Florida Everglades – Hell’s Bay
Hell’s Bay Part One
Introduction and disclaimer: Our On The Wild Side adventures are for the most part relatively safe for those who have some experience and exercise good common sense and planning. However, the Hell’s Bay trip and others we may write that go deep into the wild areas of south Florida, particularly Everglades National Park, are not to be taken lightly. Taking a kayak or canoe fifty miles into a hostile and unforgiving environment, regardless of its beauty, requires the right equipment, detailed planning, solid skills and–most of all–experience. This is NOT a trip for a beginner! Small mistakes in normal life could be life and death disasters deep in Hell’s Bay! If you are not skilled enough to recover a capsized kayak, if you swamp your canoe and lose all of your gear, if you run out of fresh water, if you become lost–you could die! Help is NOT a phone call away in most cases.
We expect anyone who embarks on one of these remote adventures to be experienced explorers or have an experienced professional prepare and guide the trip. We’ve been doing remote wilderness trips since the mid-sixties (yeah, that long) and know there is no substitute for planning and experience.
This article is in two parts so we can share some of our experience with you and hopefully speed up your learning curve if you are a beginner and maybe help you veterans with a little we may have picked up along the way. We’d also be glad to read your comments and suggestions.
1. The environment
First of all, what are you getting into? The geographical area we are talking about extends from Cape Romano just south of Marco Island on Florida’s southwest coast to Key Largo just south of Miami. Although this region encompasses a variety of environments, primarily–and especially for the Hell’s Bay trip–it consists of mangrove islands interwoven with brackish water creeks and shallow bays with sandy islands (or keys) bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The interior where this trip goes has virtually no dry land and all campsites are on elevated chickees with portable toilets maintained by the Park service. Many of the outside islands do have sandy beaches but inside the park only designated islands are allowed for camping. Navigation can be difficult as we will discuss later and the bays can be very shallow at low tide. As we will mention often, there is no fresh water available.
The climate is sub-tropical and back-country trips are mostly done in the winter when the weather is cooler and drier. November through March are your best bets. Warmer times of the year can be uncomfortably hot and humid with huge populations of mosquitoes and horseflies. Also, spring and summer bring a lot of almost daily thunderstorms with strong winds and lots of lightening. Long back-country trips are not recommended although day trips out to the Gulf keys can be pleasant
What about the flora and fauna? Trees in this area are predominantly mangrove trees. Check the trees for orchids and bromeliads! The outer beach sites will offer a wider variety of plant life. The fauna include extensive bird life–part of the pleasure of the trip. Also, the few land areas will have a resident population of raccoons to invade your campsite as we mentioned in our Tiger Key article! Also, there are alligators and the rare American crocodile, but if left alone should only add to the wonders of this wilderness and pose no threat. Also, this is saltwater and there are sharks. It is not recommended that you swim in this area, particularly inside. Water visibility is very poor. You may also see pods of porpoise, sea turtles, manatees and maybe even a pilot whale!
Are there hazards? Sure! Reread the disclaimer. Your biggest hazard probably is getting lost back in the mangrove creeks and bays. We’ll cover navigation in the next section. Besides that capsizing would probably be the next serious hazard. The main creeks can have very strong currents due to tidal flow and mangrove shorelines offer little or no place to leave the water. If you are not traveling alone, your companions are your best help. Keeping an eye on each other is the best protection. If you do travel alone–and we love to do that ourselves–keep on top of your skills, carry the best safety equipment and stay alert! Also, sudden storms on open water can be very hazardous.
Without the ability to navigate in the ENP you are lost–literally! Unlike many other wilderness areas, the Everglades is flat with virtually no landmarks. In the Ten Thousand Islands every island and shoreline is exactly the same height and color! Even local landmarks like dead trees and sandbars may not survive one tropical storm season to the next. Off the coast looking toward the shore or peering across Whitewater Bay nearby islands and keys blend into the distant shorelines. Bays, river mouths, points and islands all blend into each other and can be very hard to spot visually. Even those of us with experience have all found times when we felt disoriented and had to check our map or GPS for assurance or re-orientation. We are strong believers in GPS technology and it surely makes any trip back-country safer and more enjoyable. But a GPS can fall overboard, break down or just run out of batteries! Maps, a compass, a thorough study of maps of your destination before the trip and a solid knowledge of orienteering make a great backup. Many prefer the orienteering by compass and have the GPS only for backup. We kind of like that idea!
