The Keys Challenge 2014: The Third Time Was Not Golden

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The Keys Challenge Paddlers 2014

A Personal Note: I didn’t intend to do this trip again this year.  I had already done it twice.  But, following my August back surgery, my doctors didn’t clear me to paddle long trips until December.  This was the first organized trip I could jump onto.  The location was not particularly remote.  And, with so many people around and the ability to opt out at any point, I figured it would be safe.  

January 15, 2014, Day 0 at Long Key State Park: I call this day “Day Zero” because it was my travel day from home to Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys, where I dropped my boat. We don't paddle on Day 0.   From Long Key I went on to Key West’s Zachary Taylor State Park where I left my car and caught the shuttle back to Long Key.  It’s a four hour trip from home to Long Key, and another two hours from Long Key to Key West.  The shuttle would leave at 1 PM, so I left home early to be sure I made it on time.

The shuttle got us back to Long Key around 3:00 pm.  I had plenty of time to set up my tent and prepare for the evening.  Dinner was at the usual time, six-thirty.  After dinner Monica Woll, Trail Specialist for the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, made an interesting presentation about the history of the Flagler Railroad.  Then folks went to bed early, anxiously anticipating the start of our trip in the morning.  

January 16, 2014, Day One - long Key State Park to Curry Hammock State Park: This is the first paddling day of our trip.  Conditions on the water were challenging.  The wind and waves kept us busy all day.  We were on the water for almost four and a half hours.  We were tired when we reached Curry Hammock.  


The planning for paddler’s safety today was excellent.  We had three Coast Guard Auxiliary boats shadowing us all along our course.  The paddlers were split into three self-selected groups, each with a leader; a fast group, an average group and a slow group.  Each group had its own leader and Coast Guard Auxiliary escort.  Paddlers were encouraged to stay with one of these groups and not go off on their own.  

On my arrival at Curry Hammock, I got my gear bags and set up my tent.  I find that the first day or two of a long trip is somewhat confusing.  How do I organize my gear?  Where did I pack my head lamp?  Do I have a warm sweater for tonight?  And the same thing happens in reverse the next morning.  Where should I pack my headlamp?  There are three possible places; my gear bag, my clothing bag or in my boat.  Where will it be safe?  Where will I find it easily?  Mostly these decisions are easy, but I find myself moving things around for the first day or two until I have established a routine.  By the end of the trip, the daily set-up and take down routines that took an hour the first day, take twenty minutes by the last.  

We typically have some kind of entertainment after dinner, and tonight was no exception.  Don McCumber, lead kayak support for the successful Diana Nyad Cuba to Key West swim, made a very interesting presentation on the planning and day to day work on the water that went into Diana's successful swim.  Then it was off to bed where I read and did sudoku games till I fell asleep.

Trip Data for January 16:


Long Key State Park to Curry Hammock State Park: 

  • Miles Paddled Today: 11.6     Trip Odometer: 11.6
  • Moving Time: 3hr. 31min.      Moving Average:  3.3 MPH
  • Stopped Time:  1hr. 3 min.    Overall Average:  2.5 MPH
  • My Max Speed: 6.0 MPH

Paddling Conditions:

  • Challenging
  • Cold, gray and windy, 
  • 61°
  • 15+ mile-per-hour winds

January 17, 2014, Day Two – Curry hammock State Park to Knight’s Key Campground:  We launched at the usual time for this trip, about 8:30 am. I paddled with the lead group, as I did yesterday.  The three Coast Guard Auxiliary boats were attending us again.  Gary led the fast group, Teddie lead the average group and Liz and Hans led the slowest group.  Hans took on the task of shepherding our four deaf paddlers, something he did throughout the trip.  These brave women came to this adventure with no ability to communicate over distances.  Hans acted as their guide and interpreter.  

Dinner was served down by the water where we were treated to a beautiful Keys sunset.  Rod MacDonald, a personal favorite, was entertaining tonight.  As he played and sang, several of the deaf women got up to dance!  The three dancers were profoundly deaf.  How could they be dancing?  Yet there they were, swaying and keeping the beat better than some hearing folks.  My guess is they were taking their cues from the other dancers.  Or perhaps they were feeling the deep bass rhythms.

