St. Johns River thru-paddle with Patrick Connolly, Greg Pflug and Fred Goebel.

St. Johns River thru-paddle with Patrick Connolly, Greg Pflug and Fred Goebel. (Patrick Connolly, Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — As countless millions rang in 2024, I was living by a different sort of Gregorian calendar.

That’s the calendar kept by Greg Pflug — the intrepid Central Florida adventurer and paddling guide who by this time last year had spent 44 days circumnavigating the state by kayak. His calendar simply counts down the days until the next big expedition.

It was just by luck that I was invited on this particular outing, a more than weeklong paddle up the entirety of the St. Johns River with all its untamed beauty of wild Florida flora and fauna.

The invitation for this adventure started with a Facebook message: “I’m going to paddle the entire St. Johns River with Fred (Greg’s adventure companion in circumnavigating Florida) this December. Taking two weeks. Can you get the time off and join us? 310 easy river miles.”

After a few quick hours of thought, I agreed.

“It’s going to be epic,” he replied, which seemed to imply a bit more high adventure than “easygoing” (and boy, was he right).

Following this type of Gregorian calendar, time moves a little differently. It seems to slow down, almost to a crawl, easing to a pace that matches the ebb and flow of the river, which slowly winds its way through the heartland of Florida.

After a chaotic December filled with holiday parties, traveling and shopping, this trip ushered in a very welcome change of pace. The only real distractions out there: Spoonbills or osprey, the occasional gator sunning itself or the distinctive chirp of a kingfisher looking for its next meal.

In searching high and low for the answers to life’s big questions, I suddenly find they’re all right before me. This is what it means to live.

Day 1, Dec. 29: The first one’s a drag

•  Wake-up call: 4:30 a.m.

•  Off the water: 4:30 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Osprey, hawks, snail kites, black-crowned night heron, alligators

•  Weather: High 66, low 50; partly cloudy, breezy at times

•  Mileage: 27

•  Memorable moment: The longest portage ever

•  Best snack: Apples and havarti

•  Biggest gripe: Water hyacinth

After spending a short night of sleep at Greg’s Geneva farm, we awoke hours before the sun showed its rays, gazing up at Orion floating far above our heads and a near-full moon casting shadows over the yard.

We scarfed down deviled eggs and Christmas ham, coffee proving vital as we piled into Greg’s van, three kayaks in tow (and a guide to drive the van back).

As we drove nearly two hours south, I realized that we would soon be traveling this whole distance by kayak.

While some trips are months in the making with precise plans, maps and calculations, this one felt decidedly spontaneous.

I had paddled with Greg one crisp morning in early December, making a 9-mile loop around Hontoon Island to prove to myself I could keep up with the 54-year-old, who could smoke 27-year-old me in a paddling race any day.

As for my loaner kayak, a 16-foot fiberglass beauty of a British import dubbed “Diamante Rapide,” I had only sat in it for a brief moment to confirm that it fit me — but never had a chance to take it out on the water until the moment we were setting off.

Even as we departed, the voices of self-doubt echoed strongly throughout my mind.

I thought perhaps I wasn’t strong or in shape enough, or incapable of keeping up… What if something happened and I had to bail? How would I deal with the humiliation of quitting early? 

I began the trip in decent shape, but perhaps lacking the finer conditioning I could have used to help guarantee success. But then again, on a trip like this, there are no guarantees.

After we got on our way just after 7:30 a.m., our momentum was hampered by portages in which we had to haul our kayaks over airboat crossings between canals. But those minor nuisances paled in comparison to an unexpected midday plot twist. We had been caught in a canal clogged with water hyacinth, blocking our watery path forward.

Just after noon, I found myself dragging my 70-lb. kayak across a grassy dike for nearly a mile, wondering to myself, “What did I do to deserve this?” Then I remembered that I signed up for this voluntarily.

As we inched along, step after step with heavy kayaks in tow, Greg had a hot take on our situation.

“I’d rather be doing this than sniffing farts in an office,” he remarked, half-kidding but I think he meant that sincerely.

We exhaled with relief when we found a section of canal that was clear of water hyacinth, giving us a continuous stretch of uninterrupted paddling to a makeshift campsite on Little Sawgrass Lake, a few miles south of the U.S. Route 192 bridge and about 10 miles west of Palm Bay.

