Kayak safety is no joke!

Image from Flagler County Fire Flight, via Flagler Live

As I have mentioned before, our family enjoys exploring the local wetlands in a large tandem kayak. Floridians are blessed with literally thousands of places to put in a kayak, including exotic natural springs, rivers, marshes and swamps, and the ocean.

Marshes and swamps are beautiful and interesting places, but they can also be extraordinarily dangerous. It is easy to get stranded in areas with waist-deep mud if you ever get out of your kayak on what seems like “dry” land. (Yes, we have experienced this delightful phenomenon.) There are venomous snakes. There are alligators (some of which have been fed by other adventurers, and have thus become accustomed to climbing up around kayaks and other boats). The alligators will see you long before you see them.

If you go out, do not go out alone. Make sure folks who are not part of your trip know specifically where you are going and when you expect to be back. Wear a quality life vest. Take your fully charged phone in a waterproof case and keep it on your body. Take a loud whistle and keep it on your body. Take a mallet to bang on the bottom of your boat to keep alligators at a distance if you get stranded. Take food and water. Do not assume you are just going to poke around and make it back. Crazy stuff happens in the wilderness.

A man in our town learned that the hard way yesterday:

An all-night search and rescue effort involving more than half a dozen public safety agencies led to the rescue of Jeffrey D. Browning, 62, of Flagler Beach, who’d taken his kayak through the waters of Bulow Creek Thursday afternoon and gotten lost deep in its marshes.

Browning had started kayaking around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, pushing off from a property on Osprey Lane in Bulow Plantation. Browning’s first good fortune was his neighbor, Frank Luzefski, a 69-year-old resident of White Feather Lane in Flagler Beach, who’d seen him push off in his gray kayak. Luzefski noticed that the kayak was new, and that Browning appeared a bit unsteady with it. So when he did not return that night, Luzefski got concerned, and reported Browning missing.

The call to 911 came in just before 9 p.m. alerting authorities. A sheriff’s deputy investigated the area around Osprey Lane and located Browning’s sister: she had received a text from Browning at 5 p.m., telling her he was enjoying the day on his kayak, though the text worried her–and her brother did not respond to subsequent texts from her. It was, in fact, Browning’s first time out on the water, according to a Flagler County Sheriff’s Office report.

The search then kicked up.

A helicopter located him at 2:55 a.m. (at coordinates 29.45784N 81.15299W), but it was not before 6:05 this morning that a Flagler Beach Fire Department marine unit that had waded through a mass of muck and marshes made physical contact with him, bringing him back to an ambulance just before 8 a.m.

“He was a little shaken up, he was a little nervous, scared for being out for so long,” said Flagler Beach Fire Department Lt. Anthony Forte, who led a three-man rescue crew on the marine unit. The others were Driver Engineer Greg Evans and Firefighter Jamal Prince. “He was showing signs of dehydration but he was always alert and orientated, and we did medical assessments every five minutes on him.” He added: “He was very appreciative of seeing us on the ground and being able to get him out. He was always thanking us for being out there and finding him.”

By then, units from the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office’s air unit, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office’s air unit, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, Flagler County Fire Rescue, including Fire Flight, the emergency helicopter, Flagler County Emergency Services, Flagler County IT and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had all had a hand in the rescue.

The man had no GPS capabilities because his phone was either out of range or his battery had died. FWC and the Coast Guard were initially notified. Neither had reports of the missing man. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s marine unit began the search. Volusia launched its helicopter around midnight but eventually had to return to base, being out of fuel. Seminole County’s helicopter then searched, and found the man, keeping a spotlight on him and providing dispatchers with his coordinates.

Forte’s unit was dispatched at 3:42.

“Luckily we had a decent moon that gave enough ambient light to tell us the difference between water and shore,” Forte said. “The crews, Flagler Beach, used the jetski, which was supported by the Sheriff’s Department and FWC. We made our way to the furthest part of the waterway, and then we reached an area where we were closed off. At that point we realized we wouldn’t be able to contact him from direct water.”

The marshes are notoriously rich habitat for poisonous spiders, snakes, alligators, boars, bears. “There’s numerous amounts of large alligators back in that area,” Flagler Beach Fire Department Captain Stephen Cox said.

“We had to go through areas of dry points and then the approach had to go over obstacles such as waste deep slurry, a combination of downed limbs in the water and thick mud that would be up to our waist line,” Forte said. It’s not exactly clear how Browning managed to get lost so deep, but rescuers believe he probably reached that area during high tide. “There was a decent size canal that led back to where we found the canoe. The patient was found about 100 yards from it,” Forte said.

The team got him out through “almost the same premise that we went in,” Forte said, going through the slush and the muck, though by then the sun was rising. “We started using his canoe at first, but we reached an area where we were pretty much encapsulated by high grass,” so the team couldn’t use the canoe. But the man was actually able to walk out under his own power. He would take moments of rest, then move on.

“This is an example of one of the calls that are prolonged and take an intense effort from all agencies involved,” Flagler Beach Fire Department Captain Stephen Cox said this morning. “I couldn’t be more proud to work with a group of professional individuals like the Flagler Beach Fire Department, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, Flagler County Fire Rescue, Fire Flight, as well as Flagler County IT, who offered to send a drone team to assist with search efforts. It wasn’t needed at the time. We did request them, because there was a time where we didn’t have an air unit, and they do have the capability to put a drone in the air. But Fire Flight was able to come in early today and continue the search efforts.”

What an insane story. I have been out to Bulow Plantation numerous times and they aren’t kidding about the number of large alligators that live in that area. There are warning signs everywhere that do not mince words. He is so lucky to have made it back alive after spending the night out in the swamps like that. And it took the resources of several counties and the state government to bring him back.

Image from Flagler County Fire Flight, via Flagler Live

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