If I learned anything from this trip it is this:
Never, ever - even for a moment - consider leaving home without your neoprene. Hmmm.
Dick & I arrived in Everglades City on 05-MAR. Moved on into our "cozy cabin", soon joined by Frank & Dee. After some last-minute trip planning, we had dinner at the Oyster House and secured our gear for the next day. Sunday, Frank was to visit the Park Rangers and get all the necessary permits (and pay all the fees) for our trip through Everglades National Park. Meanwhile, Sunday was Dick's day for a trip through Memory Lane - a quick ferry ride to Key West so he could see the outpost where he lived and worked until 1963 (and hadn't been back since).
Finally, launch day on Monday, 07-MAR. We had planned to launch by 11:00 AM to take advantage of the ebbing tide out through Sandfly Pass in the Ten Thousand Islands. The launch was directly across the parking lot from our cozy cabin! Gordon & Ducky showed up from Key Largo at 10:00 AM and we all proceeded to make ready. Departed Glades Haven (N 25d 15', W 81d 23') at 11:30, into a hazy, humid mid-60's midday.
As soon as we got into the channel, we noticed that the flow was still coming IN. This was our first indication that we maybe needed a little work on our tide & offset assumptions. We battled through the current concentrated under an overpass, then here we were in Chokoloskee Bay. Once we oriented ourselves among the mangroves (via chart, GPS, and vigorous discussion) we headed across the bay for Sandfly Pass.
Just before entering the channel, we decided to stop for a bit to wait for the tide to turn. Pulled up on a gravel bar aside a mangrove isle for a brief discussion on the Rule of 12ths. When the bar had submerged, we decided that we probably needed to get back in the boats. Finally, we made it through Sandfly Pass on a (mostly) slack tide.
Our first stop was to be Rabbit Key. Not for the night, as we planned to camp at Pavillion Key, but just for a little break. After all, this was the first paddle since, well, November. Ouch! Away from the protection of the Ten Thousand Islands, we got a little introduction to the Gulf wind that would accompany us for the trip. With my little boat loaded beyond max with 120 lbs of supplies (including 65 lbs of fresh water), let's just say I was wallowing a bit :).
Just off Rabbit Key, when I began for the first time to question my sanity, a group of dolphins materialized and played with us a little. Amazing. First one, then a pair, then finally 4 dolphins in synch, blowing & diving among us. I was on the outside to the left of the group, so I was the last boat they passed (within 50'!). As I turned to see them go, they turned as well - and made one last leap toward me again, then disappeared. My apprehensions were put to rest. We made it to Pavillion Key by 4:15 PM, after the first 11.51 miles of the trip. The GPS says we had a moving time of 3hrs 45min and a moving ave of 3.1mph.
Tuesday AM in Pavillion gretted us with an Everglades Surprise. It was all of a sudden a long - and I mean LONG - way to the water. Mud flat. Big mud flat. So we have a leisurely breakfast awaiting the tide and speculating on how the offsets could be SOooooo very different in just a short distance. Also came to a new understanding about that odd green area on the charts, near shore.
In a few hours we had enough water to get floating with just a short drag. This was about the same time the rain started, for what would be a relentlessly cold, wet, windy day. We departed for our first stop, Mormon Key in 25 knot winds directly abeam. At Mormon (or, actually, the key adjacent to Mormon) Frank checked the VHF for a weather update. Yup, 25-30 knot winds, small craft advisory, rain, cold. We knew that.
Headed on to Turkey Key for a second stop, ducking in behind mangrove clumps where possible for a little shelter. Since the tide was observed to be high, we figured we had enough water to cross Bird Key Bight so we could stay behind Bird Key for shelter. It was here that a most unusual thing happened. I was paddling along about 300 yards off Frank's left, with Gordon & Dick several hundred yards behind. Suddenly, as I planted my right blade for a stroke, the water just to the right of my cockpit erupted! A circular patch about 3' in diameter just boiled, then, this patch took off like a rocket, passed just in front of Frank's bow, and disappeared. Yow. I have no idea what this was, but Frank said that it might have been a tarpon.
After a couple more exposed crossings of a mile or so each, we finally made it to Hog Key, our camp for the night. The skies cleared somewhat for camp-making and dinner, but once again the descent of the mosquitos sent us into the tents by 7:00 PM. Per the GPS, we travelled 13.72 miles in 4hr 31min, for a moving ave of 3mph and a max of 6.7.
Wednesday AM we were greeted once again by the endless mud flats. Even though this time we had been careful to choose a landing where there was very little of the green area on the chart. So much for thinking. As we prepared and waited for water, the rain started in again in earnest. And it never warmed up. We briefly set up Gordon's tent and huddled trying to warm up but came to the conclusion that it was not going to warm up ever, the wind was not going to abate ever, and we better just get out there & enjoy South Florida! We headed out with a planned stop at Highland Beach and a destination of Graveyard campsite at Shark Point.
Today's wind feature was North Easterlies. Yup, 25 knot or thereabouts. The interesting thing was crossing the mouth of Lostman's River, where the winds funneled down the river channel and across our port beams. It was a wide river mouth, and I had ample time to reflect on the bay full of sharks, the winds threatening to blow us to Texas, and the fact that I had all my contingency clothing on and was STILL shaking.
As Dick & I arrived near shore, I turned to see where Frank & Gordon were (having given up on them when they decided to play with their umbrellas in the winds). I saw Frank, Then Gordon, then... ??? Were there really three kayaks or was I more hypothermic than I thought? As Frank & Gordon caught up & we rounded the point to head for Highland Beach, I mentioned that they had company behind them. Soon, we were overtaked by a kayaker in a customized yellow Northwest kayak. Turns out he was a racer in the WaterTribe challenge going on that week, I think his tribal name is Snorebringgator. He paddled along with us for a while, good humoredly answering our questions about the race, then headed off for Joe River.