We also take advantage of the web and download satellite or orthotopographic maps of our trip areas and Photoshop in routes and GPS coordinates. There are waterproof map papers out there that make copies in any inkjet or laser printer. We make a route copy for each member of the trip in a waterproof zip-lock envelope and sometimes we even use short-range walkie-talkies so we can discuss our route as we move. As a matter of fact, preparing all of this data, sharing ideas and plans by e-mail and discussing the trip’s options is a great part of the fun!
So far we have not needed to use VHF radios or felt a need to carry EPIRBs. Those of you who do are welcome to share your knowledge. There is certainly a place for both of these items in any long-range wilderness trip.
Kayak or canoe? Our trips at ON THE WILD SIDE are all designed around small craft. We were exclusively kayakers at first and part of the kayak fishing revolution that has swept much of the country, especially South Florida. There are quite a few kayak fishing websites in this area and the members are very active. Personally, we prefer paddling kayaks. But canoes have the advantage of payload. My best large expedition kayak could safely carry 425 lbs.of gear including the passenger–which is very good for a kayak. My current canoe can carry 1050 lbs. of gear!! What’s the difference? The canoe is slower but much more user friendly in amount and access to gear. It docks at chickee campsites in the back-country readily whereas it can very difficult to access kayak hatches for camping gear, especially at low tide. But canoes can swamp in rough seas. We’ve been there! Sea kayaks are much more seaworthy–in our opinion–and can handle much rougher water. Then there is the sit-on-top kayak. Very good initial stability but once tipped past a certain point just go over. Not really that bad safety-wise as they are relatively easy to remount–especially compared to a sea kayak. But everything is exposed on a sit-on-top and bad weather can be uncomfortable. They are, for the most part, slower than sea kayaks due to their width and higher center of gravity and have a lower carrying capacity. But they are relatively inexpensive, safe and durable. Often they are a great entry level craft.
The technical discussions of various paddle craft is always vigorously debated at many websites dedicated to these subjects. We at ON THE WILD SIDE! have our very definite preferences but we will provide links to kayak sites at the end of the article so you can decide for yourselves.
Paddle or power? Well….this is a tough one because I have to admit I would always prefer the paddle if I could. But I have camped on hard ground with minimum supplies for years and many trips would have been much more enjoyable with a few luxury items like thick self-inflating sleeping pads! The canoe offers the payload to carry some extras, but the weight would make it a slow paddle. Also, time is a factor. We can travel further and see more places in less time with power. Gear, especially fresh water, and time were the reasons we did this trip with power. We had a small 4 hp outboard on a side mount bracket for one canoe and a five hp 4-cycle back mounted on the heavier Gheenoe. The combinations gave both craft top speeds of about 9 to 12 mph depending on payload.
We’ll cover camping gear, etc. in a bit, but we need to cover essential travel gear for the trip itself. The key words here are safety and comfort. First would be your personal flotation device or PFD. Obviously everyone should carry one and wear it on the water. But in south Florida it can get hot and just any old PFD can be uncomfortable. Shop for the lightest one that will hold your weight. Look for lots of mesh for ventilation. Pockets for items like bug repellent or sun screen are handy but don’t load yourself up with too much stuff. HERE’S A TIP: We chose a CO2 or manual Sospenders inflatable vest that is very thin and comfortable when uninflated. Check and replace the CO2 cartridge periodically and carry a replacement or two. We also recommend a hat and good polarized sunglasses.
Certain gear just goes without saying but we’ll say it anyway. Carry spare paddles, a hand-operated pump and a tool box, especially if you are using power. Make sure the tool box has a spare prop and shear pins, fuel filter, spark plugs, a patch kit for the hull, an extra starter cord and the tools to replace these items. Also we added a roll of duct tape and a small spool of soft wire for emergency repairs. You can add extra emergency items like rope, flares, a flashlight etc. depending on toolbox space.
