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Vacationing to Volunteering: Unexpectedly Sidetracked in the Florida Keys

Chain-sawing couches, sledgehammering bedroom sets, pulling up flooring, and catching fish in Hurricane Ian's aftermath (with a little help from Captains for Clean Water).

Vacationing to Volunteering: Unexpectedly Sidetracked in the Florida Keys

I’m the Goldilocks of travel planning. With my face mere inches from my computer screen, in full pre-trip focus, I can be heard muttering, “That restaurant is too far; that beach is too crowded; that coffee shop is juuuuuust right!”

For a fall trip to Florida, my partner Ebon, stepson Killion, and I decided to tent-camp and fly fish our way down the Florida Keys, ending up in Key West for our friends’ wedding. But, just as our perfect plans congealed, climate change checked in and said, “Hold my beer...”

Hurricane Ian crashed into Florida just days before our vacation.

The massive, destructive Category 4 storm made history as the deadliest hurricane to hit Florida since 1935. One hundred and forty-six people died, and survivors were faced with billions of dollars in losses and life-altering devastation. Ian gut-punched Fort Myers and Naples the hardest, leaving millions of homes without power. The 10- to 15-foot storm surge choked Sanibel Island and Pine Island, damaging the Sanibel Causeway and the bridge to Pine Island, forcing island inhabitants to flee to their rooftops.

We made the quick decision to pivot our trip from vacation to volunteerism. We called our friends at Captains for Clean Water (CCW), a Florida-based non-profit geared toward restoring and protecting aquatic ecosystems. Since CCW’s membership consists largely of fishing charter boat guides, this group is keen on getting going when the going gets tough. By the time I called, they were already in motion, having established drop-off sites for donated emergency supplies. They had assembled response teams that government authorities granted special permission to work with first responders on recovery, rescue, and relief.

The side of a road littered with destroyed appliances, toys, and furniture.
Hurricane Ian, a massive, destructive Category 4 storm, was the deadliest hurricane to hit Florida since 1935. (Hilary Hutcheson photo)

Many of the captains who sprang into action to help community members were victims themselves, having lost homes, property, and vehicles. Their selflessness humbled me.

“A true captain takes charge, especially when people are in harm’s way,” said CCW member Captain Benny Blanco, who helped lead relief efforts. “The very people who fought at our side for clean water were injured, suffering loss, and without basic human needs. I do not recall a moment we questioned the need to act, because there simply wasn’t one. Hurricane Ian was the worst of a long line of battles we fought on behalf of South Florida. Over the last several years, those battles helped us forge friendships from South Florida to Washington, D.C.”

When I called Blanco about our interest in helping with relief efforts, he explained that government authorities were asking at-large volunteers, like us, to stay away from the epicenter of disaster sites, since additional people in the zone became more hindrance than help. He suggested we rent a recreational vehicle so we could have a home base to move between safe areas in the perimeter where we were needed.  

As I scrolled through options of RVs to rent through the Outdoorsy app, I wondered how Goldilocks would have handled having to choose between two dozen bowls of porridge rather than just three.

After a bit of that motorhome is too big, that van is too small, I selected a 24-foot Winnebago Class B camper that I hoped would be juuuuust right.

But, just right for what, exactly? With so much unknown ahead, all we knew for sure was that we’d need to be flexible.

We arrived in Miami several days after the storm passed, and picked up the RV from its owner, Efrain, who walked us through the vehicle’s operation and amenities. Immediately, we knew the generator-powered air conditioning and filtered water would come in clutch.

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The next several days were a blur of sledgehammers, electrolytes, tears, sweat, hugs, and exhaustion.

Recovery Efforts

“The aftermath of Hurricane Ian was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said my stepson, Killion Robinson. “Witnessing all the damage and talking to the people affected by it ... I’ve never had such a humbling experience.”

