Kayaking

Kayaking Baylands Preserve, Sept 2018

Baylands Nature Preserve is a little piece of the San Francisco Peninsula that was a yacht club, then a landfill, and is now a two-thousand acre tract of pickleweed marshland protected from development and owned by the City of Palo Alto, with fifteen miles of trails and a kayak launch.


It’s adjacent to San Francisquito Creek and the Palo Alto Flood Basin.


We kayaked there a couple weekends in September.


The water’s pretty shallow, and the winds, blowing northeast, were a chore. We talked to a wind surfer who said a 15 mph northeast wind is pretty typical there.


It was very scenic though.

We saw gulls,


great egret

some beady-eyed vultures

the cutest least sandpipers


and some metal birds (Palo Alto Airport is a stone’s throw away).

And on one occasion, we were serenaded by a talented saxophonist

as we packed up to go.

Resources Consulted:
How to Identify White Herons—Excerpt from “Better Birding” Book, The Cornell Lab or Ornithology
Least Sandpiper, Audubon Guide to North American Birds
Map of The Baylands, City of Palo Alto
Officials unveil first phase of San Francisquito Creek flood protection, Palo Alto Online
Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve (Wikipedia)
Palo Alto Baylands Preserve, San Francisco Bay Trail (lots of great information and photos in here)
San Francisquito Creek Baylands Map, Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks
Shorebird Identification, Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey

Sea Lions and Otters and Whales oh my! Jul-Aug 2018

Santa Cruz was one of the first places we explored upon settling down in San Mateo County. Why? Well, it’s surrounded by redwood forests, it has a magnificent wharf, it’s the birthplace of Santa Cruz Skateboards (the screaming hand logo is awesome), and it has an amazing outdoors scene.

Santa Cruz Harbor is on the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is part of the migratory route of many whale species, and the site of massive kelp forests that are home to sea otters, seals and sea lions. We went there to kayak almost every weekend in July and August.

South Harbor Launch Ramp charged $8/day for parking in 2018 (according to their website, the fees change so regularly that it’s not worth listing them), but did not charge a launch fee for kayaks. Although the parking lot is large and we always managed to find a spot, it did get packed on days when the weather was perfect.

Harbor staff were very friendly and very helpful, which is amazing given the demands of their job: they’re under the hot sun, directing parking, and coordinating the movement of boats – big and small, commercial and personal, from water taxis to tugboats – and even liaising with ambulances.

One day a murmur moved through the crowd of pedestrians threading their way along the South Harbor sidewalk to restaurants, bathrooms and the beach, that a boater had burned his hand at sea while maintaining his engine. As we inflated our kayak with a yellow hand pump, I heard snippets of conversation over harbor staff walkie-talkies that seemed to confirm the rumor. Sure enough, an ambulance pulled up and, just as we were about to launch, a tugboat pulled into view. As we pushed off of the pier and paddled away, harbor and ambulance staff, who had been saving their energy and keeping cool under whatever shade they could find, jumped into action.

Our first paddle in Monteray Bay was absolutely amazing. The water was still as oil (“comme l’huile” they say in France), and there was so much to see: pelicans and cormorants diving into the water, people old and young fishing along the harbor walls leading to Walton Lighthouse,

surfers queuing up and catching waves in Steamer Lane,

otters frolicking in the kelp forests,

seals making a ruckus inside the labyrinth of beams that hold up Santa Cruz Wharf, onlookers on the Wharf craning their bodies over railings to see what the ruckus was all about,

dolphins playing the way only dolphins can (sorry, no photos), birds having a good gossip over their morning tea,

sleepy sea lions reclining on Seal Rock,

flocks of common murre floating peacefully, boaters sailing slowly out to sea, and here and there clusters of colorful rental kayaks that seemed to extend the colors of the canvas created by Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Amusement Park out onto the water.

One time we saw a blue whale. Heading out to the bay, I caught what sounded like the word “whale” over a megaphone as we moved over to let an O’Neill Charter Yacht pass us. Intrigued, we decided to paddle in the direction of the yacht. Only moments later, we saw a huge plume of water shoot out of the bay about 200 feet away, followed by the sudden appearance of a gigantic tail! The megaphone informed us that it was a blue whale. Every minute or so huge plumes shot out of the water as the giant, watery shadow of the whale moved northward.

