Everglades National Park. … I couldn’t believe we were there! It’s a long way from Johnson City, but a great winter destination. After paying our customary entrance fee, plus a small fee for the canoe atop our car, South Florida resident Jeff Cochran and I sped westward along Main Park Road, mesmerized by the river of grass along both sides of the asphalt. Sure, we knew the Everglades could be paddled, but we hadn’t seen anything, so far, where you could stroke a blade. Finally, salty scent wafted into the car — the ocean was near. The Flamingo complex, situated on Florida Bay, had a marina, ranger station and campground, and was surprisingly large.
Our first order of business was to obtain a backcountry camping permit. We had decided to circumnavigate Whitewater Bay. At the marina store I bought the all-important nautical charts to go along with my compass. A map and compass are absolute necessities for traveling the Everglades. A GPS downloaded with nautical charts is even better. So is a radio for getting weather reports. The next few days were predicted to be calm and clear.
Our canoe brimmed with gear. A major part of our weight was water. Backcountry paddlers must carry all their drinking water, one gallon per person per day, for the area we were to paddle was exclusively salty. We left the marina. Florida Bay opened before our eyes. Our course led westward. Sunlit waves, brought forth by a light north wind, sparkled ahead of us. We had already slathered on plenty of sunscreen, another Everglades necessity.
The paddling began in earnest. We stayed close to the mangroves on the shoreline, fascinated by the network of interconnected prop roots growing from the water that came together to form trunks. From the trunks sprung limbs that held the small leaves of the Everglades’ most ubiquitous tree. Mangroves thrive here, with just the right mix of salt and fresh water, like nowhere else on the planet. The leathery leaves can stand up to the excessive, harsh sun. The prop roots lend stability in the shallow waters. Incredibly, a sea turtle swam into our midst. We could see the huge terrapin in the clear water, looking out toward Florida Bay.
Our first stop was East Clubhouse Beach, a small sandy break in the mangrove shoreline. We stroked it to the shore and debarked, stretching our legs. Behind the beach was a prairie. This prairie was covered with sea purslane and pickleweed, which thrive in the salty mud of the open prairie, which offered views nearly as extensive as that to our south, across Florida Bay.
We came to our first night’s camp at Clubhouse Beach, eight miles from Flamingo. A clubhouse, once part of a land development, gave the area its name. This development, like most others in the Everglades, was a dismal failure. All that remains is the name.
Salt tinged smoke from our driftwood fire wafted over the seaside camp as night fell. Just as certain as the grains of sand that got on our grilled steaks, the mosquitoes came forth at dusk. We were ready for the “swamp angels,” as Jeff had already set up the tent to which we retired. A quality tent with fine screen netting is yet another necessity here.
We arose with the dawn and quickly loaded our canoe after a morning repast. Paddlers like us do well to leave early, avoiding the afternoon winds, which can run from 10 to 15 knots. Small craft wind advisories are not uncommon. At that early moment, Florida Bay was as smooth as glass. Cape Sable lay off to our right.
On shore began a stretch of more than 20 miles of uninterrupted natural beach, by far the largest preserved stretch of ocean front property in the mainland southeast United States. The Cape Sable beach slopes up from the ocean then back down to a mosaic of tropical trees such as gumbo-limbo and Jamaican dogwood, along with Spanish bayonet.
The Cape was not always so desolate. In times past it was home to federal forts, Cuban fishing settlements and a coconut plantation. Before that the Calusa Indians roamed southwest Florida from the Keys up to the Caloosahatchee River.
Jeff and I rounded the Cape and began our northward journey in earnest. To our pleasant surprise the winds had shifted from the north to the east, keeping the ocean flat, allowing for rapid paddling. However, we frequently stopped for beachcombing on the alluring shoreline.
We pressed on beyond Middle Cape, even though we had already paddled for miles. The sun was heading down by the time we pulled into Northwest Cape. The two of us made camp near some palm trees. The sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, coloring the sky orange, pink and yellow, finally gray, then black. We had pressed going around the Cape, to avoid getting caught in big winds.
Canoes have been swamped out here and simply cannot handle such big waves. Sea kayakers can fare much better. Do not go around the Cape unless you have a favorable wind forecast. Only time would tell if we made it back inland, away from the big and wide Gulf of Mexico.