Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mini skiffs and winter creek fishing.........

This past March, Connie and I had planned to get a shuttle to Watsons and explore the Sweetwater Bay area. Dan (gatorguy) and Les, would meet us on day one and camp with us at the Watsons place. The following morning while we paddled to Darwins, they would motor to Chokoloskee to pick up Stubb. You see, a few of our kayak fishing buddies had gone out and traded their paddle craft for mini skiffs.

Les ordered a Gladesman:

Stubb bought a used Riverhawk:

Dan bought a new Gheenoe:

They decided to meet us out in the backcountry and test their mini skiff's and hopefully catch some fish. Stubb, at the last minute decided not to bring his skiff down thinking there would be ample room for fishing aboard either the Gladesman or the Gheenoe. Unfortunately, the conditions did not look favorable for fishing. A full moon, lunar eclipse and a cold front coming in all in that same weekend with high winds predicted. The front even promised to lower the temperatures to the lowest that winter. Yeah, prime fishing conditions. I'll let Stubb....tell you the rest....

The Wilderness at Low Water

mike stubblefield
sanford florida

Gator, Les and I gazed at two mini-skiffs, a Gheenoe Classic and an East Cape Gladesman, loaded to the gunwhales with camping and fishing gear. Fortunately, both boats were beached on Chokoloskee Island. Their bows were high and dry because we weren’t quite sure either one would float once we boarded and shoved off. Assuming, naturally, that the gear loads would let us “shove off.” . If they would float, there were valid concerns about the amount of freeboard available to handle the fifteen knot NNW winds that lashed at the inland bays along the Wilderness Waterway.

“Hmmmm,” mused Gator. “My tupperware tubs fit just right on the foredeck and behind the live well but I ain’t sure but what I didn’t bring a bit too much stuff.” “I keep telling you, Bubba, that all that water, ten gallons at eight pounds per gallon, is a lot excessive. A half gallon of rum would last you 4 days just fine and only weighs about a pound.” Nobody responded to my comment, however, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
“Can you leave that tub behind?” asked Les and he pointed to the container full of tents, camp chairs, cook stove and cans of Beanie Weenie, Gator’s version of emergency rations.

There was no reply to this outrage because, given our combined record of skunks, Beanie Weenie might constitute our first camping night’s dinner .. if not night numbers two and three. So, with a glance to the low cloud cover and gusting winds, we grunted the bows off the bank, fired up the mighty 9.9 and 15 horse outboards, and galloped into the Turner River headed twenty miles SSE to Darwin’s Place.

The plan was to meet with friends Vivian and Connie. They are confirmed yakeros and canoeists and had been mothershipped into the coastal ‘Glades the day before by Captain Charles Wright of Everglades City. From Darwin’s we would roam the small creeks and bays in all directions. You note I said “small creeks” and with good reason: the strong winds made the larger bays wildly choppy.

The two skiffs had no difficulty meandering the 20 odd miles to Darwin’s. We only ran aground fifteen or twenty times, even using what we thought were good GPS tracks made on previous trips. We got turned around twice and ended up doing two tours of Crooked Creek; none of us noticed it until I sighted a dead mangrove I’d shot a picture of thirty minutes earlier. We stopped, conferred, consulted charts and GPS tracks, cussed each other out, and got headed in the right direction.

Eventually, we landed on Darwin’s Place campsite. Viv and Connie, models of minimalist wilderness paddling, were set up: their tent tucked against a Gumbo Limbo tree; water in coon-proof containers; canoes snugged up on high ground.

We lumbered to a stop on the shell landing and were treated to loud, long and outraged comments from the ladies about the amount of gear we brought. However, knowing them as I do, I produced a genuine four cup coffee press and a freshly ground pound of Starbuck’s Ethiopian Sidama coffee, and became an instant hero. My mama didn’t raise a fool.

The next two days were one’s of exploration coupled with fishing. And freezing! The sunrise showed the temps at forty degrees (Gator’s infamous watch not only gives us altitude, barometric and humidity readings but also the temperature. I think it tells the time, too.).

The strong winds kept us in the aforementioned creeks and we caught snook; few were keepers but they were of a size to make us happy. We ventured down one creek, poling, slogging through mud bars, and on into a series of large shallow bays. And the snook were in there! Smart, the snook were laid up in a foot of water and mud since the sun warms those areas up quickly. We didn’t see them, until poling by, and it was like sight fishing redfish: a fin here, a tail there, a cast into the movement, a “whoa,,, got a hook up!” Dinner was assured.

There was a slight problem, however. Every evening, each morning, we’d look at the water level on the tiny shell beach where the skiffs and canoes rested, and noted something disturbing: the water level did not go up with tide changes. Strong northerly winds were stalling tidal surges. However, since to our eyes the surrounding levels were constant, we didn’t worry about it much.

We should have been concerned.

Our last day at Darwin’s Place had Les, Gator and I loading the skiffs back up; we eyeballed the water level again .. hadn’t budged. Winds were still strong, to fifteen plus and gusting NNE, but “ho hum .. looks OK to me!” was the attitude. Viv and Connie were to be picked up with their canoes by Captain Wright; no worries there, so we took off.

Details of the return trip would be tedious here. So, I’ll summarize. In a mini-skiff running a 9.9 or 15 horse outboard, the trip from Chokoloskee Island to Darwin’s, or the return, via the Wilderness Waterway, should not take more than an hour. Just coasting along, enjoying the scenerey.

But, unknown to us, the water gauge at the mouth of the Turner River that day dropped off the graph. We got beat to death in Chevalier Bay by the chop; got detoured out of several creek passages that had gone dry; had to pole our way through the two Cross Bays; and pushed the skiffs out of Mud Shoal Bay. When we got to Chokoskee Bay .. there was no water!! I climbed an oyster bar to see if there were channels with water to get us to the launch ramp. The return trip took four hours .. but we made it.

Would I go back? Yup. Scheduled to be down there again in April. I’ll have a pair of wading boots with me this time.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

To Hells Bay and back in a canoe.

This trip is a typical weekender, a one-night stay and 2 days paddling in the Everglades. For this trip, we chose Hells Bay, and picked a chickee that would end at a route that was relatively protected from the 25 (gusting to 30) knot winds expected this weekend. The temperature was pleasant, if not a bit too hot for this time of year. At this time of year, we expect chilly air in the evening (low to mid 50s) and look forward to the coziness of wearing insulated p.j.s in a nice down bag. This weekend would be a bit warmer, reaching mid-80s during the day and a reasonable mid-60s in the evening.

We arrive at the ranger station around 7:30 am. As my companions went inside to take care of the permits, I stayed outside checking out the low tide of the Florida Bay. A huge flock of white pelicans and many flocks of small shore birds (e.g., plovers) were massed along the sand bars that ran the length of the cove in front of the ranger station. I watched a few dolphins feeding along the sandbars, prime spot for fishing. Dolphins move like torpedoes in the water when feeding and are so much fun to watch. I’ve seen dolphins jump 6 feet out of the water, an amazing spectacle of power!

Getting permits for camping in the Everglades is a trip in and of itself. There is the usual scurrying for sites which often requires standing in line with a couple dozen anxious vacationers (northern types) during the busiest time of the year (around the holidays and spring break). It seems everyone wants to camp in the Everglades come December or January! On this day, we only have the park volunteers to deal with. As with any national park, funding is, well, non-existent and in order for our parks to survive, they depend on the volunteers that graciously give their time and effort. On this particularly occasion, a retired couple was working the desk and issuing camping permits. The kindly (yet extremely talkative and a bit too enthusiastic toward the females in our group) man took care of the bookkeeping so to speak while his wife exclaimed to us that she would not be making the effort to learn how to record campsite permits and that we would have to deal with her better half. As a result, we had to wait for the kindly gentlemen to take care of us, while he attended to the people in front of us. In the meantime, we challenged his wife by asking for information on canoe trails, wildlife, the current roseate spoonbill nesting situation, chickee camping, tide levels and anything else we could think of just to give her a reason to nudge her talkative husband to move it along and get on to the next costumer, which was us.

