Everglades Shakedown: Challenges and Lessons Learned

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

<— Previous in Everglades Shakedown

Christmas dinner, 2013

Christmas dinner, 2013

The goal of our Everglades Shakedown Expedition of December 2013 was to gain an understanding of the Everglades environment for the upcoming WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, and we’re happy to say it succeeded. Our biggest lesson learned was that we’d largely been worried about the wrong things. Snakes and crocs? No worries, mate! But midges and skeeters can be more than a nuisance—they can derail your trip by keeping you penned in your tent, unable to cook or pee.

Similarly, I’d been deeply concerned about paddling in the Everglades at night. It’s pitch-black (actually, not quite: the lights of Miami loom on the horizon) and the thousands of mangrove islands look all the same. Sure, we do plenty of nighttime paddling in New York—but that is our backyard, and even if you are a visiting paddler, the city is well-illuminated and chock full of landmarks, from the Statue of Liberty to the various bridges, so it’s fairly easy to keep your bearings. Turns out that with a compass and charts, a good flashlight, and ideally a mapping GPS, nighttime paddling in the Everglades is very much doable, as well. (And in some respects, it’s more pleasant than daytime paddling.) That relieved my worry about being limited to paddling only during the daylight hours in the Everglades Challenge itself.

And some things that seemed trivial from our perch in New York were not trivial at all. Headwinds across the shallow water that abounds in the Everglades generated chop and slowed us down considerably—our average pace for the trip was 2.3 knots, and that’s with fast boats and good technique. (Our standard average, in calm waters with no wind or current, is around 3.4 knots.)

Here are some of the highlights of what we learned:

When it comes to scary critters, danger is inversely proportional to size. We’d worried (okay, I’d worried) about poisonous snakes and scorpions. I’ve lived in Florida before, so I wasn’t much afraid of alligators (and as it turns out, they’re more scared of kayaks than we are of them).  We didn’t see a single snake or scorpion, and only one alligator.

But the mosquitoes and midges can be showstopping. Hat, gloves, bug net, paddle pants, and paddle jacket are a must—in addition to DEET. And the waters are teeming with microbial life, which can turn a tiny cut into a painful infection. (Neosporin is your friend.)

Chickees and kayaks don’t mix well. Chickees are above-water camping platforms among the mangroves.

Our camp on a chickee

Our camp on a chickee

Virtually all the “paddling in the Everglades” guidebooks feature cheerful photos of kayaks hoisted up neatly on the chickee, next to the tent.

One problem: that only works if your boat is very light, or lightly loaded, because the chickee usually stands several feet above the water. Try leaning off the edge of the chickee to hoist up a 60-pound boat loaded with 150 pounds or more of food, water, and gear. You see the issue! (And if two of you try to hoist the heavily-l0aded boat by the bow and the stern, even if you had the strength, you might well break it.) You can, of course, tie up your boat and leave it in the water (which we did). But that means loading and unloading the boat either from the water, or standing on the ladder up to the chickee. It’s doable, but consumes precious time and energy—so much so that we’ll try to avoid chickees during the Everglades Challenge itself.

Gear is good.  In preparation for this trip, we upgraded our gear substantially. I bought a suite of Watershed drybags—top-of-the line bags made by a company that supplies, among others, the US Military. Expensive? Oh yeah. And worth every penny. For the first time ever on an expedition, my “indoor” clothes and bedding stayed dry. I can’t recommend Watershed enough (and a shout-out to Danny at New York Kayak Company, who recommended them.) Both New York Kayak Company and Sweetwater Kayaks stock them. (I have no affiliation with Watershed, or any other company mentioned here by name, other than being a delighted customer.)

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On the last day, the blue Watershed bag on Johna’s rear deck is still dry!

Other essentials:

  • Marine charts and compass. Our primary means of daytime navigation. We brought an assortment of waterproof charts from Waterproof Charts and Maptech, and we were very glad they were waterproof. We’ll write more about the challenges of navigation in the Everglades in a separate post.

