Some good friends invited us to spend some time with them at their beautiful condo in Florida. It was February in Ontario. It was an offer too good to refuse. But such decadence called for a counterpoint. I thought five days in a swamp ought to just about do it, so we booked a guided trip through the Everglades with a local outfitter – Florida Outdoor Adventures.
Day 1, we set off early for the drive down to Everglades City to meet our guide, Dave, at 9:00am at the Everglades Visitor Centre. As always, packing up the boats for the first time took some time sorting out, but soon we were on the water. As we paddled for a while along a busy channel that led out past the town of Chokoloskee, a few differences were noticeable between paddling in this part of the world vs the Great Lakes.
- Saltwater obviously-or brackish water at least. So we carried our drinking water with us.
- Brown, tannin-stained water for the most part
- A current. Not much, but enough to know if you were working with or against it
- Above all – the lack of solid land. Mangrove islands created an illusion of topography – but up close – there were few places one could put one’s foot down on dry land.
Oyster beds provided some of the few places you could get out to stretch your legs and so it was on one of them that we took a break for lunch. As we did so we were entertained by some dolphins that had come by to give us a closer inspection.
The only other bit of terra firma to be had in the area is in the form of shell mounds – ancient middens established by native peoples that provided just enough elevation to clear high tide. White settlers used some of these to establish holdings in the area although none survived very long.
We stopped off at one of these shell mounds, known as Lopez’s Place, to stretch and take a look around. There were remnants of a couple of concrete cisterns, used to collect fresh water in the wet season, and not much else. Apparently the occupants abandoned the site after several seasons of having their freshwater supplies polluted by storms.
First night was spent on a “chickee” at Crooked Creek. A chickee is just a native word for “house” – but in the Everglades, it refers to a wooden platform set up in the water to accommodate a couple of tents and a few square inches to set up a stove and have dinner. Getting out of a kayak onto a chickee, especially at low tide, can be a challenge.
The platforms are supposed to accommodate up to 6 people. We were just three, and it felt like a tight squeeze. The chickees are set up in pairs with an adjoining boardwalk, upon which sits a porta-potty.
(As an aside, most of the porta-potties we encountered on our trip were in a disgusting condition – a significant negative in our overall impression of the Everglades park system).
Our adjoining chickee had a single occupant, Ben. He was on the last night of a 7 or 8-day trip from Flamingo and at this point seemed to want nothing more than to set his feet on some dry land.
That evening, we were treated to a beautiful sunset before we retreated into our tents to escape the mosquitoes.
Next morning we struck camp, reversing the previous evening’s process to get all our stuff back into the kayaks, and headed south to our next destination – Watson’s Place. Watson’s is another shell mound site. A large one – supposedly extending over almost 40 acres. As we paddled we encountered lots of birdlife. There were ospreys everywhere, as well as herons, egrets and ibises. More dolphins. They seemed strangely out-of-place in these mangrove channels that looked and felt more like rivers and tidal channels. Water temperatures were on the low side for manatee but we did catch a glimpse of one.
At Watson’s place, we were joined by a class of high-school students and their teacher. The kids were a delight – a real credit to their teacher. That evening, Dave fried up a batch of alligator tail which we shared with our neighbours. Sean, one of the kids whose turn it was to be cook for the night, insisted on sharing some of his peanut stir-fry concoction in return.
We were scheduled for two nights at Watson’s so next day was a day trip up to Sweetwater bay, where we came across a few alligators –
and navigated some tight mangrove tunnels – on occasion prompting some colourful language from yours truly.
We lunched at a chickee in Sweetwater Bay, chatting with a couple of fishermen – Bill and Bob (their real names) – from Miami. Bob proved himself man of the hour when he pulled out three beers from his cooler – including a cold Guinness for me God bless him!
Back at Watson’s the kids had spent the day doing school work. That night, in a stealth operation worthy of some Navy Seals, they broke camp and without a word were gone well before dawn.
Day 4 we set off for Pavilion Key – a big change from the mangrove channels we had been paddling through so far. There were several groups on the island that evening, but there was lots of room to spread out. A beautiful 2km-long beach provided a welcome opportunity to exercise the legs.
That evening, we watched huge flock of plovers, sandpipers and other waders along the shoreline. Early morning, we were greeted with a powerful storm. Our exposed tent took a fierce pounding for about an hour before it finally blew over. We were grateful the storm hit when it did and not two hours later when we would have been caught out on a very open stretch of water.
As it was, the wind had died down completely by the time we broke camp.
All that remained now was the long paddle back to Everglades City. Early afternoon, we rounded a bend, and we saw our first sign of human habitation. We stopped off at Chokoloskee for a shore lunch and then finally back to the take out at the Everglades Visitor Centre.
Overall impression: An interesting trip in a very unique ecology. Not a world-class kayaking destination in my view but worth checking out if you are in the region.