Kayak enthusiasts return from journey down St. John’s River

From the Pine Island Eagle:

Kayak enthusiasts return from journey down St. John’s River
January 17, 2012

Two kayakers recently arrived back home from their 310-mile journey, which took 17 days to complete, down the longest river in Florida – the St. John’s River.

Ryan Cantey, 24, a Matlacha resident, said he finished the journey with Matt Keene, 26, a Melbourne resident, on Jan. 4. He drove back to Matlacha Jan. 9.

The trip had to be delayed from Dec. 7 until Dec. 13 because Cantey needed to get stitches on his hand the night before they were supposed to leave.

“I paddled 150 miles with stitches in my hand, and took them out myself,” Cantey said.

They took five days off from kayaking to see their families for Christmas from Dec. 22 to Dec. 27.

“It was incredible,” Cantey said about his first long distance kayaking trip. “It was a life changing experience. I know it sounds cliche, but it was an eye opener of being out in the true wilderness. It opens your eyes to what Florida is really like, so to speak.”

The kayakers averaged approximately 20-25 miles per day, which began no later than 8 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. to give them enough time to set up camp before the sunset around 5:30 p.m. Cantey said they traveled at a pretty comfortable pace of 4 mph during the trip.

He said the majority of the places they camped at were at state parks. He said they pitched camp at the St. James River Water Management District, permanent campsites and high grounds in the middle of the marshes.

“We got lucky because we didn’t plan every campsite we were going to stay at,” Cantey said, adding that they had ideas of where the sites were.

On the first day of their journey they encountered 117 alligators, which included some reaching 10-12 feet.

“They were no more than a few feet away since the river was so narrow at the beginning,” Cantey said. He said the majority of the alligators were scared of them.

They also saw lots of airboats in the first 150 miles of their journey, along with wild hogs, deer and dozens of bald eagles.

Cantey said for the first 200-miles they had some really great weather with average highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s with smooth waters.

When they reached Jacksonville the weather conditions began to change.

He said a cold front that went through with 25-30 mph winds across the river and wind gusts of 35 mph. The direction of the wind was the same way they were traveling, which meant their faces were getting hit with the wind.

Water ended up coming over the cockpit, he said, and if they stopped paddling the wind would push them backwards. With the intensity of the wind it took them five hours to paddle four miles, which Cantey said was a little less than a mile per hour.

Along with the rough waters and winds, Cantey said when they were near the end of the river, they were towered over by cargo ships.

The temperatures also dipped to 22 degrees with a wind chill of 13 degrees once they reached Jacksonville.

“We found a place to stay indoors that night,” Cantey said.

He said although he has never experienced those types of conditions on his kayak before, they were prepared for rough waves, winds and cooler temperatures.

“We had the right safety equipment,” Cantey said, adding that they were never in danger.

One of the pieces of safety equipment they had were spray skirts, which kept the water out of the cockpit during rough conditions. He said they also wore life jackets throughout the journey.

There were many small things along the way that occurred, which were a really big deal for them, due to the kindness behind the gesture. That act of kindness happened in Jacksonville when a woman brought them pizza one night on the river.

“When you’re eating Ramon Noodles and mashed potatoes for two weeks, that was an amazing thing,” Cantey said.

Other memories Cantey took away from the trip were eating wild-growing oranges and grapefruit from trees, along with fishing along the way catching speckled perch and striped bass for dinner.

“Some humbling experiences were paddling under the B-line Expressway, I-4 and I-95 since we had traveled them by car before,” he said.

Another memory occurred the morning of Jan. 1.

“On New Year’s morning, the fog was so thick that it was hard to see my friend Matt paddling next to me. We had to stay close to the shoreline for four hours in 10 feet of visibility,” he said.

Cantey said they did not see many people along the river, which left it completely quiet. He said it was nice because you get used to hearing cars, people and traffic.

“It is a great place to paddle,” he said about the river. “A lot of people overlook that.”

Although many things stood out to Cantey throughout the journey, the highlight of the trip was when they arrived in May Port in Jacksonville. He said they were greeted by a crowd to celebrate their arrival.

“That was definitely the peak of the trip,” Cantey said.

The long journey also gave Cantey and Keene the opportunity to try out their kayaks that they built before they left.

“They held up great, they only gained a few scratches here or there,” Cantey said. “Because we made them, we know exactly how to fix them.”

He said he was really impressed how the kayak held up in big seas.

Cantey has his eye set on the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail for his next adventure.

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