Newbie takes on paddleboarding

[Editor’s note: This summer the Keys Weekly team is focusing on what we are loosely billing as “summer adventures.” The stories will publish every week. Some are pretty straightforward, no-experience-needed adventures of a day; others focus on the treasures awaiting locals and visitors “off the beaten path.”]

A quick phone call from Paddle the Florida Keys’ owner Scott Baste, and the plans for my first stand-up paddleboard trip are finally set. I’ve seen the popularity of stand-up paddling grow, but never tried it myself. Until today.

I’m no stranger to the mangroves or board sports, and because I figure if I was going to be eaten by an alligator, it would have happened by now, I’m not too concerned with peril. But it is obvious, in the world of paddling, I am a noob.

I have a bit of a learning curve to overcome, I think to myself as I walk across the wooden docks behind the paddle shop’s Tavernier Creek location. The sunset eco-tour is slated for two hours, and I don’t really know how my rickety bad-back would hold up. “You’ll do fine,” says Andrea Burris, another guest on the tour (and excellent stand-in photographer). I believe her.

Before leaving the dock, paddle guru Scott gives me a quick rundown on how to maneuver the board. I hop on mine, legs wobbling, and shuffle for a moment before my weight centers. I paddle around a bit before I get the hang of it. Good to go. We’re off.

We push-off as a small group of paddlers and one canoe, and make our way toward Tavernier Creek Bridge. Most of the group have been on the tour before and know the deal.

The current is ripping through the middle of the creek, so Scott leads the group to the outer edges for a smoother ride. I paddle ahead into the still waters just in time to see snapper and barracuda darting around underneath my feet. Just downstream, the group turns the bend and heads for the “mangrove tunnels.”

As we get to our destination, I make a mistake. Miscalculating a shift in my weight, I slide left and fall in. The group giggles for a moment, and teases that I wanted to “cool off.” Seeing as the last of my dignity is now at the bottom of Tavernier Creek, I shake it off and hop back on.

The “tunnels” begin as a small opening in the mangroves, then become as eerie as they are narrow the further you advance. Stretches of mangrove branches form a canopy that eventually becomes so low, it requires me to sit on my board and pull myself through. “This is pretty cool,” I randomly blurt out in my excitement.

After a little exploring in the mangroves, it’s time to head back. But now we have to paddle against the current. Scott tells us about a group of paddlers he had to rescue from the current earlier, so we listen when he tells us to stay close to the mangroves. The journey back is bit more challenging, but I use the opportunity as a chance to try my amateur race skills. Sore and tired, I pull myself up to the floating dock ready to go home, but not until I fall in one last time — for good measure.

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