|CHRISTMAS IN THE SAW GRASS
BY BOB MINEO
A couple of winters ago,
Bob Mineo and I paddled my double klepper from Chokoloskee to Flamingo
Key – A hundred mile plus canoe/kayak trail in the Florida Everglades.
While the trip was a rousing success, we both declared with impassioned
hindsight a long list of ‘things we’d do different the next time.’
By chance, we both returned this year, doing different trips, with different
friends. What follows are two very diverse perspectives on the wonderment
of the everglades.
| As we touched down at Florida's
Sarasota Airport, I excitedly exclaimed to Marianne that we had come from
40 40 N to 27 27 N in just three hours! She tried to look impressed.
Stepping from the plane into the warm December sun, she actually was impressed.
The double Klepper, and all our assorted gear, had already arrived at my folks house in Port Charlotte. The 39 dollar UPS fee was well spent as it enabled us to fly with just our carry-on bags. Port Charlotte was our first stop and we spent the day checking equipment and making final preparations.
The next morning, we made the 260-mile drive to the Everglades in a surprisingly painless 6 hours. Arriving at the Park entrance at 4:30, we still had another hour of driving until we reached the Flamingo Key Ranger Station. This was a timing error, as the station closed at 4:30. Now we would have to be at the Ranger Station when they opened at 8:00 am. Camping in the Everglades is by permit only and limited to designated sites. These Back Country Permits are only available through in-person arrangement at the outset of your trip. Most sites will accommodate only one or two parties. Sites within 15 miles of Flamingo Key fill early due to canoe renters making overnight excursions, especially at peak times like Christmas break. This being the case, one must have a number of possible routes and campsites in mind. So depending on availability, your final trip plan will be determined by you and the Ranger just prior to your departure.
If you find yourself stuck for a day in Flamingo, not to worry. Wildlife abounds all through the park and can be viewed from numerous walking and paddling trails. There is ample tent camping available for all but the peak time of year and an overnight at Flamingo Lodge is 110.00 for a large cottage which sleeps six. A seafood dinner at the Flamingo Restaurant is a good deal if you had the forethought to make reservations. The only disappointment really is that your chance of actually seeing a flamingo, save for the multitude of plastic varieties found in the gift shop, are next to nil.
Sunday, December 22, we paddled through the Buttonwood Canal, Coots Bay, the Tarpon Creek, and the first quarter of Whitewater Bay, arriving at South Joe's chickee in record time. Buoyed along on a wave of first day adrenalin, we cover the first 15 miles in just 4 hours. South Joe's is pretty much typical of the chickee structure: i.e. a raised wooden platform, two to three feet above high water, with a solid roof, a Porta San and just enough space to hold one or two small tents.
Day 2 was `reorganize and repack' day and we didn't get on the water until 10:00. Heading northeast across Whitewater Bay, our reference point would be Midway Pass, a channel between two large mangrove keys otherwise isolated from surrounding land. There are few recognizable land marks in the Everglades. From a kayak, one mangrove island looks very much like the next, so it is very reassuring to occasionally cut across the well marked Wilderness Waterway or a marked campsite for a solid position fix. Also, since power boats are restricted by size and draft to marked channels, they too can be a helpful indication as to ones relative position. A good pair of field glasses can be helpful in reading markers you're only planning to pass at a distance. Across the bay we found the mouth of the North River and rode its two knot tidal current up the three miles to our next secluded chickee.
Planning to make camp at around 4pm turned out to be a good general strategy. In December, at 25 degrees of latitude, the sun rises about 7 am and sets around 7:30. Making camp early saved us from exhausting battles with voracious dusk crazed insects. If the wind was not sufficient to keep the bugs from the air, we read or did map work inside the tent until dark when the feeding activities diminished.
December 24th, with an 8:30 start, a 5 knot tail wind, and an extra knot of current to nudge us along, the 23 miles to the next campsite was one of the most enjoyable 8 hours of the trip. Our campsite that evening was Cane Patch, an enchanting rise of land surrounded by sugar cane, banana trees, and wild citrus, a truly wondrous place to spend Christmas Eve. Festive lighting was graciously provided by hundreds of fire flies. Reptilian carolers serenaded us twice during the night, their amorous bellows roaring through the campsite, giving the distinct impression that the creatures were parked under the window of our tent. Not wanting to foster the image that New Yorkers had no Christmas spirit, we broke into `Santa Claws is Crawling to Town', in the key of A sharp ...(`A' sharp set of teeth, that is)!
Steve, our campmate, was a seasonal park volunteer from Ohio, who told us there were many gators at this spot and they occasionally got curious and at night would creep into camp.