On another occasion, a gang of seals (or “sea dogs” as Ollie likes to call them; the expression on his face when they disappear under the water is priceless) surrounded us. We were paddling slowly over the kelp, puzzling over what type of bird it was that was making a sound like “adam,” when we saw a herd of seals ahead of us. We followed the National Marine Sanctuaries guidelines for ocean etiquette and began back paddling away from them, only to discover another herd behind us. So we stopped paddling and waited for them to pass. But instead of passing us, they began to pop their heads up out of the water, one after another, and look at us. It became a game to try to predict where the next head would pop up. We weren’t too worried about Ollie, safely ensconced in my spouse’s lap. But I was worried that they’d decide to take a closer examination of the kayak. Luckily only one seal was interested enough to make a close perusal, swimming slowly along the surface of the water, two feet away. Then suddenly the heads stopped popping up out of the water and they were gone.

Perhaps the experience that got our adrenaline up the highest was the time we paddled out to the Santa Cruz lighted whistle buoy (“Mile Buoy”), a mile out to sea. We’d been enjoying the thrill of the rise and fall of gentle ocean swells, when we heard the plaintive sound of Mile Buoy’s whistle. It seemed so close that we decided to paddle out to it. For thirty minutes the swells seemed to get longer and steeper. It was very quiet. We could no longer hear the pelicans, cormorants or gulls, and with no boats around, the only noise was the steady pulse of Mile Buoy and the sound of our paddles stroking the water. It was an eerie sensation, being out there all alone in a kayak with sixty feet of frigid ocean water beneath us, our vision focused on Mile Buoy, raised high and lowered down by the swells, like us, but out of sync, and the horizon hidden by fog. Finally, when we were close enough to Mile Buoy to see sea lions lounging on its base, we turned around and returned to the bustle and safety of shore.

There’s another thing to recommend Santa Cruz: it’s microbreweries. Few things in life are as exquisite as a day of paddling Santa Cruz Harbor followed by beers at Humble Sea Brewing Co. or Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

Resources consulted:
“30 Years of the ‘Screaming Hand’ — An Icon of Santa Cruz Skate Culture,” NBC Bay Area
gpsnauticalcharts.com online chart viewer
Humble Sea Brewing Company
“Kelp Forests,” SIMoN: Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
“King of the Buoy – Sea Lion Fight in Santa Cruz” (YouTube)
“Lighted Whistle Buoy set to hold anchor,” by Yvonne Falk, Santa Cruz Waves
“Ocean Etiquette,” NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries
O’Neill Yacht Charters
Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA
Monteray Bay Whale Watch, LLC
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
“Santa Cruz Breakwater (Walton), CA,” lighthousefriends.com
“Santa Cruz Harbor (South Harbor Launch Ramp),” California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways
Santa Cruz Harbor: Gateway to the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Santa Cruz Skateboards
“Santa Cruz Surf Spots,” SantaCruz.com
“Santa Cruz Wharf,” City of Santa Cruz
“Swell (Ocean)” (Wikipedia)
“The Ultimate Nor Cal Brewery Map,” San Francisco Chronicle
“Whistling Buoy,” Dictionary.com

Cape Sable – Night Two/Day Three, Feb 2016

25°07’06.31″N 81°04’48.28″W elev 1 ft
East Cape, Everglades National Park
Launch site: Flamingo Visitor Center,
40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034
(239) 695-2945

Wilderness Trip Planner: A guide to camping in the coastal portions of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness

We didn’t quite make it to East Clubhouse Beach. Come 4:30 pm we were pretty tired, so we stopped about a mile shy of East Clubhouse Beach at Clubhouse Beach. Although we were paddling with the tide, the gusts were killing me. I was happy to claim this secluded little stretch of beach as our own for the night.

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As Gauthier made dinner, I watched the tide come in… with some trepidation. “I wonder if we should move our tent a little higher up the beach”; the thought kept running through my mind.

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So we moved it.

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And I relaxed as the sun relaxed its grip on the day.

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Two happy campers.

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That tiny silhouette of a tree in the middle of the below photo, that’s the tree on the tip of Cape Sable that we used to gauge how far we’d traveled. Four hours and some sore shoulders is about how far away it is in this picture.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t capture any photos of the final leg of the journey. We didn’t calculate the tide well, so we ended up fighting it as well as 25 mph winds on the way back. Kayaking along the coast of Florida Bay at low tide is stressful not only because the current is against you, but also because the shallowness of the bay makes it necessary to paddle far away from the coast and keep a wide berth of islands in order to avoid getting banked, and this can add miles to your journey.

