FL - Florida Bay and Cape Sable - 2003/02/08 to 2003/02/14 - 65.5 Miles



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Florida Bay lies between the Florida Keys to the south and east and the Everglades to the north. Many islands dot the bay but only a few allow overnight stays. Carl Ross, the most beautiful isle my kayak as ever seen, is one of those keys. Only this slice of heaven could top the magnificent beaches of Cape Sable.





I just finished a four day three night trip up in the Ten Thousand Islands on the other side of Everglades National Park. The weather had not been particularly good for this time of year here in the 'glades. A few hours of driving had gotten me to Flamingo campground deep inside the Everglades. I was now on the edge of Florida Bay, looking south to the scattered mangrove trees, beyond which and over the horizon lay the arc of the Florida Keys stretching out a porous barrier to the bold current of the Gulf Stream and on to the Atlantic Ocean.

My plan was to rest a day and do some paddling close by and get organized for my longest trip on my Florida winter kayaking adventure. The campground at Flamingo is large with a walk in section for tents that is right on the shore. There is one loop where small RVs and van campers can pull in and larger loop for the big rigs out of site of the shore.

The next day, Saturday, I went to the ranger station to register for my back-country trip. My schedule was fine except for the last day at Carl Ross Key. Because of two pairs of nesting osprey, the normal three sites on the key were reduced to one and that was occupied on the night I wanted. All other sites were available and Carl Ross was available on the next night. So I added a night at Clubhouse Beach on to the front of my trip and moved all the others up one night to keep Carl Ross Key in the itinerary.




With my main trip starting Saturday, I was free to explore the edge of Florida Bay in a day paddle from the camp ground. I carried my kayak and day gear from the camp site over to the nearest shore line to launch. the tide was well out and the muddy shoreline proved difficult for launching. Once the water was reached through the mid-calf muck, the depth remained very shallow for several hundred yards.

Finally clear of the shore, i turned east and headed along the shore toward the canal, Visitor's Center and marina. When I reached the channel out of the canal I followed it out into the bay and headed east once more following the edge of the deeper water. The current was flowing against me at 1.5 knots as the water continued to drop. Last year when I was here, the current at full strength was 2.5 to 3 knots in my favor and, while I was in the restricted channel, I was making 7 knots over the ground as I paddled home. Today I was going the wrong way, probably in both directions. But it was a nice day and I really didn't have anywhere in particular to go.

As I paddled over the flats with the waving strands of turtle grass covering the bottom, fish were swirling off my bows. Every once in a while, they would break close to the cockpit, startling me. I could not see what king they were as there was enough wind ruffle on the surface to prevent me from seeing down into the water. The polarized sunglasses, a must for paddling here, helped with the reflections on the surface of the water, gut the little wavelets just made it too hard to make out the darting shapes. I even bumped a rather large one with my paddle. Only the small sharks cruising the flats were identifiable. I saw one hammerhead whose eye stalks were just beginning to develop.




My passage became restricted to a 100 foot wide Joe Kemp Channel and Snake Bight Channel ( see map ) as the flats drained with the receding tide. Much of what was passable water was now drying mud flats. The grasses that undulated to the rhythm of the passing waves now lay limp under the drying effects of the strong sun and southern breeze. The birds had arrived from the interior reaches of the Everglades and were scurrying about busily seeking their meals in the mud and aquatic vegetation. Plovers and pipers ran up and down in huge flocks along the edge of the channel, probing the mud with the specially designed beaks. Further up on the flats, egrets, herons, white pelicans and even brightly plumed roseate spoonbills picked among the morsels uncovered by the receded waters. It was a fantastic display of water fowl.

I followed the passage until it finally became too shallow where I turned around and headed back the way I came. Five hours and ten miles after my launch, I pulled into shore at the far eastern edge of the tent camping area at the Flamingo camp ground. There I found a solid marl ledge with good water right up to it. It made a good launching area with the road only a hundred yards from the shore. This is where I would launch from here on, avoiding the mud of the mornings launch and the crowds at the concrete ramp near the marina.




Sunday was the start of my 6 day trip to Cape Sable and the keys of Florida Bay. Since I had to add a day to my trip in order to get a spot on Carl Ross key, my first day was only 7 miles from the campground to Clubhouse Beach. My kayak was stuffed with provisions, mostly water. A six liter, a four liter and 2 two liter soda bottles of water along with the other necessities of almost a week on the water, weighed the kayak down to the point I could barely lift it into the water. Fortunately I did not have to deal with any sticky mud at my newly discovered launch site, although the area was very slippery.

