|By Hank McComas
In the hurricane force winds it would experience ont he top of my car on the trip down I-95, I was concerned about both my approach and my materials. I used the usual foam pads and webing tie downs, a line from the bow of the kayak to each corner of the car and a long piece of climbing webbing from the car rack across and diagonally around the cockpit. I checked the installation frequently in the first several hours and adjusted the lines and their deployment.
Having just purchased my Mariner kayak in late November, I was eager to take it on a long trip somewhere warm. Florida seemed like the right state and the Everglades the right place. My parents were going to be there in their RV, giving me a convenient place to stay while in the park. The trip from Maryland to Florida is 1200 miles and I was planning to make it in two days. I had never carried my kayak any farther than its christening trip to Mariner Point Park, (where else), just 20 or so miles round trip. So my method of tying the kayak to my Toyota factory rack was nearly untested.
The next morning I was up and off early. Driving all day put me in Homestead, south of Miami, and just outside of the Everglades National Park, by late Saturday night. As I discovered, Homestead is the only Wal-Mart in all of the US that doesn't allow campers to stay over thanks to the ordinances passed by the zoning board under pressure from camp ground owners in the local community. Let's hear one for the locals. BOOOOO! (Good news... This has been repealed.)
I finally found a combination that kept the kayak firmly stationed on the top of the van even with the side winds generated by a passing truck on the interstate. I took the picture on the left to help me remember the scheme.
I had left Bel Air, MD on a Friday afternoon at about 4:00 PM. Although avoiding the Baltimore traffic, the Washington traffic was bad and I missed a turn after crossing the Potomac and had to double back to get on Interstate 95. I stayed in the parking lot at a Wal-Mart just south of the Virginia border.
I drove all the way down to Flamingo some 20 miles from the campground to look around and check the availability of the camp sites for the extended trip starting Tuesday. The park does not allow campsites to be reserved until 24 hours prior to the first day. I purchased an expensive nautical chart of the southern half of the Everglades and checked the weather report, which predicted strong southeasterly breezes for the foreseeable future.
At the first camp ground I checked to see if my hotel had arrived. My folks had not checked in the previous night as planned, according to the campground host manning the gate. I gave them my name and asked them to let my folks know I had arrived early should they show up. It was strange that they were not there, as my father is a stickler for timeliness. I drove down the road stopping at the various pull outs and driveways. One particularly impressive vista out over the "sea of grass" can be found at the end of the boardwalk at Pay Hay O Kee.
I paddled my kayak into a mangrove tunnel and headed toward Coot Bay Pond. The mangroves arched overhead and a moderate current flowed out from the pond. The southeast wind had driven most of the water from the pond and I could not enter it for lack of water. I turned and re-entered the mangrove tunnel, crossed Coot Bay, paddled back up the canal where novice paddlers in rental canoes were enjoying their erratic courses back to Flamingo. I located my parents, who were predictably checking out the boats in the marina, and together we returned to the campground for the evening.
The mangrove tunnels connected open areas of water where the tall red and black mangroves grew to heights of twenty to thirty feet. The trail was marked by rare white posts. It was necessary to pay close attention to one's position and stay oriented on the map, as one mangrove tree looks much like the next. I would imagine that if one lost his reference points and position on the map, it would be quite difficult to re-establish them due to the featureless banks of mangroves that make up the many "islands" in the Everglades.
The next morning we changed our camp ground to the one in Flamingo itself as it was much closer to all the sites I wished to paddle. In fact, the camp loop for our site looked out over the Florida Bay itself.
For the next day, I had planned a trip out through the mangrove tunnels into the heart of the Everglades called Hells Bay. But the wind had driven all the water out of the mangroves and there was not enough water left to float my kayak in the tight twists and turns. I changed my plans and decided to paddle out West Lake through several other mangrove tunnels, across Long Lake, through the picturesquely named Lungs Lake, out Alligator Creek, and back across the flats to Flamingo. The launch at a concrete boat ramp was protected in a little cove off of the main lake. Shortly after getting on the six mile lake, the wind picked up to 20 knots and made the long pull to the end of the lake and the shelter of the mangrove tunnel even longer.