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    Johna studies the charts as a front rolls in…

  • A mapping GPS (and a backup mapping GPS for the one that fails). Both of us used the Garmin GPSMAP 78sc. Takes the worry out of nighttime navigation—which we did quite a lot of.
  • A SPOT satellite locator and tracker. We each had the SPOT Gen3. Required equipment for the Everglades Challenge—but a wonderful invention. Your friends can track your progress online, and you can alert folks to problems.
  • Headlamps. We’ve always relied on them for late-night or early-morning boat packing and unpacking. But in Florida they’re essential navigational tools as well—the only way to locate a hidden stretch of beach or the entrance to a creek among the mangroves after dark. We each had a Princeton Tec Vizz. Very powerful for the first 3-4 hours, but then (as many online reviewers have complained) dimming dramatically. That means keeping many AAA batteries at hand—many more than you think you’ll need. We may have to look for alternate headlamps for the Everglades Challenge itself…

    Dusk on the Joe River

    We turn our headlamps on as dusk falls

  • Bungee cords and extra deck (bow, stern) lines. Ever since our Long Island circumnavigation, I’ve travelled with extra deck lines with oversized carabiners at each end. They’re great for lashing gear to the boat and serving as impromptu clotheslines as well as for the main purpose: Securing the boats to docks (or chickees, or trees). For this trip, we made an extra set for Vlad’s boat—and used them all! Similarly, Vlad travels with a full suite of bungees—which were invaluable at securing the tent one windy night.
  • Bug nets, which, along with a hat, paddling jacket, paddling pants, and gloves formed our best line of defense against the wee demons.

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    Bugs begone!

  • Camp shoes. We knew this already, but it bears repeating: Camp shoes are one of the most critical items you can bring. (Imagine getting up in the middle of the night to pee, and having to spend ten minutes pulling on your paddling shoes.)  I swear by a comfy pair of Crocs flip-flops; Vlad has an even cheaper pair of plastic slip-ons. Both work well.
  • My  trusty JetBoil, which proved its worth during this trip by providing coffee and hot meals, even in the face of high winds and fearsome bug swarms. I’ve loved this device ever since I bought my first back in the 1990s—and I love it even more now.

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    Breakfast on a chickee

  • Tanka bars. I’m always on the hunt for tasty, easy-to-eat protein sources. So when one of my colleagues sent a basket of these as an early Christmas gift, I was thrilled! They’re buffalo jerky, made several different ways, but usually mixed with cranberries. They taste fantastic, are easy to eat on the water, and free of noxious substances (nitrates, nitrites, MSG, etc.). They’re not too salty (another positive). Plus, they’re made by Native Americans (my colleague’s wife is of Ojibwe ancestry) from free-ranging buffalo. Again, I’m not affiliated with the suppliers in any way other than as a happy customer—but I plan to buy plenty for the Everglades Challenge itself.
  • A chemical arsenal (particularly Neosporin, DEET, and sunscreen). Of these, Neosporin is the most important (which, as I’ll describe, I had to learn the hard way). DEET is necessary but not sufficient at keeping the bugs away. And sunscreen is generally a must when it comes to paddling in Florida—though I’ll confess to not using it at all on this trip. Between a broad-brimmed hat, paddling gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and Mediterranean skin, I didn’t need it. But it’s very wise to include.

It’s all about the organization. For previous expeditions, we’d packed things wherever they fit best. This had two flaws: First, we ended up packing far more than we needed. (For months after the Long Island Circumnavigation, we kept eating vacuum-packed salmon that we brought back, which we ended up referring to as “Long Island Salmon”.) Second, that made it impossible to locate things quickly, and we spent literally hours rooting through stuff.

Lunch on the water

Careful organization ahead of time speeds up our lunch on the water

This time, we kept related gear together (the cookware, condiments, and coffee all stayed with the JetBoil). We organized meals by day, and stashed later days in less-accessible parts of the boats. And I color-coded everything, so I knew (for instance) that the brown bag was clothes, the red bag cookware, etc. This made for less efficient use of space, but much more efficient use of time.

Backup, backup, backup. Once again, a GPS failed on us (that makes three out of five, over the course of four expeditions).  Fortunately, we each had one, so we finished the trip with a working GPS.  But we’ve learned over the years that if an item’s important, carry two, or more, of it. For the Challenge itself, we’re planning to bring a GPS each, plus at least one backup. In addition, we carried a “backup bag” of other spares, stored in a less-accessible part of the boat, as well as several separate stashes of batteries—it’s a good idea to keep anything essential in multiple places so that if something happens to one, the others remain available.

And now, without more ado, Day 1

Next in Everglades Shakedown —>

58 responses to “Everglades Shakedown: Challenges and Lessons Learned

  1. Wow! What an adventure. When you were gone paddling in Florida I had visions of you taking breaks lazing on white beaches not being eaten alive by insects! Looking forward to hearing more.

