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Our route was from Flamingo to Everglades City via the Gulf outside route. We traveled the route in six single kayaks, packing food and water for 10 days, although we hoped to supplement our protein supply with fresh fish.
We left Flamingo boat ramp and paddled out the marked channel at about 9:30 Thursday morning, 2/8/2001 after an hour and a half of sorting through groceries, water bottles, and gear. Some of us looked like Fibber McGee's closet, with various plastic bags and net bags bungied to the decks. Trey, Patrick and Greg brought a two-day supply of Foster's Ale, which cut into their storage volume significantly.
Winds were east at 20 to 25 mph, giving us following seas as we paddled out the channel. Tide was near low, and consistent easterly winds had caused water levels to be about 1 ½ feet below normal. We paddled south to marker 11, then turned west. As we progressed towards East Cape Sable, seas increased to about 2 feet and choppy. Don, overloaded and inexperienced, got sideways and capsized. I had hung back with Don, while the others were about 1/4 mile ahead. I came alongside his flooded boat, oriented stem to stern, and commenced to pump out his boat, too overburdened to turn over and empty in an expeditious way. He attempted to reenter when the boat was empty, after about 20 minutes pumping, but capsized again. I again pumped out the boat, and on his second attempt succeeded in reentering his cockpit using a paddle as a bridge across the boats. We continued to East Cape after a rest stop so that Don could empty more water out of his boat. The other four had arrived about an hour before us and had eaten and napped in the meanwhile. Because of the east winds, we decided to move around the Cape to the lee side and found excellent accommodations. East Cape provides protection from easterlies or westerlies depending on which side of the Cape. No fish today.
The trip to Northwest Cape Sable was uneventful. We stopped at Middle Cape for a rest break. I caught one trout along the way, and we split it as an appetizer. Don chose to hug the shore line, so I hung back with him for the trip. Northwest Cape was a nice beach site, but the low tide we experienced caused us to drag the boats across a sandbar the next morning. Trey seemed to pack up effortlessly in about 10 minutes, which he attributed to his backpacking experience. Nic and I took a little longer since we had to have our hot morning coffee.
Greg, Patrick, and Trey left early, and Nicolas, Don and I left about 8:00 from Northwest Cape heading to Shark River. Nic and I did some fishing in a small creek in the Little Shark River mouth. There are several small creeks entering the river mouth area, and the tide had just turned to rising. We caught several redfish, a small snook, and one 24" redfish that we kept for dinner. We continued to Graveyard Creek in the mouth of the Shark River, where we encountered two rental houseboats grounded by the tide. The houseboats, manned by a crew of rednecks, got on their way around 2:00 as the tide rose and freed their houseboats.
We cooled it at the Graveyard Creek site, literally as two small rain storms passed over and provided us a welcome fresh water shower. Greg told us about his days as an Outward Bound guide with gangs of juvenile delinquents, level 8. He had some frightening tales about breaking the rules to save his ass. We decided not to stay at the site since it had been reserved and would likely be a group of Outward Bound JD's. We moved about 200 yards east up the shore and camped in a none-designated site. Some were unhappy with the prospect of a violation fine for camping in the wrong place, but no ranger appeared.
Due to the tides and the mud flat, we decided to shove off at 5:30 am and paddle by moonlight.
We paddled about an hour until sunrise and encountered fog, which we took advantage of the situation to paddle about a ½ mile off shore in complete white. Navigating by compass, we continued parallel to the shoreline until we encountered shallow water. To the east Nic spotted markers that we took for a channel. We followed the channel north and wound our way into the mouth of the Broad River. I decided to troll the lucky red-head Bomber lure, paddling slowly and allowing the lure to muddle along the bottom. I heard an explosion of water behind me directly next to Don, my rod took a bend, then my line went slack. Don said a huge (7'?) Tarpon exploded next to him, jumped, and threw the lure. Nic picked up the floating lure. I regretted having my drag set too tight to allow for the surge, even though the drag was set at about 2 pounds. I think I would have stood a chance at landing it since the tarpon was in the channel with no open water to escape. Nic, Don and I took advantage of the detour to land on a shelly oyster bar, cook breakfast, and drink large amounts of fresh-brewed coffee. Trey, Greg, and Patrick decided to drag across the mud flats, heading north beyond the river delta shoals. The other three dragged their boats the entire time we sat on the bar. We finally decided to follow the channel back south, then west until we reached navigable water. We resumed our northerly course about a mile off shore and saw the other three continuing to drag boats across the mud. Apparently the tide was receding at about the same pace as they were progressing across the mud flats.
We grouped up again at Highland Point and continued towards the Hog Key destination. Nic and I detoured into Lostman's River for some fishing on the rising tide. The tide was moving quite swiftly into both river entrances, and we decided to fish the north entrance. Nic was having no luck, but I hooked into a nice fish that gave me quite a fight. I fought the fish from the north river entrance to the entrance to First Bay, carried eastward by the tide. Finally when I got the fish to the boat, I discovered the "nice" fish was a Jack Crevalle, about 7 pounds. Since we were not catching dinner, I called Nic over to help me get it on the stringer. We continued to fish the river, but after no success, headed to Hog Key. Although the distance was only a couple of miles, I was quite exhausted by the time we arrived from towing the Jack. I pulled the fish up, and Patrick exclaimed "Yellowfin Tuna." Nic and I looked at each other and kept our mouths shut. Nic proceeded to clean the fish, removing all of the bloody meat, along with Greg's trout that he caught off of the beach. We breaded and fried half the fish and sauteed the rest in olive oil, garlic, and spices. We all ate well, and we all enjoyed the dinner.
