’08 Fraught with weighty bags

Miami – Everglades

…We’re barely back from New Years in NY and it’s repack for a week in the Everglades… Our kayak bags continually weigh-in 3-5 kg overweight when we fly to & fro Which begs the accuracy of the bathroom scales not the Airport weigh-in! So I’ve stripped the bags to the minimum and repacked the odds & sods into a carry-on bag.

We’re camping this trip at Flamingo National Park; so there’s a tent, sleeping bag, air mattresses, camp stove, pots’n’pans, freeze dried food, 1st Aid kit plus the extra safety Kayak gear – 2-way radio, flares, mooring lines and so on into another 2 backpacks.

So with no fear of Grizzly or Black Bears we’re anticipating a bare bones trip… Aside from the ‘no-see-ums” (midges); mosquitos; alligators and campsite thieving Raccoons…

History: The Flamingo Flotilla happens annually in the Everglades, Florida. It sounds like a motley collection of like-minded folding kayak souls (commonly known as FLAMINGOS – though not the pink feathered variety… this flock uses Sunblock) who gravitate like moths to a candle flame on these mosquito infested shores to have a pancake bake the first day then dissipate into the ‘glades for no rhyme nor reason under no control or direction but their own**. There’s the organiser and a crew of diehards, so I’m led to believe. They travel from the 4 corners of the USA and in 2007 had things been otherwise from Australia & New Zealand. As we’ve been based in Bermuda for nearly two years now, it sounds a bit far-fetched to claim we’ve traveled from Oz & NZ for the event. But we’ll take the bragging rights for the furtherest traveled, regardless, as we join the other 20+ souls. Getting there has been fun and the offers and solution solving that is part of the ‘Flotilla’ has eased the ‘unknown factor’ from our shoulders. p.s. I’ve since found out that a kayaker came from Belgium one year.

**Shades of OCKI* in the Gascoyne of W.A. The idea of  a meet with no direction or organisation is so what endeared me to kayaking in the 1st place – OCKI is a group of kayakers whereby everyone is at one and the same time President/SecretaryTreasurer and member with no committee nor agenda or rules. * OCKI = Outback Coast Kayaks Inc

Saturday: We’re underway – landed, picked up by Tom with the gear. I’ve organised a hire car from Florida City (I thought) 48 km down the road, Tom is helping us avoid “busy freeway Rt Hand traffic” by picking us up from the Airport. A mere 16 kms later, we’re dropped off… Failed already… So it’s off to a megastore for the groceries and odds’n’sods that we’ll need for the adventure. Flamingo campsite is pretty relaxed and almost on the Gulf of Mexico as we’re sited about 200m inland. After the intro’s all around, we’ve erected the tent, assembled a kayak and enjoyed a wee drop of wine.

Sunday: 1st meeting, it’s decided that those who want to will be paddling 9 mile lagoon @ 11:00 am. We hie off to the Park rangers and book our campsites for a 6 day/5 night paddle after the 2nd kayak is assembled then its back up the road for 16 km to join the Flamingos. Launched and what a blast – across the 1st lagoon and into the twists and turns of Mangrove channels – fortunately for a novice marked with PVC channel markers. In the 1st 200m I’ve seen 3 Alligator snouts and by the time we land probably 10 plus 3 big’uns resting on their porches. Typically I need to get a bit closer, so when this 3-4m Alligator launches off his porch directly at me there’s a rush of adrenaline as well as “gee, I’m a silly sod. Didn’t learn much in Alaska with the Black Bears, did I”. After that we edged up towards a 5-6m beastie who I kept a fair distance away. Then of course there was the Alligator that was waiting at the launch site for the photo-shoot. Beastie was a
mere 3m from where we put in…

Monday: A heavy dew has dang near drowned us (the 3 season tent has shown its colours – moisture is dripping on us) so its pack wet and fast for the 1st leg. Larry, who is heading home today, has offered to drive our car back from the put-in – great we don’t have to worry about a car on the side of the main road to the Everglades. Time for a  mental panic – how the heck are we going to fit all this gear into 2 kayaks plus heave them over the edge of the landing jetty? We did it, but I had doubts. Now its time to tackle the ‘Hells Bay Trail’ D is in the lead and we’ve broken our 4 piece paddles down to halves – basically we’re canoeing – paddle one side then the other as the trail is too narrow for a standard double blade. Neat! There’s silence, Alligator porches, birds & bromeliads. As I follow D my eyes are deceived by the still waters – the gentle bow wave that D is creating appears to be a step in the water as though D is about to glide over a 10cm drop in water level. After about an hour D asks for me to lead as its not much fun navigating some of the bends and trying to sightsee. So now I’m hearing “hold-up, photo shoot” while D catches up with nature… The object of the whole trip! The waters are some times only blade deep and all the while we’re looking around for that beady snout and eye of an Alligator as we wind our way through the Mangrove trail. We never saw an Alligator on this leg of our trip, mind you there were plenty of porches along the way! Aside from the newness of paddling along a narrow mangrove channel (which dates back to the 1800’s for ‘Gator hunters) there’s the occasional sense of ‘claustrophobia’ which lasts momentarily as the loops keep on opening onto small lagoons. Even with a single paddle some of the bends force us to back & forth while turning our 4.5m kayaks around corners. But it’s the stillness of the waterway that holds me spellbound when I take the lead – always ‘mirror water’ to paddle through. After a while the channels open out into Pearl Bay – there across the water is our 1st sight of a Chickee. After the regulatory rest and leg stretch, we back aboard searching for the markers that lead to Hells Bay. D whips out the binoculars and quickly calls ‘thar she blows‘ or words to that effect. An hour later and we’re moored and unloading at Hells Bay. Apology time as I was reluctant in packing the small cooler with ice for this trip but D’s foresight ensured that our 1st day & Chickee campsite was christened with a “cold beer”.

