Last December, Christy and I unexpectedly found ourselves with some free time. We didn’t have work or any other obligations for a little more than one week after Christmas. We decided to make the most of the opportunity with a spontaneous kayaking trip in Everglades National Park in Florida.
Our plan was to drive all the way to Naples, Florida on the Friday after Christmas. From there, it was a one hour drive to Everglades City on the edge of the park. Our goal was to arrive at the park before the ranger station opened at 8am. Permits are required for backcountry camping, and reservations aren’t accepted. Arriving early would maximize our chances of being able to do the trip we wanted. If we could get a campsite that first night, we would start immediately. If not, we could start the following day. I was hopeful for a Saturday start though, as it would enable us to spend six days in the wilderness. A Sunday start would shorten the trip, and would mean that we would need to find a place to car camp Saturday night.
Either way, we would need to finish the kayaking trip on Thursday, January 2nd. I’d used points to reserve a free hotel in Key West Thursday and Friday night. Christy had been twice, and was eager to return. I’d never been, and this was a good opportunity to experience it.
We dropped my kayak off at Great Outdoor Provision Company before Christmas to have the rudder cables replaced. Luckily, it was ready the day after Christmas. We also picked up some additional gear. The most important was critter-proof water bladders. They have to be critter-proof, because racoons have been known to chew into milk jugs and plastic bottles. The Park Service recommends bringing at least one gallon of water per person, per day. We needed to bring 12 gallons. Can you visualize what 12 gallons of water, mostly in 2-3 liter containers, looks like?
We managed a fairly early start Friday morning. As well pulled out of the driveway, Christy turned on SiriusXM. She tuned into Jam On, and the first song was “Let’s Get The Show on the Road”, performed by Widespread Panic.
The drive to Florida was pretty terrible. Traffic was awful on I-95 and I-75. We took a lot of back roads avoiding the many traffic jams. We narrowly avoided a major accident near the end of the journey, too. It was a relief when we arrived at a Holiday Inn Express that night.
DOWN ON CROOKED CREEK
“You didn’t ask a man hard questions, not in the Ten Thousand Islands, not in them days. Folks will tell you different today, but back then there wasn’t too many in our section that wasn’t kind of unpopular someplace else. With all of Florida to choose from, who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands with not enough high ground to build an outhouse, and so many skeeters plaguing you in the bad summers, you thought you’d took the wrong turn straight to Hell.”
From “Killing Mr. Watson”, by Peter Matthiessen
We got up at 6am on Saturday. We grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby and resumed the drive south. We arrived at the ranger station about 7:40, parked, and got in line. There were 3 or 4 groups already waiting when we arrived, but many, many more arrived after us.
My goal was a loop trip of 5-6 days connecting part of the Wilderness Waterway with various islands. The Wilderness Waterway is inland, passing through saltwater lakes and channels through the mangroves. This part of the Gulf of Mexico features many islands (keys) – in fact, this part of the Everglades is called the Ten Thousand Islands. A few of them have designated beach campsites. If we were lucky, we would be able to do a loop combining the best of both worlds.
Campsite availability is very limited. When the office opened, the first thing I noticed was a board showing which campsites were already booked for the night. We knew that the sites we wanted could already be booked by people that had started their trip earlier in the week. I was delighted to see that the top two options for our first night, the Crooked Creek chickee and Jewel Key, were both available. Either would work. If we got Crooked Creek the first night, we would do the loop in a clockwise direction. If we started at Jewel, we would go around the other way.
After a few minutes the groups ahead of us had booked their trips. It was our turn! My preference was to do the loop clockwise. Crooked Creek was still available that night, so we took that one. Next up was Sweetwater Chickee, which was also available. Hooray! I was beginning to feel pretty good about pulling this off. We followed those up with three islands; Mormon Key, Pavilion Key, and Jewel Key. Incredibly, we got our first choice for each night! By the time we finished, the room was full and the line was extending out the door. I imagine that most of those people had to settle for what was left, if anything. I’m sure a lot of them had to camp at Panther Key or Lulu Key. Those are just outside the park boundary, and aren’t subject to quotas. It pays to arrive early.
