Water Log: Kayaking the Florida Everglades

Kayaker Chronicles Ambitious Journey

By Troy Holland
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 23, 2000; Page E01

There aren't any sunbathers on the far southwest coast of Florida, just herons. At low tide they stand on shallow flats a mile from shore, and my kayak gets pretty close before they lift away with a squawk.

For two days I've followed a series of navigational markers on a convoluted course through a flooded wilderness. I've ascended rivers and crossed large inland bays and squeezed through tunnels of mangrove. I've paddled 40 miles to this empty coast, and now it hits me: I am going to finish paddling the Wilderness Waterway. Winding 100 miles through the coastal back country of Everglades National Park, the waterway is not just an intense paddle through the remotest part of Florida, it is also a unique transition zone where the Glades go brackish before entering the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting mixture of fresh and salt water attracts a wide array of life: alligators, of course, but also dolphins. Bald eagles, yes, but also the immensely beautiful swallow-tailed kite. Manatees in some areas, sharks, a variety of wading birds, sport fish such as snook and tarpon, and last, but definitely not least, panic-inducing quantities of aggressive mosquitoes.

The waterway is part of what naturalist-writer Peter Matthiessen calls "the greatest roadless wilderness in the United States," and accompanying its bounty is a human history stretching thousands of years. But in the past century, history hasn't been good. A series of agricultural and flood-control canals constructed in the 1940s diverted the natural water flow of the Everglades, disrupting a system fine-tuned to seasonal cycles of rain and drought. The result has been wholesale declines in bird and fish populations and vast algae blooms in the once pristine Florida Bay. They are all signs of a seriously afflicted wilderness, and the Clinton administration and Congress recently approved funding for a plan to save the swamp by restoring traditional water levels. Many experts, however, have condemned the plan as inadequate and fear that it won't be enough.

Yet it's difficult to sense this crisis on the waterway, which in its proximity to the coast seems less impacted. One is frequently in the presence of wildlife here, though it's striking to consider that the incredible abundance found today may actually rep-resent a 90 percent drop from the almost unimaginable superabundance of the past.

One of civilization's last outposts in the Everglades is the crusty fishing village of Everglades City, which lies at the north end of the waterway. Once accessible only by boat, in recent years the town has gained a few modern amenities. But not too hidden among its RV parks and mediocre seafood restaurants are little hinterland flourishes found only around swamps. Air boats, for instance, constantly buzz the town's perimeters, and at a traffic circle in the center of town, vultures roost on a church. But the community also is home to the Gulf Coast Ranger Station, and that's where my trip began.

Before starting the waterway, a paddler must first reserve a series of campsites with the National Park Service. These mandatory "float-plans" help the service control crowds during the peak months of November through April and maintain a loose watch--by plane or boat--on the waterway. The process also lets park officials brief campers on current conditions. While registering, for instance, a ranger had warned me about my third night's campsite, Broad River. Apparently, fishermen camping there had repeatedly tossed fish scraps in the water. As a result, the ranger said, I should be prepared for a nine-foot alligator that had gotten "a little too tame."

The next morning I pushed off and paddled south to the Lopez River and, following the waterway's markers, headed upstream against the outgoing tide. With a kayak loaded down by a week's supply of food, water and camping gear, it was slow going. But, given the scenery, that was fine. Veils of mist overhung the river, and small groups of white ibis probed the shallows with their curved, slender beaks.

Behind them, a tangle of prop roots rose into mangroves. It was a view that would change little over the course of my trip. The coastal Everglades are almost entirely mangroves, but within the context of that uniformity, there's still a lot to see. The red mangrove, for instance, sprouts projections from its top branches that hang like ropy fingers, and black mangrove roots rise from the mud like stalks of asparagus. Epiphytes and multicolored lichens grow everywhere, and along the waterline, tiny "coon oysters" encrust the trees.

Around noon I left the river and hit the first of a series of large bays where my primary concern was wind. Weather in all its breezy forms is a major obstacle on the waterway, where the wind can--and does--turn leisurely trips into tortured endurance tests. But on this day, a tail wind blew in from the northwest, and I progressed quickly to Last Huston Bay. There the waterway narrowed into a maze of mangrove islets with many opportunities to go astray. In response, I consulted the detailed nautical charts I was carrying, and in a few methodical minutes I found my way.

Turning onto the Chatham River, I watched two ospreys up on thermals repeatedly scream and tuck into extended dives. A short while later, a bald eagle on a course parallel to mine powered along just over the trees.

That night I camped with six others at a river spot called Watson's Place. A small clearing in the mangrove, it had once been a thriving 40-acre plantation, and lying nearby were old syrup kettles and cisterns, as well as the concrete foundation of a once impressive home--an anomaly in these parts in the early 1900s, when most settlers eked out a living in huts. The man behind this prosperity, Ed Watson, had been admired for his industry, but a series of run-ins with neighbors and rumors of an outlaw past combined to make him a feared man. Ultimately, he was killed during a posse's attempt to arrest him. His story has passed into legend, but its circumstances have been reimagined in a trilogy of novels by Matthiessen.

