Everglades Shakedown, Day 2: Barking Vultures, Beaches, and Bugs

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

<— Previous in Everglades Shakedown

Toward the sun

Start: Darwin’s Place.
Finish: Highland Beach.
Distance: About 18 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 8 hours; average pace 2.3 knots.

Day 2

Day 2

Darwin's Place

Morning at our campsite at Darwin’s Place

By the time we woke up the next morning, the sun was high, and the other campers were long gone. But we weren’t alone: A small group of black birds clustered in the trees.

Black vulture

Black vulture saying “woof”

Every now and then, one of them uttered a soft “woof”.  So that’s what I’d been hearing last night, as we drifted off to sleep. But what kind of birds were they?

I examined them carefully and realized they were… vultures. Barking vultures!

But they looked nothing like the stereotype—these birds were beautiful, with glossy black feathers, soft brown-colored heads, and gentle eyes. I was enchanted.

But enchantment or no, it was time to get moving. We set to taking down the tent and making breakfast. Unfortunately, the bugs that had been absent last night came out in force. We sprayed ourselves thoroughly with DEET, but still quite a few managed to sneak bites in. So we hurried. Besides, we had a long day planned!

The goal for today was to wend our way through the mangrove bays and creeks until we got to Lostmans River, then cut through to the Gulf coast. We’d camp that night at Highland Beach—which we’d heard was one of the most beautiful sites in the ‘Glades—and tomorrow continue the rest of the way down the coast. (That was the idea, anyway… but as the English proverb has it, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip!”)

One thing we hoped for: An alligator sighting. Since this would be the last part of the trip among the mangroves, we hoped to see at least one gator. And since we were going through a waterway called “Alligator Creek”, maybe we’d be in luck.

We head out

We head out into the mangrove bays and creeks

We launched as quickly as possible (and were gratified to find that our increased organization cut down our packing time tremendously).  Then we were off, paddling a bit slowly against the tide.

Alligator Creek

In Alligator Creek, we scan for alligators

The sun wasn’t yet high in the sky when we turned into Alligator Creek. We scanned the edges eagerly, certain that each gray log was a gator. Except none of them were, until…

“Vlad, there’s one!” I whispered. Sure enough, that long bumpy thing was a tail, attached to a torso, then a head and a snout… I was just able to catch a split-second glimpse of  a round dark eye, which widened slightly in fear. A 17-foot boat must look fairly intimidating to an alligator, particularly a medium-sized one like this.

Then a splash, and the gator was gone. Vlad, who was just behind me, didn’t get the chance to see the creature’s head. But at least Alligator Creek lived up to its name!

Higher ground

A few palms indicate (marginally) higher ground

A bit later, we heard the sound of a boat motor, and then, round the next bend of the narrow creek, came head-to-head with a park ranger’s boat. The ranger greeted us politely, complimented our boats,  and inquired about our route. We showed him our permit, which we’d kept handy for this exact reason. “Highland Beach?” he said. “That’s where the dead pilot whales are.”

We vaguely recalled news stories about pilot whales dying off the coast of Florida a few weeks back—but we had no idea we’d be seeing them.

Or what remained of them: “The vultures have eaten most of what’s there,” the ranger assured us. “There’s hardly any smell.”  (The vultures are beautiful and useful, too!) The ranger also stressed how lovely the Highland Park campsite was, and gave us careful instructions for finding it. Unfortunately, all I remembered was something about a whale skeleton and a cluster of palm trees—which proved more confusing than helpful, in the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Wilderness Waterway

We follow the markers of the Wilderness Waterway

Then we were off again, paddling the dark waters as the changeless mangroves slid by. It was hypnotic after a while: Trees, water, sky, trees, water, sky….


The next creek

… through tortuous creeks

Open bays

… and open bays


… in shadow


… and sun

The sun rose slowly, hovered overhead, and imperceptibly began its downward trajectory.

Lunch on the water

We stop for lunch on the water

We had another mid-afternoon lunch on the water, and kept paddling…


The exit to the Gulf is in sight





… until late in the afternoon, we finally exited the mangroves into the Gulf and turned left down the coast.




Last tree

The last tree, before we head out into the sun

Highland Point

Hurricane damage at Highland Point

Beaches, at last! Well, not just yet, but surely we’d find them soon…





Evening seas

Calm evening seas


King bird

The sun was getting low in the sky as we paddled along the shore, straining our eyes to locate the campsite. Slowly, slowly, the mangrove forests broke into patches of bare sand, but where was the campsite?

It didn’t help that Vlad’s chart and mine had locations for the campsite that were a mile apart. And in retrospect the ranger’s directions seemed less than helpful, as well.

