Part 2: Paddling the Everglades
Jan 24, 2012 at 3:42 PM
At the end of Part 1 Jeff Cochran and I were camped out on Cape Sable, on the Gulf of Mexico in Everglades National Park, where the next land west was Texas. Jeff and I left Northwest Cape campsite and once again pressed hard early to beat the winds. A raccoon patrolling the beach bid us farewell. Ahead lay Ponce de Leon Bay, more wide open water, but we turned into the eerily named Shark River.
The Shark River connected the Gulf to Whitewater Bay, flowing in numerous channels, creating its own mini maze of islands and channels. Navigation is always part of an Everglades experience. We fished points on the river as the tides ripped past, forcing us to anchor against the shore just to cast a line. Raccoons calmly searched oyster bars on the low tide.
The two of us paddled mightily against the tide into Whitewater Bay, aiming for Roberts River chickee, even though our arms were tired from the day before. Sometimes you go against the tide, sometimes against the wind. The tide turned in our favor later, and the wind calmed. We stroked on toward the chickee, arriving later that afternoon. These chickees are the third of the three different backcountry campsites in the park. Chickees are wooden structures built by the park service for campers to overnight where there is no dry ground available. The camping platforms have a tin roof, dock and bathroom.
The word chickee is derived from shaded sleeping platforms used by Everglades Indians. They were elevated from the ground to help keep things cool. The other types of campsites are beaches such as those at Cape Sable and ground sites, which are mounds of oyster shells built up over centuries by Calusa Indians, who discarded these shells after eating the morsels inside.
Stars filled the sky overhead that night, as we were far from the lights of Miami. I kept imploring it was Jeff’s turn to cook dinner, but he just wasn’t cooking. I relented and made some filling but tasteless pasta. After dinner, the calm bay gently lapped against the nearby mangroves, sending us to the dead sleep of the tired paddler.
Next morning, we turned south and drifted with the north wind heading toward Hells Bay. Jeff lay prone with his feet over the bow of the Old Town canoe, smoking a cigar, while I lazily kept a paddle in the water to keep us on course, occasionally casting for sea trout. We turned into the East River. Alligators sunned themselves along the river. Alligators pose no real threat to Everglades paddlers, though some have become food habituated and hang around backcountry campsites waiting for a meal of scraps. Never feed an alligator.
Ahead,was the Hells Bay chickee. The area is one of the most confusing in the park, receiving its name because it was “hell to get into and hell to get out of.” It is a true mangrove maze. We fished nearby bays, snagging a few Jack Crevalle and mangrove snapper, and watched birds feeding in the shallows. We ran into another paddler fishing from her canoe. That night, a sweet breeze drifted over the bay from the freshwater Glades.
Our final day took us back to Whitewater Bay, then into Tarpon Creek and back to Flamingo. We took a welcome shower at the Flamingo Marina, washing off the sweat, saltwater and sunscreen. What a great trip it had been, paddling the Everglades.