by EK Guest: Wendy Hinds
Last fall I signed myself and my 11 year old daughter up for a three day, two night kayak camping expedition with a local company called Earth Kinship. It was for a December trip and we were excited to be experiencing something new and adventurous. I have been backcountry packing before and have lived aboard a sailboat one summer in the Florida Keys; I’ve been canoeing and kayaking as well but never had I had the opportunity to combine camping with kayaking.
My daughter hasn’t done any of these things and was eager to join in and explore this idea.
To start out we read the itinerary and pulled it up on google maps (We homeschool, so there were many opportunities for learning through the process of preparing for a multiple day kayak camping experience!) The destination was a water management area designated for camping, called Murphys island in the St Johns river south of Palatka. It was a 3 mile one way trip to the island, perfect for beginners, meaning it's a short distance for paddling heavily loaded kayaks to the landing. The island is filled with beautiful Florida native plants and river landscapes and the campsites are clearly well taken care of. I was pleased to see that there were two primitive campsites large enough for 20 people each, both with large fire pits and benches to sit on. We discovered pictures of a large floating dock, boat landing and noticed there is a map available, showing several nice looking hiking trails on site. We then researched a little 1700’s local history about William Bartram and Deny Rolle and explored ideas of what we may find in the waters and the woods.
Next, we began to purchase or borrow items we thought we might need for the trip but didn’t have. Earth Kinship provided us with a long involved list of possible items for the trip, and for me, it was a learning experience for sure! I kept wondering how we are going to fit all this gear into those tiny places inside the kayak! Fortunately, our guide had set up a kayak packing class as part of the trip planning portion. We met up with the other people who signed up for the trip, a few weeks before just to go over gear and camping skills. To our surprise , it was another mother and her teenage boy! We were delighted to be meeting new people that had similar interests, and I was thrilled to have someone my daughter could explore the island with.
We began the class by unloading our car load of gear and piling it up next to our tandem kayak. There was a mountain of items and food was not yet discussed. I was sure we could manage, but with the trip being in December we were unsure of what the weather would bring us until a few days beforehand. We needed to make sure we had several layers of warm clothing in case it was rainy or really cold. So with the many tips we were given we went home and continued to happily pile gear into bags. (And remove all the items that were definitely not needed or desirable)
Food was to me the most challenging part of the packing because my daughter is a finicky eater who thrives on a particular brand of macaroni and cheese and bulky raw fruits and vegetables. Oh and Nutella by the pound! Packing bread is not really feasible so she decided that tortillas would suffice, and her brand of Mac you sadly can’t buy freeze dried. We went to REI and Bass Pro shops to buy samples of freeze dried foods so we would know the taste before the trip's first night. I was surprised that there were actually some relatively healthy choices in the freeze dried foods, there were even vegetarian and vegan options on the shelves that were really good. We even found some interesting options in Walmart too.
The day before the trip, we went through our piles and removed the unnecessary or ridiculous items, and replaced them with what we thought was necessary. The car was still filled to the brim, and I felt a little embarrassed, until we arrived the next morning. I discovered everyone else had also built a mountain of gear inside their car. One thing I discovered was we did not have enough dry bags, but thankfully we were able to borrow a few spares and made some makeshift ones from 3 ply plastic bags inside a canvas liner, which worked just as well. So with that being done and ready to leave, we decided to use our flushing toilet for the last time until Sunday when we returned. We loaded up everything and happily headed out to the launch location, Georgia Boys Fish Camp, with fresh cups of coffee.
We arrived at the fish camp and checked it out, the kids were getting excited. There are cute cabins to rent right there on the property that we thought would be a fun way to start off the trip next time, and there’s a little store where we could buy some worms for our little fishing poles, oh and a real toilet to use! Now for more gear unloading and kayaks and another lesson on how to make sure everything was packed into the kayak properly so that the weight was evenly distributed. There sure is a lot to the planning and preparation for this type of adventure, far more than any backpacking trip.