Although the toolbox is fine when working with an outboard motor, we prefer to use dry bags to store most of our gear. They come in a variety of sizes in heavy vinyl fabric with roll up and snap covers that make them waterproof. They have some advantages over rigid containers–they are flexible and can be stuffed into curved places and maximize your storage space; they are soft and minimize noise when fishing, bird-watching or just enjoying the quiet; like boxes they provide emergency floatation, but are much more easily stuffed under thwarts or seats where they are more likely to stay with the boat. Also, and we maybe like this the best, they can be found in clear vinyl. We have a few small ones we fill with items we may need on the water and keep them close at hand. The clear vinyl lets us see inside to find what we need! These bags are probably not as puncture-proof as the vinyl fabric but we haven’t poked a hole in one yet. Still, we stay with the heavier material for our larger bags. HERE”S A TIP: take several one or two foot lengths of strong cord and tie a small carabiner clip to each end. Then clip your dry bags to thwarts and seats in your canoe. Your gear will now stay with your canoe or kayak if you capsize.
Camp gear is a huge subject with many options and products depending on space, comfort and budget. We started our collection of camping gear with hiking and trail-riding in mind so we began with a minimalist approach looking for the lightest, smallest gear we could find. After all, we had to carry it all on our backs! Some of our hikes like the coastal prairie trail out of Flamingo in ENP required that we bring all of our own water as there is no fresh water along the way. At about 8.3 lbs. per gallon per person per day that adds up fast. With a fifty pound backpack load as an average weight (some do more, some less) we needed to keep the rest of our gear to the lightest and most essential only. When we moved to kayaks this gear transferred over nicely to the narrow hatches and light load restrictions of those craft. Our tent, which we still use, weighs 7 lbs. with poles and stakes. It is a free-standing dome tent. If you camp on the platform chickees in Hell’s Bay your tent must be free-standing as you cannot drive stakes anywhere. Make sure the tent has no-see’m insect mesh!! Our sleeping bag weighs 2 lbs. but is only really suitable for warm climates. We have a small fleece liner we bring along that weighs virtually nothing and can always be stuffed somewhere as a backup if the weather gets too cold. Our stove is a 14 oz. MSR white gas model that folds up and fits into a small draw-string pouch. We bring a folded tarp large enough to cover the ground under our tent. We have a fairly standard mess kit for cooking and there are a lot to choose from out there. We won’t make too much of a deal about them.
For clothes we like to use the synthetic, ventilated gear fishermen love. These clothes wick dry very quickly and are light-weight and cool. Some have pants with legs that zip on and off above the knee. But bring at least one set of warmer clothes, since cold fronts in the winter in south Florida can get chilly. We pack all of our clothes in one bag except for a light-weight hooded rain jacket we keep near us in one of our clear dry bags. Shop around and get a good one as this will be an essential part of your gear for years to come. Look for one that breathes well, packs up small, has covered zippers (zippers leak!) and a snug hood that keeps water out of your neck. Expect to pay about $100 for a quality product. HERE’S A TIP: Pack a trash bag in your clothes bag to store your dirty clothes away from your clean ones.
Camera gear and binoculars should be a must for any trip on the wild side. There are now very excellent digital cameras that probably are far more practical and certainly more expendable than expensive high-end SLR digitals with lenses and tripods. We are camera enthusiasts and like having our best equipment with us on these trips. Still, we usually just take good quality small digital point and shoot cameras. If you do take your best equipment, there are inflatable waterproof carry pouches that offer good cushioning as well as protection from the elements. They are an inexpensive investment for your best cameras and lenses. Also, add a few bird or nature ID books to identify what you see. This can add another level of discovery to your trip.
If you go by canoe and have the space, a nice cooler helps bring a few extra pleasantries along–at least for the first few nights. But we’ve been seriously disappointed with the expensive coolers that claim to keep food cold for seven days or more. Most never last longer than two or three days at the most. But they work for a while. HERE’S A TIP: Freeze some plastic gallon jugs of drinking water to cool your food. The large frozen jugs last longer than ice cubes and serve as part of your drinking water supply. For the rest of our water supply we use plastic bladders or pouches instead of jugs for the same reason we use dry bags–they pack better in both canoes and kayaks.
