One of my favorite “secret spots” in Tampa is a nature park right in the middle of an industrial zone. Dense mangroves and winding, unmarked paddling trails (only passable around high tide) are reminiscent of Old Florida. So are the century-old cracker houses with wrap-around porches in Port Tampa along the road in, but they soon give way to tanker trucks, railroad tracks and fuel storage silos. Visitors are also apt to experience fighter jets screaming overhead, because CentCom (MacDill Air Force Base) lies on the other side of the mangrove forest at the southern tip of this peninsula in the middle of Tampa Bay.
The original plan was to camp on Shell Key, but gale-force winds gave me pause about paddling canoes where the bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. My friends were dead-set on canoeing and camping, however, so I suggested Plan B: the more protected waters of Picnic Island, followed by a bonfire and camping in the yard.
A short trail from the launch led us into a shallow little bay. We crabbed across with a stiff breeze on our beam, but no waves big enough for concern. Leaping mullet and swirling baitfish animated the brackish water’s rippled surface. On the other side, we entered a shady canopy of red and black mangroves and paddled into the ebbing tide. Osprey, herons, egrets and ibis took flight and squawked at our approach.
I picked an opening and led us into the labyrinth. Shallow sand and oyster bars alternated with deep holes as we wound through unfamiliar oxbows. Several attempts to find a new path forward that looped back to the bay proved impassable. Meanwhile, the wind’s northerly direction accelerated the tide’s exodus. I wondered if we might be exchanging the dangers of open-water capsize for the inconvenience of intertidal stranding. As if on cue, Rick asked, “Goat, do you know your way out of here?”
Well, yes and no. We could always go back the way we came. But I wasn’t ready to give up the search for a different way out. Tide and wind were behind us now, but the water rushing seaward was no guarantee of escape. Paddling faster, we could just as easily be heading for another dead-end. How long before the bars we barely cleared would be exposed?
Our scouting and optimism paid off in the end as we emerged a few hundred meters from where we entered the swamp. We relaxed and let the boats sail southward, still on flat-water sheltered by mangrove islands. Rounding one of them, we squirted out into the bay and commenced paddling upwind, staying close to the lee shore.
Around another point, we spied a white sandy beach and were excited by its great camping potential. Upon landing, we discovered a ramshackle structure with a million-dollar view of St. Petersburg across the bay. The grave-sized hole next to the shack was more than a little creepy, so we didn’t linger long. We made the crosswind slog back to the launch and returned home for some casual yard camping and cooking on an open fire. Though less adventurous than Shell Key, it was still a fun evening among friends.