Once again, Semanchuk.com brings you another first -- a trip in which we carry our kayaks as much as they carry us. The first part of this trip was a paddle across Biscayne Bay to Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key where we camped for a few days. It was the longest nonstop paddle we'd ever undertaken and we were a little worried about navigation. It turns out that we most needed a GPS when looking for parking in the Miami airport. That was the beginning of the second part of our trip, when our Mom joined us for a houseboat cruise on Whitewater Bay. Along the way we got to see some great birds, played chicken with a barge, got squirted with dolphin snot and satisfied our Scrub Jay jones.
John and I drove south out of Charleston and met Steve and Liz just outside of Savannah. We joined forces (two cars, four kayaks, one Reagan-era AAA map) and plunged into the automotive fray that is I-95. By five o'clock we were closing in on Cape Canaveral National Seashore where we hoped to camp, and we called ahead to see if there were campsites available. Indeed there were, but the ranger calculated that he'd have to wait five minutes beyond closing time for us to arrive, and that was apparently five minutes too long for him. We wouldn't have minded Mr. Stick-to-the-Rules so much if we hadn't arrived at the tail end of Biker Week which left campsites at a premium. Thanks to the ladies at the Visitor's Center on Rt. 44, we found another available campsite at the River Breeze Park fifteen or twenty miles south on Rt. 1.
It was a nice campsite; Steve and Liz stayed there in the early evening to feed the mosquitoes while John and I ventured out to find some local color. We did, and good color at that. Too bad we can't remember the name of the Italian restaurant we ate at because we enjoyed the food and the authentic NYC accents.
We had breakfast at the Country Kitchen which Steve accurately described as "cheap and average". Thus fueled, we motored several hours further to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Biscayne Bay National Park. There we met ranger Carlos Mateo who answered our endless string of questions with good humor and patience which wasn't easy when all four of us were asking questions at once. By the time we left, our greedy mitts were clutching enough brochures and maps to choke a manatee and we had a clearer picture of our trip both literally and figuratively. The literal part came from our discovery that, with the help of binoculars, we were able (barely) to make out Elliott Key from the top of the Visitor's Center.
Our next stop was Diver's Supply on Rt. 1 in Florida City where John and I rented a pretty nice wet suit for just $10/day, and Steve picked up a new snorkel tube. Just five blocks away was the Everglades Hostel which was to be our home for the night. Steve had found this hostel via the Internet. The pictures and text on the Net looked interesting, but they didn't prepare us for how friendly and funky this place was. (Good funky, like James Brown, not bad funky like dirty socks.) We spent some time that evening soaking up the ambience in between making a grocery run, eating dinner (Mutineer Grill, decent) and organizing the befuddled mess that our stuff had become just 48 hours into the trip. We went to bed early, eagerly anticipating tomorrow's paddle in the big puddle.
Sunday came early as we were up by 6 AM. With time and breakfast sites limited we were content to eat a quick breakfast at the hostel before motoring to Biscayne Bay State Park. We arrived at the put-in at 8:30, before the employees and in time to make use of the handicap parking as our loading site. The winds had shifted, and were now from the North and strong enough to give us some whitecaps. We'd paddled in worse, so packing commenced...just as I noticed several vans with conspicuously young campers loading large amounts of gear onto a motor boat. Could make for an interesting time on the key. A pair of shrikes sighted at the launch site were the only birds around as we rolled (literally) off at 10:06 a.m. The site has a convenient ramp made for canoes and kayaks, and being made out of PVC piping it gives you time only to grab your paddle and go.
This was the maiden voyage for Steve's GPS, so using the Convoy Point channel markers as guides, waypoints were marked to try to check our course and mileage. Checking at the Turkey Point channel marker seemed to correlate with the map. The buildings on Elliott Key were less visible during our paddle then expected, possibly due to the wave action and using binoculars in kayaks. We continued with clear water and vision of the sands beneath, although a bit distorted with the wave action. Not many boats were out, save another lone kayaker who put out after us. He beat us by a few minutes to the beach just left of the docks at Elliott's. Our time showed 3 1/2 hours, paddling with the wind to our left but otherwise uneventful. We were all ready to stretch our legs!
We took out just left of the harbor and quickly met Maria and another Liz, both summer rangers and helpful with questions about camp sites and where the kids would be settling in.