I paddled most of the way to Clubhouse Beach surfing on a 10-12 knot easterly breeze before turning up into one of the canals ( Slagle Ditch ) dug during early attempts to develop this section of the Everglades. The canal headed north towards the bay that lies behind much of the beaches of Cape Sable. Dug to provide access and "drain" the area, most of the deleterious effects of this human intrusion on the ecosystem have been reversed by the damming of this canal. I turned around at the dam and paddled back out to the shore.

The southern shore of Cape Sable slopes gradually in to the beach. The water is very shallow for a long way from the beach. With a strong breeze, the waves were churning the mud of the bottom giving the water a milky white color that slowly transitioned to a green color as the water deepened to several feet. The small waves rolled up the gradual incline, gaining more height than it seemed they deserved. It made for a sloppy exit as I headed into the shore.

Clubhouse Beach is not a beach per se but more like several small pocket beaches strung out along the shore. It is not clear where it starts and it just fades out as the sand areas get smaller and smaller. I picked one about in the middle. At high water there is very little beach left and I had to pitch the tent back in the grassy area where others had done likewise. This area is reachable by hiking up a trail along the coast. Some trash left behind was evidence that this area is frequented by less than considerate users.




My short trip, even with the side trip up the canal, meant I arrived at camp much earlier than usual. With a strong sun out and a stiff breeze blowing in from the ocean, it was pleasant enough to just sit on the beach and get tanned. There were few mosquitos about even with the strong southerly breeze. I suspect that this would not be a good site selection on a day with a calm or northerly breeze. A better choice would be East Cape Sable where there is an excellent beach and two feet of water right up against the beach.

I cooked supper and cleaned up well before sunset in case the mosquitos came out. As sunset came, the wind died and the bugs appeared, not bad by Everglades standards, but enough to cause a retreat to my tent. Before slipping into the safety of the netting, I got this nice picture of the sun behind the red mangrove tree.

My trip plan called for the next two nights to be at Middle Cape Sable about 10 miles away. Clearly I was planning a rather leisurely trip. After the hectic pace and large miles of the last several weeks, I was looking forward to slow days and some quality beach time.

Behind Cape Sable is large shallow Lake Ingram ( see map ). With an canal entrance at the southern end and a natural exit at the northern end, it was Monday's route for reaching the Middle Cape. It would add a few miles to the paddle and, as I went along the shore last year on my way to Northeast Cape, it would provide some new scenery for the day. I waited well into the morning until the 25 mosquitos buzzing in chords on my netting disappeared with the rising sun and wind.

The canal into the lake was the usual boring man-made affair, filled with flats boats trying to catch a few fish. I later found out that the natural entrance just a little bit beyond the canal opening on the coast is navigable at half tide or better and is much more scenic. Use that way into the lake if you can. Watch for opportunities to observe crocodiles as well as the more common alligators.




The banks of the canal and the channels into the lake are covered with red mangroves that slowly transition to black mangroves as the salinity of the water decreases. the black mangroves are much large and look much more like standard deciduous trees. There is a solid undergrowth growing in opening created by Hurricane Andrew. Many stumps and dead snags stand in the black mangrove areas. Wood peckers, kingfishers, herons and ibis took advantage of the many perches on these damaged trees.

Lake Ingram is quite shallow with a single dredged and marked channel running up the middle. During half or lower tide conditions, one would probably be restricted to the channel only. Large flocks of pelican were gathered on small islands of mud in the middle of the lake. Some would rise in a great flapping of long broad wings as I got too close following the channel.

About half way through the lake, the southerly breeze that had been blowing for the past week slowly decreased and then veered through all the points of the compass to begin coming in fresh from the north. The temperature dropped 15 to 20 degrees from the mid 80s to the mid 60's. Steam rose off the dark mud flats warmed in the strong sun. It was an eerie site.




I continued up the lake and exited the natural entrance on the north end. When I reached the open Gulf I met a most unusual sight, at least for southern Florida. A dense fog was rolling down the coast like a horizontal cloud. As I left the mouth of the little creek and headed for a sand bar, I was enveloped in the fog created by the cold norther flowing over the warm Gulf waters. Visibility was reduced to under a quarter mile.

Three kayaks were also pulled up on the sand bar and I joined them there for a brief rest and a snack. These people were two kayak guides from Alaska and their friend, a Florida resident. They were abandoning their plan of paddling north another 20 miles to their requested camp site as they had not begun early enough in the day and they were running low on water. Clearly, I was not the only one enjoying a leisurely trip. Greg, one of the guides, mentioned the contrast with kayaking in Lake Superior, one of his former guiding areas, where one simply dipped a cup over the side to get drinking water.

My fellow sand bar mates left one at a time from the sand bar, which seemed strange. I think there was some serious strain in the group dynamics. Perhaps the inability of their friend to keep pace with the conditioned guides and the abandonment of their plan on their vacation was causing some difficulties. I stayed on the bar and sifted through the large piles of sea shells looking for interesting specimens. Most shells there were broken but there were a few that were intact and unbleached.




After a hour of fooling around on the sand bar I got back in the kayak and headed back south to Middle Cape. Shortly after launching, the long sandy beach that forms Middle Cape began and ran for the rest of the miles to the actual cape where the beach suddenly swings to the east. At that right angle there is a large area of sand. Since this was to be my base for two nights, I decided to camp there if there were not many others there already. If the wind swung back into the south, I wanted to be ready to shift my camp to continue to receive onshore breezes. The actual point of the cape would make that easy to do.

I set up my tent on the west facing beach just 100 yards north of the point of Middle Cape. There was only one other camper in the area, a single man camping out of an aluminum skiff. He was from Miami out spending his two week vacation here at Middle Cape. He had a huge ice box, a big gas stove and all the amenities that can be packed into a 22 foot boat. His primary activity was surf fishing and crabbing. He was pulling up some huge crabs on his fishing line and then would cook a large pot of them every day for lunch.




He was also doing well with Spanish Mackerel in the shore break and tide riff at the very end of the Cape. Here the current circulating along the shore headed west met the current come south along the shore and the two currents apparently brought together a lot of bait. Pelicans were diving close to the beach here all day.




The next day I spent as a beach day. I got up and walked the length of the beach to the south of the cape, about 4 miles. I collected interesting sponges and shells from the beach high tide mark and created a little garden near the tent. After taking this picture I scattered the items back where I had found them.

I swam and ate and practiced some rolls just off the beach. A very convenient place to practice, with deep water just a few feet off the beach.




The wind kept the makeshift rain fly porch of the tent taught and funneled a great breeze into tent. It was perfect for a nap on this lazy tropical day.




Here is another collection of beach shells I made, took a picture of and then scattered back around the beach. I have never seen as many angel wings shells in one place before. Being very delicate, it is rare to see an angle wing in one complete piece. But there were so many here that there were several very good and very large specimens.




By early evening, I began noticing that the low tide was not as low as the recent low tides and that the tide was coming in faster than the day before. I decided that my present tent location was going to be too close for comfort when high tide came in late that evening. I decided to move my camp to ground a foot higher on the other side of the point. By the time I got everything moved and set for another windy night, a subtle and peaceful sunset brought a close to very pleasant day.

The next morning I checked my prior tent location to find that the waves had come within one foot horizontally off the former location of the front of my tent. Although everything would have been OK, that would have been much too close for comfort. My new location was comfortably high and dry, but the water was much farther away for this days activity of breaking camp and paddling up Sable Creek to Northeast Cape. Nothing is perfect, even in paradise.




I packed up my gear and paddle north to the inlet of Little Sable Creek, the same place I had paddled out of just two days ago. Instead of going south through Lake Ingram however, I turned north into the creek. It would lead me north behind the cape and on to Northeast Cape Sable where I would camp for the night.

Little Sable Creek is a small path through the black and red mangroves broken by occasional shallow ponds. There were many ibis sitting on the bare limbs of the hurricane damaged trees. I saw a crocodile, identified by the longer snout and the visible teeth even when the mouth is closed, lying nearly fully submerged on a shallow mud bar. In the ponds were several flocks of white pelicans.




About half way along the creek, I rounded a turn and came across my first fellow kayaker of the day. She was busy putting her top back on. She looked as if she had already caught too much sun. She said she had a headache, my guess would be from too much sun and possibly some dehydration. She was paddling a short sit on top from Everglades City to Flamingo, about 70 miles.

