Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cumberland Island National Seashore - WIlderness Trek

On the way back up from our Key West backcountry paddle trip, we decided to stop by the Everglades before spontaneously deciding to pull an all night detour up to Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore, which has long been on my bucket list of places to backpack. To summarize in one paragraph why this 23,000 acre island is such a gem of a place would be both difficult and omissive. So I'll dedicate this blogpost not only to describing the highlights and details of our trip, but also the history, biodiversity, geology, and intrinsic value of this site.

As you pull into St. Mary, Georgia, you're greeted by beautifully restored 17th and 18th century buildings wrapped in cedar shingles. The atmosphere brought back memories from my time living on the north shore of Massachusetts, particularly memories in and around the Gloucester area. This old town is very well-kept with waves of character. The main strip ends at the entrance to the St. Mary's ferry, which is the only means of transportation to and from the island. Despite highly recommended reservations in advanced, we were able to squeeze onto the 45 passenger vessel with only one spot remaining. The island itself only allows a maximum of 300 people on the island at one time - a fraction of those are able to purchase an overnight permit. That's not very many people for an area larger than Manhattan! Although, the island rarely experiences that many visitors at one time.

The 45 minute ferry ride amounted to a picturesque glide across the glassy cumberland sound and the ferry was filled with men, woman, children and a slough of lightweight backpacking gear for those who craved a bit more adventure than a day's hike near the dock. The trip back produced goodbyes from a group of playful dolphins at our gunnels to a curious laughing gull that followed us back.

Our trip was divided into two long days. 

Day 1: we began on the parallel trail, which meanders through acres of healthy maritime forest, predominately made up of live oak and palmetto. This ecological community is sometimes referred to as a hammock. We eventually made our way to Stafford Beach, where we exited the forest and walked north, close to 8 miles of the longest barrier island beach (17.5mi) in Georgia. Eventually, we doglegged over via South Cut Trail to find the main road, which led us to the furthest primitive campsite on the island's wilderness - Brickhill Bluff. All in all, we hiked a total of 13.4mi over a span of 8 hours for the first day.

Day 2: We knew we had to catch the 2:45p ferry so we woke up early to get a head start. With sore hips and aching blisters, we decided to take the main road back, which would cut our second day down to 10.3 miles. Along the way, we passed one group of hikers from Pennsylvania who were haphazardly walking with their heads down. Come to find out, they were searching for sharks teeth. Soon after, we were doing the same thing, lining our pockets with the old dark fossils including those of macko, sand, and lemon sharks - some even of extinct species. The island is compiled of 50 miles of backcountry trails - we covered just under half of them in almost 28 hours.

This healthy maritime forest is mostly occupied by live oak and palmetto. The canopy sealed off just enough light to produce perfect, cool conditions to endure such a long trek. Despite what many sources say, Cumberland Island is not the largest barrier island in Georgia; however, it contains the largest tract of upland habitat and the longest beach of them all. If you factor in marshland, Ossabaw and St. Simon take the cake for overall size. Although this forest is steadily growing towards a climax forest via succession, it was once much healthier during pre-settlement. Most of the island was actually logged for ship building and shingle manufacturing, among other land uses. 

Soon after connecting with the beach via the Stafford Beach trail, we decided to take a lunch break for some hearty calories (mashed potatoes and tuna). We spent hours walking the shoreline combing the islands rich supply of seashells, littered about like colorful Christmas ornaments ready to be hung on Black Friday. On the east coast, the winter months always provide the best shelling opportunities so we were having a field day identifying the wide variety of species. Just as Alexa found a lined starfish, Kaitlyn pointed to a bald eagle feeding on a decaying skate as we tripped over an aboveground cemetery of horse shoe crabs and cannonball jellyfish. We found dozens of lettered olives, lightening and knobbed welks, a handful of mottled purse crabs and a wallet full of sand dollars to boot. 

