“I always called that place Trout Key, cause of all the sea trout on the grass banks off the shore, but the crackers called it Mormon Key, on account of that no-account old Richard Hamilton had other children by a common-law wife who was still living up around Arcadia. And after a while that fool name stuck, we used it too.”
From “Killing Mr. Watson”, by Peter Matthiessen
We left the Chatham River behind and paddled out into the Gulf of Mexico. From there, we enjoyed an easy couple of miles out to Mormon Key. We spotted a small sandy beach on the north end of the island, but it didn’t look like there would be much room there at high tide. We kayaked along the west side of the island. Before long a larger beach came into view. There was a big group there, and it looked like they were partying. We exchanged greetings, and I asked about the camping options. They invited us to join them, as there was plenty of room, but also mentioned a possible spot around the south end of the island.
We paddled down there, eying the shore the entire way. We did find one spot that was pretty nice, but it was small. There was just enough room for one tent and a couple of people. That end of the island did have a nice view of a large beach on New Turkey Key, with the expanse of the open ocean beyond. We had lunch there, and considered staying, but the lack of a breeze and the close proximity of the wooded interior of the island concerned me. Bug avoidance is a primary consideration with campsite selection in the Everglades. After eating, we decided to go back to the main camping area.
They were definitely in the optimal spot, but we found a decent place just a little farther down the beach. It was separated from the larger group by a screen of greenery, which would offer some privacy. We set up camp and then walked back up the beach to meet our new neighbors.
They were two families from Atlanta. Actually, it was just two fathers, along with a brother and a number of teenagers. The oldest teenager attends my alma mater, Appalachian State University. These families take a trip to the Ten Thousand Islands every year right after Christmas. They drive all the way down on the day after Christmas. They sleep in their car in the Visitor Center parking lot that night so they can be first in line for permits the next morning. Despite that, they had been stuck with camping at two ground sites – Lopez River and Watson Place, the first two nights. There group was too large for the chickees. They told us that the bugs had been horrendous. Their third and fourth nights had been right there on Mormon Key. They told us that the wind had died the previous evening there, and the bugs had been equally as bad. They were heading to Pavilion Key the next day, the same as us, before finishing up at Rabbit Key.
We enjoyed the afternoon and evening on the beach. It was a beautiful, sunny day, which was a nice change from the wind and rain of the previous afternoon. Sunset was nice, and the constant breeze kept the bugs at bay. We joined our neighbors at their campfire and shared tall tales throughout the evening. They were well-stocked on both liquor and ice – they actually brought a cooler with a block of ice in it. A block lasts a lot longer than a bag of cubed ice, so they were able to enjoy cold drinks throughout their trip. That’s one pro tip worth remembering. We’d only brought a few beers with us, and they were marginally cold enough to drink by the end of the second day. Fortunately, we had enough wine and whiskey to get us through New Year’s Eve.
“As days go by, I inform him how this once was Pavilion River, but these Indins around here don’t know nothing, so they say Pavioni. Well, this dang French know-it-all tells me how Pavilion got its name! Says a pirate from the Spanish Main was camped here on an offshore key with a young girl off a Dutch Merchantman. Girl said even though he had killed off all her family, she would gladly suffer the fate worse than death so long as he spared her own dear life. Well, his crew got sick of looking on while he lay down with her, they said it was her or him, and so he had no choice but to poison her. Before he left, on account he loved her, he built her a thatch shelter to keep the sun off while she died in agony. When an American man-o’-war caught up with him, the Spaniard described this kindness to the Dutch girl to prove how such a courtly feller did not deserve to hang. After they hung him, they went up there and found most of the girl under that shelter. Called it a pavilion, named the key for it, and we call it “Pavilion Key” to this day.”
From “Killing Mr. Watson”, by Peter Matthiessen
New Year’s Eve started off leisurely. In fact, the rest of the trip would be pretty leisurely. The long, tough days were behind us. The rest of the trip would be relatively short paddles from one beach to the next. The plan for the 4th day of the trip was a 4 ½ mile paddle across open water to Pavilion Key. I was really looking forward to that one, as it has a large beach that is good for walking. In fact, I’d heard that you could walk the whole way around the island at low tide.
We had pancakes for breakfast before packing up. It was another sunny day – in fact, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was only a light breeze, and the water was mostly calm. We enjoyed an easy paddle over to Pavilion Key, and we headed for the large beach at the north end. We came in on the southeast side of the northern peninsula. That wasn’t ideal. The porta potties are on that side, but after some scouting, I discovered that the better campsites are around the corner, at the far northwest end of the island. We paddled around, and spotted only two tents on the beach. That was a bit of a surprise, as it is a large and popular camping area. We paddled on down past them before beaching the kayaks and walking up to the campsite I had picked out.
