I have paddled in the Everglades every year since 1998 with Omni Youth Services of Illinois, helping as a volunteer for their wilderness therapy kayak trips. The teens that go have not kayaked before and move very slowly, so we always go to the same few campsites on Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Checking the weather forecasts on my marine radio, I would often hear the location of the Gulf Stream as part of the broadcast. It is defined, in part, in relation to the Dry Tortugas. Over the years the Tortugas have become a sort of mythical place for me. I know they exist — they are a National Park after all — but they seem far away, exotic and, above all, they are out of reach for a van trip from Illinois with teens.
This year I decided to go two weeks in advance of Omni’s Spring Break trip and explore the parts of the Everglades I never get to see and, hallelujah, go to the Dry Tortugas (here after the “DT”). The plan was to go with my friend Patty, driving my car from Chicago, with Patty driving back alone after leaving me in the Everglades to meet up with Omni.
Our itinerary was a little odd because we could only get ferry reservations for the DT in the middle of our trip. We decided to paddle my familiar territory of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico for three nights (since Patty had never been there) and then go to Key West to catch the DT ferry, spend three nights in DT and then drive back to Flamingo and spend a few nights in Whitewater Bay, where I have never been.
Paddling in The Everglades, Cape Sable
I have always gone through the park entrance to Flamingo. There is another major entry at Everglades City, but I wanted to see more of where I had always gone, so we stuck with Flamingo.
It is about a 24-hour drive from Chicago, depending on routes. I refuse to pay the high cost of the Florida Turnpike tolls, so I drive through Atlanta to Naples to the Tamiami Trail (Route 41 aka Alligator Alley) to just south of Miami and then to Homestead.
Homestead/Florida City is just outside the park. There are large stores and it’s a good place to stock up on food. The marina store by the visitor’s center at Flamingo has a few food items, but it’s not the place to provision a kayak trip. On the way into the park from Homestead is Robert is Here, the fruitstand-without-equal. They make milkshakes with the fruit they sell. They have a zoo. They sell rubber alligators. A mandatory stop.
Once you enter the park, the Flamingo campground and visitor center is about a 45 minute drive. The campground is gigantic but there are walk-in sites, so you can get away from the land yachts if you wish. Solar-heated hot showers make spending at least the first night there a good idea.
There are two types of remote sites in the Everglades: land-based and chickees. A chickee is not connected to poultry in any way. It is a platform on stilts with a roof and a chemical toilet. Some are single, and some are double. The smaller ones are ten feet by ten feet, large enough for three two-man tents. If you use a chickee, be sure your tent is freestanding. Chickees have ladders, so when the tide changes, you can still launch and land. But low tides make loading and unloading a bit tricky. It’s worth bringing a net bag to help with schlepping stuff from boat to platform and back.
The land-based campsites are mostly on shell beaches. Spring is windy, so having a deadman way of anchoring the tent is a good idea.
After recuperating from the drive by staying at Flamingo the first night, we got our permits and headed out. We paddled for almost seven hours (against the tide most of the way) to get to Northwest Cape, the furthest of the Cape Sable beach campsites. There are two places from which to launch for the open water: the marina and the campground. The campground launch is not a formal one and is not accessible at lower tides, so we launched from the marina.
Cape Sable is the southernmost mainland place in the United States. It has three huge beaches: East Cape, Middle Cape and Northwest Cape. I’d been to East and Middle, so Patty and I went to NW Cape. It is a sandy beach, like the others, but a bit more overgrown. The westernmost end has dildo cactuses (look it up, that is its name) and Gumbo Limbo trees, neither of which exist on the other Cape beaches as far as I know. The Gumbo Limbo is a neat-looking tree, having reddish bark that constantly peels. Hence its nickname: the Tourist Tree. (Get it? Turns red and peels)
We saw the usual bird life — pelicans, gulls, terns, cormorants, scissor-tailed flycatchers, roseate spoonbills, white ibis, stork — but nothing unusual. Migration had already started, so we saw huge flocks of shore birds and white pelicans landing on the beach to rest up after crossing the Gulf. Never a dull moment. Dolphins made a few appearances as well.
After spending two nights at NW Cape we paddled to East Cape, spent the night there and then headed back to Flamingo. We showered and hopped in the car to drive to Key West for the DT leg of the trip.
The Dry Tortugas
I could spend a very long time singing the praises of this amazing place. To get there one must take the ferry, take a private boat, or fly on a sea plane. The ferry leaves daily from Key West. Most people stay the day and come back. On our outbound trip, there were three sets of campers. The ferry (I never quite understood why) requires a return booking before you leave Key West and they only allow three nights of camping in the DT. The ferry will take kayaks, but only up to 15 feet long. At least that’s what they tell you.
