Friday, March 4, 2011

Greetings from the Everglades

From the road, all one sees is a pool of dark, shallow water beneath a canopy of thick foliage. It goes back maybe fifty feet before disappearing around a bend, if not disappearing altogether, but the presence of other parked cars suggests that maybe this trickle of muddy water actually leads somewhere. This is the beginning of the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail, a marked route through the Everglades leading to the Hell’s Bay Chickee. Rebecca and I were headed out for the next two nights.

Our paddles churned up the muck, coloring the water to a black bean soup hue. We got around that first bend- a very tight turn- and the liquid path continued, one turn after another. We passed through numerous mangrove tunnels, often six or eight feet wide, with only inches of water beneath our hulls. And then we’d burst into an open area where the grasses and palms hissed in the wind- wind that mostly passed overhead. This is a good spot to paddle on a windy day. We’d had plans for a more ambitious four-night trip around Cape Sable and Whitewater Bay, but the forecast called for strong winds that would have made the paddling a chore at best.

We had been in Everglades National Park for a week. Rebecca is the Artist in Residence, which basically means the park gives her a residence and... yes, she’s the artist in that residence. After about three weeks here last year, we saw so much potential- paddling-wise, and art-wise, that we knew we had to come back and spend even more time. Rebecca’s focus is on painting, drawing and printmaking, but our kayaks get us out to places that relatively few people get to, let alone artists.

The Everglades is an often-misunderstood place. For generations, it was seen as a wet wasteland, useful only if it could be drained. Against all odds, it was drained. It’s a long, convoluted tale of human-centric folly, and at one point it seemed that the Everglades chapter was near its end, with entire species of plants and animals on the verge of extinction. Most of the national parks were established to protect places of grand, obvious beauty, easily seen and appreciated by their visitors. The attraction of the Everglades is subtler than other parks. Everglades National Park was the first of its kind, established to protect a threatened ecosystem, which might not be so tangible from the driver’s seat of an RV. Even from the cockpit of a kayak, it takes some effort to see the big picture.

You could say that the Everglades has a PR problem. And it isn’t because alligators aren’t cute.

After a couple hours of following a twisting watery path, we emerged into a series of small bays, arriving at the Pearl Bay Chickee in late afternoon. A chickee is a platform built on stilts above the water. There’s an outhouse and a roof with just enough room to camp. It’s also a pleasant place to while away what’s left of a sunny afternoon: reading, painting, enjoying the luxury of a hot cup of tea in the wilderness.

We ate dinner as the sun set, finally retreating into the mosquito netting shell of our tent, where we listened to lapping waves and the occasional splash of a fish or a wading bird. In the east, Miami lit the eastern horizon. a pinkish glow that was beautiful in its own way, even if it is a constant reminder of the human sprawl that nearly rendered this place obsolete.

It’s hard to describe our next day’s activities without useing the phrase “hanging-out”. That’s just what you do on a chickee. There’s nowhere to walk, but the twenty or so feet to the outhouse. Sure, we could get into the kayaks and do some exploring, but the view from the platform feels like a privledged one, and an unusual perspective for Rebecca to paint from. We watched birds, and an otter that, of all the little mangrove coves for miles around, chose ours to hunt for its breakfast.

Finally, we packed-up and paddled another couple of hours to get to the Lane Bay Chickee. Here we left the established canoe trail and struck off to navigate for ourselves, finding passages between mahogany and cypress hammocks and mangrove-lined bays. The navigating is a bit imprecise, with the chart only generally representing what we see. Often, an “island” is really a group of mangrove trees that probably weren’t even there when the chart was last updated. Still, it’s all we have to navigate by, so we follow along carefully, and try not to panic when nothing seems to look as it should. Aside from tricky navigating, our mileage would have been that of a short day paddle at home, but that’s okay; it gave us plenty of time on the chickee, which, after all, is why we’re here.

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