We were relieved to see a small wooden shack on the river, unoccupied.

We enjoyed pink and orange hues across the entire sky as the sun disappeared behind the horizon, projecting beautiful colors reflected onto still water.

Day 2, Dec. 30: Sunrise and sunset show

•  Wake-up call: 6 a.m.

•  Off the water: 4:40 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Swallows, herons, cows, short-tailed hawk, vultures, snail kite, purple gallinules, mallard ducks, barred owl, black-crown night heron

•  Weather: High 60, low 46; mixed clouds and sun. Calm.

•  Mileage: 40

•  Memorable moment: Sunrise and sunset

•  Best snack: Homemade venison sausage

•  Biggest gripe: Unfriendly fisherman (“I hope it rains on you”)

After a sound night of sleep, I awoke to Fred, 64, making coffee before any sign of daylight. This proved to be a regular morning ritual for the remainder of our trip, and I was thankful to have an early riser to tackle the important task of concocting our caffeine fix.

As the overnight temperature had dipped to about 47 degrees, Greg and I were hesitant to leave the warm comfort of our sleeping bags. “Just 10 more minutes,” he implored. (Fred, a Minnesotan, was unfazed by such relatively mild temperatures, at least in his parts.)

After mustering the will to get up, we gathered our gear in the kayaks and began paddling across glassy lakes, losing track of where the water ended and the sky began while witnessing a stunning sunrise.

That day, we crossed Sawgrass Lake, Lake Washington, Lake Winder and Lake Poinsett as I began to realize why the St. Johns has been dubbed the “River of Lakes.” Other sections twisted and turned through wetlands and pastures.

40 miles on day two sounded daunting and it was, but we still made camp before sunset. We collectively groaned as we emerged from our kayaks, stiff and barely able to walk. We prepared for our overnight stay at Possum Bluff, a pavilion campsite right next to the 528 bridge.

Even though the St. Johns filled us with wonder and awe at daybreak, it seemed similarly determined to give us a show to conclude the day with palms and birds silhouetted against the setting sun. As the temperature again dipped, we constructed a fire that shot up with the addition of dry palm fronds. It was enough for a few moments of warmth and tranquility.

Day 3, Dec. 31: Good, clean New Year’s fun 

•  Wake-up call: 5:50 a.m.

•  Off the water: 1:45 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Spoonbills, cows, sandhill cranes, kingfishers, swallows, hawk, ibis, bald eagle

•  Weather: High 65, low 44; breezy and mostly sunny

•  Mileage: 32

•  Memorable moment: Sandhill cranes chattering

•  Best snack: Rotisserie chicken

•  Biggest gripe: Loud airboats

It’s funny how the perilous parts of a journey are far more memorable than the pleasant, easygoing miles. In hindsight, we had it pretty good during that stretch in the middle of our trip.

The water was like glass as we got on our way, motivated by the idea that we would take our kayaks out of the water near the S.R. 46 bridge in Geneva and spend the night at Greg’s house, complete with hot showers and a hearty New Year’s Eve meal.

Morning fog floated on the water at sunrise; paddlers silhouetted against the amber sky as the sun ushered in the new day.

We wound through a twisty section of river south of S.R. 50 on a quiet morning that featured cows, sandhill cranes, kingfishers and the occasional roseate spoonbill. We also were treated to a flock of tree swallows flying right over us, banking and diving in every direction. These were the kind of mellow river miles I could paddle for days on end.

The St. Johns River, sitting about 27 feet above sea level at its headwaters, is one of the “laziest rivers in the world,” dropping about one inch per mile as it flows north. But at least we had some current in this section as we easily maintained a pace of up to 5 mph (or about 4.3 knots).

We made quick work of day three, taking our kayaks out at the Jolly Gator Fish Camp before 2 p.m. after kayaking just over 30 miles. High water made it possible to take shortcuts that wouldn’t be possible in different conditions.

Back on dry land at Greg’s house, we were able to remove excess gear and weight before stocking up on food and snacks. Trader Joe’s soft and juicy mango slices, peanut butter pretzels and chocolate-covered espresso beans were high on the list to pack for the rest of our journey.

