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I had dreamed of this trip since first discovering it when Tim, Brett, Ryan, Lange and I went down to paddle around 10,000 Islands and the Keys two years ago. A 99 mile Wilderness Waterway trip through the Everglades. A year ago I started planning it, collecting supplies, making maps, and doing research. I was hoping that Tim or Brett or both would join me, but I was planning to go with or with out them. As time went by, it looked evident that neither of the boys would be able to join me and that concerned my wife. A few months before I left, she decided to join me. That concerned me. I was worried about such a strenuous trip on her. Especially paddling 99 miles when she did not possess the upper body strength it would take. And it looked like I was not going to be able to discourage her. So I shortened the trip to 55 miles and made it a loop around the most south west tip of Florida known as Cape Sable, and bought her a kayak that could be peddled, paddled, or sailed. It turned out that she was by far, the best partner I could have ever selected to join me on this voyage!!
We arrived in Flamingo Park on a Saturday evening, applied for our wilderness permit and pitched camp for the night. I had just drove non-stop for 1,123 miles to get down there and was so wired, I was afraid I would not be able to sleep for the night. A couple beers took that fear all away and I was out like a light. We got up early the next morning and took our boats down to the water and loaded them up with all the gear we thought we would need for a 5 day adventure completely removed from civilization. We started out in a man made canal (when man thought they needed to drain the Everglades to build more civilization....thank God they woke up in time from that nightmare....or did they?) heading due North. The canal was only about 50 feet wide, but ran 3 miles long. We were with the incoming tide, so it was a real leisurely float with fish breaking the water on occasion. The sun was bright and there was a slight breeze which kept off any insect attack. We eventually came into the open waters of Coot Bay. This also started out leisurely paddle for the 45 minute trip across. By the time we got into the middle of the Bay though, we were in the open enough to get our first experience of the breeze on the water. It was whipping the surface up to about 2 foot crest. Once or twice it completely diverted Deb from her course and made me wish I had put my skirt on to keep the water out of my boat. With all my gear, my cockpit was only about four inches off the water. Quite a few of the waves joined me inside my boat. But we did eventually make it to the other side and entered a creek called Tarpon. I took the opportunity to pump out the excess water and put on my skirt. Tarpon was about a 1/2 mile long and then we entered what is known as White Bay, which is a huge bay. We turned West and headed towards a river channel known as Joe River. The wind was dead in our face on this part of the trip and we really had to apply some energy to make our way. Once across the mass of the open water, we tried to hug the shore line to lessen the opposition of the wind. We started to see dolphins in the water here and that seemed to lighten the voyage, knowing our water brothers were with us.
After 10 miles of paddling, we saw the small creek head that would lead us to our first camp sight inside a small protected bay. Actually the bay was probably about a half mile across, but in terms of the glade, it was too small to even have a name. Our camp sight was a wooden platform built up out of the water called a "chickee". It was just after noon when we made camp, so we had time to go out into the bay and play. We set the sail up on Debs boat and did a little sailing. There were small side creeks to explore. The best treat of all was that there were a pod of dolphins in the bay with us. There were about 5 of them and they were playing quite vigorously in the water. I paddle up to within a couple feet of them and just watched them play. Deb was quite nervous about them and kept her distance. When I went to leave them, I paddled backwards so I could still watch them. Two of them broke from the pod and swam with me, just a few feet in front of me, but keeping the same speed I was paddling. I swear if the water was not so brackish (and full of unseen croc's and gators) I would have jumped in and swam with them. They were just so fascinating to me. We finally settled into our chickee and the dolphins would occasionally swim around our camp. We slept well that night lulled off to the water lapping at our kayaks.
