(State #7/50) I wanted to canoe along Florida Bay and camp on a beach for my Everglades canoe. The wind and sea had other ideas.
On Saturday morning, after a long night filled with wind, rain and mosquitoes, I sat out on one of the picnic tables, eating oatmeal and looking at the maps. I spoke to the ranger at the Flamingo Visitor Center and considered my options again. “Well, the wind is 15 knots out of the southeast, so you won’t have any trouble getting out there with the wind at your back. Getting back tomorrow is what you have to worry about,” the ranger explained. And worry I did. I went back and forth 5 times in my mind during breakfast on whether it was a dumb idea or if I was wussing out. Finally, I decided to give it a go — I registered for camping, said farewell to the ranger and set off for East Clubhouse Beach.
Before putting the canoe in the marina, I spoke with a fishing boat captain. “Stick close to the shoreline,” he told me. “It’s really howling out there today.” The captain advised. I looked for the manatees (which I still hadn’t seen) that were normally ever-present in the marina waters. Nothing.
I canoed out of the placid marina and into the rough waters of Florida Bay. A few gawking tourists watched me bob along in the brown chop. I tried to look professional as I paddled on by. Past the prying eyes of my fellow tourists, I tried turning the canoe, but I couldn’t swing the bow around; the wind didn’t allow it. I canoed into the shelter of the mangrove shore and tried again with success. I spent five minutes canoeing against the wind and waves. Salt water splashed in my face and the bottom of my canoe thudded against the sea as I crept over each wave. It was difficult, but possible I concluded.
I turned back around and continued a half-mile down to the Flamingo Campground waterfront. It was my last opportunity to chicken out before entering a several mile stretch of mangrove-lined shore; beyond that was a scrap of shell beach where I’d make camp. I jumped out and talked with an older couple at a table, looking to glean confidence from strangers. “We’ve canoed out to Cape Sable, sailed out there with the canoe and then came back through the canals.” The man said. “Years ago” the wife kept repeating. “Well, I don’t have good nautical or topo maps, so I’m steering clear of the mangroves… I figure if I can’t get back tomorrow, I’ll lock my boat to a tree, hike out the 5 miles on the coastal trail and get the canoe when the sea’s calm, another day.” I said, mostly to myself. True, it wasn’t a great plan B, but it was something. I got back in the canoe and paddled beyond, what I hoped, was not a point of no return.
I headed west with the wind, shooting the gap between the shore and Bradley Key (all lined with mangroves). To the south, towards the main Keys, the sky was dark blue. Rain was one thing, but I hoped that storm wasn’t coming towards me. I only got nervous about waves coming over the gunwale a few times, but, thankfully, none had. There were sharks and crocs in the water and I didn’t want to swamp out there.
Less than 2 hours later, I rounded a cape and found small patches of shell beach between mangrove groves. Behind the baby beaches was the coastal prairie. I landed, checked it out and picked up beach trash (mostly plastic bottles and a disconcerting amount of children’s shoes). The ranger undersold it well (apparently Cape Sable, another 5-miles down, is the prettier sister). But, I had a shell beach, a good ocean view, flanked by mangrove patches, and a savannah that stretched on for hundreds of yards before reaching a tropical woodland. East Clubhouse Beach was just what I wanted.
After 45 minutes of exploring, I found a suitable tent site above the high-tide mark. I walked back to the canoe to launch out and paddle the 200 feet to camp. That’s when something caught my eye 30-feet out in the surf — a massive crocodile. At around 11 feet, I saw a large head, mouth slightly agape, and tail. Another wave passed over and the real life monster vanished into the murky bay. I stood there, thrilled I saw a wild American Crocodile, but not so thrilled knowing I needed to canoe back out there to move campsites. “It’s crocodile nesting season, so be careful,” the ranger warned. Nervous, I waited a few minutes before canoeing into the crocodile water, paddling with my arms tucked in like a T. rex.
As evening approached I braved the typical mosquito horde of the Everglades. I set up the tent, weathered a few passing storms and made a campfire of wet driftwood I found in the mangroves. I made a taco out of Beanee Weenees and an egg for dinner on the campfire. After dinner, I laid in the tent, worrying about the 5-mile canoe back to Flamingo. Boy, I hope I can canoe against that wind.
I awoke the next morning to a calm sea. Wanting to take advantage of the lull, I rushed to make breakfast and break camp, slaughtering as many mosquitos as time allowed. I slipped Rider into the tranquil bay and towards the rising sun. The slight breeze died and the morning grew hot to the point where I wished for some wind.
It was breakfast time on Florida Bay for all creatures. With the still seas, I saw mullet jumping hundreds of yards away, large fish breaking the surface and the dorsal fins of sharks rounding up fish. I canoed into the middle of 3 sharks of unknown size and species rounding up prey in a splashing fit. I watched pelicans dive and ospreys carry fish in their talons. Thunder grumbled from a growing thunderhead to the north and sunbeams streamed down onto the sea, illuminating the water and distant green islands. This was not the canoe back I anticipated and, despite the heat, I reveled in nature’s Sunday sermon.
I pulled into the marina at 11:30 a.m. I stood in my canoe and did a victory lap of the marina, peacocking for all the foreign tourists. Children watched in awe and their mother’s swooned as I stood and paddled with my chest out. “There he is! Everglades Eric.” I heard some say. Or maybe it was hotter than I thought. Twenty feet from the dock, finally, I found two manatees chomping on aquatic plants! I took pictures of the sea cows and celebrated my good fortune. That part, I didn’t imagine.
Coastal Stats and Fun Facts:
- Florida Bay, Everglades NP, Florida (4/22-23/17)
- Weather: Warm, windy, humid with evening and night storms and showers. Calm, muggy, and hot on second day.
- Miles canoed: 10
- Songs Sung on River: Majority of Moana Soundtrack, Miami by Will Smith
- Launch/Takeout Point: Flamingo Marina (25.142402, -080.923297)
- Camped: East Clubhouse Beach (25.126525, -080.994139)
- Thanks to the Rangers at both Flamingo and Ernest F. Coe Visitor Centers for all the advice on where to camp, how to canoe the wind/bay and what to watch out for (Crocs!)
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: osprey, white Ibis, rosetta spoonbills, vultures, sand piper things, songbirds in the meadow.
- Reptile: One large American Crocodile
- Mammals: 4 Manatees!
- Other Creatures: Crabs, at least 4 sharks of unknown size and species!
- Noted Species: Florida Panther, Black Bear, Manatees, Alligators and American Crocodile.
- Dominant vegetation: Red Mangrove, Sea purslane, Buttonwood trees
- Ecoregion: Southern Florida Coastal Plains, (76d) Southern Coast and Islands
- Current Threats: Water diversion, urban sprawl, invasive species and much more.
- Trash collected: plastic bottles, styrofoam bobbers and lots of shoes