One of the best-kept secrets in St. Petersburg, FL, when I was living there were the Weedon Island canoe trials. They weren’t unknown, but few residents, and almost no tourists, traveled them. From a tourist perspective, this is understandable. Who spends money to go to Florida to paddle through mangrove swamps?
When I was living there, the county had started to build the boardwalks to allow foot traffic through the preserve, and none of the present observation towers had been constructed. Now it looks like Pinellas county has invested big money in the boardwalk system and an interpretive center.
Back in the day, the canoe trails were (and still are) the big draw. All you needed was a canoe and a couple of willing backs. I was fortunate to have one friend with a canoe whose house backed onto a canal that linked with trail system. But if he wasn’t up for a paddle, it was no big deal to rent a canoe, put it in the truck, and put in at the preserve. In a very few minutes you could feel miles away from the city. It was a great way to relax.
Relaxation would often be helped along by the moderate consumption of adult beverages, or, in those days, other, um, enhancers. We never forgot that we were in an unstable craft on the water, albeit only a couple of feet of deep in most of the mangrove tunnels. We may have regularly broken the preserve’s rules regarding allowable items in the boat, but we weren’t complete idiots.
The environment promotes a leisurely pace, as do some of the obstacles in the tunnels. The website warns of becoming stranded on some of the trails at low tide, but some tunnels are barely passable at high tide, as the rising water presses you up against the canopy. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself in the incongruous position of breaking trial while seated in a boat.
You also want to pick a day that’s not too warm. The canoe trails are in a swamp, which means the air is saturated, and the thick vegetation tends to trap heat. Remember that you’re also paddling a boat, so you’re doing some work.
Most trail sections end in bayous like the one above. There are signs that indicate the beginnings of additional trail sections. The bayous are good places to rest and drift before tackling the next section of trail. Some parts of the network require short open water transfers across Tampa Bay. 1 and 2 foot waves may not seem like much from shore, but in a canoe it’s a different story. We always transited these stretches with a will.
Some of my favorite memories of St. Petersburg were lazy days spent in a canoe with a friend on the trails of the Weedon Island swamps. If you’re in the Tampa Bay area, and have a half-day to spend, I recommend it.