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After enjoying 3 months of the winter of 04-05 we chose to make another Florida getaway w/ our canoe in mid-February. Although we much enjoy the almost unlimited inland, freshwater possibilities, we seem to never tire of paddling in the Everglades. Fairly extensive trips, lasting as long as your drinking water supplies hold out, are possible. There are no shuttle issues unless you opt for a one way trip from Everglades City to Flamingo &, other than Chokoloskee, thereís no development in between.
For this, our 5th Everglades outing we chose, as in all the previous trips, to launch from Everglades City. I read the hand launch at the Ranger Station was destroyed by Wilma & park is currently closed (11-05) but this should be just a temporary problem. Backcountry permits are required for overnight camping at the 45 or so designated campsites. They cost $10. An additional $2 per person per night camping fee was recently imposed. Your route will be dictated by the availability of campsites so you need to be somewhat flexible especially if you plan to stay near either launch point. Campsite use decreases & thus availability increases with distance from Everglades City & Flamingo.
We secured our permit, pleased to get our 1st choice campsite for every night, & loaded everything, including 14 gal of water into our 16 Old Town Penobscot. Its royalex hull would stand up better than kevlar to the abuse of running over an oyster bar at low tide. Finally launching just before 1 PM, we headed S toward our 1st nights destination, Sunday Bay Chickee. Following the chart (Donít leave the launch w/o one & a compass) we paddled along the causeway connecting to Chockoloskee Is. then headed inland up the Turner River. Up & down are relative terms as all these rivers flow in either direction depending on the tides. A wise paddler will time their passage to coincide with a favorable one. After 1m we turned S again into Hurdles Creek. This route sees less traffic than the alternative Lopez R route to reach Sunday Bay. This narrow creek opened up in 3 places into much wider bays, providing a variation in scenery. After 8.5m we reached Wilderness Waterway marker #125 where the Lopez R merged w/ our chosen route. Paddling to marker #123 & then between 2 small islands to the E, we reached Sunday Bays double chickee, 10m & 3 hours from the launch . Surprised to find both platforms available, we chose the one w/ added bench seat. I took a quick swim but stupidly cut my foot while climbing back onto the chickee on the very sharp shells growing on its support posts. Despite almost 20 prior nights spent camping in ENP, my wife & I had never before stayed on a chickee. We really enjoy the beach sites. Thinking this was alright, we unpacked & settled in. We were still alone, without company on the other platform with sunset only 30 min away. Very soon, however, our neighbors appeared & our privacy disappeared.. They were a group of 5 from what they described as the Nations largest outdoor club in Columbus, Ohio. It was interesting to hear about all the various trip opportunities available to their members but the atmosphere really changed with the addition of a group to the adjacent platform. We were separated only by the 3 ft wide gangplank then went to a shared outhouse/chemical toilet. Needless to say there was to be no Valentines Day romance made this night!
With long hrs of winter darkness, we were in bed early & up before the dawn. Away by 7:30 AM , we had 24m to cover this day. Paddling to the S end of Sunday Bay, we then entered the Huston River. This took us through House Hammock Bay & back out to the Gulf. After covering 11.5m in 2.5hrs we stopped for a break on Mormon Key. This has a beautiful, if small camping location & I wouldnít want to share it (Although Id read in Backpacker magazine yrs back it is a favorite site for some Northern college co-eds who enjoy canuding during Spring break) Continuing S for an additional 2 hrs, we again stopped for another leg stretcher on Wood Key (I think) Having paddled inland of them, Id failed to recognize either the Turkey, or New Turkey key campsites, both of which wed used in past trips & thus couldnít be sure of our exact location. Generally there are enough landmarks available including easily sighted toilets at campsites & a tall radio tower at the abandoned ranger station at mouth of Lostmans River to keep one oriented on this long stretch of coastline. Just short of 2 more hours we again stopped for more leg stretching, & arm resting. Less than 10 min later we were pleasantly surprised to reach the sign that marked Highland Beach campsite. This beach extends for more than a mile N from near the mouths of the Rodgers & Broad Rivers. We cruised along part of it until settling on the perfect location only 50 yds from its N end that offered privacy should other campers appear. None did.
