"Happy are those who dream dreams … and have the courage to make them come true."
Verlen Kruger, long-distance paddler and canoe designer (1922-2004)
ST. PETERSBURG — Steve Isaac has adventure in his blood. The 65-year-old "chief" of a loose-knit group of small-boat enthusiasts called the WaterTribe nearly died four years ago when his canoe capsized one night several miles offshore.
"I was just paddling along, sipping on a cup of hot chocolate, when out of nowhere something flipped my boat over and it landed on top of me," he recalled. "All I can think of was that I must have surprised a whale floating near the surface and it took off and destroyed my boat."
Isaac was able to right his boat, pump out the water and make it back to shore. He had a bruise that went from the small of his back down to his knees, and his Kruger canoe was too badly damaged to complete the 1,200-mile trek around Florida.
So he is going to try again.
"I've got to," said the retired engineer who lives in Clearwater. "That is why I started this whole thing."
In the late 1990s, the husband and father dreamed about doing an international adventure race such as the Eco Challenge or the Raid Gauloises.
"But to do something like that you needed to pay $50,000 and have two or three months where you don't have anything else to do," he said. "I had a job and a family; I couldn't do that."
So Isaac dreamed up the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile paddle and/or sail from St. Petersburg to Key Largo, designed for weekend warriors.
The inaugural race in February 2001 was not for the faint of heart. Of the 27 individuals and teams that left the beach at Fort De Soto County Park, nearly half of them, this writer included, either flipped over or did not make it across Tampa Bay. But 6 days, 7 hours, 22 minutes after the start, my friend and I made landfall in Key Largo, one of just nine teams to finish.
"Anybody can paddle to the Florida Keys," Isaac said. "But the question is, can you do it in a limited amount of time, regardless of the weather? That is where the adventure comes in."
In the years that followed, the number of WaterTribe events and members grew at a steady pace. This year, nearly 150 individual entrants and teams, including four people who plan to keep going all the way around the state in the Ultimate Florida Challenge, are expected to hit the water Saturday.
"The interest and enthusiasm has been phenomenal," Isaac said. "This is something that really anybody can do if they put their mind to it."
Isaac grew up in Austin, Minn., spending most of his time in the woods, marshes and cornfields behind his house. As a boy, he read the account of Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 crossing of the Pacific Ocean on a raft, Kon-Tiki, and decided that he wanted a life of adventure.
In 1966, before he even graduated from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines hoping to be sent to Vietnam, where he worked as a forward air observer.
"Basically, my job was to get as close as I could to the enemy and then call in air strikes and artillery," he said. "It was an adventure."
He took a bullet in the knee during the Tet Offensive in 1968, but after six months in a cast he felt "as good as new" and finished his tour of duty. After the military, he went to college, found work building computers before moving to Florida in 1979.
Over the years Isaac has bought a half-dozen small sailboats and kayaks, and he built a half-dozen more. He completed the 300-mile Everglades Challenge multiple times in various types of watercraft, and this year he plans to go around the state in a Hobie Adventure Island sit-on-top sea kayak with twin outriggers.
"You can pedal or sail this thing," he said. "It is a very popular boat. Out of the more than 140 entries this year, 27 of them are either single or double versions of this boat."
If all goes as planned, Isaac will head south along the gulf coast, through the Everglades, across the Florida Keys, north along the Atlantic beaches, up the St. Marys River to the woods of north Florida, then tow his boat 40 miles across land to the Suwannee River, which he will take to the gulf, then back to Fort De Soto.
"But you never can tell," the Tribe's founder said. "This race is always an adventure for somebody."