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Key West or bust (long)


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Rick, Scott, & Jeff load 3 kayaks & assorted camping gear in a Subaru Outback 7am Saturday morning and disappear from Boston.

30 hours later, they appear in Key Largo, unload boats, sort gear ("do we really need all those warm clothes?"), buy some perishables, eat some Mex food washed down by Margaritas, and launch around 4pm Sunday. A mild paddle ensues for the late afternoon & evening -- along the gulf-side lake from the putin, through a couple of winding channels along mangrove swamps, and out into the Atlantic side. As they paddle, a light warm rain dances along the water, sunlight dramatically showing from between the clouds. The protected nature of the shallow waters leaves only a light chop even with a bit of wind. A couple of hours south along the Key Largo coast brings them to Dove Key -- a tiny little island near Rodriquez Key. Nobody and nothing here, but a small slit allows them to pull in through the otherwise impenetrable mangroves to a small sandy beach. Just room enough for hanging gear to dry, hanging hammocks to sleep, and setting up a kitchen. A sunset swim and gruel helper for dinner round out the evening.

Monday: a lazy start after one paddler finds his sunglasses (stolen by a hermit crab which chewed the keeper, but couldn't quite fit them down his den). Still paralleling the coast on the Atlantic side, they paddle contentedly about 10 (statue) miles to Windlay Key by lunch, and pull into a likely marina/bar for burgers & beer (this is roughing it). Wildlife seen in the am: lots of rays and a huge sea turtle. On leaving the bar, the locals warn of other wildlife -- the "drunken nymphomaniac bartender" party on a sandbar about a mile south off the shore -- lots of stripped down inebriated locals, beached boats, and careening boat traffic. Heeding the warning, our intrepid explorers immediately vector off towards the party, which nearly lives up to expectations. They are heavily out of place, however, as the locals are lying comatose on inner tubes in 6" of warm water on a sand bar or dancing to hi-decibel racket from the "Big Ass Party Boat" at the center of the party....and the visitors are outfitted in 17' sea kayaks with full wilderness regalia. They ogle for awhile and wander away south. Monday afternoon proves to be tougher -- the shallows along Upper Matecumba Key prove to be too shallow at low tide, and several times they are trapped and must get out and drag boats & gear across sand and muck. One stretch proves extremely demoralizing, as the muck is too soft to stand on without sinking thigh deep -- one must crawl along dragging the boat, covered bodily with sand & gunk. They sight Indian Key, a possible campsite, but the lure of showers at the Long Key State Park campground is too attractive, so they paddle on, too long it seems. Long Key is achieved about half hour past sunset -- the day totals 27 or 28 (statue) miles, depending on which GPS you believe, or 29.7 if you drag it out along the map. Ugh, albeit with a mild tailwind. Camping at Long Key is primitive: wooden platforms above the muck, repeated assaults by starving raccoons at night, and "poisonous snake" signs to add excitement. Showers are cold outdoor spigots -- heaven. Forsaking gruel helper, our intrepid wilderness hacks clean up and thumb their way down the road to an Italian restaurant.

Tuesday: a sluggardly start, weary from the previous day's haul. They lazily paddle about 6-7 miles down to Duck Key (also known as Hawk's Cay), which is the home of a pricey resort. Staggering heat forces them to retreat into the air-conditioned resort restaurant, where drinks and burgers cost $70!! Trying to avoid a repeat of yesterday's long day, they debate heading for official campsites at Grassy Key (too short a day) or Knight's Key (too long)...little else in between, as the interval is along the Marathon shores which are heavily built up. Knight's it is, for about 16 more miles in the afternoon...but a pleasant afternoon it is. Ducking into the gulf side to avoid hiking the shallows again, they find a pleasant shore lined with pricey vacation homes, cute little impenetrable mangrove islands, many birds, and a school of dolphins to paddle through. Knight's Key is found a little more than an hour before sunset, with time to relax and grab a hot shower while setting up camp. Friendly neighbors with a loud cockatiel grace the campsite. Dinner is again down the road at "Porky's BBQ", which is excellent.

Wednesday: immediately past Knight's Key is the 7-mile bridge -- the largest open crossing of the trip. Heading out parallel to the bridge, the weather is again excellent: light tailwinds, warm air, warm seas, light chop, a few clouds. Vectoring off a bit from the bridge, there is an island a little more than halfway across and a mile off to the side: Molasses Key. A stop is warranted, with ice tea, a swim, and a rest. Continuing on, the bridge is finished, and a couple of islands later they paddle past (Atlantic side) Bahia Honda, which is the closest to a tropical paradise there is in the keys. Endless sandy beaches with leaning palms, happy snorkelers, a few day-kayakers, etc. Around the point of the island is the resort -- burgers and cold drinks are found. 12 miles before the late lunch. A mild afternoon - only 4 more miles to Big Pine Key, where a "Fishing Lodge Campground" with 5-star bathrooms hooks them in. The campground, however, is bulldozed parking-lot, and dinner cannot be tolerated in such environs -- another trip to town (cab this time). After a disappointing dinner, our explorers conduct an extensive inspection of all the bars on Big Pine Key -- but the report is somehow unintelligible.

