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by Al Lubkowski, Dec. 8/2002

Blackfish Wilderness Expeditions Tour Operator,

Pelicans in close formation skim the surface of the choppy water ahead of our double kayak. A long-necked egret in high heels picks its way cautiously among the tangle of mangrove roots, oblivious to our presence.

pelicans are to be found everywhere in the Keys
dolphins swim up shallow rivers in search of prey
its a bird eat fish world

Suddenly, three puffs of steam erupt next to us. Dolphins! For one brief but lasting moment, the leader of this hunting pack rises out of the water to exchange glances with me.

Are these fearless hunters wondering whether our 17-foot silver-skinned craft with the huge side flippers is friend or foe? I wonder if we are going to be rammed. We unexpectedly lurch to a stop and all wonderment stops.

  “ Oyster beds!” Back paddle!” To my chagrin, the wading birds we passed, wade past again, this time with smiles on their faces. “Al, can you keep your eye on where we are going or we will be wading home too” my paddling partner teases- a not unlikely scenario in these shallow waters!               

We are paddling the Everglades – an unusual place, a place on earth with more chattering and buzzing and splashing as you will ever have the luck to experience; a land of flooded forests and deceptive brown waters where stepping out of a kayak most anywhere will have you touching bottom if not a crocodile or alligator. It is also a place that will be difficult to replace, desspite the genius of Las Vegas to recreate everything else

We thought we would spend a few days getting lost here.

our Klepper Kayak nearly didn;t survive the sharp oyster beds

I first heard of the Florida Everglades from movies in my youth: the little I can remember were these wildly painted natives (called Seminoles I was ater to find out) chasing unshaven white men in mud-spattered pants through high grass and mosquito-infested swamp. Every so often one of these unfortunates would get an arrow or spear in their back and would stumble into the muck, or better still, be struck by a poisonous snake the size of a garden hose as they stumbled into the mud. I always wanted to return to the place where if the Indians didn’t win, the mud, the snakes and the insects did.

I like to think of myself as a nature lover who like to see the under dog win.

The Florida Everglades is now under siege. This massive plain, much like our prairies, once covered most of southern Florida, just as the plains covered much of North America. This is a wilderness of saw grass stretching as far as he eye can see, and creating the buiggest of skies. Droughts and fires are a regular occurance, with life in both of these flat lands hanging in perilous balance while awaiting the summer rains.

But unlike the prairies, the rainfall is substantially greater in the Everglades, averaging between 40 to 65 inches a year.Much of this precipitation collects in shallow Lake Okeechobee before beginning its 50 mile-wide flow to the sea. This slow moving “river of grass”, seldom moving faster than 100 feet day, finally reaches the mangrove islands and estuaries which flank the Gulf of Mexico – where it is tamed by the tides to become kayak fodder for the likes of us.

no Anacondas here thank goodness - I think??Mangrove, the basic building block of the 10,000 Islands and outer coast , as impenetrable as salal!

It is this labyrinth of brackish waters that also serves as home and nursery to countless species of fish, birds and reptiles - so important to the world that these wild lands have been accorded three international designations: “World Heritage Site”, “International Biosphere Reserve” and “Wetland of International Importance”. These designations underscore the serious threats this fragile ecosystem faces from rapid if not uncontrolled development on surrounding lands, development which among many things requires water, and much of it. Not coincidentally, it is these same “left over” waters that are the source of attraction for increasing numbers of fishermen, nature lovers and paddlers such as ourselves.

The issue is simple: too many people and too little water: Since 1953 the population of Florida has quadrupled from 3 million to over 12 million people. Add in tourist numbers and the population in winter typically exceeds the whole of Canada. And every day it is estimated that another 900 people move to this semi-tropical state, each family desiring a swimming pool, a watered lawn, access to canals and full flush toilets (like their northern neighbours) in a vain attempt to consume more water per capita than any civilization ever known.

Predictably, the Everglades have suffered over the years. According to the National park Service for example, the number of wading birds nesting in the southern everglades has declined 93% since the 1930’s, Other species such as wood storks, manatees and the Florida Panther have seen their numbers decline even more perilously. Ibis (cousins of Ibid?)

I hate to think of myself as part of the problem.

The good new is that the bugs still seem to be around in healthy numbers to bug the visitors and to ensure that visitation does not become a permanent problem. The best time to come here – if not the only time, is during the winter months from late November to May when many of the 43 varieties of mosquitoes and innumerable no-see-ums respect the restricted fly zones imposed by cold north fronts sweeping down from Canada. Paddlers soon learn the humbling truth that in this wild land they are only bit players on this stage, and that the six-legged animals set the pace, the time and the price of admission for all attractions.

The journey we set out for ourselves was the 159 km stretch of waterway, which connects Everglades City by water with Flamingo, the two jumping off spots for Everglades National Park.  Both are within a 1.5-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Each of these starting points features a Nature Interpretive Centre where you can obtain a park permit, charts, tide tables and all the other information you need to do this adventure for yourselves.  To visit their informative web site go to: http://www.everglades.national-park.com/.  

Canoe, kayaks and all camping equipment can be rented from private operators at both these park administrative centres. For those who would prefer to leave the equipment and organization to others, there are a number of guided paddling tours of the Glades one can join. These all-inclusive tours cost about $100 U.S. a day and most operators provide a choice of boats . See http://www.evergladesadventures.com/.  If you want to do it yourself, make sure to obtain a copy of Malloy's "Paddler's Guide to Everglades National Park " .

