Sunset in the mangroves was a sight from another world. We were anchored in a narrow slough and I was alone on the front porch of our houseboat, grilling chicken for supper. A brilliant flash of light startled me from the job. Through the tangle of mangrove roots, the sun was exploding the still, black water in gouts of scarlet and orange. My immediate impression was that the Everglades had been ignited by an internal fire.
As I watched, a ladyfish arced out of the water, its silver flanks shimmering in the light show. Again it jumped, and once more, leaving expanding ripples on the water that caught the last of the sun. Before I could start breathing again, it was over. The deep garumph of a frog tolled nightfall.
It was a scene I would not have predicted when my wife suggested chartering a houseboat in Everglades National Park. I imagined a plague of mosquitoes, alligators on the foredeck, poisonous vipers hanging from overhead branches and sharp-taloned raptors swooping down on our 8-month-old son. I listed these fears for her, and pulled out photos she had of herself from an earlier visit to the Everglades. In them she is knee-deep in a mangrove thicket, wearing a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrists and throat, gloves, sweat pants and a wide-brimmed hat covered with mosquito netting. It was, I pointed out, couture more appropriate for a beekeeper at the South Pole than Florida in March.
But she persisted, and she was right. Everglades National Park is a place of surpassing splendor, and there probably is no better way to see it than from the deck of a slow houseboat.
In our five days we explored just a few of the hundreds of inlets, lakes and channels that form the perimeter of Whitewater Bay. Egrets, herons, pelicans, ibises, eagles and innumerable smaller birds attended our circumnavigation. Porpoises played around our bow. Alligators with unblinking eyes and pearly choppers paid us no attention at all. A raccoon paused in his meal of mangrove oysters to stare at us as we drifted by. A cottonmouth as big around as a softball slid on the water like it was glass, tasting the air with its quick black tongue. Using shrimp as bait, we caught gray snapper, ladyfish -- and barking catfish.
Wakened by two irresistible forces -- the sun and our son Will -- we rose at dawn to cool, clear air and still water. Daytimes we sunned, napped and houseboated around, looking for places to stop for lunch, fishing and nighttime anchorages. We saw few people: once or twice another houseboat in the distance, some venturesome canoeists and occasionally a fishing boat bulleting across the horizon. Bedtime came shortly after sunset, and so we moved into the rhythm of the place and quickly put the tension of city life out of mind.
Our trip began in Flamingo, the last stop on the road south from Miami into the park. Flamingo has a mixed history as home to fishermen, poachers and hunters who supplied plumage for the ladies' hat trade of the late 19th century. Now it's a respectable national park resort with a lodge, restaurant, campground and marina. We arrived in our rented car late in the afternoon, dined very well on broiled mahi-mahi, tucked ourselves in at the lodge and in the morning went aboard the houseboat Cobia.
A less cobia-like vessel could hardly be imagined. This was a recreational vehicle on pontoons, with plenty of hot and cold running water, a refrigerator and freezer, a shower and a stove with an oven, should we want to throw together a souffle'. It was 40 feet long and 14 feet wide with a large, shaded patio in front, gangways on both sides and working deck space in the rear. There were bunks for eight, but that would have been a crowd. My wife, son and I had the master cabin, which could be closed off, and my sister had the living room. Two couples with two or three kids would have been manageable.
We stowed our groceries and belongings, lashed on the canoe we had rented, were checked out on the boat's systems and cast off. A member of the marina staff took the helm for the first part of the trip. As he backed us out of the slip he pointed out the manatee swimming in the basin. We glimpsed a patch of dark, wrinkled skin, and then the water swirled as the creature turned flukes and headed for safer depths. My wife took Will to the bow to show him, but he was more interested in the brown pelicans gliding overhead.
Our guide accompanied us through Buttonwood Canal and into Coot Bay, where he showed us how to anchor the boat and work the radio-telephone. The Cobia handled easily. Powered by a 90-horse outboard, it went perhaps 10 miles per hour at flank speed and steered nicely through the bends in the canal. There always is a moment of intimidation when you first take control of a vehicle that's new to you, but in the Cobia it didn't last long. On this trip, an adventurous spirit and a modicum of common sense are all the qualifications a skipper needs.
In Coot Bay, after our guide sped away in his skiff, we set a course through Tarpon Creek for Whitewater Bay. We were on our own, with nothing to decide but which way to turn and when to stop for lunch. A celebration was in order: cold beer for the adults and Zweiback for Will.
Whitewater Bay was a surprise. Its wide expanse of water in relation to the dark green mangrove islands reminded me of the Banks country of North Carolina. The perception that the mangroves grew on islands was an illusion, of course, but from a distance they gave that impression.
