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.
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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.
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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.