Beyond the Mangroves

Paddling the Everglades' Coast

 Florida Bay

 
© Karin Herrero

Launch at Key Largo

A Maiden Voyage

My husband Jake and I flew from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to Miami, where we took a shuttle van to Key Largo, the starting point of our kayak trip, about 90 km directly south of Miami and less than 2 km east of the Park boundary. We had bought a 17 foot double folding kayak, sight unseen, from a U.S. manufacturer, had it shipped to our hotel in Key Largo, assembled it there, and launched it right from the hotel’s beach into Florida Bay.

It was the beginning of December and we had a total of 19 days at our disposal. While winter was tightening its grip on most of Canada and the northern United States, here in South Florida a cold front had moderated the heat and humidity and promised predictable northerly winds and clear skies.

At a paddling store in Key Largo we purchased final provisions, including nautical charts and a guide book, and then sketched our route: across Florida Bay to Flamingo, where we would re-supply and extend our backcountry permit, then westwards into the Gulf of Mexico, rounding Cape Sable and following the coastline north. At the mouth of the Chatham River we would head inland and follow various waterways until we reached Everglades City. There, we would re-supply again and, time permitting, continue paddling further north. We had heard about the Wilderness Waterway (WW), the Park’s premier route (a 160 km long inland route from Flamingo to Everglades City), but decided to paddle the coast. This, after we learnt that the coast offers more chances for solitude (Jake came up with the name "Wilderness Motorway" after reading in A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park that the WW is not the route to take if you want to avoid motorboat traffic), less insects, and more ground to stretch your legs. However, we were open to the option to turn inland should the weather turn rough.

Across Florida Bay with an Umbrella

Sailing across Florida BayLoaded with camping gear, freshwater, and home-cooked, dried food, we launch the kayak into Florida Bay. Our plan is to paddle to North Nest Key, a mangrove-covered island with small beaches, where camping is permitted. This 12 km long trip is our practice round to check the new boat’s (and crew’s) performance and see if both are up to the following day’s 32 km paddle to Shark Point (no other official campsites along the way). Soon, we’re moving through sage-green waters, rippled by a light NE breeze. Although the sky is streaked with white clouds, the sunlight is intense and we get out our hats and sunscreen.

After less than an hour, we encounter our first mangrove islands: two low mounds topped with a thick-leafed canopy, sitting on a base of an impenetrable mesh of twisted, partially submerged roots. Jake spots a narrow passage between them and we glide into calm waters, our paddles and shoulders brushing against the branches. Within minutes, we’re through and head towards two larger islands. On the calm lee side of the second island, we stop for a quick snack break. The heavily wooded keys don’t allow for a landing, but in shallow Florida Bay it’s not a problem if you really want to stretch your legs. In many places you can get out of the boat and stand in knee-deep water.Mangrove Keys in Florida Bay

Depth marks on the Florida Bay nautical charts hardly ever exceed nine feet, and here in the eastern part of the bay they range from one to seven feet. For the next three days we would often see birds standing in the water, miles from shore, and we’d encounter many marked channels, which were dredged to allow passage for larger boats.

In the early afternoon we arrive at North Nest Key, tie the kayak to the dock and walk the small, sandy beach. After setting up camp, we practice a self-rescue in the warm, shallow waters off the beach. It takes a lot of concerted effort to purposefully capsize the kayak, and we’re comforted by the remarkable stability of the boat. Folding kayaks are extremely sea worthy, due to their ability to flex slightly in the waves.

With the sunset arrive tiny no-see-ums. We cook on the dock where there is a bit of a breeze to keep the insects at bay, then carry the boat on to the beach and pre-pack most of our gear for an early start the next day. By 7 p.m. we’re in the tent, listening to the concert of crickets and to the water gently lapping at the shoreline three feet from us.

Before sunrise, we break camp, eat a quick breakfast and start paddling as soon as there is sufficient light. An overcast sky provides relief from the intense sun. Encouraged by a NE wind we hoist our red and white-striped golf umbrella, (about three times the size of a regular umbrella) and sail westwards, passing numerous mangrove-covered keys. It’s Saturday and the increased motorboat traffic is noticeable. Motorboats pass us (most of them politely throttle their engine when passing). In one of the channels, we surprise a couple in a motorboat as we quietly glide by with our unusual ‘sail’. "Where do YOU come from?" the man asks surprised. Since our boat only needs four inches of water, we occasionally take shortcuts across the mouth of shallow bays (something a motorboat crew wouldn’t do), brushing sea-weeds and touching the bottom with our paddles.