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Seeing them dance was an emotional experience for me.  The fourth deaf woman was legally deaf, but had some hearing.  She sat on the edge of the stage and hugged the monitor speaker, placing her good ear against the speaker, holding it in her arms, with a look of pure joy on her face.  This was so unexpected.  I realized how for granted I had taken my own ability to hear.  l was deeply moved.  

A cold wind was blowing off of the ocean.  I was getting chilled.  The campground had a bar and there was a lot of drinking going on around me.  I don’t drink and was feeling kind of isolated because I couldn’t participate.  So I went back to the warmth of my tent and prepared for sleep.

Trip Data for January 17:

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Curry Hammock State Park to Knights Key Campground: 

  • Miles Paddled Today: 10.8   Trip Odometer: 22.4
  • Moving Time: 3hr. 15min.    Moving Avg: 3.3 MPH
  • Stopped Time: 0hr. 7 min.    Overall Avg:  3.2 MPH
  • My Max Speed: na

Paddling Conditions:

  • Easy day except when the wind was directly behind
  • Paddled with the lead group again 

January 18, 2014. Day 3 - Knights Key Campground to Bahia Honda State Park:  


This is the day we paddle the opening made by the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest stretch of open water we have to contend with on this trip.  In windy conditions this area can be treacherous, but today’s paddle was easy.  We had light winds from the north-northwest on our rear starboard quarter. Strong currents pushed towards the bridge, so we stayed out in deeper water.  Once more I paddled with Gary and the fast group.

The Seven Mile Bridge

At the four mile mark, we made a stop at Molasses Key.  This was planned as a refuge stop if the weather was bad and people needed a break.  It wasn’t necessary today, but as we were in no hurry, we stopped anyway.  Another three miles and we were across the bridge opening and at Ohio Key, our scheduled “lunch” stop.  

Lunches on Paddle Florida trips are usually scheduled somewhere near the midpoint of the day’s paddle, and as a result are often early, usually before noon.  So lunch is often more like a mid-morning snack than a lunch.  A favorite sandwich on these stops is peanut butter and bananas (Don’t go “yuck” until you try it.  It’s really good).  But there are many more choices, some healthy (oranges, apples, fruit cups. granola bars), some not so healthy (cheese crackers, cookies, fruit roll-ups, Cheetos, Sun Chips, and everyone’s Southern favorite, Moon Pies!).

After spending some time just relaxing and talking with other paddlers it was back in the boat and on to Bahia Honda State Park.  We would spend two days here, tomorrow being a layover day.  

Somehow I managed to loose my balance in getting out of my boat at Bahia Honda and dumped it and myself in the ocean.  The boat filled with water and overturned and I was wet up to my neck.  And of course, I had an audience.

I set up camp, then grabbed my gear and some soap and headed for the outside cold shower by the bath house.  There is a hot shower some distance away in the RV section of the park, but the RV’ers don’t like us using up “their” hot water, so we have to sneak in a few at a time to get away with using the facility.  I had so much stuff to wash the salt out of that I elected to shower at the bath house, where I could also lay things out to dry for a while.  

Back in camp, I hung things up on the clothes line I pack for these purposes, and called Lisa (What did we do before cell phones?).  I had two yearnings, addictions really, that I was able to satisfy at the park store.  I ordered both a dish of ice cream and a hot cup of coffee!  I enjoyed them both on the park store veranda, overlooking the park’s small boat basin.  

Tonight’s entertainment was to be a “Talent Show” put on by the paddlers.  I am no performer and tend to avoid these things like the plague.  I thought that at best, it would be hokie and embarrassing.  I was wrong.  

I headed for my tent as the event started.  After thirty minutes or so, I left to use the porta-john that was near the fire pit where the talent show was being held.  I could hear a guitar and a very nice male voice singing.  I finished my business and approached the group.  This fellow and his wife (I’m sorry but my notes do not contain names) both sang and were wonderful.  Next, two guys who looked like characters from a western novel, contributed.  One fellow was from Wyoming, the other from Montana.  The fellow from Montana could recite long poems from memory and he recited several with great dramatic flair.  The man from Wyoming told jokes, played the guitar and sang as well.  And of course, our hammer dulcimer playing friend contributed too.  The evening ended with an old fashioned hootenanny, a sing-along we could all join in on.  I hope Paddle Florida will consider adding this activity on more of their longer trips.  I really enjoyed it.