An interesting thing about folks issuing the camping permits, most, if not all, have never experienced camping in the Everglades. Today, our kindly gentlemen gleefully admitted to us that he not only had never camped in the Everglades, but had never canoed or kayaked. So, a word of wisdom to any of you who wish to venture into the Everglades with a paddle boat, do not rely on the people in the ranger station for any significant information that is in any way, shape or form important to your safety or wellbeing as a canoeist or kayaker. At the same time, these people are the only thing between you and your camping permit, so humor them and don’t ask too many questions. It’s best to do the research before you get there and there are plenty of resources available to you.

We decide for this trip to stay at the Pearl Bay chickee we wanted to go to Lane Bay but it was already taken. This would not be a particularly long trip (about 7 miles round trip) but it would take us through the convoluted Hells Bay trail that has very little water in it before entering the open bays, thus slowing us down and making for a nice day of paddling. Secondly, we expected very high winds, so to stay protected (coming from the Hells Bay canoe trail) Pearl Bay was a better choice than Hell Bay chickee. Plus, I had never stayed there but have stayed at Hells Bay chickee. We put our canoes and kayaks in at the Hell’s Bay trailhead. The trail winds through red mangrove thickets and an occasional open bay-lette leading us to the open large-bay waters of the Hells Bay area.

During our trip to Hells Bay, I expected to see several gators sunning along the canoe trail and wading birds feeding along the mangroves. I was also hoping for some feisty small snook and tarpon to battle with. None of this happened. In fact, with the exception of a small group of coots in Pearl Bay as I neared the chickee, I didn’t get close to any wildlife on this trip including fish (unless you count the group camping on the platform next to ours). The wildlife sightings were so scant and far-away that I got overly excited when I noticed a mangrove tree covered in blooming air plants. Interestingly, about ½ mile or so into the Hells Bay trail, I began to hear the loud squawking of egrets, herons and Ibises. I spotted a couple blue herons and white egrets in the air, a tell-tale sign that a nesting area was very close. Along the canoe trail are several shell mounds and open areas from which one could easily get out of their boat and wander into the mangrove forests. Mind you, some of the openings are created by very large reptiles, so you need to look for the tracks of gator feet and tail. If you do spot the tracks, best to move on to the next opening. I didn’t get out this day because I was traveling with others who were not interested in nesting birds hidden in the mangroves.

With all the kayaking and canoeing I do in the beautiful Everglades wilderness, It has been only a small number of times that I have come within a short distance (50 feet or less) of birds. Meandering through the Hells Bay trail offered me several fishing opportunities but no one was home. Eventually, we come to an open area, the first relatively large bay. Here we find Lard Can campsite, the only ground site in Hells Bay. We stop for a quick lunch, along with a couple from Maine who were vacationing for a week in south Florida. While musing about the beautiful warm weather and the casualness of the paddling experience, I attempted to get out of my canoe to use the facilities only to be stopped in mid tracks by about 1 foot of mud. Such is the backcountry of the Flamingo area. Mud and more mud, pretty much describes this area of the Everglades. This is precisely why I choose to use a canoe in the southern area of the Everglades, it provides room for the basic necessities, thus sparing you the discomfort of having to get out into the mud. A kayak works perfectly on the northern end and along the gulf coast, where oyster bars replace the mud, making it easier to get out of your boat to step on solid ground. We leave Lard Can with only a very short mile to go before getting to our camping destination, Pearl Bay chickee.

I paddle the larger bay towards the chickee and cast along as many miles of shoreline that are promising. The water was crystal clear, no signs of baitfish or fish for that matter. The winds were really howling once we got close to the chickee but I was fishing the sheltered lee sides of the islands. Finally, I gave up and decided to paddle to the chickee.

Pearl Bay chickee is the only chickee in existence that is built “handicapped accessible”. As we approach the chickee we begin to ponder the definition of handicapped accessible as it was quite evident that we would have to become trained gymnasts within the next few minutes if any of us were going to get onto the platform. I exaggerate a bit, but in all reality, the distance between the platform and the water was beyond my leg length. Normally, hoisting ones self onto a high platform would not be so daunting, if one had solid ground from which to hoist. From a canoe or kayak, it’s a bit more challenging. Today, the water level was low, as it would continue to be until the summer rains. As a result, there was over 4 feet of distance between the water surface and the platform. But, thanks to the “handicapped accessible” portion of the platform, we only had a few feet distance.

Here we were, 2 kayaks and 2 canoes and 4 individuals of varying heights, gender, age (average about 58 yr), strength and agility. The first person on the platform was the strongest, tallest and most agile of the 4, our 69-yr old paddling companion and friend, Fred. Fred paddles a Scupper Pro, twin hatch, weighing over 100bs with his gear. He gets onto the platform and proceeds to hoist the boat onto the platform with ease, illustrating his sheer ability to defy the laws of aging. Next up was our second kayaker, Judy. Judy stands about 5 1/2 feet tall and paddles a Kevlar Current Design CD Squamish, a considerably lighter boat than Fred’s. Unfortunately, getting gear out of the hatches of a kayak is very difficult from a chickee platform when there is a very long distance to reach. Our friend attempted to hoist herself onto the chickee, but without success. We all wondered how we were going to get this woman onto the platform. At last we came up with the idea of “ferrying” her to the platform with one of our canoes. Judy paddled to the nearby mangroves and found high ground to anchor the boat. We then unloaded it, and placed her gear into our canoes. I then ferried Judy to the platform and she was able to get herself in a standing position from the back of my canoe while Fred pulled her onto the platform. We then towed her kayak to the chickee. At last, only the 2 canoeists were left. Getting onto the platform was easier for us, relatively speaking.

Finally, we are 4 people and 2 kayaks on dry platform ground and the 2 canoes were securely roped to the pillars.

We spent a leisurely couple of hours on our platform. On one platform we contained 2 tents, 2 kayaks and 4 people with all our gear. A word of wisdom if you choose to explore the Everglades, choose your kayak/canoe companions wisely, as you will not be able to ignore one another while camping on a chickee. Fortunately for the 4 of us, we are like peas in a pod (which is exactly what feels like when chickee camping. To overcome the crampness, you simply find your spot, bring a comfortable chair (I use my Thermarest pad with chair kit) and sit back and enjoy the scenery. And that is the joy of being in the Everglades. The remoteness, the wildness, the quiet; it all adds up to a remarkable experience. Before sunset, I thought I would get back into my canoe and fish a bit. But the thought of getting back onto the chickee made me reach for my wine instead.

In the meantime, our chickee neighbors arrive, 3 kayakers out for a night. All from Miami, they were young, creative, and full of life. We enjoyed their company as they seemed relatively quiet. The guitar playing in the early morning and cigar smoking was a tad irritating but certainly not enough to ruin a glorious evening and morning in the Everglades. My friend Connie had set up for some evening shots and complained about the lack of birds flying by. “If I could just capture a flock of pelicans as the sun casts a brilliant orange over the mangrove bay, I might have a worthy picture”. Finally, as it got darker, she put’s the camera away and right on time, there they were in perfect “V” formation.

In the evening when darkness fell, a beautiful star filled sky amazed all of us and we just sat there and looked up. Our chickee mates brought out their glow in the dark sky charts and telescopes and we had a great time identifying the constellations.

