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.