Lower Keys paddling to American Shoal Lighthouse on the edge of the Gulf Stream!

A journey to the

loneliest Keys offshore lighthouse!

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American Shoal Lighthouse in the lower Keys was smack in the middle of Hurricane Irma’s path in 2017!

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Readers following this site might have noticed my fascination with offshore ocean paddling and local lighthouses over the years.

This story continues this trend of paddling out to all the offshore reef lights in the Florida Keys.

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American Shoal light circa mid 20th century.
Photo credit: US Coast Guard Archives.

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After paddling out to Miami’s Fowey Rocks Light, Key Largo’s Carysfort Light, Islamorada’s Alligator Reef Light and Marathon’s Sombrero Reef Lighthouse .. the next one down the chain is American Shoal Lighthouse off Sugarloaf Key in the Lower Keys!

All these are part of a chain of South Florida lighthouses built in the 19th century that also include three more land-accessible lighthouses on the east coast: the Cape Florida Lighthouse, the Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse and the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.

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The American Shoal lighthouse was the last of the offshore reef lights constructed in the Florida Keys waters. This makes it the newest, even if it is over 140 years old now. It is also an almost identical replica to the Fowey Rocks lighthouse off Miami. It sits in a very remote stretch of water and even the put in is in a remote location in the Lower Keys. It was built to “fill in the gap” so to speak that existed between Sand Key light off Key West and Sombrero Reef light off Marathon. By the late 19th century, it was possible to always be within sight of at least one lighthouse so as effect better navigation relative to the shallow reefs along the edge of the Gulf Stream. Here is a US Coast Survey map from 1862 when three then new offshore lighthouses became operational.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Map of the six offshore Florida Keys lighthouses.
American Shoal was built to fill the large gap between Sand Key and Sombrero Key lighthouses.
Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard Archives.

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Twelve miles of open water adventure paddling in

Florida’s Lower Keys!

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You can see the large gap in “coverage” between Sombrero and Sand Keys, which is why the American Shoal light was put up in 1880!
American Shoal lighthouse in relation to the lower Keys.

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The American Shoal lighthouse was featured on a 1990 USPS stamp. However it was incorrectly spelled as ‘Shoals’ and the Coast Guard cutter would have run aground that close to the light!

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Note:

I am describing a 12 mile open water round trip with NO possibility of getting out anywhere. Plan accordingly and paddle within your limitations and the weather conditions!!

Be absolutely sure you know what you are getting into before considering doing this kind of a trip!

Safety first means planning and research first!!

Always have plenty of fresh water to stay hydrated!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Sammy Creek Landing is the obvious choice to launch. It’s sort of like a hidden little ‘community park’ base for exploring the lower Keys by paddle craft.

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The put-in at Sammy Creek Landing on a dead-end road!

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Sammy Creek Landing along the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail.
CLICK for large version.

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Satellite view detail of Sammy Creek and St Rt 939A.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Sammy Creek Landing provides much needed shade and a couple of picnic tables.

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The closest and best access point to American Shoal is a sort of a little “park” along an old two lane dead end road in the Saddlebunch Keys, just south of Sugarloaf Key. This obscure out of the way gem is called Sammy Creek Landing and is one of the stop overs on the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail. Previously this was private property with a longtime residence on it owned by the Sammy family. The two acre site features a shaded picnic table and trash cans and is now available for us paddlers to use! From what I understand, the gates are always locked to prevent access to power boaters with trailers. However it’s easy enough to carry a boat or board and launch into Sammy Creek for a day trip. Aside from the ocean, of course it’s a great access point to the shallow Saddlebunch Keys backcountry to the north of Sammy Creek.

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Paddleboarders launch into Sammy Creek from the small boat ramp at the landing.
NOTE: There is NO powerboat access or launching at Sammy Creek Landing.

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Hobie-folk bringing in their sizeable craft.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Even though there’s no powerboat or jetski launching, you may still encounter either or both in Sammy Creek itself!

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The Kayak as a personal Declaration of Independence!

This story combines open water paddling, snorkeling and

interesting bits of South Florida nautical history!