We arose at our typical morning hour, we ate breakfast while Connie shot some early morning sunrises and we loaded up our boats. Getting back into the boats was much easier and sadly, not as eventful. We headed back to the Hells Bay trail and would arrive at our take out site around 11 am or so. We decided to have lunch at the Anhinga Trail. The sweet irony of this trip would become apparent during our visit to Anhinga.

The Anhinga Trail is a boardwalk, about ¾ mile in length, built in the Taylor slough. At the height of the nesting season, which is now, you can’t spit without hitting a bird (you’d probably hit a tourist first, so I don’t advise doing that experiment). The display of wildlife is fantastic, a photographer’s dream.

Our detour to the Anhinga trail was the highlight of our trip. Despite the fact it was teaming with humans, I witnessed some of the most remarkable wildlife behaviors that I have never seen from a kayak. The cormorants were everywhere and I saw a guy touch one of these birds without it flinching (not something I encourage, but a poignant account of how use to humans these animals have become). The canal along the trail provides perfect feeding areas for wading birds and gators. You’ll see several anhingas, egrets, herons and an occasional gallinule. Among the wading birds you’ll find your usual gator, with its eyes and snout sticking out of the water.

Further up the trail, I spotted an interesting display of nesting behavior by a male anhinga. He was busily scurrying around the branches occasionally taking a bite at a branch in attempt to break it. Although I have no doubt to the exactness of his nature, he looked clumsy and anxious. I imagined a guy who had been sent to the grocery store by his wife to buy a few necessary items, of which he had no clue of their necessity. Eventually, he got himself a nice little branch. As soon as he took off with it, that’s when I noticed the purpose of his display; an anhinga nest with the mother. The father came into the nest and handed the mother the branch.

She took it and placed it neatly in her home. What a beautiful display of cooperation! The father flew off to another tree and landed in a low lying branch. It was high enough such that a gator resting below it was not quite able to grab the bird. The anhinga landed, the gator got his jaws out of the water lunging toward the bird, but gratefully, the bird escaped. After Connie took several pictures of a resting gator and a prideful female anhinga spreading her wings, we rounded a corner on the trail just as two women were exclaiming with excitement that they just witnessed an anhinga catch a fish and duck into the water. We waited for it to come back up and eventually it did, about 20 feet away. The anhinga quickly got himself on a tree with the fish in his razor-sharp beak. He had pierced the 8-in catfish right in its gut with both ends of his beak. It appeared that the bird was trying to get his beak out of the already dead fish.

For about 5 minutes a growing mass of people watched the bird tenaciously shake and beat the fish against a branch. Occasionally, he got tired of that particular branch and moved toward a larger branch below his perch. But, it proved to be more awkward for him and so he would go back to the original branch and continue trying to get the fish free from his beak. At some point, the bird decided to go into the water, and then after several feet of quick swimming, come up on the other side of the canal. By doing this, he had somehow managed to release the fish and get it in his mouth. He was just getting the fish lined up in a way that he would do the classic anhinga fish fling when suddenly a cormorant swooped down and grabbed the fish out from under him. Unbelievable! The cormorant got away, but while doing so somehow lost hold of the fish. There was the dead fish, belly up in about 2 feet of water. In the meantime, the poor anhinga had stepped back watching the sad spectacle of events. The cormorant went into the water to get the fish, but even with several attempts was unable to get a hold of it. We wondered why he was unsuccessful as the fish was clearly in sight. Eventually he gave up and left and the fish lay in the water unattended.

I resent that I had spent 2 days in the Everglades wilderness and saw no gators or any bird to speak of. Clearly, the Everglades has been mostly destroyed and the wildlife is in a state of constant recovery. But, the sweet irony is that the Anhinga trail does exist and it is an easily accessible part of the Everglades. No hiking or paddling required, just drive up!

It’s almost as if the animals have run into hard times and are forced to entertain for a living. But, they are wildlife, and that’s what makes the Anhinga trail a precious gem, especially for a wildlife photographer like my friend Connie Mier who took all these photographs. Nothing can match the excitement of exploring the Everglades in a kayak, but this day on the Anhinga Trail was brilliant. As I continue to explore every corner of the Everglades, I’ll be poised for that spectacular wildlife display; I just have to be in the right place at the right time. In the meantime, the Anhinga trail offers too much to ignore.

I often kayak in the Everglades, but for this trip I brought my Bell Merlin 2 solo canoe (15 ft length). For a fisherman, the canoe provides a more accessible means to the fishing equipment and I recommend it on those day trips or during overnighters when you are not in a rush to get from A to B. The solo canoes are not slow, they travel at the same rate as most SOT’s, but nothing compared to the efficiency of a touring kayak. Canoes are a bit riskier out in the open gulf, so I generally stick to the backcountry when I do go out in it. Remember though, the backcountry is full of open bays that can be treacherous, especially from a canoe. In contrast to my touring kayak, my canoe offers me access to my cooler and fishing equipment, not to mention the capability of bringing more than one fishing rod on a trip. Unlike my canoe, my kayak has a relatively narrow cockpit and I always have a spray skirt covering it. To take the canoe on an overnight trip provides me carefree fishing opportunities. Even with the SOT I was miserable when touring for more than a couple of days and not having the access I have with the canoe. What I like the most about the canoe is being able to change positions from sitting to kneeling on long trips and being dry and warm.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Gear and other considerations.



__Tent - choose a 3 season, freestanding tent make sure it is has no-see-um netting. Tent should have a fly that extends down to cover the entire tent body. A vestibule and dual doors are nice if you share with another person. Try to get the best quality you can afford and steer away from large tents unless you are sharing with someone. There is little space on chickees and some of the backcountry platforms for a tent with a large footprint.

__Tarp a 10 x 10 size works well for 2-4 people.  I like my CCS Tundra tarp. 

__Ground Cloth for under tent nothing fancy just to protect the bottom of your tent from sharp shells, mud, stickers, etc. You can use an interior ground sheet instead just make sure it is cut so that the edges come up along the walls a few inches.

__Waterproof bags - Sealine bags have been good so far for my clothes, sleeping gear, First Aid kit is in a Pelican Case and so is my phone.

__Sleeping Bag - I use a women's specific 20 degree down bag. It gets real cold at night on the out islands in our winter believe it or not. You should also bring a twin cotton sheet if the nights are warm. Yes, I use down and cotton. Never have had a problem because I use a sure fire method to keep it dry. First, the down bag is stuffed into a nylon stuff sack, which goes into a trash bag that has the top twisted closed, doubled over and held in place with a small elastic bungi loop. This then goes into a Sealine dry bag.

__Sleeping pad

__Headlamp and batteries

__LED light spare

__Chair kit - converts your sleeping pad into the MOST comfortable camp chair and weighs nothing.  In my canoe I bring a collapsible folding chair.

__50'Rope - parachute cord is fine.

__Knife - attached to PFD.

__Folding Bucket - before the tide goes out and leaves you with a mile of mud, get some water in your bucket to bring back to camp to wash dishes

__Note Pad and Pen

__Mosquito Repellent - only 100% deet works out here! Thermacell works in low wind conditions.

__Mosquito Head net or better yet full jacket - Outdoor Research spring ring head net works great. This is a minimum requirement to have. I also carry a jacket made from no see um netting with attached hood.

__Candle Lantern or Luci Light - good to bring from Nov - Jan as it gets dark early. The candle lantern burns citronella candles as well. UCO Candlelier is what I use.


