Just returned from an 11-day trip where we paddled 135 miles from Flamingo, Florida to Everglades City. An ocean voyage that split the heart of the Everglades. My partners on the journey were Fran Rulon-Miller and travel writer Larry Rice from Buena Vista, Colorado; veteran Minnesota paddler Darrel Foss and the legendary Cliff Jacobson. Fran and Larry paddled a 42-year-old Old Town Tripper, Darrel and Cliff were in a Dagger Venture and I paddled a solo Bell Yellowstone with a Cooke Custom Sewing cover. The January drive to south Florida is a never ending parade of strip malls and naked trees. We spent a night at a northern Florida state park where freestyle paddling rockstar Jim Mandle volunteers as a blacksmith. The state park rents out quaint cabins with massive wraparound screen porches, fireplaces and rocking chairs. But it was no time to be rocking, as the Suwannee River flowed through the park and after 3 days in the Chevy I needed to air out my arms and lungs.
Onward to south Florida. Everglades National Park has an interesting back country permit system. You cannot reserve a permit until the day of your arrival and then you must reserve your complete itinerary. Many of the sites may already be reserved so it’s a bit of a puzzle. You must camp at designated sites which can be beaches, aboriginal midden piles or chickies. There are not too many of these sites and we did our best to plot a route with an average of ten miles between campsites. Ten days before our arrival, the “Arctic Vortex” had blasted the Glades with cold north winds. Then two days before we arrived, a southern storm dropped as much as 22 inches of rain in south Florida. Yes, 22 inches. Retirees that live in rolling campers assured us that these were, “once a decade weather events”. We happily figured all that bad stuff was behind us and we were in for blissful tropical breezes. However, the rangers warned us that a new cold front was on its way with high winds and small craft warnings. Our shuttle driver was three hours late and it was a 2+ hour drive to Flamingo. By the time we left the road for a serpentine creek into the wilds our shadows were long. The canoes were overloaded barges, mostly because there is no fresh water in the Glades and we were packing over 70 gallons of H2O, plus food, gear and whiskey.
Our first designated campsite was Hell’s Creek chickie. Chickies are elevated docks 10×12 feet or sometimes a bit smaller. They have a ladder for use when the tide is out and an odoriferous chemical porta potty.
Our route that first day was so bendy that darkness closed in before we could make it to our assigned chickie. Fortunately there was an unoccupied ground site called Lard Can, and we camped there. It was the last dry ground we would see for a few days. The Everglades are dominated by Mangrove. A broadleaf evergreen that can live in tidal areas and can somehow extract freshwater from the sea. Sometimes at low tide, mud flats appear. With the mud come flocks of white Ibis, a handsome shorebird with a downturned bill and a flat quack.
The trip was characterized by salvo after salvo of cold fronts, or as my InReach satellite communicator described, “reinforcing cold fronts”. Some nights were in the high thirties and some days barely reached sixty. The brisk northwest winds were unexpected, but I relished the crisp clear air. We travelled in a northerly direction so the wind was in our face. I liked the challenge in the solo Bell. I did discover that what Dan Cooke has been trying to convince me for years is true: a cover greatly reduces wind resistance. He may also be correct that there is more to it than just reducing wind resistance. At certain angles of attack I felt as if I was actually beating into the wind like a sailboat. When I was fighting both wind and tide I did not have much time for navigation or birding, just stroke, stroke stroke. I brought two paddles: my favorite Bending Branches Expedition Plus and a carbon fiber bent shaft. It will be the first trip ever where I primarily use a bent shaft. Short quick strokes with the light paddle just worked better.
In all we encountered four major cold fronts over the eleven days. A group of five was three too many on a single chickie. We preferred the ground sites. Although for the first time in my life I did battle with No-see-um’s. Nasty little buggers that arrived silently at dusk. First time too, for Chiggers – little devils that went after my ankles. They are as stealthy as swimmers itch. I was unaware of their bites until hours later when things got itchy and raw. There were a few scrawny mosquitoes which were only a concern because Malaria has not been completely knocked out of south Florida and I would prefer not go go back down in that death spiral for awhile. You are not permitted to have campfires except below the high tide line on beaches. This is a shame because the nights are long in January and a campfire would have been fun. Without a fire we were in the tents by 7:30. It gave me a lot of dreaming time and my dreams did not disappoint.
We had planned to do a portion of our trip on the open ocean, but the high winds prevented that, and we used Cliff’s sat-phone to rearrange our chickies. The NPS was not too cool about changes in our itinerary, but they were not out paddling an open canoe in 15 knot headwinds either. Cliff and I did paddle to the sea one afternoon. The tide was out and the sea is so shallow that we had to wait 200 yards off shore before the tide flooded and we could make it to the beach. We saw an 8 foot sand shark and a couple sawfish. The beach was composed of nothing but shells and looked like an inviting place to camp. That day we rode the low tide to the beach and the high tide back to camp. It was a singular experience on this journey. On every other day we were fighting either wind or tidal current or both. I never navigated. I just could not afford to put down the paddle. The others kept us on course with nary a miss in some of the most challenging navigation situations I can remember.
My favorite part of the Everglades was when we paddled narrow passages through labyrinths of mangrove. Sometimes vegetation canopied our route and the flapping of roosting Ibis gave a Tarzan vibe to the journey. Broad Creek was especially constricted and we needed to saw a branch to even squeeze through. When one snake dropped from a high limb just off our starboard bow I felt as if I had arrived.
One of the strangest elements of the Everglades was all the water. It was really more of a ocean journey than a terrestrial trip. Many days we never saw dry ground going from chickie to chickie without ever getting out of our boat. There are big lakes in the Everglades, but despite many days of ten knot plus winds, waves never seemed to build up much beyond a walleye chop. I am not sure that is because it is so shallow or because of the salt content of the brackish water.
I had planned to swim every day. But it was a bit chilly for that and the only real place to swim was jumping off chickies. Previous campers and fisherman have thrown garbage and fish guts off the chickies making them a favorite haunt for some of the biggest alligators I have every seen. It would have taken reckless gumption to plunge into that murky water where you might be targeted by one of dem big gators. Especially after Larry kept telling us that they pull you down by a limb, spin you dizzy, drown you, and stash you in some Mangrove roots for a few days until you soften up for easier chewing. Not positive I want to go out that way.
Raccoons were once abundant in the Everglades and were even considered a pest by canoeists when their aggressive quest for fresh water included plundering paddling provisions. I had read that legions of invasive Burmese pythons had decimated their population. I made a wager with Larry that we would not see a single coon. Larry jumped at the bet and thought my gamble was pure folly as on previous Glade’s trips he had seen legions of the fat little bandits. I won the bet. The mammals we did see many of, were dolphins. Bottle-nose Dolphins fished in the shallow water and sometimes swam beneath my boat. I probably saw 50 over the eleven days. Also, one brief glimpse of a manatee. We also saw many people. Motorboats are allowed on the Wilderness Waterway and seldom did an hour pass without seeing a decked out bassboat or swamp john boat.
If you go to the Glades on a paddle trip be sure to bring bug dope, plenty of water, long underwear and a gps.
I will remember tip-toeing around the Chickies, the endless mangroves, and the nuanced pinks of the Roseate Spoonbill. But mostly when I think of the Everglades I will remember the good times swapping stories with some legendary canoeists and dear friends.