Kayaking the Florida Everglades

This is a quick post about our ‘kayaking the Florida Everglades’ adventure. I provide details that include our route map, costs and some logistical requirements as well as links to additional details, photos and videos. This is a self-guided 14 night adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure. Route map here.

kayaking the Florida Everglades Backstory

Once upon a time I was foolish enough to purchased a kayak, sight unseen, simply because a fellow bar patron told me that I should purchase his kayak and paddle it to Key West. I agreed on the spot and that is how my kayak adventures began. Four years, and many goofy adventures later, I was contemplating a new friend’s problems when a silly idea occurred to me, “what Mike needs is some hard outdoor time in order for him to realize just how good he really has it.” No sooner had the words left my brain (yes I generally think out loud) than Mike and I began planning a kayak trip (since a friend in Miami had a brand spanking new two person paddle/peddle kayak that we could borrow/take).

We agreed to set off in about a week (after I finished some obligations to another friend). This is a Moderate ActivityAs the week came to an end we began to venture out on shopping excursions (both for gear and supplies). Naturally Mike and I (and pretty much anyone who ventures into the wild with me) disagreed on many issues, such as tents (I purchased a children’s Winnie The Pooh tent for Mike and a cheaper children’s tent for myself), how much water to take (one liter each per day), what constituted food (lots of cans of baked beans), and finally the general direction (north to south or south to north). I over ruled him on most issues because I had prior experience (that were mostly inept) and confidence (that was completely bluff). I used my trusted, “make it up as you go” approach for anything that could not be resolved in advance (such as how we would get the kayak to the entry point or back to Miami).

We finally agreed on an 8-12 day trip starting at the southern end of the Florida Everglades (Flamingo Park) and working our way north-west through salty marshes, creeks and open Gulf, to Everglades City (it actually took us 14 nights). We calculated 10-18 miles of paddling a day and hoped that the prevailing winds would be out of the east (which is the norm for South Florida winters, unless a cold front hits).

cost range

Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $

Cost Details:

14 Nights in the park & back country permit ($10 + 14x$2 )
Car entry fee
Food & supplies (mostly cans of baked beans)
Total $190
prices: January 2006

The night before we were to depart I volunteered a reluctant employee to meet us at the house, at 5 in the morning, to pack the kayak onto the roof of the tiny Toyota, drive us to Flamingo Park, and then return the car to the house. After much experimenting we managed to tie the kayak to the roof, pack our gear into the back seat and drive off. We reached the park only to find out that it was not officially opening until the weekend due to hurricane damage from the previous summer.

Apparently many of the chickees (camping platforms) had been blown away and many creeks remained clogged with branches and debris. However, after a bit of swagger I convinced the ranger that we were in fact very experience kayakers and outdoors-men. He agreed to let us loose in the Everglades if we modified our intended course to his liking and agreed to check into the Everglades City Ranger station when we completed the 11-12 day paddle. We agreed and then set off after a bit of trial and error kayak paddling, packing and stowing.

kayaking the Florida Everglades the Beginning

Our first day’s objective was a mere 10 miles and mostly via large open salty lakes. Fortunately the wind was out of the east and to our backs. I had spent many years in my youth canoeing in Canadian lakes, reading maps, observing compass readings, and discerning directions so finding our way was not overly difficult. I had also pre-marked many waypoints and chickee with my GPS as a precaution. We settled onto our designated camp platform with time to spare and then sat down to an easy dinner (of backed beans) and contemplation.

Click to watch Part 1 Video

Our next few days followed the same pattern of lazy paddling, perspiring, drinking lots of Gatorade flavored water, filming, photographing, talking, setting up platform camps, and eating baked beans. In all directions the mangroves looked as though they had been scrubbed bear of leaves by the hurricanes and not a human was to be sighted. Our only visitors were birds, dolphins and evening mosquitoes.

At about the half way mark of the trip, at the Shark River Chickee camp, we turned in just as an incredible light show began to our north. We couldn’t hear the thunder, but the entire horizon was aglow with lightning. During the night the storm reached us and it poured as lightning split the electrified air. We were fortunate that we were on a solid roofed platform and that we each had a tent (even though they were both small children’s tents).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The morning was overcast, damp and warm. We discussed some alternate routes due to the warnings give by the ranger, concerning clogged and closed rivers. We determined to follow the ranger’s advice and exit the rivers and venture out into the Gulf of Mexico. We planned to paddle out beyond the surf and make our way north for 4-5 hours before re-entering the shelter of the Everglades waterway. We watched the sky with growing apprehension as we continued to paddle towards the open water of the Gulf.