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Super telephoto view of American Shoal light as it appears six miles away from Sammy Creek Landing.

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This was another solo paddling excursion, though I would generally discourage anyone from paddling out into open water solo. If you decide to do a paddle like this, I recommend you use the buddy system and file a float plan with someone who can check up on you. Things don’t always go as planned and there are many things that can go wrong when you are out to sea. There are unpredictable factors like the weather which can also put you into jeopardy and you do not want to be out there all by yourself.

That being said, I realize that the above statement might make me sound like a hypocrite, however there is a method to my madness! I generally avoid weekend paddling and thus it can be really difficult to find other capable paddlers able to go during the work week. Sometimes paddling partner(s) cancel out at the last minute. Other times I choose to go solo in order to be in the right frame of mind as to what “feels” right (i.e. artist’s prerogative). It lets me do all the photography I want, do the trip the way I want, etc. I always thoroughly research my options before hand and then pick the most favorable conditions and equipment suitable to the trip. I am prepared to face some reasonable risk and deal with the consequences if need be!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

My ‘Not-a-Dive-Flag’ on a six foot pole attached near the stern of my kayak. This is about as visible as I can make myself to other boaters!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

This simple footplate great increases seating comfort and ergonomics. It also allows me to paddle the MOJITO like a surfski utilizing leg drive with a wing paddle! 🙂
Custom SOT kayak solid foot plate for the RTM Disco!

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For this approximate twelve mile open water loop, I chose my favorite SOT kayak – the RTM Disco aka the “MOJITO”. At 14 feet with relatively petite dimensions she makes an excellent all around Florida kayak. Although a shorter kayak, she is quite fast, comfortable and very stable, and the sit on top design makes getting on and off super easy. The Disco has a lot of rocker which makes for a very nimble and great surfing boat with soft chines. With the addition of thigh straps she can be rolled and edged like any proper sea kayak. The Disco is the kind of kayak that is easy to start with, but one that encourages and even asks to be paddled aggressively! Paired with a wing paddle she moves quickly at 4 knots or better, only limited by the short waterline and endurance. The only “downside” really is that it is always a wet ride, though this can actually be a plus in the tropics. Also, the boat is only suitable for paddlers between about 120 – 180 lbs tops maybe. Even though the Disco is extremely well made with solid fittings and 1/4″ thick plastic and remains one of the best new kayak values, it is not so common in the States. This is mainly due to (lack of) marketing and the fact that a certain percentage of the US population either does not fit it well or feels it to be too “tender” for them. I personally love mine and have done many trips and countless winter surf sessions in the MOJITO.

I feel the Disco is a great and very safe boat for

open water touring and play in South Florida!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Paddling through a large field of Sargassum weeds en-route to American Shoal lighthouse.

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Satellite view of American Shoal lighthouse in December 2017, just after Hurricane Irma passed nearly overhead.

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Fitness, Adventure and Art on the High Seas!

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The clear blue turquoise water miles out offshore presents the gorgeous Keys colors!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

The MOJITO anchored just north of American Shoal light in about six feet of water.
American Shoal is the only one that does not have it’s own special underwater preserve, unlike all the other offshore reef lighthouses!

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Unlike the other lighthouses, American Shoal doesn’t have mooring buoys so a small anchor is necessary. I took my small PWC “danforth” fluke anchor, but a claw type would have worked better here. The reef surrounding the shallows around the lighthouse is all dead unfortunately and there wasn’t a lot of open sand space. I had to pile some of the dead coral and rocks to set my anchor. There is a small reef to the south of the lighthouse, but I didn’t have time to explore it. Most of the diving in this area takes place at nearby world famous Looe Key reef, about 7 miles due east from here.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Just like with any kind of boating, the first step is to set the anchor properly! This is my lil danforth anchor intended for PWC.
This fluke-type works best in sand, and I had to pile some rocks on top of it to keep it set. A claw or mushroom type might have worked better at this location.

