There are plenty of unique options when it comes to exploring the waters of the First Coast. Whether kayaking a maze of creeks along the Matanzas River, taking in the flickering fireflies on Fort George Island or trying your hands (and feet) at standup paddleboard yoga, the First Coast has much to offer.
An Ecotour Offers Insight into Florida’s Past
Written and Photographed by Maggie FitzRoy
The frantic pace, cacophony of sounds and crowded highways and byways of the modern world seemed far away.
Only the swish-swash of our paddles as we dipped them into the creek could be heard, punctuated by a bird calling in the distance, and then the flapping wings of a duck that flew off – startled – when it saw us coming around a bend.
As we floated along, mangrove trees lined both sides of the waterway, framing a scene totally devoid of human presence.
“This is one of the cleanest and healthiest estuary systems in Florida,” guide Matt Monroe said.
And I was delightfully right in the middle of it while exploring a maze of creeks in the southern end of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve on a kayaking tour with Ripple Effect Ecotours.
The afternoon tour I recently took, which left from the Marineland Marina, is one of many excursions offered by Ripple Effect, a small local company that specializes in ethical, sustainable ecotours that leave no harmful impact on the environment.
“Our goal is to take people away from man-made structures, and see nature at its best,” says owner Chris Kelley. “See what Florida is really like.”
The Marineland tour is very popular, leaving daily, weather-permitting, from the new marina located on the Intracoastal Waterway, where the Ripple Effect office is located.
The company also offers a variety of tours of Guana River and the estuary in the northern end of the reserve, as well as tours from Anastasia State Park and Faver-Dykes State Park.
Specialty kayak excursions include sunset tours; full moon tours; an Indians of the Estuary tour; a Zen Kayak Tour; and a Night Sky Astronomy Tour, where you learn about the starry constellations above you as you paddle along in a kayak fitted with glowing lights. The astronomy tours are “magical,” and unique, Kelley says. “We have the expertise to safely navigate in the dark, which comes with 15 years experience.”
Tour groups vary in size. Ours was a foursome – me, Jim and Connie Craig, who were visiting from Pennsylvania, and Monroe, our guide. While still on land, Monroe gave us a short kayaking safety lesson, and then we were off.
After paddling a short distance north on the Intracoastal, we turned into a creek, and then meandered along until we came to a wide body of water called Pellicer Flats that is part of Pellicer Creek Aquatic Preserve and Princess Place Preserve.
The area’s unspoiled beauty gives it a sense of timelessness, and as we paddled, Monroe told some of its history, and how some of the present landmarks got their names.
About 12,000 years ago, panthers, mastodons and giant sloths, “some bigger than cars” roamed the landscape, which was covered with giant ferns, he said. Before Europeans arrived in the 1500s, the native people, Timucuans, were abundant in the area, and experts estimate at one point as many as 300 lived in a village in what is today Faver-Dykes State Park.
When the Spanish came, they brought Minorcan indentured servants. One, Francisco Pellicer, later operated an indigo plantation there.
In the late 1800s a wealthy businessman built a hunting lodge overlooking Pellicer Creek. When he died, his widow married an exiled Russian prince, and so became a princess. Hence the name Princess Place Preserve. The coquina Adirondack-style lodge, with a swimming pool, is still there, and open to the public.
On the Indians of the Estuary Tour, kayakers learn more in depth about the Timucuans, and get to personally experience some of their activities. They throw spears, weave palm fibers to make fishing nets, and build a fire with a drill and bow.
It was easy to imagine the past as we paddled along the pristine waterway.
We saw lots of oyster flats, as well as blue herons, snowy egrets, brown pelicans, white pelicans, ospreys and a Bald Eagle.
“Within three miles of us, I know of three big eagles’ nests,” Monroe said. “One is larger than a Volkswagen Bus.”
We didn’t see that – just a serene landscape as far as the eye could see. Forests, mangroves, clean, clear water, and above it all, a wide open bright blue sky.
Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga
By Virginia J. Pillsbury | Photography by Craig ONeal
I helped dispel the myth that stand up paddleboard yoga (SUPY) is only for buff and lithesome 20-somethings.
I am a not-so-buff-and-lithe 50-something and I did it. Never paddleboarded and I’ve only done yoga a handful of times in a studio on dry land.