I really regret not taking one photo in particular. A perfect, single layer of altocumulus clouds filled the sky for almost the entire journey home. It was spectacular. Almost as spectacular as Gauthier’s strength, patience and compassion when my arms gave out about a mile from our destination. With soothing words and a powerful stroke, he weathered a temper tantrum fed by fatigue and frustration and delivered us safe and sound to the Flamingo Visitor Center marina… about a mile east of where we had launched. Dang that low tide.

Cape Sable – Night One/Day Two, Feb 2016

25°07’06.31″N 81°04’48.28″W elev 1 ft
East Cape, Everglades National Park
Launch site: Flamingo Visitor Center,
40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034
(239) 695-2945

Wilderness Trip Planner: A guide to camping in the coastal portions of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness

And on the 900th stroke, we arrived at East Cape. We were greeted by a family of campers in a motor boat that gave us first pick of a camp site out of deference to our muscle-powered wake, and a flock of Sanderlings.

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By 4:45, we had set up our tent. As the day faded into night, we passed the time cooking, arranging seashells in the sand, chatting, sipping bourbon, and star-gazing. As the night wore on, the stars grew brighter and brighter, the rising and receding tide lapped against the shore twenty feet away, and giant wading birds stopped to sample insects outside our tent.

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Gauthier woke up early to watch the sun rise.

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Our friends the Sanderlings were up early as well, as were a flock of Terns. During low tide, the shallow bay reveals muddy tongues protruding from the shoreline that are completely hidden during high tide, like the one these Terns are on.

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One characteristic that all of the beaches we stopped at had was washed up sea sponges. There are over two hundred sponge species in South Florida. The sponges in the photo below are vase sponges.

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Sea sponges are a foundation species and a sign of a healthy ecosystem. In the photo below, a Sanderling inspects a Haliclona rubens.

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas had a hard time making a case for the designation of the Everglades as a National Park. Folk saw holes in trees like the one below, assumed they were created by insects with really big teeth, and wanted nothing to do with it. Honestly, we wondered whether that hole, with its serrated edges, wasn’t created by giant, razor-sharp mandibles.

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Holes in shells like those in the shells in the photo below provide clues as to how the shells died. Those tiny perforations were caused by sponges called Boring sponges. Boring sponges attach to shells for shelter, often smothering the host. The little holes are caused by the chemicals they use to attach themselves. Polychaete worms are the villains that cut grooves in oyster shells. And the little holes that are useful for turning shells into necklaces, those are caused by predatory sea snails and slugs.

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Gauthier paddled to the southernmost beach on East Cape. The wind had picked up and was blowing from the east at a worrisome clip, so I chose not to accompany him and preserve my energy.

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There he saw Gumbo limbos…

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this sprawling Prickly pear cactus…

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and this giant Horseshoe crab. This lovely lady was around two feet long from head to tail! She should scare me because horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders than they are to crabs, but seen from above she’s not very scary-looking. You have to respect a species that’s been around for more than 300 million years!

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As we headed eastward towards East Clubhouse Beach where we were to spend night two, we paddled against the tide and a wind of around 18-20 mph (8-10 m/s). We used the tree below, which marks the southernmost tip of Florida, to gauge how far we’d traveled. It grew smaller very slowly.

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Resources Consulted
Horseshoe Crab History
Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Writer & Conservationist
Restoring Florida Bay: Sponges the foundation for thriving ecosystem
Shell Wars (Shell Bioerosion)
South Florida Sponges: A Guide to Identification

Cape Sable – Day One, Feb 2016

25°07’06.31″N 81°04’48.28″W elev 1 ft
East Cape, Everglades National Park
Launch site: Flamingo Visitor Center,
40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034
(239) 695-2945

Wilderness Trip Planner: A guide to camping in the coastal portions of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness

Cape Sable, the southernmost point of Florida, had been on our “To Kayak” list for about three years. The promise of Roseate spoonbills, American crocodiles, Florida gopher tortoise and Smalltooth sawfish, combined with the challenge of a 23 mile round trip ocean paddle, and the lure of secluded shell beaches made this an adventure worth working towards. This year we were ready.

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Gauthier had assembled a not unpraiseworthy collection of lightweight camping gear and we had improved our paddling skills and built up enough muscle and endurance to meet Florida Bay’s challenges. Currents, tides, winds, sun, and mosquitoes, we were prepared for them all. Ollie, unfortunately, had demonstrated that ocean kayaking was not his thing, so he stayed behind with his duncles and daunties (dogspeak for doggie uncles and aunties).