We had 10 miles to kayak that day, and a lot to do to get ready. We needed a few things, but the only store in Everglades City opened at 9am. We decided to kill a little time with a visit to Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island. The store was built in 1906 by Ted Smallwood to serve the early settlers in the area. The trading post purchased hides, furs, and farm produce from native Americans and settlers in exchange for providing the goods they needed. The store closed in 1982, but was reopened as a museum in 1990. http://www.smallwoodstore.com/
Although it wasn’t open, it was neat to see. From there we drove back to Everglades City and stopped at the store. We got our last minute supplies and then drove back to the Ranger Station. We parked and unloaded everything and started packing. We had managed to get everything into the car on Thursday, but it wasn’t kayak-ready. After an hour or so, we had it all ready to go. We put everything back in the car and drove down to the boat ramp. We unloaded the boats and gear there before moving the car back to the long-term parking area.
It took multiple trips to get the kayaks and gear down to the water. At one point I was working my way down the muddy walkway juggling a lot of water and two bottles of wine. A guy passing the other way tried to help, but I waived him off. I was prepared to drop the water, but I had a death grip on the wine. We needed that for New Years Eve!
That wasn’t the only entertainment at the put-in. While we were packing, we saw a large family loading up two canoes. Most of the gear consisted of coolers and food in paper grocery bags. How long did they expect those bags to last in the bottom of a wet canoe? They said they did this trip “to the islands” every year. You would think they would’ve learned a few things about packing over those years.
Later, we witnessed an older, overweight Frenchman, or French Canadian, strip down completely and hose himself off. Why is witnessing inappropriate, undesirable nudity a requirement of every trip to a National Park?
There was some appealing nature at the boat ramp, too. While we were loading the boats, we saw a beautiful pink bird playing in the surf. We later identified it as a Rosetta Spoonbill.
We had lunch while packing, and started our trip around 11:30 in Chokoloskee Bay. After a few minutes we turned left into Halfway Creek and passed under a bridge. On the far side, we followed a narrow channel parallel to the road. It was just after low tide, and I misjudged the water here. We ended up too close to the road – the deeper channel is on the side farthest from the road. Before long, we found ourselves stranded on a sandbar. Crap! I thought we might have to wait a while for the tide to come back in, but we were able to dig ourselves out after a few minutes. A bit farther on we reached a spot where we could get out next to the road. Even though we had just started, it was good to take advantage of the opportunity to stretch our legs.
Christy’s boat was overloaded because we had packed too much of the water into it. She was really struggling, but we didn’t want to go to the trouble of trying to repack. Instead, we switched kayaks. That worked for that first afternoon, and on day 2 we did a better job of distributing the weight between the two kayaks.
From there we continued up the narrow channel. A bit farther on the causeway curved away towards Chokoloskee Island. We continued along the edge of Chokoloskee Bay, hugging the shore to avoid the worst of the wind and waves. It was a relief when we made the turn up into the Turner River.
On our 2016 trip, I spent the first day in the area solo kayaking the Turner River. It was a wonderful paddle – one of my all-time favorite days in a boat. It featured pretty scenery and a ton of wildlife – mostly alligators! I started that trip from highway 41. I paddled down to the junction with Hurddles Creek and the Left Hand Turner River. I turned right there to follow the Left Hand Turner River and Halfway Creek back to the ranger station. That was a real adventure!
This time we paddled up the lower end of the Turner River, which I had missed in 2016. That stretch is wide, and there was some power boat traffic. It was fast though, as we had the current from the incoming tide behind us. We reached the previously mentioned junction, and paddled into Hurddles Creek. We passed through a narrow, winding channel and into Mud Bay and then the Cross Bays.
This stretch featured large saltwater lakes bordered by endless tangles of mangrove. It was still pretty windy, so we hugged the shore as much as possible. The scenery was nice, but honestly, it all kind of looked the same. I prefer the narrow, winding channels, like the Turner River.
We paddled to the far south end of the Cross Bays, crossed the Lopez River, and ducked into Crooked Creek. This was a little tricky to find, as all of these waterways come together in one place. I can’t imagine navigating through these mangrove mazes without a GPS.
The Crooked Creek Chickee was just a short distance down the channel. It’s a fairly new chickee, as it replaced an old one in Sunday Bay. It’s actually a double chickee. There are two platforms – one for each group. They are connecting by a boardwalk that has a porta potty half way between the two platforms.
When we arrived, there was already a couple set up on one platform. They were friendly, and helped us tie up Christy’s boat so she could get out. She needed to visit the porta potty urgently, since we hadn’t passed a single good place to get out since leaving the causeway behind early that afternoon.
