On my most recent trip to South Florida, I opted out of the state’s ocean-side scenery and traveled inland to experience wildlife viewing on an expansive, freshwater, cypress-slough lake. This part of Florida is home to thousands of acres of shallow-water swamps, canals and lakes. It’s also home to myriad nature tour guides who specialize in guiding tourists from watercraft such as pontoons, massive flat-bottomed skiffs and go-anywhere airboats.
More adventuresome folks can opt to experience nature by renting a kayak from one of the many small-boat outfitters.
While taking an airboat tour is a blast, the quietness afforded by a kayak allows for closer approaches to wildlife. For photographers like me, stealth and proximity always trump the comfort of any large boat.
Upper Midwest nature enthusiasts don’t have to travel to far-flung destinations like Florida to find quality wildlife-viewing water to paddle. There’s plenty of great water across the region. The area boasts many rivers and thousands of wildlife-laden lakes and reservoirs for paddlers to explore.
Much of our water can be navigated by canoe as well, but properly designed kayaks are more efficient, safer and, most times, quieter — if you purchase the correct type.
Kayaks designed for shooting rapids and handling wicked river corners are not what most animal watchers need. Rather, they should look for a boat that features stability and quietness as its hallmarks. Speed and pinwheel turning characteristics aren’t necessary for sneaking within camera or binocular range of birds.
My chosen kayak is a 14-foot model that has a wide beam and features a unique tunnel hull, which allows me to stand in the boat without worry. The fore and aft ends have sharp entry angles for excellent tracking. The boat is constructed from quiet, durable polyethylene, molded in a dull-camouflaged pattern — ideal for both photography and waterfowl hunting trips.
Most importantly, it has an open cockpit where I can keep my camera bag handy for quick access.
There are some sit-on-top kayak models that are incredibly stable, but those can get you wet — not a great option for paddling frosty spring or fall waters.
Without a doubt, my favorite time of year to explore our lakes and marshes via kayak is right now, as winter’s ice pulls away from shorelines and dissolves in warm bays. The crisp, early morning air coupled with waves of incoming migrating birds makes it the perfect time to be on the water. Plus, you’re practically guaranteed quiet solitude this early in the open water season. Just make doubly sure to don a quality life jacket as a dunking in icy water could prove deadly without one.
On one of my last outings, birds were few, but the water was flat calm, so I eased the kayak through a channel in head-high cattails. Each effortless stroke of the paddle propelled the boat many yards, giving me ample time to listen for birds in the thick cover.
Moments later, I heard the distinctive call of a pie-billed grebe. Pie-billed grebes are vociferous water birds and some of the first migrators to arrive on our lakes in spring. The small, chunky birds can often be seen foraging for minnow prey in shallow bays lined with protective stands of rushes and cattails.
I coasted the kayak to a stop, and seconds later, a grebe appeared from around a bend in the channel, giving me plenty of time to burn off several frames at close range before it dove and relocated to safer water. I rounded out the morning by securing numerous images of yellow-headed blackbirds as they vied for optimum nest sites.
My next outing was an exercise in speed paddling and brevity. Minutes after launching the craft into a serene backwater slough, I noticed that despite my best efforts, the boat wasn’t cruising too well. My diagnostic check didn’t take too long as I quickly noticed the boat was filling with chilly water!
I spun the boat around and made a mad dash back to the landing where I pulled the craft atop a huge fallen cottonwood and watched as streams of water ran from both ends of the kayak. After hundreds of outings, I had finally abraded small holes in both aft and bow. My paddling was done for the day — not even an industrial coat of Flex-Seal could have repaired it.
I wanted to repair the boat to not only stop the leaks but withstand future abrasions.
I settled on using a heat gun and plastic cut from a black, five-gallon utility bucket. I used a thin cutting wheel chucked in a die-grinder to deftly slice out proper size pieces of plastic from the bucket. Once that was accomplished, I heated the plastic until it was super-hot and pliable and lightly heated the kayak and welded the pieces together. I added another layer for security and after the project cooled, rasped and filed the work for a finished look. The resulting fix was both leak-proof and durable.
My newly mended kayak will be on the water any day wind is low and sun bright.
Anyone who launches a kayak this time of year will be rewarded with dozens of opportunities to see wildlife during the chaotic spring migration. All that’s necessary to witness our area’s natural flourish is a kayak — providing it isn’t leaking.