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5 miles, 2 hours and a kayak

A new 5-mile course has more than a few challenges. And don't forget the alligators.

By JARED LEONE Times Staff Writer
Published August 5, 2007


LARGO

Florida has long been known as a haven for flatwater kayakers, from paddling atop beautiful bays and along ocean shores to navigating the Everglades.

Largo is promoting its own kayak adventure, a challenging 5-mile urban trek that begins at Largo Central Park Nature Preserve and twists its way to Lake Seminole Park.

The route winds kayakers through back yards and under city roads, providing unique challenges - including near-impasses, the less pleasant smells of urban life and brushes with wildlife, including alligators.

I met Times photographer Ted McLaren at the 31-acre nature park -home to more than 130 species of birds, otters, red fox and yes, alligators - at 9 a.m. to begin the trek from the kayak/canoe launch. Though not finished, it was usable and will eventually feature a wide stepdown with shale as infill.

I eased into my kayak and started paddling through shallow, algae-covered water.

Soon, the narrow channel gave way to a wider waterway. The water was filled with lake grass, and either turtles or otters kept diving from just under the surface to the water's bottom, making the water around us appear to be boiling.

As we passed through East Bay Country Club golf course, I heard a thunk and realized that whatever was under the water had just hit my kayak. Thoughts of Jaws started flying through my mind.

I picked up the paddling pace and soon reached the first of four underpasses.

A small bridge at New Haven Drive in Largo gave us a little more than 3 feet of vertical clearance to pass under the road, and I was able to use my paddles to move through.

On parts of the route, high tide could reduce the already low clearance under some roads and make a kayaker portage (walk the kayak across land and relaunch), but that didn't happen to us.

The next underpass would be much more daunting.

Crossing beneath Donegan Road, the underpass had a horrible smell. Then a manmade obstacle, a yellow floating water barrier like the ones around construction sites, stretched from one bank to the other.

It was tough to get over, but working together, we were able to put enough pressure on top of the float to cross the water without getting out of our kayaks.

A CSX engine chugged across a train trestle as we continued to the next challenge - Ulmerton Road.

To cross under four-lane Ulmerton Road, your fingers do the walking. We maneuvered under the road by leaning back low in our kayaks and holding our paddle across our laps. With barely 3 feet of clearance, we used our hands to walk along the bottom of the busy lanes of traffic.

On the other side, as we paddled our way through Grosse Pointe Mobile Home Park, a voice shouted from the shores.

"Watch out for the alligators."

The sun beat down on us as we continued through the canal and neared a snaky bend of waterway that skirted the east side of Lake Seminole.

We continued our paddling pace for another 45 minutes. As we closed in on the Bryan Dairy Road overpass, a worker on the banks shouted to us:

"You've got more courage than me."

Another reference to the threat of alligators.

I summoned what was left of my paddling power and tried to be fast prey for any alligator.

In less than two hours, we made it to the end of the trail at Lake Seminole Park. Seeing the palm trees, the county park's signature stone architecture and manicured playgrounds, we knew we were at our destination.

My arms felt as though they would fall off. My head was dizzy from the heat and rowing.

We steered over to the green, grassy bank and pushed our kayaks on shore. As we stood under the shade of a live oak tree, we read the sign next to where we landed:

"Beware of Alligators."

Fast Facts:

If you go

TIP

This definitely is a long, tiring course, and you'll be happy if you parked a car at the end so you can drive back to your starting point. The two-hour kayak trail is only a 15 minute car ride.

KAYAK ROUTE

The Largo Parks and Recreation department's 5-mile kayak trek begins inside the Largo Central Park Nature Preserve, nestled along busy East Bay Drive and Highland Avenue. It ends at Park Boulevard within the confines of Lake Seminole Park. There are a few near-impasses, the possibility of mosquito and spider attacks and the threat of alligators.

WHAT WE PACKED:

- Two bottles of water

- Two ice packs

- Sunscreen

- Teddy Grahams for photographer

WHAT I WISH I'D PACKED:

- more water

- wide-brimmed "safari" style hat

- extra arms