by Joanelle Mulrain
In 2008, Jodi Eller, husband Matt Keene and a friend began kayaking the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail that runs from Pensacola to Key West to the Georgia border, but they never finished. They completed three fourths of the Trail, but Jodi yearned to finish the journey and regretted not reaching the end of the Trail. So, after coming back from hiking part of the Appalachian Trail last summer, the idea to finish kept nagging at 31-year-old Eller until she realized she just had to do it – finish what she started, so, she set her sights on completing the remaining miles. When she finished, she became the first woman and 11th person to complete the Trail. Her husband was the first “thru paddler” of the Trail.
It took her a year to get herself ready. She had to obtain the right safety gear and find points along the way that she could send things ahead.
Starting in Pensacola she finished 360 miles away to complete the route.
“I wanted to experience ‘wild Florida’, and knew I could stay in the state and county parks along the way,” Eller remarks. It was a newly developed trail and she knew how to live out of a tent. She planned using some of the state and country park accommodations, which are adequate and inexpensive. Then, her adventure began late last Fall in November.
“It was a transformation, I had to ‘step away’ to find the old Florida,” noting development and much of what one may remember of the Sunshine State has turned into commercial and residential housing developments. She went on to say, “My trip led me to experiencing the old growth of Florida, that which originally attracted so many to come to live here. I paddled through so many ecosystems and was amazed at how the beaches changed along the way.”
It wasn’t easy, but every minute she felt is was what she was supposed to do – finish her dream. “It made me a stronger paddler, and it also redefined who I am in a way, bringing me back to the essence of being human – it’s a powerful experience to go through,” she remembers.
She brought only the necessities. “The idea of material wealth just falls away when you’re out in the beauty of nature,” she recalls when thinking about the many vistas only able to be seen while in a kayak. “You can experience the goodness of life being in such beautiful places, while enjoying the wildlife and nature.”
Sometimes she had to ferret out a grocery store, too. Before she left, she hydrated a lot of fruits and vegetables because she believes in eating healthy. She prepared boxes of food and sent them to different drop-off locations.
“Because the trail is new, I was surprised at the amount of people there,” she said. “So many were taking advantage of it – there is a great trail community of fellow travelers in Florida.”
She met a guy who joined her for five days because, she said, “He had never done anything like this before.”
However, weather became a major challenge. “It was tough, the weather was really tough,” she said. She started in November because she thought that would be a good month to launch. However, she battled fierce 15 and 20 mph winds. “The physical endurance almost broke me,” she went on to say. The last leg of the trip from Flamingo to Everglades City through Everglades National Park was nearly perfect.
“I did this knowing the female representation in kayaking is low, so I wanted to show that the trail is for women and kids – everyone should go out for a day, a weekend, or longer,” she said.
“This trail is in everyone’s backyard!”
She found her experience to be intriguing as she immersed herself in the beauty of Florida. It was great exercise, too, She feels kayaking is a niche sport, something everyone can do. She hopes it becomes even more popular in the athletic community. “When you’re kayaking, you can go where the boats and people cannot go,” she says.
Jodi may write a book about her experience eventually, as she kept a journal and took notes of who she met, the wildlife she saw and the feelings she had along the way. Presently, she lives in St. Augustine and is a guide for St. Augustine EcoTours and is an Environmental Science teacher at Flagler College.