Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades
By Michael Lanza
Under a hot February sun and cloudless sky, we launch our kayaks from a tiny spot of sandy beach into the perfectly still, dark-chocolate waters of the East River in South Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Within minutes, flocks of snowy egrets fly in close formation overhead. White ibises, black anhingas, tri-colored herons, and brown pelicans flap above the wide river and the green walls of forest on both sides. Great blue herons lift off effortlessly and glide on wings whose span equals an average human’s height.
A little while ago, when we turned off US 41 onto an unmarked dirt road, just a few miles north of the boundary of Everglades National Park, a small, homemade sign nailed to a tree greeted us with the message: “Welcome to the real Florida.” Although the driving directions I received for this put-in on the East River seemed to invite error—they were of the “turn left past the end of the guardrail” variety—that sign made me think we’d landed in the right place. The bird life we’re seeing confirms it.
My ten-year-old son, Nate, and I share one two-person, sit-on-top kayak; my wife, Penny, shares another with our daughter, Alex, who’s almost eight. We are setting out for a few hours of paddling this river’s pond-like open stretches and tight mangrove tunnels—and getting can-almost-touch-them close to wildlife that you cannot see on most of the planet.
Tomorrow, we will set out for three days canoeing and camping in the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park.
Our companion today, guide Justin Shurr of Shurr Adventures—who will lead us through the East River’s labyrinth of mangrove tunnels—points at a small, easily overlooked shadow on the dark water.
“See that thing that looks like a piece of driftwood?” he says. “It’s not driftwood. It’s an alligator.” As is typical, only the gator’s head breaks the surface; most of its body floats just below, hidden from sight until you get close. But, Justin explains, you can estimate its size using a simple, reliable formula: Every inch of distance from its eyes to the end of its snout translates to a foot of body length. “That’s a twelve-footer,” he tells us.
We paddle a wide arc around it.
In fact, there are a lot of gators. We see several just in the 20 minutes before we enter the first of five mangrove tunnels on the river. Justin calmly points out each one—with an estimate: “That’s an eleven-footer. Those are ten or eleven-footers.” In the murky water, which is only two to three feet deep, we see alligators lurking motionless on the mucky bottom, and keep eyes peeled to avoid passing right over one.
The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is billed as “the Amazon of North America.” A swamp forest approximately twenty miles long by five miles wide, it contains a variety of habitats from wet prairies to islands of tropical hardwood hammocks and pine rocklands. The Fakahatchee has 44 native orchids and 14 native bromeliad species. Get lucky—or unlucky, depending on your perspective—and you could happen upon Florida panthers and black bears, Eastern indigo snakes, Everglades minks, and diamondback terrapins here.
Entering the mangroves, we steer the kayaks through passages so tight that we can grab branches in the spaghetti tangle on either side to pull ourselves forward. The trees form an actual tunnel, with the twisted canopy arching just above our heads. We break down our paddles and each use just half of one to push forward in water inches deep.
A bit more than three miles downstream, after exiting the last tunnel and entering a broad stretch of brown river, we turn around and retrace our strokes. With no discernible current, going upstream is no different than going down.
After pushing and pulling our way back through the tunnels, with the put-in where we began this tour in sight, Nate and I have drawn far ahead of Penny, Alex, and Justin when we realize they’re yelling at us. I look back. Justin points to our left, at a gator swimming on a collision course with us—or perhaps we are on a collision course with it. I swing the kayak in the other direction.
As we are quickly learning, the Everglades seem placid—but below the surface, this is a uniquely wild place.
Launching into Chokoloskee Bay at 7:30 a.m. on another windless, sunny morning, our second in the Everglades, our two canoes manufacture the only ripples in a vast table of saltwater. Nate and I again share a boat, Penny and Alex the other. We rose before dawn to time our departure for the outgoing tide, and not just so it would help gently propel us outbound—which is not an insignificant service given that Penny and I are essentially solo engines for canoes weighed down with camping gear, a watertight food bin, and five-gallon water jugs. But the main reason for our carefully planned timing is that much of this expansive but shallow bay will transform to mud flats by early afternoon, when the tide is low.
We are headed out to Tiger Key, one of the outermost of the Ten Thousand Islands in Everglades National Park.
Across the bay, we enter a wide channel winding through flat islands covered in mats of dense mangroves. My nautical map shows hundreds of these isles, called “keys,” knitted together by a labyrinth of channels. Looking at the map and our surroundings, we quickly see how easily you could get lost in this giant maze of thickly forested, shell-and-sand mounds that all look the same.
Songbirds chatter and flit among the trees along the shores. Cormorants and brown pelicans skim the water’s surface. But there are no gators out here; they stick to freshwater.
Justin Shurr, who has not joined us for this part of our trip but gave me abundant advice when planning it, had told me this about the growing popularity of canoeing and sea kayaking in the Everglades: “When I was first out there nine years ago, I’d only see a few kayaks. Now you see them everywhere. It’s not crowded, but it’s becoming more of a kayakers’ mecca.”