I continued up the creek and was surprised by another kayaker shooting along the bank screened by the mangroves. He quickly called out his intention to pass to port and we easily avoided any collision. He was paddling a very long narrow boat. His 3 buddies on short rentals were lagging well back and spending time casting in each little indentation in the creek, clearly more interested in fishing than kayaking.

the northern end of Little Sable Creek was announced by the change in water color and the pickup of the wave surge from the opening. The small waves were breaking on the very shallow entrance. I paddled about a quarter mile out from the shore to the deeper water of the Gulf and headed south along the sand beach to Northeast Cape Sable. I stopped to make camp about 300 yards north of the actual cape, just with a 100 feet of the place I had camped two years ago. I was surprised at how much the each had eroded since then. The tree I had camped to that year was much nearer the high water mark and the sand had been washed away from its roots.

I set up camp and cooked dinner. About dusk a guy came running up the beach and stopped to talk. It was whom I had almost run into in Little Sable Creek. His Looksha IV was 19 feet long and 20 inches wide, a speed demo for sure. His group had continued on down to Middle Cape where I had left. He had paddled back up against the strong 20 knot breeze and landed in the lee of Northeast Cape and was now running up the beach to his previous night camp in order to retrieve a forgotten item.

He works with an kayak outfitter in the Florida Key's (marathon) as a guide and specifically a cook, which he seemed to be very into. He introduced himself as Kayak Bob. He was not particularly happy about his current situation as his buddies were so interested in "dawdling" around fishing and he was more interested in kayaking and mileage. He was the second person unhappy with a trip because of the mismatched styles of the members of the trip.

the wind blew strong that night and dumped the paddle supports of my tent awning requiring several adjustents during the night. The wind probably blew as high as 25 knots, but by morning it had calmed down considerably. It had swung from the northwest into the east and the water was now protected by the coast. I had a long day today so I got an early start, away from camp at 8:00 AM.

By 9:00 AM I was back at Middle Cape and by 10:20 AM I was at East Cape Sable. I got out here and had a snack and walked the beach. This would have made a much better campsite on the first night of my trip than Clubhouse beach which was only a few miles away. While on the beach I got out my map and identified the channel markers and general directions for the crossing to Carl Ross Key out in the Florida Bay. Because of the bank to the north of the key it is necessary to navigate out and around to the west of the bank into the Gulf waters unless crossing at the height of the tide. Only on the clearest of days is Carl Ross visible from the East Cape, and it disappears under the horizon at kayak level.

I doned my splash jacket which was probably going to be too warm for the day's temperatures. I expected some waves when I cleared the coast and came into the full fetch of the east wind coming down the east-west oriented channel between the Cape and Carl Ross Key.

In the channel the 15 knot winds had kicked up about two foot waves which were breaking because of the shallow water and the opposing tidal current. The splash jacket proved to be a good idea. I skirted the west side of the bank. The set from the wind was counteracted by the set from the current, so it was easy to maintain course. If the wind and current had been working together, I would have had to be more careful not to drift to far to the west and have to struggle back up wind up current to reach Carl Ross.

As one gets further away from the coast, the water becomes clearer even when the wind has been blowing hard for a long time as was the case this week. The milky green color clears to a turquise green. Over the shallows the light greens begin to show. As I approached Carl Ross Key over the flats surrounding it, the water became increasing clear and the scene more beautiful. The inch deep water to the north of the key was as clear as gin. I paddled down the west side of the island. I passed the channel leading into the beach and continued around the south end. There were many great egrets sitting on the beach. s I passed at least 100 yards offshore an osprey rose from the scrub bushes on the south end of the island. Apparently this wasone of the two nesting osprey pairs that had closed two of the campsites on the key. once in the air, the osprey seemed to take exception to the egrets that had been accumulating on the beaches on the southern end of the key. it whistled and dove at the egrets. They began to take flight and head south to the next key. The osprey attacked them mercilessly, actually knocking one large great egret out of the air in a shower of white feathers. It continued its atttack as the egret regrouped on the ground. After suffering 4 or 5 diving attacks, it took off once again. The osprey attacked again, feathers coming off the egret once more, but he kept flying and was soon out of the osprey's territory.

