February/March 2012

One more time

Ten years have flown by since I wrote my article "10 Years in the Everglades" (published in MAIB Feb./March 2004). It seems like yesterday. Even though I did not make it down to Florida every spring, it still seemed that I did. I was last there in 2010, since 2011 saw me sailing across the Atlantic from Antigua/Caribbean via the Azores to Hamburg, Germany. My first solo trip from Everglades City to Flamingo happened just before hurricane Andrew swept through the Glades (in August 1992) from Homestead to the mouth of the Broad River, leaving a strip of utter devastation behind; so did later hurricanes, especially Wilma along the Gulf coast up to Chokoloskee and Everglades City.

So each year I was able to observe recovery as well as renewed damage or even new devastation in the Glades. The Everglades are certainly in a very active weather window – no South Seas paradise here! But since I am only a snowbird from the cold northland of Maine, visiting for 2 weeks during the most ambient times of late February and early March, I try to avoid most of the weather extremes. But not so in 1993, when I was picked off one of the back country camping spots at the Graveyard Creek on Ponce de Leon Bay before the "Storm of the century" (according to the national weather channel's records) hit the Flamingo area. The entire campground was inundated around midnight, forcing me to pack up my gear, stowing it back in my canoe, and finishing my night's sleep in my boat tied to two sturdy palm trees near the exit road, while the wind howled on at 45 knots, gusting even higher.

This year two reasons urged/persuaded me to plan another solo trip in the Everglades National Park. One: 20 years are such a strong metric incentive/excuse to feel the warmth of the February/March sun, when everyone else in Maine is still shoveling snow and stoking the wood stove. But most importantly, I had finally found a fellow in Flamingo, a volunteer ranger, who paddled the same touring sea canoe I do on the ocean, a Verlen Kruger designed Monarch/Sea Wind. I met John on my 2010 trip, and he was willing to rent me his boat, paddle and PFD, plus help with the car shuttles from and to Florida City/Homestead, to where I could take a shuttle bus from the Miami airport.

For once, I told myself, I did not have to wrestle a 2-person aluminum canoe all by myself. 2010 was a windy year on the Gulf, and I had to muscle and hustle my boat from one pre-reserved campsite to the next. It was hard on the old bod, but I again managed to hit every planned site from Everglades City to Flamingo and back. This year, I told Nancy, would be a cinch, a delight in my familiar semi-decked Kruger touring canoe, where I sit in the middle of the boat and steer with a foot-operated rudder, not by j-stroking or switching sides continuously.

The trip begins

Well, it sounded great: I got a plane ticket, arranged for a shuttle from the airport to Florida City, where John would pick me up. My plane was delayed, as usual, but John and Donna kindly/patiently waited for me. We then barely made it to the Flamingo campground before darkness fell like a black curtain. I collapsed in my tent, exhausted, but did not worry about anything. I had all my gear, even a bottle of propane for my cook stove. And the boat, paddle and PFD looked great. The trip would begin tomorrow, not now, I told myself.

At 6:30 a.m. the curtain of darkness opened as fast as it had dropped the night before. I repacked all my gear from my two big travel duffels into my watertight bags for the trip, and walked the mile to the Ranger Station to check in and reserve my back-country campsites. (You can only do that in person, not sooner than 24 hours before you start your trip). To my utter delight, I got all my pre-planned stops but one: Plate Creek Chickee, which I learned later was being replaced by a new one. I was delighted, because that meant I did not have to paddle double or half distances (or go where I did not want to go) when my first choice campsite was already taken.

I was again surprised how few paddlers/campers I met in the large park, which stretches almost 100 miles from north to south, from Everglades City to Flamingo, and a good 20 miles from the Gulf coast deep into the mangrove forests, interlaced and interconnected with catch-basin-like lakes and big powerful tidal rivers like the Shark, Harney, Broad, Lostmans, Huston, Chatham and Lopez.

Click to download a full map (PDF format)

My wife and daughter had warned me to be careful about gators and crocs, as you would expect, but especially the new menace in the National Park: huge constrictor snakes, Burmese Pythons. And it so happened, as I picked up my boat at the ranger service area in Flamingo, on my first hour in the park, there was an 8-foot python right beside the road, a beautiful, colorful, thick specimen, which had made the cardinal mistake of crossing the dirt road without looking to the right and left when a service truck came along in the dark. Vultures had already smelled out the carrion, and an eerie owl was hooting its sad lament, so it seemed to me, just as the sun was sinking into the Gulf.