After much-needed showers, we eagerly dined on rotisserie chicken with Modelo to wash it down. The food was good, but the company was even better as we were joined by two of Greg’s guides, Fred’s wife and Greg’s girlfriend.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve. I am someone who experiences fear of missing out (FOMO), but by the time 2023 came to a close, I felt partied out and much preferred the quiet, introspective solace of nature.

Instead of drinking until the wee hours, I was content to settle in for a welcome rest indoors while mentally preparing for the 200 miles ahead.

Day 4, Jan. 1: Familiar territory, natural wonder

•  Wake-up call: 5:45 a.m.

•  Off the water: 5:10 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Manatees, pileated woodpeckers, a bald eagle, swallows, hawks, blue herons, gulls

•  Weather: High 70, low 50; mostly sunny and windy with morning fog

•  Mileage: 37

•  Memorable moment: The fog this morning (like heaven), paddling under “no wake” signs, fighting the chop

•  Best snack: Bulgogi jerky

•  Biggest gripe: Major headwind and rollers on Lake Monroe, skeeters in camp

The fog sat like a thick blanket over the landscape as we rolled down S.R. 46, blue night giving way to a pink and amber horizon. It’s interesting how a day can start so calmly and then completely change.

After launching our kayaks back at the Jolly Gator, the tranquility of a foggy sunrise on Lake Harney conjured images of heaven, separating the line between water and sky. I was excited about this day ahead, knowing that we’d be passing through familiar Central Florida territory.

The river wound through grassy banks and past Mullet Lake Park, where we stopped for a short break, and out to Lake Monroe, which triggered justifiable worry.

The choppy waters rolled over the front of our kayaks, adrenaline pumping as we white-knuckled our way across the lake, struggling against Monroe’s fury one stroke at a time. We were each paddling our own kayak, but all were fighting the same battle.

After making it safely across the giant lake, my friend Tony and Tofu the dog greeted us at a boat ramp, giving me the pick-me-up I needed for the last few miles of the day. As the afternoon stretched on, I spotted hikers on the boardwalks at Black Bear Wilderness area shortly before we made camp on the eastern bank of the St. Johns, right near the confluence of the Wekiva River.

The campsite was quiet with a nice view but also featured pesky mosquitoes that took turns nibbling on our skin. As the sun faded out, a manatee and her calf swam right by our campsite — a natural wonder that embodied what made this trip worthwhile.

Day 5, Jan. 2: Overcoming adversity

•  Wake-up call: 5:50 a.m.

•  Off the water: 3 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Manatee, anhingas, bald eagle, purple gallinule, red-shouldered hawk, osprey, great blue heron, little blue heron, tri-colored heron, pileated woodpecker

•  Weather: High 61, low 48; sunny but breezy and cold

•  Mileage: 35

•  Memorable moment: Giant fire in camp

•  Best snack: Pecan pie

•  Biggest gripe: Chilly headwinds all day

By the time we reached Blue Spring right as the sun burst over the horizon, approximately halfway to Jacksonville, I knew I had the strength and persistence to see this through to the finish.

While feelings of inadequacy bounced around my head, the voices of self-doubt became my driving force to move forward and prove myself wrong.

I felt tough and capable, brave even. Probably a little crazy, but that comes with the territory.

The trip, which was supposed to take 10 days originally, turned into an 8-day trial to beat incoming wind and rain which was forecast toward the tail end of our trip. As we calculated our remaining mileage, we knew it would be a big push to finish the last 100 miles in 3 days, but what other option did we have?

My muscles were sore, and blisters coated my hand, but I wasn’t injured and didn’t have a good excuse to give up. So, I kept going.

This was also the day when I really began realizing the interconnectedness of our wildlife and lands. Every drop of water that hits this river and the surrounding land, from source to the sea, is connected.

We were encouraged to see snail kites on the upper portion of the river and even a short-tailed hawk, plus a few bald eagles and sandhill cranes as well.

But it was gut-wrenching to see a dead manatee on the river bank just north of Hontoon Island, the vultures picking at its decaying flesh. We called in the sighting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission as we wondered what peril — a boat strike? cold stress? — had sadly bested this manatee.

