Friday, April 16, 2010

The Everglades

In March, Rebecca and I strapped the kayaks onto the car and drove down to Florida. The kayak excursions deserve a bit more space than I want to give them in the blog, so I’ll just hit upon some highlights. Similarly, last fall I blogged a synopsis of my trip with Todd from Stonington to West Quoddy Head, but a detailed account will appear in Ocean Paddler Magazine. I’ll let you know when it comes out.

The heart of our trip was a fourteen-day, 170-mile excursion through the Everglades. To do this, we drove for four days, arriving in Flamingo, in Everglades National Park, where we stayed in the campground for a couple of nights while we prepared. It’s amazing how many people want to talk to Rebecca about her kayak (and how few want to talk to me about mine). The usual conversation: “yes, she built it, from a kit, a Pygmy Coho, mahogany plywood, seventeen and a half feet, they say it takes eighty hours but...” Well, we meet a lot of friendly people that way, at gas stations and rest stops, all the way to the campground.

Our route: week #1 in red, week #2 in yellow

For the first week we paddled along the Gulf coast, up to the northern end of the park at Everglades City. This area was what attracted me to paddling in the Everglades: the long undeveloped stretches of beach on the Gulf of Mexico. I was certainly more comfortable with the open ocean than with the thought of what lay “inside”: the maze-like paths through the mangroves teeming with creatures capable of eating people.

Ever feel like this?

Well, that was my impression, and the pythons had been in the news a lot lately. It seemed only a matter of time before a twenty-something-foot python swallowed a seventeen-foot kayak, complete with kayaker and gear. They were, after all, eating eight-foot alligators. We could have also worried about the sharks in the Gulf, or maybe those nasty South American drug dealers with chainsaws we’d seen in “Scarface”. But why worry? We’d survived nearly two-thousand miles of I-95 and the horrors of the multitasking SUV drivers.

We camped at the beaches along Cape Sable, then dipped into the Little Shark River for our first taste of the mangroves. It was a good taste- just enough to ease some of our uneasiness and get a feel for navigating among the many confusing channels of the delta. I hadn’t given much thought to the mangrove trees, viewing them more as a weedy obstruction- something difficult to paddle or walk through. But these were forests of tall, majestic trees that had adapted to grow where others couldn’t, and paddling among them was to float upon a watery forest floor with arching support roots echoing the shapes of the canopy overhead.

We encountered few other people. Our first three campsites coincided with those of Joel Beckwith, a kayak guide for Florida Bay Outfitters, and two German women. Joel spends his summers in our stomping grounds, guiding on Mt. Desert, so we had a lot to talk about, like his 500-mile Sea of Cortez expedition which you can check-out on YouTube.

After six nights on the “outside”, we paddled in to Everglades City, where we replenished our water supply and obtained our wilderness permit for the return trip to Flamingo. Now we were committed to “inside” paddling and all it entailed: long breaks to photograph wildlife, the occasional powerboats zipping by on the Wilderness Waterway, and easier conditions than on the ocean.

As much as we wanted solitude, the few people we met made for a more interesting time: a pair of canoeists at Lopez River, a group on a motorboat-assisted guided trip at Darwin’s Place, a father and son at Harney River Chickee. The group took us along on a pre-dawn excursion in the powerboat to watch thousands of birds make their morning commute from Cannon Bay out toward the Gulf. The father and son recounted various paddling trips, making it seem there would never be enough time to do all the paddling there is to do.

We returned briefly to the “outside” to camp again at Highland Beach, which was a favorite spot on the way up. Our first visit had been solitary and quiet, punctuated by long walks on the beach. This time, a group of powerboats had anchored off the shore, and at night, their bright lanterns and bonfire were hard to miss.

The “Nightmare” route is a passage from the Broad River to the Harney River through a tangle of small creeks that run dry at low tide. Before, I thought “no way”. I didn’t relish the idea of mosquitoes and spiderwebs and whatever else might be hanging off those low-hanging branches. But my attitude had changed. It’s funny how something shifts from being scary and intimidating to being more fun than you could have imagined. A small alligator (we’d seen a lot of them by then) greeted us at the entrance, and we spent the next several hours making tight turns, ducking beneath branches and trying to keep track of our location on the chart.

Our last three nights were spent at chickees, small roofed platforms with just enough room to pitch a tent. They make for clean camping- none of the sand and dirt we’d been living in, but made it a challenge to stretch one’s legs. Aside from a lunch break on a small shell mound, we didn’t walk on actual land again until we pulled up at the boat ramp in Flamingo.

We took our time for those last few miles in the Buttonwood Canal. It all seems so immediate while you’re there, but you never know if or when you’ll be there again. Suddenly, that shower you’ve looked forward to for two weeks doesn’t seem so important, and even those ice cream bars at the marina can wait. Before you know it, you're back home with thousands of photos to go through, struggling to explain what it was like in brief conversations, and scheming ways to get back out there.

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