Take one folding kayak plus a stubborn Oz kayaker; drop them both in the Everglades for a week. Oops, don’t forget to add y’ kiwi friend and kayak!
End result is one heck of a learning curve…
It’s not that we haven’t kayaked a multi-day; it is just that these weren’t home waters and we flew into ‘Flamingo’ Everglades with two Folbot folding kayaks and backpacks for a week of paddling. I’ve mainly kayaked open Bay waters both as a coastal run or a two leg 70+ km crossing of Shark Bay in Western Australia. D has the greater experience having been kayaking for several years more than me both in New Zealand and Australia. We had a good idea of what to expect following our guided ten day trip through the Yasawa Island Chain of Fiji a couple of years ago.
I’d planned the trip to umpteenth degree in detail, mentally that is. We hit the campsite, erect tent and kayaks, sort and pack our gear into dry bags. Sleep, rise early and head off to the put-in point.
Yeah, right! First thing I didn’t count on was the overnight dew, so there I am at 6 a.m. waiting for the fly sheet to dry, oh and D to arise.
My first attempt in an early start with D ended ingloriously. We had 900 km to drive and I was going to leave at 3:30 a.m. regardless! I completely ignored D’s comment that “6 is early enough”. Brashly I pushed forward and at 3 a.m. I’m sitting in a darkened shed sulking while D sleeps ‘til 6. (It’s an Aussie thing for men to sulk in their sheds)
Anyway, finally at the put-in, unload the hire car; thank our driver who’ll ferry the car to the take-out point. Being anally methodical and wearing a pair of blinkers I allot the dry bags fore and aft of each 18 kg kayak. Load them, fit the tow-lines, deck bag and spare paddle. “Are you right there? can you take the other end and we’ll drop it off the deck into the water” Oh damn! This is now an 60 kg 5 metre kayak that flex’s, there’s no way we can lift it! OK already, we’ll lift one end, swing it across and then swing the other end across to the landing. All very well until its time to lower it off the landing down 30 cm into the water. In the end because I’m stubborn, I’m waist deep in the water manhandling the blinking kayak!
So we’re away on the adventure of paddling the Everglades over the next week. Well, there were two of us this morning… oh, there she is up ahead wending her way around the first bend in the waterway. “OK, so I got a bit tense and short, sorry!” Time usually is the guiding factor when I do anything – gotta get from A to B in the shortest possible time. And all the while D just meanders along, and leaves me to my ‘grumps’.
On a previous trip into the Outback of West Australia, the Jeep was loaded and our destination was Mt Augustus, the world’s largest monolith, its 500 km down along a dirt road. “No worries, mate. I’m an Ozzie”. This was fine until I managed to puncture both rear tyres within moments of each other. The temperature is just bouncing over the 40 deg Celsius scale. I’ve one spare; it’s about 50 km to the nearest homestead. I’ve fitted the spare and plan to inflate the ‘slow leaking’ tyre and drive, re-inflate and drive… I can’t keep the tyre inflated, I’m dripping in sweat and covered in red dust, I realise that it’s hopeless, we’ll have to wait for a passing car. So where’s D – (about 100 metres away – its safer!) cool, calm and relaxed in a deck chair, glass of chardonnay in hand reading a book with the nibbles set-out waiting for me to surrender. Oh by the way, D has already set-up the tent for the night!
So there I am trying to ‘calm the inner self’ while attempting to explain the ‘grumps’ to D who is blithely paddling the twisting turning waterway which is Hells Trail. The trail narrows and widens, ducks and dives and turns back along itself for about 8 km. At times we’re forced to use the half paddle as a canoeist, vertical and close to the side. What we’ve called Alligator porches appear with regularity, thankfully the residents are out visiting as we pass within a metre. Occasionally we hear the sound of road traffic behind us, yet aside from the dip of our paddles all is silent. Then I start to listen and the chirp of birds, croaks of frogs, twinkle of water and a faint rustle of leaves as the breeze touches the tree tops break through into my consciousness. I’ m over the A to B urgency, hook the nose of the kayak under a mangrove root and catnap while D meanders here and there relishing the flora and its variety. At peace with the fleeting moments that reoccur into a mass of calming of nerves and self.
The only moment of ‘stress’ occurs when after a three point turn, involving a bit of to and fro as well, it takes a minute or two to locate the channel marker leading to Pearl Bay. We’ve missed the landmarks for Lard Can, but what the heck. The full length of Hells Trail is marked with numbered PVC pipe set along the waterway, sometimes it is just around that slight bend ahead as you exit a narrow channel.
While D meanders and photographs the Bromeliads hanging in the mangroves I rest and relax awhile.
