Solo Circumnavigation of Merritt Island
by Darryl "Bones" Benton
"...37 miles may seem like a drop in the bucket for some...however, for me it was a check on my bucket list. I planned this trip and made this trip alone."
I'm starting my 5th year as a Kayak guide for Brevard Zoo in Melbourne Florida. I work a few days a week as a volunteer kayak guide around our African exhibit. As guides we educate our guest on a few kayak techniques some simple safety rules and then we load up four two man kayaks with our guest and shove them out into our Naimi Naimi River.
A man made river which meanders around our Cheetahs, Rhinos, Giraffes, Lemurs and a host of others African animals and exotic birds. A few of the animals are behind a fence but most are just standing on the banks of our river as we paddle by.
As a guide I paddle backwards so as to be facing my guest as I relate some basic facts about each of the animals we see, along with some short jokes about our winter weather here in Central Florida. I always try and make my tours factual as well as light humor so as to entertain as well as educate what I consider to be my new found friends, not, just guest.
As a 62 year old retiree, I enjoy my "job". I'm meeting new people, I'm exercising and staying fit, and I'm giving back to my community by volunteering. Plus, I get to Kayak with friends I have never met before.
You see one of the downfalls of retirement is finding friends that have the time ,inclination and health to be able to join me in the things I like to do. In my younger days I lived in the Ocean, surfing every chance I got. A few years back some health issues prevented me from paddling out on a surfboard the way I used to. I took up Kayaking at age 50. I also used to canoe a lot as a kid, as well as a Dad, with my kids when they were younger. I was never a serious paddler until I reached the golden age.
The Float Plan ~
These previous paragraphs are my prelude to my short story about my lone Kayak trip around Merritt Island, Florida. There are those that know this area so I must qualify that my trip circumvented half way around Merritt island because the North end of Merritt Island is the Kennedy Space Center. Most of KSC or Kennedy Space Center is off limits.
So I chose to leave from dockside in the city of Rockledge, at Valencia street dock, on the Indian River Lagoon. Paddle North to the Barge canal. Paddle east to a point in the Barge canal to the North end of Sykes Creek. Paddle south on Sykes Creek until it merges with the Banana River Lagoon. Paddle South on the Banana River Lagoon to the southern most tip of Merritt Island, also known as dragon Point by the locals. This point is also where the Banana River Lagoon and Indian River Lagoon merge to form just the Indian River lagoon. Paddle back North on the Indian River Lagoon to Grill's restaurant which is about 8miles south of my starting point. In all, my trip was 37 miles long.
My fellow experienced Kayak friends that have done long trips may be bored with my story at this point, because I'm sure 37 miles may seem like a drop in the bucket for you folks. However, for me it was a check on my bucket list. I planned this trip and made this trip alone. I have done many day trips as a guide and with just groups of friends on the Indian River Lagoon and associated tributaries. These trips were made up of start early, paddle until you are tired or the day gets late and paddle back to our starting point.
I used to say, "I can paddle all day". Well until you have paddled all day, you really don't know that you can, do you? Its fairly easy to find a few friends that will Kayak together as a group for any given weekend day. Try finding someone in your age group that wants to paddle on a four day event in the middle of the week. I could not find anybody that was willing and able. Even though I am 62 years old, I am 5'11" and weigh in at 115 lbs. I can sit in a kayak all day. I can get in and out of any Kayak out there. My hair has grown long and shaggy because I grow hair to gain weight. Sorry, that was one of my corny jokes. My point here being, I felt fit and it was time to stop procrastinating and start paddling, alone.
My plan was to leave on January 8th, 2013. New year, new adventure, lets start this year on a roll. I had to work all day on the 7th at the Zoo so I'm leaving the next day after I see who wins the College Football National Championship game. I'm packing my Kayak the night before as I watch the game on my garage TV.
I'm planning on a four day event. My thoughts led me to believe that no matter the weather, I could paddle ten miles a day. I checked my charts of the area and found sufficient resting points along the way, along with some proposed possible overnight camping spots. I also planned this trip because I knew that even though I was paddling around the Island, I would never really be more then 5 miles from my house as the crow flies. Also there is never a remote spot on this course because so many fine homes are on the water in this area of my county.