Despite covering the 24m, we still had plenty of remaining daylight. Used it to relax, gather some firewood & enjoy a couple of 151 rum cocktails before preparing dinner. An enjoyable part of our evening meals was having fresh salad each night. We donít carry a cooler but find that even in hot locations cabbage stands up very well. With some added sweet onion & dressing it offers that crunch & mouth appeal missing from a dehydrated or freeze dried menu without the hassle of dealing with ice. It easily stands up for a week even in hot temps if kept out of the direct sun.
Another highlight of most evenings camping on the Gulf coast is the sunsets. Seeing the huge, fiery ball of sun touch the Gulf, I always expect to hear a loud hissing sound as the lights extinguished. The spectacle only improves as the huge orb is eaten by the sea. Just when the show seems complete, comes the very best part if there are intermittent clouds overhead. They begin to turn brilliant shades of orange, purple, red, pink. As the color intensifies, they start to glow. Youíll take a photo, and then another as the color only seems to deepen & improve with each passing moment. Then itís over, until tomorrow anyway.
The entertainment continues w/ the nightly appearance of the raccoons. Each evening as the light disappears, they come trooping down the beach to test your food & water protection systems. Small & scraggly looking, I wonder how they exist w/o campers to pilfer from.. After dark a flashlight reveals their continuing presence as does the innumerable sandy footprints youíll awake to find all over your gear. Hardshell protection for all food & water supplies is a must. Clever buggers, Iíve heard they are capable of opening a kayak hatch.
Day #3 we departed our campsite & paddled for 35 min past a continuous beach (so it must extend even farther than the mile+ mentioned earlier). We noticed one real nice camp location up on a high bank under some large Palms. Entering the island studded bay formed by joint mouths of the Rodgers & Broad River, we passed through more islands & turned into the latter. Fighting an outgoing tide, in 90 min we reached marker #25 near mouth of The Nightmare This small twisting 8.5m route of linked creeks is reported to offer some of the most adventurous paddling to be had (short of that offered by big winds.) Guidebooks all recommend avoiding it at dead low tide which was only 1-2 hours away so we reluctant to use as our connecting route to Graveyard Creek, that eveningís campsite. We did paddle it for 45 min & found it to be as narrow & scenic as reported. Turning back we detoured a short distance farther up the Broad R to have lunch at the Broad River campsite. Afterwards we paddled the 2m from campsite back out to the Gulf, this time against an incoming tide. Timing is everything! Upon reaching the Gulf the winds were up & we were forced to tack back & forth to keep the waves from hitting us broadside & crashing over the gunwales. It was especially rough rounding Shark Point but our destination for the evening was just ahead. Reaching it in the protected mouth of Graveyard Creek we were very glad to leave the wind & waves behind. We were not happy to encounter a large Outward Bound group in 7 canoes. We were pleased to learn they didnít have a permit to camp there that evening & would be leaving later as they had a night paddle to Highland beach planned. There was another couple with a young daughter also camping on the site & we were both displaced by the large group. The group made a bit of an effort to consolidate their stuff but as darkness fell, there was no place to set up our tent except right on top of them. Although the winds were down by 6PM they didnít launch until 10:15 PM. When their noise faded into distance we could finally fall asleep. Not our favorite night out. Distance this day - 14m.
Day # 4 we didnít launch until 9AM. We had only 11 miles to our next camp at Northwest Cape. We enjoyed visiting with our quiet neighbors & learned they too were headed for Northwest Cape. Theyíd come from Flamingo & also planned to spend 2 nights on the Cape. As it was another long, extended beach site, I knew we wouldnít be the least bit bothered by sharing.
In stark contrast with the preceding day, thankfully, the water crossing the huge Ponce de Leon Bay was dead flat. This is the largest bay on the Everglades Gulf but not a breathe of wind stirred its surface during the 1 hr crossing to Shark Island. In another 2 hrs wed paddled almost 1 mile past the N end of the very long Northwest Cape beach & settled on a nice camp location. A few widely separated palm trees stood along the beach & we chose a well shaded site below one of them. Enjoyed a stroll along the beach & a long swim during the hot afternoon.