Up close, we saw the interwoven mat of prop roots that support the dense vegetation above. Through these roots, mangroves filter life-giving fresh water from their salt environment. Our guidebook -- the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School's "Along Southern Florida Shores" -- quoted Christopher Columbus' description of mangroves: "So thick a cat could hardly get through." It's hard to improve on that image.
A 15-knot wind from the southeast was brushing up whitecaps in the bay, so in deference to my sister's claim that she could get seasick in a bathtub, we turned west and rode with the waves up the Joe River. While a single-hull boat might have rolled in the chop, the Cobia proved rock-steady.
Later that afternoon, as we were exploring a channel off the Joe River, we saw our first alligator. Easily six feet long, he lay motionless on a patch of mud at the water's edge. We parked in his front yard, gabbing and taking photos, but he paid us no mind. His eyes were black and indifferent as night, and the mud was scored by his long, curved claws.
Further down, the channel opened into a bay in which there was a chickee, one of the roofed platforms on stilts that the park service rents as campsites in the Everglades. From the vantage of our houseboat, the chickee with its portable john was a rude accommodation, but after a day in a canoe it probably would look like a suite at the Ritz.
That evening we anchored in a channel out of the wind, and while I fed Will my wife and sister went fishing in the canoe. Whitewater Bay is famous for the quantity and variety of its fish, but it is hardly just a matter of throwing a line over the side -- you have to know what you're doing. Since our skills were rudimentary, so was our sport: catfish.
Will had just finished eating when there came a chorus of dismay from the canoe upstream. I looked out and saw my sister paddling hard and my wife holding the rod high, a fish flipping madly on the hook.
"Take it off!" my wife demanded when they arrived at the houseboat.
I was about to point out that this was a sexist division of labor when my sister said in a horrified tone, "It's crying!"
The catfish wasn't crying, exactly. It was making a plaintive barking noise, like a puppy stuck in a fence. The sound, which the encyclopedia later informed me is produced by the fish's air bladder, is intended for fish-to-fish communications. But it also is effective as a defense against the frying pan. Who wants to cook a fish that is begging for mercy?
Whitewater Bay is formed by the emergence of the broad underground river that flows south beneath the Everglades and the inrushing waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The gate for this exchange of fresh and salt waters is a pair of rivers, the Shark and the Little Shark, at the northwestern corner of the bay. These swift-flowing tidal streams wind amid numerous mangrove islands, and it was through these channels that our porpoises came to visit.
They found us late in the morning of the second day as we were motoring through the northern reaches of the bay. Gray fins and sleekly muscled backs broke the surface just ahead, and for the next 15 minutes these gregarious sea mammals treated us to an astounding display of aquatics. They circled us as if it were a game, rolling through the surface then rushing beneath us with enough speed to set our pontoons rocking.
Calling them "our" porpoises is an affection I freely admit to. They were playing in their element and we were just observing from ours. But it was easy to believe that they intended to make us like them.
We moved on, piloting through the maze of channels by turning north whenever there was an opportunity, and eventually came into the Little Shark River. Turning west, we followed the channel markers to the mouth of the river at the Gulf of Mexico. For the first time in our trip we saw a water horizon. Our houseboat was not an open-water craft, but the sky was clear and the gulf was calm, so we proceeded north and a half-hour later reentered Whitewater Bay through one of the numerous channels in Ponce de Leon Bay.
The Gulf of Mexico is the only place on this trip where one could swim, although we didn't. The word "white" in Whitewater Bay refers to the surface chop that a breeze can kick up, not to the color of the water, which is as dark as strong tea because of the tannin in the mangrove leaves. This tends to make a swimmer indistinguishable from a meal for the occasional shark or water moccasin. Chances are you could get away with a cooling dip, but it wouldn't be relaxing.
Late that afternoon as we were headed to the north side of the bay for the night's anchorage, my sister saw a "brown, fuzzy thing" in the water. I cut the motor and we drifted in silence. When the "thing" emerged, climbing up a mangrove root, we saw it was a raccoon. It moved through the roots like Christopher Columbus' cat, swift and surefooted, then stopped and with two paws ripped an oyster from a root. Just then young Will commenced a loud oration on the importance of being Will. The raccoon stared at us, his sharp little ears erect, then returned to his snack.
On the third day we explored the northeastern section of the bay, motoring far up the North River and then taking the canoe into narrow channels that wound deep into the mangroves. Having a canoe added a dimension to the trip that you wouldn't have if you were confined to the houseboat. Drawing little water and maneuvering easily, a canoe will take you into corners where it's easy to believe no one else has ever been.