Exiting into one small opening and heading toward the next tunnel, I found myself dragging a big wave of water in back of my kayak. This curious dynamic effect takes place in very shallow water. For a boat of any size, the resistance to passage of a vessel with little clearance from the bottom increases dramatically as the water is pushed in front of the kayak and the kayak rides on a wave of water. I noticed the additional effort to move the kayak over the soft mud in the center of the pond as I attempted to get to the other side. Finally I could no longer keep the kayak moving and the wave of water I was pushing along left me and I felt the kayak settle on top of the soft mud of decaying mangrove leaves. I was stuck in the mud. I placed my paddle in the mud. Very little pressure was required to drive half of it down into the bottom. Retrieving it was much harder as the sticky goo clung to every surface. Getting out of the kayak was out of the question for surely I would sink to my eyeballs. I would have to paddle through the mud until I could regain deeper water, which I guessed would be nearer the shore, as in the middle there was no water. The tide was still ebbing and with the wind still blowing from the southeast, it was unlikely that I would be refloated any time soon. A solution was needed quickly. I began stroking hard through the mud and trying to jerk my body to inch the kayak forward. I seemed as if the mud was not going to release me. I was putting so much force on the blades of my light paddle that I decided to stow it and use the heavier and cheaper emergency paddle on my rear deck. After fifteen minutes of heavy work I finally managed to lever the kayak to the side of the pond near the mangrove roots where currents had fashioned a slightly deeper channel. I gained the mangrove tunnel at the far end of the pond and the journey resumed.
Once again there were fish everywhere, mostly bone fish, the prized catch of the sport fisherman. Several small sharks were also up in the flats. I chased one briefly in my kayak, as its powerful tail muddied the shallow water in its speedy retreat. Eventually, I gained deeper water and turned my kayak toward the west and Flamingo where my parents and their camping friends had moved the RVs. The deeper channels where visible by the color of the water as long as the sun's glint did not obscure it. I saw a flock of birds ahead and began to be concerned about the amount of leg I could see above the water. However, since I soon determined that they were flamingos, I was sure there was enough water for my kayak. I passed the flock of thirteen brightly colored birds and soon was back to the campground.
As I had discovered. many of the mangrove ponds in ther Everglades are shallower in the center. The larger ponds I entered were often so shallow that I had to pick my way through them. They were teeming with fish, particularly mullet and snook, whose startled leaps from my kayak's bows startled me also. Eventually I reached Alligator Creek, a deeper channel leading from the mangrove swamp south toward the flats of Florida Bay. The mangrove channel had many places where alligators hauled out to sun themselves. Most of the sites were empty. I stopped at a designated camp site along the bank where there were many evidences of alligator occupation. I somewhat nervously kept watch while I ate my lunch.
Re-entering my kayak from a muddy bank, I headed out across the flats. The water here was very shallow also. Now the dark mud of the mangroves had turned to the white marl typical of the Florida Keys flats. My kayak threatened to bottom out several more times. I found myself looking ahead at the wading birds and trying to decide from their legs how much water there was where they were standing.
The wind picked up to 20 to 25 knots and the white caps began to roll. When one broke under me I could feel the kayak settle into the wave as the entrained air reduced the supporting buoyancy of the displaced water. I was surfing the following waves and making great time. However, after an hour, I became tired and only surfed some of the waves, as I was not in the mood for a capsize in the conditions and without any other kayakers around to assist if required. I reached Middle Cape and took a break on the lovely beach. The entire shore is a long continuous beach of white broken shells and sand. Middle Cape is a designated campsite with a capacity of sixty. There was no one there. The strong storm currents around the beach had created a deep cove just off the beach where the sand sloped quickly into 10 feet of water within a kayak length. It would have been a great place to practice kayak rolls, but I was intent on making it to my destination.
I arrived at the tree just a few minutes ahead of the other kayaker. His boat was loaded with all types of gear and he even had a VHF radio antenna mounted on the back deck of his boat. I couldn't help but be amused at all the stuff he had for a nice easy run like this. I started talking to him and he informed me that he was on the next to last day of a kayak trip down the entire Mississippi, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and ending in Flamingo where he had a job as a cook. I wasn't quite sure whether to believe him or not as he didn't look like he had just paddled 2500 miles. I would have expected forearms like Popeye. ( I later saw him in Flamingo after my trip. We swapped tales about our trips - my three day trip and his six month trip. He did most of the talking!)