__Trangia Stove - great stove has lasted for years and the cookware that comes with this model can be cleaned with saltwater and scrubbed with sand and shells without any noticeable scratches. Burner is all brass has no moving parts so can't break. Base can be sunk into the sand to stabilize pot. Model I have is the Trangia Series 25-7 cook set with Duo ss al pans. Does NOT SIMMER! So no fancy cooking but, I don't have time for fancy cooking. It's an alcohol stove and the fuel can be bought at any hardware store under the name, denatured alcohol.

__Fuel - I keep my denatured alcohol in a nalgene bottle. Or an old hydrogen peroxide bottle fitted with a sports bottle top.
__Small paring knife
__Insulated Coffee Mug
__Tin Foil
__Olive Oil
__Trash bags
__Small bottle purell to disinfect hands before cooking or eating.
__Water container bags - I use the MSR water bags  put two behind  stern bulkhead to keep the weight centered in the boat. Behind my seat in the cockpit I keep a platypus hoser with 3 liters of water. I like using the hose as I don't need to pop the spray skirt to get my drinking water. Also great on windy days when you can't stop paddling and need to hydrate. For the canoe I bring a hard sided water container that holds 4 gallons on longer trips bring a 7 gallon.
__Water - 1 gallon per person per day.

__Toilet paper/wipes
__Packtowl - quick drying personal bath towel - small size.
__No Rinse Body Bath - I have to bathe! Two capfuls of this product in one quart of water brought into the tent using the folding bucket or even a pot makes for a refreshing bath before changing into your "evening wear". Use a bandanna to wash your body then dry, no need to rinse.
__Dr Bronners liquid soap - works well in saltwater.

I only use all quick dry synthetics for clothing. If you should get your clothes wet they won't dry in our humid tropical environment.

__1 Zip neck thermal shirt__2  synthetic T-shirts short sleeve__1 synthetic T-shirt Long sleeve
__2 Nylon long sleeve fishing shirts. One for day use and one for evening wear. These are cool when it's hot and the shirts protect me from the sun and bugs. If the weather is cold, I layer this with my short or long sleeve t- shirt.
__Rain Jacket - Marmot Precip is great and doubles as a paddling jacket on windy, cold days.
__Tilley Hat - I use the canvas hat with side snaps. It is the only hat that stays on my head in 30 knot winds while paddling when I snap the sides up and I still get sun protection. The brim is stiff enough not to flap back exposing your face for hours to the sun while paddling in moderate wind. The canvas is cool and offers protection in rain.
__Baseball cap - backup hat and part of the "evening wear" outfit.
__Thermal Hat - great for keeping warm on cold nights. Or paddling on very cold days.
__Buff or Bandanas
__Fleece vest - use as part of layering system.


_ 2 Paddling shorts - I use a touring kayak so my legs don't need sun protection. If you use a SOT kayak you will need long pants.
__ 1 Quick dry pant - evening wear for full bug protection.
__1 Long underwear bottoms -  Lightweight
__2 Pair hiking liner socks - to use with my paddling shoes keeps my feet feeling dry.
__1 Pair fleece socks - tent wear (I don't bring my sand encrusted wool socks into the tent)
__1 Pair wool socks - Smartwool brand works wonders to keep bugs from biting your feet.
__CROCS or equivalent for camp. 

__Paddle Gloves - sungloves to protect my hands from the sun. I keep a spare pair.
__Paddles and spare
__Paddle Float
__Spray skirt
__Cockpit cover - very important to keep your cockpit clean and dry during the night.
__Tool kit with spare parts - I keep all my tools and spare parts for my boat in a 1 liter nalgene bottle. I wrap the outside of the bottle with duct tape and it is a compact waterproof unit.
__Dock Line
-quality braid about 12' long attached to bow.
__Sunglasses and a spare pair.
__Paddle Leash
__Signal Kit (flares/strobe) in a pouch attached to PFD belt.
__Charts/Tide Tables in waterproof chart case - with silva compass and marking pencil. (see GPS notes)
__Deck Compass
__VHF and spare battery__Waterproof phone case/phone
__GPS - . Currently using an older Garmin 60csx that is loaded with Blue Nav and also a TOPO of the area. I find the TOPO has more information for my inland trips than the Blue Nav. If you can't afford the Blue Nav, get a TOPO of the area and use it in conjunction with the NOAA charts or the TOP SPOT Maps of the area. These fishing charts offer large type and the graphics and colors are easier to see if you eyesight is not what it used to be. You will need the N204 for the Ten Thousand Islands Area and N206 for Chatam River to Flamingo.
__Anchor or stake out pole


__Bag of lures - I use a small plano waterproof case.
__Fishing Rod two piece with leash -
__Fillet Knife
__Measuring Tape
__Mesh fish bag - to keep fish until I can get to an area where I can fillet it.
__Fishing Rod holder
__Fishing Saltwater license and regulations for the park. Here are the regulations for Everglades National Park. Make sure they are current, ask the park ranger for an update when you get your permit.

First Aid Kit
__ Ibuprofen (Lot's of these)
__ Cold Tablets
__ Allergy Tablets
__ Cough Drops
__ Neosporin
__ Hydrocortisone Cream
__ Tiger Balm or Icy Hot
__ Tweezers
__ Nail Clippers with file
__ Gauze and tape
__ Bandaids and butterfly bandage
__ Blister Block -
you would be surprised how many blisters you can get from many days of paddling and not using gloves.
__ Personal Medications
__ Visine
__ Syringe
__ Hot and cold packs
__ Athletic bandage
__First Aid Book

Ditch Bag

This is a medium sized dry bag I keep in my cockpit with a leash attaching it to the boat. It contains some of the items listed above that I would need if I had to spend the night in my boat and could not get out because of deep water and lack of a place to land which is so common out there.

Items: Bug repellent, VHF, cell phone, headlamp, mosquito head net, space blanket, extra batteries, GPS, Marmot precip jacket, thermal hat and gloves reading glasses, energy bar.

Monday, January 15, 2007

What started this whole thing?

In the early 1980s I started exploring the Everglades from a small 15' deep V-hull aluminum skiff with a 30 hp engine. My interest in this area was sparked by my friend Shawn McMullin who insisted I stop fishing Biscayne Bay and drive to Flamingo to fish the Whitewater Bay area. Armed with a chart he loaned me, I drove south to Flamingo. Enamored by the beauty of the landscape during my drive to the marina I was getting excited to get my boat in the water. Once I got into Whitewater Bay I was hooked! The possibilities of exploring this vast area got me dreaming of future adventures. Every weekend I plotted out a section of that area and meticulously made my way to every spot I could get into with my boat. Eventually I started getting too far out and would have to bring my camping gear to spend the night. I did this for over 10 years until I decided to head to Chokoloskee and figure out that area as well.

One day, while I was on the Buttonwood Canal going to camp at Graveyard Creek, I passed a group of kayakers. They had beautiful long, sleek kayaks and they were all in white (a vision perhaps). I asked them where they were going. They answered that they were doing the entire wilderness waterway. I was shocked! We had done this by motor boat but could not imagine anybody being able to put all their gear in these sleek kayaks and paddle so many miles. It left an impression in my mind as I looked at my boat, overloaded with every possible manner of camping equipment packed in ugly trash bags.

In the early 1990s I visited Baja, California and was introduced to kayak fishing by using a sit on top kayak. I was hooked! When I got back to Miami I immediately started researching this particular method of fishing and found a couple of websites that were active with forum members posting reports and techniques. I bought my first kayak a yellow Scupper Pro, twin hatch model without rudder. After a few years of fishing from this kayak I sold my powerboat as it was maintenance intensive. I was really enjoying kayak fishing even more than fishing from a powerboat.