Patty and I had originally planned to take our Feathercraft folding kayaks for this trip. Patty thought I had two Feathercrafts and she would use one of mine, so she did not bring hers. I do have two Feathercrafts, but one is a double. So we decided to take my Explorer, the Feathercraft single and my old-school whitewater boat, a Perception Sabre. It’s small enough for the ferry (11 feet long) and fast enough I would have no trouble keeping up.
If you rent a ferry-legal kayak from a guy named Mike in Key West, he will drop it off at the ferry and pick it up again whenever you return. He rents 16 foot sit on tops that can be paddled by one or two people. Once we realized how long it was, we left my Feathercraft assembled for the voyage back. The place the ferry puts kayaks in is about 20 feet long, so the 16.5 foot Feathercraft fit easily.
Camping at the DT is weird. You have to stay on the ferry when it docks and listen to a lecture by the ranger. There is no water available, so everyone must bring their own. A gallon per day per person is suggested. The campsites are near one of the two snorkeling beaches. Each site has a picnic table, and some have a little shade. The ferry does not allow any cooking fuel other than self-starting charcoal or Sterno. Nothing else. Each campsite has a grill and a post for hanging food to keep it from the rats.
There are nice composting toilets by the camping area but they cannot sustain heavy use, so they are closed when the ferry is docked. You guessed it — you use the ferry’s toilets until it leaves and then the composters are opened. So, you can go on the ferry and drink all the water you want during the day. You can even buy lunch and alcoholic drinks on it. Wilderness camping with flush toilets and a bar! The ferry also has freshwater rinse showers for apres-snorkeling.
The main island, Garden Key, is mostly taken up by Fort Jefferson. The fort is huge. Building started in 1846. The original plan was for the fort to hold four hundred guns. The parade ground is eight acres. One could spend a couple of days just exploring the fort. It was used as a prison, holding some of the Lincoln conspirators, including the famous Dr. Mudd. Tours are given by ferry staff (who really know the history of the fort) every afternoon.
The other attraction here, if you are not a bird watcher, is snorkeling. Two beaches allow you to find a spot that is not windswept. Corals and fish are in knee-deep water. You don’t even have to use a snorkel. Masks, snorkels and fins are provided free by the ferry as part of your voyage.
Spring in the DT means bird watching. A number of birds exist there that are found nowhere else in the US. My favorites are the Magnificent Frigate Birds. They’re very large, black and fly and soar effortlessly. One end of the DT park, which is called Bush Key, is a nesting area, so it is off limits for people. Flying around Bush Key, when we were there, were frigate birds, brown noddys, and sooty terns, all circling the nesting areas and making a loud racket 24 hours a day. Masked boobies (which nest on one of the smaller keys there), skimmers, terns, gulls, and all the songbirds that migrate through make birding a full-time possibility. There’s even a resident owl that leaves dead rats on the parade ground. Half the campers were bird watchers when we were there. They were fun to talk to and gave us a lot of info about the birds we were seeing.
The day we arrived in the DT we set up our tents, put the Feathercraft together and circumnavigated Garden Key. The Park Service brochure on kayaking says this trip should take a few hours. It took us 50 minutes.
Loggerhead Key is 3 miles away. It has a large lighthouse and beaches and a perfect snorkeling spot on the back side. The trip over goes through shallow water and deep, so paddling in wind can be an adventure. Our first trip over was in high winds, so we had some fun with the waves. We paddled over with Eric and his son Taylor who were on a sit-on-top. They made it with no trouble, although it took three times longer to get back than to get out, due to the winds. Eric knows birds and is a great storyteller. He made it a fun trip.
On Loggerhead, we snorkeled in thigh-deep water. It was amazing to me, who doesn’t like being under water, that the corals and anemones and fish would be right here in such shallow water. I didn’t really need the snorkel.
The next day Patty and I paddled over to Loggerhead alone. The waves were significant, with the wind being a constant 15 knots with lots of bigger gusts. We hunted for some of the shipwrecks that “you can’t miss” but managed to miss them. We saw a few dolphins and had a good workout.
Cooking with Sterno (or charcoal) is really slow, so we had a lot of time to just sit and wait for water to boil. While sitting on the ground before dinner on the second night (it was too windy to sit on the picnic table with the stove) Patty got a real fright. She saw what she thought was a giant spider walking right at her. It turns out it was the biggest hermit crab I had ever seen. They were everywhere that night.