The weather that weekend was amazing, it was warm and sunny and would be a perfect temperature all weekend. What a blessing. So with that being said, everyone raced to use a real toilet again…A few more lessons on how to launch the massively heavy boats off the rocky rivers edge and get into them without tipping over and we’re off!
The kids had a lot of energy and we paddled towards the island searching for wildlife, eating snacks and briefly reminding the kids to enjoy the exercise. We saw a couple of eagles, several local Florida birds and an alligator in the first couple miles of the trip. AyoLane is a very experiential teacher and educational guide who filled our ears and souls with knowledge along the way, there wasn’t a dull moment on the entire trip. We even all played a part in making up a story by adding silly characters from the landscape, one being an oddly shaped palm tree, giving him a name “Jareth “ and describing his personality. We all were laughing hysterically as we rounded the point and then the destination and dock came into view. The kids found some revived energy and we made it there only to realize that we could relax into camp after another round of unloading gear and boats. Excitement built as we went off to explore the camp sites and decide where we all should set up tents, where the kitchen-food was going to be and most importantly what area we would use for the bathroom called “catholes” we had to dig ourselves..
Everyone chose a camp job to accomplish setting up the camp, teamwork was the key to success. To make a long story short, we had tents up, everything was organized within an hour, we cooked and ate our first meal, and then proceeded to explore the island a little deeper as we collected wood for the fire. It's a beautiful campsite filled with old Oaks. We spent the next day exploring, resting, relaxing, hiking, fishing, kayaking, laughing and playing. It was so peaceful. The nicest part was to not have any electronics or phones to answer, although there was internet and cell service in case it was necessary. There are some trails that are about two miles long that have several different habitats, a few Indigenous Mounds and lots of history to discuss. AyoLane had even prepared a special art project for us all to learn about and make during the trip as a keepsake which I found to be a really special touch. Each of us was given a piece of cedar wood prior to the trip and when we had down time at camp we learned to use a hot coal from the fire and our breath creating the ability to burn into the wood. The coal along with a metal spoon created a burnt bowl shape into the cedar.. Much like the indigenous people did to make canoes and boats they used on the river. This was a perfect activity to fill in for any downtime and for kid who are easily distracted. I noticed that the kids kept returning to their project throughout the weekend.
Sunset view from the dock was amazing and the wildlife watching was unlike any other I've experienced. One evening at sunset, we saw a great blue heron flying low over the glass like river water. Just a few minutes earlier we had noticed there were thousands of little ripples in the water where schools of minnows were swimming, but at this moment there were no signs of fish schools, and the river seemed like smooth glass. As we silently watched the graceful flight of Great Blue Heron it called out with a peculiar sound, one that I can't describe clearly. We watched and noticed in a 100 yard radius the surface of the river exploded and every minnow jumped. I think we all jumped as well. We talked about the experience for an hour or more discussing what each had observed and thinking about how sensitive the fish bust be towards vibrations and noises. Only the sound of one call causes a reaction of so many fish. We spoke about other disturbances considering how loud the human world is, boats, trains and the many other vibrations rippling the water. This is something I'll continue to think about and will remember beyond this weekend kayak trip.
A long restful night we woke up Sunday morning and it was a packing day right after breakfast, more gear loading…but less food to pack since we ate most of it! The kayaks were much easier to paddle back without all the gallons of fresh water we had packed into them on the way out. We all agreed that we wanted to circumnavigate the island to see the other side, it is a longer paddle to get to our cars but being more isolated and pristine made it well worth the extra mile for our return journey. Towards the end of the paddle we were delighted to see another Eagle flying above as if it was sending us a parting message just like it did greeting us when we first arrived.
More gear shuffling once we landed, then racing to get first dibs of that real toilet before packing up the truck and cars. Overall the weekend was absolutely wonderful, packed full of nature, nurture and knowledge. My only wish was to have one more night out there, but it was a perfect start as beginners and I highly recommend that anyone sign up for one no matter your kayaking or camping experience. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll make lovely new friends and memories.