When traveling long distances, especially on sand, it might be more beneficial to walk barefoot. At the end of the trip, Alexa paid the price for wearing her "five fingers" Vibram soled shoes, especially since sand kept getting trapped between the shoes and her feet. Kaitlyn did well with her running shoes until we had to cross dune areas. Ultimately, this was a tremendous trip and challenge that the crew handled very well. It's always much easier traveling with laid back people who are able to go with the flow. After all, surprises, setbacks and learning to deal with the unexpected is truly half of what we are out there for. I couldn't give more credit to this awesome crew for stepping up.

Another category that Cumperland Island is superior in is the high level of biodiversity. With an old Pleistocene (1.8mil - 10,000ya) geological regime throughout most of the island (especially the northern portion), the island's soil is very mature, allowing for a wide range of species. In contrast, harsher environments with poorer soils such as deserts and the boreal forest tend to support less biodiversity. One of the highlights on the trail was finding scores of corral root orchis. The live oak-palmetto hammock sporadically changed into slash pine forest as well as the occasional old growth red cedar.

At some points, we found ourselves with our heads down hundreds of feet apart from each other without realizing it until we made a cool discovery that we wanted to share, such as this decaying wild boar. Cumberland Island is really one of the most historic sites in America rich in archeology findings, to evidence of the war of 1812 to remnants of old slave buildings. Unfortunately with people came domesticated animals such as hogs and horses, which have seen become ferrel and continue to roam the island. Although they are quite the site to see and largely add to the character of this place, they take their toll on the fragile dune systems and native flora and fauna. For example, Cumberland Island is the largest breeding area for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, which holds as many as 200 nest sites; although, wild boar have additionally damaged this already threatened population. The National Park Service recognizes this and has created a management plan to reduce populations.

Cumberland Island is home to approximately 140 wild horses, which are best observed throughout the dunes. We spent hours looking for horses until we were surprised by this small population grazing on grasses - they were surprised to see us as well.

Alexa and Kaitlyn looking west as we found our first population of wild horses. Quite possibly, the abnormally large and non-vegitated dune that they are standing on could have been caused by a combination of human impact such as logging, and exotic animal species.

Finally, we were able to reach Brickhill Bluff in just over 8 hours after stepping foot off of the ferry. This spot always tends to have more gnats than the others but we decided to make the trek for the sunset, which we just barely caught, and for the challenge of hiking to the furthest campsite in the backcountry wilderness. We were rewarded with this beautiful view of St. Mary's river, Brickhill river, and the Cumberland sound. Excellent trip!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Key West Backcountry Expedition - Round 2

These days, I've been working much longer hours at work, especially with my side job as a Field Biology instructor. With two sections of class and a full-time job, I've decided to boost the level of outdoor travel and exploration to help balance things out a bit. What I've quickly learned is that traveling on the weekends is mucho expensive so I've become increasingly interested in getting the best bang for my buck on each trip. Of course, you pick up little tricks along the way to save money, time, and resources. But ultimately, preparation is keystone. Anymore, my trips have become more adventurous, lightweight and strategic as I trim down my pack-weight. Blaise Pascal said it best: "I'm sorry I wrote you a long letter. I didn't have time to write you a short one." Preparation takes time but will allow you to travel further and more comfortably.

With a summer trip to Venezuela in my sights, I thought for sure that I had my big yearly vacation locked in until the news came out about the recent protests and political turmoil there. Around that time, a complete stranger from Minnesota contacted me about a blog post of mine that he found online detailing the Key West backcountry kayak/backpacking trip I took last spring. And after I received more calls from other inquiring strangers, I realized how unique and memorable the trip really was, which enticed me to dream bigger. So, I decided to hold off from traveling out of the country for one more year to add on to the route I paddled last year. Accompanied by two of my favorite people to adventure with, Kaitlyn Liptka and Alexa Gaant - strong paddlers to say the least - we were lucky enough to see much more than the keys on this trip.