Christmas morning I sat in my kayak filtering drinking water while watching a gator perform its annual ritual of digging a hole in the limestone floor, so that it, and whatever other creatures dare join him, might survive the coming low water which characterizes the seasonal cycle of flooding and drought. Although some of the gator hole occupants will become sustenance for their proprietor, the net effect is that enough creatures survive the drought to breed in the spring.
Leaving Canepatch, we traveled down the Harney River, crossed Broad Creek, and stopped at the mouth of The Nightmare. I couldn't believe it, we had timed it perfectly. Marianne knew only the cruel reputation of this dark, 8-mile labyrinth, overgrown with dense vegetation, filled with shallow water and a gauntlet of submerged stumps and twisted roots, but I had a personal score to settle with this most disreputable pass. Five years earlier, when exploring these waters with Bob Huszar, a renowned Hungarian alligator wrestler, we were caught by low water in mid passage, surrounded by three thousand species of ferocious mosquitoes who thought 100% DEET was just a tasty sauce for kayakers. Today would be different. It was now almost peak high tide and the recent heavy rainfall had not only added to the water level of the park but had dramatically reduced the mosquito population by washing the larvae out to sea. To make negotiating the tortuous pass easier, I had it timed so we had a slight current against us, constantly pushing our boat away from obstacles rather then pushing us into them.
Ibises and huge Great Blue Herons lead the way, always moving to trees just ahead of us, as we made the next in a series of a hundred countering right-angle turns. This time around The Nightmare was a pleasant paddling daydream. In fact, it went so smoothly, we were still congratulating ourselves on our good fortune when our luck ran out. It was 5:30, we were not more then thirty minutes west of The Nightmare, we had just reached the Broad River Campsite, when the air darkened and became viscous with biting and buzzing gnats. Even with our pants tucked into our boots, long-sleeve shirts, gloves, mosquito-netted hats, and Avon Skin So Soft, we were compelled to recklessly throw our tent together and retreat within till dawn. At midnight the insects were still fully in control of the site. An outing to lend some moisture to a well deserving tree left me blazing back to the tent nearly emasculated and wholly unsatisfied.
The next morning we fled the hell of Broad River for the relief of the breeze which blesses the open water. It was to be an easy day, only nine and a half miles to our next camp, an easy three hours. WRONG!! A 10 knot head wind coupled with a two knot counter current had us clawing our way up river for the next five hours.
Camp Lonesome is an old Indian shell mound which now boasts a dock and lavatory. A small power boat with three sport fisherman from central Florida were already encamped. "If you folks had only been here a little earlier we would have treated y'all to the largest snooks you ever did see," one man said to me as he measured an imaginary fish with his outstretched hands. I wondered if they really did have those fish as I stirred the pasta which we would be having for the fifth night in a row. Later that evening a lone canoeist showed up at Lonesome. We helped him get settled and gave him some hot pepper sauce for his oysters. He was a Belgian citizen, born and raised in Africa, who was presently working as a french language instructor in Louisiana. That explained the oysters.
The next day we paddled 21 miles only to find our arranged chickee already occupied by a group of sportsman whose cumulative IQ didn't break the double digit mark. They had become stranded when the motor on their power boat failed to start. I was unsympathetic when I realized they had consumed all of their gasoline, mistaking it for alcohol. After a night of high intensity lanterns, belching, cursing and jostling to see who could urinate the farthest off the dock (By the way, Marianne won!), I decided I preferred Broad River and the gnats, at least they had a purpose in life.
Suffice it to say, we left Lostmans Bay even faster than we left Broad River. By noon we had covered the 12 miles to the Sweetwater chickee and planned on lying in the sun the rest of the afternoon and watching the clothing dry.
Sweetwater is one of the more remote campsites and well worth the effort to find. The surrounding overgrowth of fresh water surface plants attests to the areas name. This locality comes complete with twin circling alligators. We shared our double chickee with a couple of pleasant young college students from the upper west side of Manhattan who were paddling the Wilderness Waterway in a rental canoe filled with little more than water, bread, peanut butter, and books. They did not even bring a tent. Nor did they seem to need one.
The next morning we headed west toward the Gulf, where we faced 15 knots and good-size waves. Even with ducking behind the occasional small island for shelter our progress was slow. At 5:00, 22 miles from the morning, we decided to call it a day. This was the only night we didn't make our registered site.
Comer Key was a lovely seabird island of sand and grass, with perhaps a dozen trees, sitting about 5 miles into the Gulf. Looking west, there was nothing as far as the eye could see. To the northeast was Indian Key, our intended campsite, just three miles away. But we had no intention of trying to reach it, what with the waning light and the ever increasing wind, especially since we were already on a perfectly suitable little island of our own.
The next morning we paddled the remaining six miles to Everglades City. We had completed the trail in 8 days, logging some 141 miles in the process, working up quite a thirst. Next time, we bring less granola and more beer.
For Another perspective on Paddling
in the Everglades,