I started toying with the concept of camping from this boat. Of course that meant changes in equipment but eventually I did my first trip, an arduous 6 mile journey against the tide at night to Picnic Key. After that horrid adventure, I got a rudder to install on the boat and made myself learn the method of tide prediction as it applied to kayaking from point A to B. Now, I feel quite comfortable touring, camping and fishing out of a kayak or canoe.

Although getting further into the backcountry requires more vacation time, the experience of traveling with the rhythm of the Everglades by working the tides and traveling slow enough to really experience the subtle beauty of this wilderness has become a passion for me. With the powerboat I sped along covering miles but never really seeing or hearing anything. I am in another stage in my life where I want to slow life down to really enjoy it. I also want to get there under my own power. As I get older, this is becoming more important to me.

Experimenting with kayaks and canoes:

I had done numerous trips with my Scupper Pro for about four years. The sit on top was adequate for short trips of 2 night, 3 day adventures but it was killing me on longer trips. These plastic kayaks are slow and require alot of energy to push through the water when they are loaded with gear. I would find myself exhausted after a short 10 mile trip. There is plenty of wasted space for storing gear because of the open cockpit and on the new models the tankwell is useless on a camping trip. But the worst part is that the open cockpit would leave me exposed to wind and water and I did not like that feeling.

Eventually, I started to use closed deck kayaks and used a variety of them to see which one would allow stability to fish while being able to cover the miles without much effort. The closed deck or touring kayaks are the ticket for the Gulf of Mexico and coastal exploration. I owned several touring kayaks but they were difficult to fish out of.  I loved the QCC 400x touring kayak with rudder. It is a compromise of sorts as it is not a long sleek touring kayak but it is a stable fishing platform that allows for effortless paddling while loaded with supplies for a week long trip. However, in the backcountry the closed deck kayaks don't work as well if you are camping from a chickee (platforms above the water). They can also be a problem at higher tide phases when you can't get out of your boat to stretch or relieve yourself because of the lack of solid ground to stand on.

Presently, my new experiment is to use a solo touring canoe in the backcountry and that has worked out well. I did own a Wenonah royalex Vagabond and a Bell Merlin 2 canoe which was fitted with a soft spray deck to try it in the coastal areas when the wind is up. Unfortunately, the spray deck is a pain when you want to trim the boat in winds or when trying to get stuff from below deck while at the chickees. However, it does keep you warm and dry when it is raining or cold.
Recently, I sold the Merlin 2 and my QCC 400x touring kayak and bought a Hemlock Kestrel. I lowered the seat a bit and added a foot brace to make it comfortable for both sitting and kneeling.Dan Cooke made me a cover to fit the Kestrel. Last season I took the Kestrel on it's first long trip in the Everglades. You can read about it under this blog. I am still learning and experimenting with new route, techniques and paddle craft. Great ways to fully enjoy this gift we share in Florida, the magnificent Everglades.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Trip Diary


We began heading toward the gulf of Mexico from Chokoloskee Island, crossing Chokoloskee Bay into Rabbit Key Pass. The winds were calm but would steadily pickup to 15-20 knot beam winds; not the best conditions for trolling so that did not last long. Did I mention it was really COLD! As we headed across the bay, I saw what looked like a white wall in the distance. As I got closer, it became clear that the wall was a flock of white pelicans gathered on a sandbar in the bay. White pelicans, unlike their brown counterparts, rest on sandbars rather than in trees. At best guess there must have been 200 of them huddled together all facing into the wind. This particular island of white pelicans is a common site this time of year.

We continued out toward the gulf. As you paddle through the islands, you’ll witness several flocks of birds flying overhead, typically ibises, terns, pelicans, egrets and cormorants. With the right lighting, the white flocks glow against a blue sky and green mangrove landscape. You’ll also see several wading birds among the mangroves and it’s not unusual to round a corner and have a blue heron fly out in front of you as you approach. Dolphins are also commonly seen as they follow the tides and feed in the shallows near the mangroves. Speaking of tides, many people come to the Everglades to kayak or canoe and believe the waters to be easygoing. True, the water is shallow in areas, but this is not always a good thing (you know that sound of fingers across a chalkboard; well, that’s the same sound your boat hull will make when it scrapes across an oyster bar). One has to be very mindful of the shoals, especially at low tide. True the water is relatively warm, compared to the north waters. But easy going? Hardly. To destroy that notion, simply head up Lostman’s River or Indian Key Pass against the tide. Imagine moving through wet cement; that should give you some idea of the intensity of this tidal area. Because paddling against a tide means nothing more than pain, we avoid it at all costs. Understanding how the tides and currents affect this area is a must in preparing an enjoyable trip! On this day, we coasted out to the gulf, riding the last of the outgoing tide and with the wind to our backs. It couldn’t have been planned any better!

As we entered the gulf, I noticed a very large head pop out of the water. My first thought was manatee, but with another appearance, it was clear that the animal was a very large loggerhead turtle. Loggerheads are the most common sea turtles in Florida and the shell can reach 40 inches and adults can weigh as much as 350 lb. I watched a graceful flock of common terns as they dive bombed the water several times. And of course there are always brown pelicans making their boisterous head dives into the water from as far up as 50 feet

The winds got worse as we were nearing Pavillion Key and we decided to take a lunch break at Duck Rock cove which offered us some peace from the persistent NW winds. As we were getting ready to land I see a lone solo canoer coming towards us, it was Andrew! I met him last year at the Watson place he was doing a fly fishing loop tour and after talking to him was encouraged to try touring from my solo canoe. And here I was, the coward in my sea kayak instead of the canoe. He had been fishing for 3 days starting at Rabbit Key and ending up at Watsons. He recounted his story at Rabbit Key pass he was casting to what he thought was a shark when it turned out to be an over 100lb tarpon and fought it for mere seconds to finally break off. Wow! Tarpon that big in the passes right now…..hmmmm…we ate lunch and bid him farewell as we headed for our first night’s camp.

We arrived at Mormon Key, our first campsite, early afternoon. Mormon Key sits near the mouth of the Chatham River and the beach area where we camp faces north. There are lot's of broken conch and clam shells at shore which can really scratch up your boat. Mormon Key apparently derived its name from a settler named Richard Hamilton who homesteaded on the island in 1895 where he lived with first and second wives simultaneously. From what I could tell of the island, I don’t think it could have been comfortably big enough for the two women! Poor Richard!

It’s our usual routine to paddle early morning and we are on the water at first light before the winds kick up predictably by 9:00 am and arrive at camp fairly early in the afternoon. After setting up camp, this allows me time to explore the area and more importantly to take cover before the no-see-ums make their evening raid. Usually we start preparing our meals by 4 pm in the early winter months when it gets dark early. We usually have everything put away and secure under kayak hatches except the desert and wine or brandy before the bugs make themselves known. While we eat dinner I boil some water to put into a thermos which get’s brought into the tent at night. At wake up call which is usually 4:30 am, I am able to make my breakfast which is usually oatmeal with tea or on long paddles a concoction of Carnation instant breakfast in vanilla or chocolate flavor with a few teaspoons of instant expresso and dry milk plus a cliff bar. This provides about 400 calories so I can get some miles in before I need to stop for a break. I can eat breakfast while packing my bags in the comfort of the tent and remain bug free. We were lucky this evening, the bugs stayed low and we were able to enjoy a fine evening on the beach, eating our dinner while watching the sunset. Early to bed, early to rise; the next day will bring us a new adventure on the water.