Campsite options included the Atlantic side of Elliott's with limestone and sand shoreline and a few but not private camp sites. This area was also active with mosquitoes and near the official "fire pit". We continued on the one mile trail, encouraged by some campers who were, shall we say, mellow, due to some aromatic vegetation they'd been enjoying. The boardwalk trail skirts the shoreline and then turns into the buggy woods. Sad to say, there was a fair amount of trash along the shore. We settled on a campsite not far from the take out; the gear was moved easily using a cart which the park service provides. No-see-ums were around, but a breeze kept them from being too annoying. By this time we were ready for lunch and John braved the water trying out his rented snorkeling gear. We checked in with our fellow kayaker and other campers. Late afternoon leisure included walking and checking out the ocean life. First stop was the maintenance dock on the south end of the visitor's center clearing. From the dock we observed lobsters, spotted rays and several varieties of fish and minnows. After this we decided to brave the nature trail again, this time with bug netting and proper clothing. A palm warbler was one of the few birds seen in the ocean side shrubs, and a lone raccoon was sighted in a tree.
Note: potable water is available on Elliott's, but it's not terribly enticing for drinking water. Cold showers are also available.
Back at camp we gathered food and took advantage of the lights on the lower level of the Visitor's Center. This is a two story structure with large overhanging, covered deck areas. It is used only for educational purposes now. We found it most helpful for cooling off and beating the bugs, assuming the timing was right and it was open. Times were getting desperate for some fellow campers who were apparently dropped off by a motor boat. John traded some extra bug dope for some free Scotch. Not sure who was the happier camper with that trade. Philip and Steve took another walk to the docks, this time surprising a raccoon who did a belly flop into the shallow waters, leaving behind a small pile of regurgitated fruit. The stars were more interesting than the aquatic life, and what was even more noticeable was the Turkey Point Power Plant on the horizon. Mount Trashmore (the landfill) was also visible, backlit by Miami's glow.
Early to bed and early to rise makes one wish the daylight hours were longer. I'd had enough sleep by 5 A.M. and finally realized the trilling noise that I'd been hearing while drifting in and out of sleep was coming from a bird. After a few seconds of adjusting to the dark I saw a silhouette in the tree just behind our tent. It was soon joined by its partner and the gentle conversation between them continued. By now I realized by the profile they were screech owls. As the sun started to rise, John and I were privileged to see the pair fly to another tree in our site, less than 4 feet away from us. They sank into their cavity and occasionally took a peek at us before sunrise.
Philip and Steve were soon up and about; the morning was sunny but windy with temps in the low 60's. After a quick breakfast we settled in for some bird watching. The grass-covered area between boat docks provided a great resting site for a number of birds: ruddy turnstones, semi-palmated plovers, short billed dowitchers, least sandpipers, black bellied plovers, royal terns, ring billed gulls and sanderlings. A number of the royal terns were leg banded Saturday on a picnic table while we watched. After a quick re-fuel/snack we headed off to Billy's Point and Sandwich Cove to snorkel. The partly cloudy weather made for a pleasant paddle, and we tied off our boats to mangroves in shallow water with hopes of some productive snorkeling. Some fish and rays were sighted along with numerous plants and vase sponges around the point. Water temps weren't high enough to prevent a chill after 45 or more minutes in the water so we paddled back to camp around 2 pm. John and I observed a large southern sting ray while paddling.
After a quick lunch we decided to head over and try our wetsuits out on the Atlantic side of the island, dodging the still-present bugs. Most of our sightings were of plant life and cucumber sea slugs this time, so we give up after a short swim and headed back to camp as the sun dropped below the tree line.
After cooking dinner we decide to brave the cold showers...better than no shower but brisk! A wind from the west continued to increase throughout the evening, making it feel as cool as 50 degrees. The bright side to this was its effect on pushing the bugs into the bushes. Entertainment for the evening included watching one of the screech owls leave its nest for the night, and Philip chasing a bold raccoon away from his kayak. Rangers Maria and Liz led a crowd of bug netted kids into the dark for a night walk. Earlier in the day the rangers had helped us identify: gumbo limbo trees, poison wood, mahogany and sea grapes. Also observed: Palm warblers were numerous. Ospreys eat needle fish and limestone is visible everywhere on Elliott Key. Yellow stingrays are patterned vs. "spotted", southern sting rays are the large ones. Not much else to ponder, so once again we headed to the tents and drifted off to sleep.