My excitement began to grow as a packed. 7Qts. of water. 5Qts in a collapsible G.I. Canteen, 2Qts in a 2 Qt G.I. Canteen. I used empty plastic coffee creamer jugs (50 oz) to store a lot of items up in the hull both forward and rear storage areas. I put 2, 2 person dried meals to a container. I figured 4 meals for four days, or because these meals were meant for two people that I could eat a portion, wrap it back up and eat the same meal, or the rest of the meal the same day giving me two goods meals a day with energy snacks of peanuts and trail mix bars in between meals. These meals require water, about two cups per meal. It is not required to have hot water but, I prefer it, at least the dinner hour at the end of a day. My plan was to fill my canteens with more water as required at various boat ramps along my route.
My trip was not to be a survival challenge as such. My trip was to be a paddling challenge. Paddle all day, camp, paddle all day challenge. As a young man out of High School, I volunteered to help our Uncle Sam in a little Jam in Southeast Asia. I became an Airborne Ranger and survived a rather long year in the Central Highlands. I have many survival skills that help on trips like this, but that was not my purpose.
My purpose once again to repeat myself, was at this point in my life, to answer the question: "Do I have the physical strength to paddle all day for days?"
I have a small camp stove about the size of a standard thermos jug that I use with heat tabs for boiling water. I packed it along with a poncho and poncho liner to sleep with. You can roll these two together and place them in a small dry bag. I took one extra night shirt or jungle sweater as I call it for those times when things get a little colder then normal at night. I used one of my creamer containers for a couple of Bic lighters some small fire starter cubes along with extra batteries for my cheap GPS.
My GPS does not have map backgrounds, it just has way marker capabilities on whatever trail you set course on. I use real maps and charts. Real maps and charts work great, even when batteries fail. Everything in the Kayak gets water proofed by plastic bag, dry bag, or make shift creamer jugs.
I was packed, Alabama won the big game, go SEC! I'm leaving in the AM, no matter what the weather conditions.
Day 1 ~
I discovered that trying to load my loaded 17 ft. Perception Sea Lion in the back of my truck was not an easy task. I should have started earlier and had everything laid out to pack after loading the Kayak in truck. Later as I was unloading the Kayak from the truck and getting the Kayak in the water. I decided I should not have even loaded the Kayak until in the water. These are tips folks, more experienced folks are laughing at this point. I was alone, there was no one around telling me I might want to rethink my actions. There for, I figured I was doing everything right because I was not arguing with myself.
I'm in the water by 0840hrs., which is about 40 minutes later then I wanted. I would like to say at this point in my story that it is never good to do any water sport alone. I always wear a life jacket. My life jacket does not live behind the seat, or in the rear storage compartment. I always have it on. Sometimes I get in my truck and still have it on. My life jacket is part of my Kayaking uniform of the day even when I am kayaking with others. It is a safe way to Kayak, always.
So North I head on the Indian river Lagoon. Hardly a breath of air is moving, however there is a large thunderhead to the east over the Atlantic Ocean trying to cover the rising sun. The Temp. is a balmy 69 degrees and rising with the sun. I love water sports in central Florida in the winter!
I can see the Hwy. 520 bridge over the Indian river Lagoon in the distance maybe a mile or so. I have made this paddle many times before so nothing is new at this time but, it is an absolute beautiful beginning of my trip this fine day. I paddled under the bridge a short time later and see the next landmark which is the high rise bridge of Hwy. 528 or better known as the Bennett Causeway.
This is the last part of the Beeline which comes out of Orlando heading to Port Canaveral, home of many Cruise ships. As I continue my paddle I stopped for a minute in the middle of the channel on the inter coastal waterway and make a cell phone call to my sister. My sister lives on the 7th floor of a condo overlooking the waterway. She answered on the first ring and I told her to go out on her balcony and wave me off on my trip. She did, as she also told me to be careful. Yes, I'll be careful as always, that’s how I got to be this old. Hang up the phone and keep Paddling.