Thursday: a late start again, as the paddlers seem to be nursing near-fatal hangovers. A slow lazy paddle takes them out along the chain of small islands on the Atlantic side of Big Pine Key -- these sport some uninhabited mangroves, some very nice $$ homes, a boy scout camp, and a very plush resort on the last. Temptation is there to pull up at the resort, lie on the beach chairs and order massages and cold drinks, presuming to be guests....but they figure they can't pull it off (dressed wrong), and continue along. Rounding the last island, the scene opens up into a broad bay, and real navigation is nearly needed for the first time to figure out which island is which. Correctly vectoring for Pye Key, they round the corner and head for a trailer-park resort on the edge of Cudjo Key. A small quick-stop/deli provides lunch and cold drinks, and the front porch of same provides shade for a long nap. Route decisions -- head to the "backcountry" up north and the Snipe Keys? Stay on the beaten path? Not clear, and no real inspiration, but logistics say that if the Snipe Keys don't have any approachable camping in the mangroves, it is a very long paddle back to civilization. Instead, a short paddle around south to Sugarloaf Key gets them to a KOA campground with hot tub, shade, showers, hot food, and cold beer. Ahhhhh. Another mild day: ~15 miles in easy conditions. Excellent food right across the road at Mangrove Mama's.

Friday: our explorers are showing the strain -- one must duct tape his feet to protect the open sores from the constant salt water exposure. another has back trouble, and they decide to call it a rest day. said member stretches out his back and spends most the day in the hot tub, while Mr. Duct-tape-feet hitchhikes up to Key Largo to fetch the car down. Much unused gear is dumped out of the boats (and a few forgotten items retrieved). With the car handy, they cheat, and drive ahead to Key West for dinner that evening. Provincetown mixed with Faneul Hall, if you haven't been.

Saturday: leaving the car at the KOA, they tackle the last leg of the paddle. The winds have changed, so today is a 25 mile day with a light (5-10 knot) headwind. Conditions are again mild, scenery is the usual spectacular, and the paddling is altogether pleasant. Lunch is found at Geiger Key, where there is a handy marina/bar with a great menu and a lively Scottish waitress who refused to believe that the gang had paddled from Key Largo. Wildlife spotted included the usual sharks and rays, a Portuguese Man-of-War, and a Pink Flamingo which refused to budge no matter how close the trip photographer paddled up to it. Key West is hit around 5pm, but they paddle further than necessary to get pictures of the "official southern point marker", which is actually not on the southernmost point. Back to the beach in front of the hotel (with reservations for the evening), fall out of the boats, and lie comatose in the water drinking the celebratory bottle of port.

Add ons: one paddler's cousin drove down from Ft. Lauderdale and joined 2/3 of the party for an assault on the Key West bars, while the old man of the trip got some sleep. A sad note was the big pile of paddling gear left on the beach at the take-out, never to be seen again. The now-four explorers took the catamaran out another 70 miles west to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas first thing Sunday morning, but found that the Tortugas were not dry. Torrential rain did not detract from the beauty or fun, but did force a re-evaluation of camping out there, and all came back that afternoon. Dinner in Key West Sunday evening, and 32 hour drive back to Boston (ugh).

Other notes: Rick did this trip solo last year, following much the same route, but with headwinds for most of the way. Conditions can include wind and storms to impede your progress, but the shallow waters and offshore reefs keep the wave action quite low just about everywhere. If you try this, don't worry much about warm clothes -- the record low for May is 70F (although Rick was cold last year in March). We brought too much backcountry food considering all the bars/restaurants we hit -- but we planned to play it loose. If you want to do more backcountry camping, inquiring locally for good campsites would help, as most of the isolated islands had little in the way of places to pull in among the mangroves. Hammocks are great in the mangroves, and surprisingly comfortable. Alternately, lining up all the official campgrounds would mean forsaking all the cooking gear. There is some tempting "backcountry" along the gulf side of the lower Keys (Snipe Keys, Mud Keys), but local advice says that camping is illegal, as it is in the Heron Refuge, and the rangers are aggressive about enforcing the ban. An alternate good trip could be made starting about halfway down (Bahia Honda), and zig-zagging up and down into the wilds and camping in cushy spots. A larger trip might even use a sag-wagon, alternating wagon duty between paddlers. Flying and renting would be suggested for most folks -- we drove out of insistence of using our own boats. If you drive, be sure to plan on the 1800 mile (each way) drive as a part of your trip, psychologically.

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  • 1 year later...

We carried enough foam & rope with us to load the boats on a rental car for the return from Key West to Key Largo....the hatches were pretty full (!!!), so we had junk lashed on the decks here and there....those are the foam blocks. (Didn't need any of it...hitched back to get the car from Key Largo.)

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dear santa,

my good friend jeff has reminded me of just how much i'd like to find the brown bikini'd babe from the big ass barge beneath my tree for christmas. or at least, send me back to the keys with my boat and a beer.

i have not been good this year santa and honestly, i suspect that if you bring me what i want, i shall certainly be worse. but i'm trying santa, i'm trying.

thanks santa

little ricky

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be careful what you wish for....you would be amazed what a week of sitting in warm salt water can do to your skin. i returned home covered with tropical rashes, fungi, boils, and nasty itches like i never thought were possible. my wife wouldn't let me back in the house for a week. i shudder to think what it would have been like if we hadn't made a beeline for campsites with showers every night.

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the only ill effects the other 2 members of the party suffered were a sketchy back on the 4th day or so, suffering through the car jeff would have HAD to have thrown out upon return as it could never possibly be cleaned to satisfaction and i think we all learned a lesson about deet (ie, keep it far away from ones face) and then if not, keep one's face far away from mirrors!

oh yeah, and "o" rings.

hey bubba - howbout dat heat?

merry holidays, my friend!

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