Up the Gulf coast

On Feb. 24, 2012 at about 9:45 a.m. I finally pushed off. What a relief that always is! The hardest part of my trip was over. The paddle trip itself is so much more in my control and therefore much easier on my mind. Nothing could really go wrong now, I always maintained, as long as I am prudent, plan things right, and am confident and stay sharp in my boat.

cape sable
Middle Cape Sable - first night out

My first goal was from Flamingo around the SW corner of Cape Sable to Middle Cape, 13.5 miles or 4:15 hrs later. I knew it could get very windy on the Gulf, and extremely choppy in the shallows out to East Cape, but I had the right boat and even the right paddle, a 10 ounce Zaveral carbon fiber marathon racing paddle, like mine at home in Maine. I was ready to handle anything in the 15-25 knot wind range.

solo boat
The "right" solo boat for the Gulf of Mexico

Coming from sub-freezing temperatures in Maine, I at first found 80 humid degrees to be sweltering and a tad debilitating, though. I always tend to forget this over the long Maine winters. But after a dip in the always cool waters of the Gulf and some shady lounging in my Crazy Creek chair, with a new Clive Cussler novel about some adventures around the Azores, where I had sailed to last April/May, everything felt just fine. The trip had started, and Dinty Moore as well as Chef Boyardee, Hormel and Bush served up some great dinners before sunset each night.

I stayed on the Gulf of Mexico for 3 more days, first to The Graveyard Creek campsite on Ponce de Leon Bay, then on Hog Key, and eventually on Pavilion Key. At the mouth of the Broad River I hit dead low tide. A strong nor-easter blew the water even farther out into the open Gulf, so that I got stranded behind a humungous sandbank. It took me an extra hour and a half to walk and pull my boat around it till I finally found water deep enough to dip my paddle in near Highland Beach. At last I was ashore on Hog Key after 5:45 hrs in my boat, my longest paddle of the trip.

hog key
Hog Key - shady hideaway

Meeting on Sweetwater Chickee

Pavilion Key was as far north as I would paddle this year. From there I headed up the Chatham River to Sweetwater Chickee, one of my favorite sites, deep in the mangroves without any markers indicating where to go. I love that kind of navigating, just by nautical chart, compass and stopwatch, by dead reckoning, still no GPS. However, since I had paddled in the Glades so many times, I again did most of my trip from memory, like the old dwellers of the Everglades, Lopez, Watson, Darwin, Totch and my friend Thornton, who has a 60-year tie to the Glades.

Pavilion Key
Pavilion Key - inner lagoon

I had sent him my itinerary ahead of time, just informationally. He is 82 years old, and I did not expect him to come down from Sebring just to say hello to me. But to my utter surprise, I suddenly heard his voice booming across the waters: "Aren't you a bit early for Sweetwater?" And there he was with his wife Jacquie and a friend in a power boat, fishing for sea trout in one of the few deep holes off the beaten track, expecting me to come up that same arm. (I hardly ever follow the numbers along the ENP Waterway, but make a point of avoiding them, using them only occasionally as necessary way points.)

Oldtimer Thornton
Everglades "Oldtimer Thornton" (on left, wearing glasses) with RZ

The double chickee was empty, but not for long. 3 Rangers showed up to make repairs to the wooden platforms, 5 sea kayakers with guide from Watson's Place came up the Chatham on a day trip to explore the area and stopped for lunch, and then Thornton's bunch arrived. He was the center of attention and liberally doled out stories of 60 years in the Everglades. Even the guide and the rangers were impressed. After a while, though, everybody left, and all was quiet again. I called Nancy on my satellite phone, then enjoyed my canned supper. I watched the sun sink, listened to the many new sounds of the lush green mangrove forest around me, including a whip-poor-will and a pileated woodpecker. With my field glasses I then followed a nosy alligator as well as a pair of elegant swallow-tailed kites, and counted the hoots of the owls. I finally zipped myself into my tent when the first mosquitos and tiny no-see-ums (sandflies) arrived. A myriad of brilliant stars dotted the dark sky, and fish were jumping all night.

Sweetwater Chickee
Busy scene on Sweetwater Chickee

Tight passages: Delightful Alligator and Plate Creek as well as the notorious "Nightmare"

The next two days were my as well as my wife's and daughter's favorite stretch, a nostalgia trip of sorts. It took me though several interconnected large lakes, two tight river-like connectors, Alligator and Plate Creek, to Lostman's Five. I was greeted there by a distinct hiss and rattle from a diamond-backed rattlesnake in the brambles just behind my wooden tent platform. I did not push my luck and wisely pitched my tent at the front edge of the platform. My move was met with approval, since I never heard that menacing sound again; but just in case, I kept my paddle as well as my pepper spray handy.

