Last year, over dinner, our friend Barbara Golden told us of her plans to do a stand-up paddleboard trip from St Augustine to Palm Beach to raise funds for Alzheimer’s awareness after the loss of her mom. She wanted to ask my advice about paddling the long stretch of the Indian River Lagoon through Brevard County.
Growing up along the lagoon, I have been sailing and paddling the Space Coast all my life, covering all the waters from the north end above Titusville to the south end near Melbourne. Having also lost my mom to Alzheimer’s, I wanted to participate somewhere along the way.
Her trip, organized in segments on weekends, drew closer to our home. Our travel schedule finally allowed me the opportunity to join her paddle, which she called “Something That I Will Never Forget.”
This particular Saturday, the group would be paddling from southern Volusia County into a part of northern Brevard County that I had only been through once before. This long stretch through the Mosquito Lagoon -- considered the northernmost part of the Indian River Lagoon -- is a broad, flat open stretch of water. It is perfect for flats fishing, but almost nowhere is the water deep enough for a sailboat, the craft of my choice long before I started kayaking.
Decades ago, when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Intracoastal Waterway through this area, they formed a series of spoil islands from the dredged materials. Over the years, these mounds have become a wall of tree-covered islands, forming a beautiful, shallow, and protected waterway just west of the dredged channel.
Many years ago, I had motored my large sailboat through this part of the Intracoastal Waterway. With a draft of over four feet, I was paying a lot more attention to staying in the narrow channel than enjoying the views.
So when this opportunity to paddle through the shallows of Mosquito Lagoon arose, I was ready to go. With most of the journey along a waterway with Canaveral National Seashore on one side and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the other, this is by far the most remote part of the Indian River Lagoon.
We’d shared Barbara’s plans with a bunch of our paddling friends. Two of my oldest paddling buddies -- both of who have become paddleboarders -- showed up. I’ve kayaked many times with Bobby and Lew, but the three of us had never paddled together.
Joining the SUP crowd long ago, Lew has become quite the paddleboard enthusiast, paddling over 1,800 miles alone last year. He wasn’t worried about a thirteen-mile paddle. Bobby is a little newer to paddleboarding. He decided to do that many miles in his kayak.
Our group of eight paddlers and a support pontoon boat met at River Breeze Park in Oak Hill. After shuttling vehicles to our ending point at Haulover Canal, we were off. Barbara, Cindy, Annie, and Mike had paddled 92 miles together since the beginning of the trip, and along with their friend Rachael were joined by our little contingent of three Brevard residents.
As we pulled away from the dock, a large manatee and several dolphins joined us. We took that as the sign of a good paddle. As we passed by Goodrich’s Seafood, one of our favorite local seafood places, I broke off from the group for a few photos of it from the water. They had lost their dock and outside seating along the water during the hurricane of 2017. Now that it’s rebuilt, people were enjoying their meal and the view as I paddled by.
Many of the other structures and docks in Oak Hill still haven’t been reconstructed. From the water, it’s more obvious of just how hard this little fishing community had been damaged by Hurricane Irma.
Just south of Goodrich’s we stopped for our first break at a small beach at Seminole Rest. I’d been here many times in the past and had watched the historic homestead transform from a weather-beaten old home into a nicely restored museum/information center under the care of the National Park Service.
I was delighted to see the parking lot full of vehicles and a Cub Scout pack wandering the grounds. But I was very disappointed to find the bathrooms at the parking lot locked on a Saturday after 9. After snacks and a short break, we were back on the water.
It wasn’t long before we had paddled past the last of the homes and campgrounds of Oak Hill and entered into Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. From this point on we would see no other signs of people other than a few fishing boats and a couple of unique survey markers. The channel markers were on the east side of the spoil islands so even they were almost obscured from view where we were paddling along the coastline.
The winds had grew steadily stronger all morning. Most of the group had given up on standing up to paddle into it and were on their knees. In a sea kayak, it was a nightmare for me to try and paddle at the slow speed the rest of the group was moving. Without good forward momentum and my bow cutting into the water, the wind would catch the side of the bow and try to turn me around.
It was requiring a monumental effort on my part just to keep moving forward at this speed, and it was wearing me out. My only hope of paddling into a wind this strong was to pick up speed and cut my way through the waves, water and wind. While it was breaking the group’s safety protocol, I had to break away.
Because I was ahead of the group, I pulled into a nice little protected place between a few trees and a downed log to watch for and wait for the group to catch up. I saw the pontoon boat beach itself about a quarter-mile back and then the rest of the paddlers slowly join it there. I backtracked to meet them for lunch.
