Bill Keogh was dipping his paddle into opposite sides
of his kayak while gliding over water that shimmered
blue from the sky.
"If you open your eyes you can see anything
from dolphins to turtles, bald eagles, sharks, stingrays,
little creatures like single-cell algae," he
said slowly. "You get unexpected surprises
when you're on the water this close."
Bill runs a kayak outfitter at the Old Wooden Bridge
Fishing Camp on Big Pine Key, and I had joined him
and two other customers for a three-hour trip. We
had just pushed off land and were now paddling through
Bogie Channel, which cuts through Big Pine and No
Suddenly to the near left of our procession we heard
a splash and turned to see shiny fish leaping through
the air. And a pelican was already diving toward
"Those are needlefish," Bill said. "Pelicans
dive for them when they're jumping to escape
the teeth of barracudas. Pelicans' charge
in on any feeding frenzy."
The other customers, Mary and Sandy, took out their
cameras and began shooting.
After this slight drama faded Bill resumed paddling
and we followed. No Name stood straight ahead and
to the distant right the sky and sea blended together:
there was no horizon line.
"What you smell is the stench of decomposing grasses
floating to the surface, or into this area from Florida
Bay," he said as we stroked our kayaks forward. "They
form hydrogen and sulfur gases."
We all now paid attention to this third sense, and
indeed the air reeked.
I looked through the shallow, translucent water to
the swaying sea grass--it felt like I was paragliding
over a breezy Illinois prairie--and soon saw several
circular objects. "What are those?" I
asked as I pointed with my paddle. "They look
like old car tires covered with vegetation."
"You're right, they do look like old car
tires covered with vegetation," Bill said.
There was time to repeat what a speaker had said.
"But they're loggerhead sponges. This
area is sponge and grass flats: manatee grass, turtle
Bill pointed to an anchored white boat. "That's
a sponge boat. You can't dive for sponges anymore,
but you can hook them from boats."
"What's that man in the small boat doing
out there?" asked Mary, who teaches at Broward
Community College, as she pointed to deeper water.
She's kayaked for 10 years.
"He's catching dwarf seahorses to sell
to aquariums and other clients."
A few casual minutes later, after we silently observed
the marine goings-on while bobbing on the slightly
rippling sea, Bill led us to the sponge boat. Mary
and Sandy paddled to the dinghy tethered to it and
scanned inside while making jokes about the freakish
scarecrow. From a distance Bill said, "Smells
like guano, doesn"t it? Spongers drop their
catches there to die and dry out, and the birds love
We were paddling through the Great White Heron National
Wildlife Refuge, which overlaps the National Key
Deer Refuge. Amid such protection, the fauna indeed
thrive. Fortunately we had Bill, who could provide
Bill has led kayaking trips for 10 years and for
the 15 years before this he worked at a local marine
science camp. In 2004 he published The Florida Keys
Paddling Guide, which includes a sea turtle guide
and birding checklist, and he's a professional
photographer whose work has appeared in National
Geographic and other publications.
"This is a beautiful place with magical qualities,"
he later told me. "I love the access to coral
reefs and the wilderness of the backcountry. I'm
captivated to the tropics, the warmth and island
living atmosphere, and taking pictures here."
"I could easily live simply, on a houseboat with
a bunch of books, a laptop, e-mail with wireless
and a couple cameras. That's all I'd
need. It's about minimizing my life."
He reminded me of a modern-day, Conch version of
Robert Kincaid from The Bridges of Madison County.
We paddled to a tiny No Name Key cove that was dense
with red mangroves and their propped roots. The water
stood two feet and we could see scores of what appeared
to be upside-down jellyfish.
"What are those?" I asked.
"Upside-down jellyfish," he said.
I looked quizzically.
"That's the name," he said with
a smile. He paused, then rattled off a Latin name
"I've never heard of those," Sandy said.
She's kayaked for years in Pennsylvania, where
she and Mary had met 30 years earlier. Sandy was
vacationing in Florida.
"There's lots of unusual stuff out here," Bill
After 15 minutes we paddled onward, and soon reached
a small opening in the dense mangrove forest. Bill
described it as a tidal creek that fills and empties
with the tide.
As he maneuvered into it a yellow-crowned night heron
flew past us. A few seconds later a great egret flew
by, and on a mangrove scrambled a mangrove tree crab.
Under the kayaks swam mangrove snapper.
Bill was followed into the creek by Sandy, me, then
Mary. We paddled at first, then pushed off roots
as the path narrowed, then with our hands pulled
ourselves forward while occasionally limboing under
All the while Bill regaled us with details.
"Red mangroves exclude salt at their root tips through
a screening process. Black mangroves absorb more
salt but expel it through their leaves. Early pioneers
would use a few leaves in soup for seasoning."
Where the creek tapered to an end, we just sat. For
maybe 15 of the calmest minutes possible we just
looked and listened. Occasionally to nature, and
occasionally to Bill.
He told us how the tiny, endangered Key deer, who
live almost exclusively on Big Pine and No Name,
nimbly jump over the expansive mangrove roots, and
he talked about a 19th-century Russian fruit farmer
who was paid in gold by Cuban revolutionaries to
allow training on his land. For protection the Russian
buried his gold on No Name, and since he died it
has never been discovered.
I believed the first narrative, but the buried treasure
sounded good, too.
After leaving the tidal creek we paddled along more
mangroves and twice Bill said he saw a baby nurse
shark although the rest of us didn't find it.
The most invigorating leg of our trip was when our
three hours (actually almost four hours) were up
and we paddled hard for 15 minutes across Bogie Channel.
We broke a sweat and finally got a good burn in our
But even as we strained to reach land, Bill couldn't
resist telling us about the various fish that are
caught in the channel.
KAYAK ADVENTURES INFORMATION
Getting there: The marina at Old Wooden Bridge Fishing
Camp is not easy to find so call (305) 872-7474 for
directions or find them at www.keyskayaktours.com.
Big Pine Key is a three-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale.
Hours: Three-hour trips are available in the morning,
afternoon and at sunset. Reservations are required.
Tickets: $50. Call for other packages, such as the
Pine Kayak Adventures
Captain Bill Keogh
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