By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Finish: Darwin’s Place.
Distance: About 21 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 8 hours; average pace 2.6 knots.
Stop time: Roughly 2 hours (30 minutes lunch plus a 90-minute stop at Everglades City to obtain permits).
We spent the night before at Chokoloskee Island Park and Marina, a delightful campground right on the waterfront at Chokoloskee, the last outpost of civilization before entering the Everglades. It felt a bit strange to be camping in the relative comfort of an RV park, with running water, toilets, even showers! But we figured—rightly—that we’d get plenty of backwoods experience in the trip to come.
We arrived at the campground, dropped off by car, right around sunset, just in time for a perfect test of our nighttime organizational abilities. We were gratified to discover that everything went smoothly—setting up camp in the dark and even putting together the Red Herring, which required extensive fiddling with its jury-rigged frame (how it got that way is another story…). After a tasty Mountain House freeze-dried dinner, we slept well under the stars. The campground, though almost completely full for the holidays, was wonderfully quiet.
The next morning, we loaded the boats—including with the all-important supply of water. Vlad had brought all our Platypus water bags, and we were curious to see how much we could fit, and how far that would take us. (We worked out afterward that we loaded about 50 liters, or 13 gallons, of water, weighing about 110 lbs. No wonder we could sometimes hardly drag the boats up the beach!)
Then it was time to launch!
One problem: The campground features a kayak-friendly boat launch, and there was a bit of a traffic jam: a group of kayak fishermen heading back home after an early morning on the water. They were quite friendly, though, and we shared space equitably.
A more serious problem: while getting into my boat, I managed to slice my finger on some oyster shells. It was a small cut—just a half-inch or so—but it could potentially interfere with my grip. It didn’t hurt, though, so I foolishly decided to skip the Neosporin-and-bandage routine. Mistake, as it turned out.
Our route first took us almost three miles north to the Everglades National Park Visitor Center in Everglades City, where we had to check in to get the necessary permits to paddle through, and camp in, the park, before heading south for the trip proper. With a brisk tailwind, we made excellent time to Everglades City, and I delighted in the handling of my yellow Explorer, obtained from the estimable Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg. I promptly dubbed it “Golden Boy” (later amended to “Golden Pony Boy” after a local brew).
We’d been warned that the beach at Everglades City was a bit muddy. It was, but fortunately we arrived at fairly high tide, so we didn’t have to walk far in the mud. I tied the boats to some mangroves (you can never be too careful!). Then as we headed inland I caught sight of a couple of figures—a man and a woman—dressed identically in Army-green T-shirts and black pants. The woman was wheeling a loaded barrow, and I took them for park rangers.
But Vlad stopped and said to the man, “I know you! We’re friends on Facebook!”
Turns out the couple was Doi Nomazi (“Two Nomads”), a well-known Romanian husband-and-wife adventure team. Amazingly, they too are based in New York, although we’d never met before. Like us, they were on a kayak expedition in the Everglades over the holidays—but they were sailing, rather than merely paddling, their black U-boat, a double Long Haul folding kayak. We introduced ourselves, chatted a bit, and agreed to connect after our respective adventures. A positive omen for the trip.
Getting permits turned out to be surprisingly painless. We’d been warned several times that campsites fill up, particularly in the busy season—and Christmas week was the busiest of the year. But to our surprise and relief, we had a choice of sites. The biggest challenge was figuring out how far we thought we’d go on each leg of the journey. We also needed to decide how much of the trip we’d spend “inside” (among the mangroves) vs. “outside” (along the open coast).
The benefit of taking the coastal route for the entire trip was that there were plenty of camping options along the Gulf beaches. But it had two drawbacks: first, it wouldn’t allow us to experience much of the “real” Everglades, and second, if a storm blew up, we might have difficulty, both paddling on the open water and landing through surf.
So we decided to travel inside at first, then come out and follow the coast. For our stint among the mangroves, we decided that Darwin’s Place, which looked to be around 18 miles away, was a good first stop.
Armed with the permits, we set off…
… right into the wind.
The frisky tailwind that had seemed so helpful was now a fairly brisk headwind, and I was dismayed to see our pace dropping to about 2.5 knots. I did some quick mental calculations—at this pace, it would take us over 7 hours to reach our campsite. Since it was about 12:30 PM by now, and sundown was around 6 PM, that meant we’d have to find the campsite, in the labyrinth of the mangroves, after dark.
I pushed the thought away. Maybe the wind would ease up, or we’d find shelter from it among the mangroves. And wouldn’t we get some helpful current at some point?
The next couple of hours were a long slog against the wind, with no current. Bank after bank of green mangroves slid by against the blue sky.
After a while, we decided to stop for lunch at the Lopez River campground. From the water, it was a lovely campsite, complete with a picnic table, and we anticipated a pleasant (if brief) lunch.
No sooner had we disembarked than we were attacked by clouds of mosquitoes, followed by swarms of midges (no-see-ums). It was so bad we gave up in what seemed like no more than a minute, retreated to our boats, and ate on the water where the cool breeze kept the midges away.
Insects–1, Vlad and Johna–0. Little did we know this was just the first round!
Then we started to paddle seriously. The landscape stayed the same—mangroves, water, sky.
Hours slipped by, and the sun dipped down towards the horizon. We still had several miles to go to our campground, and I resigned myself to the notion of a night paddle.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult. At that point we were following the Wilderness Waterway, which featured clear markers that we could see in the glow of our headlamps. In addition, the Waterway was marked on our GPS maps, so we had no trouble following the trail.
And the stars were brilliant! We couldn’t stop looking at them—or commenting on how many there were. The phrase “the stars like dust” kept coming up. We’d both heard it, but we’d imagined it was a poetic metaphor. Not so—the sky was literally lit with them.
We paddled along in the darkness for another hour or so, until we came to Darwin’s Place. Squinting in the beams of our headlamps, we saw the campsite was already occupied—there was a motorboat, a couple of tents off to the right, and the picnic tables were piled high. There were no people visible, though we heard some noises from one of the tents. We surmised that our fellow campers were fishermen who planned an early start.
But there was plenty of room on the left side, so keeping as quiet as possible, we landed, set up the tent, and cooked dinner. The site was blessedly (mostly) bug-free—which we really appreciated. (The bugs are at their worst at dusk, and we’d arrived past the peak.)
We settled into the tent, warm and drowsy. The stars sent a soft light into the tent. And there were some soft barking noises: “Woof, woof”.
… Wait a second? Dogs? I couldn’t imagine what was making those noises. And I wouldn’t find out until the morning.
Here are more photos from Day 1 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.