Above is a snapshot comparing this year's trip to last year's. The white route is the 2013 trip. This year, we traveled 28 miles in three days. Like last year, we camped on Sugarloaf Key prior to meeting our outfitter, Bill Keoff at Big Pine Key Kayak Adventures. From there, we set out from blimp road on Cudjoe Key to Tarpon Belly Key (yellow line) for our first night under the stars.

Tarpon Belly Key is a favorite local get-away island since it is fairly close to the mainland. It gets it's name from being one of the first commercial shrimping operations in the united states. In fact, the island still has the remnants of two canals that were left after the business fell through. Unlike last year, we had company probably because of the unlikely low-80's weather for the month of March. That night, I met a young Cuban immigrant on the small island who had camped there for the last week with his grandmother. They collected sea sponges for a living. He kept me cognizant as I fished with some of the trials and errors that he had learned of while living on the water. 

Early that morning, we were surprisingly excited to wake up to gnats. Gnats are a quick indicator to a groggy camper that there is probably little to no wind, which was excellent news to us as we were setting out to paddle 12 miles that day (green line). 

As we left Tarpon Belly key, we decided to head northwest to Sawyer Key, which is a protected Wildlife Management Area. We didn't stay long but we did manage to see frigate birds, white ibis and ruddy turnstones (pictured above). We then headed west to take a break on Marvin's Keys to take a nap on the sandbars. Marvin's Keys always has local traffic as well since the islands are surrounded by pristine sandbars. But they tend to leave before dark. We decided to keep trucking' west to a new-to-me spot - Snipe Key.

Along the way, I caught a couple of jacks. We stopped along the way to throw topwater plugs at a school of big barracuda. Although a few took swipes at my lure, I came up empty handed. By the second day, the piece of fabric draped over my legs was completely necessary to prevent my legs from peeling.

We finally reached Snipe Key around 4pm to set up camp. Almost immediately, we picked up on a bad scent that led us to a decaying pilot whale (pictured above). Later, we found out from locals that there had been a bad algae bloom off the coast that caused over a dozen pilot whales to wash up on shore. The spot we chose was actually part of Snipe Point, which is the northern most part of the key. I stayed up for a few hours to sip some wine, read a book and tend the fire as the girls dozed off. 

On the third day, we traveled southeast from Snipe Point to the Sugarloaf Kamp of America (KOA) where we first began our excursion. We experienced a westerly wind, which helped us a little bit. But there were decent white caps the whole way back. At one point, it was important to paddle hard as the current was pulling us one way and the waves, another. The outfitter picked up our kayaks that night and we set out the following morning to Key West to scope out some of the shops.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall Raccoon Creek Paddle

Tucked away in the heart of southeastern Ohio lies the beautiful Raccoon Creek, which meanders through some of the most scenic counties in the state. Due to this region's rich supply of natural resources, Raccoon Creek has suffered from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), sedimentation and pollution. Fortunately, the Raccoon Creek Partnership (RCP) has since emerged (2007) to provide restoration to this biologically diverse aquatic ecosystem. Prior to the 1800s, this stream was a favorite hunting area for Native Americans who sought white-tail deer, turkey and beaver. Raccoon Creek flows 114 miles from the scenic Hocking Hills region south to the Ohio River.

During the first weekend in September, my friend Grace and I decided to take one last outdoor retreat while the weather was still favorable. Despite the low water level, our plan was to spend the weekend paddling 20 miles down the stream, camping along the way. We knew it would be an adventurous trip as neither of us had paddled Raccoon Creek before and our prediction was correct to say the least. 

We arrived late Friday night at Zaleski State Forest - the most scenic portion of the creek, which is near the headwaters. We decided to hike to Lake Hope via the Hope Furnace trail to camp for the night before putting in nearby early the next morning. We fell asleep to the echoes of beaver smacking their tails all along the lake. As we climbed in our canoe and took off Saturday morning, the abrupt change from civilization to solitude was instantly conspicuous. Over 75% of Raccoon Creek is forested and very well-kept, which really creates a wilderness feel to it. At times, we would stop paddling to listen birds that were beginning their fall migration, breathe the fresh air, and take in the beautiful views.