I paddled north to the bridge and around the corner and into the Barge Canal. I'm heading east now, still no wind but I'm looking right into the sun and its getting warmer. I'm now down to a sleeveless t-shirt, life vest, baseball hat and camo shorts. Pretty typical winter wear down here in January. I can see the State Road 3 bridge as I paddle towards it up the Canal.
As I approach the bridge load honking noises begin and I notice the draw bridge is starting to rise as to let me slip under. Wow my head height is probably only 3 ft off the water and I begin to chuckle when I notice a rather large sailboat coming through from the other direction. The bridge was not raising for me . A stand up Paddle boarder then came out of a small cut in the bank and waved as I paddled on to meet the sailboat now coming under the raised bridge. I continue to paddle the other direction. I saw a few areas that looked like the beginnings of Sykes creek but they were just cuts in the bank. I consulted my chart under the bungee cords in front of me and continued a little further until I knew I was at the northern mouth of Sykes Creek. I could smell fiber glass resin cooking off at the old Sea Ray plant which had been closed for a few years. Maybe things are picking up in the economy and they will start building boats again. I know the smell of polyurethane resin so maybe this is the beginning of a new era in boat building. I sure hope so for all those younger folks looking for jobs in this area.
I'm now heading south on Sykes creek. The first bridge I am approaching is the low bridge of Hwy 528 again over the creek. Here there are now a few guys fishing on the banks. All giving friendly waves as I pass under. I've always said the nice thing about Kayaking is the wild life does not run from you and the humans all have a friendly wave. Its a great paddle on an outstanding beautiful day. Still little to no wind and the temperature has eased into a fantastic 78 Florida winter degrees. I'm now paddling by some absolute beautiful homes on my right and a wildlife wetlands refuge on my left. I cruise up the wetland refuge side of the creek and pretend there are no homes on my right.
Great Blue Herons stand along the bank as the screeching of ospreys pierce the silence only disturbed by my paddles breaking the surface as I continue through the morning of my first day. By the way the 8th of January is a Tuesday, still the first part of the week for a lot of working folks. Even so, as I approach the Sykes creek parkway bridge a few retired folks are up on the bridge enjoying the sunshine as it is now close to 1100 hrs. I'm just starting to get a gnawing sensation that it will soon be time to find an Island or grassy bank where I can get out and stretch and possibly have a bite to eat. I have been paddling for less then three hours and have gone much further then I had imagined.
I have told you that I have a cheap GPS its by Magellan. The model name is the "Explorist 100". It is brand new, never been used, gift to someone back in 06. I attained it from my son, read the directions and put a lanyard on it then hung it around my neck. The best thing I can say about it is it tells me how fast I'm paddling. I have always planned things around the 2 miles per hour scale. I found that my leisurely Paddling speed in a no wind environment is closer to 3.4 miles an hour. Gee, that's a pretty good pace for a skinny older fart with arms the diameter of heavy Kite string. Well there is the fact that a few days a week I paddle backwards at the Zoo in a normal shift about 2 to 4 miles in a three and half hour shift. Maybe paddling forward on my days off is making me tougher then I think.
Another hour of paddling brings me to a wide area of Sykes creek around Kiwanis Island. Kiwanis Island is an Island in the middle of Merritt Island's Sykes Creek. As I approach this area a couple of those long rowing boats fly by me with some young college girls on the oars. They left me in their wake. Thank goodness none of my old Army Ranger buddies were around to witness this or I would still be being heckled, even at this seasoned age. Those ladies can row!
As I was contemplating where to have my lunch, I noticed an Applebees restaurant with a deck overlooking the water. Wow, how convenient. I approached the deck that was kind of high up with a very high sea wall on both sides. As I paddled up I saw a shallow area under one of the pilings. I paddled over,put on my reef boots and had just enough room to step out of my Kayak and tie it to the piling while standing in the shallow area. I then reached up over my head and grabbed a support beam and pulled myself up and over the railing of the deck. There was a family having lunch at the closest table and the kids started pointing at me, but their parents scolded them a little as I walked by and up to the Tiki hut bar. Now this is my kind of roughing it. I ordered a beer and some wings. Freeze dried food could wait until later.
