Lure of the Everglades

By Bill Burnham

It is dusk, the close of another glorious day in Everglades National Park. We sit outside our tent soaking up sounds of nature bedding down. Water laps around roots of black mangrove that enclose this shallow cove. From the woods come goodnight chirps of tropical songbirds and furtive sounds of small animals scraping past low branches.
We had paddled a tandem kayak 13 miles to reach this deeply secluded spot. My shoulders ached, my arms were sore. Tired as I was, however, I felt I understood the lure that has drawn Indians, 'gator hunters, explorers -- and now my companion and I -- deep into the Everglades.

In its southern reaches, where freshwater mingles with Gulf tides, the Glades form miles of mangrove-lined rivers that dissolve into small bays, inlets and shallow ponds. In the course of two days navigating this maze, we logged 33 human-powered miles on a trip that taxed not only our physical limits, but our imaginations as well. Traveling down quiet streams, long-necked birds with red and pink and green plumage bolted with alarm upon our approach. A floating log disappeared, revealing itself as an alligator. And beneath the water, noticeable by the roiling, boiling water it left in its wake swam massive, fleshy gray manatees.

If you don't bother them, they won't bother you. Really!
All of this was yet to be discovered as we geared up at Flamingo, a marina, campground and park headquarters set at the southern point of the park. To our south lay shallow waters of Florida Bay, dotted with small keys, or islands. Our direction lay north, into an area that until 1947, when the Everglades were dedicated as a National Park, only the most adventurous -- or well armed -- dared go alone.
For years before the park service "tamed" the Everglades, bounty hunters knew the surest ways through its convoluted waterways. But by profession, they worked alone. The bounty they sought -- eggs and plumage of rare birds -- was collected on commission from wealthy patrons, or for auction to the highest bidder. The stakes were high, evidenced when in 1905, a plume hunter murdered an Audubon warden who interfered. The warden's body is buried on Cape Sable, while Bradley Key bears his name in memoriam.
Mosquitoes are about the worst problem an Everglades traveler encounters today. That, a sunburn and weather conditions that can turn within minutes. Fluctuations are less severe in the dry season, November through April, but the mosquitoes are still persistent. We bought the strongest repellent available at the camp store at Flamingo and packed it, along with a tent, sleeping gear, clothes, food, and camp supplies, into small compartments of our long, narrow kayak. All this weight would prove helpful when, in high winds, it kept the boat stable.
Paddling up Buttonwood Canal away from the marina, a green heron, a nervous bird, flitted from one branch to another in the ubiquitous Buttonwood trees. I timed my paddle stroke to Mary's. A good stroke uses torso muscles, which are more powerful, rather than arm muscles, which tire quickly. I constantly corrected my form, making sure my elbows were locked so my waist would do the heavy work. Each stroke felt like an abdominal crunch -- dip the paddle and twist, dip-and-twist. With aid from a tailwind, we gathered speed and our boat skimmed across small chop on Coot Bay.
At its north end, the bay narrows into Tarpon Creek, a dredged canal with a strong tidal flow that was headed in our direction. We rode effortlessly past a shoreline choked with trees, names of which -- strangler fig, snake bark and poisonwood -- would give any explorer pause. Somewhere amid this thicket stood an ancient canal dug by Indians in 1200, long before Spaniards "discovered" and claimed this territory. Lore tells us of Calusa Indians who brought enemies here so they might sit beneath the manchineel tree during a rainstorm. But when the tree's milky white sap dripped off branches and fruit, it caused instant blisters on the skin and, in some cases, death.
Its effect wasn't nearly the same, but I was still surprised when raindrops spattered my arms. So engrossed were we with crossing Whitewater Bay -- and watching a crocodile floating off our port side -- we failed to notice how a powder blue sky, which stretched on for miles without interruption from clouds, quickly became overcast. A gentle rain lasted only a half-hour, and it helped cool us off. It was also a warning: We should watch the weather as much as our direction.