We are on the water by 8 am, this would be a fairly easygoing day for us, our shortest daily distance.
Depending on the tides, it is sometimes necessary to “go wide” into the gulf to avoid the shoals that surround many of the islands. But today, we don’t have that problem and we can take a more direct route to our destination, leading us behind some of the many keys such as New Turkey, Turkey and Bird Keys.
Today would be my fishing day and it was a beautiful windless day with perfect paddling conditions. The plan on these trips when fishing is basically to troll and stop here and there where there might be an opportunity to cast to a few points or interesting shoreline. But you really don’t stop moving to really work an area. The tide was perfect, a morning incoming which is the best tide to fish these islands as you can get near them with the higher water levels.

After the 2005 hurricanes, a lot of dead tree branches and trunks are scattered about the water. When the water is low enough, they provide cormorants a place to hang out while drying their feathers. They have also created some new fishing areas. As I round the point at Mormon Key I start catching small trout and then much larger trout. I was having a great time until the ranger showed up. Proving that I had a license and after showing him what a trout looked like, he left. The fishing continued to be so good I had to pinch the barb of my hook to make releasing the fish easier. I must have hooked and landed over 50 fish before I got to Turkey Key. It was a mixed bag of trout, jacks and of course lady fish. Not glamourous but a great time for someone that hasn’t been fishing in almost a month.

We approach the inside of New Turkey Key, a popular fishing and camping spot. Hurricane Wilma with her 20-ft water surge almost split this key in two. The camping port-a-johns use to sit where that surge came through; they aren’t there anymore. I get a much bigger hit on my trolled lure and started reeling the fish in to see a medium sized trout but it was missing half it’s body. Apparently something else was interested in it too.

As we continue paddling, I notice a flock of birds swirling around about 100 ft above the water. They appear to be frigate birds. I’ve only seen frigate birds in quantities of 1 or 2, never in a large flock. I’m not sure what they were, but they were glorious to watch. Sitting next to New Turkey Key is Turkey Key (not to be confused with one another). This key also experienced huge devastation from the hurricanes and I passed close by to get some casts at the mangroves no takers and the bite was off as it was now slack tide. As we get closer to Hog Key, I spot a duck-like bird about 100 feet away. It looked very much like a loon. I never would have considered it to be a loon except that 2 years ago while in the gulf paddling from Hog Key to Pavillion Key one early morning, I heard that unmistakable call. I was close enough to it that morning to see it clearly as it dipped into the water on several occasions. Today, this bird would not let me get close; but I am certain it was a loon. While I was intent on getting to the loon, a bull shark appeared, feeding in the shallows about 20 feet from my boat. I watched its tail and dorsal fins move in the water, as it busily ate its lunch was not interested in my lure that I tried to get him to eat so I paddled on.

We arrive at Hog Key around noon. This is not really a key but a peninsula that sticks out onto the gulf of mexico. Hog Key is so named because of the feral hogs that inhabit the place. Their ancestors lived on a hog farm created by Richard Hamilton in the early 1900's he farmed the hogs but their diet of oysters and crabs left them inedible. They were later changed to a diet of table scraps which made them more tolerable to eat. At night, before the hurricanes, it was not unusual to hear a hog rooting around on the beach. How well they survived the hurricane is unknown to me, but we missed the rooting that night. But, we can always count on those rascals raccoons. They are commonly spotted among the mangroves as you paddle and at low tide they come out to the oyster bars to feed. You know they are there as the tell-tale tracks are found all over the beach and all over your kayak in the morning. There is no fresh water to speak of in the 10,000 Islands and it is a hot commodity for any raccoon. Those little buggers are smart enough to figure out how to get it from you if you are not careful. Keep your water and food inside your sealed hatches at night. A cockpit cover is not enough to keep them from getting through, so don’t leave water and food in the cockpit. If you are in a canoe, use hard-sided containers with tightly sealed lids.

Our campsite is lovely, facing the west we have a beautiful Poinciana tree, a survivor of the hurricanes, near our site. Although we are not the only humans on the island, it is large enough that we don’t see the other party. A perfect, peaceful evening awaits us. But alas, our luck ran out. Right on time, the no-see-ums descend. We figured this would happen as there was no breeze to speak of. We ate dinner early and by 5 pm, I had the mosquito head net on. When camping out here, always wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and socks. I also wear a hat and bandana; you can spray your clothing with deet and not worry about getting it directly on your skin. It’s too shallow to fish from the beach and going out on the kayak means you have to portage quite a way’s to get too water deep enough to float the kayak. As the tide slowly comes in, birds and small sharks come into the shallow area to feed. A lovely site! Eventually, the bugs win and it’s time to get in the tent by 6:30 pm. Another early evening, the next day would require a very early start. One good reason to stay here is the close proximity to the mouth of the Lostman’s River 3 miles away. It would be a great vacation to base camp here for a couple of days to do some fishing but make sure it’s when you have morning incoming tides to get the maximum benefit from your fishing vacation.


My 48-yr-old muscles are feeling a bit tired today as we set out at 7 am. But the mild soreness is easily ignored, as I anticipate the opportunity to fish the mouth of the beautiful and intense Lostmans River. The river will take us out of the gulf and into the backcountry of the 10,000 Islands. As we paddle away from Hog Key to find deeper water approaching Lostmans I start catching some very large makeral it was a blast! Of course the usual trout and more makeral until in my haste to get into the channel to head up the river I accidently loose my grip on the fish and it sliced my finger open with it’s many small teeth. Well, good thing I have a bandana around my neck I tend to my finger and continue fishing while ignoring my blood stained kayak and fishing ensemble. Once inside the river I get such a hit on my rod that it literally almost rips my homemade rod holder from the bungies. I am being pulled backwards and Fred is shouting TARPON! I managed to rudder and sweep stroke enough to get my boat turned around and was able to grab the rod from the holder as the fish took off, line peeling from my reel and then it stopped, the fish was gone. I reeled in my lure to find the hook was completely straightened out! So Andrew was right, there are large tarpon in the rivers and passes this time of year. I had no idea and didn’t have the proper equipment for such a task . Anyway, I have to paddle now as we need to make it out of this river before the tide turns against us in about one hour. As the sun rises, the lighting is awesome and so was the fishing, sorry I couldn’t of stayed for more.

We left Hog Key early so that we could ride the tide up Lostmans, making our early morning paddle a joy. We come into the river (at first bay) where there is a large shoal and several birds wading. A cluster of white pelicans form a small island, great blue and a yellow-crown herons sit perched in mangroves. There is a large island that splits the river mouth into two channels. This island was the site of a horrible murder that Edgar J. Watson was also suspected in. Also, there was a ranger station on the SW corner where a tall antenna used to mark it’s location. Last years hurricane destroyed the old wooden building and antenna. Luckily I’ve had many nice lunch stops there and got to see this little piece of history before the hurricane destroyed it.

As I enjoy the beautiful mangroves and birds, a manatee shows itself about 30 feet from my boat. These guys are a bit elusive, and as I waited for it to come back up , the tide rushed me on further away. As we arrived in second bay, flocks of white pelicans flew across, sometimes forming a “V”, sometimes not, I think they were trying to spell my name; V, I, V. Once in second bay, we are now officially on the Wilderness Waterway, which means we can now follow the markers along the way, making navigation less “intellectual”.

To get to the Lostmans Five campsite, we cross Onion Key Bay, which contains Onion Key, a small mangrove island the site of over 1,000 years of occupation by the Calusa and Seminole. At one time, Onion Key was slated for development. In 1920's the headquarters of the Poinciana Company was based here and began to sell lots. Thankfully, it failed within a few years due to the hurricane of 1926 and eventually, it all became part of the national park (free from development). Our campsite was the site of the canoe landing used for bringing in prospective land buyers for the Onion Key development project. A couple years ago, the park decided to build a wooden platform in the campsite, due to the continuous state of mud that exists there. This makes for a cleaner, but cramped campsite. The park incurs a limit to campers on each designated site. Some of the larger sites, like The Watson Place, can have as many as 20 people. Lostmans Five is relatively small and has a limit of 2 parties and 10 people. Tonight there are 5 of us, all kayakers.