After my lunch I was back on the water. I had paddled for four hours with no breaks. I had some wings and a draft beer. Its was now 1330 hrs. (1:30 pm). I was still full of energy and figured I had paddled about ten miles. I still had very little wind with just a few gust in my face and the water was slightly choppy to none at all. I continued to paddle under the Hwy 520 again and heading south getting closer to the end of New Found Harbor Drive. I had passed the Veterans Center near the mall a mile back. I had thought I would spend the night there on this first day. I continued on, figuring I would maybe find my younger sisters house near the end of New Found Harbor Drive and crash there in her backyard. As I neared this location it was still only 1530 hrs and I decided to paddle on.
Towards the east side of the Banana river there are two small Islands that sit alone. They are in the vicinity of Honey Moon Lake, off state road 3, that runs parallel with the river. One of these Islands is a Bird Sanctuary the other is only half a Bird Sanctuary. I chose this Island to make my afternoon and night camp and rest area. At this point I had covered another 8 or so miles. Making this my total of approximately 18 miles my first day. Almost twice what I had figured on.
There was a small, pretty newly built picnic table on this Island and I sat and boiled some water and made a nice hot meal of beef stroganov. At least that was what the package said it was. It was pretty good and I almost ate all of it, both portions. The wings and beer at lunch had not done much to fill the void my paddling had created. These dried meals are easy to prepare and are full of calories for restoring energy. There are several brands out there but the ones I had with me were made by "The Wise Company". I purchased them at my local Army Surplus store in Cocoa Florida. As a young Army Ranger in my "Nam" days I survived on Freeze dried rations on many Long Range Patrol missions. I learned to like them. Today's meals sold in most outdoor stores are comparable and tasty. Mostly they are full of all the good things you need to be eating when burning up energy from paddling ,walking, or hiking for any period of time.
I stood in the water and stretched my legs while fishing from the bank and watched the sunset to the west. I was exhausted but not so much so to not be able to just stand there as the shadows grew and reflect on what a glorious day I had just experienced. I had always wanted to just paddle and keep paddling without having to go back. Both as a kid and as an adult with kids. I was never old enough, or had to go to school, or had to work and pay for my kids school. There was never time. I now have all the time in the world. I was standing right where I wanted to be. On an Island off an Island knee deep in saltwater watching the sunset and not a soul around but me. I can tell you this. If I had all the money in the world. There is no other place I would be, but right here, right now. I have been a lot of places in this world and been part of some great happenings and projects, but, I have never been so at peace with myself. The amazing thing is I'm practically in my own backyard. What a content feeling. I hope everyone reading this finds their same place in life someday.
I made my bed on the picnic table. I only had my Kayak seat cushion and I placed that under my skinny shoulders covered myself up and went to sleep. I woke about two hours later and it was only midnight. I had the worse pain right in the fold of both my arms. Kind of like right at the front side of my elbows. Oh my goodness it hurt. I've never been a pill taker so it did not cross my mind to bring any aspirin. I could barely stand to move my arms. So I laid back and tried to not think about pain. When I went to move my covers over my head, the pain would worsen. I was sure happy no one was around because little girl tears were forming in my eyes and I was hurting for sure.
Day 2 ~
I fell asleep, thank goodness. Around 0300 hrs in the morning I woke again to the same throbbing pain and a whole lot of wind and a slight blowing drizzle. Oh great, there went my perfect weather. I tried to pull my poncho up a little more around my head as I sat up to relieve the pain in my back from lying on the table with nothing but a boat cushion.
As I moved my arms the pain was searing. My mind started to consider when it gets light I'm going paddle over to the shore of Merritt Island and call my wife for an "extraction". That’s what we used to call it upon a completed mission back when I was a kid working for Uncle Sam. I waited and after about three and a half hours false dawn started to show itself over the water. The wind was blowing hard from the southeast, I was on the north side of the Little Island, so the water was calm to my front as I looked North. My arms still hurt but I began packing my stuff up and repacking the Kayak.
I decided I would push on, now that I was up and moving. I figured to paddle around the Island into the wind and just paddle ever so lightly not to cause any more pain in my arms. Fine plan, but as I rounded the Island at full light I was heading into the wind and very rough 2 foot waves over the shallow waters I was in.