Paddling the Everglades, Whitewater Bay
After returning to the Everglades, we set out for Whitewater Bay, a huge shallow inland tidal area that can be accessed from many different points, including Everglades City, a week’s worth of paddling away. We entered from the marina at Flamingo. This marina has access both to Florida Bay and to the Buttonwood Canal, which goes to Whitewater Bay and beyond. A dam separates the two bodies of water, with the marina on both sides of the dam. Our destination was the North River chickee. It was only 12 miles so we didn’t rush. What we didn’t plan for was my weak navigational skills. We got within a half mile of the chickee and couldn’t find it. I resorted to my GPS but we could not find the chickee in the tangle of mangroves we were in. We gave up and headed for the Watson chickee, four miles away, hoping to find it in the two hours before sunset. After an hour and a half of wandering through dead ends and blind channels, I said “People who are lost go in circles. I’m checking the GPS.” Sure enough, we were four tenths of a mile from the North River chickee. I dug out an old map that had the GPS coordinates of the chickee. They were different from those I had put into my GPS. Not much, but enough. With the new coordinates we found the chickee in about 20 minutes and managed to get the tents up and dinner made before dark.
Oddly, we heard people talking late into the night. We guessed it might be fisherman spending the night on their boat. Next morning, we learned it was six canoes full of Outward Bound participants who paddled up and asked to use the toilet attached to the chickee. They were on a 40 day (!) expedition and were expecting a resupply that morning. They had planks that they put across the rafted canoes to sleep on. No tents in the mosquito and noseeum capital of the US. To offset the lack of a quiet morning, we had a dolphin swim right under us while were talking to them.
From there we went to the Oyster Bay chickee, successfully determining to navigate by compass alone. The Oyster Bay chickee is a double, one platform being ten by ten feet and the other ten by twelve. We knew from the log book when we got our permits that someone else would be there. We took the larger platform and, strangely, the other party never showed up. No Outward Bounders made an appearance, but tons of dolphins did. We had been taking precautions against the ubiquitous Everglades raccoons by hanging our food and using a bear barrel. Thinking we were safe on the chickee, we left everything on the platform. The next morning we saw a nylon bag had been chewed through, the bagel bag inside it was chewed through and a hunk of onion bagel was gone. The villains were little black crabs.
Our next stop was the ground site at Graveyard Creek, right on the Gulf of Mexico. The ranger who gave us our permits, Ann, who I have seen every year for fifteen years, said she had never issued a permit for Graveyard before because the noseeums were so bad there. We had some trouble with them, but I’ve seen worse. We brought a screen tent for cooking and eating in the presence of bugs, so we managed quite well. The nice part of the site was double chemical toilets and a picnic table.
On the paddle over to Graveyard we saw more dolphins, our third loggerhead turtle of the trip and a Ridley’s turtle, which swam right at us until the last second, when it dove under the boats.
We arrived at the site pretty early in the day, so we paddled up Graveyard Creek, looking for the dolphins we had seen swimming upstream. After a while we came back into the Gulf and saw the best dolphin show yet. The tide was changing and the fish from the creek were being pushed into the gulf. The dolphins were waiting. We saw one chase a fish so fast that the dolphin ended up high and dry on the shore and had to flop around to get itself back in the water. Dolphins were swimming in such shallow water that their backs were exposed.
At 2 AM that night, we heard voices. Patty said later she was sure it was the ghosts of Graveyard. Worse! It was the same Outward Bounders we had seen before. They were singing and laughing as they approached. Once again, in the morning, they used the toilets. And apologized for waking us up. They were told no one ever camps at Graveyard.
From Graveyard we paddled to Middle Cape and spent our last night on the Gulf. More dolphins and a nice sunset made a nice finale. In the morning, we noticed a large crocodile trail right past our boats. Crocodiles can process salt water in their bodies and alligators can’t, so you know it’s a croc when you are on salt water. In between, such as on Buttonwood canal, you see both. Alligators look black, crocs look dark green. Alligators are nonchalant about kayaks, crocs are terrified of them.
On our way to Flamingo, we paddled into the Middle Cape Canal, through Lake Ingraham behind East Cape for a change of scenery, came back to the Gulf through the East Cape Canal and then on to the marina. Calling home (finally back to cell reception civilization), I learned that Omni had cancelled their trip. Patty and I decided to stay another couple of days.
Paddling the Everglades, Nine Mile Pond
There are a number of inland paddling spots in the Everglades. On the Flamingo side, West Lake and Nine Mile Pond (named for its distance from the old visitor’s center) are two nice ones. Nine Mile’s paddling trail goes through some mangrove tunnels and is loaded with alligators. We had to shoo a stubborn one out of our path at one point in the mangroves.
The Park Service has a handout that gives a lot of information about what there is to see on the trail. There are numbered poles throughout the trail, so you won’t get lost (I didn’t even get lost!) and you know when to look for the stuff listed in the handout.
We had an awful lot of very shallow water here. It’s a good idea to check with the rangers about water levels before doing this trail because it is not tidal. But I like Nine Mile because it gives a feel for a very different part of the Everglades from the coastal areas. The tunnels are so tight that you often scare up wildlife (birds mostly) just before running into them. And the mangroves provide shelter from the constant winds of Spring.
If you plan to paddle the Everglades, a good reference is The Paddler’s Guide to the Everglades National Park by Johnny Molloy.