Which was no news to my fellow campers. We were all ecoteurs and literary pilgrims, and most of us probably had copies of "Killing Mr. Watson" stashed in our dry bags.

Jim and Denise certainly did. They had arrived at Watson's earlier in the day, and then went upriver to fish for snook in the narrow creeks where the mangroves end and the Glades saw grass begins.

They returned near dark, at a time when the mosquitoes were beginning their nightly assault, and from my tent I had watched them cook over a small fire as the mosquitoes swarmed. A short while later, Jim came over to introduce himself and present me with what had to be the official meal of the waterway: a tepid can of Budweiser and a chunk of pan-fried steak wrapped in a slice of white bread. How could I refuse? I stepped out and joined the feast.

At the fire, Jim added pieces of dead mangrove that smoked quickly and heavily. It proved to be a natural mosquito repellent, and standing near it, we talked about the people responsible for the ground under our feet--the Calusa Indians.

Present in southwest Florida by 500 B.C., the Calusa built an advanced civilization based not on agriculture but on the exclusive harvesting of marine life. As a result, they became mound-builders, piling their refuse into hand-built islands of oyster, whelk and clam, which even today are the only high ground on the waterway, with the exception of four miles of beach.

Entering the gulf, Broad River forms a bay, and by late afternoon on my third day out, I had reached it and my campsite. It was the isolated heart of the waterway--civilization lay 50 miles distant in either direction. As a result, I was alone, but not for long.

As I unloaded my kayak at the dock, a pair of eyes surfaced 20 feet away. It was the alligator the ranger had spoken of, and as I moved about the dock it watched calmly, and perhaps expectantly.

Alligators are unavoidable in the Everglades, and during my trip I had seen many, all of which, without exception, had fled my approach. Unlike the scripted predators of B movies, alligators in the wild have a natural aversion to man, but once fed and conditioned by humans, they can lose that fear. In the many neighborhoods of Florida that are developed wetlands, that can present some problems. In the middle of the Everglades, it makes for some unsettling camping.

At dusk I returned to the dock. The alligator was mid-river, but upon spotting me, it turned, and within a minute it lay practically at my feet. Floating there, about six feet away, it seemed to wait for the odd fish head or scrap. Its serrated tail swayed in the current, and periodically, a membrane slid over its eyes in a kind of blink.

In the failing light we simply stared at each other, and the irony of the moment was only too clear. Before me lay a symbol of the primeval South and a keystone predator of the Everglades. Yet here it was, virtually domesticated, acting very much like a pet.

The next day, I followed the coast south a few miles to the mouth of Shark River. Shark River is the largest of all the Glades' coastal rivers, and at the gulf it fragments into a network of 12 smaller channels and numerous dead-end creeks. It's one of the more intimidating spots on the map, and the waterway--with its helpful markers--opts for a longer but less complicated route around it.

I took the seventh channel I encountered, and it proved to be a good choice--soon I had cleared the maze and found the river, where a surprise awaited.

There, deep deposits of peat offered an exceptional foothold for the surrounding mangroves. As a result, the low and ubiquitous tree-line that had characterized my trip suddenly soared vertical, to the lofty heights of a pine forest. After four days of low green walls, it was impressive to see the typically horizontal red mangrove morph into a towering tree some 90 feet high. It provided a cathedral-like setting, complete with filtered sunlight and winged apparitions in the form of pileated woodpeckers swooping overhead.

That night I camped in an open-sided hut on stilts called a "chickee." Built on a plan similar to and named after the traditional Seminole dwelling, chickees are maintained by the Park Service along those parts of the waterway with no dry land, and their secluded placement makes them prime camping sites.

Situated on a narrow creek just off the river, Shark River Chickee was undoubtedly that. To my amazement, at dusk, a pair of dolphins appeared nearby and began searching for food. Utterly indifferent to my presence, they swam under and around the chickee, and then up into the shallows to spook fish hiding in the mangroves.

It was an impressive sight, but at Shark River nature was both abundant and near. That night, I fell asleep to the strange sounds of oyster shells being gnawed open. It was dead low tide and a gang of raccoons had gathered on the muck below to feast on mollusks fastened to the chickee. It was a weird sound over which to lose consciousness: occasionally a clicking purr or growl, but mostly just the sound of incisors cracking shell.

In the morning, three yellow-crowned night herons sat perched across the creek, so I broke out my binoculars and watched them while eating breakfast. Halfway through my oatmeal, though, a clamor rang out and I looked up to see a red-shouldered hawk zooming in on them. Foliage above the herons had prevented the hawk from taking a high approach, so it was angling in low under the tree limbs. Two of the herons had seen it coming and were already airborne and sounding a warning, but to no avail. Just as the third heron stirred--poof!--the hawk hit it in a burst of feathers.

A few miles below Shark River, the waterway opened onto the vastness of Whitewater Bay. My last two days would be spent paddling the edge of this inland sea and avoiding its turbulent center. As with many of the waterway's bays, numerous keys dotted its surface; some were seasonal rookeries.

A century ago, a war had raged here between hunters seeking wealth and conservationists alarmed by depredation. Fashions of the day had created a demand for plumed hats, and at the height of the craze, an ounce of bird feathers was worth its weight in gold. That made plume birds like the snowy egret and roseate spoonbill simply too valuable to survive, and during the first decades of this century, few did.

