SWAMP FUNK

 

 

Christy was feeling somewhat better the next morning, but she was still weak.She was able to eat breakfast, which was encouraging.Now we just had to hope that I didnít get it from her.Can you imagine a fate more horrible than intestinal distress while kayaking solo through a swamp?

 

On our way out of the campground the next morning we stopped to see the campground host.We paid for another night, which meant that we didnít have to break camp.Burns Lake was buggy and not particularly interesting, but it was quiet and conveniently located.It only took a few minutes to reach the small parking area at the put-in for the Turner River.It was busy, as there was a fairly large group unloading when we arrived.Most of the parking spots were full, so we parallel parked behind a trailer holding a single canoe.We were busy unloading when the other group finished.Several of them left to run a shuttle down to the take out.One guy backed his car out of one of the parking spots across from us.He went about it all wrong, initially turning the wrong way.He figured that out and corrected his angle, but somehow managed to back up directly into the canoe on the trailer in front of us.He didnít even realize it when he hit it.Christy and I both yelled, which at least got him to stop.He pulled forward, turned, and headed out of the parking lot.I had a new goal Ė get on the water before he returned.

 

Christy helped me carry my kayak and gear down to the water.The bugs were fierce at the put in.I was relying on a combination of clothing and DEET for protection.I bid Christy farewell, and we made tentative plans to meet at the Visitors Center around 5pm.I hoped to make it there earlier, but figured I could call or text her from there if I finished ahead of schedule.

 

I floated under the highway bridge and into the wilderness.The first part of the paddle was challenging due to thick tangles of underwater vegetation.Iím glad I did this part near high tide!I was able to power through that stretch.Fortunately, that was the only part that was like that.After a short distance I came upon a stretch that was full of beautiful water lilies in bloom.A few minutes later I encountered my first alligator.The river is narrow, and I had no choice but to float right past him.At first he had his eye on me, but he seemed relaxed and even closed his eyes as I passed by.I stopped for some photos with my zoom lens before continuing downstream.

 

Before long I entered the first of several mangrove tunnels. In the tunnels the river is narrow (maybe 10-15í wide), and the mangrove branches arch overhead. It was here that I encountered a large tour group.They were moving slow and let me pass by.††A few minutes later the group that weíd seen at the put-in caught up with me.Although they had 5 people, they were moving faster than I was.I let them pass by.The last one was the same guy that had backed his car into the canoe trailer in the parking lot.He actually bumped into my kayak as he passed, so I guess that was something of a recurring theme.That group did teach me something useful.I was having a tough time in the mangrove tunnel because my long paddle kept getting caught on the overhanging branches.This group was only using half of their paddles.They were steering their kayaks like canoes, but the shorter length prevented the paddles from getting caught in the branches.After observing that technique I did the same thing, which made navigating the tunnels much easier.

 

The mangrove tunnels were my favorite part of the trip, even though they were buggy.At the end of each the river opened up, allowing me to enjoy the sunshine.The first tunnel ended in a large open area surrounded by sawgrass prairie.I merged with a canal here.The river splits into multiple channels, and I wasnít sure which one was the correct one to follow.My guess is that it doesnít matter and that they all come back together, but Iím not sure about that.I ended up going as far east as possible, which worked out well.I passed by a rare stretch of dry ground, and it actually had two picnic tables.This was one of the first places Iíd seen where it was even possible to get out.It was a little early for lunch, but it was too good to pass up.I had lunch there and enjoyed the sunshine and peace.The only drawback to that lunch spot was a fire ant bite I got on my foot while walking through the grass.I react badly to ant bites, and my right foot was red and swollen for the rest of the day.

 

After seeing those two groups early on, Iíd had the whole river to myself.That solitude would continue through most of the day.Later that afternoon, farther downstream where the river is larger, I did encounter a couple of power boats.Those intrusions on the wilderness experience were brief though.

 

After lunch I passed through more sawgrass prairie and several mangrove tunnels.I also saw five alligators.The first was on the bank in a very narrow stretch.I had no warning, and passed within a few feet of him.He glided silently into the water just after I passed by.†† Later, in a narrow mangrove tunnel, I saw one swimming across the river just ahead of me.I reached for my camera, and when I looked up, he was gone.Where did he go?He wasnít on either bankÖ.which meant that he was underwater.Underneath me!I paddled forward quickly to clear the area.

