I’m really not sure what made me decide that paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway alone was a good idea. I’d honestly like to lie and say that the planning involved in this trip took months, or even years. But in reality, I started really thinking about doing it two months ago, picked a date to go, got my gear together, got off work, and went for it.
In an extremely unusual fashion, I did VERY little research when it came to preparing for this trip. I didn’t read any books, check out reports, or even look at what the weather was supposed to be. I simply set a date for it, and went. I think I read the National Park Service’s .pdf on the Waterway which is only about two pages and gives you the world’s worst map of campsites and chickees. I also read one report of a group of three guys who kayaked from Everglades City to Flamingo and back in eight days. And that was about it.
I spent most of my preparation time glued to Google Earth. I painstakingly entered the GPS coordinates of each campsite and chickee, and made my paths for each day. I allotted myself eight days to travel from Everglades City to Flamingo which covers approximately 99 miles. My goal was to explore and fish primarily, so I had little interest in having huge 20+ mile paddle days. I’ll be the first person to tell you: I hate paddling. It’s not enjoyable for me. It’s a lot like work and is simply exhausting. BUT, I –love- to kayak fish. So much so, that I’ll tolerate the paddling and even pretend, at times, that I enjoy it. In reality though, I just like to fish from the kayak. So short days were planned in order to give myself plenty of time to explore and fish new waters.
With a lot of my gear back home in Pensacola, my parents were kind enough to make the drive over to Jacksonville and visit with my sister and I after the holidays (neither of us could make it home this year). And when they came, they brought things like dry bags, waterproof cases, and some extra tackle. Upon learning that I’d be paddling the Everglades alone, they also insisted on renting me a satellite phone to take on the trip.
So with my gear ready, I set about pounding out the logistics of the entire trip. I picked which campsites and chickees I’d stay at each night, and planned alternate routes to each of them should weather or tides mess me up. Then came the task of working out the non-paddling parts of the trip. I have a good friend who happens to live in Naples, and she was nice enough to let me sleep on her couch the night before the trip. This saved me from driving the 5 hours down to Everglades City from Gainesville, and paddling to my campsite in one day. I was then able to make arrangements with –another- good friend (seriously you can never have too many friends) who lives in Boca and he agreed to pick me up 8 days after I left in Flamingo at 2pm and haul me back. Once those details were set in stone, I made sure to plan out my meals so that I wouldn’t starve to death, and ensure that I had a way to carry all of my water with me.
The water issue was a relatively big one. There’s no drinkable water in the Everglades since it’s almost all brackish. This means that all drinking and cooking water must be carried along. It was suggested online that a person carry 1 gallon of water per person per day solely for drinking. This meant that I needed a minimum of 8 gallons of water. I realized, however, that carrying hard-sided water jugs, or even the big five gallon plastic jugs, simply wouldn’t work. Eventually I settled on Zephyrhills 3 liter water bottles. They were tough, had a screw on cap, and fit perfectly in my kayak.
When the day finally came for me to leave, I loaded up the Jeep, slapped the kayak on the trailer, and took off for Naples. I was initially shocked at how quickly I loaded everything. It usually takes an eternity for me to actually load all of my gear, be it for a hunting trip or a fishing trip. This day, however, it took me just a few minutes. I suppose it’s because all the gear I was bringing had to fit into the kayak, and that really wasn’t much gear at all.
So after a relaxing evening with friends down in Naples (I gorged myself and enjoyed a few good beers), I awoke Saturday morning and drove the final hour down to Everglades city.
If you’ve never been to Everglades City, there isn’t really much to it. A right turn and a round-about and you’re literally through the entire town. At the southern end of Everglades City is the National Park Service’s visitor center and my stop. I went inside, walked up to the counter, and told the old man behind the desk that I needed a permit for the Everglades Wilderness Waterway.
I soon began filling out paperwork much like that given at a doctor’s office in order to torture you. It was nearing 9 am and I really wanted to get through the paperwork and onto the water to start my day. The next thing I had to do was tell the ranger all of my planned stops. They like to know who’s staying where and when so that a particular campsite or chickee doesn’t become too crowded. My first night was going to be on Pavilion Key; a beach site on an island out in the gulf. I assumed there’d be plenty of room. So when the ranger asked where I was heading that night, I replied “Pavilion Key”
“Sorry, it’s full”
If my brain could’ve made the sound of screeching brakes, it would’ve. “Oh freakin’ great. Seriously? The beach is full?” I asked. The old man simply nodded and told me that it was one of the more popular campsites and usually filled up quickly.
So now my carefully crafted route was already messed up and I hadn’t even touched the water yet. I stood there at the counter and stared at the map. Where the hell am I gonna go now? Most of the other routes I could have taken were either too short for a day, or far too long. But after staring at the map for a while, I saw the only logical option for me: To go to the inside early rather than out in the gulf to start my first day. Lopez River campsite was open, and I opted to get there that evening instead. It was about 9 miles away rather than the 13 to Pavilion Key, but it was almost equidistant to what I’d planned to be my next stop at Darwin’s Place.
So I asked about the second night: Darwin’s Place which was approximately 12 miles from Lopez River. The old man opened up a binder and began scrolling through campsites and reserved spots. Immediately I began to worry that it too would be full. What was I going to do if all of these spots were already reserved? You can only reserve the day before or the day of. Had THAT many people already beaten me to the punch?
Luckily he said Darwin’s Place was open. And as luck would have it, all of my other sites were open as well. He called down to Flamingo to verify the last couple of chickees I’d be staying at and told the person on the other end, “Hey, I’ve got another one heading your way. Solo paddler.” I breathed a giant sigh of relief as he finished filling out my permit, and another ranger ran over a few quick rules and reminders with me and another guy who was going out with a large group. Just before I turned to walk out the door, the second ranger looked at me and said “Oh, you’re going alone? Well…be careful! Rodger’s River chickee might have a nuisance gator too. So just watch out.”
