Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Trip Report: The Everglades

Because I'd never been there, and because the winter months are apparently the most opportune time to visit, I decided to explore the Everglades last week. I am in between jobs, and had a few days off of work, so it was a chance to decompress and re-charge the batteries. The plan was somewhat simple - fly to Miami, rent a car, drive south to the Everglades, spend two nights in the bush, then head northwest and visit my 'rents, who snowbird in Venice, for a couple of nights.

Due to the inclement winter weather in Maryland, my plane arrived in Miami about 90-minutes late. My schedule was already fairly tight, but it became even more crunched when I wasn't able to find a fuel canister (for my stove) at Walmart. I took my chances, and drove into the park without one, hoping I'd find one at the marina store near Flamingo Visitor Center on the southeastern edge of the park. Unfortunately, the small shop also didn't have the type of fuel canister I needed (frustratingly they had others). It was getting late and, much to my chagrin, many of the trails I was going to trek down were buried under a soupy black muck. Backcountry camping seemed to be a lost cause. In addition, mosquitos were everywhere, so I decided it would be best to grab a sandwich from the only restaurant within 100 miles and car camp for the night. Before doing so, I found a path to Bear Lake that wasn't muddy and decided to embark on a 1-hour hike just prior to dust. Big mistake. The mosquitos were absolutely relentless. I had to keep up a brisk sub-12-15:00 per mile cadence or I would be eaten alive. Stopping to re-tie my boot nearly cost me my life. Dejected, after just 3 miles of walking, I limped back to my tent, which was being guarded by a half dozen vultures. Nearby, an owl hooty-hooed. I crawled into my bag, to escape the bugs, but it was far too warm. Despite my best efforts, the 'squitos continued to invade my mesh tent. I spent hours unapologetically swatting them down, only to need to leave the tent for some reason or another and invite another dozen back in. This vicious cycle continued and, unfortunately, I would continue to be bitten throughout the night. Thoughts of the Zika virus danced through my head.

On Tuesday, I awoke well before dawn, struck camp, and was on the road by 6:30. I was happy to get away from the bugs, which were STILL out; I was bitten another dozen, or so, times before I got into my car. I made a few stops along the way (thankfully, K-Mart had the fuel canister I needed!) and was at the western entrance to the park (Everglades City/Gulf Coast Visitor's Center) by 11:00. I inquired with the Park Ranger which backcountry camp spots were still available. The good-natured man on the other side of the table informed me that Tiger Key, some 9 miles away by boat, was open. Without thinking much about it, I told him I'd take it. I paid the fee, then walked to the neighboring concessionaire and rented a kayak for two days (about $85). After a brief lunch, I stashed away my supplies and goods in dry bags and slipped my kayak into the sea. It took me about 30 minutes to negotiate the chop in Chokoloskee Bay, but eventually I found my way to the channel markers (see dashed lines in chart below) in the mangroves that make up the Ten Thousand Islands.

It was fun to silently slip past the various birds and critters that makes this place home - at one point either a sea turtle, manatee or possibly gator, poked its nose off my starboard side (those I asked on shore had conflicting ideas as to what I saw). Amazingly, the waters here are incredibly shallow. Although it's hard to see the bottom, I doubt I was ever over my head. After about 2 hours of non-stop paddling, I stopped off at one of these small islands (or keys) to get my bearing and ensure I was in fact heading in the right direction. I confirmed that I was on course, slurped down some Gatorade and proceeded southwest towards the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, after another 30-45 minutes of paddling, my kayak pointed out towards the open ocean. I was free of the mangroves...at least for now. I pivoted the kayak northwest and slowly inched through the chop towards Tiger Key, about 2-3 miles away. The "open ocean" surf beat on the kayak and soaked me through, but after another 30 minutes I spied what I surmised was my personal desert isle ahead. The waves continue to pummel my small ship and my arms were understandable sore when I finally made landfall, after nearly 3 hours of nonstop paddling.

Aside from neighbors on a neighboring island, it appeared as if I had the entire Ten Thousands Islands to myself - I was my very own "Castaway" (sans Wilson). The views were pretty fantastic and, much to my delight, there were few bugs. I quickly set up my tent on a small patch of sand protected by mangroves (in case the wind picked up), then began gathering up dry wood for an eventual fire.

For the rest of the evening, I relaxed, read and tended to the fire, all while nursing a flask of Jack Daniels. Life was good.

The next morning, I was kayaking back to civilization even before the sun rose on the eastern horizon. Paddling had definitely "worked" my hands and arms the day before and my body ached and shivered when I resumed the position and began doing more of the same. Still, I was able to make the 9-mile trek back to shore in about 2 hours. En route "home" I spied a dolphin and another gator/manatee/sea turtle nose as well as the usual menagerie of birds.

All and all, the kayak camp trip into the 'glades was definitely a "top 5" backcountry experience for me (rim to rim Grand Canyon, The Bob, The Subway in Zion are a few others that come to mind), because it was something I wouldn't normally do (i.e. - it was outside my comfort zone). If I ever go back, I'd try and do a multi-night kayak trek on the east side, assuming there is a month to tackle such a trip without fear of mosquito-induced diseases.

No comments: