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.