Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Keys, More Everglades

We had vague plans to meet Peter and Marilyn in the Keys, which remained vague after we left Everglades National Park and tried to catch up on three weeks of email in a parking lot in Homestead. Either way, we were headed to the Keys with no big plans. After spending our first night at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, we were pulling out onto Route One and noticed a car with kayaks approaching from the north: Peter & Marilyn. We pulled into the parking lot at an adult video store (one of the many fine cultural attractions popular in the Keys) and decided to go for a paddle.

We followed a canoe path from the park out into a channel, where we chatted in between the roar of jetskis and powerboats. We found our way back into the canoe trail, which had the feel of a theme park attraction, busy with kids and families in rented sit-upons. Still, it was fun to follow the narrow paths and see where they brought us, practicing our edging to make tight turns. I found myself wishing we had something like this back home.

In the Keys, we spent only a little time paddling, and were seldom out of earshot of Route One. The State Park campsites, where $43 a night buys you a slot between RVs that run their air conditioners constantly, can be reserved eleven months in advance, so we knew that every park was completely booked before we arrived.

Still, we kept getting lucky when we would inquire about cancellations. $43 is a bargain in the Keys, and the most unspoiled places there seem to be in the parks. If you want to car camp and hang out at the beach, it’s not a bad deal. The water is clear, turquoisey blue, and some of the beaches, like the one at Bahia Honda, are covered with fine sand and only a few Portuguese man of war jellyfish. The sharks don’t eat tourists that often, and there’s more scantily-clad beach babes on almost any stretch of beach than I have ever seen in Maine. Of course, like Maine, Florida is a popular haven for elderly beach babes. Spring break was happening somewhere, but we never did see any of those girls gone wild.

We had been spoiled by the Everglades, and it didn’t take long for us to decide we’d seen enough of the Keys for now. There’s nothing like a visit to the galleries of Key West to reinforce our opinion that the gallery scene is far better in Stonington, Maine. We headed back to the Everglades, where the $16 a night campground with cold showers had begun to feel like home. And people didn’t stare at my bug bite-covered legs.

We took some day trips, hiking and paddling and going to every ranger talk we could. Since it takes some real effort to get out and see the wild areas of the Everglades, many park visitors show up at the Anhinga Trail, the one-stop shopping solution to seeing the Everglades. It’s like a zoo. The alligators stroll onto the wheelchair-accesible paths, and people get their worried-looking kids to pose in front of them, seeming to forget that gators can run as fast as a horse. But the alligators just hang-out, smiling for the camera. After awhile, visitors seem almost bored by it, like something seen on TV.

Before we left, though, we had one last excursion: a couple of nights out at Cape Sable beneath the full moon. For the last month we’d hardly been anywhere for two nights in a row, and we’d loved this beach so much we wanted to go back and just hang-out for a day. Time to finish those Travis McGee novels and vegetate a bit, and go for long, long walks on the beach. Time to break our ‘no shell collecting’ vow, and one last chance to work on that tan before we would fade to our usual pale selves.

Despite a group of “troubled youths” that chose to camp amazingly near us on such a long beach, we put in our beach time as occasional teary youths strolled past with counselors who talked non-stop, using the word “respect” rythmically. Okay, this was surreal, but we just smiled. Thanks to scenes like this, we could confidently skip our visit to the Dali museum. The weird thing was that I kept noticing they were making these kids do exactly what we did as a fantasy vacation. Hey look, now they’re writing in their journals while someone plays flute, now it’s time for a forced march on the beach. Oh my god, not paddling into the wind again!

It made me wish I’d been so lucky as these troubled youths. Then it occured to me that I had been. In high school, I took part in an outdoor education program that got me out canoeing, backpacking and rock climbing, all while practicing lightweight, low-impact camping. It’s hard to imagine what I would have done without it. So, while it would have been nice to be alone, I imagined that for at least one of those kids, this might have been as formative an experience as “Project Exploration” had been for me. If it weren’t for that experience, this blog might be called “Jetski Stonington”.

We had some time after they left, and despite a growing east wind that we’d have to paddle into, we stayed on the beach as long as we could. A large crocodile patrolled the shore, perhaps searching for a place to nest. The growing waves slapped the beach rythmically. We finished our novels, caught-up with the journals and sketchbooks, and finally just stared out at the horizon. We knew the next day would find us on I-95, headed north, that in another week we’d be cleaning the sand out of our gear back home. If bug bites and sunburn helped me hang onto this feeling, well then, bring it on.

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.