Retired Charlotte police officers battle bugs, storms in quest to paddle around Florida

Two adventure-minded Charlotteans plan to take in attractions in Florida during the holidays. But you won’t find them at Busch Gardens, Walt Disney World or Wet ’n Wild.

Instead, Marc DeLuca and Jim Windle will paddle sea kayaks to real wet-and-wild places: The Ten Thousand Islands, the Everglades and the Florida Keys.

The two retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers are embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trek that’s both daunting and exhilarating. They’re kayaking the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, a GPS-marked water path that follows the state’s scalloped shoreline for 1,515 miles.

They’ve been driven off the water by gale-force winds, dragged their kayaks for miles over oyster beds, and braved swarms of no-see-ums and mosquitoes.

They’ve also savored the serendipities. Watched bottle-nosed dolphins shadow their boats. Dined on redfish and seatrout caught by a fellow paddler. And scarfed up banana-nut bread baked by a woman who brought it to their campsite.

DeLuca and Windle began the trek eight weeks ago when they launched at Big Lagoon State Park at the Florida-Alabama state line and pointed eastward.

“It’s a Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer arrangement from the word go for two adult men,” said Windle, 49, last week as the men set up camp north of Tampa. “A lot of people can’t wrap their head around the fact we don’t have a car.”

Ensconced in 16 1/2-foot kayaks, wearing snap-on spray skirts and PFDs, windmilling double-bladed paddles, the two men have glided along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, plied creek channels in sawgrass marshes and traversed bays and sounds behind barrier islands. They carry tents, food, water, navigation charts, flares, marine VHF radio and a solar charger for their cell phones. They camp in parks or on isolated dry spots in thick swamps. They spend a day a week in a motel to get restaurant meals, do laundry and let their sore bodies recover.

DeLuca, 57, said areas along the sparsely populated “Forgotten Coast” near Apalachicola and the Big Bend are so marshy that they couldn’t find spots to land and stretch their legs. “I’m amazed how many days we’ve been in the kayaks all day long,” he said. “You couldn’t get out. Some times we’d paddle three miles up a river looking for high ground to camp.”

They make about 15 miles during a typical six- or seven-hour day on the water, going as much as 27 miles one day. DeLuca said they have averaged 12 miles a day when factoring in five days lost to bad weather and seven or eight nonpaddling days. As of Tuesday, they had logged 647 miles, camping at Indian Mound Park between Sarasota and Fort Myers.

“We thought we would be much farther ahead,” DeLuca said. “We’ve had just hellacious weather.”

Daunting, maybe dangerous

A kind of aquatic Appalachian Trail, the saltwater expedition trail was put together by Doug Alderson of Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails in Tallahassee.

Alderson worked on the project for four years and broke the trail into 26 sections.

“I would first scout the trail access points by vehicle and by various types of watercraft, including a kayak,” Alderson said in an e-mail. “I often went out with public land managers to scout potential campsites in a boat of their choice, and these ranged from airboats to 30-foot D-Day type landing crafts.”

The trail was completed five years ago. It’s not only daunting but also potentially dangerous.

“To tackle this trail safely, people need to be experienced sea kayakers with open-water experience,” he wrote. “The biggest danger, of course, is foul weather. There are some open water sections in the Panhandle and Big Bend that can be especially rough in bad weather, and the Big Bend and Everglades segments are remote, so proper preparation is a must.”

Along with national parks, wildlife refuges and stuck-in-time villages like Carrabelle, Steinhatchee and Cedar Key, the trail goes past big cities like Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville.

DeLuca hit on the saltwater trail looking for a water-based challenge, a trail that would let Windle “decompress” after 27 years with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. Windle was a bomb squad commander in addition to being an outdoorsman, a master scuba diver, a kayaker and a fly fisherman. DeLuca retired as a police major in 2007 after 30 years.

For DeLuca, the circumnavigational trail represents a kind of outdoors Triple Crown. He bicycled the TransAmerica Trail from Yorktown, Va., to Astoria, Oregon, solo in 2008, pedaling 4,400 miles in 69 days. He also hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009, a 2,180-mile journey.

“This seemed like the thing for us,” he said.

DeLuca began contacting paddlers who had completed the route for tips during eight months of preparation.

Getting started was no breeze

They started Nov. 2 near Pensacola, unaware of what was about to hit them.

“The tone was set on Day Three,” Windle said. “We were in Santa Rosa Sound. Gale-force winds blew my tent stakes out of the ground. It was a beating for six hours. Marc’s boat started to sink.”

The rear hatch on DeLuca’s kayak failed and began taking on water. DeLuca struggled with the nearly foundering craft before eventuallyswapping kayaks with that of his girlfriend, which she sent down from Charlotte.

After a month of fighting headwinds, they finally got a beneficial tailwind from the north about two weeks ago, easing the strain on their arms. Headwinds, sand and bugs have been the scourge of the trip.

“Sand is everywhere,” DeLuca said. “...There were three or four nights when the no-see-ums and mosquitoes were off the charts. DEET (the mosquito repellent) is like a margarita to them.”

Weather-worn but in high spirits, DeLuca and Windle plan to paddle Christmas and New Year’s days as they stroke their way toward the Florida Keys. After crossing Florida Bay, they’ll set up a base camp in the middle keys and paddle south to Key West, get a shuttle back, and do the same for the northern keys. Then they’ll round the peninsula and head up the East Coast.

After Miami, they’ll pick up a narrow part of the Intracoastal Waterway near Fort Lauderdale. They expect to encounter heavy boat traffic, seawalls and rebounding wakes off the walls.

If they finish at Fort Clinch State Park on the Georgia line, sometime in March, they’ll join an elite group. So far, Alderson said, 10 people have completed the trail. The Charlotte men would become the 11th and 12th to do so.

Though they’ve battled muck and mangroves, DeLuca and Windle can relish the memories of the wild expanses of the Florida coast.

“The change of scenery going from a complete river environment, to swamps, brackish water,” Windle said of the sub-tropical panorama. “The wildlife has been outrageous. I kayaked over three manatees in the Crystal River. Osprey. Bald eagles. Kingfishers. Alligators. Sharks. We get a dolphin escort almost every day.”