The next morning we came out of our little bay and headed north up the Joe River. Our trip this day was only to be 9.5 miles and mostly in the protected river. The dolphins swam up river with us. When we were getting to the head of the river, the winds started to really pick up. It was predicted that a cold front was coming through and it was starting to come through just then. Luckily, there was another chickee on this end of the river and we took refuge there. The wind really kicked up then and the chickee started to sway. A motor boat came off the bay we were heading to next, to get out of the storm themselves. They got on the chickee next to us and stayed there for about an hour, till the worst had passed and started to leave. Since they had a marine radio, I asked them for a weather report before they left. The radio said there were sustained winds of 21 to 23 knots with gust up to 41. They just looked at me and said "it's ugly" and left. Deb and I waited another hour and so and decided it was time for us to leave. When we came out of the river into the bay, the waves were about 3 feet and the wind was straight into our face. We struggled as much as we could and couldn't make any distance and turned back to the chickee. We waited there another hour or so and decided if we couldn't make it on another try, we would just camp there. But the next day was the longest day of our voyage and that would just add another couple miles to it. Soon, we ventured out again. It wasn't a whole lot better, but we thought we should give it our best effort and paddled on. It just seemed so rough in the wind and waves.
Deb asked to see my charts, so I gave them to her. She said she felt that she could navigate us around some of the islands and keys in the bay and get us out of the main wind and waves. I objected, knowing we would get lost in the Glades and never get out. I had to stay on the course I set or I just wouldn't be able to cope. But Deb insisted that she felt she could do the navigation. So I trusted her and said "lead the way". And she did. And she did a wonderful job of it and guided us around, out of that mess and a shorter trip to our next chickee. I was so proud of her and relieved to be spared a bit of what we were experiencing. I didn't take the charts back the rest of the voyage. And I probably should have had her reading them from the beginning. Anyway, our next chickee was in a protected area surrounded by 3 small islands that made it quite a wonderful haven. And our dolphins were still with us. One of them decided to have a little fun with Deb (I think because they sensed she was nervous about them). This one dolphin came up about 10 feet off Deb's port and blew his hole real loud to make sure Deb saw him, and then dove straight at her like he was going to ram her. Scared the dickens out of her and cracked me up to see him do this. I thought Deb was going to jump out of her boat.
The next morning was a calm and beautiful day. We leisurely paddled across the bay heading west into the Shark River. We say groups of pelicans, Ibis, and other birds I wouldn't even begin to identify. We even got to see an Osprey flying over head with a fish in its claws. We were again traveling with an outgoing tide, so the ride was very smooth and relaxed. The dolphins didn't follow us into the river. After several miles and a short detour, we rounded a corner and came into full view of the Gulf of Mexico. And boy she looked big after 3 days in the shelter of the interior Glade. We were worried at first about the swells, so we first just hugged the shoreline. But we soon realized that you couldn't really judge the size of the swells, because we were so gently rising up, then gently flowing down. It was so slow and rhythmic that it was almost lulling. We were heading south now.
After several miles, the jungle of the mangrove started to break up and sand beaches started appearing. Then we saw the large point of sand that would be our camp ground for this night. It felt good to be on solid ground where we could walk and stretch and explore from our feet. There used to be an old coconut plantation at this location. It had been destroyed many years past by a hurricane and never rebuilt. But there were sparse patches of coconut trees everywhere where they had been growing wild from the scattered nuts on the ground. We gathered sea shells and wood for our beach fire that night. We pitched our tent on a point in the sand to keep down on bugs and by a tree that we used to hang out all our gear to dry. I built a really nice fire that night but Deb was so tired that she turned in before she could enjoy it. I poked at it for hours, had a few brew. I noticed 3 glows in the sky, one north, one east and one south. I finally realized that I was looking at the glow of lights from Naples, Miami, and Key West. I almost woke Deb up to see, but then thought, that wasn't what we had come out there to see. So I went to bed then too.
