Most people celebrate retirement by taking a nice relaxing vacation and throwing a party with family and friends. For 58-year-old Mitch Lagowski, adventure was on the mind, and that he did. Upon his retirement, Mitch planned and completed a 140-mile expedition from Marco Island to Islamorada through the Florida Everglades, solo and unsupported. We caught up with Mitch to chat about his trip, check out our convo below.
Give us a brief background about yourself and how you first got into paddling.
I have spent my whole life on the water. I have been into kayaking for years. On a family vacation to Jamaica a few years ago, I tried paddle boarding. Seeing the marine life from 6 feet above the water was amazing to me. I couldn't believe all the things I could see. I have been hooked ever since!
So you're recently retired, 58 y/o and looking for an adventure. What made you choose your trip from Marco Island to Islamorada? 140 miles is no joke!
I was looking for an adventure where I could isolate myself from people while staying in the US. After much thought, this path seemed the most remote. It just worked out that it was fairly close to home as well. I felt 5-6 days was the most time I could spend without having to restock. Carrying supplies on a paddle board is no joke! I was limited to 70 pounds of gear for stability. 42 pounds was spent on a case of water.
What was the planning process like?
I spent 8 months planning. I averaged 15-20 miles paddling every Monday and Friday. I put myself out in every type of weather, windy, deep water, rain, etc. I built up my endurance so that I knew I could paddle 30 miles a day over (up to) 15 hours a day. I practiced sleeping on my paddle board in our pool to assure I could sleep on it without falling off. I trained with 70 pounds of dumbbells on my board during my 15-20 mile days of training.
The rig. | Photo courtesy: Mitch Lagowski
What type of gear did you choose and why/how did you decide on the specific gear?
My board was a BOTE Traveller. Limited on weight, I chose to take a beach towel that I could keep wet to keep things cool instead of a cooler. I chose a bivy tent that was 29" wide, 74" long that I could use on the paddle board if needed. It weighed only 2 pounds. I had chart maps and a compass. Other than that I carried the basic necessities of flashlight, knife, machite. My food was nuts, protein bars, baked beans and a frying pan. I was fortunate enough that I caught a fish each night on my flyrod that I cooked for dinner. As far as safety, I gave my float plan to the Coast Guard station in Islamorada. I also had a SAT phone so I could check in with my wife each day.
With a trip like this one it's pretty much a 'must' to train, both mentally and physically, for the trip. Tell us about the training and what you did in the leadup to the trip.
In addition to what I mentioned earlier, one thing is to stay a little further away from shore. I spooked several alligators during my training, who lunged into the water creating a big wake. One even went directly under my board! The other thing I learned was to make sure I tie everything down. Once, during training, I happened upon a Manatee and it surprised us both. I have seen many manatees while out there but this one, I ended up directly above him. It scared him and as he flipped his tail to swim away, he hit my board. I went flying several feet in the air along with all of my stuff. Lesson learned.
Once you set off on your trip, what was it like to be so isolated? Did you enjoy it?
Very much so. That was one of my main reasons for doing it. I looked forward to the alone time. At times, sitting on my board, I did realize that many people might freak out in this situation as you only have yourself to get through whatever is going to happen. I mentally prepared myself for anything that might happen and had a plan. The only thing I didn't think about were jelly fish! I was sitting, eating lunch, with my feet hanging off the board, when several huge jellyfish went by my feet. That was something I had never thought about. From that moment on, I ate my lunch with my feet on the board!
Paddling for 15 hours/day consecutively I imagine is quite strenuous, both mentally and physically. Which was harder to deal with, the mental or physical?
Neither was hard but if I had to choose I would say physical. I was fine except for my knees. I ended up paddling in to the wind and knelt for hours at a time to try to get out of the wind. I actually was very happy with my physical endurance as a whole. I did realize in the middle of the trip that many people would not have been able to complete this because it really was an extreme experience. It was in those moments I was glad I was alone. It would've been tough to be with someone else who may have given up.
How did you pass the time each day?
Paddling my ass off! Because of the extreme winds I had, it wasn't a relaxing trip at all. I didn't have time to drift and fish for hours like I was hoping.
What were some of the highlights of your trips?
The beauty of nature, honestly. The water was amazing, the birdlife was incredible, the marine life was unreal. I saw sawfish, stingrays, sharks (pushing my paddle board), large jellyfish. The view at nighttime was unbelievable. I planned the trip around the full moon so that I could travel at night as well. I have never seen the stars like this as there was no artificial light from anywhere. One unique experience I hadn't thought about was seeing the moon rise and sun set at the same time since I was in such big open water. Seeing the moon rising in the east and the sun setting in the west 180 degrees apart was amazing. I also liked when my nighttime fire was dwindling and there was no light. Along with the darkness came the sounds of nighttime in the Everglades. There were sounds I didn't recognize. It was a very cool experience.
Sunsets and moonlit paddles. | Photos courtesy: Mitch Lagowski
What were some of the challenges you faced?
The winds as stated before! I also ran in to king tides which wasn't really a problem but I was very aware of the rising water when I was in my tent on the beaches I found to sleep on. When setting up camp I had to be very aware of where I was putting my tent. I found the highest spots I could but still ended up with the water rising to within two feet of my tent before starting to recede. I planned in November because I knew the bug life, especially at night, would be at a minimum. It did get cool at night. I didn't bring a sleeping bag due to space but I had a tarp I would drap over my mesh topped tent to keep the heat in.
Did you experience anything that surprised you?
Just the jellyfish!
Looking back, do you feel you were fully prepared for the trip? Anything you would change or do differently?
I really do feel like I was fully prepared. I used everything I brought and didn't have much leftover. I was very pleased with the accuracy of my planning.
Did the trip fulfill that adventure you were looking for?
Absolutely and then some!
Would you do it again?
Without a doubt!
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