There are 2 kinds of campsites in the 10,000 Islands, gulf keys (beaches) and backcountry sites. Some of the backcountry sites are chickees, free standing platforms built in the water at various locations. The other backcountry sites, such as Lostmans Five, are built upon Calusa shell mounds, so are high enough to provide solid, dry ground. Before the park, people built homes on these sites and cleared hundreds of acres to grow various types of crops, like sugar cane, tomatoes and papayas. In fact, Chokoloskee is nothing more than a shell mound built by the Indians, now home to several hundred residents. Powerboaters, particularly fishermen, love to camp in the backcountry for 2 reasons: great fishing and docks at the sites. Often, we share our sites with powerboaters and while several people I know have bad stories to tell of such folks, my experience has generally been mostly a positive one. Powerboat camping is no different than car camping; it comes with 500 sq ft of tent space, a gas grill, a generator (against park rules), flood lights, radio, tables, chairs, and of course the kitchen sink. I don’t exaggerate; fortunately, most powerboating fishermen are quite nice. They in fact are quick to offer us ice, beer, use of their trash bags, and are typically respectful of kayakers and canoeist, in the campsites and on the water. At the very least, they simply leave us alone.

After setting up camp, we go back out to the water to explore a nearby river, for fishing and exploring until its time to come back to camp and prepare for dinner. The winds were now picking up again from the NW and became headwinds as we headed up the Lostman’s 5 creek. Once in the larger bay we had to struggle against it and decided to stop the exploration I went back to the more sheltered area to fish. After a few VERY SMALL snook, the bite just died. I couldn’t get a strike after casting a few miles of shoreline so decided to head back in as it was getting late and I had no idea what the bug situation would be.

Last year, I spent a night on Lostmans and witnessed a continuous traffic of bird flocks cross the sky in front of our dock as the sun set. I waited for that to happen this night, but alas, the birds did not appear as such; possibly the time of year. After a nice dinner and conversation, we are again early to bed.


Today, we headed to The Watson Place. We leave Lostmans early and are blessed with another beautiful day. The wind gods will not be kind to us later today as we expected a front to come in; but, it stalled up north and we were spared (sorry, you northerners!). Today we paddled through several creeks including Plate and Alligator creeks. Plate creek was named by a Spanish homesteader, Gregorio Lopez who dropped a plate in the water. He then went on to Onion Key and because he ate his last onion there (without a plate), he named it Onion Key. This is one of the two stories of how the name got started. The second story is about a farmer and wife who farmed onions there. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The backcountry offers several open bays connected by creeks, like a string of pearls. On the creeks, we paddle through mangroves and come close to alligators already finding their sunspots early in the morning along with several wading birds feeding along the mangroves. We crossed Plate Creek Bay, where you find one of the backcountry chickees which used to be the site of the real estate office of the developer previously mentioned. I passed by the island and saw some canoeists loading up their boats. Chickee camping is fitting for canoes, but not so easy for kayakers when you are trying to get yourself and your gear in and out of the boat. We call this event “Chickee gymnastics”, not yet an Olympic sport, but definitely an exhibition. The 5 canoeists are women, paddling the entire Wilderness Waterway (99 miles between Chokoloskee and Flamingo). We see all kinds of people out here, I could write a book on that aspect alone. It’s not unusual to find lone paddlers, male or female spending days on end out here. My friend Michaleen (65 year old woman) goes out by herself for several days at a time. She brings a satellite phone to contact her husband daily. She has been my inspiration and I’ve learned much from that woman. It just goes to show, you are never too old for this stuff!

We take a small detour and explore Gopher Creek for awhile and did some fishing the snook had lock jaw but the goliath grouper were hitting the rootbeer lures, this is an interesting area where sacred Calusa shell mounds exist and where you can get out of your boat and do some hiking to explore. The area was hit hard by hurricane Andrew in 1992 and as a result, the mangroves along the creek are relatively young and short. This leaves several high standing dead trunks for birds to perch, perfect sightings for bird photos, and you’ll spot lots of them. The winds were now getting stronger as we can hear it from the protection of the creek we were in we need to get going.

From here, we head over to Darwin’s Place, another campsite, for lunch before heading across the rough waters of Chevelier Bay. Darwin’s Place, located on a creek that connects a couple bays is so named after the last private resident of this area, Arthur Darwin. The foundation of his house still exists there. At the campsite, we meet some other kayakers in an eco-tour group commonly seen out here. Several captains in Everglades City transport groups of people out to these sites, give them kayaks and camping gear and leave them there a couple of days to explore the area. This is a nice alternative for folks who don’t want to paddle long distances. If interested in doing this you won’t find a better transport than Captain Charles Wright. His boat is set up to cradle expensive composite boats so they don’t get damaged by the pounding they’ll get heading to these remote sites. Before leaving Darwin’s I caught a glimpse of an osprey swoop down toward a tree, snap off a large branch with her talons and fly off toward her nest with the branch in her grip. What a sight!

After lunch we head into the “very large” Chevelier Bay. Chevelier is named after the Frenchman who came here looking for Calusa gold treasure and spent most of his days digging around Gopher Creek where we had just come from. He was also one of the most notorious plume hunters in the area. This was about 100 years ago during the time when egrets and spoonbills were murdered by the thousands for their plumage in order to support a popular fashion for women’s hats. Hunters slaughtered the adults, leaving their babies to die unattended. Eventually, a brave woman, Mary Munroe stepped up and helped lead the way toward banning this horrific practice through education. Unfortunately, several wardens who attempted to enforce the ban were murdered along the way. Eventually, the fashion statement died and so did the hunting; but the bird populations have suffered ever since.

When you look at a marine map of the 10,000 Islands, you’ll notice several bays in the backcountry and think they are small bodies of water. In a kayak or canoe, they are not. With 20-plus knot winds, these bays are treacherous and large. Because they are relatively shallow (2-6 ft), the winds cause a continuous rolling surf action across the bay, which can be tricky if the surf is coming at you from beam. Today, we would have 20 knot winds at our backs, so we “surfed” across that Chevelier Bay, grateful for our luck. Finally my boat was a little lighter and was more responsive so I had fun catching and surfing waves to the Chatam River. At last we are led into the Chatham River where a slack tide awaits us, great planning on my part as this river is a nightmare to paddle against a spring tide.. About a mile down we come to the infamous Watson Place.

The Watson Place is the site of Ed Watson’s home and sugar cane plantation of 35 acres on an old indian shell mound. Watson is infamous in these parts; he is believed to have murdered Belle Starr (the famous woman outlaw) out west and came here to hide. He was a friendly sort and got on very well with his successful farm. He built a large 2 story home on this site for one of his wives and several children (I think he went through a few wives in his lifetime). The locals believe that Watson became wealthy because he killed his farmhands rather than pay them. Eventually, his luck ran out, the hurricane of 1910 destroyed his home and soon after, he was murdered at Ted Smallwood’s store in Chokoloskee. Apparently, the locals believed Watson to be the murderer of several people in the area after they found a couple of bodies floating in the river. Several men gathered at the Smallwood’s store waiting for Watson to appear on his boat (something he did regularly to get supplies). As he approached, the men greeted him with guns pointed in his direction. Watson pulled his gun and shot, but it misfired because it had been loaded with wet shells (compliments of the hurricane). Consequently, the men fired off several rounds and Watson was no more. For a “fictional” account of the story, the renowned author, Peter Mathieson has written 3 books; one in a third party voice, one in the voice of Watson’s son, and the other in the voice of Watson himself. The books are accurate accounts of the lifestyle of the Everglades 100 years ago, a way of life that makes chickee camping seem luxurious! I do recommend his first book “Killing Mr. Watson”.