We reached the Gulf by mid-day and immediately made our way out to the furthest oyster bar for a rest before heading out into open water for a long open north paddle. After reaching open water we settled into a routine of paddling and resting as we slowly made our way parallel to the desolate and tangled coastline. We noted that not a beach or opening was in sight along the entire coast as a solid surreal black wall of clouds approached us out of the north. Mike became very uncomfortable as the wall of clouds and frigid cold air passed over us in a matter of minutes.

We had crossed a thermocline into a very cold and dark world. Within minuets the sea became a tempest and white breakers were seen approaching. We immediately turned the kayak towards shore with the hope of escaping the brunt of the cold front’s leading edge. We both paddled furiously to keep the kayak from capsizing as we rode the surf at an angle towards a small island, at the opening of a river that we had spotted. We managed to reach the tiny island and circle behind it to secure the kayak and then get out onto the shore (it was an oyster bar with a few scattered stunted mangroves).

kayaking the Florida Everglades Trouble Begins

Within minutes the air temperature dropped again, the wind picked up even more and a very cold rain began to pelt us. We had no place to hide on this spit and I very quickly began to shiver. I tried to shelter myself from the wind behind the thickest trunk I could find (about the width of my back) and settled down to freeze. Mike continued to wander about the small tangled island in a sort of a daze. He eventually crossed over to me and noticing my condition and said that we needed to create some kind of shelter. I made an effort to get up and stumble towards the kayak, but fell back behind the trunk within a few seconds. I could not venture out into the full brunt of the wind as I felt the cold breath of the guy with a sickle and realized that I was already beginning to feel the effects of hypothermia.

Fortunately Mike managed to reach the kayak and pull out one of the kids tents (Mike has more natural insulation than I do). He found an open spot and set up the tent in the downpour while I tried to help with shaking hands and chattering teeth (and a rolling video camera much to his disbelief). We crawled into the already sodden tent and I immediately fell asleep (in order to either die or recoup some energy). Mike woke me an hour later to tell me that the rain had slackened and that the island was flooding. We needed to pull down the tent and get back into the kayak while we still could. Reluctantly I accepted his prognosis as we broke down the tent and climbed back into the kayak. We were now both officially water logged, prune fingered, and very uncomfortable.

We made a break for the river opening and then paddled north, up a creek with a wicked reputation in the best of times. Within a short time we were trapped in tangles of branches and floating debris. We turned around and backtracked in the opposite direction. Our map showed a river to the south with a tributary that might lead us back to the safety (and comfort) of the Shark River Chickee. After hours of paddling and pushing, pulling, wiggling, and cursing up the clogged creek, we had to admit that it was impassable (just as the Ranger had told us back at Flamingo Park). Our only option was to return to the island again and hope that the surf had subsided or that it was no longer submerged. By this time the rain had turned into a steady drizzle rather than a pounding down pour so that now the paddling was also monotonous. We made haste to reach the island as the sun raced towards the horizon.

Reaching it before sunset was going to be difficult but at least the race was keeping me warm. As we backtracked for the second time that afternoon we watched the shoreline with keen interest. We were hoping to spot a potential site for a makeshift camp without success. The coastline was simply mangrove trees, roots, and slick black muck. We reached the island just as the sun touched the horizon (behind the clouds naturally). It only took a minute to observe that the surf was till kicking and that the island was mostly submerged and completely waterlogged. At last it had stopped raining.

Once again, we turned tail and headed back into the river without saying a word. We each knew that it would be a very long night if we had to spend it in the kayak and that one of us would probably not make it through the night if it started to rain again (oh pick me, pick me). As if the Big Guy had been monitoring our thoughts, he sent us a ray of hope. We spotted two or three shaggy palm trees and some ferns along the south river bank, behind a bend. We immediately landed the kayak into a root cluster and I climbed out to explore. Around the three palm trees the ground was soggy, but firm, under a layer of dead palm fronds. We agreed that this was as good as it was going to get and immediately set about making camp while twilight came to a close and the sound of night creatures began.