Our two days on Elliott's had exhausted its best entertainment options and Boca Chita Key beckoned. But the previous evening's stiff breeze (strong enough to extinguish our candle lanterns) was still active and we weren't sure how rough it would make a trip to Boca Chita. After breakfast we took a walk on Spite Highway to think about it, and to give Elliott Key a last chance to charm us into staying for another day.
Spite Highway is a colorful part of Elliott's history. In the early 1960s, Biscayne Bay National Park didn't yet exist, and Elliott Key was coveted by nature lovers and developers alike. As is so often the case, the developers saw the undeveloped keys and shallow bay as neglected possibilities. Instead of seagrass and sand, one might build -- a jetport! A seaport! Luxury hotels! Golf courses! Highways!!! As a first step, in 1960, thirteen local landowners who intented to develop the northern keys incorporated the city of Islandia, which was composed of "33 specks of land just north of Key Largo" (according to the Miami Herald article referenced in the links section). Nature's fate hung in the balance for a number of years, but eventually the park's advocates assembled a strong preservation movement. When the citizens of Islandia saw doom loom for their asphalt visions, they made a last-ditch effort (no pun intended) to set Elliott Key on an inevitable path to development by bulldozing a six 'dozer-wide path from end to end of the seven mile island. This wanton destruction didn't halt the creation of Biscayne Bay National Monument in 1968, and their gash through the woods acquired the name "Spite Highway".
Forty-odd years later, Spite Highway has dwindled to an intimate path through the dense Florida scrub. On our walk, we hoped to see some bird activity but apparently even the birds couldn't tolerate the mosquitoes in there. Despite our bug netting, we soon decided the birds were right and beat a hasty retreat back to the campsite. The wind had died down a little, and we took that as a sign that it was time to head to Boca Chita.
It was a two and one-half hour paddle in light chop to get from Elliott to Boca Chita. The home stretch was capped by a struggle across Lewis Cut which separates Sands Key and Boca Chita. There's little discernible tide in most of Biscayne Bay but I guess when it gets forced through a channel like this it really gets moving. We narrowly avoided being swept to Portugal and, with our last remaining strength, staggered into what looks like a rich industrialist's postcard vision of Florida come to life.
It is no surprise that Boca Chita looks like a rich industrialist's postcard vision of Florida, because that's exactly what it is. Mark Honeywell (the Honeywell behind Honeywell Inc.) owned the island in the late 1930s and early 40s and increased it from a blip in the bay to its present thirty-two acres. It was then and is now a playground for the rich, but thanks to the park service, poor kayaking schlubs like us can enjoy the place alongside the million dollar yachts.
As soon as we arrived and disembarked, we met a park worker named Jerry who graciously volunteered to save us some paddling time. Our original plans for a return to the mainland had us paddling directly from Boca Chita back to Convoy Point, which, as the long leg of a triangle, would have been longer than our 3½ hour paddle from Convoy Point to Elliott Key. But Jerry suggested we paddle back to Black Point Park, directly across the bay from Boca Chita, from which point he would give us a ride to Convoy Point where our cars were parked at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. That settled, we were freed up to enjoy the delights of Boca Chita.
We found lots to like about Boca Chita, including the fact that there were far fewer bugs than on Elliott. There is also a small sand beach on the northeast side of the island that is perfect for launching and landing a kayak. We set up camp under a lovely collection of coconut palms with palm warblers in the fronds, red-bellied woodpeckers on the trunks and grackles on our kayaks. One thing that had followed us from Elliott was the wind which had been blowing so steadily for so long that it was starting to get on our nerves. The night was clear and moonrise over the ocean promised to be a breathtaking sight but none of us could manage to stay awake for it. One by one we zonked out. John was the last asleep at 10:30.
I awoke after nine solid hours of sleep which is no mean feat for me when sleeping in a tent with nothing but a sleeping bag for padding. I needed the recharge. The wind, our constant companion, had finally moved elsewhere. The morning was quite chilly.
