Kayaking Florida’s Waterways
The west coast of Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, is an absolute paddlers’ paradise. From the Florida Panhandle at the top of the Gulf to the Everglades in the south, there are many saltwater paddling waterways to explore, especially in and around the many barrier islands.
Kayak and canoes can be rented at many beaches along the Gulf coast. Rates are reasonable, running from US$20 to US$60 depending on the length of the rental time. Most beach rental places prefer cash, but some will take a credit card—try calling ahead to get the details.
My first trip, and the one I enjoyed the most, was the self-guided tour at Fort De Soto Park in the Tampa Bay area. Canoe and kayaking rentals are available at the park and launch at the beginning of the 2.5-mile paddling trail down Soldiers Hole and into the Mullet Key Bayou. There is lots to see: birds, the occasional dolphin, the elusive manatee and plenty of mangroves.
Fort De Soto Park’s Topwater Kayak Outpost has a good selection of both canoes and kayaks for rent, but you should note that their boats cannot be taken out of the bayou into the Gulf; the currents are too strong and traffic is too heavy in Tampa Bay. Alcohol and drug use is forbidden, as is feeding or harassing the wildlife.
Whenever you paddle in the Sunshine State, remember to:
- put on lots of sunscreen, before you start out and then reapply
- wear a hat and sunglasses
- dress according to the weather, and plan to get wet
- wear water shoes, or something similar
- bring along a small cooler with cold water and snacks (I use one that floats!)
- bring a waterproof watch (when renting by the hour, you want to be sure you return on time)
- waterproof your camera and cell phone (I put mine in the floating cooler, sealed in a waterproof plastic bag)
- bring a change of clothes for after your paddle
A couple of manatees did surface during the trip but disappeared before I could get any photographs. I did manage to photograph what I thought was a flamingo, but it turned out to be a Roseate Spoonbill—they get their colouring from eating shrimp, just like the flamingo.
If you are more adventurous, go north across Bunces Pass to Shell Key Preserve, one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands. Shell Key is only accessible by boat and has many restricted areas and no restroom facilities. For a tamer paddling experience, Florida’s state parks, such as Oscar Scherer in Sarasota country, offer canoe and kayak rentals along their many freshwater rivers and creeks (but watch out for gators!).
For dedicated paddlers, Florida has created the Saltwater Paddling Circumnavigational Trail, which stretches from the Panhandle, south to the Keys and up the Atlantic coast to the border with Georgia.