As the lagoon was so open, providing almost no protection from the winds and current, this was one of the rare spots the pontoon boat could pull in out of the channel to meet us. Our lunch break on this spoil island was a warning of what was ahead for us. I wasn’t there long before I fell into the water twice. I was tired from paddling against the wind and the tide -- a slight miscalculation in timing -- and with a recently sprained ankle I wasn’t good on my feet. I opted to paddle to the protection of the western shore to eat my lunch.
The winds were relentless. Between each stretch of open water between spoil islands, the winds would nearly stop my forward momentum. Bobby decided to catch up with me so I wouldn’t be paddling alone. Together we struggled to continue.
As the swells grew higher and the white caps began to appear, we were wondering what our fellow paddlers were doing. We knew that these conditions were too rough for them to continue safely. Did they turn back and take advantage of the tail wind, or did they throw in the towel for safety, and take advantage of the support boat to call it a day?
The last few miles were miserable to paddle. It took everything we had to continue. I had stopped taking photos, as the water was too rough to even set down the paddle for a moment. If we stopped paddling, even a single stroke, we were being pushed backwards by the wind and waves.
I finally caught a glimpse of a boat between the islands, out in the channel. It was our support boat, easily distinguished by the Honor banner flapping in the wind. I could see the boat just long enough to tell that it was full of people. That answered our question. They had continued as far south as they safely could.
The changing conditions finally forced them to call the trip. We’d learn later that rescuing them off the water had required two trips. The group had split up, and one group waited until the boat returned for them.
For Bobby and I, paddling was our only option by this point. It was all we could do. Don’t stop, keep paddling. As we passed the northern boat ramp in Merritt Island NWR we contemplated pulling out and calling for a rescue.
A local fisherman had offered us a ride to the Haulover parking area. But he couldn’t take both of us and our boats. Without a vehicle, or knowing where the rest of our group was, we turned him down. He said it was only a couple of miles to Haulover by water, so we decided to paddle on.
At this point, we needed a little distraction from the wind, waves, and pain of paddling hard for so long. Our feathered friends helped out. A tricolor heron, blue heron, and roseate spoonbill kept fishing up ahead of us. As we drew closer they would fly off, but they’d still stay in front of us. The herons would fly off first, squawking. They’d fly about 50 yards and land in our future trajectory. The spoonbill would continue sifting mud with its beak going back and forth, looking for food, until I was close enough to look it in the eye. When it saw me it would take flight and fly just past the others and land again. This game of hopscotch went on for some time and helped us continue ahead. Then we hit a large open space where the winds were too strong for the birds to stick around.
Passing the next possible takeout at a boat ramp, I asked Bobby if he was ready to call it quits and call for a rescue. He replied that since we’d make it this far, that we might as well finish it.
By this time, all of the islands and the shoreline was looking pretty much alike. But when we cut through a narrow opening, it looked familiar. I didn’t want to get our hopes up, so I didn’t say any thing. I recognized some landmarks. I had been in this cove a long time ago for a bioluminescent paddling trip. Not far ahead would be the cut into the Haulover Canal.
As we turned into the Haulover Canal and saw the drawbridge we couldn’t have been happier. Only one more obstacle and we were done. Haulover is a narrow canal cut during the 1800s to connect the Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River Lagoon so boaters no longer had to haul their boats overland. Being a narrow cut, tide currents below the bridge can be brutal, and of course we would be paddling into them.
When we arrived at the kayak launch we must have looked desperate. A nice family from Silver Springs told us to go ahead of them. I confirmed our distress by falling over in my kayak while trying to get out.
Bobby grabbed my kayak and a few folks offered to help me up. I thanked then and replied that it was probably best for me to crawl out of it on my hands and knees under my own power. Once on shore, I heard my name and saw one of our group. I was so relieved to be reunited with them and to know that our ride back to Oak Hill was still there.
We confirmed that they’d done the smart thing and stopped paddling before it became unsafe for the paddleboarders. They’d still added more miles on their quest. Best of all, by Bobby and I being able to make it all the way to the planned finish point in our kayaks, that brought the Something That I Will Never Forget team effort farther south, completing the the longest planned day of paddling for their trip.
As the rest of the group continues their paddle south, I wish them safe paddling and thank them for inviting me along. Watch for them in the Indian River Lagoon along the Space Coast over the next few weeks!
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