If you take canoes and have the space, a small two-burner propane stove and a one-mantle propane lamp is a nice luxury. Also we added a couple of the common fold-up steel and canvas chairs. After a day of travel the relative comfort of those chairs is sweet. They don’t take up a lot of room in a canoe but may not be practical for most kayaks. There are small aluminum and fabric folding tripod chairs that work well with kayaks. They don’t have the comfort but are better than sitting on the ground.
Finally, make sure you have a very good first aid kit. Beside the obvious bandages and antiseptic creams, add gauze rolls, gauze pads, ace bandages, athletic tape, mole skin for blisters, eye drops, q-tips, cortisone anti-itch cream, aspirin or another NSAID like ibuprofen, antacid tablets, Pepto-Bismol tablets, tweezers, scissors–whatever makes sense. We will post an appendix at the end of this article with the contents of our kit for suggestions only. Obviously, if you take prescription medicine bring what you need along. HERE’S A TIP: If you have a good, long-standing relationship with your family physician, explain to him up front what you are about to embark on and see if he will give you a small prescription for a wide-spectrum antibiotic tablet and a stronger antibiotic cream like Bactroban. Our physician did it without any issue–but we’ve been going to him for 25 years!
And last but not least, we made ourselves a survival kit for the worst case scenario. We’re not sure that it is really necessary–unless of course it is–but we actually learned a lot building it, had fun playing with it to see if everything worked and it takes up very little room. Ours fit into the smallest clear dry bag we could buy. We attached a cord with a carabiner clip to the bag and kept it nearby. If conditions started to look bad–heavy thunderstorms, strong seas etc, we clipped the bag to our PFD so it went with us. Briefly, it included fire-starting material, a small first-aid kit, shelter, some food, signal gear, compass and two ways to make fresh water. We will post this also in our appendix.
That’s about it for the planning and prep part of the trip. Obviously, we didn’t try to cover every detail like what food to pack or what fishing tackle to bring–that could be an article in itself! But this is for the more experienced adventurer so you guys know most of this stuff already, right? In the appendix we hope to include links to a lot of very interesting websites that will expand your knowledge base and excite your interest. Now to PART TWO!!
Hell’s Bay Adventure: Part Two
Introduction and disclaimer: Our On The Wild Side adventures are for the most part relatively safe for those who have some experience and exercise good common sense and planning. However, the Hell’s Bay trip and others we may write that go deep into the wild areas of south Florida, particularly Everglades National Park, are not to be taken lightly. Taking a kayak or canoe fifty miles into a hostile and unforgiving environment, regardless of its beauty, requires the right equipment, detailed planning, solid skills and–most of all–experience. This is NOT a trip for a beginner! Small mistakes in normal life could be life and death disasters deep in Hell’s Bay! If you are not skilled enough to recover a capsized kayak, if you swamp your canoe and lose all of your gear, if you run out of fresh water, if you become lost–you could die! Help is NOT a phone call away!! Please read PART ONE first!!
For the more experienced explorer, Everglades National Park offers some of the most remote wilderness in the world. Although only a few miles from Miami in the east and Naples in the west, the islands and waterways between Flamingo and Everglades City are as wild as it gets. The Wilderness Waterway, a 99 mile all-water marked route between these two cities, is a true adventure. Although it can be traversed in one day by powerboat, to truly enjoy this experience we suggest traveling by either kayak or canoe. Paddling the entire trip is about a seven to ten day journey depending on the weather, craft and your skill level. You will need a back country permit from the park headquarters and reservations at the various campsites along the way for the nights you will stay there. These sites are mostly chickee-covered platforms or beach sites, both with portable toilets. There are no other amenities.
This is an extended trip and not for the novice, but you don’t need to make the entire trip. There are many ways to build small one or two day trips that take you deep into the park’s interior. Leaving from either Flamingo or Everglades City you can design simple day trips out for a beach lunch or extreme adventures into the wilderness of Hell’s Bay. Or something in between.