Today, the campsite is less than an acre, it is the largest backcountry site, it still contains several of Watson’s farm equipment, a cistern and syrup kettle. I suspect there are a few ghosts that roam the area as well. You can easily see why Watson built where he did; the Chatham River is gorgeous and a beautiful sunset is captured from the dock overlooking the river. When camping on the river sites, it is common to see dolphins come by as they travel with the tide into and out of the backcountry. The tell-tale sound of the water spraying from their spouts tells you they are passing by so you can get to the water to watch these graceful animals swim by. We arrive at the campsite around 1:30 pm and we have 6 fishermen on the site with us. The bugs were kind to us this evening, so we hung out at our picnic table for some conversation and a little brandy. About 6:30, a lone canoeist, an elderly man, pulled up. He had just come from Everglades City (18 miles) and unlike my group that was going the opposite direction, he had to fight a headwind the entire way. He left at 9 am, so he paddled for over 9 hours in a 14’ Mohawk solo canoe! The poor man was exhausted. He had come to the ranger station expecting to get permits for an 8-day trip. But all that was available was the Watson Place. We felt so sorry for him, as we helped him unload his boat.

Finally, everyone retired into their respective tents by 8:30 pm. At about 12:30 pm, we were rudely awakened by a deliberate voice giving orders and the thunderous sounds of aluminum canoes banging against the ground and everything else they come into contact with. We peered out our windows and through the dark saw several people, each with a head lamp. They looked like aliens with their rain gear on. Who could it be? Oh yes, it was the notorious Outward Bound group. OK, I’m all for exposing children to the wilderness, by why make the experience as miserable for them as possible (my honest opinion from what I have witnessed on more than one occasion)? They travel by night and always arrive after everyone else is sound asleep. Although I have witnessed them in groups on the out islands working out “issues” while forming a circle or are separated to spend hours alone with only a pair of extra shoes to clutch instead of insect repellant. I don’t know what they are trying to teach these poor kids. There were 10 people, I suspect 2 group leaders and 8 kids. They have a system and in the dark they worked very efficiently to unload and get their poles and clothes line set up for their sleeping arrangement. I guess one of the rules is that they can’t talk to each other, so they worked in silence but made tons of noise. Only thing was, the headlamps were excessively bright, shining into everyone’s tents. Now, the Watson Place is huge, lots of tent space. But, where do these guys decide to set up their sleeping area? Right between my tent and the exhausted canoeist; I’m talking inches apart. They set up some poles, connected by a clothes line and then connect what look like pods to the line. The pods are nothing more than mosquito mesh (similar to the lifestyle of 100 years ago), one for each individual. At 1:30 am, they are all secured in their individual pods with no tarp over them. We try to get back to sleep, knowing very well that at 5 am sharp, those fishermen would be starting their day and so would we…revenge is sweet sometimes. Thankfully for the outward bound group, teenagers can sleep through anything!


Our new year’s eve paddle!

This trip will be a special one, we had a mission. Today we took a detour to explore Liquor Still Bay in search of the moonshine still built by Totch Brown’s father. We leave the pods and the lone canoeist and head up the Chatham River toward Huston Bay. Today, we would stray from the waterway and detour into the Huston River. Totch Brown lived in the 10,000 Islands practically all his life. He passed on in 1996 but managed to get his autobiography written: Totch: A life in the Everglades. Loren “Totch” Brown was born in 1920 in Chokoloskee. His parents were enterprising, hardy people, scratching out a living in the Everglades any way they could. In 1930, Totch’s father moved his family to the Huston River where they set up camp. From here, Totch’s father made a small income from gator and coon hunting and cutting boat timber. The family lived in Camp Huston, with nothing more than a lean-to for a year. In the summer of 1931, they moved on a couple miles to Liquor Still Bay.

During their stay at Camp Huston, Totch’s father had been going into Liquor Still Bay frequently with a purpose. In a remote end of the tiny bay, he built a shell mound and laid down a 50-ft dock of sorts that ran into a clearing he made in the mangroves. Totch’s father moved his family to this clearing where he had built a copper still to make moonshine (prohibition time). The family stayed on into 1932 before moving to the Watson Place, vacated years before. By the way, moonshining was but one of many illegal ventures in the 10,000 Islands. Back then rum running from the Bahamas was common and in later years, so was drug smuggling.

Our mission was to find that still. We knew the location of Liquor Still Bay. We followed a small creek that led us to Liquor Still Bay. We combed the shoreline keeping our eyes peeled for a shell mound, an opening in the mangroves. We searched along the mangroves and then, we found it! We spotted what looked like a possible opening and path in the mangroves. We got out of our kayaks and tried not to slip on the slick mud and walked back a few yards. And there it was; the old still, or at least the foundation of it. The copper still had been replaced by an aluminum replica. We figured Totch had done that and probably took people back in there for tours on occasion. We were so excited to have finally found this little bit of history in the wild Everglades. After several photos of the still, we left and moved on toward our last destination, Lopez River.

The Lopez River campsite is only 5 miles from Chokoloskee. We arrived at the site about the same time a couple kayak fishermen pulled up. This was the typical combination we often see out here; one guy who is fairly experienced and his friend who is a bit out-of-shape, has never kayaked and has never camped in the Everglades or anywhere else for that matter. They were in tiny 12’ SOT’s without rudders loaded so that the entire gear load was as high as the kayakers head right behind them in the tankwell. They had also done a very difficult paddle along the gulf and into the backcountry with the high winds. The 2 men perused the campsite and decided that they would move on. The experienced guy’s friend was over it, he wanted to get back home to his TV (his words). So they left. The other party who was to stay here that night was a no-show, so we had the place to ourselves. It seems many folks get this far and decide they’ve had enough of the Everglades and head straight back home. Not us, we stay!

This particular campsite is the former site of Gregorio Lopez’s homestead, the cistern still stands. The man picked the most beautiful location for a home in my opinion. It’s one of my favorite backcountry sites. Overlooking the Lopez River is awesome and as with the Watson Place, dolphins frequently pass by. We have a beautiful leisurely afternoon and eat an early dinner with our celebratory bottle of wine. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip.

An early morning start, about 7:30 am to beat the incoming tide will mean that we are back in Chokoloskee before 9 am as this is an easy 5 miles if the winds and tides are not a problem. Along the way, I try to do some fishing but it’s one of those days like the last two the fish are just not interested so I don’t waste time. Eventually we are on Chokoloskee Bay and the little town is in site.

There are several shoals along the way and wading birds are many. We arrive at the take-out site about 8:45 am, where we disturb a night heron trying to catch his breakfast near the site. While the rest of the day will be spent cleaning gear and boats, we first stop into one of our favorite places to eat in Chokoloskee, the Havana Café, to get our Cuban coffee fix. BTW they make a good grouper sandwich but I prefer their grouper fillet grilled with garlic and a side of their excellent black beans and rice with salad.

Anyway, the trip is now over it was a great vacation, I wish my friend Michaleen would have been with us. For six days I did not hear a phone, read email, get stuck in traffic or hear the news. I only heard the sound of the Everglades and my paddle pulling through the water. At night the weather radio was my link to civilization and gave us the plan of action for the following day. I did not think about my business, cats, problems etc. The only thing I couldn’t get out of my mind were those annoying Burt Bacharach songs! Everyone deserves to disconnect every now and then, think of doing a trip down here it’s gorgeous 