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Beauty by the sea

Kayaking to Anclote Key is a challenge but offers several exciting finds for nature lovers.

Published June 19, 2004

From Green Key to the Withlacoochee River, Pasco County is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty.

Much of it can be seen from a kayak, as my wife, Linda, and I have discovered. We have kayaked the Pithlachascotee, Withlacoochee, Weeki Wachee, Homosassa and Chassahowitzka, but on a recent weekend we decided to venture farther from land.

We loaded our kayak with all our camping provisions, then headed for Anclote Key - a 3-mile long barrier island about 31/2 miles from Anclote Gulf Park on the Pinellas-Pasco line. We hadn't ventured more than 100 yards from shore on any of our previous trips. We would soon discover that open water provides a different challenge.

In the beginning, we happily paddled in unison, soaking in the sun's rays and enjoying the occasional saltwater spray. After 30 minutes or so, we started taking turns so the other could rest. The ripples had turned to choppy waves, a problem for us since we didn't have a spray skirt to seal the cockpit. So every five minutes, more water would spill into the cockpit.

After an hour of vigorous paddling, the island finally was noticeably closer. Behind us, the mainland was equally far away, leaving us with a vulnerable feeling. The 3 inches of water on the bottom of the boat from the increasingly frequent waves was beginning to worry me.

We tried fruitlessly to bail some of the water with our hands but found more drastic measures were needed. I used my pocket knife to sacrifice one of our water bottles and fashioned a cup. Out went the water, up went our buoyancy, and we were safely under way again.

A wave of relief swept over us, and we began to enjoy the trip.

As bird enthusiasts, this journey would offer several exciting finds. As we came closer to the island, we saw Magnificent Frigatebirds, at least four, gliding overhead. These large seabirds boast the largest wingspan, in proportion to weight, of all birds, many exceeding 7 feet. After another half hour of paddling, we were treated to a visit from a beautiful sea turtle.

We reached the shore of Anclote Key, dodged the multitude of large motor boats and small yachts that dotted the edges of the island, found a spot between two other campsites and pulled ourselves ashore.

We unloaded our gear and set up the tent about 12 yards from the shore. Finally shielded from the brutal sun, we collapsed on sleeping bags inside.

After slacking, snacking and unpacking, we readied our binoculars and camera and ventured down a path, which led us to a shady clearing covered with pine needles that stretched several hundred yards along the middle of the island.

Linda was first to spot a rare bird, a male Bobolink in full breeding plumage. Similar to a blackbird, this individual featured a bright yellow patch on the back of its neck and likely was a straggler-in migrating back north of the Mason-Dixon from wintering in South America.

The next notable bird we found was a Great-Crested Flycatcher, which flitted about in the tall pine trees. Then we followed a Loggerhead Shrike back to the tree line before gathering some dead wood and returning to the campsite.

With the constant flow of visitors to the island, firewood was sparse. I was glad I had brought a self-starting log as our main fuel, having learned on previous expeditions that my fire-starting skills are less than stellar. As we ate, the sun was beginning to set. A majestic view was blocked only slightly by the boats in front of us, and the sun sank slowly below the horizon, leaving only the moon and stars over our fire-lit campsite.

After finishing our meal and extinguishing the fire, we were exhausted and climbed into the tent. The heat and lack of Gulf breeze made it quite uncomfortable. We tried to ignore the sticky sweat drenching our clothes and bedding.

The moon was nearly full. Our bellies were completely full. The waves were gently crashing nearby. Our muscles ached with a sense of accomplishment. And a Whip-poor-will was calling in the brush nearby.

A boat of raucous partiers spoiled the perfect atmosphere for a while. But we eventually got some sleep before awaking before 8, somewhat refreshed and ready for another day of paddling.

After another photo excursion, the heat had risen dramatically. We decided to get back on the water as soon as we could.

With our first stroke, we knew we were going to be sore. Our hands were slightly blistered, and our muscles protested with each pull. We rowed back along the north shore, enjoying the shallow water and gliding easily beside the mangrove roots. We decided to return to the mainland to spend the rest of the day relaxing and recovering in the air conditioning.

As we headed back, the direction of the waves made it difficult to keep a straight course, so we had to adjust our direction about every five minutes. By the time we neared the shore, we were getting a bit disappointed that we hadn't encountered as much wildlife on our return trip.

But then we were startled when two black fins rose above the waves about 30 yards from our boat. They submerged and never came back up, so we couldn't identify them. Perhaps they were dolphins, but our imagination conjured visions of sharks, giving us a second wind and a burst of energy for the remaining quarter-mile.

It was a first-time trip for us but probably not the last. Next time though, it will be in cooler weather and we will invest in that spray skirt.

[Last modified June 18, 2004, 23:54:22]

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