We passed subtle signs of civilization and history here and there, including the historic and haunted Moonville Tunnel, old train trestle remnants from coal operations, and beautiful abandoned logging road bridges and cabins. We were lucky enough to find a healthy supply of paw paws along the way as well (as pictured above).  Paw paws are nicknamed the "indian banana" and grow best in Ohio and it's surrounding states. Paw paws pack more potassium than most fruits, which provided us with an excellent source of nutrients to keep us fueled up. 

Our first rude awakening came moments after we put our canoe in the clear blue water as we came upon our first portage. We predicted a lot of portages due to the water level but couldn't have imagined the amount and size of the log jams we encountered along the way. All in all, we probably carried our canoe over forty portages! But it was well worth the effort and even added to the trip at times. By the end, Grace and I had a quick and efficient system that worked well for us. The woodland sunflowers and cardinal flower flourished along the banks like weeds.

This area was one of the most beautiful spots we came across. Here, the grade grew steepest, which created small riffles and ankle deep water. This time of year is perfect for this - little to no mosquitos, cool breezes with warm weather and water temperature. The river birch, sycamore and willows shined bright on that day, providing us with the perfect ratio of sunlight to shade. We could only imagine the diversity of darters, aquatic insects and pan fish swinging beside our feet.

After a long day of paddling (10+ miles), Grace and I pulled out canoe up onto a bank where we would pitch our tents, tell stories, and prepare our meal for the night. We couldn't wait to pour a glass of wine and reflect on what we had seen on Saturday. After taking a look at the map, we dozed off early.

Since Grace had to be home by 1pm on Sunday, we awoke very early to get a head start on the clock. Unfortunately, we realized that we had made a mistake in our planning once we had hit route 50 - we knew we had paddled a good distance past our end point. As we reached the route 50 bridge, we decided to leave our canoes and walk the road towards the area where we had parked her car. 

At the time, we were convinced that the car would appear around the next bend. But after 10 or 20 bends, we found ourselves pausing at any and every subtle sound, hoping that a passerby was traveling towards us. We began to switch our efforts to hitchhiking. By that point, we were in Vinton County. We knew that we would likely not see a car until church let out and we were right. But as soon as it did, the very first car that came around stopped. Mr. Wilbur Connely, a preacher for an apostolic church, was kind enough to take us to Grace's car - paddles and all. We were amazed at how far we paddled past our destination - 6 miles in all! But, I must say, it felt like 12 miles because Mr. Wilbur preached more than he was driving. It surely added to the experience. 

I'd recommend Racoon Creek to anybody seeking a tranquil, scenic getaway in Southeastern Ohio. Of course, the ride is much easier during the rainy seasons but the late summer benefits made our trip well worth the effort. Cheers!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The King of the Forest

The more I begin to settle in with my new position, the less I find myself in the woods on the hunt for anything wild. But today was a pleasant surprise thanks to my good friend and botanist, Andrew Gibson (The Natural Treasures of Ohio). In fact, this isn't the first time he's pulled me out of my slump and, likewise, it isn't the first time Andrew and I have had an unusually good day as far as extraordinary finds. One of the last times he and I tromped around, we came across two orchid county records in the same day in different locations. Well, today was no different. We hit Adams and Scioto Counties for a chance to see some summer flora. We certainly got what we asked for with a handful of orchids and some extremely rare plants to boot, which I will tackle in a later post. Though, what was most exciting about this trip was our encounter with a heated snake fight. First of all, coming across any two animals fighting in the wild is just plain lucky, let along snakes. But, what made this experience especially extraordinary were the species of snakes involved.

