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Snowbirds aren't just fair-weather fowl

Some people call us snowbirds, but I’m not sure I like that. We don’t all come from snow country, and it’s not just about fleeing cold weather.

Some people call us snowbirds, but I’m not sure I like that. We don’t all come from snow country, and it’s not just about fleeing cold weather.

The sky is lightening in the east. Soon the rim of the sun will peep over the marsh. I hear the geese in the pond nearby, behind the tall grasses. They’re talking to each other, flapping their wings and taking off. I see them forming out overhead, headed south. We’re already pulling up the anchor to follow, as we have year after year after year.

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True, we’ll follow them to where it isn’t winter. We’ll follow them to where tropical clouds laze over the ocean’s horizon. We’ll follow them to where the Gulf Stream kisses the continental shelf, sending warm eddies shoreward. But destinations are only a part of it. What’s important to us is the overwhelming sense of freedom and deep immersion in the raw beauty of the waterways and the ocean.

We’re bound for Florida, and the trip isn’t always easy. The ICW, one of the country’s most priceless heritages, is smothering to death with mud and silt because money isn’t being made available for dredging. With only 5 feet of draft we often must wait hours for the tide in order to get through skinny areas. Bridges sometimes add danger as they operate beyond the law. We often head out an inlet for the freedom of the ocean. It’s beautiful out there, and if the weather is good and safe inlets are available, it can remove days and stress from the trip. It feels so good to be out there, free from the constraints and hassles ashore, that I sometimes go back to the stern once we clear the sea buoy, face the shore, and offer the single-digit salute. But it also feels good winding our way among marsh and forest and swamp in the ICW. It’s a little like sex: It’s hard to find the parts you don’t like.

And the climax of Florida is a fabled destination. Stretching more than 6 degrees of latitude, the state’s waters and shorelines are perhaps more varied than any other on the continent, beginning in its northern section with the marshy shores of the soft-spoken southland and culminating in the low chain of tropical islands surrounded by shallows of sand and coral. The Florida Keys represent Florida to many people, but there are so many good things in between.

St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement in North America. The St. Johns River flows from south to north, through high hills, swamp and marsh, to meet the ocean at Jacksonville. The Indian River Lagoon stretches for miles north and south, with sheltered water and protected cruising. Fort Lauderdale is the “Yachting Capital of the World,” with its famed glamour but also with its hard-working repair, maintenance and fitting-out specialists. And then there is Miami, known by some as the Capital of the Caribbean. And who can overlook the charming and sometimes raucous Key West?

On the west coast, quieter cities and beautiful, desolate coastline stretch up north and northwest into the Gulf of Mexico. Quiet rivers graced by an abundance of manatees wind in from the west coast. Some of these rivers lead down into fantastic underground caverns revered by the world’s best divers. Southward on the west coast are protected cruising areas such as Pine Island Sound. In many respects it reminds me of parts of the Abacos of the Bahamas. And if you have the boat for it, you can probe into the Little Shark River and become immersed in the Everglades. Connecting the two coasts is the Okeechobee Waterway, and if your boat doesn’t draw too much or isn’t too tall for the bridges, you can take a fascinating trip from one coast to another, from one land to another, from one culture to another.

There are, however, issues in the Sunshine State. Some communities have a few wealthy people who’ve elected to live on the water but don’t like boats unless they belong to them. It’s like moving to the mountains and complaining about the altitude. They sometimes get the local politicians to pass ordinances attempting to restrict anchoring, though the Florida legislature has recently limited these laws to some extent.

There also are fewer and fewer public marinas because of the trend toward “condoization.” Large investment groups buy up marinas and working boatyards and “go vertical” with condos or boat racks to maximize usage of the waterfront. They often sell the spaces, and transient slips become more scarce and less affordable. But there are marina owners and marine industry groups who are sensitive to the problem and trying to make it work for all.

Florida is more than just the end of a flight; it’s also an ideal beginning for other destinations, such as the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Each year boats come to the state, enjoy it, do the tourist things, get repairs, stock up, and then head out an inlet and into the Gulf Stream, bound for yet another beautiful destination. The Bahamas are only about 50 miles from some of Florida’s inlets. Cuba — not legal to visit now, except under very limited circumstances specifically approved by the U.S. government — is only 90 miles from Key West. The Caribbean is much farther away, but many use the Bahamas and other islands to break up the trip.

Going south often is very hard work, at least for us. We do our own maintenance and repairs, try to make a living, and we’re always on watch as we run the boat. And we don’t always escape the cold. On some trips we’ve crinkled frozen river surfaces and poured hot water on our sheet line knots to thaw them out so that we could work with them. And it’s often dangerous. We’ve seen people lost offshore, and we’ve seen serious injuries even on the ICW. But we love it. We can’t fly like the geese, though sometimes I wish we could. But if I were a goose, I imagine I’d be looking down wishing I were on a boat.

Our migrations are part of a lifestyle that allows a freedom experienced by very few in our society. But it’s achievable for many, when they work at it. Maybe we’ll see you out here someday. Maybe we’ll share one of these perfect anchorages. Or maybe we’ll go out an inlet together and give that single-digit salute to the entrapment we’ve left behind. Maybe we’ll lift drinks under coconut palms on a beach and think of the destinations we can reach with a good boat.