A stiff east wind whipped the normally tranquil waters of Biscayne Bay into a frenzied mass of gray foam. "I'd think twice about paddling across on a day like this," Javier Morejon advised. "It will be a lot rougher once you get out in the middle of the bay." Biscayne National Park lies a few miles south of Miami. On weekends, the park's two main keys, Boca Chita and Elliott, fill with pleasure boaters trying to escape the hustle and bustle of one of Florida's largest cities.
But on a weekday in the summer, few people are on the water. So sea kayakers out to explore a fraction of the park's 173,000 acres of watery wilderness should not expect to see a lot of passersby should they need help.
"You have got to watch for storms," added Morejon, who operates the park's concessionaire. "The weather can change pretty quickly."
The bay, while not deep, is exceptionally clear. On a sunny day, you can see sponges and a variety of subtropical fish as they dart among the sea grasses.
But when the water turns rough, it's better to stash the snorkeling gear and explore the natural wonders on foot.
"Why don't you throw your kayaks on the dive boat, and we'll drop you off on the island," Morejon suggested. "Then you can paddle along the shoreline and see everything you want."
With a shake of a hand and a swipe of a debit card, Morejon agreed to ferry my companions and I the 9 miles from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point near Homestead over the bay waters to Boca Chita Key.
A boaters' refuge
Folks have sought shelter on the lee side of Biscayne Bay's coastal islands for 10,000 years. The very thing that made the area attractive to the area's first inhabitants — easy access to both bay and ocean waters — is also what brought us.
Powerboaters, sailors and paddlers can dock and/or camp at both Boca Chita and Elliott keys, fish the relatively sheltered waters of the bay when it is rough or venture to the offshore reefs when it is calm.
While the waters in Biscayne National Park are indeed inviting, they can turn treacherous without much warning. Over the years, dozens of ships have sunk on nearby reefs, making the barrier islands a popular staging area for "wreckers," the salvage crews who make their living off others' misfortune.
The lighthouse on Boca Chita, built in the 1930s by one of the island's former owners, is featured on the front of the national park's brochure.
The 65-foot tall structure was strictly ornamental and was never formally permitted or listed on any of the government-approved nautical charts for the area. Legend has it that the tower was lit briefly, but the Coast Guard forced the owner to extinguish the flame out of fear that it might confuse passing ships.
Today, the Boca Chita lighthouse offers an excellent view. On a clear day you can even see the buildings of Key Biscayne and South Beach. The island allows camping, but because it is the closest point of land to Miami, it tends to fill up quickly.
Under the stars
The campground on Elliott Key, roughly 2 miles south from the lighthouse, was empty when we arrived. On the weekend, the marina is jammed with boats, and every inch of available land is covered with tents.
There's a primitive camp on the windward, or ocean, side of the island. To get there you have to hike about a quarter mile through the woods, a journey made unbearable by the millions of biting insects that call this place home.
On the bay side, however, there are tiny fingers of land, dredge and fill from the harbor's construction, which offer open, airy campsites. With bathrooms, cold showers, freshwater and picnic tables, this island oasis offers seemingly five-star luxury accommodations to grizzled kayakers used to sleeping in the sand.
The wind kept the bugs away, but it also made it difficult to sleep. It's hard to get restful sleep when your tent is shaking constantly. And you know that where there is wind, there will be waves — waves that will make the next day's crossing all the more adventurous.
In the morning, we paddled out into the bay and joined the fray, expecting a two-hour battle. But the waves, well over our heads as we sat in our kayaks, were well-formed and perfect for surfing.
Ride after ride we sped forward, hooting and hollering as we hit the crest of each passing wave. The surf session cut our crossing time in half.
Back at the visitor center we packed up our wet gear. Then, just as we were about to hit the road, I remembered something.
"I better go tell Javier that we won't need a ride home," I said.