Initially, we thought the black snake was a common black rat snake. But, to our surprise, it turned out to be the rare eastern king snake. After this bout, the name "king" makes perfect sense - trust me. After it finished the copperhead off, it retreated into the woods unremorseful.

Eastern king snakes are known in Ohio only to our most southern counties, where they are uncommon. They are constrictors that prey on a variety of things such as amphibians, eggs, lizards, and other snakes - especially venomous species because they are immune to venom. What a neat species and a great highlight to an excellent day in the field!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Endangered Keys Island Plant Find

Earlier today, as I began to dig through pictures from my recent kayak trip to the lower Florida backcountry keys, I came across a cell phone photo that I almost forgot I even captured of a unique plant I came across on a small, remote Island. To give you an indication of how much this plant stuck out to me in a hidden, sandy corner of the island, I made the decision to turn on my cell phone and snap a photo, which was on its last leg and had outlasted my digital camera battery at that point. So, yes, the nerd in me was willing to jeopardize having the security of a cell phone on a kayaking trip in the middle of nowhere to have the opportunity to identify this plant.

Needless to say, this was the last photo I snapped on the trip because my phone died shortly after. But, I'm so glad I did because, otherwise, I wouldn't have realized that I had come across the most rare plant I've seen to date- sea rosemary (Argusia gnaphalodes). In fact, this is the only native Argusia species found in the states.

Sea rosemary can reach 6-feet tall with a 20-foot spread, which is how I found my plant. Extremely tolerant to salt and drought, sea rosemary also prefers full sun. I found this plant in a small opening on the edge of a remote island beach hidden among a patch of red mangroves. The succulent, silky tomentose leaves really stand out and the aromatic flowers, which flower intermittently throughout the year on this evergreen shrub, were in peak bloom. Today, conservation efforts for this dune stabilizing plant are increasing through cultivation.

According to The Institute for Regional Conservation: Florstic Inventory of South Florida Database, this plant has been recorded in Monroe County, which includes the island I found it on. Globally, this plant extends through the Caribbean and into South America - Florida being its northern most range.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

For the second time in six months, I visited Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarian Reserve (GTM) in Ponte Vedra, Florida. The northern beach area pictured below contains the highest dunes in Florida along with dozens of other unique and delicate communities that are home to 580 plant species - 8 of which are protected.

Most of what comprises this area is categorized as beach dunes, which are barren, xeric, well-drained soils. Much of the sand it comprised of shell fragments, which makes the sand of GTM so soft and unique. When I visited over the summer, loggerhead sea turtle nests were blockaded off for protection. 

Beach dune communities are categorized as being wind deposited mixed with wave-formed beach upland that is predominately populated with pioneer species, particularly the above-mentioned sea oats (Uniola paniculata). Beach dunes are of course in close proximity to the ocean so its plant communities must be highly tolerant of salt much like sea oats.

Another highly salt-tolerant species had me reminiscing back to my days in North Dakota's prairie cordgrass fields. This prairie cordgrass relative saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) is another indicator species of the beach dune community - again, another salt tolerant species. 

Further, another salt tolerant graminoid - saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) was not hard to spot throughout the reserve and the keys. I saw this species in North Dakota - saltgrass is also tolerant to alkali conditions. A good fodder for cattle, saltgrass is cultivated using saline irrigation systems in some areas of the country.

Traveling into the grassy barren lands of the beach dunes, you will quickly notice two cacti species - the most plentiful being cockspur pricklypear (Opuntia pusilla). You may find this one painfully by accident like I did. Unlike other cacti species, the thorns of cockspur prickly pear are barbed and can be embedded in the skin - trust me, I know :). In addition, the segments can easily detatch as a means of dissemination. This species, like other Opuntia spp., suffers from the infestation of the invasive cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum). 