We’ve exited the confines of Hells Trail and enter the bays and loops that make the ‘glades what they are – open spaces of mirrored waters surround by a low lying wall of green mangrove trees. Pearl Bay is basically the first bay we strike and there in the distance sits the Chickee.
I slip ahead and run into the ‘handicapped’ mooring of the Chickee, tie off and am ready to help D aboard. I actually raced ahead and left her behind. The low mooring deck allows us to easily hunt through these poorly packed kayaks for the makings of a cup of tea and some lunch. By hunting I think there were only two gear bags out of ten left aboard when I finished finding what we needed.
After the regulatory stretch, loo stop we’re off across the bay seeking a channel marker leading us through to Hells Bay Chickee. The setting sun hides the marker for a while and when it’s found we realise that time and the unknown wending through channels maybe against us in finding Hells Bay this late in the day.
Again we loop this way and that through the channel and the welcoming sight of our home for the night.
Take two 4 square metre covered decks joined by a 6 metre gangway with an Eco-Loo set halfway between and you have a Chickee. This is all set about ¾ metre above the waterline. At this point we realise that Pearl Bay is actually the only ‘handicap access’ Chickee in the ‘glades.
Ergo we have no low deck to easily access our zip-lock kayaks. His Lordship Stubbornness surfaces once again, deaf to all suggestions. I’m hanging over the edge of the deck reaching down to the kayak attempting to unzip a metre of zip while trying to keep the kayak fixed in one place. Blood rushing to my head from the effort I still can not hear D in the background. Unzip, wrench a dry bag clear, and swing it up and behind me to D’s waiting hand. Finally with bruised ribs, rubbed knees I storm onwards to set-up camp, fixed in my goal. Finally all is set up to my satisfaction and where’s D. Comfortably sitting on the other deck 14 metres away, feet dangling over the edge, book in hand, a cold beer and snacks beside her… oblivious to me and in particular the ‘singular stubborn’ attitude that surfaced.
Going back to when we were sorting our gear the night before, D wanted and insisted that we pack the soft cooler to carry some fruit and a beer for the first night. Reluctantly I agreed and ended up having to strap it on aft and on deck of my kayak, under sufferance. Am I glad that D insisted on the cooler, after I’d apologised and was able to relax and sup a cold beer.
During the night we’re treated to the sounds of fishes jumping and the splash of water gently echoing across the waters. Shades of the ‘singing frogs’ that rock us to sleep in Bermuda.
Dawn breaks and now I know that my super-doopa camp mattress is definitely a doofa! I’m either getting old or too old to sleep on the ground as there isn’t enough packing between my bones and the wooden deck. I’ve made coffee and sit enjoying the rising sun across mist shrouded waters with a pair of Dolphins creating the only disturbance of the glassy surface.
As we break camp, D suggests that one of us sits in a kayak and packs the other. Brilliant idea and it works a treat! What a start to the day, gear sorted for easy access, easily stowed and we’re off.
As we depart Hells Bay Chickee D takes the photograph of the trip – still waters with white clouds reflected across the bow of her kayak. The sky blue and white clouds are in complete contrast with the red deck of her kayak.
From hells Bay Chickee it’s about 700 metres to the head of East River. My GPS has me within 50 metres of East River and all I can discern is a bay, islets and a mangrove wall. So we head this way… nope wrong way. OK, then it must be through there… nope. Right then go back to the GPS point, I’m on it and all I can see is a mangrove wall.
Plan B is ‘bluff’. We head off down a channel which after 20 minutes stonewalls us with a dead-end. Back to point A and try again down the next channel… another dead-end. I’ve come to realise that I’ve lost my sense of direction as I have entered the same channel twice. D has by this time decided that I can paddle and if it’s the way to call her up on the 2-way. After nearly 2 hours we’re heading down a channel in the right direction. Is this east River? The twists and turns finally identify it as Norman River (for those who know these waters, when I finally read the chart with my glasses on it is actually No Man River), which sits about 500 metres further east of east River.
While we are aware of the loss of time it is hard to lift our paddling intensity as the channel narrows and veers to the left then right. In the warming mid morning, the humidity is there though not too uncomfortable. The variety of the river as it widens into a lagoon and then back down to the barest waterway is so different to the open flat water kayaking I’ve experienced on the coast of Australia or Fiji. It is inadequate to say the feeling is mind boggling, it such a change in environment that our silence is almost respectful.
