Sunday, September 3, 2017

SUP Adventure to Cape Romano "Dome Home" Ruins

Last week's events offered a preview of future climate change and sea level rise. Whilst Houston was suffering unprecedented, tragic flooding from Hurricane Harvey (which was strengthened by abnormally high ocean temperatures and atmospheric moisture levels related to anthropogenic global warming), Southwest Florida was deluged by a separate tropical precipitation system, resulting in significant flooding in my area, the likes of which hadn't been seen in decades. After the rains my graduate student measured salinity levels in our local estuary, Estero Bay, and found no salinity levels higher than 9 anywhere in the Bay. The normal salinity level of seawater is 35; I fear many marine organisms such as the brittle stars that carpet the bay bottom will perish at < 9 salinity. Extreme precipitation events like these are likely to increase in both frequency and severity as climate change progresses, especially if the nations of the world are slow to transition from unsustainable fossil fuels (which create the CO2 pollution that is the primary driver of the current warming trend) to renewable energy. The consequences of extreme precipitation, e.g., flooding, are also likely to be exacerbated by land development trends. As we replace forests and wetlands (which are pretty good at absorbing rain and transferring it to the groundwater) with impervious surfaces like roads, malls, and sprawling urban/suburban development, floodwaters are less able to soak into the ground and more likely to flow fast over land. We need to build less, and build smarter, to prepare for what's coming.

In keeping with the week's "climate catastrophe preview" theme, some buddies and I made a difficult pilgrimage to a unique Southwest Florida site that epitomizes the folly of building along the eroding shores of a rising sea: The "Dome Homes" of Cape Romano. The history of the homes is described in detail on Wikipedia and other easily-googleable websites so I'll be brief here. Basically, the dome homes were one of several "off the grid" homesteads built on remote Caxambas Island, south of Marco Island, as far south as you can possibly go on the west coast of Florida before reaching the vast, uninhabited "10,000 islands" region where the Everglades wetlands meet the Gulf of Mexico in a maze of mangroves, sandbars, and oyster beds. The dome homes and the other weird off-the-grid houses on Caxambas Island (one was a pyramid) were actually pretty cool examples of sustainable living, with features for collecting rainwater, heating and cooling naturally etc. They just weren't in a safe location, as shifting sands and rising seas ate them away in the late 20th and early 21st century. As the shoreline retreated, the Dome Homes went from being in a dry sand dunes area, to being awash on the beach, to now being over 100 m offshore, permanently surrounded by water.

It's a long paddle from the nearest SUP launch to Cape Romano, and my buddies chose an even longer route to make sure they got enough distance training for the ultra long distance "Chattajack" race they are doing in Tennessee this fall. The Chattajack team is Matt Kearney, Robert "SUPerman" Norman, and Bill Mussenden. I'm too chicken to do the Chattajack myself, but I couldn't resist this chance to join the guys today and see the Dome Homes. We intended to launch at 7:30 am, but delayed until 11:00 am to let some storms pass through. The launch site was a bridge near Goodland Florida, a tiny outpost in the mangrove fringe of the Everglades.

We all brought 14' boards. Bill's was a 14x27 custom Indigo sup with a green leprechaun theme. Matt brought his new 14x23 Starboard Allstar. Robert and I were both on 14x23 Riviera RP raceboards. We all brought backpacks full of water, snacks, and various energy / electrolyte drinks and goos. The route was around 26 km, which is less than the Chattajack, but still a lot farther than I had ever paddled or wanted to paddle. I figured we'd be going at a relatively slow pace, though, and with a long stop for lunch the paddle wouldn't be too challenging for me. Ha!

Almost immediately after we started paddling we got our first warning that things might be more difficult than imagined. Very shallow water and an incoming tide kept our speeds slower than expected despite our working together in a draft train, trading leaders every 800 m. Then, about 2.4 km in, Matt announced that he wasn't feeling quite himself and couldn't keep up with our pace. He hypothesized that he'd slept on the wrong side of the bed, or mixed the wrong kind of energy powder into his water, or filled too many sandbags to protect his house earlier in the week. Things got worse as we left the sheltered waters near Goodland and entered a long sidewind/upwind stretch in the choppy waters of Gullivan Bay. Matt and Bill stayed near to shore and made directly for the cut through Caxambas Island, while Robert and I were feeling peppy and impatient and paddled more into the wind for a while so that we could take a direct downwind line to the cut, practicing our bump-riding skills. The fastest part of the route was the cut through Caxambas Island, where the water was flat and the current was now ebbing and in our favor. Robert, Bill and I regrouped there and made good progress in a draft train.

When we emerged into the Gulf of Mexico we turned south along the eroded western shore of the island, facing some headwind and some tricky currents where tidal inlets gushed out of inner passages in the island. I tried to hug the coastline and duck into little bays to get out of the wind, and I picked up the pace, figuring if I lost the other guys I'd just wait up for them when we got to the dome homes. The landscape was beautiful, with jade green water, white beaches, and rugged piles of driftwood where the receding coast was scouring away the mangrove forest. Coming out of one of the minor bays I caught my first glimpse of the dome homes in the distance. It was rough getting to them, though, because the wind and chop had increased and they were straight upwind. I was happy to finally arrive, take a few pictures, then retreat to a small patch of beach to rest and recover. Robert and Bill were just a little bit behind me, and Matt wasn't much further back. We had paddled approximately two hours.Below is the GPS track from the trip to the domes, and some pictures.

I felt OK, but as I ate my lunch I started to worry that I hadn't brought enough water, because I'd more than half drained what was in the pouch in my camelback. After another round of selfies and stuff we started the return journey, this time rounding the southern end of Cape Romano and crossing Gullivan Bay instead of cutting through the island. The outgoing tidal current was ripping hard at Cape Romano, and didn't diminish much as we turned north into Gullivan Bay. Even with the wind and chop at our backs we were going about 2 km slower than normal pace, and had to cling to the shoreline where the current was less. Eventually, though, we had to veer into the open water to get to where we were going. Around then is when I ran out of water and started to feel various kinds of unpleasant soreness and fatigue that increased through the rest of the paddle. At least I didn't have to go fast, because the other guys were also slowed down by the fatigue and side-chop.

The shoreline to the west of us was a series of mangrove islands punctuated by points and inlets that all looked alike. It was hard to tell which one would be our turn to get back towards Goodland. The last thing I wanted to do at that point was paddle even longer than necessary because I was lost. In the distance I spotted a boat that was drifting along, fishing, and I decided to ask them for directions. Unfortunately the boat was about a kilometer away across a bay with lots of current and side chop, so it took me a while to get there and put me a little off course. Thankfully, the friendly fishermen pointed me in the right direction, and the other paddlers behind me saw which way I went after that so they didn't have to paddle quite as far before turning. The final phase of the paddle was frustrating, as the ebb tide current coming out of Goodland was quite strong, the mid day sun was blazing, and we were totally sore and fatigued. For me, that part was worse than any of the rough open water stuff had been. All my muscles felt like they were right on the verge of cramping, and even getting off and on the board for cool-off dip in the water was a delicate operation. Robert and Matt both had to spend some time just sitting on their boards and trying to talk themselves out of giving up, but eventually we all made it back to Goodland. Here's the track for the return trip.

Bill, thank goodness, had tons of extra water bottles in his truck, and I chugged two of them before laying down in the bed of Robert's truck almost in a coma of soreness and exhaustion. Gradually, after more water, and some gas station snacks and gatorade, the feelings of whole-body stiffness and misery diminished. But I'll need a while before I'm ready for another crazy long paddle like that.