First published in the Flagler College Gargoyle on January 22, 2014.
Written while environment and senior editor at Flagler College Gargoyle.
Reporting, interviews, photography and writing were done solely by Matt Keene.
An overgrown burial ground 40 miles from civilization was not the most auspicious spot to meet a soon-to-be record-holder.
That is, however, exactly where I found Environmental Science professor Jodi Eller, tucked into a ruddy green wall of mangroves ten miles beyond the southernmost point in the continental United States. The sharp stern of her 17-foot-long expedition sea-kayak pointed into Graveyard Creek, where water lazily emptied out of Everglades National Park and into the Gulf of Mexico via Ponce de Leon Bay. Eller was in the final stretch of a 1,515-mile-long paddle around Florida, following the route of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail (CT), and in two days would become the first female to complete the National Recreation Trail.
It had taken 40 miles of paddling — three full days and nights — for me to reach Eller at Graveyard Creek. Together, we would paddle her final 41 miles, kayaking the wild coastline of Everglades National Park, i.e., the largest roadless area east of the Mississippi River, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, the third largest national park in the lower 48 as well as an International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site and Wetland of International Importance.
To those who have plunged into the Everglades, it is more than its titles allow. This is the land where America ends. It is where receding tide strips away continental boundaries, baring the primordial essence of the rich earth with muddy secretions the color of concrete. It is a meandering mesh of salt and shell, sandpiper and shark, eagle and ray. This is the land of yesterday, crumbling with unquenchable thirst into the sea, receding from public opinion by a landslide of urban water draw and demand.
For Eller, this land is a catalyst for metamorphosis — a place where the intimate is sacred, where external trial polishes internal strength.
“Something changes when you have to carry your gear with you day after day and get to places with nothing but your ability to get you there,” said Eller. “I think something changes in your mind to where you value things in life a little differently. The need for stuff is diminished. No one is demanding anything from you, or of you. The only thing that you’re left with are the essential needs of survival — finding shelter, finding food, dealing with weather conditions, thinking about safety and space.”
The CT follows the length of Florida, exploring every type of coastal habitat the state offers. The trail crosses 20 national parks, seashores, wildlife refuges, and marine sanctuaries, as well as 37 Florida aquatic preserves and 47 state parks. In 2008, Eller paddled 1,100 miles of the trail, beginning at the Florida-Georgia border and heading south along the Intracoastal Waterway. It was a windswept, overcast day towards the end of September 2008 when she paddled under the Vilano Bridge, past the Castillo de San Marcos and St. Augustine’s bayfront with Flagler College rising above the skyline.
Eller reached Key West, at the end of the Florida Keys, in late October of that year, paddling an average of 13 miles a day.
After taking a week off, she began paddling Florida’s southwestern Gulf coast, heading north. A little more than one month later, as winter winds surged across the state and temperatures found little reason to rise, Eller headed home to soak in the warmth of family. She had paddled 1,100 miles of the CT — and more than two-thirds of Florida’s coast — in a little under three months.
There is nothing easy about distance-paddling. Film montages of long, purposeful voyages, like those seen in The Lord of the Rings or Disney’s The Lion King, forget the reality of traveling under your own power. The aches and pains of overstretched muscles. The threat of thunderstorms, sun exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia, injury or sickness that forever follows like a bull shark awaiting the opportunity to strike. The inescapable, dark, electric clouds of no-see-ums and mosquitoes that hang heavy at night. Even behind the thin walls of a tent, the chainsaw buzz of their wings rips into your dreams. The campfire fears of whatever crouches in the shadows behind the flickering ember light as you camp alone, miles from societal safety. At places like Graveyard Creek, where the tales of hauntings and hushed voices in the night are as accepted as the motion of the tides, these stories can disintegrate frayed nerves and burn away sanity like salt in a wound.
Then there is the repetitive simplicity of moving forward. For kayakers, this is the left and right dip of the paddle that beats away at erratic thoughts, creating a soundless melody that lulls the paddler into trance. This is the simple routine of the day-to-day: awake, eat, pack. Paddle, eat, paddle. Unpack, eat, sleep.
There is the looking at progress on a map. Tracing the contours of coastline both in memory and in print. Looking across a bay to that point on the horizon ten miles back where you watched the sun rise that morning. Looking ahead to that hazy spot in the distance, obscured by mid-day heat and sharp refraction of sun on water, where your campsite lies. That spot where you will rest your head that night.
It is, said Eller, “the blade hitting the water and the serenity and silence that you get while out there. Your mind clears and all that’s left is what human nature is all about — the conditions that you’re confronted with and your surroundings that make you part of the whole.”
For more than four years, the finished and unfinished sections of the CT were imprinted in Eller’s actions and successes, like the simple lines in sand the keel of her kayak would leave on departed shores. Eller completed a Masters degree along the banks of the Indian River Lagoon, where dolphins merry-go-rounded in the same brackish water she had paddled years earlier. She exposed students to the intimacies of the Lagoon, rehabilitating oyster beds and conducting fish counts. She guided visitors in coastal waters all along Florida’s east coast, urging the importance of conservation and diversity.
“These trips have guided my selection of where I feel the most at home,” said Eller. “There has been a total change of not only my values, but in feeling what nature has done to me. It has nurtured and healed. I could not live anywhere that had more pavement than trees, or more pavement than water. These trips have shaped my career path. Spending six months on the trail has made me want to give people those experiences, because I’ve seen the changes that it has given me.”
And so, in the Fall of 2013, Eller set out to finish the remaining 400 miles of Florida’s coast. She paddled the long arm of the Panhandle and the remote, round Big Bend in slightly more than three weeks, pushing through winter winds, choppy water and threateningly cold temperatures. The conditions seemed stacked against her; shortening days sandwiched her expected mileage. But, when times are hardest, the simplicity of a warm, sunny day with light winds can recharge the soul and add strength to weary arms.
“This was a day where there was no wind,” recalled Eller. “Everything was glass. There was nothing on the horizon, so the clouds were mirrored on the water in front of you. So, you would gaze out and everything just looked like sky. Every blade dipping into the water, you were pushed forward towards… almost like an infinity. There was nothing to pinpoint, to focus at. You were just paddling out into the clouds. To me, it was the closest feeling to a heaven. I imagined Morgan Freeman walking across the water in all white,” Eller laughs, the memory wafting across her face with the uncomplicated beauty of an osprey soaring on currents of wind.