The Kayak Chronicles

by Darren Caffery



Fort DeSoto County Park, Florida

Thursday June 23, 2005


The day after paddling Mullet KeyJSSKA member Tom Kelly and I gave up our rental tandem and went back to paddling our own individual kayaks.  We again launched from Fort DeSoto County Park, just outside of St Petersburg for our second day of paddling in the Gulf of Mexico. Our destination for this trip was Egmont Key State Park.

The Island of Egmont Key has unique natural and cultural histories which have made it a valuable resource since the time settlers first arrived in Florida. Named in honor of John Perceval, the second Earl of Egmont and member of the Irish House of Commons in 1763, Egmont Key has had Spanish conquistadors and nuclear submarines pass its shores as they entered Tampa Bay.

In the 1830's, as shipping increased, so did the number of ships that were grounded on the numerous sandbars around Egmont Key. On March 3, 1847, Congress authorized funds to construct a lighthouse on Egmont. The construction was completed in May,1848. Once completed, it was the only lighthouse between St. Marks and Key West. When the Great Hurricane of 1848 struck, tides 15 feet above normal washed over the island and damaged the light. Another storm in 1852 did additional damage and prompted Congress to appropriate funds to rebuild the lighthouse and lightkeeper's residence.

At the end of the third Seminole War in 1858, Egmont Key was used by the U.S. Army to detain Seminole prisoners until they could be transported to Arkansas Territory.

In 1858, the lighthouse was reconstructed to "withstand any storm." The new tower is 87 feet high with an Argard kerosene lamp and fixed Fresnel lens. Confederate troops occupied the island when the Civil War began. Realizing they could not defend their position, the Confederates evacuated Egmont, taking with them the Fresnel lens from the tower. The Union navy used Egmont to operate their Gulf Coast blockade of the Confederacy. Union troops raided Tampa in an unsuccessful effort to locate the missing lens.

The lighthouse returned to normal operation at the end of the war. After the Civil War, the lightkeeper, his assistant and their families were the principal residents of the island from 1866 to 1898.

Fort Dade was established on Egmont Key when the Spanish-American War was imminent. When construction was completed in 1906, Dade was a small city of 300 residents with electricity, telephones, movie theater, bowling alley, tennis courts, hospital and a jail. The fort was deactivated in 1923.

The Tampa Bay Pilots Association, established in 1886, set up operations on the island in 1926. When ships approach Tampa Bay, a pilot boards the vessel in the main channel and directs the ship to the docks. As the vessel leaves the dock the pilot guides it out and returns to Egmont Key on one of the pilot boats. The work of the pilots helps to protect the Bay from environmental damage that would result from grounding and/or collisions.


In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard, which has maintained the light as well as radio guidance equipment. Egmont Key was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to staffing limitations and increased public visits, the Wildlife Service was unable to protect the resources on its own. When the Coast Guard automated the light, Coast Guard personnel were reassigned. The Florida Park Service began operations at Egmont Key on October 1, 1989, as part of a co-management agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Visitors to Egmont Key can spend the day on the beach sunbathing, swimming in the warm bay waters, walking through the historic ruins of Fort Dade, or walking the brick paths that remain from the days Fort Dade was an active community with 300 residents. A gopher tortoise can be seen at almost every turn as you walk the historic paths. Many visitors are treated to the sight of hummingbirds as well as other seabirds.


For our kayaking adventure, we got a bit of a late start, but finally launched at the canoe & kayak outpost on the paddling trail at about 11:30 am. Conditions in the area were much sunnier than the previous day of paddling with little wind. Air temperatures were the same as the previous day reaching the mid 80's but it seemed much hotter because the sun was shining bright.

We began to sweat shortly after beginning to paddle. Our trip out of the mangroves of the canoe trail into the Mullet Key Bayou was uneventful and we didn't see any manatee on this trip. We paddled a nice steady pace out of the bayou, into Bunces Pass and finally into the crystal clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The Gulf was again very calm.  After we entered the Gulf we headed northward along the pristine shoreline and finally landed on one of the beautiful white sand beaches.  The beaches had a few more people on them today but nothing like the crowd we typically see at the Jersey Shore.  
After rehydrating a bit, I  began to chart our course to Egmont Key.  As I charted our course to the island, Tom combed the crowd of the beach in search of a lighter or matches since he forgot his. We wouldn't be able to continue our trek to the island until he had a smoke.  

Luckily he returned with a lit cigarette and after he finished, we launched back into the gulf.  Because of the calm conditions and little wind, we decided to paddle a straight line course to the island from the north beach on Fort DeSoto.   It was a 3.6 mile trek of open water which required crossing a major shipping channel in which some of the worlds largest ships use to enter Tampa Bay.  Notes of caution in Nigel Foster's Guide to Sea Kayaking in Southern Florida  report the channel is 80-90 ft deep and currents can be very swift at the tidal rush.  On the beach, a park ranger cautioned us we may see some bull sharks, however I never really looked too hard for those and wasn't disappointed when we didn't see any. We also didn't see any dolphin. Because of the distance of open water paddling, the strong currents, the shipping channels and the potential for rough conditions in the afternoon wind, the trip is suggested for paddlers of at least, intermediate experience.


The open water paddle was awesome. There were some nice rolling swells on our way. Unfortunately, we also paddled near a small residual patch of a red tide that had recently affected the area.  The patch of bacteria had dead puffer fish and large sea worms in them and left a putrid odor as we paddled near it.
As we neared the channel marker, we saw a freighter in the distance and decided to wait and let it pass before we crossed. We relaxed and just bobbed up and down in the swells as we waited for the large boat to pass. It threw no wake as it passed and after it was out of our path, we continued our trek across the 1.5 mile channel to Egmont Key.


We reached the white sand beach at the southwest end of Egmont Key. There was one powerboater on the island with his family and they were swimming and combing the beach.  While beachcombing, we observed quite a few more dead fish in the shoreline. One of the dead fish was a huge grouper which looked like probably reached over 100 lbs before it started to decay.  After a short swim and taking a few pictures of the ruins of the fort, we decided to get back on the water before the ebbing tide would create difficult conditions in the channel.  I would have been nice to stay on the island a bit longer but waiting would have required us to paddle in the swifter period of the tidal rush that Nigel Foster warns to avoid.

The crossing to our takeout was about 2 miles of open water.  For our return trip we paddled west, aiming for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and counting on the outgoing tide to correct our course somewhat as we made our way into the Tampa Bay.  When we approached the channel, we could feel the resistance of the beginning of the outgoing tidal current in the channel as we struggled to maintain a 2.5 mile per hour pace.  The tide was against us, and although we had a mild wind behind us to help push us through the opposing current, it did nothing to keep us cool.  I soaked my hat periodically and wrists in the water to keep cool because it was HOT.
We made the crossing of the shipping channel with no large tankers or freighters in our path and when we finally entered Tampa Bay, we paddled closer along the shoreline of the east beaches of Fort DeSoto.  The sun was still shining over us however in the distance to the west we could see some heavy storms dumping rain. Luckily, these dark clouds and streaks of lightning moved north and away from us.


At around 3:30 pm, we finally reached our beach destination at the bay pier where we landed safely after 9.3 miles of paddling. Ironically, within literally minutes of our landing, the wind significantly increased and as we unloaded our kayaks on the beach, the entire visible portion of Tampa Bay became filled with large whitecaps.
Although I don't mind playing around in choppy whitecaps for short periods, I was glad we didn't have to paddle for two miles in them! It was another great day on the water and another chapter in the Kayak Chronicles.



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