Roberts River marked our entry into what I'd term the real Everglades wilderness. A half-mile wide at its mouth, it narrows considerably past Lane Creek, three miles upstream. As the banks closed in, I noticed how everything around us looked the same -- acre-upon-acre of mangroves, punctured here and there with a sharp, bleached tree snag. Three giant black turkey buzzards perched on the branches of one, holding out their expansive wings to dry in the breeze. A white ibis came to roost some 20 yards off, its wings beating the air as it landed on a branch that bobbed under its weight. Unlike the myriad other white birds that populate the Everglades -- Great Egrets, wood storks, snowy egrets and the Great White Heron -- we positively identified this one by its long, curved red beak.
It struck me as we paddled past this landscape, that change, when it's come to the Everglades, has always been imposed from the outside. Farmers built canals and dikes that diverted the historic water flow from Lake Okeechobee. Settlers drained land and built homes on the fringes. But in its deep, dark swamp recesses, where Indians formed pockets of guerrilla resistance during the Seminole Wars of the 1800s, it is the visitor who must adapt in order to survive. It was a lesson we ourselves would learn in the next 24 hours.
It was from the Seminoles that the park service borrowed the term for our campsite. "Chickees" are platforms on stilts set in the river, covered with a tin roof. Our tent fit on it with space enough for a camp kitchen. Fires are not allowed. We lit three citronella candles and toasted our day's work with wine in our tin cups.
Next morning proved spectacular. As the sun rose behind us, we spotted two fins and then the broad, slick gray backs of a pair of dolphin. They swam in semicircles around our chickee, obviously curious about these visitors. Too soon, they hightailed it down the river, out of sight and camera range. It was time to move on.
We hit Lane Creek 45 minutes after pushing off, a three-mile paddle that flew by with the aid of wind at our backs. It was a turn easy enough to find, marked by a sign warning power boaters to take care for manatees. The Everglades are among the last refuges of this prehistoric-looking mammal, but even here, they are under constant threat from injury or death due to collisions with propellers.
With reservations, Mary agreed to my request that we explore a route back to Flamingo through Lane Bay and Hells Bay. On a map, this scrabble of small islands and twisting, turning rivers tugged irresistibly on my imagination. Here, I was certain, lay the wild Everglades, a world removed from power boaters and tour groups. It would also mark the first time on the trip I'd put compass and map reading to the test. Within three miles, I'd navigated our way past several false turns. We broke out onto Lane Bay, one third of our trip home complete.
The lure of the Everglades is strong, but it comes with a price. From the deck of a kayak, there is no perspective of the landforms that define streams and bays, no sense of shape or what may lie around the next corner. Low tide will expose silted river flats and roots of the mangrove. High tide will cover these markers and render the same spot unrecognizable. It's as if land and water are living, breathing entities, morphing into new shapes with each glance.
As on the day before, clouds rolled in after lunchtime and the wind, once at our back, turned on us. Unable to find our way into Hells Bay, we turned around. Between Lane Bay and Flamingo lay 13 miles of non-stop paddling, if we were to make it back by 5 p.m. Any later, and we would forfeit our hefty deposit on the kayak. (A half hour late, and the kayak company would send out a rescue party.)
If before we paddled with confidence, now we worked with urgency. On Whitewater Bay, wind blew our boat backwards if we rested even for a moment -- meaning we rested very little. Our straight line across open water, rather than along the shoreline where trees might break the wind, came with a price. I'm not 100 percent sure what athletes describe as being "in the zone," but it may well describe our will to make forward progress in spite of every muscle telling us to stop -- a will that kept our exhausted bodies paddling for four hours without break.
We made it to the marina at 4:50 p.m. Staff awaited us, one eye on the clock as it approached quitting time. My arms, like wet spaghetti, were too tired to lift anything, so I let them take our boat from the water. Pumped up with adrenaline, we told a young attendant where we'd come from, and how we paddled 20 miles in one day. He lifted one eyebrow in surprise. His skepticism, could not damper our enthusiasm. As destroyed as we felt physically, we were making plans for another Everglades adventure, next time deeper and further into this vast "river of grass."