Amazing Paddles on Amelia Island - No. 6 Historic Downtown at Sunset
Downtown Fernandina Beach has a long and storied history. Seeing it from the deck of a stand-up paddle board (SUP) as you paddle down the Amelia River provides an interesting perspective. The combination of sights to see along the way make this paddle boarding tour truly unique. The port and paper plant give it a real urban feel while the marsh, moored sailboats and wildlife remind you that you are in a quaint southern beach town. Seeing historic downtown in the orange and red glow of sunset is the cherry on top.
We begin this paddle boarding tour by heading south from DeeDee Bartels boat ramp. As you head south you will come upon the mouth of Egans Creek. By hugging the eastern shoreline, you may notice a large pile of oyster shells. These are actually shell mounds left behind by the Timucuan Indians that first inhabited this area. Timucuan Indians lived off shellfish and piled the empty shells into mounds which remain today over 2000 years later.
As you pass Egans Creek you will see what is known as “old town” located up on a bluff above the water. It is the original location of downtown Fernandina dating back to the 1500s. You will also likely notice a house of Italian and Victorian architecture with a distinctive copper tower. The house was used in the movie The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking filmed entirely here on the island. It was initially built by a harbor captain back in 1870 making it nearly 150 years old.
Continuing south you will come to the pulp and paper plant owned today by WestRock. The plant was built back in the 1930s and has employed three generations of islanders. Keep an eye out for manatee and dolphin in this area as they tend to like the warm water discharged from the plant.
Next you will paddle by Port of Fernandina. If you’re lucky there will be a massive container ship in port. Seeing one of these ocean-going vessels up close from a paddle board makes your 12 foot board feel small, to say the least. You may see ships in port from across the Caribbean and South America being loaded with a variety of cargo including pulp and paper, steel, beverages, and auto parts.
Once past the port, you will paddle by what is left of the Fernandina Beach shrimping fleet. Shrimping was actually invented on Amelia Island back in the early 1900s. In particular, the net system (trawling nets) used today on all commercial shrimp boats was developed here.
The Burbank family (of Burbank Sports Nets) still located here in Fernandina Beach have been making shrimp trawl nets since 1915. The company was started by William Burbank who began making his own nets for shrimping. When other shrimpers saw how effective his nets were they asked him to make nets for them. At one point in time Burbank was the largest producer of fishing nets in the U.S. Today they make nets for soccer, baseball, football and the like. I read a story in which William Burbank claims he was shrimping offshore and his net became tangled up on a submarine. The boat was pulled backwards by the submarine until a cable finally popped. Crazy!
Sadly, Fernandina's shrimping fleet is shrinking since most shrimp you eat today is farmed. If you haven’t eaten fresh local shrimp, distinguished by their brown and white color, be sure to add it to your list of things to do before you leave. They are delicious! Timoti's Seafood Shak and the Salty Pelican are two great restaurants that serve up local shrimp.
Continuing south you will come to historic downtown Fernandina Beach. By this time of day downtown begins to glow. Looking west you will see the sun just above the horizon and framed by sailboats moored in the harbor. Fernandina Beach has a wild history filled with stories of pirates, buried treasure and streets lined with brothels. It has been said that at one time there were more brothels than churches in Fernandina Beach. Downtown is the turnaround point for this paddle boarding tour. If you have timed the tide right the current will assist you back to DeeDee Bartels boat ramp.
Looking west as you head back north you will see the marsh and an uninhabited island called Tiger Island. The name comes from the Spanish who saw bobcat on the island and called them tigers. The island is also known as snake island. It is reported to have the highest density of rattlesnakes on the east coast. To make things worse, the island was also used to quarantine sick sailors that came into port centuries ago. That said, it can still be a good spot to take a short break on your paddle home.
This paddle board tour begins and ends at the DeeDee Bartels Boat Ramp. It is located on the northern most end of Amelia Island off of 14th Street. Be sure to time this paddle board tour with the tide and setting sun. Check the wind forecast and direction just prior to departing. The length of the paddle is about 2 hours, round trip.
Be mindful that there can be both commercial and recreational boat traffic in the area. Remember, unless you are in distress the big boats have the right-of-way. Be aware the current can vary in strength on the river depending on where you are especially as the tide begins to drop and around the mouth of Egans Creek. As such, I would recommend a paddle board lesson to learn the basics before doing this trip. You might also consider taking a guided paddle boarding tour.