Jodi Eller: First Woman to Complete the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail

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.