Day # 5 was to be a rest day & we had nothing pressing on the agenda other than hanging out. We did find the energy to stroll all the way to the S end of Northwest Capes long beach to the point where the various forms of tropical vegetation came right to the waterline. The winds returned in the afternoon driving large for the Gulf breakers onto our beach. I enjoyed canoe surfing & playing in these waves for awhile. Gathering firewood, another beach stroll & visiting for a bit with our neighbors camped .5 m N occupied the remainder of time until Margarita Hour. Another great sunset & campfire completed another day in our tropical paradise.
Day #6 We head back North. Stopped briefly to say goodbye to our neighbors & exchange e-addresses. We easily made it back to Shark Is where the re-crossing of Ponce de Leon Bay would begin. This time we faced big winds out of the E. Forced to detour well into the bay then back out again to keep waves out of canoe, it took us 4.5 hrs to get back to Graveyard Creek. After lunch the winds had calmed. Why couldnít they be that way during our exposed bay crossing? Being a confirmed single blade bent shaft guy, Iím reluctant to share this but I did tryout a double blade during this afternoon. Id borrowed it from our daughter thinking I might try it but hadnít as yet. Using it I was surprised how fast our beamy Penobscot could move. I even envisioned towing a water skier but in less than 1 hr I was toast & went back to single blade. Our speed noticeably decreased. After lunch we passed by the Big Palms campsite at Highland Beach. Wed be camping here again this night but not at the Big Palms site that looked so appealing paddling by a few days back. The Outward Bound group had it occupied & were spread out over .5m of the beach, journaling, we assumed. Weíd seen this on past trips to ENP. For a given time each day the youths, supplied with a liter of water & their journal are spread out along the beach , well out of talking range from each other. Hopefully, fellow unlucky campsite sharers wonít be looking for a private piece of beach during this time. We paddled by. All the way N to our little secluded piece of sand at far end of the long beach from 3 nights past. During this time we passed some kayakers heading S & alerted them to situation. I guess if youíre part of a mixed group, privacy may not be all that important. Being just a couple itís something we always seek out in a campsite. We covered 20 miles in this 7.5 hr day, including breaks.
Day # 7 19.5miles to cover. Launched 9:05 AM & soon again forced to tack & extend course while crossing the windy mouth of Lostmans Bay. Reaching North Plover Key (this time I knew where we were) by 11:30, we stopped for an early lunch on a beautiful beach. Both it & South Plover Key had numerous small sandy beaches & are very scenic. No campsites here, however. In a bit under 2 hours of additional paddling, again using the double blade, we made Pavillion Key. We were aided by a helpful tailwind but I was still whipped upon landing there & crashed in the shade for 30 min. It wasnít yet 2 PM so we had lots of time to enjoy this very beautiful key. Itís also a very popular key. Its carrying capacity is 4 parties of up to 20 people, max. Looking around I could see we appeared to be the 5th party, including one on the far S end, removed from the main camping area. Wed camped there in the past for some seclusion but paddled by this time. Pavillon has a sandy, hooked spit that partially encloses a lagoon. Fishermen are often seen trying their luck here. Daytrippers also come from Chokoloskee by motorboat. We carved out a place for ourselves & moved in. Not all stayed the night but it was still crowded. After another great sunset we concentrated on our fire, the fuel gathered from a lesser used key we passed enroute.
Day # 8 was to be our transition day. Our plan was to paddle the 13 miles via Rabbit Key pass back to E-City Ranger Station, re-supply, & head back out to N of ENP where no permits, fees, or reservations are necessary. This idea worked out splendidly. We were off by 8:30 & in Rabbit Key pass used a shortcut from it that routed us to W of Chokoloskee Island. Again using the double blade we were very surprised to reach the Ranger Station in 2:40 from Pavillion (Over 5mph - amazing what one can do for a cold beer!)