We set up camp, had lunch, and spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun. I walked to the far end of the beach before running out of dry ground. Unfortunately ,I had missed low tide, so walking around the entire island wasn’t an appealing an option.
Later we met our nearest neighbors, Ed and Laura. Ed was a teacher, and Laura was a doctor that had semi-retired to become a whitewater rafting guide. She preferred the low-stress lifestyle that came with that career. They were from Tennessee, but had recently moved to Marshall, NC.
A bit later, Jeff, one of the guys we’d met on Mormon Key, arrived. He was solo, but he said that the rest of his crew wasn’t far behind. He set up camp a bit down from us.
Unfortunately, the rest of Jeff’s family and friends didn’t show up. We talked with him, and apparently there had been a debate about whether to camp on the big beach at the north end of the island, or on a small beach on the southeast side. He thought they had all agreed on the north end, but had begun to suspect that he had been ditched. That evening he packed up and headed out, apparently to go looking for them.
Later we enjoyed another lovely sunset. We spent the evening sharing a fire with Ed and Laura. It was getting late when we saw a strange light coming towards us from the east. At first we couldn’t figure out what it was. It may have just been due to the darkness, but it seemed to moving towards us, fast. It approached the beach where we had our fire. We heard shouts and laughter, and then Jeff and his brother passed by in a kayak. They stopped where Jeff had set up camp. A few minutes later they passed back by, again with shouts and laughter. I guess he forgot something when he packed up? It was hard to keep track of what that crowd was doing, but I’m glad they managed to get all back together before midnight!
It took some effort, and all of our remaining wine and whiskey, but we managed to stay up until midnight. We weren’t used to that, as it still gets dark down there before 6pm in December. As soon as the clock struck 12 we stumbled back to our tent.
Day 5 required an 8-mile paddle across open ocean to Jewel Key. Fortunately, it was a sunny morning with very little wind. We enjoyed another leisurely breakfast before packing up and heading out. As we were leaving we spotted a group stuck in shallow water. They had come up late the previous afternoon and had camped farther down the island. They were in canoes, and they had made the mistake of loading their canoe in shallow water as the tide was going out. The water level dropped while they were packing, and by the time they had finished, it was too shallow for them to move. They were in the process of unloading everything, so they could walk the canoe out to deeper water and reload it.
A few minutes later I spotted something floating in the water nearby. I paddled closer, and fished out a large Yeti thermos. Apparently it had fallen out of someone’s boat. I opened it, and found that it was full of water. I resealed it and stuck it behind my seat.
We went a little out of the way to stop at Rabbit Key for lunch. It was nice to take a break in the middle of the 8 mile day. We had lunch there before tackling several more miles of open water to Jewel Key. We had stopped at Jewel Key for lunch on our 2016 trip and had really liked it. Jewel Key is shaped like a dumbbell, with a sandy beach in the narrow, middle section. There is a small bay on either side of the beach, providing views to the north and south. We set up camp there, and spent another afternoon enjoying the sunshine. Incredibly, we had to whole island to ourselves. That was a nice change, as we had shared campsites with at least one other couple every night prior to this one.
I had low expectations for sunset, as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I was in for a surprise – the sky on the horizon turned a lovely yellow, then a brilliant orange, and finally a spectacular red. We went to be shortly afterwards, content with a peaceful, quiet night of isolation.
We woke the next morning to a shocking amount of water in our tent. I had moved most of our remaining water into an animal-proof water bag and stashed it in the tent. I did this because there were a lot of racoons on the island, and I was afraid they would try to get into our remaining water. That backfired in spectacular fashion, as apparently I hadn’t sealed the bag properly. Most of our water had leaked out. Luckily, we still had a few quarts – just enough for coffee in the morning and drinking water for the paddle out.
We spent that morning enjoying more sunshine on Jewel Key. We couldn’t really go anywhere until low tide. Otherwise, we would have to paddle against the current going through Sandfly Pass on the way back to the ranger station. Fortunately, it was a short day – only 5 miles – and we weren’t in any hurry.
We packed up, had lunch, and started the trip back during slack tide. Waiting longer would’ve made it easier, as we could’ve used the rising tide. However, it was an easy paddle, and we still had to drive to Key West that evening. The paddle through Sandfly Pass was pleasant until we reached Chokoloskee Bay. We had to fight the wind and big waves crossing the bay, and that stretch seemed to take forever. It was a relief when we reached the boat ramp.
We unloaded the kayaks and packed the car quickly because we were hungry. We had planned to hit the same restaurant we had eaten at after our 2016 trip. Sadly, that restaurant was taken out by a recent hurricane and hadn’t reopened. We ended up at City Seafood, as it was the only place open at that time. It didn’t look like much, but the food was good and we enjoyed the waterfront seating.
That night we made the long drive down to Key West. We arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn around 10pm. We were looking forward to spending the next day exploring the city.
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