I spread my emergency blanket in front of my tent and began to cook and eat a simple dinner. I was concerned about the famous clouds of Everglades mosquitos and wanted to retire to the tent before the light faded. Up to this point I had not had to deal with them. It was the best time of year to avoid them and the strong winds were helping to keep their numbers down. However, there were plenty of other small bugs flying about landing on everything, including my food, dishes and spoon. The black dots in the picture are those bugs. Fortunately they didn't bite, but I ate more than one of them as I finished my dinner.
I now was looking at a long imprisonment in my tent as the mosquitos began to buzz in great flocks outside the mesh of the tent. This was supposed to be a moderate site for the bugs, but their numbers were truly amazing. I drifted to sleep finally. Unfortunately, in my hurry to escape the no-see-ums I had forgotten to take my relief bottle into the tent. In the middle of the night I had to answer nature's call. The mosquitos were waiting. By the time I had retrieved my bottle and returned to the tent, several had scored and several more got into the tent. These flying drill rigs kept after me all night and the seven that I killed in the morning clearly showed by the streak of bright red blood that they had feasted well during the night. Clouds of their compatriots milled about outside the tent as I waited for the sun to clear the horizon to hopefully drive them from my tent screens. Unfortunately the clouds rose concurrently with the sun and shielded it until I could wait no longer. Diving from my tent, I made it to the water, where my DEET waged a chemical warfare that left me in peace. I walked to the point of the Cape where the winds were keeping the mosquitos at bay. Clearly, that would have been a better choice of campsite.
As evening approached, I was enjoying the sun declining over the Gulf of Mexico when all of a sudden the small biting midges we call "no-see-ums" on the Chesapeake Bay started to bite. They had accumulated unnoticed everywhere and all of a sudden, as if someone rang a dinner bell, started to feed. I headed quickly for the tent, slapping, swatting and rubbing my exposed skin to rid myself of these little pests. I entered my tent and turned to closed the zipper just as a dolphin leaped from the water, and gracefully slipped into the sea again not 20 feet from shore. I watched in amazement as it repeated this aerial dance three more times. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day and my only regret was that I had no chance to capture the event on film.
I turned up the river into a two knot current. It was a struggle to get anywhere. The wind was blowing 20 knots adding to the difficulties. The river was full of wild life. Birds, fish and even a green turtle so big that I mistook it's head for a stump. One look out of its big eyes as it surfaced just 10 feet from me and it dove back down into the greenish water, gave a quick wave good bye with it's rear flippers and was gone. The three miles up the river took one and one half hours, including a stop in an eddy against the bank where I could rest without being sent back down the way I had come.
Returning to my tent after the sun cleared the clouds, I could see the tracks of the racoons as they walked down the beach, circled my tent and kayak and then continued on down the beach. My many tiered defense had proved most effective. I had placed my food into plastic containers with tight lids, wrapped them in garbage bags and placed them in the ends of my kayak with all my clothes in front of them. Then I had positioned one of my float bags in the cockpit, blown it up tight to seal the entire edge and covered the cockpit with the nylon cockpit cover. Then I dug a trench in the sand, put my kayak in it upside down, and piled the sand all around the edges of the kayak. I suspect that they never knew anything good was in the kayak as they apparently paid no attention to it.
Leaving the beach at the late hour of 10:30, I paddled north toward Little Shark River. I saw numerous unidentifiable fish in the clear shallow water along the shore, which alternated between low sawgrass and pine forest, sometimes with a sandy beach in front. The wind was still blowing stiffly from the southeast. I paddled for an hour before catching site of the rhythmic flash of the paddles of approaching kayaks. A man and wife were paddling south in a pair of single kayaks. After a brief conversation regarding the merits of the two campsites I had seen, we parted. They had come from the next campsite to the north of where I was headed and could offer no insight on my route.
I finally got out of the river and into Whitewater Bay, which was living up to its name. Large rolls of foam were piled against the shore line. The tannin leached from the mangrove roots causes the roiled water resulting from the breaking waves to make a brownish tinged foam that drifts across the surface of the water until it fetches up on a bank. I laid behind a spit of mangroves to rest before heading out into the rough and windy bay.
Hugging the shoreline and using the calmer area immediately in front of the mangroves that forced the winds up and over their dancing branches added perhaps a third more distance to my paddle into the Joe River. However, the strong winds in the exposed bay made the longer trip of equal duration and much more pleasant and considerably less tiring than driving my kayak through the now 25 knot winds.
