St. Augustine couple mixes environmental advocacy and long-distance expeditions

St. Augustine couple mixes environmental advocacy and long-distance expeditions

On June 4, Matt Keene and Jodi Eller dipped their bicycle wheels into the Puget Sound in Washington state, then began pedaling east. Some 12 weeks and 4,000 miles later, their wheels hit the Atlantic Ocean in Maine.

It was the latest long-distance exploit for the St. Augustine couple, who mix blogging, filmmaking and environmental advocacy with their adventuring.

In 2008, Keene, now 31, was the first person to kayak the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail around the state, camping along the way: from Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach, around Key West, and up and over to the western border of the Florida Panhandle.

Eller was with him for 1,100 miles, though she stopped near Yankeetown because of cold and fatigue and obligations. She later went back and and finished the rest of the trail, alone most of the way. That made her the first woman and just the 11th person to cover the entire distance (shortly after that, another woman did the paddle in one attempt).

Two days after Keene finished his Florida paddle, he took off on the Florida Trail, finishing all 1,100 miles of it. While he was at it, he continued another couple of hundred miles to Key West. Eller was with him for more than 700 miles of that hike.

The year before that, Keene hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, almost 2,200 miles. Eller joined him in Connecticut and finished with him in Maine.

He’s also kayaked the 310 miles of the St. Johns River and all 81 of the Ocklawaha River.

Both Keene and Eller are avid environmentalists, advocates for the natural areas of their home state. The trips they’ve taken, they say, show both the beauty and the vulnerability of the natural environment.

Eller taught environmental science as an adjunct professor at Flagler College and was a kayak instructor at EcoTours in St. Augustine. Keene has written about each his adventures, and after paddling the St. Johns with Ryan Cantey of Jacksonville, he made a powerful short film, “River be dammed: Florida’s Forgotten River.”

It’s about the environmental damage caused to the Ocklawaha River, the biggest tributary to the St. Johns, by the dam at the Rodman Reservoir. Ocklawaha advocates — including the Riverkeeper group — hope to remove the dam, which was built as part the now-abandoned Cross Florida Barge Canal.

In 2015, the St. Johns Riverkeeper group named Keene its Advocate of the Year, for both the film and his writing about his St. Johns paddle.

“He’s been doing good work for a long time,” said Jimmy Orth, Riverkeeper’s executive director. “He loves to explore and be outdoors and experience nature. He likes to couple those experiences with efforts to also raise awareness — it’s not just a selfish endeavor.”

Keene is now working on a project with Gainesville artist Margaret Tolbert, whose artwork was featured at the Riverkeeper’s annual oyster roast Friday. It’s called “Lost Springs,” about the 20 springs along the Ocklawaha that appear only when the water level in the Rodman Reservoir is drawn down every few years to control invasive aquatic vegetation.

For Keene and Eller, who married in 2009, social and environmental issues form an important part of their lives. It’s how they met, at an anti-war event at the University of Central Florida in 2004. She majored in environmental education at UCF, and he got a communications degree from Flagler College, where he completed “River be dammed” as an independent study project.

They figure that interest comes from their upbringings.

Both of Eller’s grandfathers were pastors in the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist denomination similar to Quakers or Mennonites. Her parents weren’t regular members of the church, but did take her to occasional services in Orlando, and its messages, she said, sunk in.

She likes the motto, “live simply so that others can simply live,” which resonates in those marathon hiking, biking, paddling expeditions. “Those trips strip us of all the excess and you have to rely on what you have right in front of you,” she said.

For his part, Keene likes the routines of those expeditions: breaking down the tent in the morning, paddling, biking or hiking, resting, cooking, putting up the tent again at night.

“It really simplifies everything,” he said. “It really removes a lot of those external pressures and stresses, and allows you to just focus on one thing. That frees you up to maybe have a deeper experience with the environment, the people.”

Keene was raised in Central Florida as well, where his father worked at Walt Disney World and his mother worked at a 180-acre Lutheran campground. He saw both sides of the state growing up, and gravitated toward the natural world, hiking and riding horses around the campground’s pine uplands and lakes.

“I had a lot of free time and most of that free time was walking through the campground, wandering around. Other than checking in with my mom a couple of times a day, I was free to just explore,” he said.

To save for their trips, they lived several years on a horse farm as caretakers, in exchange for rent. Only recently have they moved to a condo. Both now work for the St. Johns County school system.

They haven’t figured out their next trip, but with the demands of life it could be a few years off, Eller said.

“It’s almost like an addiction,” she said. “When can we get away?”

On the Appalachian Trail, they said, people talk of “trail magic,” of the kindness shown by people who offer water, a ride to town, a place to do laundry. That’s happened on every single one of their expeditions..

“It’s humbling,” Eller said. “You’re sort of giving up that control and letting others in, for me, yeah, it’s one of the few times where you get to see these random acts of kindness that makes you want to do the same.”

Keene said the most frequent question people ask about their trips is whether they’re scared of the dangers they might face, whether it be dangerous animals, weather or people.

“There’s always a lot of uncertainty on these trips,” Keene acknowledged. “But the one thing that’s always certain is that for me, personally, they do more to restore a faith in humanity than anything else.”

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082

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