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The American Shoal lighthouse landing platform in July of 2020. It collapsed into the sea after Hurricane Irma in 2017!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

The collapsed landing platform sits only 4 to 5 feet deep.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Selfie with American Shoal light, as I prepare to go in for some snorkeling and underwater photography!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

The MOJITO anchored at American Shoal lighthouse, July 2020.

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Hanging out at American Shoal felt a bit lonely as there were only a couple or three boats around. This was a stark contrast to the other lighthouses which often have dozens of visitors at any given time. The structure itself actually looks well preserved and in better shape than Sombrero Reef light. It is almost identical to the Fowey Rocks lighthouse in Miami and painted a bright rusty red color. In the fall of 2017, hurricane Irma passed nearly overhead, yet caused only minor damage, mostly to the glass window panes.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

My ‘Not-a-Dive-Flag’ on 6ft pole on the MOJITO (RTM Disco) at American Shoal in the lower Keys.

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American Shoal lighthouse circa 1913.
Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard Archives.

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United States Lighthouse Society Digital Archives

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American Shoal lighthouse in 1947 with davits and oil storage tanks!
Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard Archives.

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As the very last of the Keys offshore lighthouses, American Shoal was first lit on the night of July 15, 1880. It was fitted with a first-order Fresnel lens manufactured in France by the Henry-Lepaute firm in Paris.  As previously stated, this lighthouse fills in the roughly 50 mile gap that existed between Sombrero Reef to the north and Sand Key to the south off Key West. Initially there were day beacons erected in the area near Looe Key, but American Shoal was chosen as the final site for the lighthouse. With American Shoal in place, a ship could be within sight of a lighthouse at all times thereby significantly improving navigation in the Keys. At least one hundred years worth of shipping traffic was wholly dependent on it and the other offshore reef lights!

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American Shoal lighthouse, July 2020.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Keepers dwelling at American Shoal lighthouse with the bright rusty red paint.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Close up of the access ladder to American Shoal lighthouse. It was partially cut off on purpose to prevent the public from climbing on top after the USCG declared it surplus.

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The top of the American Shoal lighthouse, July 2020.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Almost all the glass window panes on top of American Shoal light were blown out by Hurrican Irma in 2017!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

The resilient octagonal skeletal structure of American Shoal lighthouse in the lower Keys.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

American Shoal structure detail looks well preserved after a 140 years!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Bird guano mixes with rust on the center tie point of the skeletal lighthouse structure.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Encrusted steel supports of American Shoal lighthouse just above the waterline.

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Moving underwater, I enhanced the reds and yellows which otherwise dissolve into blue rather quickly even only five feet down!

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Moving underwater, the encrustation continues with a spectacular display of colors only muted by the blue waters.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Rusting steel just under the surface at American Shoal lighthouse.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

One of the collapsed landing platform support pillars.

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A school of fish under the American Shoal lighthouse. Sadly there’s not much else there except the remains of a dead reef and debris.

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Directly underneath the coral encrusted center of American Shoal lighthouse in July 2020.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

One of the giant corner cast foundation disks for the iron pile construction still solid after 140 years.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Fire coral encrusted lighthouse support pieces, still connected.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Panorama underneath the American Shoal lighthouse. The semi-circular pieces possibly held up oil tanks at one point.

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The center of American Shoal light in about five feet of water.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Looking straight up the middle of the lighthouse.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Snorkeling around and under American Shoal.
There are fish, but precious little else other than the lighthouse structure.
The actual reef is a little further to the south.

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My paddling trip out to the American Shoal lighthouse actually coincided with the July 4th 2020 weekend!

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An early July 4th at American Shoal.

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American Shoal lighthouse trading card issued in 1911.
It was one of 50 lighthouses to be included in packs of Hassan brand cigarettes manufactured by the American Tobacco Company.

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“Anchors aweigh” at American Shoal!
Setting myself adrift to snack and re-hydrate before paddling back to Sammy Creek.

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Satellite view of American Shoal, the lighthouse and reef vicinity. Note that the reef is immediately due south and virtually no reef under the light itself.

