The Everglades Moment

By James Campbell.

I was deep in Florida’s backcountry, canoeing the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile [159-kilometer] route that runs along the wild western edge of Everglades National Park. So far, two days into an eight-day solo trip in January, I’d seen just one other group of paddlers.

Waterbirds, in contrast, were everywhere. Two ospreys glided by just as I floated past a tree covered with so many snowy egrets that for an instant I thought the branches were blooming with white leaves.

As I rounded a bend in the main channel, the sun was obscured by a cloud that turned out to be a large flock of white ibis that had taken off from a stand of mangroves. Just about the only Everglades wildlife I didn’t see in great numbers were the mosquitoes that haunt these waters in swarms during the summer and fall.

The Wilderness Waterway is classic Everglades—a dizzying labyrinth of mangrove swamps, islands, and grassy shallows where the submerged logs are likely to be gators. You sleep at beach campsites or, where no dry land exists, on wooden platforms called chickees, constructed by the Park Service.

I’d traveled the entire waterway twice with others before my solo trip, but I still found myself paddling the calm waters with two essential resources open in the boat: a navigation chart on my lap and, on the floor of the canoe, a dog-eared copy of Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson, a tale of murders set along this convoluted coast at the turn of the last century. I also carried the most vital tool in route-finding here: enough extra water to get lost without running into trouble.

Winter is the best time to visit, and this January is ideal for anyone hoping to witness step one in the rebirth of the Everglades. The final land purchases in a 109,000-acre [44,110-hectare] expansion of the park authorized by Congress in 1989 are to be completed this month. Then, officials will prepare to breach two notorious levees, allowing the release of much needed water to the new territory; over the past half century, the levees led to the drying of wetlands and the decline of wading bird populations in the area. These measures will be a mere down payment on a colossal, controversial restoration project called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP).

Depending on whom you ask, the [U.S.] $7.8 billion plan, approved by Congress a year ago in a slam dunk vote (only one dissenting ballot was cast in the Senate), is either a last chance to save the Everglades or a dangerous pipe dream that will help mainly farmers and developers—if it even works. Still, Mark Van Putten, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, calls CERP the “start of the greatest environmental turnaround in history.”

Whether it will bring back wildlife such as Florida’s endangered panthers is an open question, but CERP is sure to do great things for paddlers. Boosting water flows over the next several years will render Shark River Slough, the main artery through the park’s famed River of Grass, once again navigable throughout the fall. Right now, you can paddle the slough for a few weeks in good years—it’s a two- to three-day trip that stretches over 40 winding miles [65 kilometers] before running into the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1994, Tony Pernas, a Florida exotic-plant specialist, became perhaps the first person to paddle and drag a canoe through the slough since Hugh Willoughby, the author of Across the Everglades, made the journey in 1897. “It’s a raw wilderness,” says Pernas, who has done it four times since then. “There are no airboats, no swamp buggies, no people—just alligators and beautiful saw grass horizons.”

At least for now, the Wilderness Waterway remains the premier Everglades experience. One hot afternoon, midway through my trip, I suddenly noticed a manatee grazing in front of the canoe. I back-paddled to avoid disturbing it, then allowed the boat to drift as I looked around me. Wading birds were gathering in the mangroves by the hundreds, biding their time until the retreating tide uncovered a mudflat of small crabs, shrimp, and mussels. It was a primeval scene.

In the Shark River Slough, Pernas had found remote islands strewn with pottery shards, manatee skulls, and conch shells, artifacts that probably hadn’t been glimpsed for a hundred years. He felt, he said, like an old-time explorer. Floating near the mouth of Lostmans River, on a day when I’d seen more manatees than people, I knew just what he meant.

To paddle the Wilderness Waterway, drive two hours from Miami or an hour and a half from the Fort Myers airport to reach Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center (+1 941 695 3311) in Everglades City. The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center (+1 305 242 7700), the park’s main point of entry, is less than an hour’s drive from Miami.

In Everglades City, rent a canoe for $32 a day or a kayak for $45 to $55 a day from North American Canoe Tours (+1 941 695 3299; www.evergladesadventures.com). Guided excursions start at $75 for one day and go up to $1,125 for an eight-day tour.

A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park (University of Florida Press, $17), by Johnny Molloy, details the Wilderness Waterway as well as shorter routes.

© 2002 National Geographic; All Rights Reserved.

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