Beyond the Mangroves

Paddling the Everglades' Coast

Big Sable


© Karin Herrero

Mangrove Roots

Battling with the Big Sable

The next day, our departure from Northwest Cape, we are up at 5 a.m. to take advantage of the early morning calm before the usual 5-10 knots headwind starts. Today though, we’re out of luck. By the time we’re all packed up in the pre-dawn light, the wind has already increased considerably and launching the boat becomes more of a challenge. As soon as we are in the water we realize we’re in for some exciting paddling today. We’re butting into a strong NW, which is increasing by the minute. The first whitecaps appear. Paddling faster, we keep the bow pointed into wind and waves. Although the boat tracks well in the swells, we’re barely making progress. Spray hits my face, and it doesn’t feel warm this early in the morning. Realizing the futility of what we are doing, we head for the shore just before the open beach ends. Anchoring to Mangrove Roots Among trees we build a fire and wait, watching for any signs of a let up in the wind. Around noon, things start to calm down a little and we launch the boat once more. The sky is clearing and the sun is coming through. This is the toughest portion of the so-called "Big Sable Route". There are no convenient locations at which to stop and get out of the boat. The only option is to tie up to some mangrove roots. And that’s what we do, when, after two hours of paddling, the wind increases again. We head into one of the small tributaries of Big Sable Creek. All of a sudden, everything is calm. A dolphin blows a few metres off our bow and we watch it glide through the murky waters. Jake stretches his legs by walking on the mangrove roots, but finds it rather challenging. "You have to use your hands as much as your legs," he says afterwards.

As soon as the wind moderates, we are off again. We’re now hugging the mangrove coast. Suddenly, Jake stops paddling. "A manatee," he says. "You’ve almost hit it with your paddle." But when I turn my head, it’s already disappeared.

This was to be our only encounter with these gentle giants, who live in warm, shallow coastal waters and rivers and feed on aquatic plants. They have a rounded, streamlined body wrapped in thick, rough and wrinkled skin and propel themselves forwards with a circular, paddle-like tail. Manatees — whose closest living relative is the elephant — can grow up to 4.5 m in length and up to 600 kg in weight. In the U.S., they are listed as an endangered species. High speed boat collisions, pollution, weed control, and coastal urbanization have all contributed to their decline.

Horseshoe CrabsAfter two more hours of paddling we reach the mouth of Little Shark River, where several sailboats and a motorboat lie at anchor. The wind has almost died down now. After a break behind Shark River Island, we round the point and, in the soft evening light, head across 6 km-wide Ponce De Leon Bay to the campsite at Graveyard Creek.

It was Don Juan Ponce De Leon, a Spanish conqueror and explorer, who, in his obstinate search for the Fountain of Youth came to this land and named it La Florida, meaning "land of flowers". On his first visit the native inhabitants were friendly, but on his second visit in 1521, in which he intended to colonize the land, a battle ensued near Sansibel Island. Ponce De Leon was shot with a poison arrow and eventually died from his wounds.

Bounty of the Gulf of Mexico

Raccoon Alert and a Fisherman's Luck

We enter the mouth of Graveyard Creek—a dark channel fringed by a black web of mangrove—in the fading light. Only the splashes of jumping fish break the silence. As we slowly paddle into the creek, we almost get stuck on some shoals and have to turn and enter the creek from another angle. Jake uses the GPS to verify the location of the campsite: a spit of high ground with a small beach area, a few picnic tables and a vault toilet, backed by mangroves and other tropical trees. In the mosquito-filled darkness, we set up camp. But the night isn’t peaceful. A bold raccoon keeps trying to get into our boat, even after Jake spanks it with a paddle.

From Graveyard Creek we continue north to Highland Beach, another long, shell-laden beach backed by a grass prairie and dotted with palm trees. We’re looking forward to having this beach to ourselves, but this time we’re not alone. The tents of an Outward Bound group dot the shore in regular distances. We briefly chat with two instructors and then camp at the northern edge.

Sunset at Highland BeachNorth of Highland Beach we’re back in mangrove country. With the oncoming full moon, tides are more noticeable and we pay more attention to river mouths, to launches and landings. Luckily, the full moon seems to make the fish more eager to bite. Two days later, when crossing First Bay in a brief rainstorm (a freshwater shower!), Jake hooks a Spotted Seatrout and two Permits, large enough to keep, and we feast on fish in the evening at our campsite on Turkey Key.

The Ten Thousand Islands

We are now at the southern edge of the Ten Thousand Islands, where the coast breaks into thousands of mangrove islands, and where the kayaking becomes more challenging — especially in a folding boat — because of sharp-shelled oysters.

In the morning, our tent and gear are covered with condensation and the temperature has risen. We feel the increase in humidity. For the next week we experience midday Highs of +28 C and at night we hardly use our sleeping bags.

From Turkey Key we continue north until we reach the mouth of the Chatham River, where we head inland. This river, with its numerous shifting sandbars and mud bars, and its many channels, dotted with mangrove islands, becomes a navigational challenge. Entering with the incoming tide, we’re moving fast, frequently checking our chart and watching out for shallows until there is nothing but wide-open river in front of us. By noon we arrive at Watson’s Place, our next campsite.

Ghosts at Watson's Place

Watson’s Place was once a thriving cane and vegetable farm of 40 acres on an old Indian shell mound. The farm, known as Chatham Bend, was operated by the notorious Ed Watson who came to the Everglades in the 1890s with a troubled past, and who is believed to have murdered several people on the site. In 1910, after several bodies were found in the river near the farm, with weights attached to them, men of nearby Chokoloskee Island formed a posse and gunned Watson down. After his death, the legends around his persona grew, especially since Watson didn’t fit the stereotype of a notorious killer: he was a family man, a generous neighbor, an expert and dedicated farmer and a successful businessman. As Peter Matthiessen notes:

The most lurid view of Mr. Watson is the one often perpetuated by the islanders themselves, for as Dickens remarked after his visit to this country, "These Americans do love a scoundrel." Over long decades in lonely remote islands, where notable citizens have been few, Mr. Watson’s venerable contemporaries and their descendants have arrived at an "ornery" sort of reverence for Mr. Watson, who has transcended his original role as a notorious cold-blooded killer to become a colorful folk-hero, the west coast counterpart of the bank robber and killer John Ashley, whose gang terrorized eastern Florida after World War I.

(Killing Mr. Watson, p. 179-180, Vintage Books, New York, 1991)

Today, all that is left of Watson’s Place is a less than an acre of clearing in the jungle, with a few picnic tables in the centre and some rusty farm implements at its periphery.

Facing the Bugs at Watson's PlaceAs we start unpacking, a canoe rounds the corner. The two paddlers Tony and Peter—two Americans in their fifties—are on a four-day loop trip out of Everglades City, and they are intending to spend the night here. We swap stories, and they offer us tidbits from their ample food supply: a bottle of Gatorade, barbecued chicken pieces, potato chips, and, in the morning, freshly fried bacon. Relating stories about Mr. Watson, we joke that this place is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. At sunset, as the mosquitoes descend on us with a vengeance, we’re convinced they are the manifestations of Watson’s ghosts. While Jake and I don our bug shirts and then execute a mad dance before diving into the tent to discourage the bugs from entering, Tony and Peter, in shorts and T-shirts, stay up into the night, sitting at their picnic table and sipping cappuccino. They have doused themselves from head to toe with bug juice.

Even in the morning, the ghosts don’t let go. Packing the boat, dressed in long pants, bug shirt, woolen socks and gloves, I feel claustrophobic while the sweat is running down my face and mosquitoes whine all around me. Finally, as we push into the river, we’re free.

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