This leg from Hells Bay to South Joe River Chickee was about 16 km and 3 hours paddling. We’ve used the three hours just getting to the mouth of No Man River and there barely 200 metres away is the mouth of East River with a canoe heading upriver. Taking a break, and noting that there is a steady wind blowing across White Water Bay with the resultant white caps we plot a course that’ll put us on the leeward side of the islets dotting the southern aspect of the bay. My estimate of 3 kms isn’t far off but the headwind makes it feel like 10 kms by the time we ease slightly north of west into Joe River.
The crossing has us saddle-sore, tiring and in need of a pee stop. Without too much detail, it’s easier for a guy to tie up to a mangrove root, ease up onto a branch and take a few moments to enjoy nature…
After the stretch and water break we ease up Joe River seeking the channel into the inlet of South Joe River Chickee. This is a bit nerve racking as I couldn’t find East River and that is weighing on my mind when the one and only obvious channel appears on our left. A bit of a hook around to the right and there she blows! In half the time and half the effort we’re encamped on the Chickee with a glass of red wine watching the sun settle down for the day. The sounds of fish jumping, cry of birds coming into roost are our mood music. Life could be better but not by much.
D and I see the idea of this trip from different points of view so we learning to compromise and plan for an earlier actual start, not so much an earlier rising but start. I had to laugh when we actually started paddling 15 minutes earlier than the previous two mornings, but it was earlier. The run to Oyster Bay via Joe River Chickee is only 10 – 12 kms mostly along the river way. As we exit the south Joe inlet and meander NW along the river a kayak and canoe pass us by heading SE, only a brief word is passed between both parties, it’s as though we’ve intruded into a private party and don’t quite belong within sight of each other. A polite good morning and nod to one another, though I was even more taciturn and only gave a wave of the paddle.
An early lunch at Joe River Chickee and we’re in accord that it probably wouldn’t be a personal choice for overnight (just as our guide book said, funny that). As we clear the head of Joe River we’re greeted by an opening bay or waterway studded with islands and islets. Oyster Bay Chickee is supposedly due north behind the islet strewn waters.
Now I seem to remember that Ann, our font of knowledge via the internet and back at Flamingo Campsite, mentioned that the Chickee is behind the island and not visible until you are almost on it. Oh, and something along the same lines was in the guide book. But for the life of me I can’t remember the tip on locating it. Never mind, place ones trust in the GPS.
Once again I’m within 50 metres but beside water and a mangrove wall on my right there’s nothing. I keep edging northward, D wanted to veer east then north. I’ve the GPS! After a 500 metre leg that swings us north and East then due south we hit Oyster Bay Chickee. Now if we’d veered East then North we’d have saved about 300 metres of water…
This trip is getting easier, mentally, as we go along. D decides that after three days its time for a wash! With an emptied dry bag as a bucket D has splashed and washed. Obviously it must be refreshing but it takes me another hour before I can face the thought of a cold water wash. Damn, not only is the water flaming freezing but with the shadows and setting sun I miss out on the suns warmth an earlier wash could have afforded me. Once again I gotta listen and learn!
The night is heralded by flocks of waterfowl swinging in across the bay to roost in the red sunset silhouetted mangroves.
An early start is achieved as we have roughly 22 kms to travel. The route is across Oyster Bay into the southern channel of Shark River onto the edge of Mexico Bay and ease south to NW Cape. The weather forecast hasn’t changed much since we left and the expected SE winds are predicted at 10 – 15 knots (multiply that x2 and add 10% for km/hr). There is no easy landing on this route so we’re watching our fluids and have our kayaks properly stowed for any change in the weather. Struth! It’s warm paddling with a long sleeved shirt (sun protection) and PFD. I’ve decided that the shirt at least is changed and I’ll keep the PFD on deck until we hit open waters. Shark River shows us another aspect of the ‘glades, the water here is so still and deep it is like it is another waterway. Aside from the odd deep channel as we crossed the southern point of White Water Bay most of the waters have been between 0.5 – 3 m of water. Where we are it feels well over 6 metres of draft. Knowing the distance pending we’ve decided that we will make a decision on broaching the open water when we get there. Mate, it was so good on this arm of Shark River that I didn’t want to leave – maybe they should site a Chickee along here for the odd Aussie to camp up.
As the waters near the gulf so the scenery changes, the mangroves have thinned and that barren salt flats appearance is emanating. The last islet and there is the Gulf of Mexico, the wind as expected though there are no white caps so by the kayakers version of the Beaufort scale we’re looking at about 5 – 10 knots. It is do-able and we’ve paddled these conditions before without a worry. Time to re-fit a PFD and push onwards, our ETA is about 2 p.m. by the GPS once we’re under way.
The damage by Hurricane Katrina is evident by the uprooted tumbled mangroves along the shore. Our path is either completely coast hug or skip across each of the bays as we wend our way down the coast. Easy-peasy for the first hour and then the expected stronger winds kick in. Now we either head back to Oyster Bay or knuckle down and push onwards.
