Meet Jodi Eller, the first woman to complete the entire Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail (CT). The St. Augustine based kayak guide for St. Augustine EcoTours and environmental science teacher at Flagler College completed the trek December 21, 2013, paddling most of it in 2008 with husband Matt Keene–the first “thru” paddler of the CT. Her monumental accomplishment is helping to shed light on the importance of preserving Florida’s breathtaking wilderness as well as paving the way for future paddlers looking to attempt this incredible life-changing journey.
The Clymb: Can you tell me a little bit about the CT?
Jodi Eller: The CT is a 1,515-mile trail around the perimeter of Florida. It is a strategic long-term priority of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, being coordinated by the Office of Greenways and Trails, designed in 26 sections so the average paddler can head out from anywhere along Florida’s coast and spend a day, weekend or months with access to camping, food, and fresh water. What makes this trail special is that the CT traverses 20 national parks, seashores, wildlife refuges and marine sanctuaries, 37 Florida aquatic preserves, and 47 Florida state parks, along with numerous local parks and preserves.
The Clymb: What made you decide to tackle this awe-inspiring expedition?
Jodi Eller: I actually started the trail back in 2008 along with Matt Keene and Matt Gallagher. We all had visions of completing the CT after three months, but I got off the trail 2.5 months later having completed 1,100 miles. I honestly was disgusted and saddened at all the development that was happening around me in the state and I wanted to experience the raw, untouched Florida. I felt this was a unique opportunity to experience Florida from the water. I had done some long distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail and got accustomed to living in wild areas out of a tent, carrying my own food/water, moving all day long. I was hooked on this type of lifestyle and now living on the water for three months would only add to my experience. I grew up with values like ‘live simply, so others can simply live’ and this trail aligned directly with my values.
The Clymb: How did you prepare for the trip?
Jodi Eller: I contacted the DEP and relied heavily on the Guide Book and trail maps. I also dehydrated fruits and vegetables and tried to arrange fellow kayakers to join me on certain sections. I did only one shakedown paddle with my boat and gear…something I would definitely recommend for long distance kayakers.
The Clymb: What was one of the most memorable parts of the trip for you?
Jodi Eller: The entire 74-mile section down in Everglades National Park really stands out. The remoteness and 100 miles of untouched shoreline revealed a part of Florida that I only thought existed in History books. I paddled solo for three days, seeing only two fishermen the entire trip. Each day in the everglades my thoughts grew quieter as the wildlife surrounding me grew louder. I was filled with the lasting impression that humans here were just passive visitors and that this entire place functioned entirely without human intrusion, an idea that seemed unimaginable given Florida’s crowded coastline and increased development.
The wildlife along the trail was also amazing. I witnessed a black bear cub scamper down a tree, dolphins, bald eagles, white pelicans, pilot whale carcasses, manatees, a screech owl sitting on a branch over my tent one night. Daily I would see sharks swim by my boat in 2 to 3 feet of water. At night I would hear dolphins chasing fish in the shallows outside my tent.
The Clymb: You completed the paddle. What about it has impacted you the most?
Jodi Eller: It has definitely made me realize that Florida needs to be protected. Florida’s wild places are just as attractive as its golf courses and theme parks.
It has shaped my career path as an Environmental Educator and made me realize that I want to spend my days enjoying wild places. Spending six months on the trail made me want to give people those experiences, because I’ve seen the changes that it has given me.
It turned me into an environmentalist. I’ve noticed that I consume less and pay more attention to the amount of water I use and how much pollution and trash I produce. I am living much simpler, only buying things that I need.
These trips have guided my selection of where I feel the most at home. There has been a total change of not only my values, but in feeling what nature has done to me. It has nurtured and healed. I could not live anywhere that had more pavement than trees, or more pavement than water.
The Clymb: As the first woman to accomplish this, what do you want people to take from your experience? Or maybe learn about Florida?
Jodi Eller: Florida is a great state to see wildlife and there is opportunity to witness it by just stepping out your front door. Long distance trails, like the CT encourages people to get outdoors and experience life in a new way. Something changes when you have to carry your gear, day after day and get to places with nothing but your ability to get you there. Something changes in your mind to where you value things in life a little differently. The need for stuff is diminished. No one is demanding anything from you, or of you. The only thing that you’re left with are the essential needs of survival–finding shelter, finding food, dealing with weather conditions, thinking about safety and space. You’re stripped down to the primordial essence of what humans evolved out of. It’s very freeing and this trail whether kayaking for a day, a weekend, or longer gives you a chance at experiencing something truly remarkable.
The Clymb: What advice do you have for others wanting to attempt this trail?
Jodi Eller: I think my number one thing would be to talk to people who have done the sections you want to do. Word of mouth is the best guidebook there is. But with that being said, the number two thing would be definitely get good maps and use the guide book.