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Kayaks can be launched at an 800' boat ramp just inside the entrance, or at numerous spots along the park road. On June 23, 2005, I put in at the kayak rental concession. Seagulls circled overhead. Even higher, two magnificent frigate birds rode the thermals. The attendant said I could pull my car to the edge of the water. He also asked if I had a guidebook and map. I did from a prior visit, but appreciated the friendly help. The concession is at the start of a 2.25 mile marked trail in an inlet named "Soldier's Hole". Numbered posts correspond to sections in the guidebook describing the plants, animals and history of Fort Desoto. Mangrove lined, Soldier's Hole offers protection on windy days.
I paddled north, past the small mangrove islands which mark the turn around point of the trail, and into Mullet Key Bayou. An appropriate name, the namesake fish were leaping all around. Great Egrets roosted in the mangroves. Other than a marked channel, which is a minimum wake area, internal combustion engines are not allowed in most of Fort De Soto's inner waters.
I approached one channel marker, near a peninsula, the Arrowhead Picnic Area, and saw three dolphins. I drifted in on the flat water and watched. They remained in the area longer than I did. I wanted to continue on to the northwest tip of the westernmost "toe". I arrived at the tip, and saw a beautiful white sand beach across a channel to the north. A quick paddle across the light chop waters and I was on Shell Key, an undeveloped barrier island and Bird Sanctuary. Walked around, picked up a few bottles, then back in the kayak.
The trip to Shell Key took about 2 hours. I next paddled into the Gulf, to the south, a 1000' fishing pier. The water seemed calm enough to paddle to it, and circumnavigate Fort De Soto. I have read that it is a 10 mile trip, beginning and ending at the Boat Ramp. But, as I did not get in the water until 2:00 pm on a late June Florida day, that adventure will wait. So, I turned around, and paddled back into the Bayou.
The weather also turned around. The flat water became choppy, the wind strong out of the south. I felt like I was in a gym, on a rowing machine. I entered a cove in the Arrowhead Picnic Area, beached, ate an apple, used the restroom, and gathered strength for the remainder of the journey. Before fighting the elements, I let them carry me into another, wider cove. Here I entered a very short mangrove tunnel, but had to back out. On the other side of the cove is the North Beach Swim Area. North Beach was just named by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, as the top beach in the U.S. for 2005.
Refreshed, I paddled south, trying to stay close to shore in case the dark clouds to the east began to crackle. Fortunately, the storms stayed away. The waves did not. The flat seas on my outward paddle were now whitecaps, up to a foot high. I had to adjust my preferred angle of travel as they were coming in broadside. My 13' Sun Velocity handled it well, I got just a little wet. I reentered Soldier's Hole, and in the sheltered waterway, I could relax and count how long between jumping mullet- about 6 seconds. A large, silver fish leaped, no wonder the mullet were in a frenzy. More Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, ibis, osprey (with mullet in talons), a variety of seagulls, reddish egrets, oystercatchers, and the bird population is healthy. As is the raccoon population. With abundant seafood, picnicker and camper scraps, itís a raccoon smorgasbord. As I was putting the yak on the car, a raccoon got the top off a trash can and grabbed something. I replaced the lid, tightly. The raccoon came back, but failed to dislodge the lid this time.
This report describes maybe one fifth of the paddling opportunities at Fort De Soto Park. In addition to paddling, you can jog, roller blade, or bike along 7 miles of paved trails, walk several nature trails, have the kids play on playgrounds, camp, fish on two piers, walk 6 miles of beach, explore the namesake Fort, built in 1898, visit a museum, study the remains of the buildings surrounding the Fort on an historical trail, or just lie on the nation's top-rated beach.
The cost? .85 cents to cross two toll bridges.
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