We packed up all our gear, locked the canoe to a fence by launch & drove the mile into E-City. While waiting for the tide to go out we completed some short errands (one of which involved cold beer). Had an awesome buffet lunch at a local restaurant (shrimp, salad bar & more cold beer) & returned to launch site. After re-filling our water jugs & repacking, we relaunched & headed W across Chokoloskee bay toward Indian Key pass. By now a very helpful outgoing tide was speeding us on our way. While reloading wed met a group of 3 kayakers w/ a very locally experienced leader. They were also heading N of the park & spoke of shorter route through the mangroves. Wouldnít have chanced it on my own but leader seemed confident so we followed them the back way through some narrow channels from Indian Key pass into Gaskin Bay. From here we passed the parks northernmost campsite on Tiger Key & landed within site of it, but outside the park boundary, on Lulu key in just over 2 hrs. We spent the night on one of numerous beaches there.
Day #9 This supplementary trip to public lands N of ENP was meant to be a laid back time in contrast to our 112+ mile dash to Northwest Cape & back. It was just that. Wed added a reflector oven & some fresh food to our provisions. Also replenished the liquor cabinet & intended to make good use of our restocked larder. If I were a fisherman this would be an ideal few days to wet a line & try for the many types of delectable fish which reportedly swim these waters. With all the time we spend canoe camping I keep meaning to take up fishing again, but unfortunately, havenít yet done so.
True to our pledge, we paddled for a whopping 35 min this day. Upon leaving Lulu Key thatís all it took to make the next landfall on Round Key. Wed explored this small key on a past trip & found the name very misleading at low tide. During those twice daily times a many hundred yd long, sandy, question mark shaped beach extended out from the round part. It offered full 360 deg. views, a great place to run or walk, & all types of interesting, colorful, variable shaped shells to examine & collect. The Everglades offer an incredible variety of shells. Ill bet you a cold one you wont be able to resist picking up dozens of the most interesting & marveling over their varied beauty. Beachcombing is an irresistible pastime here. Upon landing on this long spit to again explore it, there didnít seem any reason to go any farther. There are 2 established campsites separated by a patch of woods. Both offer great views & it was difficult to decide which was the better site. Finally we did so & settled in for some serious relaxing. Later we baked corn muffins in the reflector oven & ate Ďem hot, slathered with jam. We relaxed in the shade of a large beach umbrella wed lugged along. More 151 was consumed. Good times were had. The sun set.
Another reason many visit & enjoy the Everglades is the bird life. Iím a rank novice is this area but have noted they seem to be very numerous in both numbers & variety. They are by far the most prevalent wildlife seen & over 350 different species have been recorded. Wading birds are everywhere & get your attention, as do the Pelicans, forever swooping & diving after fish. With luck a Roseate Spoonbill will be spotted (actually theyíre pink). Ospreys are everywhere.
Day #10 began in the same laid back fashion. By early afternoon we got antsy & decided a daytrip was in order. We paddled toward the mainland & followed a strong incoming tide up the Fackahatchee River. The plan was to try to find some old ruins wed seen noted on the chart. After numerous twists & turns & passing lots of side channels, route finding became an issue. The current flowed along both sides of what we assumed, but werenít sure were islands. There was that strong tide to fight on the return. Choosing to forget about the ruins we turned around & struggled against both the current & wind back to Round Key for some more relaxing & swimming.
Another amenity we always include on trips without portages is a solar shower. This was especially both welcome & efficient in the Everglades with no fresh water to bathe in, but plenty of sunlight to quickly bring the 2.5gal. contents to a luxurious temperature.
Despite its advantages itís hard to feel like ones in the wilderness on Round Key. Visible to the N standing obvious & outlined against the blue sky are the high rise buildings of Cape Romano (or Marco Island.?) I advise you to concentrate on the other 3 compass directions. A jet ski, banned from ENP, might also zoom by. It too can be ignored if you hold conch shells to your ears. Have another Margarita & think of how lucky you are to be there.
Day #11 After our 2nd night on Round Key it was time to head out. We packed up & headed back, again passing the numerous beaches on Lulu Key. Going inside, behind Tiger back into Gaskin Bay we chose this time to use a less tricky route back to Indian Key Pass. Heading back to the launch we envied those craft we passed heading out for their own Everglades adventures but we knew wed return again soon for another of our own.
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