A Taste of the Jungle

Mosquitoes at Shark PointBy 3 p.m., as the sunlight begins to soften, we hug the shore and search for the entrance to the campsite at Shark Point. But there seems to be no break in the mangrove. Jake pulls out his GPS and checks our location. And then we see it: a tiny break in the jungle, a "beach" barely wide enough to pull one or two boats in. As soon as the bow touches the ground, I jump out of my seat, pull the bow higher onto the beach and race into the bushes to relieve myself. Immediately, a cloud of mosquitoes surrounds me and I hurry back to the boat to put on my bug shirt and long pants. We haul the boat out and carry it over black mud and dead vegetation to a small level spot in the thicket, where we pitch the tent and dive into it to escape the bugs. Although there is a larger clearing beyond the mangroves, the insects are even fiercer there. We wonder why this place is used as a campsite. Later on our trip we come to realize that high, dry firm ground suitable for camping is scarce in the Everglades, where the high point is eight feet above sea level. With sunset the jungle comes alive. Crickets and frogs join in the mosquito concert, fish and shore birds splash at the water’s edge, something whizzes through the trees (a bat? a hummingbird?), and the tiny sparks of fireflies dance in the darkness. After we’ve eaten dinner inside the tent, I brave the bugs once more to clean up the dishes and hang the food bags from branches to keep them away from small critters. We’re tired, but happy to have made it here all the way.

With the morning the NE wind returns, but the mosquitoes are undaunted and we can’t wait until we make our escape. Once we’re underway, we hoist the umbrella again and sail across Snake Bight, a large, shallow bay, where most motorboats don’t venture. In some areas, the water is only a paddle blade deep.

As we approach the settlement of Flamingo in the early afternoon, we realize there is no beach where paddlers can pull up their boats. Instead, there is a marina with docks. Luckily, the staff of a canoe rental business allow us to temporarily tie our kayak to the end of their dock. Feeling that it is reasonably safe here, we leave the boat and walk to the Park’s Visitor Center, where we extend our backcountry permit after treating ourselves to calamari and hamburger in the adjacent restaurant. Sitting at a window in the air-conditioned dining room, we get a tourist’s perspective of the Everglades. In the bathroom, I relish in the feeling of soft water running over my salt-dried hands.

With 10+ days’ supply of freshwater, and a copy of Peter Matthiessen’s book Killing Mr. Watson (in the evenings we would read to each other from this novel, which is based on the life of the notorious Ed Watson who lived in the Everglades for over 20 years until he was lynched in 1910), we are ready for the longest portion of our trip. However, it’s already 4 p.m., sunset is only 1 ½ hours away and we still have to paddle about 6 km to Clubhouse Beach, the next backcountry campsite. I am not happy about this, but Jake has a point: staying at Flamingo Lodge, the only hotel here, would cut a big hole into our limited budget, and, where would we leave the kayak?

Paddling westwards into a golden sunset, we pass a large grassy area near the shore: a private campground. We decide to try our luck here. The camping area is on raised earth, about two feet above the water. We unload the kayak in shallow water and then keep it afloat with the bowline tied to a picnic table and another line tied to a clump of mangroves. Like our neighbors, we quickly escape from the mosquitoes into our tent. Mercifully, at 8 p.m. a cool north wind starts blowing and disperses them. But a pesky raccoon keeps us on our toes throughout the night. In the morning, we find muddy footprints on the hull and notice teeth marks on our lunch box, which was stored inside the cockpit.

Beach at Northwest Cape

Beach-Life at Cape Sable

Our route now takes us around Cape Sable, the most southerly tip of land in the mainland U.S., where the mangroves give way to long, shell-laden beaches backed by coastal prairie dotted with cactus, agave and palm trees. Paradies am Northwest Cape For the next three days we enjoy superb beach-camping including campfires and beach walks, paddling with dolphins, and beautiful sunsets as we have unobstructed views westwards across the open Gulf. Even the insects have lost their fierceness, the motorboat traffic diminishes, rain-threatening clouds pass overhead with barely a drop falling, and the raccoons are content with what the sea provides at low tide. We spend two nights at East Cape and then paddle about 15 km to Northwest Cape. On the way we round Middle Cape, once the site of Fort Cross, established in the 1850s as a base for U.S. soldiers attempting to eradicate the Seminoles Indians far back in the Glades. But now, there is nothing left of it. Then we pass the Middle Cape Canal, which connects Lake Ingraham with the Gulf. Warned about the strong tides at the mouth of the canal, we make sure we cross it during slack water.

Zelten am Northwest CapeShortly after landing at Northwest Cape, we spot a lone paddler on the glittering sea, heading south. He lands his small craft close to our boat and we chat like most people do when they meet on the trail. Siggy, a Polish-American living in New York, tells us he’s on a four-day loop trip out of Flamingo, where he first followed the inland waterways to Oyster Bay, and now he’s returning via the "outside". His craft is small and his provisions are limited (he’s living on a daily water supply of 1.5 litres). He admits he’s never traveled the open ocean before. I admire his courage. We think we’ve found a neighbor, but he announces he’ll camp further south and takes off again. Since rounding East Cape in the morning, we have been paddling into a steady NE/NW wind. Jake muses that without an umbrella, Siggy has missed out on some great sailing.

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