The other cactus species you will find is the nobel erect pricklypear (Opuntia stricta). Both species are relatives of Ohio's only cactus species, eastern pricklypear (Opuntia humifusa). This species has become a serious problem in other countries and has prompted the release of the aforementioned cacti moth, which has hurt this plant in its native distribution.

Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) can be seen throughout the beach dune community as well. This species is widespread but different from the northern species (G. aristata) I encountered in most prairies throughout North Dakota. Like its relative, G. pulchella is highly drought tolerant and prefers well-drained soil. G. pulchella differs morphologically by being more red than yellow, unlike its northern relative.

Tread softly or "finger rot" (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) is a nasty little poisonous plant of the Euphorbiaceae family. It is not a true nettle but its hairs can cause a severe rash to some. This little plant prefers well drained soils and is often found in coastal dune habitat throughout the south.

Much like the cacti, this thistle stuck out like a sore thumb among the beach dune plants. I've never seen such a robust thistle than this horrible thistle (Cirsium horridulum). Look at all those spines! It's no wonder why this species is named the way it is.

Guana Tolomato Matanzas will continue to keep me coming back for its soft wave-tumbled shell beaches, luch biodiversity, and vast continuum of blue-green water colors. Not to mention, this section of beach never fails to line my pockets with shark teeth. This is one of the prettiest areas I've ever been to - another hidden gem of Florida.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lower Keys Backcountry Kayak/Camp Excursion

In my experience, the ultimate method of travel is via excursions. Excursions allow you to traverse an area in its rawest form often in a way that only local people have the chance of experiencing - you actually get to live and breathe an area rather than viewing it from afar through a high-rise hotel window. Not to mention, if done right, backpacking trips can allow you to save big bucks! With the right preparation and attitude, a well-thought-out excursion can act as a window into an area's flora, fauna, culture and environment. During my latest trip, I led five friends and family on a 25-mile minimalist kayak/camp trip into the backcountry of the Florida Keys.

Ordinarily, the only local outfitter to offer such a guided trip charges $1000/person. This is understandable given the time a guide would need to invest into leading a multi-day trip; however, since we had our own backpacking and orienteering experience, we decided to travel into the abyss without a guide. Instead, we rented kayaks for $125/person for 5-days through Big Pine Key Adventure Kayaks, which is owned and operated by renowned wildlife photographer and "Paddle the Keys" author, Bill Keogh.

After the kayaks were reserved, the fun planning came as I dove into the area's rich flora, fauna, geology, and culture. My personal list of objectives quickly grew as I learned about the indigenous stone crab and keys pink shrimp delicacies. And, with the money I saved by choosing an unguided kayak rental rate, I decided to budget for a fishing rod. After all, I'd be spending my spring break in the fishing capitol of the world. Some of the below items would be repackaged or omitted completely to reduce bulkiness and weight. This pack weighed between 12 - 15lbs before adding food.

Day 1 (Mar 3) We were welcomed to Sugarloaf Key by rainfall at around 11pm on March 2nd. Exhausted from a long drive, we quickly threw up a couple of tents and hit the hay. We woke up to quickly pack the food we had bought the night before and barley made it out by 8:15a to meet the Bill. As he dropped us off with the kayaks, a front moved in and pounded us for an hour before quickly burning off like most storms in the Keys. Before long, we were off to the races. As we launched from Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key, we were able to see the raising of the military blimp from the US's smallest air force base, which is used for reconnoissance in drug cartel projects.

A look at Tarpon Belly Key in the distance. One of the shortest paddles proved to be of the most difficult due to the head-on wind from the northwest.

Shortly before reaching Tarpon Belly Key, I caught a nice sea trout that we sautéed in olive oil and spices mixed with idahoan instant potatoes - hit the spot! At night, we tossed bait and lures into one of the old shrimp hatchery pools and caught mangrove snappers and pin fish. Years ago, the island was dredged to form these shrimp hatcheries, which is how the island likely got its name. The hatcheries are now just channels that divide the island. During high tide, there was a lot of fish activity in there.