In the springtime, plume hunters would shoot the rookeries when adult birds were at the nest, tending their young. The waste was immense--adults were killed, plucked of a few feathers and discarded. The young in the nest would then become food for crows. Soon the Glades' plume birds were on the verge of regional extinction, and a nascent Audubon Society hired a former plume hunter, Guy Bradley, to protect the rookeries. One of the first game wardens, Bradley was soon murdered by a plume hunter in the early 1900s. As a conservation martyr, he helped spur legislation to end plume hunting.

On my final day, other boats again became commonplace as I neared my destination at the settlement of Flamingo. Five days had passed since I had last camped with others--which was probably a good thing. After nearly a week on the waterway, I was a pungent accumulation of sunscreen, bug spray and sebaceous oils. When I removed my sunglasses, a raccoon mask of unburned skin ringed my eyes, and my week-old beard bristled. I had never felt better.

Approaching the entrance of Buttonwood Canal, and nearly home free, I reflected on the distance I had traveled. A great majority of the trip had occurred in a blessed, majestic silence, sometimes broken by airplanes but nonetheless a silence of atmospheric nuances where you can seemingly hear the air. Already, I was missing it as I turned onto the canal and confronted the Pelican.

A sightseeing barge loaded with tourists, the Pelican was--despite numerous no-wake signs--accelerating out of the canal, and its resulting wake was like that of a Russian ice-breaker. It loomed over me like a special effect from a 1970s disaster movie, and as it approached I wondered if I had come 98 miles only to swim the last two--in crocodile territory, and all for the pleasure of the people on the Pelican, who, camcorders in hand, were ready to document my dunking.

The wake surged over my kayak's deck, and since I wasn't wearing a spray skirt that seals off the cockpit, three gallons of cold water hit me in the lap. I gasped. The tourists smiled. Aaaah, civilization.

Florida native and Silver Spring writer Troy Holland is at work on a book of Florida adventures.

DETAILS: Wilderness Waterway

GETTING THERE: Fly into any of the Miami area airports (Fort Lauderdale, Miami International, West Palm Beach) and rent a car; round-trip fares from D.C. start at about $209. Take I-75 (Alligator Alley) or the Tamiami Trail west to Highway 29 and go south to Everglades City.

PREPARATION AND NAVIGATION: The demanding Wilderness Waterway is not for everyone. Don't try it unless you're an experienced kayaker and self-sufficient camper. To prepare, contact the National Park Service for a "Backcountry Trip Planner," which provides the information needed to plot a trip. Call the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at 941-695-3311, or visit www. nps.gov/ever/visit/wildplan.htm for the necessary form. Another source is the booklet "Boat and Canoe Camping in the Everglades Backcountry and Ten Thousand Islands Region," by Dennis Kalma ($4.95, Florida Flair Books). It can be ordered from the Florida National Parks and Monument Association (305-247-1216).

Given the waterway's convolutions, a trip without nautical charts is both impossible and a bad idea. NOAA charts 11430, 11432 and 11433 cover the distance between Everglades City and Flamingo. Each cost $16.50 and can be ordered from the Florida Parks and Monument number listed above.

WHEN TO GO: The best paddling conditions are mid-December to mid-April. If you have the flexibility, it may be a good idea, even during these times, to start your trip in the wake of a cold snap (50 degrees or cooler) when bug populations are down.

HOTELS AND OUTFITTERS: Paddlers can start from either end of the waterway, but most choose Everglades City for its useful, if modest, amenities. There is a store in Flamingo, but those who start there must pretty much bring everything with them, including kayaks. In Everglades City, Ivey House and North American Canoe Tours Inc. (941-695-3299 or 941-695-4666, www.iveyhouse.com or www. evergladesadventures.com) are the only sources of services for paddlers, offering lodging for $50 to $80 a night; kayak, canoe and equipment rentals; and waterway guidance. In addition, for a fee the Ivey House shuttles paddlers' vehicles to the end of the line in Flamingo.

In Flamingo, the Park Service operates the Flamingo Lodge, Marina and Outpost Resort (1-800-600-3813, www.flamingolodge.com).

BEFORE YOU PADDLE: Apart from the park, Everglades City boasts a couple of notable attractions worth a visit, especially for day-trippers who aren't doing the waterway. Be sure to see Smallwood's Store and Museum (941-695-2989), on the island of Chokoloskee, a 145-acre Calusa mound linked to Everglades City by a causeway. Once a general store, Smallwood's now displays the curious artifacts and former possessions of its pioneer customers.

Five miles north of Everglades City on State Road 29 lies the hamlet of Copeland, entrance for the 70,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve (941-695-4593). Follow the sign to W.J. Janes Scenic Drive, a great place to coat your car in a fine layer of limestone dust. Afterward, take SR 29 south to its intersection with the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41). A right turn and five-mile drive west leads to an Indian village and the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, a stroll through a subtropical forest of orchids, strangler figs and old-growth bald cypress.

--Troy Holland

© 2000 The Washington Post Company