I expect a pleasant night and a great day tomorrow for our layover.

How did Bahia Honda get its name?  The island was loaded with Bahia Grass.  As for Honda, I have no clue.

Bahia (Bah-ee-uh) Paspalum notatum, known commonly as bahiagrass, common bahia, and Pensacola bahia, is a tropical to subtropical perennial grass (family Poaceae). It is known for its prominent V-shaped inflorescence consisting of two spike-like racemes containing multiple tiny spikelets, each about 2.8-3.5 mm long.  Wikipedia

Trip Data for January 18:

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Knights Key Campground to Bahia Honda State Park

  • Miles Paddled Today: 11.4   Trip Odometer: 33.8
  • Moving Time:  3hr. 16min.   Moving Avg:  3.5 MPH
  • Stopped Time:  na.               Overall Avg:  na
  • My max speed: 5.8 MPH              

Paddling Conditions:

  • Easy
  • Light wind off the rear starboard quarter
  • Strong tidal current pushing toward the bridge

January 19, 2014, Day 4 - Layover Day at Bahia Honda State Park.  

We awoke to a beautiful morning, perfect for a layover day.  Many people had scheduled trips to an off shore reef to snorkel and observe sea life.  I did not.  I took a long time at breakfast, then explored the park.  I walked around the boat basin, checked out the Gulf side beach, took the butterfly walk, visited the park museum and climbed to the overlook on the old Flagler bridge to check out the area.  


After a quick, typical lunch I joined Teddy Gruber for a circum-navigation of Bahia Honda Key.  This was a lot of fun.  We paddled west on the ocean side, around the western tip of the key and then along the north side, heading east.  We were in the lea of the island so the water was calm, making for easy paddling.  We paddled at a leisurely pace, close to shore where we could see creatures and details.  We passed the swimming beach and the boat basin, coming to an even larger boat basin which we entered and explored.  Then we proceeded to the Eastern end of the island where we spotted another small key just off shore.  

There was no time pressure so we decided to explore this island.  The water was very shallow as we approached the island’s beach, so we got out of our boats and towed them the last few hundred feet to shore, immediately noticing clusters of conch everywhere we looked.  We walked the perimeter of the island counting conch as we went.  There were many fairly large conch, which probably only exist here in such numbers because they are protected.  Teddy was going nuts with the counting, only quitting when he had reached well over one hundred.  

The paddle back along the south shore in the ocean was brisk.  I paddled as close to shore as I dared.  We had covered another six miles or so.


This evening’s entertainment was a presentation by Liz Sparks on the Florida Circumnavigation Paddling Trail.  Liz is the Paddling Trails Coordinator for Florida's Office of Greenways and Trails.  We had a surprise visit by two paddlers who were doing the Florida Circumnavigation Paddling trail in one push.  They were about half way through their trip.  It was exciting to hear about their adventures and mis-adventures and to learn how they adjusted to and coped with the realities of the paddling trail, day after day.  

Trip Data - January 19:

  • Miles Paddled Today: Approx. 6.0   Trip Odometer: 39.8
  • Moving Time:  na                              Moving Average:  na
  • Stopped Time:  na                           Overall Average:  na              
  • My Max Speed: na

Paddling Conditions:

  • Easy paddling
  • Calm in the lea of the island, brisk SE wind oceanside
  • Warm in the sun, cool in the wind

January 20, 2014, Day 5 - Bahia Honda State Park to Sugarloaf Key KOA: It would be weeks before daylight savings time would kick in, but down here at the southern tip of Florida, it got light real early.  This would only change when the clock would “spring ahead” in March.    And since I tend to wake with the sun, I was awake early and up at 5:00 am. I went through the regular packing routine, a routine that was getting easy by now.  Everything was packed, with my bags in the truck and tent in the boat before 7:30 am.  

I grabbed a cup of warm (not hot) coffee while I waited for the breakfast bell.  Quiet conversations were going on as people gathered in little clusters waiting for food.  After breakfast we suited up with spray decks and PFD’s, then milled around waiting for the signal to launch.  

