When he’s sacked in for the night in his hammock somewhere on the southern Florida coast, Nick Holzerland takes in the stars and remembers why he and his paddleboard are out here.
It began simply enough — a quick excursion like many others he had done before.
It quickly became something else, something more, as he saw all the smiling faces from the kids of Crossroads Hope Academy as they splashed around in the waters of the Peace River off Cow Island.
That was a month ago. Now he’s out here, under the stars, dining on a fish he caught or munching on some greens he foraged as he does this crazy, wonderful thing.
Holzerland is the owner of It’s Time Kayak at 4500 Harbor Blvd. In addition to canoe and kayak rentals, the 23-year-old offers eco tours in the Charlotte Harbor area and specifically out of Nav-A-Gator Bar & Grill on the Peace River near Arcadia. A month ago, Reeghan Burgess gave him a call, wondering if he could take some kids from Crossroads Hope Academy on a field trip.
“I go on trips and talk about plants and go to different spots, which is really popular but I felt if I talked plants and tried to get these kids involved in that, they’d feel like they were in a classroom,” Holzerland said. “So I just took them to Cow Island and they jumped in. There were a couple of scraped knees and bruises but they’re all good.”
As he took in the scene, Holzerland devised a plan to make these excursions a regular thing for the teenaged boys at the foster care service and school on Bermont Road.
Holzerland is now more than two weeks into an epic, 400-mile paddleboard journey that began at the source of the Peace River and will end, hopefully, at Bimini in the Bahamas. He had to pause this week as Hurricane Eta churned up the water and halted his momentum, but he will be picking up where he left off now that the storm has passed. Along the way, he is hoping to raise money to fund monthly eco-tour excursions for the kids at Crossroads Hope Academy.
The goal is $5,100 and the GoFundMe link can be accessed through Holzerland’s “Paddle for People” website at paddleforpeople.org.
Holzerland is carrying about 400 pounds of supplies and equipment on his paddleboard, upon which he paddles well past sundown before stopping each night to camp. He stops as needed to rest and uses the downtime to make videos and posts for his It’s Time Kayak account on Facebook.
“When I say I’m living off the land, I don’t want that taken the wrong way,” he said. “I’m doing a blended thing out here. I’ll catch fish out here and I cook the entire fish so I can get the oil. Aside from that, one of the huge things I’ve gotten into the last couple of years is identifying plants out here.”
Holzerland said at any given time, there are roughly 50 edible or medicinal plants to be turned up on any foraging outing.
“A lot of them grow in your back yard and you probably pull them as weeds,” he said. “But they have a lot of nutritional value. It can be insane compared to what you get at the store.”
Promoting a natural diet and outdoor lifestyle is based off his upbringing. Holzerland said he learned from his father the merits of each and it is his hope to pass along those lessons to the kids at Crossroads.
“I know not all of them are outdoors people, but at the end of the day, I just want them to get the idea that you can set your mind to something and accomplish it and it is that simple. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s that simple.”
So Holzerland has set his mind to this task, paddling along Florida’s sandy southern beaches with two coolers, a giant dry bag, fishing gear, a life vest, a cooking table, some propane to use as needed and four solar batteries to keep his iPhone charged.
And the fancy hammock with a mosquito net that can also be used as a tent.
Paddling along Florida’s coast is one thing. Making the crossing from Key Largo to Bimini is something else, entirely. Holzerland said he has worked out the best and safest way to make the crossing after consulting experts. Weather is key. Ideally, Holzerland said he will need a 5-10 mph wind out of the northwest to counteract the Gulf Stream’s six-knot flow, which can be even more swift at times due to the bottleneck between Largo and the Bahamas.
He was prepared to wait near Largo for a week to 10 days for the proper conditions. November is proving to be fickle, though — after reaching Bonita Beach last weekend, Holzerland decided he needed to halt for about a week to allow the energy from Eta to pass.
“I’m not saying it isn’t dangerous and I’m not looking at this in a stupid way, but I don’t have any fears about this,” Holzerland said. “The one thing I’m concerned about is not being able to make it across, if the weather doesn’t work out, or something. I really want to do it and it would be disappointing, but if I can raise money for Crossroads, which is good, and push a positive message, then I can get back to work and call it a good day.”