Day 6, Jan. 3: Suffering and springs

•  Wake-up call: 5:30 a.m.

•  Off the water: 7:45 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Osprey, great blue, bald eagle, otter kingfisher, swallows, otter

•  Weather: High 66, low 45; mostly cloudy with late rain

•  Mileage: 50

•  Memorable moment: F-18s flying overhead

•  Best snack: BBQ lunch, pizza for dinner

Gripe: Paddling in the dark … in the rain

“Everyone suffers. You have to know what is worth suffering for,” Greg said at one point in our trip.

There are different kinds of suffering. There’s the emotional turmoil that results from a breakup or the death of a loved one. There’s the kind of suffering that comes from lacking enough money to feel comfortable or the pain of desiring something you don’t or can’t have.

While this wasn’t a multi-week or monthslong expedition, we paddled 30-40 miles per day, pushing our bodies to the limit, in the process attempting to befriend physical suffering.

While my core, arms and back were doing more than their share of the work in getting to Jacksonville, being in the kayak seat eight hours each day, and sometimes longer, made my lower half ache equally as much. But when I focused on something other than the source of the pain, things seemed to hurt less.

To me, the bodily pain was rewarded by a deep connection with wild Florida as I felt more a part of my environment than ever before. Even though every day something different hurt — whether it was hands, legs, butt or back — I found a beautiful sense of mental clarity with so much time to ponder what I want out of life, the things I love about myself and the areas I wish to improve in 2024.

With plenty of time for meandering thoughts, Fred and I also figured out approximately how many paddle strokes we made each minute. If we did about 50 strokes per minute and I spent 70 hours in the seat on our trip, that would mean I put in more than 200,000 strokes in getting to Jacksonville.

As we began crossing Lake George (the largest lake on the St. Johns) just after 6 a.m., it was remarkably calm and our early wake-up time paid off in the form of a spectacular sunrise, silhouetting my fellow paddlers against a natural gradient of vibrant shades of orange, amber and purple.

On that crisp morning, steam rose from Silver Glen Springs, which we could see in the distance — one of nearly 150 known springs that connect with the river.

At the far side of the lake, we were treated to a roaring low-altitude flyover from two F-18 fighter jets, which made sense given our proximity to the Naval Air Station Jacksonville and the Pinecastle Bombing Range within Ocala National Forest. They were close enough that we could see the afterburners as the pair of jets whizzed by, just several hundred feet above our heads.

Conditions were mostly in our favor, and we welcomed the chance to take a midday break in Welaka, where we feasted on barbecued ribs, green beans and mac and cheese.

Even though ribs are high in protein, they made for a sluggish afternoon on our approach to Palatka, where we had a warm, dry place to stay for the night. Andrea Conover, the owner of Azalea City Brewing who previously paddled the entire St. Johns River, was kind enough to offer us a night indoors, complete with a hot shower.

But we miscalculated the distance to Conover’s riverfront property, meaning we were paddling until after dark as rain started to fall. We were already beyond fatigued as we slogged onward, entering our 11th hour in our kayak seats. We reached our destination around 7:30 p.m. at the end of an exhausting 50-mile day.

Our weary bodies were nourished with an extra large pizza, which I happily washed down with IPAs at the brewery. After a cleansing shower, I was thrilled to sleep in a warm bed so I could awaken, recharged, and ready to tackle the final 70 miles of our last two days.

Day 7, Jan. 4: A heavy dose of perspective

•  Wake-up call: 6:15 a.m.

•  Off the water: 7 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Raccoon

•  Mileage: 35

•  Weather: High 61, low 45; very windy

•  Memorable moment: Fighting for our lives in 15-20 mph headwinds

•  Best snack: Seafood linguini

•  Gripe: Worst headwinds and swells ever

It was amazing to witness the changing landscape from the southernmost grassy marshes to the high banks of the middle basin to the waterfront homes and docks that emerged as Jacksonville neared.

At the same time, I noticed a change in myself. I was physically exhausted but carrying a newfound determination and sense of grit I didn’t know I had. The miles wore on me, but simultaneously I felt at peace and accomplished.