We launched at 8:30 am .  Once more I was with Gary in the Fast Group.  Paddling conditions were ideal.  Just a light breeze to keep us cool, with no swells to be concerned about.  The sky, partly cloudy with bright patches of blue and intense sunshine.  The water was clear and bright, so clear that I spotted three sharks passing under my boat at one point.

We paddled steadily until we came to our lunch stop at Big Munson Key.  Taking only a fifteen minute break at Big Munson before launching again, we headed toward Sugarloaf Key KOA.  I was paying particular attention to how I got into and out of my boat.  I didn’t want to repeat the very public sea bath taken when I disembarked at Bahia Honda.  So far, no instant replays of that incident!

The approach to Sugarloaf Key KOA is well hidden from the water in the direction of our paddle.  I had missed it twice before.  The first time I wandered around among the mangrove islands completely lost till other paddlers came to my rescue.  It was a similar experience the second time.  On this third trip, I was determined to get it right.  Didn’t happen.

Actually, the route I chose could have gotten me to the KOA, but it was shallow and iffy.  I consulted with the Coast Guard Auxiliary and was directed to a better route.  Since I had gone off on my own to explore this alternate route (which should have been a clue that I was headed in the wrong direction), I went on a sprint to catch up with the Fast Group before we all pulled into the KOA.  

With my tent set up and ready for sleep once evening arrived, I drifted over to the campground’s bar and ordered a tonic and lime.  A group of paddlers sitting around the salt water pool motioned for me to join them.  Several had been in the water and encouraged me to try it.  It was wonderfully warm!  I lounged there for some time before heading for a hot shower and a shave.  

Their was no entertainment this night.  The no-see-ums were thick, so I crawled into my tent right after dark to get away from them.  

Trip Data - January 20:

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Bahia Honda State Park to Sugarloaf Key KOA:

  • Miles Paddled Today: 16.4        Trip Odometer: 56.2
  • Moving Time: 5hr. 8min.           Moving Avg: 3.2 MPH
  • Stopped Time: 14min. 30sec.    Overall Avg:  3.0 MPH
  • My Max Speed: 5.8 MPH

Paddling Conditions:

  • Easy paddling
  • Sunny, Light wind 

January 21, 2014, Day 6 - Sugarloaf Key KOA to Boyd’s Key West Campground: I didn’t make a lot of notes today.  I was kind of miserable.  And tired by the end of the day.  The day began with a forecast of possible rain and wind, and it sure looked like that might happen.  This last day was to be our longest day of paddling; eighteen to twenty miles.  We needed the weather to cooperate  It didn’t look like that would happen.

We launched into a gray, heavily overcast morning.  A light breeze was blowing beneath the leaden sky.  The grayness and light wind continued for the first seven miles when we stopped for lunch.  Then it swung around to the southwest and started to blow at fifteen miles per hour, with gusts higher.  This headwind made paddling difficult, until it shifted ninety degrees from our bow port quarter to our stern port quarter, and dropped to under ten miles per hour.  This change was accompanied by rain, often heavy, that flattened the seas.  I was not wearing  a paddling jacket and as a result was thoroughly drenched and cold.  

I paddled into Boyd’s Key West Campground at about 3:00 pm, some six and a half hours after leaving camp this morning.  For the moment it wasn’t raining, but it looked like it could resume at any time.  

I grabbed my tent from the bow hatch and headed out to find a spot to pitch it.  Now Boyd’s is basically an RV campground.  Paddle Florida had managed to secure a number of RV sites for our use.  However, these were RV sites with gravel pads into which we were encouraged to pitch up to four tents.  Finding a spot in the front corner of one of these sites, I rolled out my tent and had staked in the last of the four corner pegs when the sky opened up.  My worst nightmare!

I didn’t have my rain fly up, or even the tent polls to hold it.  I rushed about in the rain trying to quickly assemble the tent and making lots of mistakes as a result.  When I finally got the tent up, a look inside confirmed my worst worries; more than a gallon of water was standing on the tent’s floor.  

