GASP! Gufl Area Sea Paddlers
There are few places I like paddling more than the small group of islands off the coast of Cedar Key. Most of them are less than 25 acres in area and are covered with dense vegetation, everything from palms and palmettos to pines and wind-shaped hardwoods. I usually try to paddle over there at least a couple of times a month. The islands are relatively close together, no more than 3 or 4 miles between them, and the normally calm water of the Gulf of Mexico allows easy day trips to several of them. Most of them have a sandy beach that you can land on unless there are restrictions because of nesting birds. The whole group of Keys is part of the Cedar Key National Wildlife Preserve.
I don't normally paddle alone at night. In fact, I am always a little apprehensive when I do and tend to over-pack with enough safety gear to form my own search and rescue team. Anyway, I have been swamped at work which has required me to spend the better part of the last 2 weekends stuck in my office. By Sunday afternoon, I'd had enough. I walked out of my building and couldn't believe how hot it was, 95 degrees and really high humidity. I've been pretty stressed out lately and I knew I wanted to paddle but had already committed to playing tennis at 4:00 against my better judgement.
I finally got on the road around 6:30 and I knew I could be out on the water before the sun went down. It takes around an hour to get to Cedar Key. Before you actually get there, you have to drive over a bridge across several miles of salt marsh. When I got to the bridge, I could see that the tide was wayyyyy out. I think it might have something to do with the moon being almost full but I'm not sure. It was definitely lower than I'd ever seen it before. This poses some problems when determining where to put in. There are a couple of muddy beaches that are great for launching and landing when the tide is at least half way in. When the tide is like it was Sunday night, those same beaches turn to quicksand and you quickly sink a couple of feet down in the smelliest, stickiest mud you've ever seen.
The only other launching alternative is the concrete boat ramp adjacent to the pier. It's actually not too bad except for the occasional wait while people back their trailers down to pick up or drop off their boats.
Sunday night, I only had to wait a few minutes. I checked my gear and shoved off. It was still pretty light and I headed out to Marker 30 which was where I wanted to stop and take a few pictures. The moon was already about 40 degrees above the horizon and very bright. The western sky was fairly cloudy so I knew the sunset was going to be really colorful. I stopped at the marker, got my camera out and waited for the show to start. I only had my little panoramic camera with me and it occurred to me that I hadn't reloaded film in it after the last roll ran out. It felt really light and I was almost sure there was no film in it. I said to myself, "oh well, here goes..." and opened it up. Sure enough, no film!!! What a dummy!
I continued paddling out to Snake Key which is about two and a half miles from the boat ramp. I stayed in the main channel for most of the way because I could see several sand bars between me and my destination. I didn't relish the thought of getting out and pushing my boat around out there in the dark...Too many creepy things on the bottom.
I was probably only a half mile from Snake key when I heard the sound of a dolphin blowing behind me. I was startled and stopped to check it out. He/she was alone and about 25 to 30 meters directly behind me. When I stopped paddling, he changed direction and came up the left side of my boat. He went past me about 4 or 5 meters from my boat and as he went by, his head came completely out of the water and I could see him checking things out. He didn't stick around and I lost sight of him after a couple of minutes in the semi-darkness but he wasn't far off because I could still hear him blow every so often.
I left the boat channel and headed southwest toward the Island. There were lots of shallow spots on the way and I could feel my rudder scraping the bottom quite a bit. Landing on these islands is a lot easier at low tide than on Cedar Key because the beaches are well-packed quartz sand rather than silty mud. You can stand up when you get out of your boat without sinking to your waist in muck. There was a slight breeze and I didn't think the bugs would be a problem but I came prepared anyway. I pulled the boat up the shore and kicked back to watch the sunset that was almost over by now. I didn't plan to stay very long but I got pretty wrapped up in watching the full moon over the water. It was totally peaceful and the water was calm but not glassy, and the waves sparkled in the reflected light.
I could hear the sounds of night critters in the brush behind where I was sitting. I wondered what was poking around in there but I wasn't curious enough to investigate. I've seen the tracks of raccoons and other small animals and I've heard that there have been deer and really big rattlesnakes spotted swimming between these islands. I've never actually seen this happen but I can imagine that at low tide, it wouldn't be much of a swim between some of the Keys.
The no-see-ums were arriving in droves now and I took that as my cue to get back on the water. The tide was starting to turn and I could see the stern of my boat starting to try to drift along the shore. I downed the rest of my Gatorade and climbed back in. I continued to drift southwest along the shore. I took my little deck light and held it in the water. I was looking for hermit crabs and stingrays but didn't see any. I decided to paddle around to the windward side of the island before heading back to the put-in. I had to sweep way out from the shore on the southern tip because the sand bar extended probably 100 feet beyond the beach. I pulled up my rudder and paddled slowly of the grassy flats and spooked lots of fish that headed for cover leaving a wake and a cloudy trail behind them. Luckily, there were no oyster beds out here. They prefer the muddy tidal flats behind Cedar Key.
Once I got behind Snake Key, I could no longer see any artificial light. The moon was unbelievably bright and I gave up any hope of seeing meteors. I moved in close to shore and turned off my lights. I could see many of the trees filled with pelicans, vultures, and wading birds. I could hear them clearly and decided to back off so I wouldn't spook them from their roosting places. I drifted with the current for close to 20 minutes watching the water swish against the shore. The reflection of the moon out on the open water reminded me of that scene in "JAWS" right before that first girl got pulled under. I could imagine hearing that music and decided to try to think of more pleasant things considering where I was.
One of the scariest things that I have thought about while paddling out here at night is the possibility of paddling right smack into a drug drop in progress. I tend to let my imagination go a little wild when I paddle alone...
I set off for the boat ramp and paddled pretty hard. It was almost 10:00 by the time I got off the water and back on the road.
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