Even though we had fought minor battles in getting to Palatka, our seventh day on the water felt like an all-out war. Setting off from Palatka early, we emerged from behind tall trees to face 15-20 mph headwinds, creating 2-3 foot swells with whitecaps rolling directly at us. While we could see the eastern bank of the river, perhaps miles away, I couldn’t even spot the northern shore and wondered how we would endure these conditions, which went further than the eye could see. As the river widened, it looked more like the ocean.

I panicked, thoughts racing as I considered the worst-case scenarios. This was the first time on the trip I felt truly nervous like one of us might flip a kayak and head into the drink (and that person might be me).

We had no choice but to go on. At certain points of the trip, a morbid mantra echoed through my brain: “If you stop paddling, you die.” Most of the time, I used it for motivation. This time, it felt like it could prove true.

I gripped my paddle harder than ever before, muscling through each stroke as our bows crashed over waves and flexed with each impact. Water washed over our decks and spray skirts, creating a puddle underneath my seat. My adrenaline pumped, knowing I had no option but to press onward, slowly but steadily making progress against natural forces.

Fred, a person of faith, sent a prayer up to the “Big Man” for the winds to die down and for our safe passage. While I’ll admit that I’m not particularly religious at this stage of my life, feeling like I was about to die in the chop made me think about all of the reasons I’m grateful for living.

As I grappled with the possibility of tipping over sideways against the force of a crashing wave, going into the water, getting hypothermia … a lot of thoughts went through my mind. My parents, my brothers, my grandparents, my cats, all my extended family and so many friends were counting on me to make it back from this in one piece. Happy memories rushed through my mind, giving me an unshakeable will to paddle onward. Failure was not an option; I had so much to look forward to.

It was also during this challenging stretch that I felt immensely grateful for Fred, who, at one point, waited for me to catch up just to ask how I was doing.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached dry ground, where we stretched, exhaled heavily, and grappled with the fact we still had 35 miles to make that day.

Fred’s prayers must have worked because the wind did subside, giving us a chance to speed up our pace and carry on. I was especially tired as the miles seemed to get longer and the afternoon changed to evening, casting a chilly breeze across the water.

We pulled our boats out after a 12-hour trek, soaking wet and shivering as the temperature plummeted. After changing into dry clothes, we walked to Julington Creek Fish Camp, where we garnered glances from people who looked at us like the wild animals we felt we were. I was shell-shocked by the number of people crowded into one space after being among the trees for a week. But I didn’t mind it too much, eagerly scarfing down seafood linguini as we warmed up inside.

Yet, as we took our welcome respite after the most difficult day of our trip, I could still hear the sound of the wind howling in my ears.

Day 8: The home stretch

•  Wake-up call: 4:30 a.m.

•  Off the water: 5 p.m.

•  Wildlife: Osprey, dolphins, pelicans, wood storks

•  Mileage: 38

•  Weather: High 68, low 42; breezy, sunny

•  Memorable moment: Paddling through downtown Jax, reaching the finish line

•  Best snack: Pub sub

•  Gripe: Fighting tide and headwinds

Sometime in the last year, my mom reminded me of a childhood story, one that I would have been too young to remember but helps explain why I turned out the way I am.

We were spending a sunny Pennsylvania afternoon canoeing on the Clarion River, taking a lunch break, when 4-year-old me began to swim away, causing her to reel me back in. I got fussy, and then it dawned upon her: I just wanted to reach the opposite side.

“You weren’t giving up,” she recalled. Once she finally swam with me across the creek, I was happy as a clam.

Since I was very young, I’ve had a desire to simply see what’s out there and a burning urge to make it to the other side.

We awoke hours before the sun, getting on the water around 5:30 a.m. with the hopes of going out with the tide. With only 35 or so miles left to the finish, I knew we would make it by the end of the day, but I couldn’t anticipate what lay between us and the ocean.

The river seemed determined to spite us one more time as underneath the I-295 bridge we battled headwinds and choppy waves that threatened to throw us sideways into the pylons. We reached downtown Jacksonville as the river narrowed, helping us float through the city center with ease as the current and tide carried us.

As we inched closer to the Atlantic, we grappled with the incoming tide. Forty-two million gallons of saltwater are flushed into the St. Johns every day, according to St. Johns Riverkeeper. Staying focused was challenging as the finish line still felt a world away.