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  2. The nitty gritty of expedition shakedown, thanks for the extremely informative and entertaining blog post. It even kept me rapt despite the noise of the 7 yr old, 4 yr old and one month old grandchildren that I’m staying with this month, no mean feat. Looking forward to reading much more about the “shakedown” paddle.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Wow! Rapt, really? And this was just the “boring” part of the post. So glad you liked it–hope the rest lives up to your expectations! (And that was some competition–especially the one month old!!).

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  3. Johna, I look forward to the rest of your adventure. Your insights and descriptions are very helpful.
    Thanks

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  4. How interesting to read! It will be fun to follow you two along on this journey.

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  5. What a wonderful journal of your journey! I especially appreciated the nuts-and-bolts descriptions of the basics of survival in this habitat. Buffalo is the unsung hero in our country’s sustenance, I believe! Glad you had a great experience despite the challenges.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks! Just for the record, you don’t have to be on an expedition to enjoy Tanka bars. They’re really quite addictive–and I’m not one of those people who likes meat-and-sweet combinations. But something about the light taste of the cranberries goes so well with the savory buffalo flavor…. I particularly like the chipotle version (nice-n-spicy!). Wish I had some now!

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  6. Thank you for all the work you’re doing to share this. Just curious, what’s the relationship of your route to the stomping ground of America’s only flock of crocodiles?

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    • They are mostly to be found at the southern end of the Everglades, around Flamingo, I believe. We went through that area, but didn’t see any—not surprisingly, since they are rare. (We hardly saw any alligators, either, which are not rare.)

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  7. What a wonderful adventure story! So informative! Thank you very much!

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  8. “Doing it right!” It is a pleasure to read the reflections of thorough planners’ efforts. Thanks for doing the “shakedown”. We learned a lot.

    George

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Well, getting there, at least, George! And thanks for reading, and posting.
      It’s surprising how much you keep learning about things–every time you go. I wish someone had written a book about this stuff! There are plenty of books about the finer arts of navigation, etc. but nothing that tells you, “hey, pack your meals in baggies and store them by day”. (I found out later that this is common practice among expedition paddlers–who knew?)

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  9. I’m spellbound by your courage and adventurous spirit. Good luck on your challenge, and I look forward to hearing what happens.

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  10. The GPS reliability is disturbing. Any feedback on that?

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    • Water damage, to supposedly waterproof equipment.

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      • Not good! Isn’t a piece of equipment that should need a waterproof case. Did Garmin make it good? We use one! Yikes! Need a second one for the other end of the canoe!

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        • Haven’t returned it yet to Garmin—they should fix it, as it is still under warranty.

          My experience with equipment that claims to be waterproof is that the waterproofness is hit-or-miss, even between items of exactly the same type, same model, from the same manufacturer. I’ve had Garmin eTrexes that performed well for years without having to be kept in any additional case—and then eTrexes that failed as soon as the first drop of water hit them. That’s been my experience with waterproof cameras, too, and even items such as diver’s watches that really should be perfectly waterproof…

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  11. Did you drive to Florida with your gear or did you ship everything? If the kayaks were yours I presume you drove.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      We flew, and we brought all the gear, including Vlad’s folding boat, the Red Herring. I rented a kayak from the estimable Sweetwater Kayaks in Tampa.

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  12. I wish our african crocs can learn from your alligators. Our variety has no fear and love munching kayakers!
    Thank you for the detail on your planning and gear. Valuable info.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hm… good to know! And I noticed you have some pretty interesting spiders, too.

      Yeah, I’ve long wanted to write some posts about gear, but what tipped me over the edge this time was the Watershed dry bags. I love them at least as much as I love the Jetboil, which is saying a lot.

      For what it’s worth, Vlad is more skeptical. He uses big, thick traditional bags that work well for him. I’m too impatient and fail to roll them properly, or stuff them too full, which results in… wet sleepware.

      One of the nice features of the Watersheds is that you can test to see if they’re sealed—a godsend for someone like me!

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  13. I find your Kayaking “expeditions” so informative…and fun to follow…

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  14. Good luck to you both and have fun . Reminds me of when I did the 90 miler ( 3 day canoe/kayak race ) up in the Adirondacks many years ago with a friend of mine http://www.pinterest.com/nfct/adirondack-canoe-classic-90-miler/ . 150 lbs of gear/food/water Wow ! I’ve been doing canoe/kayak trips in the Adirondacks since My teens and never go over 60lbs for 10-12 day trips even in the cold fall months . Is it mostly water weight ? Water is never a concern in the woods so no need to tote it in .

