New kayak launch sites to improve access, maybe perceptions

Paddle sport enthusiast Keith Keller is hoping the Jacksonville City Council’s decision last month to spend almost $3 million to create public access points on the river will help launch not only more kayaks but a change in public perception about using personal watercraft downtown.

Keller, who grew up in San Marco, has spent his life playing and working on the river. He is harbormaster at Epping Forest Yacht and Country Club, and a kayak and paddleboard instructor.

For the last six years, he’s been campaigning for the city to provide better river access, especially downtown. He is delighted with Council’s decision to build a kayak launch on North Pearl Street and to design a Southbank Riverwalk launch on school board property.

The council also approved a new fishing pier and kayak launch at Charles Reese Memorial Park, and a new ramp and the improvements at Half Moon Island, both on the Northside, and for picnic pavilions on Exchange Club Island under the Mathews Bridge.

The projects will be paid for with $1.2 million from a Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) grant and $1.5 million from the city.

“A lot of other cities utilize their waterfronts by allowing access to people who don’t own sail or motorboats,” Keller said. “I think [Mayor] Lenny Curry and [Council President] Lori Boyer see the real impact dollar wise. This will bring more people to the city and allow residents more access to the river, which is one of our greatest assets.”

More improvements are on the horizon. The Jacksonville Waterways Commission is expected to release its recommendations for “activating” the river at its April 12 meeting. And the city is finishing a draft of its Maritime Management Plan, which will be a citywide strategy to protect and utilize the rivers and wetlands.

Helping tourists and residents enjoy the river is one of the priorities, including more boat ramps, extending the Riverwalk, boat tours and river-centric events. Some of the money could come from FIND, which pays for water access projects with a tax levied on residents in 12 coastal counties, including Duval. In the last two decades, Duval has received $18 million from the fund.

Keller said that under Mayor Alvin Brown 25 small launch sites were created but pro-gress has been slow because of public per-
ception and ignorance about paddle sports.

He said he often hears people say that it’s not safe to paddle downtown because of the strong current.

“People at the beach are in way more dangerous conditions,” he said. “When you’re a paddler you manage the tides, you don’t fight them. If it’s done correctly and you have the right outfitter, it’s safe to do.”

Right now, the only access to the river downtown is the ramp at St. Johns Marina on the Southbank, Keller said. And trying to launch a kayak or canoe from the ramp can be dicey if people are trying to launch or remove a powerboat.

Other cities like Charleston, San Diego, Louisville, Kentucky, Portland, Oregon, and New York have good public access to their rivers, Keller said.

“You can go on tours by water. I know some people who paddle to work,” Keller said. “Why can’t we do that here? With all that development they’re talking about doing downtown there is such great potential for people to run kayak tours from downtown to Brooklyn and RAM.”

John Ruskuski, commodore of the Seminole Canoe and Kayak Club in Ortega, said he has gone paddling in downtown Oklahoma City.

“I didn’t even know they had a river,” he said.

Ruskuski said he and club members welcome news of new launch sites.

“We are always looking for access. After all we are the River City,” Ruskuski said. “We do a lot of paddling but very little on the St. Johns River. We might go down to the Shands Bridge in St. Johns County.”

Ruskuski said when they do paddle on the St. Johns in Jacksonville they usually put in at Mandarin Park or paddle from the clubhouse on the Ortega River to downtown.

But he doesn’t know if downtown would ever become a popular paddle area.

“From the Times-Union down to Metro Park, that stretch has a lot of boat traffic and strong currents,” Ruskuski said. “It takes a brave soul to do that stretch.”

Ruskuski and Keller agree that more launch sites in the area are needed.

“We’d like to link a bunch of these launch sites so you can go on distance paddles, say start in Mandarin and paddle to the South-bank and to Exchange Club Island and to Goat Island and beyond,” Keller said.

“It would add opportunities for revenue for small business and enhance what the city is all about — the river,” he said.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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