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flex maslan Kayakfari American Shoal lighthouse kayak paddle dive reef sugarloaf coral history photography shipwreck

The Kayak as a personal Declaration of Independence!
American Shoal lighthouse marks a fitting tribute to the Declaration of Independence on July 4th!

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The American Shoal light house made national news in the summer of 2016 when a group of Cuban refugee rafters took over the structure in hopes of claiming Political Asylum in the United States. After a sort of standoff they voluntarily climbed down into U.S. custody. Unfortunately for them a judge ruled that they were interdicted at sea and thus not eligible under the so called “dry foot” policy. They were all sent back to Guantanamo while their cases were processed. Eventually most were re-settled in Australia after a round the world trip!

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Cheers to American Shoal lighthouse and to freedom!

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American Shoal light is in good condition for it’s age and tropical location. It has been declared surplus along with all the other offshore lighthouses (except for Fowey Rocks which is part of Biscayne National Park) and is up on auction to interested entities / parties willing and able to maintain it. It is another iconic piece of local and American history and well worth preserving for future generations!

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Click to access American%20Shoal%20Light-NOA-20190201_1A2.pdf

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Taking time out to snack and re-hydrate before my six mile return trip back to land, I slowly drifted along next to the lighthouse, soaking in the sun and imagining scenes of years past.

A 140 years is a long time in human terms and a lot has changed. What was once considered essential is now just surplus property. C’est la vie!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

The peel from my homegrown mango slowly sails away in the gentle afternoon swells.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

I saw a couple of good sized Loggerhead turtles in the clear waters of the lower Keys.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Sammy Creek is also a place for migrating birds.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Sammy Creek is in a remote area near the dead-end in the road.
CLICK for large version.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Sammy Creek Landing is a private residence turned into a small park with paddlecraft access.
CLICK for large version.

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The Lower Keys is still a special place with a timeless magic of it’s own!

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Please be considerate and keep Sammy Creek Landing clean!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Delicious instant refueling snack back at Sammy Creek Landing. 🙂

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

Parking is very limited and restricted along the swale of the two lane dead-end road.

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek

That’s all Folks! Driving home, sun setting over Little Money Key and the Seven Mile Bridge.

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Note:

I am describing a 12 mile open water round trip with NO possibility of getting out anywhere. Plan accordingly and paddle within your limitations and the weather conditions!!

Be absolutely sure you know what you are getting into before considering doing this kind of a trip!

Safety first means planning and research first!!

Always have plenty of fresh water to stay hydrated!

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flex maslan Kayakfari reef american shoal lighthouse kayak paddle sugarloaf key dive history photography sammy creek satellite

American Shoal lighthouse in relation to the other reef lights following the Gulf Stream.

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Be safe and enjoy your time

on the water and underwater!

🙂

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Flex Maslan Kayak Miami photography kayakfari fowey rocks lighthouse Soldier Key Cape Florida paddle biscayne sombrero

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flex maslan Kayakfari carysfort reef lighthouse kayak paddle key largo pennekamp dive coral history photography surfski park fisheye

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! Bless UP

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© 2021 Flex Maslan / kayakfari.com / awakenthegrass.com. All original photographs, artworks and music in this portfolio are copyrighted and owned by the artist, Flex Maslan, unless otherwise noted. Any reproduction, modification, publication, transmission, transfer, or exploitation of any of the content, for personal or commercial use, whether in whole or in part, without written permission from the artist is strictly prohibited.

All rights reserved!

DISCLAIMER:

The maps and images on this site are not intended for navigation, I am not a guide; use any and all information at your own risk! Your mileage may vary .. so use good judgement before venturing out!

I hereby disclaim any sponsorship, endorsement, nor association with any product or service described herein. The photographs, depictions, products, and ideas presented on this site are for informational purposes only. Your results may vary, and I do not imply nor guarantee the effectiveness, suitability, design or operation to adhere to any standard. I assume no legal responsibility for the implementation of anything herein presented! Use any and all information at your own risk! By using any and all information from this website, you accept the final liability for any use or possible associated misuse!

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With that said..
Blessings friends!

🙂