Whale skeleton

Is this the place? It’s got the promised whale skeleton…

We saw mangroves…  a patch of sand… the skeleton of a pilot whale… some palm trees… another whale… more palm trees… more sand…. but where was the darn campsite? (In days to come we would find ourselves repeating this process several times—somehow, campsites were never quite where they were supposed to be, either on the charts or according to the directions.)

Finally, just after sunset, when we were about to give up and camp willy-nilly on the beach… “There it is!” Vlad shouted. Sure enough, there was a brown sign. Moreover, there was a man and a woman sitting on camping stools on the beach, and… was that a canoe?

It was. We paddled closer and exchanged greetings. It turned out they knew the area well—the man had led Outward Bound expeditions to that very site. “Where’s the second-best campsite on the beach?” Vlad asked, joking that the couple had of course taken the best.

The man directed us to a spot a little ways down the beach, perfectly private but close enough to visit our neighbors, who seemed exceptionally nice. As we paddled towards the site, we talked about maybe visiting for a short while after dinner.

But first, it was time to make camp. Sure enough, our neighbors had pointed us to a lovely spot, high, dry, and flat, with a panoramic view of the ocean. It was too late to watch the sunset, but dawn would be beautiful.

Last rays

Last rays over the Gulf

We landed the boats and hopped out… into a  lethal swarm of insects. Everything we’d experienced before paled in comparison.  We sprayed ourselves frantically with DEET, but it wasn’t much help—the critters found every square millimeter that wasn’t actively coated with repellent, and crept in under our clothes.

Slapping and scratching, we put up the tent in record time. Vlad dove inside. “I don’t want to eat,” he said. Now, if you know Vlad, that’s an extraordinary statement—he’s indomitable, and he always wants dinner. Particularly after a long day paddling! But he was serious. All he could think of was escaping the torment.

Usually I’m the one who can’t handle the bugs, but this time I just gritted my teeth and started the JetBoil. No way were we going to skip dinner. I started cooking, while Vlad sat inside the tent, slapping at the bugs that had made it inside.

The flame from the JetBoil might have helped a bit to keep the bugs away, but I too had to keep slapping and scratching as I cooked. My arms and legs were coated with bug spray, but the critters got inside my neck, sleeves, and the legs of my shorts. And let’s not talk about my feet, which were literally black…

Fortunately, it didn’t take long, and a few minutes later we gulped down our bowls of stew. All thoughts of visiting our neighbors, or doing anything except escaping the bugs, went right out of our heads.

After dinner, I joined Vlad in the tent. Washing up (both me and the dishes) could wait until morning.

But the tent was only marginally better—a cloud of mosquitos darkened the inside near the top, and it took us nearly an hour to kill most of them. Swaddled in our sleeping bags, listening to the whine of the bugs, we discussed how to cope for the rest of the trip.

Clearly, the bug repellent wasn’t working. We needed some sort of physical protection—some kind of clothing that wouldn’t allow the bugs to creep in… something like… “You know,” I said suddenly. “We should wear our paddle jackets. And paddle pants.” Paddle jackets and pants have gaskets: they can be made to fit tightly at the neck, wrists, waist, and ankles. We hadn’t thought about it before, because the weather was too warm for jackets. But as bug protection, they might do the trick.

We decided to try them the next morning, and drifted off to sleep.

Here are more photos from Day 2 (click on any photo to start slideshow):

Even more photos are here.

Next in Everglades Shakedown —>

57 responses to “Everglades Shakedown, Day 2: Barking Vultures, Beaches, and Bugs

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

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

  3. Johna, that shot of you handing Vlad an orange makes me think it must’ve been THE LAST orange, and you wanted it. [grin]
    The final shot of the sun setting behind clouds is SENSATIONAL. How would that look up on the wall?!
    Your tales of the mozzies make me shudder: I couldn’t in a million years tolerate that!


  4. Ah, Day 2 ~ thank you!
    Question: Recovered from the bugs yet? ;-)


  5. I love reading about your adventures! Makes me wanna do it some day;


  6. Vultures? Alligators? Mosquitoes? (looks like you could have used some bats – don’t they eat mosquitoes?)
    This was one heck of an excellent adventure and these photos are incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip – sans mosquitoes.


    • We’ll bring a bat or two with us the next time… :-)

      Glad you are enjoying the trip! Days 3-6 are still to come…


      • Well, it’s just a thought about the bats, and yes, I do enjoy. This kayaking business is something I don’t see myself doing – and not just cause I’m a million years old. I don’t actually remember how I got to your blog but I’m sticking around. Great stories. Fantastic photos!! And I’m able to live it through you two. Thanks. ;-) P.S. I grew up in Belleville/Nutley in Jersey – not far from the tunnels. We use to come to NYC when I was a kid to pick up my Uncle who worked in the engine rooms of the SS Andrea Doria when she’d be docked there. Seeing NY always gives me a warm, nostalgic feeling.


