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Hernando's new trail makes paddling coastal marsh simple

Our canoe slipped under the Shoal Line Boulevard bridge and past the fishing pier at Jenkins Creek Park and into an unpopulated expanse of blue water, blue sky and black-tipped needle grass.

So, after all these years, we'd made it. We had transported ourselves into one of the most inviting parts of Hernando County but also, until recently, one of the most intimidating.

All that coastal marsh looks great from behind a car windshield. But it's not quite land, not quite water. You can't walk on it. And how could a regular person, one of us with just a kayak or canoe and without charts and fancy navigational equipment, hope to find his or her way through the maze-like channels of open water?

Well, now you just follow the big signs with the crossed paddles that mark the 1.7-mile route of the county's new Bayport-Linda Pedersen Paddling Trail, which officially opened this week.

"It's a chance for folks to see our coastal resources," said Keith Kolasa, the county aquatic services and waterways manager who directed the $10,000 project.

It will take pressure off the Weeki Wachee River — which is often packed bank-to-bank with kayaks and canoes — and it counts as one more item on the growing list of opportunities for outdoor recreation in a county pitching itself as destination for adventurers.

It's designed to be long enough to appeal to them: a 4.9-mile round trip for kayakers and canoeists who choose to extend it with the detour down an out-of-the way, saltwater cul-de-sac called Redfish Bayou. But it's also accessible to paddlers with limited navigating skills.

"That's kind of what we had in mind — make it adventurous but kind of simple," Kolasa said.

Simple sounded good to me, and I'm sure to my son, Noah, who has been my partner in many previous outdoor trips and at least as many panicked interludes of head scratching and map gazing as I tried to figure out where we had lost our way and how we could possibly find it again.

Thankfully, on our preview trip of the trail last week, we saw that the launch at Linda Pedersen had been marked not only with the first of those crossed-paddle signs but a big plywood placard painted by Girl Scout Troop 317 describing the sights — including ospreys, cabbage palms and mangroves — that paddlers can expect to see on the route.

Noah and I saw most of them.

"Manatee," he called out in the wide channel of Jenkins Creek, just west of the park, and pointed to an especially bulky specimen drifting beneath the surface a few feet to the right of our canoe.

A great blue heron slowly levitated from a grassy bank just after we made the turn to Redfish. A raft of waterfowl with white on the side of their heads and at the base of their wings stayed a few hundred yards off our bow during the entire paddle down the winding channel to the bayou.

Probably bufflehead ducks, my birding friends told me after I returned, but maybe horned grebes. Either way, they completed the peaceful scene at Redfish, where we stopped for a notably panic-free interlude.

Noah asked me what exactly a bayou is, and though generally speaking I'm still not sure, I can tell this one is a shining saltwater lake with a rim of needle grass and, further from the water, pines and cedars that waved gracefully in a seaward breeze. The sound of it was almost enough to drown out the faint hum of traffic on Shoal Line, which you'd otherwise never guess is only half-mile to the east.

No trail is quite foolproof, no adventure complete without at least a couple of misadventures.

I dropped my cell phone trying to a take a picture of that first bridge over Jenkins Creek and then proved to my son that I could retrieve it the old-fashioned way, plunging under the surface and feeling around on the creek bottom, but disproved the overblown claims of water resistance for my smartphone; it flickered briefly on the shore before going permanently black.

Also, a sign a half-mile from Bayport seemed to direct us to the south and west of two islands rather than to the east of them, the most direct route. Kolasa said he planned one more sign for those of us who need this simple trail to be just a little simpler.

We stopped for a snack at Bayport after parking our canoe at the launch there, marked with another of Troop 317's informative signs. I then surprised myself and Noah by making it back without a single additional mishap, completing a highly satisfactory two-hour circuit.

It was simple enough for me to safely navigate. Surely, it will be simple enough for you.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

Hernando's new trail makes paddling coastal marsh simple 03/15/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 6:30pm]
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