Florida Everglades, February 2002
This year is the big three-oh for us and mine came in early February. We wanted to do something interesting to celebrate. After camping in the Everglades last year, I had wanted to return with my kayak and paddle some of the more out-of-the-way places. So we did! And I'm happy to say that my homemade kayak rack stood up to 1500 miles of driving.
Friday, February 15
We left Friday night after Jen got off work and we had packed up. It seemed like a good idea to drive at night, mainly so we wouldn't have to stop at a motel and leave the kayaks unattended. We drove 'til about 3 am and then stopped off at a Florida rest area. Fortunately, they don't seem to care that you sleep there.
Saturday, February 16
Sleeping in the truck wasn't the greatest thing, but it was free and it didn't take us long to get
back on the road. It was warm out, but mostly overcast. We left at 7 am and had some breakfast nearby.
Since it was early, I thought it might be fun to find a lighthouse near Ft. Lauderdale. Unfortunately,
we got off at Atlantic Ave. in Palm Beach instead of Atlantic Blvd. near Lauderdale. Once we were on
the coast, it seemed a good idea just to drive down the coast and take our time. It turned out to be
a mess. One of the towns was having a parade and had traffic blocked off. Then it started to rain,
and rain hard. Our camping gear got wet despite having the kayaks on top.
We finally found the Hillsboro Inlet lighthouse about two hours later than we had intended. The rains had let up just a bit as we arrived. It turned out to be one of those lighthouses you really can't visit, so we had a stroke of luck when the inlet drawbridge went up. I jumped out of the truck and ran to the shore to take some pictures. Then it was back in the truck and onto 95 toward Miami. The sun started to overpower the rainclouds as we got further south.
Every time we're in this part of Florida, we always stop for lunch at Alabama Jack's, a waterside bar on the Card Sound near Key Largo. This was the first time we'd been there on a Saturday...it was busy and there was a band playing country music. We sat by the door, had a few beers, and chowed down on crab cakes and conch fritters. Finally a chance to relax!
A while later we headed over to Everglades National Park, our destination. They make you pay a $3 fee for each kayak when you enter the park. So we paid our $6 while anyone with a big polluting powerboat would've only had to pay $5. Go figure. We pulled into the Flamingo campground in the late afternoon. We noticed immediately that a whole lot of trees were missing from the area. The ranger told us that they had been cutting out non-native Brazilian Pepper trees. We set up our tent very close to last year's spot. The sky had cleared and the winds were blowing strong, much like 2001. We set up the tent, put the sleeping bags out to dry, and had a small dinner. Then it was to bed for a good night's sleep.
Sunday, February 17
First thing Sunday morning, I drove over to the ranger station. I got a backcountry permit for one night at Hells Bay.
Since we were going to paddle during the week, as opposed to a weekend, there were lots of options available.
I decided on just the one night since we were new to the backcountry, and I decided on Hells Bay over the
beach sites because of the winds.
After breakfast we walked to the Eco Pond and walked the loop. Plenty of interesting birdlife to watch, though nothing new compared to last year. Then it was back to camp to lounge around and read.
After lunch, for a little practice, we took the boats up to Coot Bay Pond and paddled through the mangrove tunnel out to Coot Bay. The pond was warm and calm with a few small gators sunning themselves...Jen wasn't too thrilled by them but we kept our distance. Coot Bay was quite windy and pretty choppy, so we kept the paddle fairly short. On our way back we passed a guy in a beautiful wooden kayak heading out for a multi-day trip.
Then we headed back to camp and endured a quick freeze in Flamingo's cold-water-only showers. Before dark we enjoyed a chicken and rice dinner and then jumped in the tent early for some reading and sleep.
Monday, February 18
After breakfast we took down the tent and arranged our gear for the paddling trip. We left the campground and headed
for the marina, where we needed the phone. You're supposed to leave your trip plan with someone you know that will
call if you don't return. The only phone number I could think of off the top of my head was my mother. We waited
forever to use the payphone at the marina...the only game in town. Mom was not excited to find out that I was going
to disappear into the swamp.