I arrived at Joe River chickee at around 3:30 PM. I had made 17 miles in 5 hours, testament to the very good paddle I had along the shore after leaving the beach camp. Now I was faced with my first ever attempt at getting out if a kayak and on to a chickee. A chickee is a platform constructed out in the middle of the water with a roof over part of the structure. Modeled after the chickees used as homes by the Seminole Indians, they are a convenient camping platforms for the users of the Everglades back-country. I am sure that those in boats and canoes have little problems climbing onto the 3 to 4 foot high platforms, but for those of us in kayaks, its something of a task. One side of the chickee has boards down its face with slots in between the boards that serve as a ladder of sorts. Depending on the state of the tide however, these boards can be dirty, slimy, slick little devils with sharp oysters guarding them with a threat of serious bodily harm.
Having pulled myself up onto the chickee platform, I took time to congratulate myself on a fairly painless exit and check out my evening accommodations. This chickee consisted to two platforms connected by a V shaped deck. At the vertex of the V was a single seat porta potty. The above picture stops just short of that fine facility. The pots are serviced by the National Park Service "Honey Pot" boat which makes a periodic circuit of all the chickees in the Everglades back-country. There was no one on the other platform. It looked as if once again I would be camping alone.
Just as I finished my survey of my new world, a school of large Amberjacks came racing into the cove chasing some other type of fish. Perhaps as many as a dozen of these high speed fish cornered some respectably large fish in the cove in which the chickees were sited, driving them into the shallow water and the mangroves. Several jumped clear of the water to land back in the safety of the mangrove roots. It was a short violent display of life engaged in its eat or be eaten daily struggle.
I started on my dinner preparations and had a small pot of Lipton noodles boiling along when a houseboat motored around the corner and headed in toward the chickee. I was annoyed as to why the large luxury barge was attempting to insert itself in my small world when it could go anywhere and anchor. The shallow water in the cove kept the houseboat from getting all the way into the chickee. After gently running aground, the engines were able to pull the houseboat off the soft mud bottom and the houseboat withdrew to around the corner of a mangrove point where I could hear the anchor going over. About an hour later a kayak appeared. The lady paddling explained that she was from the houseboat and had reserved the chickee for the night. She was from a local newspaper and was doing a story on kayaking in the Everglades National Park. It was her first night out. After some conversation about where I had been that day and what I had seen, she set up her tent and then returned to the houseboat. She did not return to the chickee, but did her reporting from the comfort of the houseboat and its annoying generator.
The next morning the wind continued to blow strongly as I paddled south in the Joe River. Accompanied by a pod of dolphins, I followed the curves of the meandering mangrove lined waterway. Soon however the river opened up to the southern end of Whitewater Bay. The strong winds were only slightly diminished by the protection of the windward shore and progress was made only by continuous strong paddling. I returned the rest of the 17 miles through Coot Bay to Flamingo, arriving at 3:30 PM roughly as scheduled. My three day round trip had covered 55 miles. I had neutralized the strong winds and seen some marvelous wild life displays. The repeated jumps of the lone dolphin outside my tent on the second night was an image that I will always remember.
The following day the winds continued to blow from the southeast. The water in Florida Bay continued to be driven by the wind and the very shallow waters had receded leaving many bars normally covered exposed to the wind and sun. I paddled out into the bay with no particular destination in mind. I followed the deeper channel out toward the islands upwind of Flamingo. The bottom was visible only in the shallowest of places as the wind had roiled the sand into the water making visibility poor. Still it was possible to see the marl and eel grass on the bottom, the shellfish, razor clams and a few urchins and sea cucumbers here and there.
In one of the deeper channels I observed a pod of dolphins herding a school of fish against the bank of the channel. They carefully kept their prey bunched together and pressed against the channel bank. Suddenly one burst into the center of the panicked school of fish sending several fish leaping out of the water, A valiant effort to escape proved to be futile as the pursuing dolphin also came out of the water, spun over onto its back as it fell back into the sea and caught the descending fish in its toothy grin.
I saw many other fish that day although many were just finny flashes or splashes of water. I did see two large tarpon tailing along the edge of a bar as I returned to the campground.
The next day I began a long but uneventful drive retracing my path back to Maryland. In all an eight+ day trip with three+ days of driving and 5 days of kayaking.
More on Everglades Ecosystems...
Turner River Trip Report
Ten Thousand Islands Trip Report
Cape Sable Trip Report