My long-time friend Pat Willyard was so gracious to drive 400 miles (600 km) to make this kayaking trip come true for me. First we drove to the endpoint; Flamingo, the heart of the Everglades National Park, where we dropped off my van. Then another 100 miles (160 km) to the start at the little hamlet of Chokoloskee. A trip that had been in the planning for quite a while. I had invited several friends to join me, but for a variety of reasons no one was able to go. Well, that never stopped me before, so it did not cancel the trip.
I did not follow the usual course, which is all the way inland through a mangrove forest (the dotted line on the map). Instead for the first half I moved outward through an area called: the 10.000 Islands (I don't know who counted them, but there are sure many) and for the 2nd half I went inland through the mangroves and an inland Bay; called Whitewater Bay. The inner islands are all mangrove forest, but the ones around the Gulf of Mexico also have very attractive little beaches.
I had 2 weeks worth of food, 10 gallons (40 liter) of water (no drinkable water can be gotten along the way (National Park service recommends a gallon per day, although I ended up only needing half of that) + camping gear, clothing, boat repair stuff, a pump (because the boat is an inflatable), wheels (to move the boat over land), first aid supplies (which luckily I never needed) , cameras and 2 (TWO) GPS units to guide me. Pat and I had both checked the weather forecast several times. The weatherman predicted that the weather would be favorable for at least a week. As I left, a local woman told me, that it would rain for the next 4 days. Reality was; each were 50 % right.
However the first day started out with perfect weather, sunny, temperature in the 70's (around 20 C.) and not much wind.
The boat I used is a 2-man kayak, it has 3 ways of propulsion, the regular kayak paddle, foot paddles that behave like penguin feet and a sail, I ended up using all methods throughout the trip. All was set; and I was ready for take-off.
The route through the 10.000 islands is a complete maze (doolhof). From a distance the islands melt together into one green mass and it is impossible to distinguish between them. My chart did not help one bit, but the GPS sure did; it guided me perfectly to my first destinations.
Right away I had a couple of little problems, my waterproof camera decided to not take any pictures, so that left my good (non-waterproof) camera and my smart phone. It made it more cumbersome to take shots, but at least I wasn't without. My speed the first morning was extremely slow, as the tide was coming in and made the current go against me. It took about 3 hours before it turned and I was able to go faster. My rudder had jumped out of its slot, and it did not work, which made the steering more difficult. I stopped for a while at the first tiny island with a beach to stretch my legs and to fix the rudder. Cute little Turtle island.
Finally at 4 in theafternoon I reached my destination for the day ; Rabbit Island. The beaches are fairly big during low tide, but many of them disappear at high tide. The line of debris shows where the water will reach, so it's important to put all the stuff above this line. The forest is mostly impenetrable, so at high tide you're pretty much limited to the tiny beach where I raised my tent. I put the wheels under the boat to bring it higher up, which caused the first big problem of the trip, it pushed right through the floor. There was no way that I could continue this way. But it was too late in the day, around 6 pm the sun goes down and at about 5 pm the mosquitoes and no-see-ums will start their daily onslaught. So the repair job would have to wait until the morning.
The evening was beautiful, but the incoming clouds were proving the Chokoloskee's woman prediction .
I woke up to rain in the morning. However, luckily, at about 11 am it dried up and I could start on the job of gluing the boat back together. I kept the parts in place by taping it with duct tape and I applied pressure by putting my water bags on top of it. However it would not be strong enough until the next day, there was no way that I could leave and so I ended up staying an extra night on Rabbit Island. It was a cute island, so things could definitely be worse. And I am proud to say, that my repair job lasted the rest of the trip.
The rest of the day the weather was very nice and it was great bird watching, relaxing and reading.
Right under a tree full of pelicans, some fishermen tried their luck.
The next island was Pavillion Key, one of my favorites. It has a half-moon shape with a beautiful long beach and an interesting mangrove forest. It was fairly windy and I pitched my tent on an open sand spit, so I would have less mosquito issues and I could be outside to watch the beautiful sunset.
It pretty much worked out as planned, except the weather gods had a little surprise in stock for me. In the middle of the night a strong squall came through with ferocious winds and heavy rain that just about flattened my little tent. It only lasted about an half hour and luckily I had all my stuff tightened down, so nothing blew away.
Things were a little wet, but nothing to keep me awake for the remainder of the night.
