Due to extreme weather conditions around the country in the winter of 2013 -14, our organization and the Branson/Lakes Area CVB have agreed to reschedule the Branson event to September 2015 to ensure that the water temperature can be above 68 degrees F, the recommended sanctioned temperature.
With a series of unfulfilling office jobs behind him, Justin Riney, 32, decided to “step off the ledge” three years ago. He spent the next year back home in Vero Beach, Fla., creating a plan to combine his attachment to the ocean with his desire to protect it. “I grew up a surfer, but I also loved fishing, camping, boating — anything that connected me with the water,” he said.
A modest event to inaugurate Mother Ocean, the conservation-minded nonprofit he started, turned into the yearlong Expedition Florida 500project, coinciding with the state’s 500th birthday celebration. Mr. Riney circumnavigated the state’s coastline and explored inland waterways, all by stand-up paddle board. By the end of 2013, he had logged about 2,500 miles, attracted 14,000 enthusiastic Facebook followers, hosted 60 shoreline cleanups and won nearly 50 environmental awards. His odyssey was named SUP Magazine’s Top Expedition of the year.
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Riney about his experience.
Q. Why paddle boarding, not kayaking?
A. Believe it or not, I’d never paddle boarded, but I had a full year to prepare. Paddle boarding made sense because no one had done it before, and the industry was booming. The project was designed to raise awareness for conservation, but when people hear that word, their eyes glaze over. So my goal was to attract followers with a huge personal adventure; then, when they trusted me, we’d pepper in messages about conservation and history.
Other than the novelty, is there an advantage to stand-up paddling over kayaking?
They’re both amazing as they allow you to take in all the senses. The big difference is perspective, because when you’re standing you see what’s under you: the dolphins coming, the fish moving, rays scuffling the bottom.
How did you plan the logistics?
Cynthia Trone, now taking over Mother Ocean, was my volunteer coordinator. We had over 100 events. We had a partnership with Florida State Parks, so I stayed at a lot of parks. Sometimes people hosted me. I was making calls, sending emails from the water or my tent, all from my iPhone; everything had to be timed properly. I usually worked 16- to 18-hour days.
The photos you posted on the Expedition Florida 500 Facebook page were breathtaking. Did you use just your phone for those too?
I did. I made a conscious effort to focus on the beauty of the natural environment. A lot of people think of Florida as Disney and beaches with condos. I wanted to show the other side.
What kind of events did you organize?
We had about 60 trash cleanups and sometimes had events with the State of Florida, another partner. One day, on the Indian River Lagoon, 70 to 80 people met me on the water. There were boats, kayaks, paddle boarders, canoes, scuba divers cleaning the bottom of the river, even police escorts. Probably the most special time was when I met a Florida history class at Countryside High School in Clearwater that had been following me on Facebook. When I hit the shore, I was immediately engulfed by high school kids. You expect that with little kids, but not the older ones. To them I was a role model, and that was the point where I realized what a huge responsibility that was.
Any close calls with alligators?
On the Kissimmee River, we counted 183 gators in one day, and they were big. One ended up going right under my board and almost knocked me off.
Any special spots to recommend?
Dead Lakes in the Panhandle. It’s a cypress tree graveyard. With all those stumps and knees sticking out, it’s like being on Mars. Another place is Fisheating Creek Outpost, where you can paddle on the only free-flowing water into Lake Okeechobee. I would also encourage people to go to Everglades National Park. That’s the beginning of the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. That was the most challenging and healing portion of my journey.
What surprised you about Florida?
I didn’t realize how much undeveloped land and how many state parks are on the Gulf Coast. I was also surprised by the trash in the Keys. The water is beautiful from afar, but when you’re at the mangrove lines, there’s trash everywhere. It’s sad to see.
Do you have another trip planned?
I’m planning even bigger expeditions. I’ll use social media, multimedia and a book series for people to follow my adventures and inspire them to preserve the outdoors and pursue their dreams. I’m just a regular person who changed his life to do something big.