The biggest challenge with camping on the chickees was getting in and out, and unloading and loading the kayaks. All of these things are easier at high tide, when the kayaks are closer to the level of the platform. Luckily, we didn’t have to load or unload the kayaks at low tide during this trip. That really would be difficult.
The other challenge with the chickees is that they are pretty small. Our tent is perhaps 6’x7’, and it took up most of the space in the middle of the chickee. We had to be a little careful just walking around, as neither of us were interested in going for a swim. There is a little counter at one end of the structure, which is ideal for cooking and food prep. But we still had to be careful walking around to avoid bumping or kicking something. There are no barriers, so if something starts rolling, it is going in the water.
A guy we met a few days later told us an amusing story. He was camped with his wife on a chickee and was getting ready to cook dinner. He reached to grab something, and bumped the stove with his elbow. It tipped over, bounced once, and launched itself towards the bottom of the swamp. He didn’t hesitate. He dove in after it, plunging into the black water. Miraculously, his hand closed around the unseen stove deep underwater.
That was a true story.
We were treated to a lovely sunset that night. Beautiful sunsets would be a theme for this trip, which was wonderful. On the other hand, the bugs were pretty terrible that evening. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad, but the no-see-ums tore me up. It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid them, and repellents don’t affect them. One thing that helped Christy was a hoodie. That kept them off of her neck. My neck was a mess of bites by the next morning. I need to remember to bring a hoodie on future trips here.
We had a tough time sleeping that night. The mullet were running up and down Crooked Creek all night, and they make quite a racket with their thrashing. Even when the fish weren’t flopping around, the currents from the changing tides made the platform rock, and caused a rustling in the mangroves. At one point the rising tide pulled one of our kayaks away from the chickee, which caused a big splash. I thought for sure that something had rolled off the platform, so I got up to investigate. Luckily, there wasn’t anything missing. I reeled the kayak back in and tied it more securely, so there wasn’t any slack in the line. I slept a little better after that – at least until the next wave of mullet passed by.
“Until the second half of the nineteenth century, the southern half of the Florida peninsula, and in particular its far southwestern region, was scarcely known. This rainy and mosquito-ridden labyrinth of mangrove islands and dark tidal rivers was all but uninhabited, despite the marvelous abundance of its fish and game. ‘The Ten Thousand Islands’, as one naturalist has written, ‘is a region of mystery and loneliness: gloomy, monotonous, weird, and strange, yet possessing a decided fascination. To the casual stranger each and every part of the region looks exactly like the rest; each islet and water passage seems but the counterpart of hundreds of others. Even those…familiar with its tortuous channels often get lost…wandering hopeless for days among its labyrinthine ways.’”
From “Killing Mr. Watson”, by Peter Matthiessen
We got off to a leisurely start the next morning. After breakfast we broke camp and managed to pack the kayaks. This was difficult, as it required sprawling on the platform, leaning out and down, and stuffing gear into the various storage compartments in our kayaks. Despite those challenges, we did a better job of distributing the weight between the two kayaks. My kayak can handle more weight, so we basically put most of the water in it.
On day 2 we kayaked from the Crooked Creek Chickee to a chickee in Sweetwater Creek. We started out paddling down Crooked Creek, which was narrow, winding, and fun. That ended with a long, windy crossing of massive Sunday Bay. This Bay is so large, you might as well be out in the open ocean. The water was choppy, and the crossing was a serious workout. We got a reprieve at the far end. The waterway narrowed for a bit, and the mangroves blocked most of the wind. Unfortunately that didn’t last long. The channel widened again as we entered Oyster Bay. We considered hugging the southern shore, but that would’ve been longer, and not very beneficial since the wind was coming from the east. We hunkered down and fought through another round of wind-driven swells. A couple of passing showers added to the fun.
We paddled all morning without passing a good place to get out. At one point we pulled off in a shallow area in the mangroves to pee. By early afternoon we were getting hungry, and neither of us had the forethought to keep a snack accessible. That’s one problem with kayaking – you can’t get to the actual cargo without getting out of the boat. And once again, there wasn’t a good place to get out.
My map shows the notation “piles” at the far southeast end of Oyster Bay. I wasn’t sure what “piles” meant, but it kind of sounded like it might be a place where we could get out and have lunch. However, about that time, we spotted some sort of structure up ahead. We decided to head for it. As we got closer, we realized that it was a house on stilts, high above the water. We didn’t see any people or boats at the dock, and that is when it really started raining. We cranked up the pace and paddled into the shelter directly below the house.
