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Everglades National Park-we couldn't believe we were there! After paying our customary entrance fee, plus a small fee for the canoe atop our car, Lisa and I sped westward along Main Park Road, mesmerized by the river of grass along both sides of the asphalt. Small humps broke a horizon capped with white puffy clouds. These tree islands were just a few inches above the moving water, where tropical trees provided a haven for the bird and animal life. An exquisite mixture of cool air from the sawgrass and warm air from the rising sun blew through the open windows of the Jeep. I turned the CD player up a notch.
Sure, we knew the Everglades could be paddled, but we hadn't seen anything, so far, where you could stroke a blade. The road became closed in by a wall of tall trees which we found out later were mangrove. Shortly thereafter, a salty scent wafted into the car--the ocean was near. The Flamingo complex, a marina, lodge, ranger station and campground, was surprisingly large.
Our first order of business was to obtain a backcountry permit. We had decided to make the long distance traverse of the park, roughly paralleling the Wilderness Waterway. I had never made this end-to-end traverse before. Other options were to head out to the far flung islands of Florida Bay, such as Little Rabbit Key, North Nest Key and Carl Ross Key. Florida Bay was better suited for sea kayaks, with so much open water subject to unpredictable winds. We could have also circumnavigated Whitewater Bay, paddling some of the small creeks and rivers north of Flamingo. This was more viable during higher winds, but campsites were limited and we wouldn't be able to visit the Gulf of Mexico. I also considered heading from West Lake to Alligator Creek, where bird life was abundant, but the bugs could be fearsome out there and at Shark Point. The rangers worked with us in developing a route. Being contrarians, we decided to make a south to north traverse, even though winds generally blow from north to south. Lisa made one last phone call to North American Canoe Tours, where we arranged our shuttle ride back to Flamingo from Everglades City, once our trip was completed.
The dock around Flamingo Marina was busy with tourists of all stripes. Some were merely getting a glimpse of the ocean, while others were looking for crocodiles, which were known to hang around the area. Still others were renting canoes or reserving trips on some of the guided tour boats that plied Florida Bay and nearby Buttonwood Canal. We were sheepish about starting our trip in front of such a large and curious audience. Of course, we loaded confidently, as if we knew what we were doing. At the marina store I bought the all-important nautical charts to go along with my compass. A map and compass are absolute necessities for traveling the Everglades. So is a radio for getting weather reports. The next few days were predicted to be calm and clear.
Our canoe brimmed with gear. A major part of our weight was water. Backcountry paddlers must carry all their drinking water, one gallon per person per day. We left the marina and Florida Bay opened before our eyes. Our course led westward. Sunlit waves, brought forth by a light north wind, sparkled ahead of us. We had already slathered on plenty of sunscreen, another Everglades necessity. The paddling began in earnest. We stayed close to the mangroves on the shoreline, fascinated by the network of interconnected prop roots growing from the water that came together to form trunks. From the trunks sprung limbs that held the small leaves of the Everglades most ubiquitous tree. Mangroves thrive here, with just the right mix of salt and fresh water, like nowhere else on the planet. The leathery leaves can stand up to the excessive, harsh sun. The prop roots lend stability in the shallow waters.
Our first stop was East Clubhouse Beach, a small sandy break in the mangrove shoreline. We stroked it to the shore and debarked, stretching our legs. Behind the beach was a prairie. This prairie was covered with sea purslane and pickleweed, which thrive in the salty mud of the open prairie and offered views nearly as extensive as that to our south, across Florida Bay. We continued a westward course, passing Slagle Ditch, one of many efforts at draining the Everglades for development. We came to our first night's camp at Clubhouse Beach, eight miles from Flamingo. The clubhouse, once part of a land development, gave the area its name. This development, like most others in the Everglades, was a dismal failure. All that remains is the name.
Salt tinged smoke from our driftwood fire wafted over the seaside camp as night fell. Just as certain as the grains of sand that got on our grilled steaks, the mosquitoes came forth at dusk. We were ready for the swamp angels, as Lisa had already set up the tent to which we retired. A quality tent with fine screen netting is yet another necessity here.