Beyond the Mangroves

Paddling the Everglades' Coast



© Karin Herrero

Sunday Bay Chickee

A Night on a Chickee

After four hours of paddling calm rivers, bays and creeks, and spotting one alligator and several dolphins along the way, we arrive at Sunday Bay Chickee, a raised platform campsite on the north edge of a small bay that splinters off from Sunday Bay. Although we donít have a reservation for this site, it looks so inviting that we decide to hang out here until sunset, and, if nobody should arrive, we would stay for the night.

The chickee is an invention of the Glades Indians. They built these open raised platforms with palmetto-thatched roofs on beaches, along rivers, or over sheltered waters. The well-ventilated dwellings, a healthy dose of fish oil smeared on skin, and smoldering fires helped to keep the mosquitoes at bay.Approaching Sunday Bay Chickee

Sunset and we have Sunday Bay Chickee all to ourselves. We relax on the sun-warmed bench and watch the birds, jumping fish, and clouds. The insects are manageable and, because weíre tucked behind a tiny island, we are out of sight from passing motorboats less than a kilometre away on the Wilderness Waterway.

The next morning is misty and calm. We leave Sunday Bay Chickee and make our way back to the coast to Everglades City, taking the Hurddles Creek and Turner River Route. Itís relaxing not to have to worry about wind and waves, but careful navigation is required around the oyster bars at the mouth of the Turner River. Another challenge awaits us at the entrance to Chokoloskee Bay where the outgoing tide almost leaves us stranded in the shallows. After some panicky moments we find a narrow channel with enough water, paddle under a bridge and head for the Parkís Office with its tall flagpole.

But where can we land? No beach is in sight. We paddle into a marina and tie the boat to a dock in front of the Parkís building. While Jake seeks information at the Parkís office, I babysit the boat and watch immaculately dressed tourists strolling on the pier. Finally, Jake returns with the message that we have to backtrack under the bridge to enter a channel leading to the privately owned Glades Haven Marina and campground. After some more anxious moments in the fast-draining bay, we do make it into the marina and pull the boat ashore at a slimy boat ramp. From there, we have to carry it several hundred metres to a grassy spot assigned to us between the motorhomes and trailers. Itís a far cry from our quiet beach campsites, and we get scared by a pickup truck spraying the area with insecticide after sunset, but a consolation are the hot showers and a Laundromat.

Cormorants in the Gulf of Mexico

Back to the Gulf

In Everglades City we just stay long enough to get clean, buy a few more supplies and extend our backcountry permit. The next morning we paddle west, across Chokoloskee Bay, then follow Sandfly Pass, a passage between the islands leading to the Gulf. Before noon we arrive at our destination for the day, Kingston Key, which is almost pinched off in its middle section. The campsite here is a chickee, sitting in a lagoon. The chickee was once a dock, but the island shifted, disconnecting the dock. The Parks service then added a camping platform. Since it is early in the day and low tide, we decide to visit the beach that connects the two sections of the island. Beach at Kingston Key We spend the afternoon lazing about, swimming, and watching the dolphins chasing fish. When the beach starts shrinking due to the incoming tide, we paddle over to the chickee. Now, the water is just below the platform and itís easy to unload the boat, but weíre concerned to leave the boat in the water during the night. At Sunday Bay Chickee, Jake had protected the boat from the barnacle- and oyster-encrusted pilings by tying it to paddles stuck into the muddy bottom. Here, with the more pronounced tide differences and bigger wave action, we are not satisfied with this solution and haul the kayak out of the water. This proves wise since the wind picks up at night. Once I wake and hear the water loudly slapping at the pilings. In the morning we set the boat in the water before the water level drops too low. By the time we are ready to load the boat, we have to climb down the ladder to reach the cockpit. The day is clear and sunny again. To wait for higher water we head back to the same beach. In the afternoon, three kayakers and two canoeists arrive. The kayakers, staff of a Virginia-based kayak touring company, are on a day-trip. "Are you out for the weekend?" one of the paddlers asks. Jake mentions that weíre on a "multi-day" trip out of Key Largo. "Thatís a trip Iíve been hoping to do for some time," says the kayaker. By 2 p.m. we leave the beach, and paddle northwards to Tiger Key, the most northerly of all the campsites in the Park. On our way we pass Indian Key, with hundreds of white pelicans on its sandspit, and then Picnic Key, where we see several tents along the beach. However, our destination, Tiger Key, has a shallow approach, so we have this beach all to ourselves. From here we have an unobstructed view of the open Gulf and get treated to an orange and golden sunset, followed by no-see-ums and a park ranger in his flat-bottomed boat, who checks our permits. He expresses his admiration for our undertaking, but doesnít stay long because of the insects. Since we will be leaving the National Park the next day, we ask him about camping possibilities further north, but unfortunately, he canít give us much information.

Camp at Tiger KeyFrom Tiger Key we follow the coast north to Coon Key, a small island in Gullivan Bay, at the northern edge of another protected area, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Under a SE wind we sail the 19 km distance in less than three hours with hardly any paddling. For a short while we glimpse the high-rises of Marco Island on the horizon before a mangrove-covered shoreline hides them from our view.

Our last night in the wilderness. Numerous motorboats and a few jet skis speed by our small beach on Coon Key. Once the boat traffic has died down, we discreetly pitch the tent and build a fire. Once more we revel in the story of Mr. Watson and listen to the waves rolling in a few metres from our tent. I am wondering how far we will get tomorrow and where our kayak trip will end.

Approaching Marco Island

Shortly after a golden sunrise weíre on the water. As we paddle the channel that leads to the Caxambas Passage, we are once more flanked by mangrove-covered shoreline, but soon a "Manatee Zone" sign and the tall hotel buildings of Marco Island signal the end of the wilderness. After 17 days in the Park, with only brief stops in small settlements, the high-rises come as a shock. As we round the tip of Marcos Island at the Caxambas Pass entrance, we encounter choppy water because of the outgoing tide. We paddle hard until weíre back in calmer water, passing fancy hotels and palm-fringed beachfronts, where people jog and splash in the water. Manatee Zone Sign at Caxambas Passage We are hoping to be able to make it all the way to Naples, 15 km to the north, but the wind doesnít cooperate. By 10 a.m., a mass of bulbous cumulonimbus starts building on the northern horizon. And then the wind switches direction. Itís now coming from the NW. We are aware that a cold front is forecasted, but we didnít expect it to arrive so soon. As the wind mounts, we scan the beach for a safe place to land and head to shore. Minutes after our landing, the wind has turned into a storm, topping the blue-green water with whitecaps. A woman and her teenage son see us struggling with our boat, and they offer to carry it to a well-tended lawn with thatch-roofed picnic shelters, next to a refreshment stand and a fountain. But we donít have time to marvel at the spotless landscaping. A middle-aged lady in prim white shorts emerges from a parking lot booth and tells us we are not allowed to stay here because this is a private beach. The fact that we paddled here all the way from Key Largo, and that we will pack up the boat and leave in a few hours, doesnít soften her resolve. "You absolutely cannot stay here," she asserts. So our 250-km kayak expedition ends on a sidewalk in one of the ritziest neighborhoods in the U.S. It felt as if civilization was claiming us back with a vengeance.

Beach at Marco Island