Plate Creek
Plate Creek - typical mangrove root shoreline

My route to Rodgers River Chickee followed a new course for me, which turned out to be a delight. Navigating by the shapes of islands and headlands with ever-changing directions is a real challenge. I love it when things work out. I hear myself joyfully calling out: "YES!" and "RIGHT ON!", feeling a jolt of new energy surging through my often aching body. (Being 72 with lots of arthritic joints makes things a bit more taxing than being 25 – oh, those were the days!!)

The biggest challenge of this year's trip, though, was going to be the next day, especially one segment, "The Nightmare", which I did on my first trip 20 years ago and have been prudently avoiding ever since. But I felt I had to do it one more time, and why not this year. So I plotted a course from my Rodgers River Chickee, again off the beaten path, down the winding Rodgers River, to where it joins the much bigger Broad River. Both together then flow into the Gulf, which at that point was sporting good sets of whitecaps in a SW 15-20 knot breeze. I usually paddle my Kruger boat with a spray skirt, but this older model would not take one (no snaps or aluminum hoops), so I had to make sure I paddled the boat dry, dancing the waves, which is real fun for me.

Soon I ascended Broad Creek, where I almost ran into a manatee sleeping at the surface. At first only the nostrils were visible, then the entire plump body, just hanging there in the water. I wasn't more than 3 feet away, but the manatee was breathing hard and never woke up.

The Nightmare
Straight ahead into "The Nightmare"

At marker #17 I hit "The Nightmare". This was the stretch that gave me so much trouble in 1992, but having gone through there once before, I knew I could do it again, and I did, although it was everything but a river or even a creek: it was scrambling through the woods, like being in a tunnel with a leafy canopy, over roots, under branches, twisting and turning, bushwhacking of sorts. The water had an eerie orange color, which added to the excitement. It took over an hour, 5:15 hrs total for the day, my second longest day on the water. (If any of you paddlers out there feel you have to do "The Nightmare", make sure you do it on a rising tide - mid-tide to full - and that you are not claustrophobic.)

Ever new trails and courses

Camping on the Harney River Chickee that night I met two paddlers from California and Virginia, well-equipped with outriggers for the windy Gulf, but also with heavy twin coolers and lots of gear, resulting in minimal freeboard. I later heard they dumped/swamped their boat off Highland Beach in the strong winds I encountered on the Shark River (stay tuned).

South joe
RZ's minimalist set-up (Harney River Chickee)

Well-equipped neighbors (on Harney River, before they swamped on the Gulf)

From the Harney River Chickee my trip would follow an all new trail for me. Instead of ascending the main arm of the river, following the official Water Trail, I paddled up the North branch of the Harney till its outlet/inlet at the NW corner of Tarpon Bay. From there I snaked my way through "The Jungle", a very narrow, overgrown mangrove trail, into remote Cane Patch, always just following my chart, compass and stopwatch. It is a sizable ground site flanked with ratty looking, noisy banana trees that rustle in the wind like the unkempt palm trees on Highland Beach, making you think you are in a storm.

But this time there was a real storm brewing, gaining strength tomorrow morning and keeping up for the next 4 days, my weather radio warned. And they were right, as usual. A fishing party of four in a power boat quickly broke camp that afternoon when they heard the report and raced back to Flamingo. I did not have that option. I was all alone again, battened down all hatches and hoped for the best come tomorrow and the remaining 4 days of my trip.

mangrove leaves
Mangrove leaves and blossoms (Cane Patch)

4 days and nights of strong winds

It was windy all right, SW 20-25, easily gusting to 30 plus knots. (The official report was for sustained 30 knot winds, gusting to 45. But I normally stop guessing at 25 knots, so I do not scare myself.) But just in case, I used the stern line to tie down my packs in my boat and left my Gore-Tex suit where I could easily reach it. I was off, down tight little Avocado Creek into big Tarpon Bay. Hoping to avoid big open water, I dropped down south into a shortcut to the Shark River that rangers take, I heard later from John. When I got to the Shark, I had to face not only the strong 20-25 knot wind but also a vigorous flood tide – both forces were against me.

