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Islander makes 40-mile kayak trip around Pine Island in one day

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Mar 17, 2021

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

When John Connelly turned 60 in 2016, he celebrated with a 1,500-mile, 75-day solo canoe and kayak expedition, encouraged by his wife Nicole and the inspiration for his book, “Dying Out Here Is Not An Option.”

No stranger to the open waters, he owned his own white water rafting company and also was on the United States Canoe and Kayak Team, racing in World Cup championships. Last Saturday, Connelly headed out from his home in St. James City for a one-day trip around Pine Island in his kayak. The trip took exactly nine hours, he said, including four stops — two for restroom breaks, one to recharge his hydration pack with water and one for lunch.

“I put on around sunrise,” said Connelly. “It was quite a low tide for about an hour until it was fully low tide. It forced me to go out into the boating channel because the flats were too shallow to navigate with a kayak.”

Connelly said in anything less than 2 1/2 feet of water, the kayak will be slowed down by bottom drag, forcing increased effort, so a greater distance through the boating channel is preferred, rather than staying close to the shore. At the beginning of the trip, he said, the water was murky likely due to issues with red tide, and the run off from Lake Okeechobee. The further north he traveled, the clearer the water became.

“Just before Little Pine Island, I got out and took a little break. Most of the way to Matlacha, the water was so clear that in 5 feet of water I could see the bottom,” said Connelly. “Going up the east side of Pine Island, there are a lot of markers for the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, which are planned to be within eyesight of one another so when people are kayaking the Blue Way, they can easily see the next point that they need to go to.”

There was more recreational boat traffic as he approached the fishing pier in Bokeelia, where he stopped to have lunch, said Connelly.

“Right after I left I spooked a very large manatee,” said Connelly. “It was in shallow water, so there was no distance between us and it smacked my kayak, right in the hull, in the vicinity of my left knee. It was like the water erupted and the manatee took off. It hit the boat so hard I had to reach down and feel the side of my boat to make sure it didn’t have a crack in it.”

This is not uncommon, said Connelly, as manatees can be asleep or grazing, and if a quickly moving kayak goes by it can hit or startle them. For this reason, he said it’s important to look out for any sign of them in order to steer clear. As this is sometimes inevitable, he said both the boater and the manatee can be startled. In addition to his literal run-in with the manatee, he said another highlight of his one-day trip was a bottlenose dolphin that followed him for roughly a quarter mile.

“It would come up to the side of my boat and look up at me, as I was paddling along” said Connelly, “and then fall in behind me and then come up on my other side looking at me. It just kept going back and forth doing that side to side and behind me.”

Connelly said he was fortunate to have light winds in the morning out of the northeast, conjuring a quartering headwind. Throughout the day, he said, the wind shifted, giving him a quartering tailwind out of the northwest for the back end of the trip, making things considerably easier, coupled with a higher tide.

In addition to the bird and marine life he ventured upon, Connelly said he always finds himself impressed by the considerable amount of mangroves around the island.

“There are miles and miles you can go without a place to get out of your kayak,” said Connelly. “That’s something for paddlers to keep in mind. They’ll want to figure out where they can get out of their boat if they need to, in advance if possible.

“Circumnavigating the island by powerboat is like driving to work, where circumnavigating the island by kayak is kind of like walking to work. You are going much more slowly and able to see all of the details and have experiences that you otherwise would not have. It’s a really intimate kind of experience,” he continued. “You notice everything — waves, wind, shallows, deep water, current. You notice all these elements, which makes a super rich experience.”

Although Connelly said he would not recommend this one-day kayak trip to recreational novice kayakers, due to the required endurance, paddling portions of the island, would be fantastic for anyone.

“I highly recommend it,” said Connelly, “and the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail. I highly encourage people to explore the waterways here.”

Connelly’s Book, “Dying Out Here Is Not An Option: PaddleQuest 1500–A 1500 Mile, 75 Day, Solo Canoe & Kayak Odyssey,” is available at Amazon.com