I continued along the south end of the island and started up the east side. I had to swing way to the east of the island as there was no water close to the shore. I saw an inviting sand bank on the northeast corner of the key and I headed for that, hoping that this was the location of the campsite.




I beached the kayak in the shallow water covering the sand bar, where I had to snap a few pictures. My Mariner kayak seemed to be smiling. I pulled the boat through the shallow water to a little landing beach on the north end of the key. I had arrived.




Under a grouping of black mangrove trees sat a small table. I unpacked my kayak and put the kitchen gear on the table and hung the water containers on the convenient overhead limbs. There were no racoon prints on any of the beaches so i felt that the food would be safe on the table at least during the day, which turned out to be the case. At the very end of the key was a large black mangrove. It made a perfect spot to pitch the tent.




I set out to survey my small world. I started out to the west along a protected beach. On the interior of the island were some very large cactus, not a common site in Florida. At the end of this beach is another black mangrove that shadows the western campsite. In the top of this tree was the large stick nest of the other osprey pair. these two were much less agressive than the others at the southern end. I cut across the narrow spit of sand between the two lobes of the key to avoid disturbing the other pair.

In the afternoon, I rested under the rustling palms, warmed by the sun in the 80 degree temperatures, cooled by the 10 mph breeze, alone on my tropical isle. Paradise found.




After dinner I went over to the western beach to watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. Clouds coming in from the east were racing the setting sun to the horizon. A spectacular sunset accompanied the returning pelicans headed back to the mainland to roost.

The wind rose once again during the night, but the heavy foliage of the mangrove kept the worst of it off of the tent. The next morning a stiff 20 knot breeze was coming in from the southeast. That meant that I would be making the open 8 mile crossing dead upwind. But that was not my only problem. The wind had driven all the water out of shallow Florida Bay. There was no water around the key, with long stretches of either dry marl flats or water less than two inches deep completely surrounding the key. the tide was still going out. Besides I was in no hurry to leave Carl Ross and any excuse to stay longer was welcome.

The tide kept receeding, showing more and more of the flats. It finally stopped with the flats to the east extending as far as could be seen and the ones to the west extending for several 100 yards. The water slowly returned and at high tide just before noon I launched into the channel along the west side of the key, just as the next resident came to take their claim. They arrived in a sailing canoe. I said goodbye to the most beautiful place my kayak has ever seen.

I left Carl Ross Key and headed south around the next key to the deeper water channel. I then turned east into the wind toward my next campsite. The wind was strong and the current was flowing out of the channel is spite of the rising tide. it was a bad combination for making any progress. I could not see my destination which was some 8 miles away. I set my course by compass and bor down on the unpleasant paddling into the chop with spray showering back into my face and the slapping of the bows into the waves making progress slow. After 2 1/2 hours of heavy upwind paddling, I had not covered half of the distance to my objective. It was now 2:30 PM after my late noon start. The shallow water was complicating my course and hampering my paddling, although it reduced the wave heights. I could now see a key I thought to be my destination, but I was unsure that it was the correct one.

I was not having a good time. After the idyllic day I had had yesterday, I guess I was not in the mood to fight through the conditions and continue on to my last night of the trip. I turned my by crossways to the wind and headed back the eleven miles to Flamingo. Once past the shallow water, the slightly favorable wind made the bottom fly past compared to the agonizing slow progress I was making into the wind. I followed the chanhhels until I got to withing 3 miles of Flamingo when I decided to cut across the open water instead of following the much longer route of the deep water channels. The tide was dropping again and the water kept getting shallower and shallower. My paddle blade could not be completely submerged and the shallow water effect kept pulling on the hull of my kayak and made the going increasingly difficult. I came to a complete stop several times, necessitating backtracking through the sticky mud and seeking out a few more inches of water. I finally battled to the other side of the key and gained the deeper water just south f Flamingo.

I was soon unpacking my kayak at the good launching point at the end of the picnic area and tent camping sites at the Flamingo campground. My trip had been shortened by one day, but it had been a very successful, restful and enjoyable 6 day 65 mile Everglades adventure.




Two days later, I drove home to Baltimore where they had just had the second largest snow storm ever. The snow was packed into my driveway and I had no place to park. What a contrast!

More on Everglades Ecosystems...

About Mangroves......

2001 Everglades Trip Report

Turner River Trip Report

Ten Thousand Islands Trip Report


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