Avocado Creek
Early morning down Avocado Creek

Was I ever glad I did not have to man-handle a 2-person aluminum boat! Ever so slowly I clawed my way past Gunboat Island, when a truly black cloud bank rose in the west. I hoped to make it to the Shark River Chickee to wait out the passing of the storm front, but prudently ducked into a smaller side arm on river left just before it, when it started to blow in earnest. I held on to some sturdy mangrove branches, somewhat out of the wind, grabbed a tarp, slung it around me, just in time to fend off the cloudburst. There was no time or free hand to put on my Gore-Tex suit.

I stayed there a good 45 minutes before I decided to paddle on. The wind had changed from SW to NW – the front had moved through, and the rain had almost stopped. I hustled down Little Shark River and the Cutoff into Oyster Bay. On my first leg to Oyster Bay Chickee, I suddenly had the wind from behind, but from marker #2 on, it came on my starboard beam, my right side, with a real vengeance, since the waves had a 2-mile fetch. It felt more like canoeing on open Penobscot Bay in Maine, than in the Everglades. I was wet in no time, making sure the bigger breaking waves would not jump aboard and swamp me.

It was sporty and rough fun, but I was also glad when I could slip into the protected area where the Oyster Bay chickee was located. There I had to put all my gear into my limp tent before I could raise the poles. I also pulled out my boat, so it would not bang around in the wind and waves, and tied it to two posts behind my tent as a wind break. Coffee and cocoa tasted good that afternoon. A quick dip while holding on to the swimming ladder attached to the platform felt great. No, I do not take chances with gators in the Glades; I do not swim around in the back country.

My goal for the next two days was to explore the northern part of Whitewater Bay, where I had never been. Wind or no wind, I was going to do just what I had planned. I had to, because I did not have any other overnight options, other than being whisked out of here by a Park Ranger boat, which was totally out of the question. So I went out Cormorant Pass and headed NE towards the Watson River Chickee. It had a very far-away feeling to it. From there I paddled through some most interesting as well as tricky channels up a sidearm of the North River to the North River Chickee, which felt even farther away from civilization. Waves decreased markedly up the river, the wind, however, only somewhat, because the mangroves on shore were more bushy than tree-like.

After a brief granola and water stop at the chickee, I pushed on in an easterly direction to the main arm of the North River and from there via The Cutoff into Roberts River. A tad south from there was the Roberts River Chickee. 3 kayaks had already pulled out and were setting up camp. They had done my today's run in two days (Oyster Bay to Watson R. and Watson R. to Roberts R.).

Osprey nest
Osprey's nest

It turned into a lovely, sunny afternoon. I even took a bailer-bath, i.e. picked up water in my 1-gallon bailer and poured it over me. As I mentioned above, no real swimming, because of the ever-present gators. Then a Ranger boat stopped by. "Hi, Reinhard. How are things going?" I suddenly heard a friendly voice call out. It was John and Donna, my two back-country volunteer ranger friends from Flamingo. They weren't checking up on me and my/their boat? Nah! But they had picked up another boater with boat and gear, I noticed, but I did not ask why. I did not want to know. Both were proud that I had made it that far and that I was still on schedule. "There is more wind coming the next two days. Be careful!" And with that he handed us each a can of ice-cold beer. That really hit the spot and started a very friendly talk among the four of us campers.

Next morning I was again off early, while my friends took it a bit easier, since they only had to scoot down the river and into Lane and Hells Bay. I, on the other hand, had to cross big Whitewater Bay, from the mouth of Roberts River to the Midway Keys and from there into a small contorted arm that would eventually lead to the Joe River and South Joe Chickee.

Harney River
South Joe - last night out (on newer, higher chickee)

The calm of the early morning was short-lived, and I had to dance across the open stretches. When I got to South Joe, it was blowing so hard, even in that little cove where the chickee was, that I wondered whether I could even get out onto that much higher new chickee and unload my boat, without being slammed against the posts and upsetting, or being pushed under the platform.

Putting up my tent in this wind was another big problem. But I thought things out in advance, concentrated on one thing at a time, and everything worked out just fine. I again hauled out the boat and this time used it as a stopper behind my tent. It was one of the windiest days and nights ever. It even started to rain during the night, and I had left off my rain fly because I was afraid it would tear and fly away, and I had hoped the chickee's sun roof would suffice. Ah well, it was my last night in the Glades. I was in, and everything was pre-packed for tomorrow; whatever got wet would have to dry later.

