Where a natural inlet once washed across the barrier island at Cocoa Beach, a group of islands was home to the earliest residents of Florida.
Now, it’s one of the most popular places to paddle along the Space Coast. It’s been years since I paddled the Thousand Islands, but my old friend Bobby, who comes here often, was game.
We began our paddle at Cocoa Beach Country Club, which offered more parking than Ramp Road Park, which I was more familiar with. Despite the name, this is a public park.
On a Saturday morning, the main boat ramp was nearly surrounded by several local ecotour companies and their customers. Tucked in the corner of the property there is a small ramp with only room to launch a single boat at a time. We headed there.
I paddled out first, turning around to get a few photos of Bob joining me on his paddleboard. I had never paddled into the Thousand Islands from this location. Bob is a regular here and a local, so he led the way.
We began our counterclockwise tour of the islands by going south in the Banana River. We passed a couple of other paddleboarders and a family out fishing.
When the father saw me taking lots of pictures, I could hear him say “must be one of those tourists, taking that many pictures.”
I shouted back “Hey, I was born here and right now ‘I’m working.'” We shared a good laugh. I said something about the very large dolphin swimming behind their boat. They told me he follows them all the time because they feed him. I wonder if that’s how Flipper got started?
The Banana River isn’t very deep, but where we were it was wide open and could be intimidating to paddlers who are not comfortable with open water.
Hugging the shore, I couldn’t help but notice the dozens and dozens of old car and truck tires along the shoreline. They didn’t look like they had been randomly dumped. To me, they looked as though they had once been lined up and possibly stacked.
Getting closer for a better look, I could see where some of them might have been tied together to form a chain. Could this have been some long abandoned shoreline project to prevent erosion?
After passing a couple of small coves, we turned east and entered the Thousand Islands Conservation Area by paddling down a wide mangrove-lined canal.
As we neared the coast of Cocoa Beach I could see Patrick Air Force Base to the south for a moment before we slipped between a couple of mangrove islands and entered a main channel. It led us past homes and condos before coming up to Ramp Road Park at the end of Ramp Road.
Directly across from the boat ramp, we could see a white PVC pipe with a blue paddling trail sticker and a “You are Here” map. This is the official start of the Thousand Islands Conservation Area Paddling Trail, which according to their map just makes an arc through the islands.
Before following the paddling trail, I continued down the wooden sea wall at Ramp Road Park to to get a closer look at a Florida Historical Marker that I didn’t recall seeing on my last paddle here. That’s how I learned about the inlet that was once here, and the peoples who once lived on these islands.
A canoe is the symbol on the blue sticker atop the PVC poles guiding us down the trail. It’s not a paddleboard for a darn good reason.
The trail through the mangroves grew narrower and narrower until they finally closed in, forcing Bob to paddle on his knees. Then it closed in even more, forming a mangrove tunnel. It was nearly impossible to make use of our paddles.
Sometimes it was just easier to tuck away our paddles and use our hands to pull ourselves through. I told him how very happy I was that we weren’t down in the Keys, where I had come face to face with iguanas in the mangroves.
As the tunnel opened up, we came to some open water. Straight ahead was another tunnel of mangroves. To our right, a wide open area. And to your left, an unusual green sign.
Hiking Trail. Right. You’re in the middle of a mangrove forest, water in every direction, and there’s a sign for a hiking trail. Of course we followed it. I had to. If Sandy knew that there was a hiking trail out there and I didn’t investigate it. I’d be in big trouble!
Sure enough, just a few paddlestrokes away, we found a narrow landing with a trail leading up to a kiosk. Since this time of year is not very hiker friendly -- especially in this humid environment -- I left exploring it for a future visit.
We paddled a little farther before turning around. As we entered another channel, we met up with a small group of ecotourists and their guide. They were all smiles, enjoying this quiet place away from noise and traffic.
As we paddled past canalfront homes, I spied an unusual sign ahead. From the distance all I could read was “floating pipeline when workers present.” What in the world did that mean? As we came closer I could read the smaller print “entering an active dredge site.”
While in the active dredge site, our path turned down another wide unmarked canal. I noticed a very unusual looking dock, and took a short side trip to see just what it was.
I have never seen a dock quite like this before. It has to be the heaviest duty kayak landing that I have even seen. It has thick boards, heavy chains, and tie off cleats big enough for a huge yacht.
It looked like it might lead to yet another hiking path. I paddled close enough to look up the trail, which appeared very overgrown and wild.
Off in the distance, I could see the tall antenna and the lights of the ballfield across from where our paddle began. As we emerged from the mangroves to cross this short stretch of open water, I felt the gentle push of a slight tailwind guiding us back to shore.