We started by helping a throng of fishing guides and their families load, sort, and unload a massive storage unit full of food donations, tools, medical supplies, home goods, and toiletries. The captains distributed donations to survivors in the disaster areas, including those accessible only by boat.

A driveway filled with destroyed furniture and other household belongings.
The author's family was put to work removing and disposing of everything damaged by Hurricane Ian–which was pretty much everything. (Hilary Hutcheson photo)

Over the next few days we parked the RV in front of several different homes swamped by Ian. Our job was to remove and dispose of everything damaged–which was pretty much everything. With homeowners either working alongside us or staring on with paralyzing heartache, we chain-sawed couches saturated with toxic sludge into pieces small enough to haul into the street. We sledgehammered water-swollen bedroom sets and kitchen tables that, in just a couple of days, had become covered in mold. We pulled up slime-laden hardwood floors and carpets.

We listened to residents’ stories of survival; how during the storm, one man drove his fishing boat from house-to-house picking up stranded neighbors who had to swim to the boat from their porches. One woman, who had remained dry-eyed as we emptied her drawers of putrid, already-rotting clothing into wheelbarrows, finally broke down upon seeing a pile of her flowered underwear headed for the dump pile. “Oh my God,” she cried. “I don’t even own a bra anymore.”

Another resident asked us to check on his neighbors, who were in their late 90s. We found them sitting on folding chairs in their garage, cradling injuries they received scrambling as the water had risen around them. Their car didn’t work, their phone didn’t work. They were out of food, water, and energy. They told us they’d been sleeping on their saturated mattress, which we found to be drenched in toxic floodwater. As we rushed to alert the police officers we’d seen patrolling the neighborhood to chase off looters, the elderly man called after me in a weak but hopeful voice, “please bring ice-cold beers!”

You really have to see it to believe it: 

Every so often, my family and I took turns retreating to the RV for a few minutes to cry, drink water, and regroup. Looking at the gutted homes and the streets full of wrecked heirlooms and prized possessions, we knew we’d hardly made a dent in the support work.  

At night, we parked the RV in the Naples, Florida driveway of fly-fishing guides Captain Christina Legutki and Captain Jeff Legutki. Our kind hosts had power, water, home cooking, positive vibes, and good stories, which they generously gave despite having never before met us.

The Everglades

With just a day left before our friends’ wedding in Key West, we threw away all our now-toxic work clothes and headed east on Florida’s famed Tamiami Trail. Discussing the road’s historical significance distracted us from the devastation in the rear-view mirror.

Built in the 1920s, the Tamiami Trail (US 41) became the first road built across the Everglades, and the first major impediment to the sheet flow of water across the river of grass. The road forever changed the natural flow of water through the Everglades, creating challenges to water quality, wildlife, and fishery-based livelihoods–a conservation issue CCW continues to raise. Environmental hitch notwithstanding, the Tamiami Trail became a launchpad for fly-fishing luminaries like Bill Curtis and Norman Duncan who frequented the western side of the trail as it reaches Everglades City. Chico Fernandez tells the story of Bill Curtis showing him the trail’s best snook spots. And Flip Pallot remembers casting out of the back of the pickup truck as he and Lefty Kreh sight-casted for snook from the road in the 1970s.

With the fascination for these trail-blazing legends swirling around us, we found several pull-offs along the busy two-lane road where we could safely park the RV. We rigged up 7-weights with baitfish patterns and carefully walked along the trail’s shoulder, jumping to the outside of the guard rail when big trucks sped by. We stopped at a road section built as a small bridge with water flowing underneath, where we immediately spotted several small snook. While we’d seen other anglers playing fly-line frogger with traffic by sending their backcast over the road, Ebon and I sent Killion shimmying down the ditch to rollcast from the tight bank while we surveyed for alligators and snakes and helped spot his fish from the bridge.