  7. vintagefrenchchic

    You two are amazing. What an adventure!


  8. A can of Raid insect spray clears out the old tent in good shape! Not the healthiest chemical around but in a screen tent enclosure it dissipates fairly harmlessly. It is fun watching the skeeters fall out of the air!
    Another GREAT! installment. Thanks!


  9. Amazing photos and narration! I don’t envy you those itchy insect bites. Hope the paddle jackets and pants are bug proof. :)


  10. Yes, I also say live and let live unless you’re talking about mosquitos and other biters, and then no way…. What’s lovely evocative post, thank you.


  11. Incredible photos and I am still scratching from the description of the mosquitoes.


  12. Awesome pics! This is very inspiring…thank you! I am doing some tabata-like training…you both make it look so easy and effortless on the water.


  13. Love the Roseate Spoonbill picture and the other pictures that capture the scenes of your adventure, thanks Vlad! And thanks for the second installment of your epic, somewhat-tortured trip Johna! I know that feeling of paddling, and paddling, looking for the end of the estuary, or the camping spot marked on the map. Glad you found it. But how were those two other campers sitting out on their camp stools with all the mozzies????


    • Good question: how were other people managing?

      Those two were obviously old hands. They had probably arrived well before dusk, the time when the bugs really get going. (It’s standard advice to do this—unfortunately we didn’t have that luxury.) They had pitched their tent back in the trees, where the flat spots, but also the bugs, were, but then sat on the beach, right at the edge of the water, as far from the bugs as possible. Later they built a fire. Finally, they were swathed head to foot in thick clothing. The man looked a bit like a mummy. Next time, we will follow their example…

      It was noticeable, too, that every time we met a boat with fishermen going fishing among the mangroves (the Everglades were fairly deserted, but we did see a few boats), the fishermen were similarly attired, some wearing even full-face masks, which gave them rather a sinister appearance—

      Certainly no shorts and T-shirts ;-)


  14. love going along for the ride…as I sit here at my computer…awesome!


  15. Wonderful story telling about an adventure that I would never think of doing myself. Seeing all those birds would be wonderful, but I couldn’t cope with the bugs.


    • Actually, strange to say, we didn’t all that much wildlife. More correctly, we did see quite a few species, but only because we were there a number of days. The density was quite low. I saw quite a few more birds in one afternoon in the relatively developed waterways around Tampa Bay.


  16. Omigosh. The story of the bugs! Made me cringe! An otherwise lovely paddle, though, it appears!


  17. Suzanne Solomon

    Thank you Vlad & Johna: what a marvelous account! Your text and pics capture the Glades perfectly. I have experienced those fierce clouds of mosquitoes – they are not for the faint of heart!


    • But if you go on a trip like this—go again after having gone the first time, that is ;-) — you know that you have to take whatever comes, the rough with the smooth. There’s always something. If it’s not mosquitoes, it will be something else…


  18. I’m going to be paddling the Everglades but from the opposite direction that you took. We’ll start on Feb 9 and hope the cooler weather will get rid of a few million bugs. I’m itching just thinking about it. Love your report and pictures! Thanks


    • Make that “rid of a few trillion bugs”… ;-)

      Yes, the colder weather should clear them out a bit. We were told that the cold hadn’t really arrived yet at the time of our trip, plus it had been rather wet…

      Seriously, though, for someone who is going there, and who already knows what that kind of trip involves as you no doubt do, I would say the bug situation, as we experienced it, was no more than an annoyance. (It’s worse in the summer, however, by all accounts.) This evening of Day 2 was really the only time we were seriously bothered by bugs, and with proper preparation, we could have minimized the trouble. Certainly, it was nothing like the stories you hear of the Canadian Arctic, for example :-)

      Have fun on your trip, and hope to hear about it afterwards!!


  19. My husband and I used to spend a fair amount of time in Michigan’s upper peninsula and the bugs are just as bad up there. Bug spray doesn’t work so you really do have to rely on having bug nets for your face and having long pants that are cinched up around your ankles (also keeps the ticks off). It really takes the joy out of a trip.

    You got some nice shots though!



    • Fortunately, most of each day we were paddling, out on the water far enough from vegetation that there were no bugs. The problem only arose when we wanted to camp. Maybe this will motivate us to forget camping and paddle all night, as we will have to do at least some nights during the Everglades Challenge in March… :-)


  20. Pingback: Everglades Shakedown, Day 3: Wind, Waves, and Chickees | Wind Against Current

  21. The sharks, indeed. We spent the last five winter breaks in the Everglades and we never paddled next to sharks before… Some larger than others… The wind was bit more moody this year… The bugs had their convention too… Yet, we can’t wait to go back… :)


  22. Pingback: Everglades Challenge, Segment 4: Indian Key to Highland Beach | Wind Against Current

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