Little wonder that it is growing more popular. (Although limits on backcountry permits prevent overcrowding, there is more competition for those permits.) Encompassing 1.5 million acres, Everglades is the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States—bigger than Glacier or Grand Canyon, twice the size of Yosemite. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist and social activist who campaigned tirelessly much of her long life for the preservation of the Everglades, opened her famous 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass, with the line: “There are no other Everglades in the world.” One of Earth’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries, the park hosts 16 types of wading birds among more than 350 species of birds, 300 kinds of fish, and 36 vertebrates and 26 plant species listed as endangered or threatened or under consideration for listing.
A few hours after launching, we reach the outermost islands, gazing out on the vast Gulf of Mexico. We swing around the tiny Stop Keys, in flat, green water just inches deep in places, as low tide approaches. At times, Penny and I have to climb out of the canoes and drag them forward.
By late morning, we reach Tiger Key and haul our gear in several trips across a hundred yards of low-tide mud flats up onto a long, white-sand beach facing the gulf. Then we laboriously drag our empty canoes across the sandal-sucking mud, up onto the beach that we’ll have to ourselves for two days.
The kids start building “sand cities” while Penny and I set up camp. By mid-afternoon, the tide rolls back in, covering the mud flats, sending foot-high waves crashing loudly onto the beach. Nate and I take one of the canoes and trace Tiger Key’s shoreline, seeing two ospreys land in a giant nest in a treetop. We discover a hidden, very narrow mangrove tunnel, which deposits us into a quiet, protected little lagoon whose forested shores and mysterious corners we explore.
Later, back in camp, we eat dinner with eyes glued on the spectacle of a fireball very slowly lowering itself into the Gulf of Mexico. Against a red-orange sky, the sun eases into the ocean, shrinks to a flicker of fire on a distant, watery horizon, then extinguishes itself in the sea and is gone.
“Being out there can feel like being stranded on a tropical island,” Justin Shurr had told me about camping in the Ten Thousand Islands.
Early in the morning of our second day at Tiger Key, while my family sleeps in our tent, I watch scores of white ibises jabbing their slender, curved beaks into the mud flats at low tide, plucking crayfish from tidepools. The quiet feels like a sedative—there’s not a breath of wind, no other people or boats within sight, the only sound birds singing. While we saw several motorboats yesterday—the Sunday of a busy Presidents Day weekend—today we will see only a few passing boats all day.
By late morning, although the tide hasn’t yet reached the beach, we’re antsy to explore. So under a warm sun, with a pleasant breeze stirring the air, we drag the canoes across fifty yards of mud flats until we reach four or five inches of ocean—deep enough to climb in and start paddling. Nate’s eager to show Penny and Alex our “secret” lagoon, so we head partway around the island to the hidden mangrove tunnel.
A pair of egrets takes flight as our canoes enter the still lagoon. Then, to our left, I see a dead snag with 10 roseate spoonbills perched on its branches. A striking bird with a fluorescent pink color and a long bill that widens comically at its end—explaining the name—the spoonbills sit posing for us as we silently watch them through binoculars. Then we paddle away to spend a few hours circumnavigating Tiger Key. Returning to our camp in mid-afternoon, at high tide, we paddle right up to the beach. The kids’ sand cities are underwater, as are the bases of isolated mangroves growing at the very edge of the shore.
Watching these isolated mangrove trees being inundated by the high tide is a powerful visual representation of the future of the Everglades.
No major U.S. national park is more vulnerable to sea-level rise than Everglades. The land rises an average of just three inches per mile from Florida Bay inland to Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of the Everglades. Most of the park will be underwater if the ocean rises two feet—which the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said is possible in this century. But many researchers now consider that forecast far too conservative, and project the ocean coming up three to six feet by 2100. The highest point in Everglades is eight feet above the sea.
A 2008 Park Service report warned of the potential for “catastrophic inundation of South Florida.” At risk are freshwater marshes, tidal flats, estuarine beaches, pinelands, birds, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles, fish, North America’s largest mangrove system and largest freshwater saw-grass prairie, the world’s third-largest coral reef in Florida Bay—“just about everything,” according to Leonard Pearlstine, the national park’s landscape ecologist.
Lazing on our private wilderness beach on our final afternoon out here, we’re not thinking about a climate catastrophe, of course. Tomorrow, we’ll rise early and depart at high tide for our return paddle of more than three hours to Everglades City, where we put in. But for now, we’ll walk the beach, build and rebuild sand cities, and watch another glorious, blazing sunset in sub-tropical paradise.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Everglades National Park’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.]
