FL - Everglades Wilderness Waterway Day 1 - 2004/12/01 to 2004/12/12

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Carl Ross key on the edge of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico is everyone's image of an island paradise. Sea grape trees, coconut palms and black mangrove stud this fantasy island of white sand beaches, cactus, egrets, ibis and pelicans. What's not to like? What a way to start a ten day trip along the Wilderness Waterway.

by Julio Perez and Hank McComas

Anticipation, study and planning have always been effective extenders for my travel. This Everglades trip was extended to three years. It started with my first reading of the trip report from Hank’s trip of the lower section of the Everglades National Park in 2001. The actual trip, two weeks, seems very short especially now that it remains as memories and pictures.

The trip started like a jail break. We left home four hours earlier than planned on Dec. 1st; running away from cell phones, e-mail, cantankerous parents, beltway driving and the beginning of the insane holiday shopping season. The twenty four hour trip to Flamingo was fast and smooth. The setting at Flamingo was such contrast to the environment we had left the day prior that the feeling of escape was undeniable. We arrived just after nightfall and began settling into camp at a relaxed pace until the little flying sharks of the Everglades came to welcome us. The tent went up rapidly; I would guess 3 minutes or two pints of blood measured in mosquito time. We took shelter and prepared to sleep, not anticipating how long the night would seem incarcerated in a ‘two-man’ tent from 7:00pm to 6:30am. The short days of winter and feeding behavior of the mosquitoes were important considerations in daily planning. Up by 6:30, out of the tent by 7:00, on the water by 8:30, start the evening meal by 4:30 and back in the tent by 6:30 pm. This schedule gave us, roughly, 8 hours on the water or about a 24 mile reach with a total of 30 minutes stop time. ( Actual distance 14.2 miles )

Day One – to Carl Ross Key

Last use of a real toilet and sink for 10 days. Walking on the grass stirred up the mosquitoes to spur us into high gear. Too early to reserve our camps, we took time to check out the put in options. At the park office there was one party registering before us so we waited for their plans to be approved and presented our wish list. It went well except for one thing. The pivotal chickee in the very center of the Everglades (Harney Creek) was closed. Our options were to take a ground camp where mosquitoes were bad throughout the day and horrible in the evenings or have a very long day of paddling on day 7. We opted for the later; a 27 mile day, beginning on the coast instead of the interior of the park. Another surpirse was that the $10.00 per trip permit fee has been raised to a per person per night fee. Our $10 permit was now $46.00.

Stuff to go in kayaks.
Stuff that has to go in
Photo by Julio Perez

Planning completed we took down the still wet tent and headed to the ramp on the coastal side on the canal. All the gear came out of the minivan, kayak off the roof and the age old query of kayakers through the ages was uttered. “How the hell are we going to get all this stuff in these boats?”

Forty liters of water, mosquito repellant, camping gear, mosquito repellant, paddling gear, mosquito repellant, safety and rescue gear, mosquito repellant, food and cooking gear, mosquito repellant; somehow it was all ingested by the boats and we were paddling toward Carl Ross Key by 10:30.

Carl Ross Key is only 9.1 statute miles from Flamingo or 2.5 – 3.0 hour paddling. Well, not quite. Paddling into Florida Bay was a joy for the eyes. Mangroves, flocks of shore birds, tiny islands, porpoise jumping ( It cleared the water 20 times ), rays swimming by our boats marked the beginning of the trip. One hour into the trip we saw hundreds of wading birds standing in water over the shallow banks in the Florida Bay. These banks become islands at low tide and some of these islands are large enough to make straight line navigation a fantasy. Our trip to Carl Ross Key was 14.7 miles and involved a leg due south, a leg due west and then southeast. The major impediment to direct travel from Flamingo to Carl Ross Key is called ‘the First National Bank’. It is an island four miles long at low tide and at high tide with northerly winds blowing the water away hundreds of herons can be seen standing in the shallow water over it. Even when the area has enough water to allow for paddling over, the water is so shallow that paddling speed is reduced to a crawling pace by the drag.

We saw porpoises, sharks, rays and many mullet during our approach to our first camp. Carl Ross Key is a small island of about 10 acres that has many features of my fantasy retreat. The interior has marsh grasses and low shrubs that provide nesting sites for birds. There are small groves of coconut palm, sea grape and mangrove.

The island seen from Carl Ross is Sandy Key, a rookery for cormorants, white pelicans and wading birds. The signs declaring it a protected site allow for close enough approach to identify many species that take shelter in the mangroves. We arrived at Carl Ross early enough to set up camp and circumnavigate Sandy Key. During our visit it was occupied by an impressive number of white pelicans.

Out on the flats were an equally impressive number of sharks chasing mullet through the shallows. This provided opportunity for an important lesson for me. Two small fins moving quickly through the water can belong to large sharks. When I expressed my amazement at their size, Hank instructed me in shark sizing. The 2-2.5 ft between the fins only accounted for about 2/3 of the total length of the shark. This became evident when I paddled over one of them and in his or her attempt to move away the tail struck my boat with impressive force.

We paddled back to camp and sat on the lip of the sand beach on the south end of the island. Since we were the last of the three groups to reach the island, we got the poorest site. But on Carl Ross, even the worst site is spectacular. With this place being so gorgeous, it is rare that this site is not full, especially on weekends. You may have to juggle your schedule in order to get to stay here. If you can not get a campsite here, consider coming here as a daytrip from East Cape. Remember that low tide can leave you stranded on the island for up to 4 hours as the water receeds from the surrounding flats leaving much of it dry.

After our return to camp we took time to secure boats for the night ( pulled them up above the high tide line and put on the hatch covers ) and visit our neighbors at the other camp sites. The couple camping under the palms had come from Key Largo and had spent a night on the one of the two other islands where camping is permitted , Little Rabbit Key. The other group of four sharing the island with us also came from the keys and stopped at Little Rabbit Key. They brought greetings from our good friend Joel Beckwith. Joel was in the keys guiding for Florida Bay Outfitters for the season. Both groups were working with local outfitters as instructors or trip guides. The island was crawling with Seakayak nerds.

At camp we created our first meal combining MREs and cous cous; a custom that by the end of the trip had Hank refusing to try my culinary inventions. I must admit that while many were delicious and nutritious, as condiments became more scarce some were disgusting although still nutritious ( Not if you can't eat them! ).

Sunset at Carl Ross
Sunset at Carl Ross
Photo by Julio Perez

The setting sun touched the horizon and a silent bell rung or a silent horn blew and the little flying sharks appeared in enough numbers to chase us into the tent. This phenomenon repeated itself each night and at sunrise the little carnivores seemed to almost completely disappear again. The only hardship of the trip was spending almost 12 hours in a small tent with another unbathed, farting adult that changed sleeping positions every 20 minutes and got uglier on every waking .

On to Day 2 ..............




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