We have made many trips into the park but one of our most adventurous was a planned ten day trip out of Flamingo up into Whitewater Bay and north into the extremely remote and difficult to navigate Hell’s Bay. Bad weather turned us around at the Harney River campsite but we did get to experience the fun of traveling through the winding tiny mangrove creeks and shallow bays north of Whitewater Bay. We saw rare powdery catopsis bromeliads and vanilla orchids, watched porpoise chase schools of mullet around our campsite, caught spotted sea trout for dinner, tangled with large bull sharks fishing at night and enjoyed the peace and quiet completely removed from the sounds of civilization.
For this trip we used canoes with small outboard motors so we could cover more water in the time we had available. We would have preferred to paddle our kayaks instead, especially when the weather turned bad, as we both feel more secure in good sea kayaks than canoes. But as long of a trip as we had planned created real supply issues since there is no fresh water along this route. Our water minimum weighed over 200 pounds by itself! Add food, camping gear, fishing tackle and other necessities and we would really strain the capacities of our kayaks. Although we have done long kayak expeditions many times, the minimal gear eliminates a lot of creature comforts. Over time we have come to enjoy our extra thick sleeping pads, more spacious tents, larger gas stoves, comfortable folding canvas chairs, extra changes of clothes and food that isn’t always freeze dried. With our two canoes we had over 1700 pounds of capacity, about three times what we could manage with our two large kayaks!
Part of the fun for us on any of these trips is the planning and preparation. From downloading satellite maps and logging GPS coordinates to swapping e-mails of supply lists, we enjoy the planning. Discussing different routes, planning menus and preparing for emergency situations during the trip–all of it– fuels our excitement. Part One goes into this in detail.
Our first night of the trip was at the Flamingo campsite where we rechecked our supplies over a couple of fire-grilled steaks. Over dinner we looked in detail at our maps and made a best guess on the weather and generally enjoy the anticipation of the trip. Camping there that night also gave us a good final shakedown of our gear before we were completely in the wilderness. Also, the marina store is available to let us stock up on some of the things we might have forgotten.
We were watching an approaching cold front and decided to reverse the direction of our route. Originally we had intended to begin in Florida Bay and travel around Cape Sable to the Shark River but the cold front promised to bring strong winds out of the northeast. This meant we would take the Buttonwood canal up into Coot Bay and then into Whitewater Bay by way of Tarpon Creek. The front was a couple of days away so we would have time to reach the sheltered north and west parts of the bay and later the Shark River for protection from the wind. The weather was still good and the trip into Whitewater was calm and beautiful. We fished a little along the east shore of the bay as we worked our way north where we would enter Hell’s Bay. But we had a long distance to travel to our first campsite and couldn’t dawdle. Then we began the navigation of the tiny mangrove creeks and bays: anyone navigating this region of the park for the first time without the aid of good charts would become hopelessly lost in a very short time. An experienced guide would of course know the main routes in and out of the area but we had never been there! So, besides a compass and the approved navigational charts, we also had downloaded satellite photographs of the area, Photoshopped in our route with GPS coordinates, uploaded the coordinates to our GPS units and printed the route maps on a waterproof tear-resistant paper we found sold through National Geographic. We did this in triplicate–one for each of us and a spare–and put them in waterproof map cases for extra protection. Our two canoes were linked by small short range walkie-talkies which allowed us to keep in touch and consult each other on our route and direction. Technology is a wonderful thing and we found everything right where the GPS coordinates said they would be. But we realized that without this advantage we would have had no clue! Often we traveled on a heading dictated only by the GPS compass bearing to the next way point as there are no landmarks to speak of in the back country Large islands and small islands are all pretty much the same height and color so looking across a bay for a particular island or shoreline shape is almost useless until very close.