South Joe sunset
South Joe sunset

The home stretch

By morning the wind had turned to the east, exactly my direction of travel across a wide open bay. It was blowing a steady 20-25 knots again, right in my face, whipping up big breaking waves. But the rain had stopped. That was good. I took a deep breath. I got up as early as possible, skipped breakfast, got into my Gore-Tex suit and put on my life jacket, since I anticipated a very wet last 11.5 miles back to Flamingo, where I had arranged to meet John between 11:00 a.m. and high noon.

Windy days
4 windy days like this one (taken from "protected" South Joe Chickee)

Taking down my tent, I again had to carefully weigh down everything, especially my 10 ounce carbon fiber canoe paddles. If they blew away, I would be stranded - totally, helplessly marooned. My plan of departure, though, worked out perfectly. Despite the waves, I got into my boat fine from the much higher chickee platform, managed to pack and secure my gear, before paddling off with almost grim determination and extra power. For that, I had left my canoe seat as high as it will go (as I always do) for extra leverage/power, even though that would make the boat more tippy. (John, or whoever had used this boat before, had it set up as low as it would go, like a kayak seat, right on the floor of the boat.)

It was a wet and hard slug-fest, straight into the wind for 6.5 miles, totally unprotected, except for 2 small islands I managed to sneak up on. But whenever the going gets rough, I also put extra energy into my paddling, because if I don't, I won't ever get to where I want to go. I covered the 6.5 miles in about 2 hours, only a tad slower than my usual speed of 4 miles per hour or 15 minutes per mile.
Entering Tarpon Creek, I took my first break and crunched down 2 granola bars and gulped down lots of water.

Coot Bay was as windy as ever, but now the wind was on my beam, which was more sporty with such a high canoe seat and necessitated anticipating the wave action in order not to get swamped or rolled. The last 3 miles straight south down the Buttonwood Canal back to Flamingo were a calm letdown after all the excitement of the last four windy days.

End of trip

I looped around the Flamingo harbor marina, noticing that the parking lot was almost empty – it is usually filled with boat trailers. At the ranger service basin I tied up, unloaded my gear, pulled out my boat, and pressed my SPOT locator beacon, as I do whenever I reach my daily destination on my trips: I had landed! The trip was over! And it was only 10:06 a.m. At 10:45 a.m. John and Donna showed up. "Be proud of accomplishing your trip," he muttered gruffly. "Especially the four windy days. Not everyone did". Yes, and on my own power and on time, I thought to myself.

I quietly packed up, checked out of the park, and we were off, back to Florida City, where I spent the night at the International Hostel, pitching my tent in their courtyard, only to be whisked up early next morning by a Miami airport shuttle van. My flights (Miami - Atlanta - Portland, ME) were uneventful, which is good; so was the last bus ride back to Bangor. By 10:00 p.m. I was home in Orono with Nancy and my exuberant yellow lab Willoughby, who at that time of night was not able to persuade me to walk him to the town park on the river, even though he tried.

What an adventure it had been again! And thinking back to earlier trips to the Glades, each visit was so different. It was nice to learn that even after 20 years, there were still new routes and areas I had not yet investigated – how exciting! For me, a solo canoe trip in the Everglades National Park certainly beats hanging out on some beach, pool or bar in Aruba, the Bahamas or Miami Beach. This is my type of spring tonic, but I am glad other people think differently; otherwise the ENP would get as crowded as Florida's highway system and its prime spring vacation destinations. Gulp!


13 days on the water, 176 miles, for a daily average of 13.5 miles
Most days were windy, often exceeding 25 knots; a small craft advisory was up almost every day.

My rented boat, paddle and gear, though, did admirably and were a joy compared to paddling a 2-person aluminum boat solo, as I did all previous years, except when I had a family member in the bow.

Exploring new areas like the North Harney and upper Whitewater Bay was an absolute delight. However, there are no markers in these areas, so novices will have a harder time finding their way around.

The ENP back country sites were in good shape, clean and well serviced; only Rodgers River Chickee needs total rebuilding. The new Plate Creek Chickee, in my estimation, is too high, making it very difficult for kayakers to get in and out or load and unload their gear. (Lying on the chickee, paddlers can barely touch their boats.) It also looks silly on its thin, pogo-stick-like stilts. In short, it has lost all the charm of the massive old historic chickee it replaces :-(

The rangers and volunteer rangers were very friendly and accommodating. Thanks.

For more information, check out the park's website and map at: www.nps.gov/ever/

Keep paddling, be safe and enjoy!


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© Reinhard Zollitsch