Dripping wet, cold and tired, I hunted for something to bail out the place where I was to sleep that night.  I found my pack towel.  Pack towels are supposed to be very absorbent, and this one was.  Time after time I’d sop up the water, pull the towel out of the tent, wring it out and repeat.  Slowly, the puddle got smaller until it disappeared all together, leaving a damp sheen on the floor of my tent.  There was nothing to do now but wait for what was left of the wet to evaporate.  Until then, I couldn’t get my gear bags out of the truck to find dry clothes for myself.  

So, cold and wet, on the edge of shivering, I spend the next hour and a half, securing my boat for the night.  Which meant stuffing all my wet paddling gear into the cockpit and hatches where it would wait for me to retrieve it, wet and cold in the morning.  

Finally, I was able to get my gear into the tent.  Grabbing warm, dry clothing and another pack towel (I had a small one in the boat) I lined up for my turn at the showers. A long warm shower and dry clothing improved my outlook considerably.  

Over dinner I had time to reflect on what had happened.  I have camped all my life.  In hundreds of camping adventures I had never gotten caught like I did today.  I hoped that it was a once in a lifetime experience!  

Our evening’s entertainment was great but unusual.  Unusual in the performer's name; Bing Futch.  Unusual in the performer's appearance; was he African American, or Native American or, were those dreadlocks?  And unusual in his preferred instrument, the American Dulcimer.  

I really didn’t know what to expect, as the American Dulcimer is considered to be an old, quaint instrument played by hillbillies in the Appalachian Mountains.  The guy turned out to be amazing!  He could play and sing any kind of music.  He could get all kinds of musical sounds from his electrified and amplified instrument.  I was totally blown away!  When I got home I bought a bunch of his music on iTunes.

Trip Data - January 21:

Sugarloaf Key KOA to Boyd’s Key West Campground:

  • Miles Paddled Today: 18.6      Trip Odometer: 74.8
  • Moving Time: 5hr. 59min.       Moving Avg: 3.1 MPH
  • Stopped Time: 3min. 24*sec.  Overall Avg:  3.1 MPH
  • My Max Speed: 5.2 MPH

Paddling Conditions:

  • Gray, overcast and rainy
  • Light wind till lunch
  • Heavy (15+ MPH) head wind after lunch
  • Wind shifted 90°, dropped to 10MPH with heavy rain
  • Paddling very difficult

January 22, 2014, Day 7 -  Boyd's Key West Campground to Zachary Taylor State Park

The day dawned cold and gray again.  The wind was predicted to be near Small Craft Warning levels, though it never got there.  I didn’t paddle.  Those who did had a short seven miles to reach Zachary Taylor State Park. 

I was still tired from the previous day’s paddle.  The prospect of battling high winds, heavy seas and more rain was no incentive to get me on the water this day.  I had paddled into Zack Taylor Park’s storied beach twice before.  In much more hospitable weather, I might add.  I didn’t need the bragging rights a third time, especially when it meant packing up a wet boat, wet gear and a wet me for the six hour drive home.    

So while most of the armada headed bravely out into the storm, I and eight other paddlers wimped out and found various ways to get our boats, gear and ourselves to our cars, waiting for us at the park.  

I, left my boat at Boyd’s and with my gear and several other paddlers, hooked a ride with Bill Richards inside the closed, bouncing body of the large Penske truck that hauls our stuff.  This is an experience everyone should have once.  It helps you appreciate what some illegal aliens go through to get here.  But I never thought of Bill Richards as a Coyote!    

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Once at the park I found my car and loaded my gear, then walked down to the beach.  There were no bikini clad girls on the beach today.  No beach volleyball or frisbee.  No Disney ship gliding by on its way into Key West.  Just the first wet paddlers landing at the end of another long, varied and wonderful Paddle Florida trip.

After finding my way back to Boyd’s and loading my boat, I headed to a nearby restaurant to sit by the water  where I could reflect on the people and events of the past week, and have a good seafood dinner before starting my six hour trip home.

Trip Data - January 22:

Boyd's Key West Campground to Zachary Taylor State Park

  • Miles Paddled Today: 0.0      Trip Odometer: 74.8*

     *This total includes 6 additional miles that Teddy and I paddled on our layover day.

Keys Challenge 2014 Memories

 © Don Yackel 2020