April 30, 2021

Up a river with a paddle and friend

4.8 min read| Published On: April 30th, 2021|

By James Combs

Up a river with a paddle and friend

4.8 min read| Published On: April 30th, 2021|

Facebook groups bring paddle boarders and kayakers together while providing a sense of community.

Photos provided by Katie Hays.

Their stories of paddling down lakes, rivers, and springs spark intrigue. The pictures and videos are breathtaking. Rhesus monkeys scurrying up trees at Silver Springs, below-the-surface shots of underwater cave systems with sandy bottoms, views of narrow, crystal-clear streams where tall palm trees and swaying fronds make for a jungle-like setting. 

These stories and images of Florida’s bountiful waterways are posted by members of Facebook groups who share a passion for paddle boarding and kayaking. In these groups, pleasant conversations and positive energy abound.

Yes, there really is a hidden corner of the internet outside of a Mr. Rogers’ fan page where everyone gets along. No, members don’t gather in a circle and sing “Amazing Grace.” They do seek advice, share opinions, and organize events in private or semi-private groups where administrators can remove cyber trolls who typically turn friendly discussions into heated arguments. 

Katie Hays, 39, refers to the Facebook groups as a “lifesaver.” Following a divorce from her high school sweetheart three years ago, the Clermont native sought avenues to heal and bring joy back in her life. 

For Katie, who resides in Tampa, that meant being out on the water. As a child, she grew up on the Clermont Chain of Lakes and spent countless hours wakeboarding and surfboarding. 

“Enjoying water activities is nature therapy,” says Katie, who is employed by a learning management software company. 

Katie rekindled her love for paddle boarding, an activity where a rider stands on a large board and uses a paddle to move through the water. However, the self-described extrovert was not content to paddle alone. She joined Facebook groups such as “Florida Spring Hunters” and “Central Florida Paddlers.”

Katie Hays

With the click of a mouse, paddle boarding outings were organized and friendships were forged. Now, she has a close group of girlfriends who do everything together—from paddle boarding and camping to hiking and boating. 

“We make lots of friends in our childhood, but it’s much harder to make friends when you’re an adult,” Katie says. “Some have kids and are too busy to do anything with me. I had nobody to enjoy activities with. I’ve enjoyed forming close bonds with girlfriends I haven’t had in a long time.” 

On Facebook groups, Katie is known as the “adventure girl.” She shares photos from her many excursions: paddling down the blue waters of Rainbow Springs, camping beachside at Shell Key Preserve, and receiving an up-close view of manatees at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. 

One of her most enjoyable activities is arranging paddle boarding trips for newbies. 

“It’s fun to introduce people to paddle boarding,” she says. “Some are intimidated by standing up on a board in the water. However, the boards are actually very stable, and it’s much easier than it looks. I like giving people the confidence to try it.”

Of course, for the perpetually anxious, meeting an online acquaintance in person for the first time can be downright frightening. The cure, Katie says, is to muster up some courage and embrace the possibility of new friendships.  

“Growth in life comes through doing things we don’t feel comfortable with at first,” she says. “If you’re afraid of meeting up with a group of people and you don’t know anybody, then bring a friend. But don’t spend all your time with that one person. Engage in the group and engage in new people.”

Like Katie, Lance Healey is a divorced paddle boarding enthusiast. A resident of Citrus Springs and sales director for a research and analyst firm, Lance, 40, belongs to some of the same Facebook groups and has become an online rock star. After taking up paddle boarding in 2019 and losing 60 pounds, he posted before-and-after photos of himself in the group “Florida Spring Hunters.” The post went viral, generating nearly 1,500 likes and 1,000 comments. 

“Hopefully, I inspired some people,” he says. “Paddle boarding is a great body workout. You’re using a lot of muscles. The muscles in your ankles and legs are being used for stability, and the muscles in your upper body are being used while paddling.”

Lance routinely goes on paddle boarding excursions with Facebook friends. For him, meeting new people is an opportunity rather than a threat. 

“You have to overcome your fear and put yourself out there. Get over your fears and just do it. I’m very comfortable in my own skin.”

He’s so comfortable that he posts in several groups to inform paddlers of his weekend plans in hopes others will accompany him. 

“These Facebook groups are a great way to meet others,” he says. “It’s much different than being on a dating site, where you agree to meet someone for 30 minutes over a cup of coffee. When you go paddle boarding with someone, you have hours of alone time with them and really get to know them. Being on the water provides for much more of an intimate setting.”

Participating in a Facebook group for like-minded people certainly has advantages, as both Katie and Lance have discovered. More privacy means members can be more outspoken and more active. Forever friendships are created. And members can share their stories and pictures of their outings with others who will truly appreciate them.

“These groups have given me an opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Katie says. “I’ve never had a bad experience in any of the group outings. Everyone is so welcoming.” 

Katie is a member of the following Facebook groups:

  • Pinellas Paddlers: A Gulf Coast-based group that organizes weekly trips. Singles and couples of all ages participate in these trips. 
  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Spring Hoppers: A female-only group that organizes trips to springs throughout Florida. Participants typically range from their 20s through 40s. 
  • Florida Kayaking Trips and Events: This group organizes weekly events all over the state. People of all ages participate. 
  • Florida Kayaker Community: A group for people of all ages who reside in Florida. This page is particularly helpful for beginning kayakers who want to learn about different places to go. 
  • Florida Spring Hunters: Katie has made lots of friends through this group and says it’s a great way to connect with others. Members are allowed to arrange meetings. 
  • Kayak Junkies: This group is for Central Florida kayakers of all ages. Many outings and events are planned. 
  • Central Florida Paddlers: A group for kayaking and paddle boarding enthusiasts. 
  • Spring Life: An educational group for like-minded people desiring to learn about hidden springs and unusual places in Florida. 
  • Kayaking 420 Friendly: The name speaks for itself. 
  • The Drifting Misfits: Many of Katie’s friends come from this younger group of people whose ages range from their 20s through 40s. 

Katie’s Instagram, @freespiritpioneer: Anyone who would like to join Katie out on the water, follow her adventures, or ask any questions can do so on her Instagram page. She has amassed 4,000 followers.

One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Joey Jachec June 19, 2021 at 6:42 am - Reply

    Love seeing light cast this way – on someone using healthy ways to adapt to unwelcome or unhappy circumstances! If I could add to the group list, there’s also a relatively new one called the FLOK: Florida Ladies on Kayaks. This one (for paddlers of all vessels despite the name) offers women only meetups, and also addresses unique discussion topics pertinent to women’s issues. Here’s the link:

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About the Author: James Combs

James Combs was a pillar of Akers Media Group since its inception in 2008. Over the years, he had the honor of interviewing Lake & Sumter County's most fascinating personalities, from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans, bringing their incredible stories to life. Throughout his career, James earned over 50 awards for writing excellence, a testament to his talent and dedication. In 2021, he was inducted into the Akers Media Group Hall of Fame. Sadly, James passed away in 2023 after a courageous battle with cancer. His legacy of storytelling and excellence continues to inspire us all.

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