Onwards it is and we start to coast hug to make the paddling a tad easier. I think by the time we near NW cape we’re both nearing our limit. The 13 hour long life 2-way batteries have died unbeknownst to us as I push ahead to assess where to beach. It is either the approaching leeward side or around on the windward bank. The Chart and guide indicated that the camping is on the windward side. One peek and I’ve turned back, pulling up near D I realise too late that ‘I done wrong’ by us and as a kayaking buddy! I’d nearly capsized my kayak when I turned back from the point of NW Cape, D had no idea what I was doing and was about 300 metres behind, plus the 2-ways radios were dead.
So we’ve beached and made camp about 4 p.m. it’s been a long day. I seem to be apologising for not thinking a lot on this trip; actually I’m not thinking beyond my immediate point of focus. When I sat back and saw D’s view ‘paddling so far in front and not communicating’ that I had put us both at risk with the headwind, increasing choppy waters and weariness at the end of 20+ kms. So easy to recognise my error now it’s a case of not repeating it.
We’re sheltered somewhat from the wind though not the heat. Never mind we’re tired, safe and there’s still some wine left to salute a hard leg and the setting sun. I find some scraps of wood and we have the warmth of flames as the twilight deepens into night. Dawn finds us weary and a touch stiff. Our gear, though stowed, is covered with fine beach sand and the ‘morning cup of tea’ dry bag has managed to collect its own personal selection of sand, but that’s camping on a beach at the best of times.
NW to East Cape is only 16 kms, and the way we feel after yesterday it could be 200 kms! Nevertheless, the dawn greets us with a windless vista across the Gulf of Mexico. This leg crosses two bays with Middle Cape as the planned lunch stop. Initially we make good time as we’re on the water early to beat the midday winds which haven’t changed by the forecast. The run across the first bay is almost a ‘nothing event’ and we decide that we’ll run closer to the coast in future. We’re here to sightsee as well as paddle. Well it was a good thing that we made an early start as by the time we scooted along the next bay to the East Cape point the winds were just starting to pick up. By 2 p.m. we’ve beached on the leeward shore and set up camp. The differences in our personalities is apparent as I’m wandering up and down the beach collecting wood for a fire, it’s in basically the middle of the day and around 350 C (950 F). D is happily ensconced under the tent Fly with a book and cup of tea – reading and napping the afternoon away. As the cool of the evening approaches so the Pelican’s appear on the pier stumps nearby. D is out with the camera recording another highlight of the trip. The only downer is that a couple of ‘stink-boats’ are trolling just off-shore of our campsite.
This is the penultimate evening of the trip. We’re down to the last of the ‘rationed’ wine. Our dry food packs are nearly depleted and for the final leg we’re realise that our water is probably near the minimum that we’ll need for the coming day.
Knowing that this is the last leg and another 16+ kms we just want to get it over and done with. The coast line has been much the same for the last two days and we don’t expect a great change. We hit the water with some vigour; around the point we will be in Florida Bay. Passing one of the smaller headlands, there is smoke rising by a couple of tents, the owners of the accompanying kayaks barely see us as we glide by. Knowing that D has some great photo’ of the Pelicans the night before, I attempt to float into a flock of them to catch a picture of that lumbering take-off that still amazes me after seeing it hundreds of times. It’s so-so and the wind has come in earlier than anticipated.
It is turning into a case of really coast hugging these last few kilometres to Flamingo. The coast has changed! We’re back paddling broadside to a mangrove wall and there as channels disappearing into the undergrowth. We have a look-see at some of the official campsites along this section of the bay. We realise that we have camped at the better beach sites. So in hindsight we wouldn’t have changed the length of this leg even though, as it is the home leg, it seems to go on forever.
The camp-site is around about a km from marina. I mentally want to end the trip there as we can unload onto a dock (plus I can get a cold beer). The thought of another 2 kms of coast when the campsite is beside us is the final decider.
We beach, I hike cross-country for the car, and we start lugging our gear 200m from the beached kayaks to the car. D maybe tired and in need of a shower but it doesn’t stop her from making me look at my surroundings. There’s a couple in matching kayaking clothes with matching kayaks. He’s trying to push medium sized dry bags in a small hatch! She is just repacking her gear to fit the hatch! Barely a word between them – shades of us a week ago…
We, now, look at ourselves in mishmash clothes that have seen six days kayaking, our hair is slept-in and hat flattened, our kayaks look as though they have been there and done that, our gear looks used (though loved)and are so glad that we’re individuals who can paddle together as long as there are lessons and waters like the ‘glades.