Florida has thousands of miles of coastline, and the best way to see it is by kayak. I've paddled my share of the state's wilderness waterways, but I am the first to admit that I missed many things because I was too busy trying to get from Point A to Point B.
So last winter, I set off with four companions for a leisurely exploration of three rivers that none of us had ever seen before. The Wakulla and St. Marks are about an hour south of Tallahassee. The Aucilla, another Old Florida river, is about 15 miles to the east along the coast.
On a warm Friday afternoon, we put in at Highway 98 and headed south on the St. Marks, bound for an old Spanish fort.
Rich in history
In 1528, the ill-fated expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez marched from Tampa through the state's interior in search of gold. After several months, tired, sick and starving, Narvaez and 300 men arrived at the confluence of the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers.
It was here the Spaniards melted their armor and weapons so the metal could be used to construct rudimentary boats to carry them along the coast, and, they hoped, to civilization.
Narvaez was not among the four men who eventually made it to Mexico City. But another conquistador, Hernando de Soto, intrigued by the survivors' tale, followed a similar route to the confluence of the two rivers 11 years later.
The Spanish, recognizing the strategic importance of the site, ordered the construction of a fort there in 1679. The logs, cut from nearby forests, were covered with lime and gave the appearance of stone.
But three years later, the ruse didn't fool a band of pirates that ransacked and burned the structure.
Switch to stone
The Spanish tried to build another wooden fort, but it didn't last, so in 1739, they tried a new approach.
The Bastion of San Fernando was constructed from limestone from a quarry downriver. The soldiers used a mortar mix to keep the stones in place and today evidence of their toil is still visible despite more than 250 years of wind, rain and storms.
"You never know what you are going to find," said Bill Boydston, a Park Services Specialist at the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. "So many people's lives have passed through here over the years. It is pretty amazing when you stop and think about it."
Boydston was working on a piece of the bastion wall when we stumbled across him. He stopped his preservation work for a few minutes to show us some initials carved into the limestone by some long-forgotten Spanish soldier.
"See what I mean," Boydston said. "This is history, right before your eyes."
Life must have been hard here with the mosquitoes and no-see-ums, not to mention the killer storms like the hurricane in 1758 that sent a wall of water up the rivers, drowning 40 men.
Oysters and cold beer
About a mile from the fort, up the Wakulla River, we pulled into the Shell Island Fish Camp. My paddling buddies and I are used to roughing it, but we thought, why not have a few creature comforts for once.
Freeze-dried food and energy bars work in a pinch, but after a while, a man needs a home-cooked meal, just like mom used to make. But there's no way my mom (or wife for that matter) would drive to some backwoods fish camp and cook for five smelly guys.
But "Uncle Jimmy" would. Jimmy Mertz — carpenter, master angler, world-class chef and family friend — knew that we would be hungry and thirsty after a long day's paddle. So he drove from Tallahassee with a half dozen steaks, baked potatoes and a cooler full of beverages.
"I came across a guy selling oysters up the road," he said as he emptied the goods from the bed of his pickup truck. "He said they were right off the boat. You guys like oysters, don't you?"
Nothing beats a fresh Apalachicola oyster on the half shell, with a touch of horseradish, chased by a cold beer. We probably ate three or four dozen each before we started throwing the crustaceans on the grill.
"Wait till they open and then dab them with a little butter," Uncle Jimmy said as we feasted into the night. "It doesn't get any better than this."
Running with the tide
The next day we were up before the sun, packing our kayaks to head down the coast to an island we knew nothing about.
Most of the coastline south of the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers is part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Encompassing more than 68,000 acres of marsh, wetlands, islands and tidal creeks, the refuge provides a major wintering spot for dozens of species of migratory birds.
But being a refuge, the area is governed by a set of strict rules. Access is strictly limited, but we were able to stop and eat lunch next to the historic lighthouse.
Built between the years of 1829 and 1831, the St. Marks Lighthouse is one of Florida's oldest. Over the years, it has survived wars and storms, and much like the land around it, it is a testament to the region's resilience.
St. Marks is a popular destination for birdwatchers, who flock here by the thousands, and hunters, who come for the whitetail deer that thrive in the marshy habitat.
Heading east from the lighthouse, it is easy to see why this area has been protected from development. The shallow water along the shoreline keeps everything except wading birds far from the land.
Our GPS units showed that the palmetto-covered island a quarter mile away would be our campsite for the night.
"It doesn't look big enough to pitch a tent," I told the group. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
We had arrived several hours ahead of schedule, which is always a good thing when you have to set up camp. But inspecting the narrow strip of land — 10 feet at its widest point — I was sure there must have been some sort of mistake.
Options were limited. This was the only spot within a day's paddle where we were legally allowed to camp.
"Let's have a look around and see if there is a better spot to pitch the tents," Darry Jackson said as he dragged his kayak back into the water. "Maybe we are on the wrong side of the island."
An hour later, after wading what seemed like miles through the calf-deep mud, we were back where we started.
Exhausted, I unloaded my gear, set up my tent, then collapsed in the sand. After a 15-minute rest, I got up to get a bottle of water out of the cockpit of my kayak. That is when I saw the spiders, a dozen of them scurrying around the inside of my boat.
"Spiders," I yelled. "There's got to be at least a dozen of them. They look like black widows."
I hate spiders, more than anything else in the world, including rats, leeches, sharks, you name it. The very thought of spiders makes my skin crawl.
"They're in my tent, too," I said. "This is going to be a long night."
I was glad to put Palmetto Island behind me, and I made a mental note to never visit there again.
"They should change the name of that place to Spider Island," I said.
We had 10 miles to go to the Aucilla River, where several years ago, I began a similar trip along the Big Bend Paddling Trail.
Picturing a map of Florida in my head, I realized that I had nearly paddled my way halfway around the state. This short trip, along three rivers, would fill in a missing piece.
I had come a long way over the years, but thankfully, I still have many more miles to go.