Kayaking Adventure in Upper Tampa Bay

Map of Upper Tampa Bay Park showing the kayak trails and Double Branch Creek
Map of Upper Tampa Bay Park showing the kayak trails and Double Branch Creek
The main trail at Upper Tampa Bay Park
The main trail at Upper Tampa Bay Park

It's late enough that the water is already crawling with plastic hulls, heads popping out of them and paddles churning the coffee-colored water like swivel arms. We were supposed to meet a group but as usual we ran late and missed them. I hear a voice through the mangroves, then another. The melody of laughter follows and teases us forward through a wide channel ringed by mangroves.

Everything here is green or brown. Florida may be famous for her white beaches and crystal waters but the estuaries present a much different picture. My black paddle disappears instantly beneath the surface of the flat waters. Nick's yellow one stays visible for only a few inches before the dark water swallows its color. The only relief from the browns and greens pops up from time to time in the branches of the mangroves - a white heron, an egret, an ibis. And of course, the sky in its infinite blue mantle. Today white clouds gather along the horizon. Rain will likely visit us in the afternoon.

We paddle south from the canoe launch, a harrowing experience as we've only launched from shore and this launch is a dock with rollers at the end. I almost stepped right off the dock. The water is so dark, I expected dock and stepped into nothing but a liquid void. The return was no less harrowing as we attempted to haul ourselves on to the rollers before getting out of the kayak. With that behind off, we set off to see what this park has to offer.

Upper Tampa Bay Park has marked paddling trails. Markers are numbered starting with 1 at the launch. We follow the numbers until we come around a bend where the channel forks. In the middle of the confluence of the three channels, an oyster bed slowly emerges as the tide races out. The oysters' sharp ridges coupled with visible markers to the right makes the decision of which fork to take an easy one. To the right we paddle, floating easily on an outgoing tide and following the sounds of laughter.

Nick likes to think of himself as an explorer. When we go out on Grasshopper (our kayak), he wants to take the path that looks least travelled. Upper Tampa Bay Park lends itself to this kind of exploration. Smaller offshoots of the main trail wind to other parts of the trail while others wind back into the mangroves only to dead-end.

The first offshoot we come to Nick pipes up, “Mommy, what’s in there?” No answer is necessary. He’s already turning us towards it with a tenacity I wish he would demonstrate when we get caught paddling against the wind and tide at the end of a long journey. Within seconds we’re at the mouth of the offshoot and I have to dig my paddle in to slow us down as the bottom quickly becomes visible. I tell him to keep an eye out for oysters but the bottom is the kind of thick silt that sucks shoes off of feet if you’re unfortunate enough to have to walk in it.

The water here, because of its depth, is tea-colored. We stop to look around at the mangroves, more of the green and brown. In the middle of the trail we pass a mangrove seed that is rooted but still submerged and stop again for a quick science lesson. Nick has only seen the seeds on the trees themselves or floating in the water after falling off. In a few years, if enough of these root, this little offshoot may not exist. We continue down the trail and find ourselves back at the fork, turn around and back track.

An offshoot trail at Upper Tampa Bay Park
An offshoot trail at Upper Tampa Bay Park

The next offshoot also shows us a silty bottom. It opens to a relatively large basin, large considering how quickly mangroves can choke out open water. Nick looks over the side – “Mommy, I see crab holes. “ The submerged bottom is littered with the little holes fiddler crabs dig. “Yep, this is probably not covered by water at low tide.” Thankfully he doesn’t ask where the crabs go at high tide because I don’t have an answer for that though I imagine they remain in their holes. We explore the basin a bit more. Everything here is quiet. No birds fishing. No mullet jumping. Occasionally the same voices and laughter lift on a breeze to us but I have no idea where those paddlers might be in this maze of trails. On one side of the basin, not far from where we entered, we find another small trail.

“Mommy! Look! We discovered land!” I tear my eyes away from the straight, coarse shore grass growing in the water at the edge of the trail, neighbors with the mangroves, and the fledgling turtle grass waving in the tide beneath us. The trail leads to the marked channel and across it a small beach beckons us. Nick digs in with his paddle, sails past a crab buoy leaving ripples in the main channel from the outgoing tide. As we get closer to the beach, I spot the razor edge of an oyster. We can’t get to the beach safely. Nick eyes it with a lost longing exploratory look and we paddle back north to the marked channel.

We’ve been out for more than an hour and though I’d like to stay all day to find out where all the little trails lead, we can’t. A cut on Nick’s burns from the salt water, and I’m unfamiliar with this area. Though we wouldn’t get lost thanks to the markers, with the lowering tide we could end up stranded in an offshoot trail. I have no desire to port the kayak across the muck that makes up the bottom of these trails.

We head back to the launch, counting markers backwards as we go – 10, 9, 8… We explore two more large offshoots which turn out to be dead-ends. Leaving the second one, I am reminded how easily, and quickly, we can run out of water. On the way in we had no problem, but we scrape an oyster on the way out just minutes later.

The paddle back is slow going against the tide. We pass the oyster bed at the fork, now a very visible monster of an obstacle, especially if one were to try to pass over it before it shows itself. Though we saw little wildlife on the trip out, returning we are treated to the sight of a number of herons. Some escape the heat under mangrove branches. Others take flight as soon as they see us. Two play an aerial game of tag, their white wings slowly pumping the air as they dive, rise and skim away along the tops of the mangroves.

The fish are out also. Mullet leap along the edges of the deeper channel. From time to time I’ve seen large swirls along the mangroves. Maybe a redfish, maybe something else. Several of the kayakers we’ve encountered are rigged up for fishing, and the open waters of upper tampa bay are only a mile or so from the launch. Though the rods now dance at the back of a kayak, I have no doubt they will soon be dancing with a hooked fish.

The day has been a short one – 2 hours paddling time, around 2 miles distance – but we’ve discovered another great place to paddle. Back home I search online for maps of the trails and find more information than I expected. I could easily spend an entire day exploring all the small trails, short cuts, this part of tampa bay and Double Branch Creek. There are a plethora of discoveries to make and only my kayak can take us there.

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