“I cast over my left shoulder just about 20 feet or so and let it sink for a couple of seconds, then started stripping,” said Killion, recalling his first Tamiami Trail experience. “And all I hear is Hilary saying, ‘coming, coming, coming….’ then BOOM–he was on. I landed my first snook and my dad and Hilary scrambled down and we all high-fived and hugged. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

A person holding a small tarpon by the tail, fish in the water.
Despite donating much of their vacation time to huricane clean-up, the author and her family did find some to wet their lines. (Hilary Hutcheson photo)

Local Shops

Leaving the Everglades, we headed south on Highway 1 into the Florida Keys. An important stop for any Keys visitor is the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada, which features a permanent exhibit called “Florida Keys First People”, exploring the presence of prehistoric people in the area through a mixture of artifacts. The exhibit provides an overview of the Calusa, Tequesta, and Matecumbe Native American cultures and how they relate to the Paleoindians who first lived at Lake Mayaimi (now Lake Okeechobee) more than 10,000 years ago.

Next, we stopped into the historic Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada, owned and operated by industry pioneer and conservation shepherd Sandy Moret since 1989. There, we picked up celebrated fly patterns, stories about the accomplishments of Andy Mill and Stu Apte, (and more about Flip, Chico, and Lefty), and detailed information on local wading options.  

“There’s some important fly shop history in the Keys,” said Florida Keys Tourism Council media relations director, Andy Newman. “George Hommell, Billy Pate, and Carl Navarre opened Worldwide Sportsman in the late 1960s. Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops bought Worldwide in the mid-90s and while they have a fly-fishing section it’s much more than that these days. Hal Chittum opened H.T. Chittum and Company in 1980, but I believe it went out of business in the mid-90s.”

At Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key, we met up with friends Captain Justin Price and Miranda Price, who were also headed to the wedding in Key West. We briefly walked the Park’s shallow sand flats in search of bonefish, permit, and barracuda, lamenting our time restraint and vowing to return. It’s a good place for camping and for easy access to wade fishing.

In Key West, we picked up another wedding-bound friend at the airport and arrived at the Angling Company just before closing. Despite our rude timing, fly shop co-owner Kat Vallilee graciously answered all our questions about targeting permit in the Keys. Kat has quickly come to be known as one of the best permit anglers in the area, having amassed tournament podiums and world records.

That night we camped at Boyd’s Key West Campground, which tourism officials say opened more than 60 years ago and is likely the oldest of the 15 significant RV campgrounds throughout the Florida Keys. At Boyd’s we caught jacks from the dock then played pool in the game room until late into the night. Then it was on to our friends’ wedding at the historic Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, complete with cameos from six-toed cats and too much key lime pie.

The morning, which came all too soon, saw us saddled up to a decadent breakfast on Duval Street, after which our groggy group blitzed back up the Keys to camp at Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina at Big Pine Key. The west side of the resort has a fishing pier, allowing multiple anglers to cast into deeper water where tarpon can often be found, and the east side has a wide, shallow, wadeable flat offering chances at bonefish, barracuda and permit. While we didn’t see any of these coveted species, we caught many jacks and snapper from our beautiful waterfront parking spot.

We know better than to expect good results from a DIY fly-fishing attempt in the Florida Keys. The waters of the Keys are technical and unique from island to island and can be dangerous to wade. Professional fly-fishing guides in the area have dedicated themselves to knowing the fishery intimately. Guided days are memorable, educational, and worth every penny. Despite knowing that the best move (for fly anglers of all abilities) is to hire a local guide, our pivot to Fort Myers for Hurricane Ian cleanup had forced us to cancel the charters we had originally booked for that week prior to the wedding. We knew it was unlikely we’d be able to re-book guides at such short notice, but Captain Benny Blanco was able to round up three boats for our group to fish in Biscayne Bay on the last day of our trip.

The night before, we camped at Fiesta Key RV Resort & Marina on Long Key, where we hooked what I think was blue parrot fish along the seawall surrounding the campground. The resort has a great restaurant with outdoor seating where we ate fried seafood and watched a storm roll in.

