Twenty-six days later, after covering all 310 miles of the St. Johns River, three kayakers cruised onto the sand at Huguenot Park on Monday, within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, the river’s end. They hugged, slapped each other’s backs: The adventure was done.
It was raw, blustery, and the temperature was dropping quickly.
That was fitting. They started their trip on the heels of a polar front that dropped through Florida, leaving ice on their boats and frost on their tents. Then came the northerly headwinds, the waves that washed over their kayaks, leaving them soaked and chilled.
But that was just a small part of their story.
They could spend much time, there on the sand, at journey’s end, telling you about the beauty of the river, much of it so wild yet so close to highways and condos and overpasses and stores — and how one night they could see, in the east, a Space X rocket launching from Cape Canaveral, lighting up the marsh.
Space age and paddle power, as seen from an ancient river.
Bart Swab, 42, a kayak fishing guide and owner of Action Kayak Adventures in St. Augustine, came up with the idea for the January trip.
His fishing buddy Ben Guise, 32, of Jacksonville, quickly came on board and helped plan.
A friend, Drew Ross, 41, is from the small-town of Crossett, Ark., but he jumped at the chance when he heard of the expedition.
On the sand at Huguenot Park, Swart and Guise had unruly, expedition-worthy beards, 26 days old; Ross got tired of that and trimmed his neatly not too long ago.
Their transportation was Jackson kayaks, about 12 feet long. Ross’ kayak is powered by his legs, using pedals. Guise used a conventional paddle. Swab swapped between the two methods, and said he believes that Ross is the first person to travel the whole St. Johns by pedal power.
They chronicled their trip on a Facebook page, “310 Miles 310 Fish A St. Johns River Story,” with many photos and videos of what they saw on their way.
They’re all avid fishermen, and planned to catch fish all along the way by trolling off the back of the kayaks, but didn’t catch any that way. The after-effects of Hurricane Irma — bad fish kills, they were told — and the cold temperatures made for awful fishing.
“Three-hundred miles trolling, not a single bite,” Guise said.
Casting from their kayaks and the shore, though, they caught their share. Some went back in the water. Others became dinner.
They camped about half the nights, and spent two nights resting in a houseboat. The other nights they slept in relative luxury after being met by relatives and driven to houses to sleep.
But each morning, they shuttled back to where they left off, to start again. The ferocious headwinds and cold let up after the first week or so, and on their best day they made 31.2 miles.
Their starting point was the St. Johns’ southern source, Blue Cypress Lake in Indian River County. Much of the early part of the trip, the river is skinny, barely wide enough for all three of them to fit across.
Guise said they saw hundreds of alligators early on, but could not get close to them.
“Honestly, they are so spooked down there, the first 100 miles or so you couldn’t get within 100 yards of them — they’d hear you, they’d see you, they’d run off that shoreline so fast,” he said.
Later, the river traverses lakes so wide it almost feels as if you are in the open ocean.
It was an eye-opening trip for Ross, whose experience with Florida had been confined to a trip to the Keys and another to Disney World with his family.
This, though, was a different Florida. “Nothing but wild birds and alligators and all that wilderness,” he said. “And to think so many people never see it.”
Ross wasn’t as crazy about the urban sprawl of Jacksonville that they went through on their final days. But it meant they were nearing an end, and on their final day they covered about 15 miles, from the Arlington Lion’s Club boat ramp, to Huguenot.
They’re already planning another trip: Perhaps the 10,000 Islands of Southwest Florida.
But first Swab, a native Floridian who’d grown up fishing the state’s waters, just wanted to bask in the satisfaction of having traveled all 310 miles of what he calls the “lifeline” of his native state.
“It captivates you,” he said. “I’ve been driving past it my whole life. Just to get out there and see the vastness, see all that beauty right up there. There’s Cocoa Beach, Orlando, right there, but when you’re in the middle of that river, you have no idea that that stuff’s around you.”