Tuesday: And all mental Hell breaks loose! Everything was perfect for the start of the day however someone had a GPS unit logged for Australian mapping (well that’s my excuse). We left Hells Bay Chickee and aiming for the entrance to East River! 2 hours later and North is which way – that’s how confused I am – no sense of direction – been down and up every creek within 500m of the GPS coordinate**. Mentally I’m covered in sweat, I’ve wasted 2 hours and we have about 20 km to paddle barely covered 2 km by this stage! OK, found the entrance to Nomans River – we can do this! Now we are cruising. Down the river, hook around behind the islets and up Joe River! It was a bit of a push across the south end of White Water Bay into the wind but expected. We hooked up under a fallen tree for a snack break and eased onwards to sheltered waters to Sth Joe River Chickee. Another magic night & idyllic setting; so far we’ve seen two canoeists afar and heard a couple of stink-boats – it is just us out here enjoying serenity and silence!

** if you looked at where I think I got us lost – this is mangrove creek country where entrances get overgrown within a season… So what looks like an open channel is now hidden! Word has it that kayakers the next day had trouble finding the same river mouth.

Wednesday: After a night of fish jumping, a dawn with Dolphins hunting, mirrored waters reflecting clouds it’s off to Oyster Bay. Joe River is quite wide and protected from the prevailing winds – the dip and drip of our blades were the only ‘man made‘ sounds disturbing the quiet of the Everglades. 2Lunch at a deserted Joe River Chickee after we had passed a kayak & canoe unit heading towards Sth Joe – looks like we’re swapping camp sites for the night. No rush but aware that it is well after 9 before we set out, we are camped and set-up by 4pm. After the long run yesterday, this one seemed to be near the same but that was the early kayak fatigue talking – we improve pretty rapidly after this the 3rd day. So now we are looking at the rest of the trip. The next leg is about 24km give or take a few km’s. Early start is planned and the wine rations are now being reduced ( I knew that I’d packed too little!). We’ve had a freezing cold wash on the Chickee deck and after 3 days the sense of ‘smell-me-I-don’t-stink’ was welcomed! Funny we’re on holiday and it’s early to bed and faster to sleep…

‘kayak fatigue’ – we basically had one paddle since August 07 and here it is February 08 – not bad for a couple on the wrong side of 21… “Leg 1” a tortuous trail (16km) “Leg 2” across White Water Bay (24km) “Leg 3” 16km = 50km with no training!

Thursday: Our early start is 8am and its off to find Shark River… Here is where I actually started to think about things… oops I forgot that I’d a copy chart of White Water Bay for D – Actually she was quite pleased to see where she was going, now that she could… This was easy – hook around behind dead tree islet and into Shark River (we expected an incoming tide of about 2knts) with no breeze, glass water, scenic views to be glad you are alive for and barely 0.6knot incoming tide. Oh how things were to change.
We hit the mouth and what is called Florida Bay to be greeted, no let me say, WELCOMED by a head-on 10knot breeze. Hugging the coast as close as we can, it is still a bit of a slog to NW Cape. Finally we get there and no hesitation, we are camping on the leeward side! It is after the tent is set up that we have a look around the point and the wind and sandblasting says good decision. Sunset and the wind drops, our idyllic surrounds return…

Friday: just a quick run to East Cape of 16km and that’s all for the day. Again an early start, we’re off by 7:30 and still next to no-one out here – what is wrong with people – this is going to be put up there with “best spots to kayak” on our list… Basically this is a straight 16km run across a bay. We land and have camp set by 2pm. By 2:15pm we’re asking for just a little bit of the breeze from yesterday – ‘stinking hot and no air’ – can’t have everything as we know & still on wine rations… A beautiful evening and dawn as we watch the bird-life, waters and setting & rising sun. Around the point of NW & East Cape and the extent of devastation this coast suffered from Hurricane Katrina is still evident. The coastal mangrove line has been stripped of life. Where we beach for lunch the dead stand of Mangroves extends 100m inland before the vegetation shows signs of life. Stark, dead but beautiful in its severity.

Saturday: should be called SAD-DAY as this is the closing run to a magic trip. Paddling into the wind for this final leg, though victorious in completion and uplifting in achievement, there’s a sense of ‘no more’ as we finish our 95km cob-web clearing Everglade run…

And so, we beached, unloaded set-up the tent one last time, regaled the Flamingos with the highlights of our adventure, and left for home the next day…

We did have ‘grins from ear to ear’ as we left…

Knock knock who’s there? Lo and behold we caught up with Lou, our guide on our Fiji trip, as we checked in for the flight home… makes it all worth it eh?

Footnote: Unloading at a Chickee – the kayak sits about 0.5m below the Chickee deck and the barnacles on the pilings and ladder are a touch cutting for our kayak skins. I unloaded the 1st night by laying on the deck, unzipping the deck and swinging dry bags back up behind me to D. Tiring and difficult. The 2nd night D sat in her kayak and unloaded mine, then swapped kayaks and repeated the effort – less effort, faster and no rushing of blood to the head!