Florida Everglades – West Lake

Don Belzowski

Down at the bottom of ENP just seven miles from Flamingo is an access area with a boat ramp that provides a relatively easy day trip into several brackish lakes that eventually connect to Florida Bay.  The ramp is at West Lake, the first lake in the group.  This is an ideal place to canoe or kayak as it is restricted to only power boats under 10 horsepower.  The lake is not large so even if there is some wind you can usually find a lee side to paddle that is calm.

Camping World

An early morning launch into glass calm water and no city noises with an occasional fish breaking the surface and large wading birds flying to their feeding areas is reason enough to try this trip.  But, look closely at the shoreline.  The bleached skeletons of old buttonwood trees felled by Hurricane Donna in the early 60’s are host to a variety of epiphytic plants like Tillandsias and orchids.  In late May and June blooming Butterfly orchids literally cover some of these old trees.
While admiring the plants keep an eye out for the American crocodile!  West Lake is an excellent place to spot this rare reptile.

For those who would like to make the simple day trip in a kayak, canoe or small boat, we suggest these items to make the trip more enjoyable: 

Bring a good pair of binoculars to bring wildlife in close!  There is almost no limit on what one can spend on a good pair, but keep in mind that this is a saltwater environment.  And things that fall out of a boat and don’t float are gone in West Lake!  We have a 10×50 pair by Bushnell that are reasonable and work just fine.

A camera is also a great item to have along.  Some are waterproof or water resistant, which might help.  We have a nice Canon SLR digital with all of the lenses which is great for the serious hobbiest or professional, but again the wet and salty environment is a threat.  There are great new high-resolution point and shoot cameras that take great pictures and are very reasonable. 

Another great idea for any saltwater trip is a couple of small or medium dry bags.  These waterproof bags are great for storing any gear that can’t get wet!  We have a lot of these bags for long trips.  For day trips we like the clear plastic in the small bags so we can see what we have in them.  There are also inflateable dry bags that are good for expensive items like the binoculars and cameras since they float and also cushion those pieces of equipment.  A trick we learned when kayaking was to construct short safety lines from sturdy tent cord and a couple carabiner clips.  One end clips to the dry bag and the other end to somewhere on the canoe or kayak.  If there is a capsize the gear stays with the boat!

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It goes without saying that everyone should have a personal floatation device or PFD.  Sit-inside kayakers all know to have a hand pump and they are a good idea for canoes as well.  Spare paddles are also a good idea. 

Bring your fishing rods along, too.  West Lake has plenty of game fish to try for including snook, trout (spotted weakfish), redfish and tarpon.  Light saltwater tackle can add a lot of fun to the trip. A school of small tarpon on light tackle is a riot!  And a couple of sea trout can make a great shoreline lunch at the few places on the east end of the lake where there is dry land.

A quiet paddle around West Lake can make for a pleasant and relaxing day, but for the more adventurous the trip can extend into the other lakes south of West Lake.  The adventure can even go all of the way to Flamingo!  At the southeast end of West Lake is a creek connecting West Lake to Long Lake.  Long Lake connects to Cuthbert Lake or continues south to The Lungs and out into Florida Bay at Snake Bight.  The trip continues across Snake Bight and around west to Flamingo.  This is a long paddle and the open bay can be breezy.  Also, attention and planning must take into account the tides as these lakes and especially Florida Bay can become vast sticky mud flats that are impossible to cross until high tide returns.  But for those who plan well and can handle the distance and possible windy conditions, this is an excellent trip through several different environments.

This trip is in south Florida so even in the winter it can be warm.  Wear light, comfortable clothing and old tennis shoes or sandles so your feet can get wet!  A hat is good–especially the floppy bush hats with the mesh vents on the side.  Good polarized sunglasses are a must!  Sunscreen is important, too.  And even in the winter it’s a good idea to bring a good insect repellent.  In June when the orchids are in bloom bug juice is a must!!

As far as food goes we always suggest you don’t count on catching your lunch!  It is an unwritten law of nature that if you expect to catch fish for your food you almost surely won’t.  For the day trip some sandwiches and cold beverages in a cooler should be fine.  Bring extra water if it is warm.

For the more extended trips down into the other lakes and on into the bay, we would include a few more items.  But first let us say that we assume anyone attempting these longer and more arduous trips has had some experience doing this and pretty much knows how to prepare for these expeditions.  That said we recommend a good chart of the area, a basic GPS and some emergency gear.  This gear includes a good first aid kit, extra food and water.  This is a saltwater environment with no drinking water available.  A VHF radio should be able to reach the ranger station at Flamingo in case of an emergency.  A good idea also is some sort of shelter if the trip is stuck overnight.  Insects can be overwhelming in warmer weather!!

Any time we take a long trip into wild areas we find it a good idea to duplicate all of our essential gear, including paddles, fuel, lights and batteries.  We also included a small fiberglass repair kit, a small tarp with cord, a small hatchet or a bush knife, a compass if the GPS dies and a change of clothes.  This trip is not as rigorous as some we will write about, but the extra gear, packed in a small dry bag, takes little room and can save the day. 

In a coming article on a trip up into Hell’s Bay we will include a detailed description of our survival kit with information on how to find or produce fresh water from plants and solar stills.

That’s getting on the WILD SIDE!