Day 2 (Mar 4) We woke up early to calm westerly winds so we decided to stick to our original game plan and paddle all the way to Marvin's Keys (8 miles away) despite being sore from the first day of paddling. I am still so proud of the group for not only taking the challenge but conquering it. Along the way, I caught a nice-sized Jack, which I cooked up for everybody on Johnston Key.

Further along, many of us spotted adult loggerhead sea turtles and jumping dolphins as close as 6 feet away from the boat! The gentle wind pushed us along nicely and allowed us to relax a bit and look around at the beautiful coral beds beneath the boat. With Marvin Key in sight, we decided to stop off at a beautiful white sand shoal off of barracuda keys. We collected shells and sand and relaxed before making our final leap towards Marvins Keys.

We made great time and set up camp around 4pm. Our campsites were on the northeastern side of the smaller key, overlooking the beach. What a beautiful campsite! That night, we claimed an old recreational stone crab trap buoy and carved our names into it for a souvenir. Salt grass made for great bedding for my tent.

This is the coolest, most southern benchmark I've ever encountered. This was sitting alongside a clean path through a saltgrass meadow on the island. Marvin Key is one of the lower Keys' greatest hidden gems.

That night, we made a nice fire and sipped on bagged wine. Bagged wine is cheap and proved to produce one of the greatest hangovers I've ever encountered - butttt, it's nice and packable! I pointed out some of the constellations and a few of us took a walk out to the flats to get a better look. The stars were as clear as I've ever seen them.

Day 3 (Mar 5) I woke up well before everybody else to get some fishing in. to get to the other side of the island where the famous shoals are during low tide, I had to walk through a trail, which took me through a patch of mangroves - very pretty. It was me and the keys fishing together. At one point, I got spooked by a 4-foot sand shark that had snuck up on me. No fish but a beautiful morning on one of the Florida Key's best kept secrets. People began to wake up around 9am. I made my sister coffee and jumped in a double kayak with her to get her some fishing time. We paddled into a nice grove of mangroves where we saw egrets, pelicans, plovers, white ibises, blue herons, and needlefish. I picked up a big hermit crab for her to see. On the way back, it got too shallow so I pulled her around the island where we were confronted by a brave territorial reddish heron. We must have been near its nest. As we passed, it quickly went back to fishing.

Day 4 (Mar 6) We decided to skip our final remote key destination (snipe keys) to paddle straight to Sugarloaf Key for some real food and pina coladas! What was supposed to be an 8-mile trip turned into nearly a 12-mile trip from trying to figure out which side of Sugarloaf Key the KOA was on. We paddled across Turkey Basin where we saw more sea turtles. Our trip across the chanel was beautiful as we passed over crystal clear, calm water and lush coral beds towards the old bridge. That night, we bought four pizzas, two orders of buffalo wings, and plenty of cold drinks. The Sugarloaf KOA was cheap and welcoming with showers, laundry, a pool, hot tub, cafe, and outdoor bar. Sue from Big Pine Key Kayak Adventures met us there to pick up our kayaks in the morning. We enjoyed breakfast sandwiches and news of a big storm up north before heading out to Key West. We got to our hotel around 1pm and ate lunch at the Island Dog restaurant. We checked out Margaritaville and had excellent food at the Conch Republic. I got the snapper melt.

Day 5 (Mar 7) Our last day in the keys, Destini and I saw the southern most point and drank coconut milk right out of the fruit while biking down side roads. Michelle, Rachel, Destini and I visited Earnest Hemmingway's house and we each bought ourselves a small painting from a guy named scott from Boston. He gave us a big discount because of my Red Sox hat. Destini and I finished the trip at Alonzo's Oyster Bar by trying 1/2 lb of stone crab, a bucket of clams, and conch ceviche. It was tough to say bye to the keys but it is satisfying to know that we saw everything and more that we wanted to see.