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR any kayakers and canoeists, including families, with good navigational skills; knowledge of GPS use is helpful, especially if you wander beyond the routes described here. There’s an online description and map of the East River Canoe Route (see below). The Ten Thousand Islands, with myriad mangrove isles that all look the same, is a navigational maze even for experts. Most trips out here would require having someone along who is either expert at navigating on water or familiar with the islands. The route described here is easier because it follows tall, numbered posts through the main channel, Indian Key Pass, from Everglades City to Indian Key, an outermost island on the Gulf of Mexico. The post numbers correspond with numbers on the map (see below), so finding your way is straightforward as long as you stay in the Indian Key Pass channel. Beyond Indian Key, it’s not difficult to navigate by sight the short distance, about 30 minutes, to Tiger Key.
Make It Happen
Season The Everglades can be paddled almost any time of year, but it is hot and very buggy from March through November. The best time for comfortably mild temperatures, few mosquitoes, better birding and wildlife viewing, and drier weather is December through February.
The Itinerary To explore the East River’s five mangrove tunnels, paddle 3.2 miles downstream from the put-in to Big Lake, a wide slackwater area that’s reached after exiting the fifth tunnel. Most paddlers turn around there and return via the same route; with virtually no current, paddling upstream is easy. The round-trip time is three to six hours. Sit-on-top kayaks are recommended for their comfort and maneuverability in tight mangrove tunnels. See a description of the East River Canoe Route at paddleflorida.net/everglades-east-river-paddle.htm.
For the overnight canoe trip to Tiger Key, depart from the boat ramp behind the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City and follow the numbered posts through Indian Key Pass to the outermost islands (Indian Key is a large, prominent outer island). Swing northwest (right) around the smaller Stop Keys. You will see the long, white-sand beach of Picnic Key on your right; Tiger Key is the next island beyond Picnic. The camping is on Tiger’s west shore, 3-4 hours of leisurely paddling from the park visitor center.
Getting There The put-in for the East River Canoe Route is down an unmarked side road off US 41 (The Tamiami Trail), 5.2 miles west of the junction of US 41 and FL 29, a 1.5-hour drive west of Miami. The canoe trip to Indian Key Pass and Tiger Key begins from the national park boat launch, behind the park headquarters on FL 29 in Everglades City.
Where to Stay in Everglades City:
Supplies The nearest supermarket and outdoor-gear stores for essentials like stove fuel are in Naples, 40 minutes north of Everglades City.
Permit Permits are required for overnight camping in the park and can only be obtained in person on the day before or the day your trip begins. Plan at least two routes before arriving at the park in case your first choice is already filled. Show up at a park office that issues permits at least an hour before it opens on weekends during the peak winter season; a line forms early. The permit fee is $10 plus $2 per person/per day for backcountry camping. You can get a permit at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City, where you would depart from for the trip to Tiger Key.
Maps Lostmans River to Wiggins Pass nautical chart, $21, covers the area described in this article and is available at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City, (239) 695-3311; or you can order it from the Everglades Association, (305) 247–1216, evergladesassociation.org. Two waterproof nautical charts cover the entire park: Everglades and Ten Thousands Islands no. 41, and Lostmans River and Whitewater Bay #39, $27 each; waterproofcharts.com.
Guidebook A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park, by Johnny Molloy, $20, johnnymolloy.com.
• Tides and wind are the big challenges: Many areas turn to mud flats or become too shallow to paddle at low tide, even in canoes and kayaks. Strong winds can literally blow the seawater out of a shallow bay. Check the tide tables to time your paddling for when the tide is high. Paddle in the direction the tide is moving, not against it.
• There is no freshwater on the Ten Thousand Islands. Bring at least a gallon of water per person per day for drinking and cooking needs.
• Water and food must be stored in hard containers when camping; raccoons will get into soft containers. Rent hard-sided, five-gallon water jugs and hard-sided, water-tight food-storage bins from the Ivey House (see above).
• Mosquitoes are very thick most of the year, except in winter. For trips from mid-February to early March, check with park rangers or an outfitter on whether the mosquitoes have emerged, and if so, consider bringing head nets and wearing light clothing that covers all skin.
• Alligators are common in and along the rivers, including some of the mangrove tunnels, but do not generally venture into the salt water of the Ten Thousand Islands. Crocodiles are rare.
• The sun is extremely hot; wear wide-brim hats and a high-SPF sunblock.
Everglades Adventures, based at Ivey House B&B (see above), offers guided trips and canoe and kayak rentals; (239) 695-3299, iveyhouse.com/everglades-adventures.
Shurr Adventure Co. offers one-day and multi-day guided trips; (877) 455-2925, shurradventures.net.
Boat Rentals Find a list of local businesses that rent canoes and kayaks at nps.gov/ever/upload/Wilderness_Trip_Planner_2009.pdf.
Contact Everglades National Park, (305) 242-7700, nps.gov/ever. Find good information on planning a wilderness trip at nps.gov/ever/upload/Wilderness_Trip_Planner_2009.pdf.