Canoeing through the Everglades
In December, a few friends and took a five day canoe trip through the Everglades. I saw more wildlife on this trip than any backpacking adventure I’ve ever had. The paddling was mostly quite easy. The mosquitos were voracious. Solitude was not to be found between all the fishers and the campers. But all in all, this was one of my most favorite trips ever. I would go back in a heartbeat.
For some pictures of wildlife that I couldn’t include in this post, check out this album.
Day 1: Everglades City to Crooked Creek Chickee
We spent the night at the Ivey House hotel, which was also the outfitter that rented us two heavy Grumman metal canoes and a cooler. (I’d recommend a lighter canoe if possible.) All night, while we were packing, I kept an ear on the marine radio and noted a small craft advisory.
However, we wake up in the morning and the water seemed very calm. This turned out to be the pattern for the rest of our trip — calm mornings with the winds picking up around 10 am.
We set out from Everglades City, launching from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. We decided to go under the bridge to the canal that leads to Chokoloskee. It was a difficult paddle getting past the bridge while the tide was going out, but otherwise, this was a smart choice. There were a lot of birds along the canal, the water was calm and protected, and it was the most direct path to Lopez River.
The high winds, combined with the tide going the wrong direction, made for an incredibly difficult paddle up Lopez River. It felt like we were making forward progress a couple feet for every minute of paddling.
But eventually we reached Crooked Creek Chickee. The chickee is located near the confluence of Lopez River and Crooked Creek. Thankfully, it is an area protected by a mangrove forest island so passers-by are unlikely to disturb campers. The chickee is sheltered from wind by the island, so camping is comfortable but the mosquitos are intense. We quickly retreated to our tents after nightfall.
Day 2: Crooked Creek to Sweetwater Chickee
The Wilderness Waterway took us through four bays this day: Sunday Bay, Oyster Bay, Huston Bay, and Last Huston Bay. Navigation was pretty easy using a chart and compass, but I made good use of my binoculars to spot NPS markers.
We made extremely good time through Sunday and Oyster Bays, but again the winds picked up and gave us a strenuous paddle through the two Huston Bays.
On the bright side, we saw DOLPHINS! We were just paddling along one of the bays when we spot a spout of water spray and the gleaming blob peek out of the water not more than 20 feet away. Two dolphins swam along side our boat as we paddled on. They were beautiful and majestic, and I was excited to be alongside these magnificent creatures for just a few minutes.
Sweetwater Bay is supposed to be home to a fresh water spring. Being one of the few sources of fresh water in the Everglades, a ton of wildlife hang out here. Paddling in to the chickee, we saw a whole bunch of alligators.
The chickee itself is about 50 feet from the closest dry land so the winds are able to help keep some of the mosquitos away. We fell asleep to the sounds of jumping mullet fish and the sounds of something breathing near the water’s surface, which we later learned was a manatee!
Day 3: Sweetwater Chickee to Pavilion Key
The next day, we paddled down Chatham River and into the Gulf of Mexico to Pavilion Key. Chatham River is surrounded on all sides by mangrove forest. We saw some wading birds.
It was a pretty uneventful day, with the hardest paddling coming at the middle of the day when the winds picked up just as we were crossing the open water to Pavilion Key. We reached Pavilion Key with plenty of sunlight left so we explored the island on foot as much as we could, but the southern half of the island is basically entire covered with mangrove. Later, we pitched our tents off the beach, and settled in for a nice dinner. Winds were pretty high that night so mosquitoes were not a problem on the beach.
Day 4: Pavilion Key to Rabbit Key
We started the day with a paddle around the south end of Pavilion Key. We saw more DOLPHINS, as well as some pelicans. We saw at least three dolphins. This time they didn’t seem to be going anywhere, just swimming around in circles.
As we rounded the southern end of the island, the waves got really big. I wasn’t paying attention and hadn’t steered the bow of the canoe into the wave and we capsized. We lost a couple items, but it wasn’t a big deal.
The most notable thing about Rabbit Key is the sandbar that gets exposed at low tide. We had fun running back and forth on that sandbar making our GPS think we were walking on water. While we were fooling around here, we saw a stingray! We even had dinner there and wanted to stay out to stargaze but unbelievably, the mosquitoes were biting even out there.
Rabbit Key itself is tiny, with really only one nice place to camp on the east tip of the key and looks over the sandbar. We decided against that spot because we deemed it too close to some standing water that was spawning mosquitoes, but that was a severe mistake.
We pitched our tents on the beach with the port-a-potty and thought we’d be fine. But we later woke up that night to the sound of our canoes banging against each other in the waves and found that our tents were about to get swallowed by the rising tide. We moved our tents, waited an hour for the tide to begin receding, and went back to bed.
Day 5: Rabbit Key back to Everglades City
That day was our last day in the backcountry. We were informed that navigating back to the Wilderness Waterway through the passes could be tricky, so we gave ourselves plenty of time and checked our charts a lot. That being said, as long as you made progress to the northeast, you would eventually hit the Wilderness Waterway. We didn’t get lost so the paddle was pretty uneventful.
I just spent the paddle back to Everglades City basking in the emotion of the past 5 days, coming down from that outdoor high that all outdoor enthusiasts know and love.