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Paddlers Complete 320-Mile Trek up the St. Johns River

by Matt
Categories: Neat
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Published on: June 14, 2012

Sixteen days and almost 320 miles after taking their first paddle strokes at the beginning of the St. Johns River, just one thing stood between them and their final destination two miles away: A looming, lowering thunderstorm over Mayport.

It threatened for a half hour or so Tuesday, then hit at 2:55 p.m., bringing lightning, whitecaps and sideways rain. Twenty minutes later it blew past, and Ty Miller, Ryan Barber and Courtney Harasz readied their stand-up paddleboards for one more leg of their trip, headed for where the river hits the ocean.

With that, the Beaches men — joined at Mayport by family and friends — finished a journey that took them up the length of the St. Johns River, from its navigable beginning in Brevard County to its mouth at Huguenot Park.

That storm was the final obstacle on their paddling and camping trip, which they made to raise funds for and awareness of the St. Johns Riverkeeper,

“It was not easy,” said Harasz, 28. “The river did not hand us anything.”

They went the whole way standing up on 14-foot, stand-up paddleboards, with camping gear, clothing and food lashed on top.

After leaving on Memorial Day, they paddled past hundreds of alligators, pulling into a tight three-man formation to appear larger. They saw a herd of about 50 cows thundering across a shallow spot in the river. They dodged packs of airboats (“it was like Biketoberfest,” Barber said). And they ducked thunderstorms, experiencing Florida’s rainy spell first-hand just about every day of the trip.

They found hospitable people the entire length of the river, especially as word of their trip spread along on the river grapevine.

“If we would have drank a beer for every house that offered one, we’d have been hammered the whole way,” Miller, 27, said Monday night as the trio pulled up to The Jacksonville Landing, with lightning flashing nearby.

“People would come out on their docks to greet us,” said Barber, 27.

One day a hippie family living on the riverfront invited them in for a music jam; they had children named Sun and Shine. Another time, some good old boys at a fish camp gave them a shot of moonshine right before their one nighttime paddle; in the paddlers’ worn-out condition, that probably wasn’t a great idea.

They started out from Blue Cypress Lake, wending their way through lakes and skinny and shallow waterways before the river widened farther north. They made at least 20 miles a day, paddling between seven and 12 hours depending on winds and the tides.

They marveled at the long, unspoiled sections of the river, especially to the south. “I’m a sixth-generation Floridian, and it’s getting harder and harder to find undeveloped Florida,” Miller said. “But it’s there.”

They posted details of their journey on Facebook using a solar generator to power their phones. They plan to hold a fundraiser for the Riverkeeper on June 24 at Mellow Mushroom in Jacksonville Beach.

They camped along the way and ate trail mix, dehydrated food and some donated meals, with stops at occasional fish camps.

On Monday, they had one last night of camping out, on Goat Island just past downtown.

But first things first: a trip to Chicago Pizza, overlooking the river at the Landing. “I haven’t had pizza in a while,” Briggs said. “They don’t make those in little bags.”

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