Discover an unforgettable treasure known as the Big Bend
If you are reading this article, chances are you live in the greatest state in the entire country. Not only is Florida a warm weather paradise filled with wild rivers, unspoiled beaches, and never ending hardwood forests, we also have a great group of folks working to protect our paradise. A perfect example is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC). Not too long ago, 2004 to be exact, these folks created and introduced to the paddling community the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail. It has been a huge success for conservation and recreation, and to the economies of several small towns whose citizens don’t want condos and pavement. Now instead of giving each other high fives, pats on the back, and sitting on their legacy, the folks at FFWCC are pulling out their trump card and creating a sea kayak trail that will circumnavigate the entire state. Kudos to everyone working on Greenways and trails!
If you haven’t heard of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail before now, go get a map and find Tallahasee. Go due south from there ‘til you hit the gulf near St. Marks, then once you’re there, follow the coastline south all the way to Cedar Key. Friends, that entire coast, that huge expanse of emptiness, is the treasure known as the Big Bend. The Nature Conservancy purchased most of the land in the early 1980’s then sold it to the State for safe keeping. With the paddling trail created and the guidebook published, its time to tie down the boats and head to the small town of Suwannee.
In Suwannee you can leave a car at the chamber of commerce (call first) or arrange a shuttle at Pure Water Wilderness. This will be your final destination in a week. Now, the guidebooks say to put in at the Aucilla River, however I recommend launching at the lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. What’s a few more paddling miles of undisturbed wild beauty?
Camping spots are few, somewhat hard to find, and all require a permit. If you are planning a through paddle, you must travel north to south, can only have a group size of eight or less, and have no more than four tents. These limits are in place to protect the fragile natural resources on the coastal islands and hammocks. In addition, permits are only issued for the period between September 1 and June 30.
Once you’re on the water, you’ll have an entire week of looking at the seemingly endless beds of sea grass with their over abundance of scallops, red fish, turtles, and the occasional manatee. On land, you can explore for Indian pottery shards, old salt works, and spring fed swimming holes. Just keep an eye out near the cedar trees. On one trip my group found over seven pigmy rattlesnakes in the course of a two-hour lay over for lunch. I now wear shoes every time I land.
Make sure you take the time to explore the tiny coastal towns of Spring Warrior, Steinhatchee, and Horseshoe Beach. They make great spots to resupply with water and get some great food. I am especially fond of Roy’s in Steinhatchee (excellent mullet).
Now, a few words of caution: This is a remote paddling trip with most paddling on the open gulf – there is little protection and few places to hunker down in bad weather. Please BE SURE that everyone in your group can paddle 15-20 miles a day into the wind, against the tide, with a fully loaded kayak. Also make sure to carry at least one gallon of water per person per day, current maps, a compass (that you know how to use), a GPS device, a flare gun, and a VHF radio. One last thing: make sure everyone is paddling like craft – it’s extremely dangerous to have a mish-mash of vessels, with some folks in canoes, some in sea kayaks, a john boat with a set of oars, and the like. Keep everyone together and have a great time.
OUTFITTERS, SERVICES, and REFERENCES
Adventures in Florida: Fully-guided sea kayak tours of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail.
Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail: Permits, directions, and guidebook.
Pure Water Wilderness: Shuttles.
WATERS LESS TRAVELED, EXPLORING FLORIDA’S BIG BEND COAST by Doug Alderson.
A great narrative of a thru-paddle of the trail with lots of local history.
NOAA CHARTS – #11405 #11407 #11408