Finally, we drove up to the Hells Bay trailhead, a little nook in the mangroves right off the main park road. Lots of cars were parked there. It took us a while to load up... the narrow hatches of the Perception Carolina make it a challenge to store gear. While we were packing, another couple arrived, Jim and Liza from Vermont, with a rented canoe. We were pretty much ready to go when some early 20-somethings came out of the swamp in two canoes. They had been in the backcountry for five days. Unfortunately, they took their time unloading, and the put-in area was so small we had to wait for them to leave. Jen and I finally hit the water around 11:30 am. But now were really in the swamp, picking our way through a narrow creek between the mangroves. It was a beautiful day, sunny with frequent mangrove shade, and no bugs at all! It was tight maneuvering and slow going for quite a while. Jen found it easier to take her paddle apart and only use half.
We passed a few returning canoes, a couple day trippers and one returning from an overnight trip. They told me that Pearl Bay was preferable to Hells Bay. But we were booked for Hells Bay, and that's where I intended to go. Plus I didn't want to get in trouble for staying at the wrong place on my first-ever backcountry trip.
We followed the trail markers, white PVC poles along the way. Some were numbered, but a lot were not...they looked weathered and the numbers had probably been blown off at some point. Eventually the mangroves started to open up a bit, allowing the strong breeze to come in and cool us off. There were very few opportunities to get out on dry land. At marker 80 we found a tiny notch of high ground and stopped for lunch.
The open spaces got bigger and bigger, until we were soon crossing patches stirred up by the wind. You can't use the PVC markers as any kind of distance measurement...the more open the area becomes, the more spread out they are, and it takes longer to cover a certain number of markers. The bays were fairly choppy and the wind made crossings a little tiring.
Finally we hit the big waters of Pearl Bay, and really had to paddle hard in the wind. At that point I wished we'd have chosen to stay at the Pearl Bay Chickee. We paddled over to it because I thought it would be nice break, but the chop made it more effort to get up there than it was worth. We continued on to Hells Bay. Between Pearl Bay and Hells Bay is a large unnamed bay (now named Boone's Bay :) where you have to paddle right down the center of it, trying to pick out markers in the glare. That was a lot of work. Then finally through a small creek and across a short stretch we arrived at the Hells Bay chickee! Only 4 hours to get there, but we were definitely ready to stop. Liza and Jim were waiting for us, having arrived maybe half an hour earlier.
With the chickee about 3 feet out of the water, it was a challenge to get out of the kayaks and unload them. The winds made this more difficult by bouncing the boats around, but we managed. I sat in the kayak and handed up gear while Jen reached down from the chickee. We eventually decided just to haul the empty kayaks up onto the chickee, mainly to use as a bit of a windbreak, as the chickee offered no protection from the winds. The first order was the toilet, then to find some food. We snacked and got used to our temporary home. Hells Bay chickee was a dock-like platform with two "rooms." The rooms were covered with a slanted roof and were connected by a narrower walkway. Halfway between them was the port-o-John. We were completely surrounded by water on all sides, with some mangroves pretty close to the west, and a small mangrove island to the east. The windblown water made a gentle sloshing sound beneath the planks.
We tried to put up our tent but found out it wasn't really suited for the weather...the wind was caving in one side and the tent had no loops to tie to that side. We settled for just laying the sleeping bags down in the lee of one of the kayaks. It was fairly comfortable. Dinner was peanut-butter sandwiches, Pringles, and some red power-drink. We noticed our neighbor Liza painting something from her part of the chickee. Later as we were talking, it turns out she is a real artist (check out her website). She had painted watercolors of the small mangrove island on a little page from a ringed book. Very nice, especially for being painted in the middle of the glades!