We'd planned for a day of resting, but rest for us during a kayak vacation is a lot like exercise. We took a brisk walk around the park (15 minutes), a paddle against the incoming tide to Ragged Keys #5 and #4 and a tour of the five story lighthouse, all before noon. As we paddled around the Ragged Keys, we spotted a number of Great White Herons which are unique to this area of Florida.
Boca Chita's lighthouse adds character to an already picturesque island. It also offers some nice views from the top. The one thing this lighthouse doesn't do is light. Popular legend has it that Mr. Honeywell had it built as a fully functioning lighthouse, but the U.S. Coast Guard told him that he'd built it on the wrong side of the island and insisted it stay dark. (Life as a multimillionaire is apparently not without its frustrations.) But an NPS Historic Resource Study of Biscayne National Park (Appendix A) recounts this tale and notes, "...the floor of the lantern at the top of the tower has no attachments for affixing a light and appears never to have had any, casting doubt on the story." It also notes that the lighthouse is built of Miami oolitic limestone.
After the lighthouse tour we had a light snack and got ready to do some snorkeling. Boca Chita was plain ol' Ragged Key #6 before Mark Honeywell distinguished it, and Ragged Key #5 is due north from Boca Chita across a channel so narrow that we could hold a shouted conversation across it. We started the afternoon by paddling across the channel to the pilings and sunken barge at the southern end of Ragged Key #5. The barge is a good snorkeling spot and we all saw lots of fish but nothing as dramatic as the huge spotted eagle ray and shark(!) we'd seen from the top of the lighthouse. After the snorkeling, we needed a hot lunch. We started the meal shivering and finished it stripping down to shorts and T-shirts. Eventually the afternoon grew so hot that John and I felt the need to snorkel again. I saw some fish I hadn't seen before, including a huge angelfish.
We got back as the sun was setting. After dinner there was the usual scramble to get chores done before dark. Night fell, and my candle lantern was the brightest light on the island. When the intermittent breeze died, the bugs came out. The wind had shifted to blowing out of the east, as if getting ready to send us to Black Point Marina bright and early the next day. We didn't pay too much attention to the wind because we had important business to finish. Good whiskey is not too heavy to carry to an island, but it is far too heavy to carry back.
We were up early again, this time not even waiting for the crack of dawn. The wind had weakened and in the relative still, the bugs came out for breakfast while we packed. We enjoyed a pretty sunrise and thanked the camping dieties for such a great spot. With our kayaks loaded but lighter, we launched easily into the channel between Boca Chita and Ragged Key #5. We expected the tide to be going with us and it was, although its effects disappeared once we got out of the channel. The wind was supposed to be blowing to the east and it did, sometimes. The trip was pleasant and uneventful. Biscayne Bay was so shallow in parts that I scraped bottom once on the way across. Despite the shallow water, there was no real opportunity to step out of one's kayak without screwing up seagrass which already has enough visible abuse from boaters. We met a barge as we crossed the ICW but there was little other boat traffic.
After a time we switched our navigational focus from Mt. Trashmore to the piers marking the long channel into Black Point Park. We did a little more birdwatching on the way in (sighting some ducks, Anhingas, White and Brown Pelicans, coots, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, Snowy Egrets, Cormorants, and White Ibis, and hearing Parula Warblers in the scrub along the canal). Our trip took exactly three and one-half hours.
Our new best friend Jerry took Steve and I back to Convoy Point. From there Steve and I drove our cars back to Black Point, picked up John and Liz and our gear, said hello to the parakeets in the parking lot, then all of us zoomed back to the Everglades Hostel where we'd reserved a room for the night. The hot showers felt oh-so-good.
This was the day on which our Mom was scheduled to join us, so as soon as we were done washing off five days of sunscreen and sand, Steve and I hopped in Liz's Subaru and drove to the airport. It was jarring to navigate the airport's chaos after spending the morning on Biscayne Bay's peaceful waters. Also jarring was the fact that the "high vehicle" parking at the Miami airport has a 6'6" limit. With kayaks on the top we were just inches shy of hitting the sign, not to mention the concrete ceiling in the parking deck. But we made it, and after investing $1 each in some guava and cheese Cuban pastries (money well spent), we hooked up with Mom and hurled ourselves into the metallic teeth of Miami's rush hour to get back to the hostel.