The next morning we saw a pod of dolphins swim by and knew it would be another fine day. We paddled down a couple miles and decided to come off the Gulf and go back into the Glade, so we turned into a creek that led into an area called Lake Ingram. We rode the rising tide in, so it was leisurely. Lake Ingram is really shallow, so we saw thousands of little sand birds running on the exposed muck trying to eat what ever they dig out of the muck to eat. The lake is probably 5 to 7 miles long and we had paddled half way through it when we realized that the tide was still coming in and now we were struggling to paddle against it trying to come out the other side. There was no where to take haven as all around was either water or muck. Finally, we reached some mangroves and paddled underneath some to enjoy the shade, hold onto some roots and let the tide go by on its own with out us.
After an hour of break, we again started to struggle against the tide and soon tired again, so we took off up a little mangrove creek. It was a different world immediately. The water was only a foot or so deep and something really large scampered away underneath me. Since we couldn't see it, we could only imagine what it was. We paddled down a ways till it was only about 3 feet wide and sat in the shade of a mangrove and watched crabs walking sideways and scavenging everything in their path. Finally the tide was starting to mellow out, so we ventured down some more, explored another side creek and finally left the lake and entered the Florida Bay. It seemed every bit as large as the Gulf, but only about 4 feet deep. And you could see keys dotted here and there. As we paddled along the shore line, heading to our first camp ground, we spotted our first gator. And he was a monster, every bit as large as our boats. And he saw us and entered the water as we passed him. For awhile he swam along with us, between us and the shore. I decided he must be a crocodile, as he opened his mouth, and I couldn't figure out how he could get all those teeth back into his mouth. Then he went underwater. To our surprise, a few minutes later, he resurfaced and was still beside us and was still between us and the shore. Then he went back down again.
A few minutes later, we came to our next beach camp sight and made shore. We got out and stretched and explored our new home. This sight, though about 7 miles from Flamingo, could be hiked to and you could see more evidence of mans visits here. You could also see tracks where gators had been up on the beach. We started to pitch our tent. We had it mostly up when Deb just froze. I looked out into the water and there was that gator sitting in the shallow water just watching us. Deb freaked and was just sure it was waiting to sneak up and eat us. I was convinced that since we were so close to civilization, that it was human habitat-ed and was used to handouts. It wasn't going to get any from us. Deb was still sure it wanted to eat us. When she finally started moving again, she put one kayak on each side of the tent, all the gear against the back side and had me sleep between her and the door. She made me promise I would protect her that night and went to sleep with a knife in her hand. I don't mean to find humor in Deb's plights, but seeing her reaction to this "threat" seemed so comical to me. But I felt bad for her at the same time for feeling so anxious about the situation. So I set candles all around the tent so I could see on all sides and stayed half awake all night. Partly because of my promise and partly because I was afraid if I fell asleep and rolled over, Deb would think I was the gator and stick me with that knife. It was a beautiful clear night though so we left off the rain fly. It's been a long time since I've saw that many stars in the sky. I started to think about how we had been in the Glades for 4 days and nights and had yet to be devoured by mosquitoes.....or gators. It really had been a great voyage.
The next day we arose, broke camp, and loaded up the boats and headed for Flamingo. We were pretty tired by this time, so when Flamingo came into view, it was a welcome sight. Then we started to see some rental canoes out in the Bay, then the tour boat. It still seemed like a long paddle into the marina. By the time we made dock, I was almost too tired to break the gear and load it. It seemed like it took two hours at our slow motion. After we got all loaded up, we went to the camp ground to take a long needed shower. After 5 days in the Glades, we went into the camp shower stalls........and got devoured by mosquitoes. After a nice long shower and clean clothes, we went to the park restaurant and had a really nice meal that was actually prepared that day instead of years ago and put into a bag. It was a true treat and a great finish to a fantastic voyage.
I then drove all the way home non-stop, climbed into bed and slept for 14 hours.
So anyway, that is the short summary of the trip. For a longer version, you'll have to consider joining me next year, as I plan to do the northern part of the Glades, a more extensive trip around the 10,000 Islands than the excursion we did 2 years ago. And I really, really hope that Deb will join me again.