(State #7/50) Florida, for most kids, means Disney World. Florida, for most adults, means Miami, Key West or any number of white sand beaches. Florida, for me, has always meant the Everglades. So, there was no question where I was canoeing in the Sunshine State.
Perpetually behind schedule, I arrived at the main visitor center 45 minutes before closing. I informed a ranger of my plans to canoe to the Pearl Bay Chickee (Chickees are sheltered camping platforms above standing water). He eyed me with the appropriate level of judgment. “You’re starting now…?” the ranger said. He was right to be skeptical, though he gave me a map and some advice. “Well, good luck!” the park ranger said. I’d need it.
Off the main park road, I found the sign denoting the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail entrance. Beyond a small dock, I stared at the opening to the ‘trail.’ It was 20 feet wide, 1 foot deep and enveloped by low growing red mangroves. It didn’t seem like an entrance to anything. Hell’s Bay, so the old-timers say, was named because it’s “Hell to get into, and Hell to get out of.” The ranger’s look of concern was starting to make sense.
At 6 p.m. I jumped in Rider and pushed off from the dock, paddling through the narrow, overarching corridor of vegetation. I believed it would widen out in 100 feet — a fool’s dream. I soon realized my evening was going to consist of navigating through winding, tight, shallow paths of a mangrove maze. Trying to make good time, I would build up speed in a strait away. Then the trail would make a hairpin turn and I’d careen into the mangrove knees. My canoe would either pinball off and into the opposing wall of roots or become wedged into the thicket of woody stocks. I’d curse the mangroves, my poor canoe and my own arrogance. With momentum killed, I’d wheel my head around, searching for the sun. “Do you have multiple light sources?” the ranger had asked. “It will be a real adventure if you get caught out there after dark.”
With the sun setting at 7:49 p.m., I figured I needed to average 2mph in the canoe, lest I get swallowed up by the night. After 45 minutes, I was well short of that pace. I improved, gradually. I learned to better anticipate bends, break often and whip the bow around to keep from smashing into the mangroves. Like rally car racing, there was a balance between speed and maneuverability. I searched for that balance and canoed as hard as I had ever canoed before — full sweat, no breaks.
The canoe trail was dotted with numbed white PVC pipe markers. Without these breadcrumbs, you could easily stray onto the wrong path, lagoon and wind up lost in Hell’s abyss. Sometimes they were missing for a prolonged stretch and I feared, for minutes, that I had taken a wrong turn. Then, I’d finally see one and feel enormous, but brief relief.
Every small victory was met with another challenge. The trail widened out into lagoons where, it appeared, you could build up speed to make time. However, aquatic plants grew thick below the surface and slowed me down. Like a dream where your feet are heavy, the invisible hand of the Everglades held me back.
I was headed to PVC post #166, where I’d find the Pearl Bay Chickee. As I got into the 140’s the little lakes turned into large ones. It was a cruel trick — as I got closer to my number the white posts became further and further spaced. The sun was dropping fast behind a thin veil of clouds, turning the sky orange in the west. I began to assess what, exactly, I’d do if I was caught after dark. I’ll try to find my way with flashlight and eventually, wedge the boat against the mangrove and sleep in the canoe. That would have been a real adventure. I passed one campsite called Lard Can. It looked as appealing as its name — buggy, dim and depressing. But, Lard Can it would be if I can’t make it to Pearl Bay, I decided.
I passed through one more stretch of mangrove maze before coming out onto a large lake. I scanned the horizon of low mangrove across Pearl Bay. There it was! My Chickee! Triumphant, I canoed towards it, around a third of a mile away. I knew, from speaking to a ranger, there was going to be 4 people at the Chickee (the platform had 2 tent sites) and that this scenario would play out: From 500 yards away I could make out the vague shape of humans. Even from that distance, I swear I could read their body language and minds. “No one is coming out here tonight, we can spread out and have it all to ourselves.” They surely said an hour before sunset. I watched one tiny sliver of a person stand at the edge of the dock, looking my way. Another figure joined. “You’ve got to be kidding me, that is a canoe and it’s coming our way.” one shape said to the other. From 300 yards out, with a mixture of guilt and delight, I watched them scramble to move gear, make room and carry a tent back to their side. That evening I was that asshole — the late arriver that ruins solitude in nature and family time. Oh, they’re going to love me, I laughed to myself.
I canoed up to the platform, introduced myself and tried to ease their probable concerns about me — the lone, unshaven man in mismatching clothes arriving at dusk. They were a family of 4 from Ohio with grown children. Mark, the father, introduced himself and helped me tie up, unload and even put up my tent. I was thankful they were nice and they were thankful, I’m sure, that I seemed somewhat sane. I hung out with them as night fell (as our platforms were separated by 25 feet, they didn’t have too much of a choice). We talked canoeing, camping and Boy Scouts. We stargazed and looked into the clear shallow water below our Chickee. We saw neon blue bioluminescence in the water, long needlefish and a ping-pong ball sized jellyfish.
After a dinner of Beefaroni, I fell asleep to the sounds of the canoe gently knocking against the dock, a singing whippoorwill, fish making little ripples on the water and the ever-present high-pitched hum of mosquitoes outside my tent.
The next morning Ryan, the son, called out, “Eric, there’s dolphins out here.” I grabbed my zoom lens and rushed out of the tent. From the dock, we watched a pod of 4 dolphins swim across the shallow saltwater lake. At first they were moving slow paced, surfacing with their dorsals arching up, out and back into the water. As they passed between us and a small mangrove island, their pace increased and their exhaling became audible. Then, the pod of dolphins spread out in a fighter-jet formation and turned it on. Wakes grew before them and dorsal fins cut the air above the water as they tore across the lagoon, herding fish into a back corner of Pearl Bay. The chase climaxed in a frenzy of whitewater and splashing against a wall of mangroves. They kept at it for over an hour. Ryan hopped in his kayak and Mark and I got in my canoe. The dolphins didn’t seem to mind us as we paddled after them, getting close enough to see them pass near the boats in the clear water. Incredible.
After breakfast, I packed up and said goodbye to the family. I canoed back across the bay against strong wind. Though I wasn’t chasing daylight, the paddle back was long, tiresome and hot. I took out at around 1pm and the canoe slipped from my hands as I tried to put it atop the car. I was gassed. Between the narrow corridors of the mangrove maze and the wind on the paddle back, it was my toughest canoe to date. But, I paddled next to dolphins and camped on something with the adorable name of ‘Chickee.’ So, it was well worth it, even if it was “Hell to get into, and Hell to get out of.”
Everglades Stats and Fun Facts:
- Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail, Everglades NP, Florida (4/20-21/17)
- Weather: Warm, humid Sunny with 30% Cloud Cover
- Miles canoed: 7
- Launch/Takeout Point: Hell’s Bay Canoe Trailhead (25.232489, -080.823305)
- Camped: Pearl Bay Chickee (25.259447, -080.856285)
- Thanks to the Rangers at both Flamingo and Ernest F. Coe Visitor Centers
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: osprey, black Ibis, red bellied woodpecker, black headed vultures
- Mammals: 4 dolphins!
- Other Creatures: Needlefish, small jellyfish
- Noted Species: Florida Panther, Black Bear, River Otters, Manatees, Alligators and American Crocodile.
- Dominant vegetation: Red Mangrove, Bromeliads
- Ecoregion: Southern Florida Costal Plains, (76d) Southern Coast and Islands
- Current Threats: Water diversion, urban sprawl, invasive species and much more.
- Trash collected: a beer can and some plastic wrapping. Thankfully, not much to collect!