 

After the last mangrove tunnel the river opened into a series of small lakes.There was a fantastic variety of birds along here, including a whole tree full of egrets.After the lakes I paddled down a wide stretch of river.I reached the junction with Hurddles Creek and then another with the Left Hand Turner River.At this point I had a decision to make.The normal route continues downstream to Chokoloskee Bay and then continues past Chokoloskee Island through the bay and parallel to the causeway to the Visitorís Center.That is the fast, easy, boring route.The other option is to follow the Left Hand Turner River and Halfway Creek through more mangrove swamps.Halfway Creek empties into the bay much closer to the Visitorís Center.That route is the fun, scenic, adventurous way.Guess what I chose?

 

I was pretty confident that I could do the longer route in 3 hours.I was certainly hoping so, as I didnít want to be kayaking solo in a mangrove swamp in the dark!I paddled upstream through a wide stretch of river and into a series of small lakes.I crossed the last lake and found the entrance to the last, but longest mangrove tunnel.This stretch was particularly beautiful, with graceful trees arching high overhead.There were egrets everywhere, and I seemed to be flushing them upstream as I paddled.There was no current to speak of, as it was now low tide.Unfortunately that ultimately worked against me.

 

It was on this stretch that I had an "out of boat experience". Out of boat experiences are almost always bad (unless there are mermaids involved). I was following an official canoe trail, but it hasn't seen much recent maintenance. The "river" was maybe 10-15' wide, and it passes through mangrove swamp with little to no solid ground. There were several challenging stretches that required maneuvering through fallen trees. Then I hit the big one - a fallen tree blocking the whole river. 

It was late afternoon and turning back was not an appealing option. I tried to bushwhack around by walking across mangrove roots while dragging the kayak behind me. Those roots are slick, and one foot slipped off and into the muck. When it finally stopped my right leg was crotch deep in the slime. My left leg was stretched out behind me in a half split, while my right hand was clinging to a tree and the left was holding the kayak. I pulled my right leg up using the tree for leverage, but lost my sandal - actually Christy's Chaco sandal - in the process. Once my foot was out a cartoonish vertical leg hole was left behind. I didn't even think about it - I plunged my right hand down the shaft of black ooze. Incredibly, my fingers felt a strap, and I pulled the sandal out of the hole.

What can we learn from this?

A) Andy is crazy!
B) Mangrove swamps can eat people.
C) Andy's right arm is as long as his right leg.
D) Did you say something about mermaids?

 

I managed to crawl across the roots without falling in again.Once past the tree I got back into the kayak and resumed paddling.Now I was getting nervous.What if I encountered another major obstacle?Turning back would mean having to deal with all of the obstacles Iíd already passed.What if I got trapped in here, in the dark?

 

Luckily the rest of the river was clear.Before long I joined with Halfway Creek.The channel upstream looked similar to the one I was in, but downstream it was wider.That was a relief.Before long I was passing houses and boat ramps.I reached the bay at 5pm.From there it was an easy paddle under the causeway bridge and around to the Visitorís Center, where Christy was waiting for me.Sheíd had a nap on a beach near Marco Island and was feeling somewhat better.She even had an appetite for the first time in a couple of days.We were hopeful that she would be up for the kayaking trip we planned to start the next morning.

 

I was a mess.My lower half was covered in swamp mud, and my upper half was mostly bug bites.It had been too hot for a long-sleeve shirt, and I got a lot of bites before I realized how bad it was.I shouldíve bathed myself in DEET from the very beginning.I smelled like a swamp, too.Swamp Funk isnít just a particularly fantastic musical sub-genre.It can also refer to the slime and stench that is the result of floundering around in mangrove swamps all day in hot weather.

 

I cleaned up in the bathroom and changed clothes before we hit a nice seafood restaurant for dinner.I was famished, and going back to the campground to cook dinner wasnít happening.After dinner and a couple of beers we headed back.We spent the rest of the evening enjoying a fire (mainly to keep the bugs away) and organizing our gear for our three-day trip in the Ten Thousand Islands.Christy had gotten our permit changed earlier that morning.We would be doing a much easier trip that what we had originally planned.It would be a loop from the Visitorís Center, hitting beach campsites on Picnic Key and Rabbit Key.



Continue reading about our trip as we spend three days kayaking and camping in the Ten Thousand Islands


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