But when Deb Cunningham, local stand up paddleboard yoga instructor, asked me to try a class, my curiosity was piqued. When I observed a class before actually taking the plunge myself, I was beguiled.
Beguiled – until I became scared.
As the day drew near for my SUPY class, I nervously checked the weather, secretly hoping for rain. I hoped for another assignment to come my way so that I could cancel my one-on-one class.
Neither happened. The appointed day came and I showed up at Kayak Amelia, still hoping that the class would somehow not happen.
No such luck. Stand up paddleboard yoga was going to happen to me.
Now, on the other side of that SUPY lesson, I am so glad because really, it was marvelous. More than marvelous, it was empowering, relaxing, fun and the time went by much too fast.
Cunningham, a long time yoga enthusiast and teacher, did a fabulous job of encouraging me – her enthusiasm for SUPY is contagious.
“Ninety percent of my class participants have never been on a board,” she says, “and 50 percent of them have never been to a yoga class.”
Falling off the board into the water seems to break the ice and the tension for first time SUPY students. “I’ve noticed that people who fall in first are the ones who have a better time and are more free with their movement,” says Cunningham. “There are so many different levels too – I give a lot of options to students according to their ability. I often have people with serious limitations, but I make sure that everyone stays safe and has fun.”
She started slowly with me – I learned how to stand up on the paddleboard and how to use the oar to steer and get me where I wanted to go.
Once we got to the class location – in the water at Kayak Amelia – Cunningham gave very clear, soothing, easy to understand instructions. She gave tips for getting into the various positions easier.
She didn’t need to tell me to envision floating on the water on a beautiful clear day because I was. And the water/sky/clouds/sun environment definitely enhanced the experience. I did forget myself for those few minutes, I did feel energized and I did feel ridiculously proud of myself for giving it a try.
Cunningham knows those feelings well; it’s one reason she teaches the class and is so passionate about sharing it. “Every single class, someone comes up to me and says ‘this was the best day that I’ve had in years,’” says Cunningham. “How awesome that I get the joy of helping to provide that.”
Stand up paddleboarding actually started in Hawaii. “Professional surfers started using their paddles to get to the waves and then continued to use the paddle to stabilize themselves,” Cunningham explains. “That transformed into all surfers paddling out to the waves and that morphed into paddling on flat water and boards started changing.” Stand up paddleboarding became a sport.
“We started seeing this in about 2009 with paddleboard fitness classes,” she continues. “It has become the fastest growing water sport and combining it with yoga, which is also blowing every other sport away, was just a natural progression.”
Cunningham recently returned from a SUPY/Yoga retreat with Kayak Amelia in the Keys and she will be conducting SUPY Teacher Trainings this spring and summer.
Put a SUPY splash in your spring this year.
The Darkness Between the Fireflies
By Vanessa E. Wells
For four weeks in the spring, fireflies flicker on Fort George Island. The adventure begins at the island’s kayak launch. We push off into the water and meander down the Fort George River to a serene spot near Little Talbot Island to take in the sunset. The sky boasts hues of pinks, oranges and reds. As the sun fades beyond the palm trees, we begin our journey back to Fort George Island.
The river is calm and peaceful, the perfect place for a beginner kayaker like me.
Once we return to the island, we hike at dusk along Fort George Road, which is lined with a canopy of 100-year-old oaks. I see the light of a firefly, then another, then another. As my eyes adjust, I realize the forest canopy is busy with lightening bugs.
I’m transported back to my youth. Back to driving at night along country roads, seeing a million lights along the prairie, to the summer evenings staying out as late as possible (or at least until the street lights came on) and chasing as many fireflies as I could.
Not only does the place stir up nostalgia for my youth, it is also easy to imagine how the early inhabitants of the island must have experienced things.
Fort George Island, amid the coastal marshes of the St. Johns Estuary, has been inhabited for several hundred years. The island was inhabited by the Timucuan, home to a Spanish mission and occupied by both the French and British at various points along its storied past. The island’s name comes from James Oglethorpe; he built Fort
St. George on the island. The area is also the site of Florida’s oldest plantation house and home to the Ribault Club, built in 1929, when the island served as playground to the rich. This small space is full of history, nature and beauty. It’s one of the most picturesque in the entire state.
As I see another flicker, I am reminded what Mason Jennings meant when he sang, “The past is beautiful, like the darkness between the fireflies.”