A subtly orange sunset was accompanied by a much-welcomed decrease in the wind. This allowed the mosquitoes to get closer to our camp, but it also allowed us to raise the tent. Jen retired to read in the tent while I took some pictures and watched the starry sky, only marred by the eastern glow from Miami. The solace of the chickee was a welcome change from the radios and crowds of the Flamingo campground. We had a well-earned night's sleep.
Tuesday, February 19
We awoke with the dawn and caught a beautiful sunrise. The winds were still calm but I knew they'd probably
be building soon. We packed up the tent fairly quickly and had some breakfast. Then we finished loading up the
kayaks. We stayed for a while, chatting with our neighbors and enjoying the morning. In the distance, we saw our
only alligator of the Hells Bay trip. He drifted behind a mangrove island and disappeared. Jim and Liza were bound for
Lane Bay, a few miles to the north, but a bigger challenge since the navigational markers had ended here at Hells Bay.
We swapped a few digital photos with them, to be emailed later, and climbed down into our kayaks. Then we shoved off
for the return journey.
The winds came up quickly and were blowing pretty strongly by the time we hit the open water in the unnamed bay. This time we used our kayak rudders which were a big help. It was the first time Jen had tried it and she liked it immediately. It was a little cooler out today, since we were paddling earlier in the morning and the sky had some clouds. I noticed the Lard Can campsite on the way back, which I had somehow missed on the way out. Not important, but nice to know where it was. We worked hard to cross the big bays until we finally could relax in the slow mangrove creeks again. A few deer flies followed us on occasion, a small nuisance.
I could tell I wasn't paddling as well as the day before. My paddle smacked into a couple mangrove trees that I should have avoided. Little fatigue mistakes. We stopped for something to eat at marker 80 again and I didn't balance Jen's kayak well when I shoved her back in, and she tipped into the 3-feet deep water. Gotta concentrate! It was basically 4 hours back. We were tired and happy and really enjoyed our first dip into backcountry paddling.
After packing up the boats, we returned to Flamingo to spend another night. The campground was less crowded and we ended up with a campsite in the A section this time. We set up the tent again, and I drove back to the marina to use the phone. I had to wait forever again. My mom was glad to hear that we were back, and I was glad to hear that she hadn't called the rangers yet. I took the cameras back to the Eco Pond and walked around. I saw two red-shouldered hawks in nearby trees and got a couple nice alligator shots.
Jen and I were ready for a good hot meal, cooked by someone else. We headed over to the lodge restaurant around 6 and were told that we needed reservations. That surprised me since it was a weeknight and didn't look that busy. So we went downstairs to the Buttonwood Cafe. It was through pure luck that we got a table here, since they only had three tables open to the public, and the other 20 were reserved by a tour group. The food was OK, but it was uncomfortable sitting there watching all the people get run out of the unmarked "reserved" area. We returned to camp and fell asleep not long after.
Wednesday, February 20
It was time to head home. We packed up and left Flamingo for good this time. I always have to stop at the Anhinga
Trail at least once when we're here. It's very busy and touristy, but the wildlife is about as close as it gets. It makes
for decent bird photos with my amateur camera equipment. We had a leisurely stroll and enjoyed watching the animals.
Like last year, we intended to drive straight through all the way back to South Carolina. It's a haul, but we had done it before. To avoid rush hour in Jacksonville, we took another lighthouse detour, this time to Ponce Inlet, south of Daytona Beach. This lighthouse was one you could visit and go inside, but they were close to closing time, so we just snapped pictures from the outside. Jen and I were surprised to find a branch office of our former employer across the street and down a sandy road. They should have sent us to work there!
We hit a little rain north of Jacksonville and stopped for barbecue in coastal Georgia. It was an uneventful drive with another late-night arrival, about 16 hours after we had departed Flamingo. It was a great trip, with a good introduction to kayak-camping, and I'm ready to go back and paddle deeper into the glades!