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Our plan: Saturday, February 13, we would paddle 11 miles from Flamingo Visitor Center to Cape Sable. Sunday, we would paddle about half way back to East Clubhouse Beach. And Monday we would paddle the remaining five or six miles back to Flamingo Visitor Center.

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We arrived at Flamingo Visitor Center just as it opened at 8 AM to pick up our back country pass. During the ranger’s protocols speech,  we were surprised to learn that we would face gusts of up to 25 mph on our return trip, something the forecasts of the previous day, which specified maximum gusts of up to 15 mph, had not mentioned. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice said, “Should we postpone?” but my unhesitating response to the ranger was “I guess I’ll be getting more excercise than I bargained for!”

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The mosquito condition was described as “moderate,” which is not bad by Florida standards so long as you use repellent (and not the Whole Foods brands, the real stuff) and have your tent set up before dusk, which is when they come out in force. We planned our paddle out to coincide with high tide. As the Bay drained, it carried us out towards the Gulf. We paddled against a north wind of around 10 mph, but it was easy going overall.

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We had lunch at Clubhouse Beach, named for a clubhouse Flagler or another developer had wanted to build there many years ago, despite the freshwater marshes, marl prairie, saltwater lagoons and mangrove swamps.

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If you liked making mud pies or walking barefoot in the rain as a little girl or boy, you may appreciate Florida Bay mud. The sensation of Florida Bay mud squishing between my toes is something I am unlikely to forget. The shallow Bay and receding tide meant anchoring our kayak in the mud and walking to shore.

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Dimples in the mud near the shore were filled with shells. Angel Wings, Angulate Wentletraps, Antillean Nerites, Atlantic Distorsios, Atlantic Slipper Shells, Calico Scallops, Cancellate Cantharus, Common Bubbles, Common Nutmegs, False Drills, Fan Scallops, Flame Augers, Florida Cones, Florida Fighting Conch, Florida Rock Shells, Fly-specked Ceriths, Golden Banded Cones, Lion’s Paws, Muddy Ceriths, Periwinckles, Rose Petal Tellins, Sanibel Drills, Top Shells, Turkey Wings, we saw them all! After three or four hour’s paddling, there’s nothing more relaxing than arranging shells in the sand.

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Shells of the Florida Gulf Coast illustrations by Jackie Leatherbury Douglass, copyright 2004 Steven Lewers & Associates

Shells of the Florida Gulf Coast illustrations by Jackie Leatherbury Douglass, copyright 2004 Steven Lewers & Associates

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Sea pork: there is such a thing and if you venture out to Clubhouse Beach you just might see it. Sea pork is a small glob of cellulose that once housed zooids. Zooids are “a colonial animal that can survive only when connected with other zooids. Each has its individual personality, but collectively they exist as a single being with a shared goal of survival” according to an article in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2013/oct/12/portuguese-man-owar-photography).

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The Red mangrove below lent us its shade. I can never get my mangrove types straight, but here is a slice of mangrove wisdom from Florida International University: “Mangroves must survive the stresses of flooding and salt in the estuary. Red mangroves have prop roots that increase oxygen uptake and line the banks of keys and rivers in the Everglades. Black mangroves exude salt from their leaves and both red and black mangroves are well adapted to salinity changes” (http://fcelter.fiu.edu/education_outreach/Virtual_hydroscape/mangroves/?selected=fringe_mangroves).

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Florida Tree Snails

Florida Tree Snails

Florida Tree Snail

Florida Tree Snail

After an expertly crafted meal (Gauthier does love camp cooking), we paddled onwards to East Cape, the easternmost and closest of Cape Sable’s beaches. At MicMac Canal (below) we counted 900 strokes to East Cape.

MicMac Canal

MicMac Canal

East Cape within view

East Cape within view

The endless blue sky and mangrove coastline allowed undulating thoughts of work and family to creep into my consciousness. Mangroves transformed into excel spreadsheets, the blue sky transformed into birthday cards, and the sunlight sparkling on the water transported me to a Brownie Guides meeting, Adelaide, Australia, circa 1990… Five girls in brown uniforms seated cross-legged on the floor around a container of silver glitter and a bottle of glue… The container of glitter falls over and ten hands quickly sweep it up before their leader, Lutana of the Moora Mooras, can find out… Five exuberant girls stand in a ray of sunlight, watching their arms and legs sparkle.

