I worried about Day 4 for the previous three months.
From our camp at Canepatch on Avocado Creek we were to head east through a maze of creeks and small channels that drain from the river of grass into the mangrove Everglades. We’d carefully drawn the route line, following Avocado Creek upstream as far as we could see it from Google Earth. In the planning phase, how we were to get from the open channel to the open sawgrass was just pure guesswork. Even after we flew over the route in December, from a scant 100 feet off the deck, we could not see through the canopy of mangroves, concealing a vital bridge between the sawgrass and the sea.
Two important elements of our first week would be departing today: Travis and his pack mule (Action Craft) and Mallory, who had to return to Colorado and her work with the Nature Conservancy. From this point on Elam, Carlton and I would be alone (mostly).
On the campsite picnic table, Mallory and I laid out the menu for the next four days, dividing food into sleeping back stuff sacks, one for each meal. Zatarain’s black beans and rice. Quinoa with onion. Summer sausage with crackers and cheddar cheese. Pita bread and Nutella. We each compiled a massive bag of snacks for ourselves. Apples, oranges, bags after bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit. This bag would live in the center console of my kayak, a hatch between my knees, where I kept camera, binoculars, and fishing tackle.
There was definite nervous excitement among the three of us as we set off from our Canepatch, listening to the noise of Travis’ engine fading away, headed back to Flamingo.
We were saved from having to do guesswork by a pair of benevolent park rangers. During our crossing of Oyster Bay on the first full day, a couple carrying two canoes in the bow of their powerboat had intercepted us. Their names were John and Donna Buckley, and they were longtime residents of the Everglades backcountry. They’d been sent by the Park Superintendent, Dan Kimball, to make sure that we made safe passage through the watery maze.
“Be careful out there. I don’t want have to do any paperwork,” the superintendent said as we departed.
When I’d arrived at Canepatch campsite the night prior, John and Donna were there, speaking with Travis. We made plans to meet up near the mouth of Avocado Creek at midday. I got the feeling that for the most part, they knew where every paddler on the Wilderness Waterway at any given moment was heading for the night.
They were waiting when we arrived at the designated meet up at 11, guiding their covered Mad River canoes with short, powerful paddles. The five of us chatted leisurely as we moved into the narrows of Avocado Creek. John and Donna were expeditioners in their own right. John told us about paddling across huge expanses of the midwest to raise awareness for the Great Lakes during the 1970s. He and Donna understood precisely what we were attempting to do. Still, they had not run into too many groups doing it in the direction we had picked.
John and Donna Buckley knew Canepatch to get regular patrons, and every other year a group or two would travel from U.S. 41 to Canepatch and out into the mangrove Everglades. They’d never seen anyone traveling from Florida Bay and attempt to escape up the Shark River Slough. Were we really the first? Probably not, I thought to myself.
Carlton stole a glance at me and gave me the wide-mouthed, eyes bugged out look that says “THIS IS CRAZY AND I LOVE IT.” I shot it right back.
Gradually the canopy of black mangroves closed over our heads. The channel serpentined around banks of trees and deadfall. I could sense the open sawgrass just beyond the tree-lined banks. I longed to see it. Twice, while at the head of the caravan, I turned toward the sunlit channel. Wrong way. John Buckley called me back. Before long I was back near the front. The second time I was lured by an alligator bed in the sawgrass.
This time I heard someone say “Do we have Joe?”
“Joe’s turned the wrong way again, he’s in his own world over there.”
Ouch. I decided it was time to bring up the rear and to listen to more experienced hands. Anyone could get lost here, and often do. Our guides had probably rescued hundreds of overly-enthusiastic or unlucky paddlers over their quarter century of living in this backcountry.
Everglades National Park backcountry ranger John Buckley
After 2 hours, the trees overhead began to thin out. The channel deepened, the banks lined with sawgrass. I paused to let the boat ahead of me navigate a narrow turn. I bird rocketed down the length of my kayak, a foot under the surface of the water. Horned grebe. Nothing else is that sneaky or fast under water.
The way forward became too thick for us to pass. John backtracked and turned south, out into the open, searching. We were very near our destination for the day, but there seemed to be no path to connect us to the airboat trail that would lead us northeast. I struggled so see the screen of my GPS, with the sun directly overhead. After a few minutes, we followed John’s path. Donna turned back to head home.
Everglades National Park backcountry ranger Donna Buckley
Out in the open we could see a long way. Far off on the horizon the figure of a man stood above the grass, watching us, higher than anything else around. I was tired of the kayak paddle in my hands, and my hips were sore from sitting for so long.
I pulled the heavy aluminum push pole from its hold and extended it to its full length. Using it as a brace, I stood, my joints creaking in protest. The kayak wobbled, uncertain of the change in weight distribution. I steadied and pushed off a clump of bulrush, the duck-foot end piece expanding against the vegetation and contracting as I moved forward. The boat moved straight ahead, gliding between the grasses and lotusflowers. I could see all around.
We pushed our way through a thick patch of grass and vegetation, watching the figure on the horizon, still unidentified. Finally we came out into a channel, about three feet across. A white PVC pipe stood off to the side. These were the markers of the airboat trail we’d seen during the fly over. Every quarter of a mile from here on we’d have these trail markers. In front of me there were large, dark fish laying in the channel. My mouth gaped. Largemouth bass, and Florida gar were everywhere. Foolishly, I’d let Travis take my fishing gear with him this morning.
John Buckley stood on the rickety wooden structure as I slid up. There was a walkway built of 2×6 boards leading over to a large scientific collecting device, mounted on a platform built 5 feet in the air. A sticker on the side read U.S. Geological Survey. Walkways led off into the sawgrass in three directions around the platform. It was 3:30 pm. It was too late to go on into the wilderness, hoping for something more sturdy on which to make camp. This was where we’d spend our night. John wished us well and shoved off for his houseboat back to the west.
We went about setting our camp. Elam staked out the platform, saying that he’d be comfortable up there with just his sleeping back and bedroll. I scavenged loose lumber, 2x8s and 2x12s from the sawgrass growing up around the gauging station, aligning the boards like slats over two sections of the walkway. I pulled a blow up mattress out of the hold of my kayak, inflated it and put it atop the slats. On top of this I put up the tent.
Carlton’s strategy was even more adventurous. He picked an area of especially thick sawgrass and mashed it down so as to support his mattress and hold it in place. On top of this he constructed his tent. He fretted about the sawgrass, and his weight pushing the mattress under water. He milled around his area, pushing the grass around, shifting his tent a little here, a little there. Finally he crawled inside, and it appeared to work. His vision was realized. He would sleep, afloat in the River of Grass.