An island juts from the sea along our Big Bend Coast that is like no other in Florida-Rock Island. This 20-acre chunk of land left over from when sea level rose during the past ten thousand years is solid limestone along most of its edges, and to walk its shores is to visit a moonscape of pocked holes and tidal pools. Live oaks and sable palms dominate the interior and swarms of noisy grackles and wading birds fill their branches. Anyone can visit the island by boat or kayak-it is three miles southeast of the Hickory Mound Impoundment-but camping is limited to sea kayakers doing all or part of the 105-mile Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
I recently joined FWC trail manager Liz Sparks and a team from Canoe and Kayak Magazine on a Rock Island campout. We had blustery weather on the way, with three to four foot waves lapping over our kayak bows and spray skirts, reinforcing the fact that this trail is primarily for experienced open water paddlers. But once on the island, the wind was welcome since it kept the sometimes notorious bugs at bay. On a 2003 trip to the island in early September, when I was helping Liz finish the trail guide, we renamed it Biting Fly Island due to the voracious flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums. And a smaller island nearby was renamed Little Biting Fly Island. Our suffering was chronicled in my first book, Waters Less Traveled. But that was early September, hot with no wind. This was April and quite different.
We walked the shores and marveled at designs carved in the rock by ocean waters along with two perfectly round craters about ten feet in diameter. When wet, the pocked limestone has a volcanic appearance, and it is easy to imagine a distant atoll, or maybe one of the Hawaiian Islands. Liz and I had walked these shores nearly a decade ago and they haven't changed much, but we knew sea level would continue to rise and slowly inundate Rock Island, pushing back the greenery until there is nothing but rock and marsh, and eventually a reef. For a few more decades, however-our lifetimes-Rock Island will likely retain a semblance of its current appearance. I'm glad to know it's there for those infrequent stays-for a taste of the wild Big Bend Coast.
Soon after the Big Bend trail guide was finished, I moved on to map the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails while Liz remained with the FWC to manage the Big Bend Trail and others. Paddlers apply for free permits online to paddle all or part of the trail and utilize some or all of the trail's seven primitive campsites. Since the trail's inception, paddlers have applied for about 500 trail permits. Four overnight trip options are available, or paddlers can choose to tackle the entire trail in one shot.
"The trail remains a niche trail for experienced paddlers," Liz said, "but there are lots of great day trip opportunities for less experienced people. Slowly but surely, more people are discovering this coast. We're trying to help the local communities benefit from sustainable tourism so they can offer better services for paddlers, and we encourage paddlers to support local businesses. For people looking for a real wilderness experience, it's a great trail-rewarding and enjoyable."
For more information about the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, log onto http://myfwc.com/viewing/recreation/wmas/lead/big-bend/paddling-trail/. The 40-page semi-waterproof trail guide can be ordered for $15 through the website or by calling (850) 488-5520.e more it makes sense.