Taking a break about 15 miles from the finish, Fred posed the question, “You think you have what it takes?” After some thought, feeling a little defeated, I replied: “Probably not,” although I knew quitting just hours from the finish line would mean failure in more ways than one. 

The wind started to blow from the east right as the river took a bend in that direction — another bit of spite? The St. Johns was determined to make us earn each and every mile right until the very end.

After three very long, hard days, I dug deep for the 15th time and almost hit rock bottom — but somehow found the will to forge onward, nerves of steel tucked in my back pocket for when I needed them most.

I was so close to returning to the creature comforts I so dearly missed. My thoughts undulated between Publix subs, a warm bed, my cats, ice cream in the freezer and everything else waiting for me at the end of this epic odyssey.

A welcome distraction was provided by interesting and different scenery as we paddled right next to massive Navy boats and gigantic container ships that made us look microscopic in comparison.

The sun was just starting to set when we rounded a bend and finally caught the Atlantic in our sights, causing me to both choke up and speed up. It didn’t matter how low my energy reserves were. The finish line was in sight.

“It’s OK if you need a minute,” Greg assured me, knowing that the end of such a journey can make for an emotional moment.

For all of the self-doubt, I had traveled the distance and quieted the negative voices in the back of my head, proving them wrong. I can’t remember a time when I felt more capable and magnificent than when our kayaks touched the sand at Huguenot Memorial Park, the Atlantic shimmering next to us.

As Fred, Greg and I gathered for a group photo after being greeted by Fred’s wife and the same guide who dropped us off eight days prior, I felt physically exhausted but spiritually fulfilled.

I had just experienced the most beautiful connection with nature and wild Florida, a full immersion that I won’t soon forget.

The river doesn’t care who you are or how many miles you have to make that day; it just exists and allows visitors into its treasures, at least those brave enough to seek them. I felt on top of the world and over the moon with my sense of achievement, but at the same time, I held tightly to the sense of feeling small — in the best possible way.


Back home, I laid on the carpeted floor while everything still felt like it was rocking. I wondered how long it would take for the sea-sick sensation to go away.

I examined my blistered, swollen, sunburnt hands, which were beginning to resemble baseball gloves, and wished them a speedy recovery.

In the hot shower I had been deprived of for days, I felt gratitude but also a different connection with water. I thought about how much I was using, but also how it has the power to both nourish, cleanse and destroy. I cataloged the ways that we disrupt the flow and natural harmony of nature, feeling especially thankful for the parts that have remained untouched and all the beauty I was able to behold.

Anything I took for granted before felt a little more special, from my TV and bed to a normal kitchen and a roof over my head.

I don’t know if I believe that human beings are exceptional. We have big brains, we’ve figured out how to harness the power of fire for cooking, and we have the power of introspection to process complex emotions and create self-narratives. But there are things we share in common with other members of the animal kingdom, from communication to using tools.

We’re certainly not the only ones capable of traveling great distances under our own power when you consider the migratory patterns of birds or sea turtles.

But it is impressive to behold the endurance of ultramarathoners, long-distance cyclists, climbers and paddlers who’ve traveled great lengths using the strength of their bodies. This trip itself gifted me a new level of perspective and self-confidence regarding my abilities.

I know I’m a changed man because of this adventure and particularly that one tumultuous, white-capped stretch of river, which seemed determined to test our limits and shake me to the core of my being.

While we didn’t set out in the hopes of breaking a record, I felt especially accomplished to learn that we now hold a place in the unofficial source-to-sea Hall of Fame. Jane Goddard, who was the first woman to thru-paddle the entire river in a solo kayak, said that we tied a record set by a group of tandem kayakers for completing the river in 7 days, 9 hours and 30 minutes. That revelation from the St. Johns’ unofficial paddling historian meant that we were the fastest-known solo kayakers to complete the entire river.

While that was exciting to learn, that was far from the most important takeaway from this trip. I think part of what makes humans unique is that we are capable of scratching our insatiable itch to explore, expressing our curiosity and fulfilling our desire to know what’s out there. For someone such as myself, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

©2024 Orlando Sentinel.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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