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Kayaking off Big Pine Key
by David Raterman
email: draterman@SoFlaAdventures.com

www.SoFlaAdventures.com

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Pinellas County, Florida, tampa bay, hillsborough county, st petersburg, clearwater, dunedin, tarpon springs, vacation, orlando, everglades, dinsey world, theme parks, adventure island busch gardens, windsurfing, clearwater beach, dolphins, snorkeling, scuba diving
Pinellas County, Florida, tampa bay, hillsborough county, st petersburg, clearwater, dunedin, tarpon springs, vacation, orlando, everglades, dinsey world, theme parks, adventure island busch gardens, windsurfing, clearwater beach, dolphins, snorkeling, scuba diving

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, even 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 Name keys.

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 them.

"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 grass and shoal grass."

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 it."

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 details.

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 Internet 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 for the species.

"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 responded.

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 fallen branches.

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 arms.

But even as we strained to reach land, Bill couldn't resist telling us about the various fish that are caught in the channel.

BIG PINE 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 houseboat.

Big Pine Kayak Adventures
Captain Bill Keogh
(305) 872-7474
http://www.keyskayaktours.com
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