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An ‘Appalachian Trail’ for paddlers

A 1,700-mile paddling trail would circumnavigate Florida, from Pensacola to Amelia Island

A 1,700-mile paddling trail would circumnavigate Florida, from Pensacola to Amelia Island

Florida has opened the first leg of a 1,700-mile saltwater paddling trail that, when finished, will circumnavigate the state and give paddlers a mapped trail — with campsites — from Pensacola on the Panhandle to Amelia Island in Florida’s northeast corner.

“It’s still kind of conceptual,” says Doug Alderson, the project’s field director. The first leg, a 110-mile trail along the Big Bend’s wild Gulf Coast from the Aucilla River to Yankeetown, opened in spring 2003. The trail is open Sept. 1 through June 30.

The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail campsites — every 10 to 14 miles — are for paddlers only and require permits. A 40-page guide includes detailed maps with GPS coordinates for the campsites, and information about the region’s natural and cultural history. FWF expects to work on seven or eight trail segments each year in the coming years, and produce a map for the entire trail — about 25 segments — by 2007.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the lead funding agency, funneling $60,000 a year into the project over three years.

The Florida Wildlife Federation is overseeing trail development.

Alderson says the trail will offer wild sections like the Big Bend, and urban stretches through Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Alderson, who paddled the Big Bend two years ago, says a sea kayak is safer than a canoe for the trail because it handles waves better, and at least one experienced distance paddler should be on the trip. He recommends paddlers carry GPS for navigation.

The Big Bend is beautiful and very remote,” he says. “It has some of the most remote stretches of Gulf Coast that you’ll ever see.” Towns are few, small and far between, but the people he met were friendly. One loaned him his pickup truck to make a run to the grocery store.

Alderson says the Big Bend trail is a nine-day paddling trip, with campsites laid out so kayakers only have to put in about four hours of paddling a day and have time to do some exploring from camp.

Camping includes six primitive and usually isolated campsites, a state park campground and an overnight in Steinhatchee, where paddlers can stay at a commercial campground or a motel.

The Florida legislature authorized the saltwater trail in 1989, around the time that Maine opened its 325-mile Maine Island Trail for small boats, both motorized and not. Alderson says kayaking is a growing recreation, among both young and old. Kayakers of all kinds have more than doubled in number from 3 million in 1994 to 7.9 million in 2003.

The Florida trail will offer many miles of pleasure. “If there are going to be 25 sections, people might want do the whole thing — or do it a few sections at a time over 10 years like hikers do the Appalachian Trail,” Alderson says.