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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.