Traveling up to Lane Bay chickee we headed west to Robert’s River. We fished some along the way but nothing was happening. We reached the river and headed north to our chickee campsite. With no fish for dinner we had to settle for Philly sliders: pork and chicken on skewers grilled over the fire and wrapped with melting cheese in flour tortillas–somehow we survived! Our site was remote and the sunset was beautiful. We had what we think were Snook attacking baitfish in the mangroves as evening set but could not get a hit. Later porpoise coralled baitfish in the small cove that housed our chickee and put on quite a show!! They may seem like gentle animals but when they feed we can see their power and understand why they are top predators. That evening and the calm quiet dawn made this one of our best sites but it almost could have been a small disaster. Our chickee campsites are set on pilings and our access is subject to the tides. There is a ladder so no big thing about getting in and out of our craft. BUT, I didn’t allow for the fact that I was mooring my canoe at high tide and in the morning I found my canoe hanging almost in the air from the dropped water. I had to climb down the ladder and cut the mooring ropes free with a knife to release the tension and get the canoe back in the water!! Lesson learned and a rookie one at that. We’ve heard of campers on the out-island beaches camping below the high tide line and waking to a flooded tent and laughed a bit at their inexperience. Well…same thing here and we are appropriately humbled.
As a side note along the way we noticed that rare epiphytic plants like powdery catopsis and vanilla orchids were quiet common in the stunted mangroves along the shore. Back this far into the interior the water is less salty and the flora changes. We crossed grass beds that didn’t look at all salty heading north to Lane Bay. This looks very close to being the transition between salt water from the Gulf and the fresh water coming down from Big Cypress.
With morning we embarked north to the crossover from the Robert’s River to the North River. We had some time so we decided to fish the intersection of the two rivers. Almost immediately I caught a very large spotted weakfish (sea trout) and having a fish-measuring tape stuck to the top of my nearest cooler decided to measure this guy. Well, he did not like being measured like that and …well…jumped back into the water. Fortunately I caught a fat 20″ trout that made it to the cooler so we would have dinner later.
Our plan was to take the North River back to Whitewater Bay, but we had the option of taking the west fork of the North River and logging a new GPS point at another chickee campsite. One of my personal projects was to actually log all of the GPS way point sites of each of the campsites to update their accuracy. This gave me one more. It was very calm and the trip to our next night’s campsite at Oyster Bay was beautiful. We saw a shark fin cutting across a small bay and my cast got a quick, solid hit but no hookup.
Our route brought us out onto Whitewater Bay at its very northern part near the mouth of the Watson River. Here we had to navigate through a series of small islands to Cormorant Pass and find our next night camp site at Oyster Bay. We got there early traveling through the small islands and passes and fished the area exploring as we went. But, no fish.
Oyster Bay is a great secluded chickee site and an important turning point in our trip. If the cold front we were expecting arrived on time it would come in the next day. How soon it arrived and how bad it was had a lot to do with the rest of our trip. That night the ice was still good and we were tired so we saved the trout for the next night and enjoyed some of our dried foods like beef jerky–which we make ourselves!!! Another article some day? We had some bait and put out a line at night while we relaxed and planned our routes for the next day. Boom!! Our tackle got slammed by something big but the line parted and we lost it. Second attempt–same result–same conclusion. From talking with experts who should know we guess that we were hit by bull sharks and our expensive braided lines were quickly cut by the sharks’ rough hide. According to the guys at our favorite tackle store this is one of the weaknesses of braided line. Much as we love braid we now have a rig–also a heavier rig–set with 50 lb. mono line. Can’t wait until next time!!
Our next morning started fairly calm and we had decided the last night to make the run to the Harney River site because it was fairly sheltered. Once at Harney we would be in a good place to evaluated whether or not we could venture out into the gulf the next day. The run from Oyster Bay to the shelter of the Shark River was about 1.5 miles and it would be open water. Doesn’t sound like a lot of distance but on open water the waves can get big quick–especially for canoes. Well, it wasn’t that bad but it was choppy and we took a little water which we could handle. When we made it to the Shark River the sky was overcast and things got less comfortable. Fortunately we had the lee north side of the river to shelter us so we fished a little along the way–one small snapper–and took a detour up a creek that our maps showed would loop back to the Shark River. So we explored a little bit. Probably we shouldn’t have done that. By the time we got through the creek the weather had deteriorated into a cold drizzle and the wind picked up. Also we now had to head north into the weather to reach the Harney River.
