Buffalo is pretty much on the map because people know about its harsh winters, and I think I’ve only survived in Buffalo this long by escaping as much as I can in those harsh months. My husband Kevin Cullen and I both grew up visiting family who escaped permanently from Buffalo to Florida. As we learned to SUP surf and kite surf, Florida was a great getaway place to not only thaw out but also chase the wind and waves.
We loaded up our Mazda minivan with three Pau Hana paddleboards, four Kialoa Paddles, two Kokatat Orbit Tour PFD’s, two short boards, a kiteboard, three kites, two Onewheels, camping equipment, snorkel gear, and anything else we may need for two weeks in sunny FLA.
We were able to travel a lot this year and the reason for that was our incredible green tinted minivan which we named MAZDONNA. She’s a beauty and with her we never have to pay for lodging. We can pull up anywhere, play Tetris in the back of the van shifting everything to one side, blow up our sleeping pads, and get comfy for a surprisingly nice sleep. The nice thing is once in Florida all the beaches have showers and bathrooms so it’s no problem.
As soon as we arrived and saw the ocean I started feeling butterflies in my belly. I love the ocean so much. We immediately pulled over in Jacksonville and went for a nice swim. I love the beat down the ocean gives me the first couple days and the confidence that builds up after. I love all the sea creatures that pop up that you don’t get to see in Lake Erie and the way the salt feels on my skin. The ocean is magical and does wonders for my soul.
We found some fun messy waves in Daytona at Ormond Beach but pretty much got skunked on waves the rest of the trip. So it was time to chase the wind. We got one good day of kiting at Pompano Beach. It was great wind, clear water and very scenic with the lighthouse in the backdrop. Then the wind died for a few days, so we trained. Everyday we would wake up early, do SUP Yoga, go for a run on the beach at Boca Inlet, followed by a nice swim in the Ocean. After some food and coffee, we headed out on the water for a good long SUP adventure.
We made our way down to the Keys to meet up with a fellow Pau Hana Rider and Kiteboarder Blake Olsen, and Rob Oliverio who owns Mellow Ventures Key West - which offers not-to-miss Eco Tours and has a great gear shop with really yummy food, a juicebar, great coffee, and craft beer!
The drive down to the Keys is amazing. We started having a little car trouble but Mazdonna really wanted to make it to Key West and she did! Once there Rob let us park our van in a lot he was renovating. It was a great little spot tucked away from the street with trees overhanging the van which kept all the light out. It was perfect except for the resident roosters at 4:30 am letting everyone know that the sun would be up in a few hours.
Our first day in the Keys we got some really fun kiting in at Smathers Beach with Blake and his friends. We hung out that night sharing stories and listening to some of Blake’s crazy childhood adventures growing up in Saudi Arabia. The tall, blond hair blue eyed boy and his family are such inspirational people. He taught me to travel where I want with a good heart and to not have fear of what could happen. Hopefully one day you can meet this guy!
The next day Rob from Mellow Ventures took us on an unbelievable paddle through the mangroves in the back country of the Keys. It was wild finding little tunnels through the mangroves, pulling the branches to get through the dense trail that opened up into a channel that led to another small trail - it was magical. It was also abundant with wildlife; we saw bonnet head sharks, nurse sharks, black tips, barracuda, crabs, so many birds and lots of fish. Then all of a sudden around the bend, there was the coolest screened-in floating cottage. A house in the middle of the mangroves, out in the middle of nowhere - it seemed so surreal. We docked our paddle boards, relaxing at the incredible house. I kept thinking I could totally learn to live and survive out here.
I spent the day casting a hand line and catching snapper after snapper. Rob went for a snorkel and came up with a GIANT Crab, and Kevin was hunting for lobsters. We had a beautiful sunset paddle, then Rob made us a small fire in his grill. After dark Rob and his girlfriend headed back through the Mangroves. I had no idea how they were going to make it back in the dark, but he seemed to really know his way around back there. It was a magical night watching the stars and enjoying being out in the backcountry alone together, and it just so happened to be Valentines Day which made it more romantic.
I didn’t want to leave the cabin. It’s a dream of mine to be totally off the grid, catching my own food, learning how to survive in the wild, and I hope to one day go back there to do this.
We spent our last few days in the Keys hanging out with Blake and his friends, paddling, slacklining, Onewheeling and exploring. Blake took us on a night paddle with some NocQua lights and it was so amazing. We saw baby lobsters and rays, and tons of fish and bioluminescence.
Heading back North we stopped at Bahia Honda, a beautiful place to paddle. We saw a moray eel, eagle rays, a giant hermit crab living in a conch shell and a starfish the size of a basketball!
Then north of Tampa we did some really cool paddles in spring fed rivers. Homossasa Spring was unforgettable. Starting off our paddle we saw Monkey Island, an island with half a dozen monkeys living on it. As I tried to get one to jump on my board I heard a lady yell out ‘be careful they may bite your face off’ so I pulled away quickly.
Homossasa River is famous for spotting Manatees, so when I saw a giant shadow in the water close by I got right on top of it and noticed it had large scales and looked similar to an alligator. I freaked out when the alligators tail snapped, and paddled quickly away. My board was leaving a swirling trail behind and I believed that trail was the alligator chasing me. It took some time to get my body to stop quivering.
Once up stream we spotted snorkelers who had been dropped off by boat; this is where all the Manatees were hanging out. We jumped in the water with these giant gentle creatures and were completely amazed at how social and beautiful they are.
The springs were so vivid in color, the turquoise blues and bright aqua colors were unbelievable. Rainbow Spring was by far the clearest water I’ve ever seen, and was even more clear looking underwater than above. We spotted lots of turtles, which are my favorite creature to see in the wild. We practiced free diving and got caught in a chilly rain storm while paddling back. It was AWESOME and reminded us of the cold that lay ahead back in Buffalo.
Driving the 17 hours back to Buffalo, we reminisced on how unforgettable the paddling, kiting, and friends of Florida had been. Luckily, as we pulled into our home on the shores of Lake Erie in late February, we saw that the ice on shore had melted. Armed with our Kokatat dry suits and insulation we were able to get back out into the water chasing the wind and waves.
I kept thinking I could totally learn to live and survive out here.