Biscayne Bay

Driving to meet our guides in Biscayne Bay at sunrise, my family and I marveled at how much activity flanks the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. Andy Newman says the road has been designated by the Federal Highway Administration as an “All-American Road.”

“It is the only such road in Florida,” said Newman. “There are 42 bridges connecting the islands between the South Florida mainland and Key West. With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Florida Bay or the Gulf of Mexico on the other, you simply can’t have that kind of experience anywhere else. And the RV travel for fly fishermen provides a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to experience different regions in the Keys.”

At the boat ramp, Blanco introduced our group to guides Captain Jerry Perez and Captain Chris Adams. After a quick decision to make our day a pseudo “tournament” between friends, each boat tore off into the bay, sparkling with sunrise. The rules of our friendly competition didn’t only include points for multiple species on fly, but also the most garbage collected, most memorable photo, and most fish farmed (missed).

My partner Ebon and I caught some of the largest bonefish we’ve ever boated. I was struck by Biscayne Bay’s dramatic beauty, and the sense of being in the wild, even with the Miami skyline in view. While the fishing was all-time, what we loved the most was learning about the remarkable fishery from lifelong resident and steward Benny, whose heart still brims for his old stomping grounds.

Two smiling anglers holding a bonefish waist-deep in clear water.
A friendly competition resulted in some of the largest bonefish they've ever boated. (Hilary Hutcheson photo)

“Growing up in Miami in the 80s was special,” said Blanco. “There were pine trees, ball fields, and water in every direction. While opportunities for young fishermen were endless, I found myself deeply torn between athletics and fishing. I cut my saltwater teeth wading the western shoreline of Biscayne and quickly fell in love with the more sporty saltwater species I found. The salt air, silverfish, and expansive green flats haunted me. No matter where I traveled, my mind was fixed on the bay. Ultimately, it was the driving force that led me to build a life on the water.”

Biscayne Bay came complete with a cherry on top by way of a cold beer and dinner with Benny, his wife and youngest daughter and a few of their friends. For our last sleep in Florida, we parked in the driveway of Benny’s friends Rainer and Noel Schael, where we detailed the RV for an early-morning, pre-flight drop-off to its owner.

Riding in an Uber to the Miami airport, I pressed Killion for his feedback on the trip. I wasn’t worried about whether he thought the hurricane clean-up mission was too stressful. Before the trip, when he knew his vacation had taken a turn, he stepped up without hesitation and put his whole heart and energy into the mission. But I did ask, “Was the Tamiami Trail too weird? Was the drive too long? Was the generator in the RV too loud?”

“No, Hil.” said Killion, smiling. “The whole thing was just right.”

Tips for a Successful RV Trip

  • Practice Leave No Trace and leave each site better than you found it.
  • Book licensed fishing guides. (There are more than 5,000 registered fishing guides in the Sunshine State!)
  • For any non-guided fishing, be sure to obtain a Florida fishing license through www.myfwc.com. Visit the locally owned fly shops for accurate information on where to go and what to use. Purchase your flies and supplies at these locally owned businesses, rather than bring them from home.
  • In the Keys, a Class C or B recreational vehicle is recommended. If you choose a Class A, it’s a good idea to tow a car, or rely on Uber, Lyft or public transit (check out the Key West Rides on Demand Transit app) for day trips to avoid parking tickets and headaches. There’s a Key West City bus service stop in front of Boyd’s Key West Campground.
  • Overnight camping is prohibited on public roads including the Florida Overseas Highway, so be sure to book a campsite well in advance of your trip.
  • Go to www.fla-keys.com or call 1-800-FLY-KEYS for more Florida Keys travel information

Hilary Hutcheson started guiding as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she guides on the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana. Her previous story for Fly Fisherman was “Teenagers + Wilderness” in the June-July 2023 issue.




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