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Resources Consulted
Saltwater Intrusion Threatens South Florida Parks
The Ecology of Florida Bay
Sea Pork

Mystery Channel, Nov 2015


John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
(305) 451-6300
25°11’38.86″N 80°20’45.26″W elev 4 ft

Gauthier had spent days reading maps, so I knew he was planning another adventure. The spot he picked this time was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The launch site he selected was near Basin Hills, Key Largo.
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It’s easy to find on a map because of the street names; they’re all French: La Croix Ct, Charlemagne Blvd, Valois Blvd and Marseilles Blvd.
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There’s a somewhat public boat dock and launch site at the end of Valois Blvd.
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A half hour paddle takes you to a secluded channel fringed on one side by a mangrove swamp and on the other by a rockland hammock.
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Wooden poles prevent all but the smallest of water vessels from passing into it.
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The shallow channel was obviously dredged, but whether it was dredged during the early part of the last century by developers to build houses or after the Cuban Missile Crisis by the government to transport nuclear missiles, we couldn’t say.
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What looked like a crumbled concrete slab stretched along much of the rockland hammock. We saw many birds – cormorants, pelicans, egrets and herons – but my favorite find was chitons.
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Chitons are a primordial animal and have the sharpest teeth on the planet, and some species have evolved into carnivores. We were also impressed by the blown up chunks of keystone coral.
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A mound of logs laid horizontally piqued our curiosity.
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On our way home we stopped at Alabama Jack’s.
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Just Down the Street, Mar 2015


Chapman Field Recreation Center
13601 Deering Bay Dr, Coral Gables, FL 33158
(305) 665-3837
25°38’42.13″N 80°17’25.47″W elev 16 ft

Chapman Field Recreation Center, or Chapman Field Park as it’s better known, is a ten minute drive down the lushly canopied Main Highway from where Gauthier and I live in Coconut Grove. We launched from Chapman Field for the second time two Sundays ago. I love this spot. It was quite busy on both occasions. On our first visit, we ran into a kayaker training to become a kayak tour guide in Alaska. On our second visit, we met a man who had just completed a 25 mile paddle on a Hobie. There were also several groups of kayakers.

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The individual in the photo of the launch dock was part of a group of three who loaded their kayaks with beer, fishing gear and a boom box. We ran into them on our return trip. They were hanging out where Biscayne Bay meets the labyrinth of canals that takes you back to the launch. One of them was swimming and, as we approached, his buddy yelled “Alligator!” That brought him upright in a rush!

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The history of Chapman Field is rather complicated, but fascinating. I found a very well written and detailed account of it here: Chapman Field – The Evolution of a South Dade Army Airdrome, written by Raymond G McGuire formerly of U.S. Department of Agriculture, last updated 2005.

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What follows is a summary of that document:
The U.S. military created Chapman Airfield in 1918 to assist with the war effort. The site consisted of a marl landing field, a lagoon for water landings, channels into Biscayne Bay, and a town with electricity, waterworks, a sewage system and a hospital. It was named after the first American pilot casualty of the war. Abandoned after the war, the land was used by the United States Department of Agriculture.

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Under the leadership of Dr. David Fairchild, a plant explorer in charge of the Bureau’s Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, and creator of Miami’s famous Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, the site was used as “an ‘Ellis Island for plants’ – a place where sensitive plants could be propagated and bred for resistance to colder temperatures prior to their introduction to areas of the U.S. farther north.” By 1938, they had brought over 9000 new plant specimens to the site. In 1935, the site was expanded to include space for conducting rubber research.

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Portions of Chapman Field were subsequently used by Embry-Riddle flight school, the University of Miami, and passed through the hands of a private developer or two. As of 2001, according to the author, neighbors and environmental concerns had “stalled large-scale development sufficiently long that community interest has turned toward preservation of Chapman Field Park as a natural area.” The USDA has continuously occupied a section of the property since 1923, and continues to conduct plant science research there.

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If you’ve ever wondered what an overgrown baseball field looks like, Chapman Field Park will provide you with the answer. The first thing you see when you enter the park is a small, elevated, outdoor recycling center, followed by a series of three overgrown baseball fields. The park also includes a hiking/bike trail. But of course, my favorite part is the kayak launch.

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(In case you were wondering where Ollie was!)