PORT RICHEY — While Pasco County promotes its hundreds of miles of blueways, ensuring that the people paddling them are educated is equally important.
For the past three years, the Paddler's Environmental Toolkit Training class has taught kayak and canoe enthusiasts about Florida's ecology and interacting with nature in a way that minimizes their human footprint. The course is taught by members of the Florida Paddling Trails Association and consists of two sessions with a total of four hours of class work followed by a three-hour paddle to reinforce what was learned in class.
"We hope to help people learn how to identify environmental and wildlife problems," class instructor Hank Brooks said. "We want people to be able to recognize and fix small problems that they see and report the big ones. Our goal is to get people paddling for fun but also have them take care of the environment."
Learning about wildlife and identifying problems would be useful skills for people who want to host their own paddling events, something that Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park manager Chris Dorrier would love to see.
"We want people to be better paddle interpreters so that they can lead paddles and encourage new paddlers to come into the park and use them as a guide," Dorrier said. "We average about 15 to 20 paddlers per month but once we get this park officially open we hope to be a major paddle destination. Having experienced and knowledgeable paddlers can help us become that type of destination."
The classes are attended by paddlers of all experience levels and with many different interests. Frances Lucas is a volunteer at the Rotary Centennial Nature Center in Honeymoon Island State Park near Dunedin. She attended the course to examine new areas for paddling and to expand her knowledge of local wildlife.
"I want to find other areas to kayak than just the island and I've heard good things about this area," Lucas said. "I feel like this class can not only show me some more areas to do it, but also help me learn more about the plants, the mangroves and the overall ecosystem that is present here."
Brooks' primary concern is emphasized by a slogan he often repeats: "Paddling with a purpose." He hopes to see paddlers capable of keeping their environment clean while simultaneously promoting the area's waterways in the hopes of increasing the interest in paddling. The promotional factor, according to Brooks, is crucial to Pasco becoming a paddling destination like Weeki Wachee or Crystal River.
"People need to be proactive about the environment, rather than just see something wrong and say 'Jeez, isn't that a shame,' " Brooks said. "That's why we use the term 'paddling with a purpose,' because if it's a shame we want people to do something about it. Pasco has some really nice places to paddle, but whether or not it can compete with some of the areas north of there I don't know. It'll come down to events that are held in Pasco and how it is promoted whether or not it is ever a paddling travel destination."