Finally, we arrived at Graveyard, which turned out to be a pretty nice little campsite tucked into the N side of Ponce deLeon Bay. We spent some time analyzing the best take-out location to have the boats nearest an open channel for mud-free launching. (Still we hadn't learned about out-smarting the everglades!) We were here, the rain had abated enough to allow for a more pleasant camp-making than anticipated, and Lo, there was the remains of a smoldering campfire! Dick got the campfire going, the tents went up while the rain was not-a-downpour, then Dick & Frank set up a tarp over the (surprise!) picnic table.
Just as this was going on, a kayak pulled up to the back of the campsite. It turned out it was Sonya the WaterRose from the WaterTribe challenge, who had paddled 40 miles that day and was looking for a little rest (no kidding!). Just after these introductions, two folks pull up in a tandem, also racers, Ed & Joe AKA Paddlecarver & Tyro. Now our table & campfire is turning into a party. We stop worrying about the increasing rain and all, and have a great conversation with these folks while making dinner. Turns out Ed know someone who does trips in the Baja. That's another leitmotiv of this trip... how I was outvoted for relentless sun and sand in favor of this, well, cold swamp. If all goes well then NEXT winter there will be no excuse for skipping a paddle in the Sea of Cortez.
Just at the end of dinner, in the gathering night, yet another kayak racer shows up... SharkStu, who woofed down my left-over tortilla soup without any clue who I might be! Alas, the rains set in heavy again and off to the tents... GPS says we went 15.27miles today, 3.5mph ave., with a moving time of 4hr 24min.
Thursday, we awoke to the overcast, and the realization that what we thought was an open channel to the bay was, in fact, not at all passable at low tide - regardless of color on the chart. You guessed it, another leisurely breakfast. But wait! What's that? Could it be the sun burning through the haze??? Yes!! Yes!! We busily offer all our wet gear, clothes, hair, feet, etc. to the SUN on every mangrove branch we could reach. After everything was dry & the tide came in to float level, we departed for our day of paddling on the "inside" - up Shark River (with the tide, for once) to the Shark River Chickee, then across Whitewater bay to our camp at the Oyster Bay Chickee.
Just as we were approaching the turn to the Shark River Chickee for lunch, we could hear someone singing a stirring rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina". Interesting company for our lunch break - Steve, AKA Kneading Water, one more WaterTribe racer who was travelling the inside route to Key Largo. Then it was back down Shark River to our cut-off to the bay and the Oyster Bay Chickee. It was a day full of sunshine, favorable tides, and little wind. A welcome change! We covered 12.21miles in 3hr 30min, for a moving ave of 3.5mph. In case you're wondering, a chickee is the NPS method of backwoods camping where there is nothing but mangroves & water. It is a 10x12 platform with a shed roof that is conveniently elevated for motor-boat access. You must look at the pictures!
Friday our first challenge was how to load those boats that were floating fully 5' below the platform on an ebb tide. And do it so we could get out to the Bay before the tide turned. We hauled each boat up in turn, loaded it, then "launched" it stern-first back off the chickee. Then, of course, we had to drop ourselves off the chickee into the boat. Yet another Everglades Challenge. We did manage to ride the tide most of the way out the Little Shark river to the gulf. Along the way we played nice with a couple of sea turtles and observed lots of birds, including a bald eagle who made no attempt to do anything but watch us as we went by.
Just before we got to the gulf, the tide turned and we had some "negative assistance" for the last little bit out the mouth of the Little Shark. That was, of course, just a warm up for the upcoming day's paddle into 20 knot SW headwinds around Cape Sable. If anyone tells you that the wind is North Westerly along Florida's Gulf Coast in winter, well, assume that that's just one of those swamp myths. In actual fact it comes, with gusto, from whatever direction you are paddling. We stopped briefly at Northwest Cape, then paddled on to Middle Cape at a serious pace, while the winds built. Some chafing I experienced under my arms turned into a whole lot of open wound throughout this day - youch! We made camp at Middle Cape in strong southwesterlies, using some handy rebar found on the beach to stake out the tents. GPS says we went 18.69 miles today in 5hrs 49min for a moving ave of 3.2mph.
Saturday came with a beautiful dawn, followed by a vicious but short-lived front that darkened the skies for an hour or so but sent little rain on breakfast. Our plan was to paddle to Carl Ross Key via a stop at East Cape. We got to East Cape in some of the best paddling weather of the trip. At East Cape I had to adjust the dressing on my chafed underarms, now spread well beyond and quite painful, and worried about adding miles between me & Flamingo with the jaunt out to Carl Ross. When Frank said it would be a 13 mile paddle into Flamingo on Sunday, I decided to just paddle on to Flamingo right then, leaving them to go on to Carl Ross without me. Dick decided to accompany me to Flamingo, so on we went with a slight breeze at our backs and gentle, favorable swells pushing us into Florida Bay. We arrived at Flamingo by 4pm, covering 14.27miles in 3hrs 40min with a moving ave of 3.9mph. If anyone tells you about a nice hot shower at the campground in Flamingo, well, that's the last laugh of the Everglades. But, after a refreshing cold shower I did have a really good Tuna dinner in town :). We were all reunited Sunday AM with Dee & Ducky, who came in to retrieve us from the swamp.
All told, we paddled 85.67 miles, which included a South Florida experience I could never have imagined!