It’s not much of a house, really. It appeared to be one room, with a dock and an adjacent outhouse, all on a single structure. It was more of a cabin, or a fishing camp. Christy climbed a tree to get up to it and get a better look, but we contented ourselves with sitting on an old rusting moonshine barrel out of the rain. That turned out to be a good place for lunch, though it was a little buggy.
Afterwards the rain stopped, and the wind calmed. The rest of the journey through Huston Bay and Last Huston Bay was more pleasant. The break was nice, as it seemed like we had been kayaking into the wind for two days straight.
On my map, it looks like the Sweetwater Chickee is at the northeastern end of Last Huston Bay. That is incorrect. To get there, you actually have to paddle to the southeastern end of Last Huston Bay, towards Deer Island. The channel narrows, leading to a complicated confluence of Last Huston Bay, Sweetwater Creek, Deer Island Creek, Chevelier Bay, and two arms of the Chatham River. This is another place where the GPS on my phone really came in handy.
We turned up into Sweetwater Creek, which is peaceful and beautiful. We passed Sweetwater Bay, and continued farther upstream. This part of the Everglades is lovely, and I really enjoyed this final stretch of our second day. I wish I’d had the time and energy to explore farther upstream, beyond the chickee. I was pretty wiped out though. Unfortunately, due to the tides, we would have to leave early the next morning.
The same couple that had shared the Crooked Creek Chickee with us was already there. That evening was wonderful. The bugs were only a minor nuisance, and the wildlife was incredible. Along with the usual assortment of birds, we saw an alligator and a shark. It was pretty odd seeing a freshwater reptile and a saltwater mammal in the same place.
Late that evening Christy spotted a pretty rainbow. That segued nicely into a beautiful sunset. The bugs weren’t bad, so we decided to try sleeping in our hammocks. That was a bad idea. When I say the bugs weren’t bad, I don’t mean that there weren’t any bugs. The no-see-ums would not leave me alone. They kept landing on my face, and when I tried to cover myself with the hammock I got overheated. Christy was actually comfortable, somehow. She was disappointed when I told her that I couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room on the chickee for the tent and a hammock. We took the hammocks down, set up the tent, and went back to bed. At least we slept better that night.
“I never felt right at Pavioni, never liked the feel of it. Pavioni had some old bad history, back to early times. It was what the Indins call a Power Place, but it was a bad power, something dark.”
From “Killing Mr. Watson”, by Peter Matthiessen
We had to get an early start the next morning due to inconvenient tides. The plan was to paddle out the Chatham River and on to the beach campsites on Mormon Key. The problem was that low tide was around late morning. Once the tide started coming back in, we would be paddling against the current. The final stretch of the Chatham River is a narrow channel, which would be difficult to paddle against an incoming tide. The goal was to get out into the ocean before the tide turned.
We got up before sunrise, which worked out well, as sunrise was almost as pretty as the previous sunset. We had a quick breakfast, packed up, and enjoyed another peaceful cruise along Sweetwater Creek. We saw another alligator along this stretch – apparently there is enough freshwater this far inland for them to survive.
We returned to the 5-way junction and found the route into the Chatham River. We kept a steady pace, and reached the campsite at Watson Place by mid-morning. Watson Place is one of the few areas of dry ground in the region. It’s actually an old Calusa Indian shell mound. Incredibly, it covers 40 acres, though most of it is now overgrown.
Many early settlers lived here over the years, but the most famous, or infamous, was Ed Watson. He was a successful farmer and businessman, but also a notorious outlaw. At the peak of his business, the property contained his house and 40 acres of farmland. It’s a campsite now, mostly overgrown, but some relics from the past remain. They include a large bowl that was apparently used for processing sugar cane, as well as the foundation of a building.
After beaching the kayaks I walked over to the foundation for a closer look. It is flooded now, either from rain water or from an underground spring. There was a log floating in there, or so I thought. I looked twice, and realized that the log had eyeballs! It was an alligator, just a few feet away, and it was watching me intently. I’ll admit it – I jumped!
We had a snack there – well away from that foundation – and took advantage of the opportunity to use the bathroom. While we were relaxing, we spotted several dolphins jumping out in the river. After watching them for a bit, we packed up and finished kayaking out the Chatham River. We made it out to the ocean during slack tide, before the current would’ve shifted against us. From there, we only had a couple of miles to go to our campsite on Mormon Key. After 2 ½ days in the mangrove swamps, we were ready for the beach!
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