There was no "light" paddling to be done. I had to reach out and develop a steady, hearty, long stroke or else get blown backwards. My arms screamed but I fell into a rhythm and stayed steady. Within ten minutes of this rhythm paddling I realized my arm pain was gone. "...Now just keep paddling, ...don't look up at the next bridge" which was about 6 miles in the distant salt spray. "Just keep your head down ...and paddle!"
Without looking up I could just see my compass mounted on my deck in front of me and I kept a 180 degrees heading. That is a due south heading for all you folks that don't use a compass. Paddle on!! Every once in awhile I could see my GPS that said I was moving at less then one mile an hour. I picked up my pace and cranked out a measly 1.8 miles per hour. That's good considering I was getting soaked with no spray skirt and still pushing through two foot waves.
After three long hours of paddling steady, the waves began to get smaller and I realized I was getting closer to the Pineda Causeway bridge and in to the leeward side out of the wind current. Although still dealing with the wind in my face, things were getting easier. I passed under the lower bridge next to the entrance to the Patrick Air Force Base Marina.
I thought about paddling in to the club for a cup of coffee, but I was a mess. I still had on my long sleeve sleeping T-shirt and long rip stop nylon G.I. Fatigue pants. I was soaked but it had warmed up to 75 degrees so I was just uncomfortable not cold. I pulled up to one of the small spoil Islands just before the Tortoise Island's very fancy neighborhood. I changed to shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt and started to feel comfortable again. I ate a granola bar and wished I had a cup of coffee. I drank some water and pretended it was Maxwell house best.
I got back in the Kayak and slid in to the "Grand Canal". This canal runs Parallel with the Banana River between mostly high dollar mansions. No choppy waves but with the wind in my face, I paddled on. Two and a half hours later I paddled out of the Grand Canal back into the Banana River. There in front of me maybe a mile or so was the Mathis Bridge. The last bridge linking the beach to Merritt island.
I was close to rounding the end of Merritt Island. I could just make out dragon point in the not to far distance. I had figured that the point was to be my second or maybe third night stand. However it was only 1430 hrs, day 2. So without hesitation, I paddled around the point and was now heading back North again out of the Banana River and back in the Indian River Lagoon.
The wind was still screaming out of the southeast off the nearby Atlantic Ocean. I hugged the west bank of Merritt Island out of the chop and with the wind to my back when ever I drifted a little to far off shore. The river is very wide here about a mile across. My final destination was the other side of the river back under the Pineda Causeway and to Grill's restaurant 6 to 8 miles away.
I had not expected to be at Grill's until two days later. I left the west shore of Merritt Island and drifted with the wind and sea following me right out and into the Inter coastal Waterway channel. I checked my GPS and with the wind at my back and the following seas I was moving at 4.5 miles an hour. I was getting real tired though, and very uncomfortable because I had not stopped and stretched. This was not a real smart move, my legs began to cramp up, my arms had a little pain again.
Here I made the decision to use my ragged old piece of sail cloth attached to two pieces of 3/4 inch plastic pipe. Sort of a "V" shaped sail, maybe a total of 2 square feet all together. I jammed one end of the pipe in my cup holder of my seat set my paddle in the crook of my arm and drifted at 3.5 miles an hour only using the paddle on one side or the other to keep me from rolling with the following seas which were now two foot choppy waves again.
This time the waves were at my back and if I did not make corrections the waves would sneak up behind me and slide in to the cockpit with me. Oh darn, I'm soaked again, but happy and feeling goofy. A few large sailboats flew by running with the wind. Every hand on deck waving at me and my rag sail cloth. I was having a grand time and the cramps in my legs were forgotten.
After an hour of this "rag sailing", I rolled things up and paddled under the Pineda Bridge over the Indian River this time. I paddled on down to the shore in front to Grill's restaurant. It was 1700hrs and I had been paddling since 0700hrs this morning. I was beat as I pulled my Kayak up on the beach. I tucked a few things away, grabbed a dry bag and headed for the rest rooms. I put on a dry T-shirt and went out to the deck, sat down at a table and ordered a cup of coffee, a Mahi sandwich, and a Margarita in that order.
I was done. 37 miles in two, not four days. I can paddle and sit in a Kayak all day long. I've done it and it was grand!
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