That night we ate dinner at the Main St. Café in Homestead. Food shopping at Publix, film developing at Walgreens and socializing in the hostel courtyard consumed the rest of our evening. Sleeping in a soft bed was a treasure.
Waking with the excitement of a new day in a new place, we got up early and ate breakfast at the first place we found open - the Farmer's Market Restaurant. The tea selection was poor so Philip produced his own tea bag and the waitress was not amused. The rest of the menu was sufficient for survival and we were soon back in our room to start the 90 minute car-packing process. A dozen trips each on the hostel staircase and the two-car caravan was ready for the road. Our first stop was an unexpected second breakfast at Robert Is Here, a fruit stand like we've never seen before, on the Everglades entrance road. Fruit and fruit smoothies bought, purple martins identified, wrong turn corrected, we ended up at the Everglades National Park Visitor's Center about mid-morning. As usual we gathered all the park information we could find and checked out the great book selection. This took the five of us a while so it was an hour later before we were actually somewhere in the park and that was one of the highlights of the park: the Anhinga Trail. It didn't matter where we looked, something interesting or fascinating grabbed our attention. Cormorants were particularly at ease with the moderate numbers of people that walked the boardwalk with us. We saw Swallowtailed Kites and a Red-Shouldered Hawk carrying a snake overhead. There were Wood Storks, Herons, Ibis, Anhinga with their young, alligators (or was it crocodiles?) by the dozens and even an American Bittern almost within reach. Bromeliads, turtles, snakes, Palm Warblers, woodpeckers, this incredible display of tropical nature was just what our travel weary brains needed. Wanting more, we walked the Gumbo Limbo trail but found it lacking birds, large trees and, suprisingly, mosquitos. Lunch at Lone Pine Key picnic area, followed by a walk through the lush but not impressive Mahogony Hammock. Still heading south, we stopped at a few roadside ponds to see Teal, Coots, Grebes and Gallinules. The two hour drive from Homestead to Flamingo ended up taking us all day; we pulled in to the Visitor's Center just after five. John and I got fishing licenses at the marina and we all checked out the houseboats. The Manatee looked to be the newest model but it was too late to find out which one we were going to get.
Our lodge, called "duplex" anywhere else, was already occupied by a dozen mosquitos for each of us. After an above-average dinner at the Flamingo Restaurant, the balance of our evening was spent getting rid of the extra guests, writing postcards and going over Everglades maps. There were just beds for four and John ended up on the floor with our donated camp pads.
We collected our rental houseboat, which was indeed the aforementioned Manatee. With a fridge, freezer and shower it was mind-boggling luxury compared to kayak camping and we tried to make the most of it. We found it difficult to make the adjustment to such riches, though. (Read: didn't bring enough beer.) After Jeff from Georgia gave us the "shakedown" which amounted to a fifteen minute course in captaining the houseboat, Cap'n Steve took us up Buttonwood Canal, bravely volunteering to be our first pilot.
Driving the boat turned out to be fun, as long as there was a navigator to help. We duct taped our chart (last updated in 1973) to the wall and went crazy. It was a totally different experience than kayaking -- all rumbly, lumbering and effortless. We passed kayakers going in the opposite direction and for a change we were the ones with our feet up, drinking beer and kicking up an obnoxious wake. The mangroves were fascinating and we were amazed by our rapid progress across the chart. Suddenly the whole bay seemed reduced to the size of a teacup.
We didn't see a whole lot of birds but there were almost no bugs and the day was just warm enough. We anchored so Steve and John could fish while Mom did some birding. Liz and I struck out to explore in our kayaks. Yes, our kayaks were with us, piled inelegantly two fore and two aft.
Liz and I paddled up to a chickee (which my poor notes don't record the name of) and on the way we found two dolphins feeding within a foot or two of the mangroves, which told us that the bottom dropped off fast near the edges of the land. They were only four or five yards away from us and that was the closest I'd ever been to a dolphin, but that record was only going to last for about 24 hours. On the chickee we met a charming couple who'd paddled there after driving straight the whole way from NJ.
We anchored the Manatee for the evening in the lee of the wind and as we cooked dinner a light rain began. It was the first rain we'd seen during the whole vacation and it was really nice to sit inside listening to it, snug, dry, and sipping beverages.