It actually took me quite a while to load the kayak up. I wanted to make 100% sure I wasn’t forgetting anything and that everything was in its. Over an hour and a half had passed since I arrived at Everglades City and my watch read 10:10 as I floated the kayak away from the launch, and turned south to Chockoloskee which is the very last “town” before Flamingo.
Immediately I was met with 20 mph winds out of the South. Due south. Right in the direction I wanted to go. Waves began crashing over the bow and it was exhausting trying to keep moving forward in a wind that wanted to send you straight back. I’d been paddling no more than 5 minutes when the thought went through my mind…
What have I gotten myself into?
Though I failed to take a picture of the yak before launching, I did remember to turn on the GoPro and take a quick video. I apologize ahead of time. You ought to turn your volume ALL the way up if you expect to hear me. I’m pretty quiet.
The three miles to Chockoloskee was hell. Absolute hell. I was drenched and during the paddle, waves had managed to dislodge my tent a little and the trash bag I’d wrapped it in was dragging at least a pound of seawater off the side of the boat. Not wishing to have the tent soaking wet, or worse, lose it, I pulled ashore at Smallwood’s store in Chockoloskee. Smallwood’s used to be a store for fisherman and crabbers. Today it’s a museum and has a small launch which I gladly took advantage of to re-secure my tent. By this time I was starving and it was right around 12:30 (yes the three miles took THAT long). I was still in very rough water and wanted to get out of the wind before I ate. I opted to continue on and cross the rest of Chockoloskee bay to get out of the wind on its southern shore. It was during this paddle that I quickly became aware of how deceptive the distances can be in the Everglades. That tree line that looks like it’s about 600 yards away? Try two miles. What I thought would only be about 15 minutes of paddling turned into almost an hour. And rather than stop and lose ground with the wind pushing me back, I just kept paddling until I reached the other side and glided into calm waters.
I took a stick of salami and a block of swiss cheese with me on this trip. I figured both wouldn’t go bad quickly, and the mixture of them with trail mix actually filled me up quite well. I’d treated myself to a powerade before leaving the ranger station and saved one for the middle of next week as a treat.
After lunch I checked my map and realized that I had some time to spare for fishing. I set about tossing my DOA along the mangroves and it didn’t take more than 5 casts to get a hook up.
The little red put up quite a fight and though it would’ve been delicious for dinner, I had no real way to cook fish for this trip. My little cookware set has a pot that’s –maybe- 5 inches in diameter. So it’s far from ideal for cooking fish. So I slowly began making my way toward Lopez River and fished in spots that looked promising. I looked over my shoulder to grab one last glimpse of civilization, and then disappeared behind the mangroves and into the back country.
The tide was beginning to go out, so even though I’d escaped the wind, I was now getting to fight a tide. I hooked and lost some small Black Snapper and Jack Crevalle along the way, and after a couple of hours, I made the turn and paddled into the mouth of Lopez River.
Once there I stopped and realized: I’m freaking tired. Already. And it was true. My arms, shoulders, and back were pretty tired. Prior to this trip, my longest day paddling was about 8 miles. And I remember the day after that I wallowed around in bed groaning because I was so sore. I was about to break that record and then some with the addition of the wind and tide. Luckily, the campsite was only another mile down the river and I relaxed a bit once it came into view.
I’m not really sure why, but I was actually a little worried about finding my campsites at first. The thought always in the back of my mind was what if I can’t find it? Do I spend the night in the kayak? But I was relieved when I pulled ashore, unloaded some gear, and set up the tent to dry. Luckily it wasn’t completely drenched, so I climbed inside to lay down for a minute. I then blinked…
…and woke up an hour and a half later.
The sun was dipping low in the sky when I stepped back out of the tent and I was rather upset with myself for falling asleep. I really wanted to get some fishing in since I’d reached my campsite in the early afternoon. But now I was getting late and to be honest, I was still tired. My muscles were just…whooped. I did no training before this trip, and though I’m in relatively good shape, the muscles needed for paddling long distance were a bit lacking.
I decided instead to just take it easy and cook dinner. After all, I had another 7 days to fish hard. So I cooked while I still had light, and enjoyed the sunset after dinner.
It was about that time that the wind died, as did the light, and in the 40 seconds it took me to gather my gear into the tent, I nearly died of blood loss. The mosquitoes descended on my camp in what could have only been a long planned out scheme to turn me into a shriveled husk of a camper. I’d read a brochure that the rangers handed me about keeping water and food secure in the back country. From the image they painted, ravenous bands of raccoons and mice would stop and nothing short of breaking into your tent and robbing you at gun point to get at your food and water.
So in a fit of paranoia, I emptied the kayak of water and food, and brought it into the tent with me. And it was during this process that I let about 4 trillion mosquitoes into the tent. There really is nothing more calming after a long day’s paddle than swatting at mosquitoes for an hour and a half.
After killing every one I can mush up against the tent canvass, I took out my small notepad, and jotted down one little page of notes for the day. I knew tomorrow was going to be a long day, and I had a full week of paddling ahead of me. Considering I usually don’t even go out to the bar until 10-11pm, it honestly felt a little weird going to bed at 8:15 pm. But even after my nap that afternoon, my body had no rejections to sleeping a bit more. I couldn’t help but be a little nervous and excited about the rest of the week. This was going to be an awesome adventure, and my thoughts wandered to my next day of fishing might hold before I drifted off into a –very- deep sleep.