It was a slow, cold and wet trip but we had a bit of a lee side as the cutoff had a slight angle and our wet-weather gear was very good. Once we reached the Harney River we had the North lee side for shelter and the drizzle had stopped. Travel wasn’t really pleasant but we made good time and reached our site for the night at the brand new double-site chickee across the river from the old single site. This chickee is situated right in the mouth of a creek heading north to the Nightmares, an alternate route north that avoids the Gulf of Mexico and connects with the Broad River. The route is called the Nightmares for good reason as it is a very narrow, overgrown winding creek that can be impassible at low tide or with larger craft. The wind was such that we had to tie-off our tents to the chickee’s posts to keep them out of the water.
It calmed a bit that night and we had warm clothes so we fried up the trout with a good hot sauce and a spicy chili on the side and slept well. My fleece outer liner for my sleeping bag came in handy. Early in the morning we were awakened by the sound of dolphin driving mullet up onto the exposed mud around our chickee and actually coming up onto the mud to grab the beached baitfish! These creatures are powerful!! A very exciting show.
After coffee we sat down to make a serious decision: what do next with the weather. It was windy and looked to stay that way for a few days. There was no way we could take our canoes out into the Gulf and head north for the Broad River so we considered the Nightmares route to avoid the Gulf. This is a long 8.5 mile detour through narrow winding overgrown creeks that we had heard can only be traveled at high tide. At any given time it can be blocked by a fallen tree. It is rarely wide enough to turn a fifteen foot boat around. It has many side creeks that can lead one astray. But it was tempting to go ahead and try it–and to this day I kind of wish we had. But at the time, not knowing the outcome of the weather and seeing that we would not have the best tide we reluctantly decided to cut the trip short and return the way we came. And so we did.
Returning the way we had come was uneventful for the most part. We fished a bit but the front had shut down any activity. Our only real excitement was a short detour down the wrong branch of the Shark River that got us a little lost for only a few minutes. We recovered quickly and soon were back at the Oyster Bay chickee and its sheltered cove. But crossing the northern part of Whitewater Bay to get to the chickee and its shelter was rough and showed us that it would not be feasible to sprint southeast across the bay safely. We consulted our maps and found a protected route through the small islands around Oyster Bay and into the western end of the Joe River. This gave us a relatively sheltered route through new territory with two more chickee’s GPS points to log and new terrain to view and was pleasant. The sky had cleared, the sun was out and it was warm. But the wind did not die down.
At the end of the Joe River we had to cross a couple of miles of the southeastern end of Whitewater Bay to get to Tarpon Creek. On the map it looked like a short trip and we did not see the danger when we planned the route. Several islands looked like they would moderate the waves on the bay–and maybe they did a little bit–but those islands looked a long way off and the waves were vicious! And–we had to run parallel to them to get to our destination!! We could barely make headway and had to time the wave sets to run with the weaker sets and turn into the stronger ones. I had read that canoes can roll nicely in the troughs and peaks of the waves and stay drier that way. I’m not sure I buy that–at least with the waves we had. To give it some credit I may have stayed a bit drier that my partner in his more stable and heavier Gheenoe because I rolled more with the waves. He took on so much water he tried using his drain plug to drain it off but the waves became too severe for him to keep up the forward speed to remove the water and he almost was breeched. All I could do was get close enough to break some of the seas and give him a very tiny lee until he could recover–which he did. But I give him the credit for that as I was way too busy watching and timing the wave sets, adjusting the throttle and bailing my butt off!!
Eventually we were able to turn more easterly, get the wind partially behind us and make it into the mouth of Tarpon Creek. At the first calm spot we stopped exhausted and regrouped. At times as we crossed this relatively short leg of the trip we wondered if we would even make it. The short distance we covered of the rough water–maybe two miles–took over two hours as we often were making no time at all when we had to turn into the wind to survive a stronger than usual set of waves.
After water, a snack and rest the trip back through Tarpon Creek and Coot Bay to Flamingo was uneventful. Although we wanted to continue the trip while we were there and equipped for it, the weather report showed high winds throughout the week. So, although we had to cut the trip short and did not get to camp the outside beaches of the Cape, we did have an experience of a lifetime. We successfully navigated very remote areas, tested our skills against the weather and explored places very few are ever privileged to see. And we felt challenged to finish the whole trip another time.
When that time comes look here ON THE WILD SIDE for the story.