Our day began just after dawn and we all cooked our first breakfast on a houseboat in the Everglades. Soon, the mighty Manatee took us further north on the Joe River, with a few dolphins, a few herons and a few thousand mangrove trees as our scenery. We made a short stop at the Joe River chickee where we tried unsuccessfully to contact the marina by radio, then navigated across the northwest corner of Whitewater Bay.
More birds in this section, including White Ibis, Little Blue and Tricolor Herons and an Osprey on a nest. Captain Philip and Captain John (lots of Captains on this boat) steered us up the Shark River and into Ponce De Leon Bay. This bay is on the west coast of Florida and was the westernmost limit of our allowable activites aboard the houseboat. The sun came out as we anchored for lunch in the lee of a small island. A pair of brown pelicans fished just off the bow and Parlua Warblers called in the distance. A nicer mealtime setting would be hard to find. John and I tried fishing but were unable to catch anything worth keeping. Pushing the boundaries of our rental perimeters, we tried to get close enough to Shark Point to disembark but the waters turned shallow and it became time to abandon the mission. A Bald Eagle harrassed a fish from an Osprey and the tide dropped as we left the bay, heading south. With Liz at the helm, we entered the Whitewater Bay mangroves again. A Spotted Sandpiper and a Swallowtail Kite made an appearance as mud banks began to show themselves. There is a crossing of the Shark River where one has five choices of direction and our mutiple Captains had to work hard to choose the correct opening, causing the helmswoman to go in multiple circles. But, by three p.m., the Manatee was heading east on the Little Shark River and through the treacherous Shark River Cutoff. Anchoring again next to a small island, we kayakers spent an hour exploring in our boats, seeing another nesting osprey. The fishermen spent some time releasing catfish and seafood dinner turned into tortellinis with pesto, broccoli and wine. Loved that propane refrigerator. That evening, Liz taught us how to win at 500 Rummy while the wine flowed. For once, the breeze and the mosquitos came out. We all slept inside with the doors closed.
I woke after a back-tiring night in the sofabed. We discussed dentistry over breakfast and tea while watching dolphins in the distance. We got directionlessly underway at 8ish (John at the helm) and soon ran aground due to poor navigation and apathy. After reversing out of our dilemma and churning up tons of mud, we discovered how to trim the motor which is something it seems like they'd have covered during shakedown. All the while a dolphin was circling us about fifteen feet away, probably laughing.
After struggling off the mud bank we cruised confidently straight through the "Do Not Go Beyond" line drawn in severe black Sharpie marker on the chart, and threaded the needle between two mangrove islands with just a few feet to spare port and starboard. My Mom groused that we were just being "macho guys", but what's the point of paying an extra $7/day for insurance if you play it too safe?
We passed through Cormorant Pass then swung northeast towards the Watson River. Along the way we found an interesting-looking creek and tried to anchor but the current/wind was too strong. We eventually anchored in a calmer spot near the mouth of the Watson. Steve fished, Mom napped, John and Liz kayaked, I wrote. The sun was out and day grew hot. There was no sound except water.
Once John and Liz returned; Liz took the helm and we travelled southeast to a new river since there were no fish, no birds and no trees other than mangroves at the Watson. I treated myself to a shower. Clean hair, yippee! Due to the high wind we were at half speed to accommodate the waves crashing into Steve & Liz's side-mounted kayaks.
About kayak storage: with two piled fore and two aft, we had all four on the boat but the foredeck (the most useful one) was pretty crowded. Since this was a pontoon boat (bihull, like a catamaran) there was space under the boat. We tried running kayaks under the boat, two and three abreast parallel to the hulls. The noses were even with the prow of the boat and tied to the anchor line. The concept worked well but only at extremely low speeds. We sped up tentatively, 100 RPMs at a time. At half-speed – as high as we dared go – the churn beneath the boats was impressive. The waves peeling off the boat pontoons and the kayak keels generated so much turbulence that there was a constant two-foot bowl of air beneath the cockpit of the sidemost kayaks. We realized that great forces beyond our ken were involved and that if something went wrong, the consequences would be swift and severe. Steve and Liz's boats wound up surfing safely (if a little inelegantly) hanging from the sides of the Manatee with mine and John's piled on the back.