It was my sister's last night and one day before Will's 8-month birthday, so we celebrated with Key lime pie and talked late into the night. But not once did we mention work. After just three days aboard the Cobia, the pressures and tensions of the office were not worth dwelling on. It seems the distances on the bay and the speed of the boat combine to enforce patience. You can't see your destination, but you know you will arrive in three to four hours, and meanwhile there's plenty to see. And if you're the worrying type, you can always think about piloting, or the weather, or what to cook for supper. Or mosquitoes.
We had been warned about mosquitoes. They are something of a regional horror story. The tourist concession in Flamingo, for example, sells a bumper sticker with a red cross on it and the words, "I Gave at Everglades National Park."
But this was mid-March, toward the end of the dry season, and the mosquito population was down. We never even had to take the top off the bug spray. In any case, the Cobia was completely screened, and as an extra precaution we had mosquito netting over Will's crib.
The next day, we puttered south from the North River, retracing our earlier trip through Coot Bay and Buttonwood Canal and dropping my sister at the dock in Flamingo. A quick visit to the store for baby formula, and we were underway again. By late afternoon we were anchored in a narrow corner near one of the landmarks of our first day -- the South Joe River chickee.
In the morning we took our last canoe ride. Our chart showed a lake shaped like a hot pepper tucked back in the mangroves and connected to our vicinity by a winding passage. We determined to search for it.
Our first attempt failed. A promising channel through the wall of mangroves led us deep into the forest before closing in. There being no room to turn the canoe around, we had to paddle out backwards. A second channel did the same thing, taking us even deeper in before the prop roots blocked the way. We had time for one more try. The Cobia had to be back at the marina by early afternoon.
The channel started out narrow and stayed that way for a long distance. We poled through it, pushing off the prop roots with the paddles. Curving in no predictable way, the channel disappeared a few yards behind us and was visible only a few yards ahead. After a while Will began making bottle noises, and I was about to call the expedition off when my wife called out from the bow that she could see open water.
Moments later we glided silently onto the lake. The water was still and dark blue, reflecting the cloudless sky. A breeze stirred the leaves at the top of the mangroves. I paddled carefully to preserve the quiet, but this was the terrain of creatures that are more acute than we can imagine.
We came around a bend to the sight of a great blue heron rising from its hidden perch. With enormous wings, the heron powered across the lake and over the mangroves. The spell was broken, but we saved the memory by giving the lake a name. You won't find Pepper Lake on any chart, but if you go to the park and can find the passage through the mangroves, you can make it yours, just as we did.
Oliver B. Patton is a Washington-based editor and free-lance writer.
WAYS & MEANS
HOUSEBOAT RENTALS: Houseboats that sleep six to eight are available for rent from the marina in Flamingo, in Everglades National Park. The maximum rental is one week at a time, the minimum two nights. (The boats can be rented for longer than a week, but must be returned to the marina once a week for servicing and refueling.) Operators must be at least 21 years old; boating experience is helpful but not mandatory. We found it useful to take along a canoe for exploring the Everglades' numerous narrow channels.
Houseboat rental rates vary with the season. Between Nov. 1 and April 30, the first night costs $275 and each additional night costs $137. The rest of the year the first night costs $198 and each additional night costs $99. A $200 advance deposit is required to reserve the boat, and a $500 fuel and security deposit is required on the day you cast off. Propane, linens, cookware, utensils and charts are included. A canoe is an additional $15 a day.
PROVISIONING:The marine store on the dock in Flamingo carries canned goods and some staples, as well as bait, fishing tackle and other water sport necessities, such as sunscreen and bug spray.
But if you are planning to stay longer than a couple of nights, stop in Homestead for supplies on your way into the park.
WHERE TO STAY: Flamingo Lodge is nicely situated on Florida Bay and has rooms starting at $54 per night in the off season and $69 per night between December and April. Cottages and campgrounds also are available.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: There is plenty to do while you wait to board your boat, or after you return it. Along the 38-mile ride from the park entrance to Flamingo are a number of Park Service trails that merit a lingering stroll. Take Anhinga Trail, which starts at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, and you may see Captain Hook's revenge -- an alligator whose right front leg ends in a stump. Pa-hay-okee Overlook gives you a glimpse of the "river of grass," beneath which flow the waters that end up in Whitewater Bay. The Park Service also offers tours, talks and canoe trips. If it's too hot for all that, there is a swimming pool behind the Flamingo Lodge.
INFORMATION: Flamingo Lodge, Marina & Outpost Resort, P.O. Box 428, Flamingo, Fla. 33030, (813) 695-3101.
-- Oliver B. Patton