We wanted to do it ourselves. So we brought our own boat along - a Klepper folding kayak.  Our first big challenge was packing all the gear and supplies to last the 9 days we expected our trip from Everglades City to Flamingo would take.  Next time we will take a deep 17 foot canoe, and one which doesn’t mind being dragged over sharp oyster beds! 

Rabbit Key campground, just big enough for three tents, 2 racoons and a billion no-see-ums (fortunately they only prefer the night life)

One mistake we made was to take along bulky skin diving equipment! Unless you can echo-locate or have a death wish, you do not skin dive the turbid waters of the ”Glades”!

Typically for this part of the world, neither Flamingo or Everglades City can be accessed by public transport. So if you bring your vehicle and intend on doing the entire stretch of the coastline and don’t have someone to trade car keys with en-route, your only choice is to utilize the car shuttle services offered by local entrepreneurs. Their services are not cheap. An alternative is to do a shorter loop and return to where you started. This is what we eventually did, as we did not wish to take a chance in missing our Thanksgiving Day reunion with our relatives in Fort Lauderdale.

If you like corn mazes and getting lost or want to rationalize your new GPS, you will like some of the navigational challenges posed by the coastal stretch of the Glades, a place where every mangrove island looks like the next and where the only navigational features are the bright lights of Miami on the night horizon. The inland route by contrast is well marked and easy to follow. Numbered signposts mark most of the trails, all located within “eyeshot” of each other. But bring charts and a compass, just in case…

Permits are required to paddle the Glades so as not to depreciate the paddling experience. To further protect this wilderness, park policy discourages boaters from going ashore except at the more than 48 camp and launch sites, which have been designated for this purpose. This restriction appears to be unnecessary as it soon becomes obvious to paddlers that Florida mangrove is just as impenetrable as West Coast Salal. So if you go, plan your pee and lunch stops accordingly.

Campsites called “chikees” are a unique experience and provide welcome respite after a hard days paddle through the Glades. These campsites, designed in the manner of the early native residents, are built on stilts above the water, some being just large enough for a toilet and a couple of self-standing tents to be erected. Many of the land sites by contrast, are built on reclaimThese ‘chickees’ are literally the coolest campgrounds we have ever come across. The toilet is to the right. A sign overhead reads: "no sleep walking!’ (just kidding).ed mangrove, often on shell middens (early garbage sites) located scant inches above the high tide line and the prying eyes of alligators and crocodiles.

With a boat less than 20 feet long and 6 inches deep you can go most anywhere in this road-free realm. Paddling options can range from a few hours to weeks. Experienced paddlers wishing to enjoy the wildlife and scenery plan on paddling from 8 to 12 miles per day. And the beauty is that you can always find places where motor- boats won’t dare!

If you camp on some of the 1000 Islands and believe that tide tables are not worth consulting, (and your physique is not the equal of Arnold Shwartzenegger), then be prepared to be stranded on beaches as we were in the pic below. For compensation we were treated to a treasure trove of sea- shells and hundreds of Horshoe Crabs the size of footballs. Yes, you are allowed to take shells home with you.

Beyond this stretch of the 10,000 Islands flanking the Everglades lie the open waters of the Gulf of MexicoDead Horse Shoe crabs stranded at high tide. They were in existence over 450 million years ago – before the dawn of man.

Paddlers from Canada and especially the West Coast, will notice that crows and cormorants are not as high in the pecking order here. Instead, there are an unusual number of long necked, long beaked and long legged wading birds such as ibis, egrets, herons, cranes, and all kinds of other birds I have yet to identify. Many unfortunately can’t seem to get Canadian citizenship. They are about their jobs as usual today, busily pickiWe even had a gull brazenly panhandling around our evening campfire (a Victoria Gull?). ng their way across the shallows, sometimes in the same channel we are about to paddle (often making us calculate how long their legs really are). And then there are some that have no fear - or no shame.

Raptors are in greater abundance here also. Turkey Vulturturkey vultures, gracefull as they are ugly, they are the main caretakers of tahae Evergladeses, the most common of these meat-eaters come here for the winter also. They can be seen soaring patiently in lazy spirals above us, reminding us that where there is great life there is also great death.

The mangrove islands of the Everglades, the wildlife and the solitude we experienced will be long remembered. If you can appreciate the suspense of watching a “log” with knobs for eyes on it slowly disappear beneath the surface – and the tell- tale ripple of this creature’s bubbles pass beneath your fragile skin boat, then you would also appreciate paddling the mystery and the magic which are the Glades.

On our entire trip we met only a handful of people. To our surprise all were not only from Canada, but all were from within a 50-mile radius of Victoria, our Vancouver Island home! It seems this well kept secret is not as well kept as I had thought. Or is it only Canadians and turkey vultures that venture out in the November sun?

Come, find out. You have only your imagination - and your arm to lose!

This article was written by the author while on vacation in Florida with his partner, Sue. Plans for this winter are to sail a 55 foot ketch from Sydney Australia to the Great Barrier Reef. In the meantime, Al and his Blackfish Wilderness Expeditions' crew are "relegated " to paddling home waters off Vancouver Island.


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