given Florida's diverse mix of backwater wilderness and sprawling urban development, trail angels play a key role and helping paddlers navigate between land and sea. "Support in the rural areas increases paddler safety, and provides access to supplies that are further away," says Thompson. "Support in the suburban areas provides hospitality and moral support, and helps reduce the cost of expensive shelter."
The number of Florida trail angels jumped from 17 to 22 in early January, when Sparks put out an email celebrating the rewards of offering shore support for long-distance paddlers. Volunteer efforts and the accomplishments of coastal paddlers will be celebrated at the 2016 Florida Paddling Trails Association reunion at O'Leno State Park, scheduled for April 15-17. "The more Trail Angels we have the more assistance that can be offered to the CT paddlers," says Thompson. "This is volunteer work so the more hands there are the lighter the load for everyone."
- Read another installment in our Meet a Water Trail series with Michigan’s Island Loop Route.
- View an online presentation about Florida Circumnavigational Through-Paddlers
- Read more about the original Mississippi River trail angel Dale Saunders
- Daniel Alvarez sea kayaked the Florida Circumnavigational Trail in 2014