We set out at a civilized hour from Hog Key heading to Mormon Key. This stretch was good fishing last year, in the vicinity of Plover Key, and this year was the same. While trolling we caught enough trout for a decent feast that night. Nic caught many and kept three, I caught one.. I caught a 24" blacktip shark, but released him because I did not want to risk getting cut up if he were to flip into the boat or if I were to slip trying to tie him on to the boat.
We had planned a 15-mile paddle from Mormon Key to the Lopez River site, up the Chatham River then down the Lopez River, however the tide was falling in the morning and rising in the afternoon. We decided to go the outside route, past Rabbit Key and up the Lopez River. While paddling through the island maze, Patrick used this passage to hone his navigation skills. We proceeded up the Rabbit Key pass and picked up the Wilderness Waterway at the Lopez River.
Over our shoulders to the north we could see Chokoloskee 1 ½ to 2 miles distance from the juncture of Lopez River and Rabbit Key Pass. Greg and Trey exclaimed "We're going for beer." The rest of us proceeded to the camp site, where two other parties of two each arrived prior to Greg and Trey returning. There was plenty of room, however, and we shared a beer with our new campmates. We were not the preferred style of campsite partners since we polished off the case and a half and told many politically incorrect stories and jokes; i.e. Vivaldi's harem, "Hay que rico," etc. Nicolas amazed us all with his family's story of escaping the Bolshevik Revolution and the Chinese Communist Revolution, farming in Argentina, then his coming to the U.S. to work a Christmas tree farm and study at University of Maryland.
Nic, Trey, Patrick and Greg left early to return to Everglades Ranger Station and home. Don and I took our time, then set out for Rabbit Key, a short, easy 2-hour paddle with the wind and the tide. We arrived at Rabbit Key around noon, and I trolled the area and picked up a trout for dinner. We watched some sailing canoes beating into the wind from the north and eventually met up with Mary, Bob, and Elsie, who had sailed from Kingston Key chickee that day and were staying 2 nights on Rabbit Key. Wind was quite brisk, 15 to 20 mph, and Bob took his canoe out for an afternoon sail, enjoying the winds and an unloaded canoe. The canoes had lateen rigs with a single leeboard and could come up about 60 degrees to the wind.
Don and I shared the trout for dinner, and Don told of some of his adventures while circumnavigating the U.S. by bicycle. He, his bike, and his gear totaled 380 pounds. He had stories of looking for rooms in small western towns and spotting towns on the plains by the grain silos.
Don and I set out around 9:00 for Picnic, then Lulu Keys. We meandered through the 10,000 islands seeking shelter from the strong south winds. We stopped at Picnic Key for a break and visited with a family from Massachusetts who kayak and camp often in this area. We decided to continue to Lulu and take advantage of a two-night stay with one less making and breaking camp.
Tide was low at Lulu, and we walked the kayaks across the flats to land on the main beach near Mike's shed. A group of canoeists were camped on the isthmus, led by Jeff the tour guide. He seemed somewhat proprietary about our landing on his beach, but I explained we were here to see Mike. Don and I went to Mike's shed, where he was reading and not looking too well. He welcomed us but did not take us on the traditional tour to point out appropriate campsites and the latrine routine. I showed Don around, and we selected the campsite I have used frequently, next to the solitary mangrove near the west end of the isthmus. We set up, and I indulged myself in a well-deserved bath on a deserted half-moon beach.
Staying on Lulu Key; were Jay (fellow FSU oceanography student), Carrie, and child; Kathy of Savannah; Steven and Sandy of E'glades; Andy of Fort Myers; Don of Ft. Myers; Jeff and 12 people in canoes. Don and I took a day trip to Panther Key and fished off the beach, where I caught two undersize snook. I caught no fish for dinner, however.
We left Lulu Key Saturday morning shortly after Jeff and his 12 canoeists, all of us returning to E'glades Ranger Station. I chose to return via Gaskin Bay, LeMans, and Russell Pass since we had a rising tide and could clear the oyster beds near Chokoloskee Bay. We arrived around noon, located the car key after a minor bit of confusion, had a beer from the Ranger Station canteen, loaded up, and had lunch and another beer at the Oar House - pretty decent fried fish. After finishing our lunch and Bud tall boys, we ambled out of the restaurant and spotted Jeff in his van towing his trailer with six canoes. They apparently had not made good time returning to the ranger station.
We hit the road about 2:00 and were approaching I-4 via U.S. 27 around 5:00 when we noticed an increasing cloud cover and what appeared to be a large dark thunderstorm ahead. The thunderstorm turned out to be clouds of smoke from the Green Swamp fire that subsequently closed I-4 for 10 days.
|2/7/01 pm||Leave Orlando, stay overnight at Flamingo|
|2/8/01 9:30 am||Launch from Flamingo|
|2/8/01||10.6 mi. Camp East Cape Sable|
|2/9/01||9.8 mi. Camp Northwest Cape Sable|
|2/10/01||11.4 mi. Camp Graveyard Creek|
|2/11/01||15.5 mi. Camp Hog Key (3 mi. NE of mouth of Lostmans River)|
|2/12/01||8.1 mi. Camp Mormon Key (4.5 mo. to Watson's)|
|2/13/01||2 mi. round trip Buy beer, Chokoloskee|
|2/13/01||15.4 mi. Camp Lopez River|
|2/14/01||5.4 mi. Camp Rabbit Key|
|2/15/01||10.9 mi. Camp Lulu Key|
|2/16/01||Camp Lulu Key|
|2/17/01, 2:00 pm||8.8 mi. Arrive Everglades Ranger Station, return to Orlando|