I guess it’s the adventurous spirit in me. I got it from my father, he would take us camping in the mountains of North Carolina and fishing trips to Myrtle Beach. He had his private pilot’s license, so weekend trips to our grand mother’s house or glider flights were always looked forward to. When I was 18 I joined the US Air Force. As a crew chief, I traveled the world before I was 20. It soon became apparent that I really loved what I was doing, so I stayed in for the full ride, serving 20 years. I never got tired of the adventure.
Sitting in my office one day, I was thinking back to the TV show, what could I do with my limited time and money that might equal something like that. It dawned on me like a slap to the face, why not combine my passion for kayak fishing and my spirit for adventure and paddle my way around Tampa Bay. Could it be done, had it been done, and could I do it? After all, at age 46 I’m no spring chicken. Would this be my one great adventure of my life? I set the wheels in motion to find out.
After talking with several good friends I came up with the route, twenty stops would take me around the bay. I figured it would take a month or two and I could knock it out before summer. Boy was I wrong. Another thing was brought up in the discussions; why not raise some money in the process. What a great idea, and I had the perfect charity, the American Heart Association. Heart disease has taken several members of my family as well as my wife’s. We both took care of my father as he died from congestive heart failure. Having to watch my idol, the person who gave me my passion for fishing struggle to do everyday things was very difficult for me to do. I don’t wish it on anyone. My mother had also suffered a series of small strokes, finally passing away from heart failure as well. I have an older sister who had to have open heart surgery at age 48, so you can see why I chose the AHA.
I had the routes, the date was set, and all I needed was a better kayak. I contacted the fine folks at Confluence and they sent me a Wilderness System T160. I would use this kayak for the trip, then once done, it would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the AHA. I had set a start date of Feb 2nd 2008. I would start from the South rest area of the Sky Way Bridge, paddle the approximately 120 miles around the bay, and finish at the North rest area of the bridge. All I needed was some good weather and luck. As it would turn out, I would need more than that.
(Bill "Heywood" Howard paddling his Tarpon 160)
Day 1, two of my good friends, Peter, Ken and I looked out over the launch sight, I thought to myself, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” This body of water looks a whole lot bigger than I thought; this was going to be a challenge. Well, it was just a challenge just to get to the water; a brisk north wind had pushed all the water out of the bay. So the first part of the trip could have been called “Walk Around the Bay” as it took us a good 500 or 600 yards to reach some water deep enough to paddle. Since we would be doing this in stages or legs, it was decided (like there was really any discussion about it) that we would fish on each route. I would write a blog on our catches, things we found and the condition of the environment along the way. I had pledges for every mile I paddled, as well as for every fish that I caught. All the pledge monies would also go to the AHA.
(Redfish caught during the trip)
Day 1 would go off without any problems; we had worked out the logistics of transportation, having one vehicle at both the launch and destination locations. I had scaled down what I needed in the kayak, made a mount for my GPS to track our miles for each leg, tested our radios in case we needed them, and filed a float plan with my wife. I even went out on the local Paddle-Fishing.com forums looking for those that might want to join me on each leg. I would be glad to have their company; in the later stages they would push me along towards the finish line. I only did two legs by myself, but I was never really alone. In the storage area of my kayak was my favorite picture of my folks, taking at Myrtle Beach on their 50th wedding anniversary. All of us, my sisters and their family, me and my wife and our kids had surprised them with those Groucho Marks glasses; you know the ones with the mustache. I have seen my parents laugh so hard, it’s my favorite memory of them. Safely wrapped up and tucked away, it was on every leg.
Well my two month target came and went. Between weather delays, work and my health the trip took much longer than expected. I had developed a cataract on my right eye that had to be removed, of course they had to do the left eye to make my vision even, so that was most of the summer shot. But eventually, one route at a time, I edged closer to the finish line. We had some excitement and disappointments along the way, covering the miles each weekend. I lost a really big snook up in some mangroves, after breaking me off; it just sat there, teasing me. One morning my friend Norm lost his kayak out of the back of his truck, it just slid along the highway in front of us in slow motion. Jumping out, I grabbed it and took off running to the safety of the shoulder. I’m glad it was a Native kayak. I had a close encounter with a manatee, paddling right over it while it was sleeping; I took what we call a “Manatee Ride”. Luckily I saw the swirl in front of the kayak and was prepared.
The weather was my biggest worry; I didn’t want to get caught out in the open in bad weather. I’m always very cautious when it comes to the weather. We got lucky, only having two days of strong winds, one was pretty tricky crossing a stretch of open water where we had to deal with very confused seas, the other we watched a water spout try to touch down several miles away from us. For the most part it was very enjoyable, even in the heat of summer. We timed those trips to be off the water before it got really hot.
Seventeen days and 129 miles later, four of us pulled into the North Sky Way rest area. I was greeted, much to my surprise, by many of my friends from our close paddle-fishing community here in Tampa Bay, it caught me totally off guard. With a pop off the champagne cork, we all celebrated the accomplishment of a goal reached. Topping off the end of the trip with a banquet and raffle, I raised nearly $4000 dollars for the American Heart Association, thanks to my many great sponsors who donated for this great cause.
So, why did I do it? I’ve gone to some pretty cool places, seen some neat things in my life, but let’s face it, most of us will never do so called “great” things, like climb Mount Everest, ride motorcycles across the globe, or take part in true great adventures. This might be the one great thing that I get to do. I truly love kayak fishing, I’m a junkie. For me it’s not a hobby, it’s a life style. I live and breathe it. I might even say it saved me from one the lowest points in my life. When my father died, I was devastated. Very depressed over his death, I had to sell our boat that we had bought together and thought I might not ever go fishing again. It just wouldn’t be the same. Then one day I met some guys with their kayaks and thought this might be the answer. I bought one and was instantly hooked. I have met more good people through this sport and traveled all over the state fishing new waters. I can’t get enough.
Is there another adventure around the corner? I hope so.