Day 1: Against the wind and tide

Six paddlers embark on a three-day 156 mile kayak trek on Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

Published January 16, 2007

NEW SMYRNA BEACH — Standing at a boat ramp, a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, we looked at our maps one more time, before embarking on our long paddle south.

“The good news is we will be protected all morning,” Darry Jackson said, pointing to a swampy area known as Callalise Creek. “But the bad news is that once we hit the open water, we will be going against the wind and tide.”

For weeks we had debated about whether we should start our trip at the north or south end of the Indian River Lagoon. The 155-mile long estuary is actually comprised three of separate waterways: the Mosquito Lagoon, the Indian River and the Banana River.

Covering about one third of Florida’s East Coast, the Indian River Lagoon straddles the border of the temperate and subtropical zones, making it the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States.

Sandwiched between the Florida peninsula and a string of barrier islands that stretch from Ponce de Leon in the north to Jupiter Inlet in the south, the “IRL,” as it is called by the locals,  is known for  unpredictable weather.

The temperature of the air over the mainland, the ocean and the lagoon itself can vary widely. The warm water of the Gulf Stream, which runs parallel to the coast, is another variable .

Dedicated surfers, my companions play close attention to the weather web sites, hoping to be the first to hit the water when the north wind kicks up a killer swell.

“I checked right before we left,” Casey LaLomia announced on the first day of our December trip. “The wind will start to turn around 11 a.m. Or at least that is what they are saying.”

We all hoped LaLomia was right. We had 72 miles (as the pelican flies) to cover in  two and a half days. I had promised my friends that this adventure, unlike our  other ones, would be a veritable leisure cruise.

“We will have the wind at our backs and sail the whole way,” I told my friend Keith Dudley. “We will finish early every day and have plenty of time to fish.”

Dudley, an enthusiastic fly fisherman, knew this waterway was world-renowned for its big, bull redfish. Anglers come from all over the country  to fish the IRL’s oyster bars and grass beds for world record red drum.

For thousands of years, people have fished and hunted along the  shoreline.  When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the waterway was called The Great Lagoon of the Ais, after the people who lived along it.

But white men, thinking they knew better, thought the waterway was just another river and changed its name to  Ais River,  and eventually  Indian River.

Today, the Indian is known as an angler’s paradise. Old-timers say that when the reds are thick, it is like catching fish in a barrel.

“I’m bringing a fishing rod, some tackle, a frying pan and a little corn meal,” I told Dudley.

“I’ll supplement our freeze-dried rations with a little freshly-caught redfish.”

But George Stovall, a veteran of more than two dozen long-distance kayak trips, warned me not to count my fish before they were caught.

“If the cold front stalls, we will be paddling straight into the wind,” he said. “That is some mighty big water out there. It might just take longer than you think.”

When  people think of a river, they think of a current. But because the northernmost inlet (Ponce) and then next one to the south (Sebastian) are nearly 90 miles apart, the tidal flow in the IRL isn’t great. A paddler can only feel of the effects  of the moon’s gravitational pull within a few miles of the inlet itself.

Unfortunately, our early-morning departure put us smack  in the middle of an outgoing tide.

“This will shave a mile an hour off our progress,” Stovall informed me as we slid past Three Sisters Island.

“Hopefully we can make it up when we hit open water.”

Between two and 15 percent of the water in the Indian River Lagoon actually flushes out of the five inlets. That is one reason why there is such great biodiversity.

The state of Florida estimates  there are more than 4,300  species that call it home, including 1,350  kinds of plants, 2, 956  animals (including more than 700 species of fish) and 310  birds.

I  have just one thing on my mind: redfish.

As my kayak slid across a shallow seagrass bed, a dozen large specimens scattered in the boat’s wake.

“I sure hope we get time to fish today,” I told my friends.

But by mid afternoon, it looked like my hope of an easy day on the water was just a pipe dream. As we left the shelter of the islands, the full force of a 15 knot wind howling out of the south hit us square in the face.

“Hey Casey,” I yelled to my paddling partner. “The weatherman lied.”