In the late afternoon, Steve and I took a kayak jaunt up the North River and found a mega-bromilead growing among the mangroves, a crab, some mangroves, a creek that got swallowed by the mangroves and wasps that built their nest on oyster shells. And, needless to say, mangroves, mangroves and more mangroves.
Once back on the Manatee, we motored south towards the marina. Some dolphins came out to play in the forward wave of our boat. The first few times this had happened, we had slowed down for fear of hurting the daredevils. But when we slowed down, they got bored and left. Once we realized they knew exactly what they were doing, we kept our speed up and the dolphins had a whale of a time (ha ha) cutting within a yard of the front of the boat and diving near the pontoons. What happened next gets my vote for the highlight of the trip: with all hands leaning over the foredeck railing (except for Captain Me in the wheelhouse), a dolphin passed right in front of the boat and let fly with his blowhole. With the window open in the wheelhouse, even I got a little spray, so you can imagine what it was like for those in the front-row seats. My Mom was satisfied with calling it "a unique experience".
By the light of dawn and a sliver of moon, Captain John started the Manatee's engine one more time and we moved down the Tarpon Canal as breakfast went down. It was calm in the sheltered water but by the time we got to the dock, a good breeze had kicked up and navigating the boat to the dock got tricky. Somehow, without tearing the facilities apart, we were soon docked and unloading kayaks. Philip volunteered to stay and finish the unloading process while us four insatiable birders went to Eco Pond. Except for a brazen red-shouldered hawk, we didn't see much in the way of exciting wildlife and we rejoined Philip an hour later. It was warm and breezy but the mosquitoes were still active.
After Joe the marina guy snapped a final picture of us on the boat, we got some ice cream at the marina store and by 11:30, we were rolling north. A swallowtail kite saw us to the Canal bridge.
Our two car caravan stopped at a spot below Mahogany Hammock reputed to be the best spot in the world (how could we resist?) for Cape Sable sparrows but thirty minutes of searching only yielded a big lizard. Five miles later, we pulled over abruptly to watch four pale Red-Shouldered Hawks, a Florida specialty. They were circling low over a dwarf cypress forest and we watched for a few minutes, white-topped sedge and blue-eyed grass at our feet.
The Visitor Center was next; restrooms and some time in their excellent bookstore, then we were back on the road. We hit Robert Is Here again outside the park for smoothies and gifts on our way to visit Camp Owaissa Bauer in Homestead. They have discontinued public access to their property, but were so pleasant in turning us away that we couldn't complain. Close by was the Fruit and Spice Park with trees and shrubs of edibles we'd only seen in powder form or on specialty fruit racks. We spent a good bit of time there, seeing a White-Winged Dove before leaving for our last birding stop in Dade County, Castellow Hammock Park, just blocks away.
By then, it was mid-afternoon and very little at all was moving at the park, much less the painted buntings we were fixated on. We prodded our tired brains into a decision to drive as far north as possible that evening towards Merrit Island, about the halfway point on Florida's east coast, and our destination for the following day.
And drive we did, dodging and weaving through the pinball game that is Miami at rush hour. To prepare for the "game", we made a stop for calories at a Publix on Route 1. Besides food, we spotted a Hill Myna peering out from the "B" of the Publix Bakery sign and Monk Parakeets, chattering and flying among the parking lot trees. We survived the turnpike and I-95 as far as Hypoluxo, in between Delray and West Palm Beaches. At that point in the long day, the name was enough to stop us. Two rooms at the Super 8; Liz crashed with a headache while the empty stomach group ended up in a Chinese restaurant in Lantana, an adjacent town. For a while, the eighties music drowned out the passing trains but, eventually, we chose the trains and asked for the radio to be silenced. The food was good; by 11 PM, we were in another world.
Noisy departing guests woke us early. The continental breakfast was disappointing but the artwork in the lobby was great, however unappreciated by the desk clerk. Parakeets screeched overhead in the dawn light as we loaded our cars and drove north for breakfast, which turned out to be at the Farmer Girl Restaurant in Lake Worth. Food and service were excellent, just the fuel we need for the three hour trip to Titusville and Merrit Island. A few minutes after 11, we were at the entrance to Black Point Wildlife Drive. Lack of local rainfall made it drier than we'd seen on previous trips, with fewer birds.
