Surrounded by sawgrass higher than our heads, two girlfriends and I swept our paddleboards through the rippling waters of Guana River watershed, a narrow waterway, east of Florida A1A that flows into the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The sun sank lower in the sky as we traveled against the current. Water splashed underneath our boards in a calming rhythm. Turtles flapped underfoot and birds flew overhead as we wound through a raw, swampy treasure coursing through picket-fenced Ponte Vedra Beach, where we live.
This was my first time on a paddleboard, so I trailed behind my experienced friends as we approached an oblong, dark silhouette breaking the water’s surface near the edge of the sawgrass. My heart rate increased and my feet wobbled as I slowed my stride and focused on the reptile-shaped mass.
“Only a lump of mud!” says my friend Marcy Stoudt, upon closer inspection.
A few strokes later, we landed back at the lush embankment where we had begun our journey an hour earlier. We pulled the 11-foot boards from the water, near Mickler’s Landing public beach access, as a man and woman walked by on the sidewalk.
“Ya’ll see any gators?” asks the man as they pass by.
“No. I’m kind of bummed we didn’t see any,” says fellow paddler Sarah James.
“You never see the one that gets you,” he says.
What we saw during our adventure was a stripped-down version of our hometown brought into focus by way of stand-up paddleboarding. SUP, as the sport is known, provides access to some of the region’s more difficult-to-reach and diverse habitats, from Jacksonville’s cityscapes along the St. Johns River to the bird-filled byways of Guana River. I recently paddled into the soul of the First Coast – on three different waterways – hunting for new vantages of iconic urban and natural landscapes and discovering a few surprises along the way.
Unfazed by the idea of becoming gator bait, the Guana River seemed easy enough for an inexperienced paddler like me to handle without expert guidance. But after scouring maps, I realized that navigating the strong currents of the St. Johns River posed complications. For my river excursion, I called Tiffany Layton Oliser, 35, a former professional surfer and owner of Jax Surf and Paddle. She outlined a handful of city routes to explore, from historic San Marco to Arlington. I chose the backdrop of Jacksonville’s downtown skyline, and we launched boards from the public boat ramp near the Museum of Science and History.
Like a rubber ducky bobbing in a bathtub, I felt tiny floating in the shadows of Jacksonville’s buildings and bridges. On cue, the horn of a passing train punctuated my view of the CSX building, with its tagline, “How tomorrow moves,” as I pulled my paddle through the tea-colored water. With the Main Street Bridge towering ahead, the Jacksonville Landing on my left and the River City Brewing Company on my right, we traveled east to Friendship fountain, where I forged a kinship with the city.
From my perch on the board, downtown whirled around me, a more vibrant frontier than when I fly through it by car. That afternoon leaving the urban core, I felt strangely refreshed.
Days later, I rounded out my water safaris with an early morning ocean paddle at Ponte Vedra Beach. This time, my 8-year-old daughter, Elle, asked to join me. After a solo warm-up, she and I waded out past the break and hopped onto the board. She kneeled in front of me, and I stood paddling north toward the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club. The sun’s rays reflected off the windows of oceanfront houses. Jellyfish floated by. The only sounds seemed to come from the strokes of our paddle and Elle asking for her turn.
Then suddenly a lone grey fin pierced the surface of the calm water and quickly went down again. I hoped Elle hadn’t seen it, but we both quieted. I quickly started returning to shore.
The fin resurfaced. This time, the familiar curve of a dolphin’s back eased out of the Atlantic, and we laughed.
“Look Mommy! I thought it was a shark. I was about to cry,” she says.
“Me too, honey. Me too.”
Exhilarated, we sailed on. The landscape transformed by our sighting, and our souls stirred by the power of the paddle.