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    • That looks like a fun race! Except for the portages… ;-)

      All the weights we’ve given are really just guesswork—it sure felt like 150 lbs, and more so as the day went on :-)

      But yes, water. There is no fresh water in the entire Everglades except at Everglades City / Chokoloskee at one end, the Keys at the other, and one place, Flamingo, in between. We brought all our water for 7 days. We started with about 50 liters, approximately 13 gallons—110 lbs right there. (We still had quite a lot left at the end of the trip—could have brought less.)

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  15. vastlycurious.com

    Oh I so enjoyed the details involved in your trip! The night paddling gave me the chills as did the skeeters but the two of you are so prepared its just so impressive. More please?

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  16. I do not know if you ever tried it or not, but my husband bought something called Permethrin and all the people on Amazon.com say it really works for repelling mosquitoes.

    Also for sunscreen, there is a supplement called Astaxanthin which actually protects against sunburn without having to apply any actual sunscreen on and it has other great benefits. I know it sounds crazy but everyone who uses it swears by it. You can google it if you don’t believe me :D

    Ok, and that’s all I have for useful information, I hope it’s helpful :D

    All I really want right now is to leave everything I am doing and go kayaking.

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    • Thanks for the info!

      Looks like permethrin is used mostly to impregnate clothes against bugs, and used that way seems to work. Our problem, however, is how to protect bare skin. DEET kind of works, but it’s hard to make sure that every patch of bare skin is covered with it, and it rubs off. It’s much easier to instead (or better still, in addition) put on some clothes. And the clothes we already have at hand—paddling jacket and pants—are thick enough that the bugs can’t bite through. So coating them with permethrin in addition is probably unnecessary.

      All I know about astaxanthin is that it is used to impart that rosy pink color to farmed salmon… ;-)

      Go kayaking!!

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  17. Sweet as a Picture

    What an adventure! You were definitely prepared for everything. And yes, “Bugs begone!” :-D

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  18. I don’t kayak, but that doesn’t matter. This was an interesting read with great photos of the trip. I look forward to hearing more about your kayaking adventure :)

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  19. thanks for sharing some of the adventure with us – and the pictures really do bring things to life a bit more. :)

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  20. I started hyperventilating after reading the bit about snakes and scorpions – I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have slept the entire trip! Great read, Johna. xxx

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  21. Lots of great info here! Thanks. We’re cheering for you :)

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  22. thank you for liking my photo. I love this blog! My little adventure is nothing compared to you kayaking the Everglades, but I can relate to the mosquitos. We drove there with the car a/c broken, so what did we do? Opened the windows. I swear, mosquitos the size of silver dollars came swarming in. Unreal!

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    • I know just what you mean. One of the most annoying thing about camping with mosquitoes was having to plan way ahead to minimize the number of times we had to open the tent door, because each time a fresh swarm of them came in. Each time, we then had to spend many minutes in desperate slaughter until most of them were eliminated…

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  23. Pingback: Everglades Shakedown, Day 1: Headwinds and Night Navigation | Wind Against Current

  24. Pingback: Shakedown Kayak Expedition Through the Florida Everglades: Overview | Wind Against Current

  25. It was a really pleasant durpriseto meet you in Everglades City. Indeed, this year we counted a few more mosquitos than in any of the previous four years. We are happy that you enjoyed this unique slice of Paradise and we hope you’ll return to the Everglades… :) Beautiful images. We’ll see you in NYC.

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  26. The Everglades seem like such a scary place to me. The alligators and snakes are enough to stop me, but more than that is the secrets that the swamp seems to hide. It seems like a dangerous place that’s not for the feint of heart.

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    • Actually, the coastal part where we were, at least, isn’t really a swamp at all in the usual sense. There isn’t really any marshland or even any above-water mud or grass. It’s all just shallow water in which mangrove forests grow, so that the entire landscape is neatly divided into open, albeit shallow, water, and rather monotonous tracts of impenetrable mangrove. And then, along the Gulf coast, sandy beaches…

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  27. I marveled at all of it, the organization and the initiative, the taking-in-stride and the thinking-in-advance. But I marveled most of all at the evident joy both of you have in your expeditions. As a devout couch potato, I am, as always, in awe!

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