As we approached the narrow entrance, the clicking of disassembled paddles echoed over Whiskey Creek.
Chatter amongst a family from Georgia and a group of friends from Wisconsin slowly dwindled as the group of seven kayaks proceeded in a single file line into the twisting, tangled mangrove trees comprising the island of Boot Key.
The Sunday afternoon crowds at Sombrero Beach were slowly beginning to dwindle as tour guide John French of Keys Kayak, LLC, told nine eager eco-tourists to grab their paddles, perch them on the tops of their heads and position their arms in a comfortable 90-degree angle.
“Now, drop your arms in front of you and keep your paddle about chest high with your elbows tucked in to your side,” he continued. “This is your paddling box. Keeping your position inside this frame will help keep you from getting too tired.”
He dropped to the ground to teach three common paddling strokes – the touring stroke, paddling stroke and reversing stroke – before offering to keep everyone’s car keys in a dry box aboard his tandem kayak and helping launch each boat off the sand with an extra little shove.
A couple of jet skis idled through Sister’s Creek along with a group of afternoon boaters returning home from a day offshore.
Our group paddled along the edge of the mangroves as French pointed to the four radio towers raised by the U.S. Government during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Troops flooded into Key West where spongers and wreckers were previously the primary inhabitants, he explained.
As we continued easily against the outgoing tide, a quick de-brief of what to expect preceded our left turn out of Sister’s Creek into Whiskey Creek.
The current slowed and the effort to paddle our sit-on-top Cobra kayaks eased. Our tour wound around to the west, and the silty bottom rose to within inches of our view. While still on shore, French had warned of the narrow trail that would necessitate the breaking down of our paddles.
“When we go under lower-hanging branches, it’s best to lean forward, not backward,” French advised.
The smell of the mangrove forest reminded me suddenly of the ice-cold creeks meandering through the pine forests of my childhood in Georgia. This tour, I thought, offered but a mere glimpse at what life must have been like for the Calusa Indian tribe, foraging for fish, clams and conch across the shallows in their dugout canoes.
We emerged from one of the first segments of the trail into a fully enclosed saltwater lake. Mullet flipped out of the water while egrets glided gracefully off the mangrove branches as we approached. French suggested as we paddled slowly along the edge of the pond, keeping our eyes peeled for the cauliflower-looking creatures more commonly known as Cassiopea, or upside down jellyfish.
As we progressed into the next portion of the canopy, our guide explained that the trail is maintained by a volunteer group of kayakers who routinely trim the branches and mark the trails with a couple of strokes of bright green spray paint at each strategic turn.
The trail eventually narrowed and made even our half paddles pretty impossible to use. Near silence ensued as the echoing bumps of our paddles subsided and everyone kept their eyes peeled for the next branch or root to grab and quietly, almost effortlessly pulling ourselves along.
In three hours, aside from the afternoon traffic in Sister’s Creek, we encountered only one other kayaker and a couple of young men in a dinghy. In a place where hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the globe escape their urban existence and long-time residents intermittently complain of over-crowding, it’s impossible to imagine a greater form of escapism than this.