Mid-afternoon lunch at Bagel World in Titusville and a few phone calls to secure a motel. The prize of our presence went to the Randolph Motel, south of town. $67 a night, including tax, a pool, continental breakfast and a large planted courtyard. Mom napped and the rest of us took a chlorine dip in the pool. Before we too could nod off, we were in the cars again for a scrub jay rendezvous at Cape Canaveral National Seashore.
Paydirt at the fee station! It was 5pm and we were at the entrance to the Cape, reportedly an excellent location for the endangered Florida Scrub Jay. Twenty minutes of searching had gotten us nothing. Walking with Mom on the northeast shoulder of the road, she spotted a medium-sized bird flying into a bush. Refocusing our eyes and binoculars, we spot the first scrub jay thirty feet away. Another showed itself even closer and I called for the rest of the jay hunters to join us. Soon, we were viewing four scrub jays up close and trying to ignore the departing traffic. Mom and John tried to hand-feed the jays with sunflower seeds but the best they could get is a peck on the finger. Still, it was the high point of the day and we were reluctant to leave. The park officials graciously allowed our presence well past the 6 PM closing time but eventually we were asked to be on our way. Passing an extra nice sunset, we were back at the motel by 6:45.
Dinner was south of Titusville at the Bellwood Motel and Restaurant, where the specialty is Polish food. Pierogies, filled cabbage and Polish beer - a supper straight from the old country. The rest of the evening was short and our tired dupas (Polish for butts) were in bed by 10.
Up early and gone by 7 to look for water birds at Kennedy Point Park, a mile down the road. In the intense morning light, we saw some Laughing Gulls, a Little Blue Heron and some Ruddy Turnstones near the flat, calm waters of the Indian River. Back for breakfast at the motel, we ate some marginally edible, pre-packaged food before getting on Route 50, heading west. Our destination was the Blue Heron Wetlands Treatment Facility on the other side of I-95. The morning sun was already hot but there were numerous waterbirds to watch, including Black–Necked Stilts, Spoonbills, Blue-Winged Teal, Coots, Grebes, Gallinules, Flickers, Terns and young Great Blue Herons in their nest as well as all the alligators anyone would want to see.
Liz, Mom and I parted company with John and Philip here just after 10 AM. While they headed for the interstate, we three drove down a short distance to Fox Lake Park for more birding but the park was closed for repairs.
We made a stop at Bagel World for some road food before our drive to Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine. After our picnic lunch, we walked the nature trail, almost seeing a few warblers, and then tried to scope the beach, which contained mostly people and a few ring-billed gulls. Our final effort at Salt Run in the park yielded Willets, a Black-Bellied Plover and some small Sandpipers on the far shore.
Leaving St. Augustine, we ran into bad traffic conditions and in the heat, it seemed to take far too long to get to the interstate. Eventually though, we reached the guard shack at Fort Clinch on Amelia Island, going to the grounds near the fort for painted buntings, the entrance road for buntings and the swamp for buntings (I told you we were fixated). No luck. We did see a Barred Owl up close and a pair of Hermit Thrushes bathing. Daylight faded and birding was over for the day.
Halfway through Georgia, we had to get some kind of supper and so at Darien, we stopped for a trouble-filled meal at a Ruby Tuesdays. Liz took the wheel to the Port Wentworth Holiday Inn Express at Exit 209 and it was after 11 before we were in bed.
We were a little later than usual for the continental breakfast, showering and packing first. It was a fine spread and we bulked up for our trip to the Savannah Bamboo Gardens four exits south at Rt. 204. We were lucky that it was open since it's a state-run facility with only four employees to care for forty-five acres and not usually open on Saturdays. That day, however, was the first day of spring and there was a plant sale and festival. We met a helpful vendor selling bamboo (Mike) but the biting gnats were too bad to linger and we opted out of touring the gardens.
The Savannah/Ogeechee Canal happened to be at this same exit, we finished our birding for the trip walking along the canal, seeing warblers, gnatcatchers, vireos, and one loud red-shouldered hawk. Golden club was blooming and the mosquitoes were biting. At 11:25am, we were on the highway; at 5:30pm, we were home in North Carolina.