I torn down all the dead palm fronds I could find (and cut down any green ones that I could reach) and laid them as the base for our tent. I then used Mike’s Winnie tent as a ground sheet and assembled my kid’s tent as our joint abode for the evening. The tent was only five feet long (and I am six plus) and a mere four feet at its widest point. Mike and I were going to spend a tight and uncomfortable night spooning, but I was beyond caring at this point.

At the same time Mike was busy preparing our dinner of baked beans as hunger re-asserted itself now that we might consider living through the night. We wolfed down our helpings and then crawled into our wet tent (in our wet clothes) to share the only dry item we possessed (Mike’s blanket). I immediately fell asleep, but woke a few times in the night shivering. In each case I tugged on Mikes blanket to cover an exposed portion of my body. Apparently Mike had also awoke a few times shivering and was tugging the same blanket in his direction. All in all, we were like two cold peas in a pod that tight and miserable night.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We woke at twilight to clear skies and calm air. As Dawn spread her rose, red, fingers we broke camp and made haste to return to the Gulf before the winds picked up again. Fortunately the surf was normal and the wind remained slack for the next few hours as we made steady progress to the north. We stopped to rest and repack our wet gear at the previous day’s intended beach campsite. It was a sunny and picturesque palm tree beach that made the horrors of the previous day seem remote and our present prospects quite bright.

We paid for our lack of piety over the next few days as we continued up the Gulf coast and then cut back inland to follow the Everglades Waterway markers. From that point and until we reached the Everglades National Park station, we paddled against a strong north headwind. There were no more easy paddling days. As we continued to the north we noticed subtle changes in our setting. We were no longer alone and motor boat traffic appeared with increasing frequency as we got closer to Everglades City.

Fast johnboat fishermen were now plying the waters on a regular basis and even a park ranger appeared. He circled back when he saw us and inquired about our travels. He was visibly relieved when we told him that we were in fact the kayakers who had set off from Flamingo Park many, many days ago. He told us that a number of boating incidents had occurred during the severe storm and that we were considered unaccounted for up until now. He crossed us off his list, gave us two gallons of much needed fresh water and wished us well.

In spite of the head winds, Mike and I agreed to proceed to our final destination with all haste. We no longer had our camping sites to ourselves as more kayakers or canoeists joined us as the days wore on. At long last we reached the marina at the southern tip of Everglades City. We stopped here to have our first real meal (non-baked beans) in many days. We were a sore, dirty, sweaty, and salty pair that looked like sea tossed vagabonds. The restaurant staff didn’t seem to notice or care. We savored each bite and swallow of coffee (Pepsi in my case) and our stomachs felt full for first time in a long while. After the meal Mike looked at me and asked in a very serious tone about the plan for getting us, and the kayak, back to Miami. He had asked this question many times before we started the trip, and on a more frequent basis as the days progressed.

kayaking the Florida Everglades The End in Sight

Each time I jokingly replied that I had it under control and that he should not concern himself with the details. We were now only an hour’s paddle from our destination, the Ranger Station, and I could tell that he was going to insist on details. I frowned and then broke down and told him my plans, or lack there of. I had originally planned on continuing the trip north from here until we reached the city of St Petersburg (an additional two weeks of paddling), but now that we were facing a headwind (and my posterior was wet and sore) I reconsidered. I’d originally checked the Greyhound bus schedule so that I could bus Mike back to Miami if he didn’t want to join me on the extended part of the journey. Now I considered stashing the kayak in some bushes and taking the bus back with him. But before breaking the news to him I figured I should check in on the world, via mobile phone.

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”ehBEKgi33YY&rel=0″ width=”1280″ height=”720″ auto_thumb=”1″ anchor
I unpacked the phone and called voice mail. I was surprised to find a lot of messages waiting. It turned out that the storm that hit us was very large and serious, causing a great deal of damage in South Florida. Many of our friends were concerned and had been leaving messages and generally working themselves into a lather. I began calling around to assure them that we were alive and well.

One of these calls reached a friend (Scott Hoey) who knew of another friend (Rich Ruda) that just so happened to be driving towards Miami and should be in our vicinity at that very moment. I call Rich and he agreed to swing south from Alligator Ally and pick me up (Mike would stay and watch the kayak) and then drop me at the Miami house.  I could then drive the tiny Toyota back to the west coast and pickup Mike and the Kayak. The new return plan fell into place without a hitch.

All’s well that ends well.

Click the big yellow button to become a patron!
Link to Route Map
Link to Everglades Park Info