I learned about another phenomenon in these islands; tidal flats. A long area of mud in front of the island, that won't disappear until the tide comes in. It looked like a beautiful morning, so I packed my boat, and I simply waited it out. Just when I finally could go, a pitch black sky came in with strong winds and rain, so again I had to wait. It was 11 am before I could finally leave. The wind was from a favorable direction and I could sail.
I was going further down the coast now, the islands were much more spread out, so now I had to cover long distances of open water. New surprise: my really good GPS decided to go on strike, I changed batteries to no avail. So I had to move to GPS nr. 2, which only shows direction, but no details.
I continued between the islands, alternating between sunny and rainy days. On the 6 th day I was finished with my stretch in the beautiful 10.000 Islands, and I headed to the mainland, where there was a beach of several miles long, called Highland Beach.
For the first time on this trip I talked to other humans; a group of Indiana college students with their teacher. The beach was full of shells and I collected a fair amount, especially in the morning after another tidal flat made me wait for several hours before I was able toleave.
On day 7 I left the open water and I followed the Harney River inland. My 2nd GPS was kind enough to show me the entrance to this river and then it decided that I should be mature enough to find my own way from here on. You know, like the boy scouts (padvinders) used to do it; use a chart and a compass.
The mangroves are beautiful, but beaches are totally non-existent. At high water it is all green.
But at low tide it shows it tangle of roots and mud. There is simply no place to stop and get off the boat.The tide and current were favorable and the weather was good. All in all a good start of the mangrove section.
.It was again a bird's (and mosquito and no-see-ums) paradise
The next day it rained steadily all day long. I had 10 miles (16 km) to go to the next chickee. Things did not go well. All morning the current was against me and I had to paddle hard, just not to go backwards. Finally by afternoon the tide changed and I did not have to fight the current anymore. Now however it became a race against time, which I actually lost. I reached the "Shark River" Chickee half hour after dark, still in pouring rain. A poorly built Chickee with a leaking roof. But at least I got there and I did not have to spend the night inside my boat. Pffffff. It rained hard all night long.
The day after was even worse; it was still raining really hard. I had to pack everything soaking wet, but at least I did not have to fight a current. However after a few miles I reached a very large inland Bay; the Whitewater Bay. Here I had to travel from island to island. Both of my GPS units were still on strike, so my navigation skills were tested in the old-fashioned way by compass and chart. It continued to rain hard, but besides that it was interspersed by big thunderstorms with very strong winds. I had to go past about 4 islands before getting to my destination. I would pass each of them on their lee-ward side, stay there until a thunderstorm passed and then, in a relative calm period (still raining hard) paddle over to the next island. I reached the "Oyster Bay Chickee" at 5 pm. Right at that time, miraculously the weather changed; the wind and rain stopped, the sun came out and the weather was gorgeous once again.
Ok. So all was well for that day. In the middle of the night it started to storm again. Really serious this time. My tent was small, so it could withstand it a little better, but my neighbors, who slept in a much bigger and poorly made tent, almost blew off the platform. It was no better in the morning and they packed up and left. My weather radio said that there were 30 knot winds (about 40 m/hr or 60 Km) with gusts of 45 knots (60 m/hr or 80 km). Furthermore there were many tornado warnings. After the trip I heard that tornadoes had touched down in some areas, caused a lot of damage and killed 2 people. Forget about reservations or no reservations, I was not about to take off in this weather. In the afternoon a motorboat with National Park staff came by. They just wanted to know if I was ok and if there was anything I needed. I was reading a very good book, I was well protected and all was well. They moved on to check on other boaters. Thanks National Park staff, I appreciated the concern. By evening it was calm and beautiful again. I've come to the conclusion that the weather here has bipolar issues.
It was almost like a game. The next day was wonderful. Dry, clear, sunny, nice temperature and a perfect breeze from just the right direction. The next "South Joe Chickee" was 6 miles (9 km) away. But the sailing was perfect and I reached it in 2 hours. There was another 12 miles to go. I decided not to chance the weather anymore and I kept sailing and paddling. Things were finally just right, I reached the final canal to my destination by 2 pm, went through it without difficulty and reached cute little Coot Bay.
After paddling through a gorgeous mangrove tunnel, I reached the road, where Pat had a friend deliver my van.Victory, I made it. It was a bit more of an adventure than I had hoped for and I did not expect to be tested on my navigation skills the way I was. But it doesn't matter; I did it!
And luckily, even though the Everglades are well known for these crocodiles (salt water), alligators (fresh water), snakes and who knows what else, none of those guys came around to challenge me..