By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: South Joe River Chickee.
Finish: East Clubhouse Beach.
Distance: About 15 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 7 hours; average pace 2.1 knots.
Stop time: Roughly 5 hours (including portage at Flamingo).
Uncharacteristically, I awoke at dawn… to the blessed freedom of a gentle breeze and no bugs! Yesterday’s front had clearly passed through.
The morning was surprisingly chilly, so I pulled on a sweater and jacket before crawling out of the tent. Inspired by the rising sun, I did a few yoga postures (salute to the Sun, naturally) to work off the stiffness from yesterday’s paddle. Vlad took pictures, and we both enjoyed the clear morning air.
Then it was time for breakfast. And…wait, this was Christmas morning! So we treated ourselves to a leisurely third cup of coffee as we looked out over the water, mangroves, and morning sun.
It was time to pack up. Getting gear into the dry bags wasn’t much of an issue… but how to load the bags back into the boats?
Vlad tried the lay-flat-on-the-chickee-and-reach-down approach, but this morning the water was just a few inches too low for that to be possible—the boats were just out of reach. Finally we decided that what made the most sense was for us to pull both boats close to the ladder, Vlad to get into the Red Herring, and for me to climb down the ladder and hand gear to Vlad. He could load my boat and part of his, and the parts he couldn’t reach, I could, leaning out from the ladder with the gear in one hand.
Except… I’d forgotten about the oysters encrusting the steps of the ladder, which made for a precarious perch. One tiny slip and I had neat slices across the front of both shins.
Readers will recall that I’d done the same thing at the start of the trip—sliced my finger on an oyster. Back then, I figured that since my hand would spend half the trip in salt water, I didn’t really need to deal with the cut (which didn’t hurt much anyway). Surely the salt water would keep it clean?
Apparently not, because that finger had swelled up and given me some trouble over the past few days. It was finally beginning to heal, but it was still painful—yet another reminder that the Florida creatures that cause the most trouble are the small ones, like bacteria and midges, not the big, scary ones.
So this time I vowed not to make the same mistake. All packing had to stop while I hauled out the first aid kit, treated my wounds with Neosporin, and bandaged them with waterproof Band-Aids. It felt like overkill, but the treatment worked—my shins healed cleanly over the next few days.
Back to packing the boats... after a little cursing and swearing, and a few close calls (we nearly dropped a few things into the water), we were finally ready to go.
By then, it was 11 AM and the sun was high in the sky. But we didn’t worry too much. We had just a few miles to go to Flamingo, where we would have to make the one and only portage of the trip, which we expected would occupy us for some time. Then we’d see. There was a campsite at Flamingo—we might even spend the night there!
Once more, we wended our way through the mangroves. A northerly wind and waves churned up the foamy brown water in the exposed sections, but we were able to stay in the lee of the mangrove shoreline for the most part. A few hours slid by.
Finally we entered the still waters of the man-made Buttonwood Canal that leads to Flamingo. When it was first constructed, the canal connected Whitewater Bay on the “inside” of the Everglades with Florida Bay on the “outside”—but biologists soon discovered that the influx of salt water from Florida Bay was destroying the brackish-water ecosystem of the Everglades. So the canal was “plugged” again with a dam at Flamingo—hence the portage.
We paddled along, admiring the straight lines of the canal… until we caught sight of a big red metal canoe heading straight towards us. It was piloted by an Asian-looking family who seemed a bit uncertain about the finer nuances of canoe navigation. So we stayed well out of the way, though we waved and said hello as we passed.
A few minutes later… another canoe, again manned by an Asian-looking crew. (We found out later that they were a bus-load of Chinese who had rented canoes at Flamingo to explore the canal.) For the best part of the next hour, we dodged canoes, feeling excited to be approaching civilization.
Flamingo turned out to have a wealth of boat ramps and small piers into the canal. We pulled the boats up on a ramp, availed ourselves of the pleasures of indoor plumbing, and had a bite to eat. Then we went into the ranger station to suss out the situation, and obtain new permits (since we’d deviated substantially from our earlier plans).
After some discussion with the rangers, we decided it would make the most sense to keep going, and head west along the coast. There were two possible campsites, both on the beach: Clubhouse and East Clubhouse. Either one looked fine, but we (somewhat arbitrarily) selected East Clubhouse as our destination. That would give us a chance to paddle along the northern shoreline of Florida Bay—likely in the dark, at this rate.
But first, the portage!
There were several different options to get across the dam, depending on which pier or dock we decided to land at and launch from. But what seemed most appealing was using the rental-canoe floating docks. There was one on the “inside”—the source of the canoeists we’d seen—and one on the “outside”, both right next to the dam, which would minimize the distance we’d have to portage.
After a brief discussion with the proprietors of the canoe outfitters, we got permission to use their floating docks. So we unloaded the boats on the “inside” dock and carried them, and all our gear, the few yards over to the “outside” dock.
Then we set about repacking. This shouldn’t have been difficult—and it actually wasn’t. But it was time-consuming: We had to sort through the pile of stuff and load it back in the way that made the most sense.
It was already late afternoon when we started. As we sorted and packed, the sun set, and evening fell.
And we weren’t alone. Several large black crows decided to keep us company—or, more accurately, to investigate the food bags. They were surprisingly bold: I had to shout at them and run right up to them, or they’d have gotten into our dinner. (They seemed particularly interested in the apples.)
My shouting and hand-flapping vastly amused a group of Indian tourists who’d just returned from a two-day camping trip to approximately the same locations in Florida Bay we were headed to, and were unloading their canoe at the “outside” floating dock.
The crows stayed close to me until I stowed the very last of the food bags into an inside hatch and hammered the cover into place. Then they departed, cawing loudly, visibly disgusted.
By then it was full dark. Once again, we’d be navigating at night.
We headed out, headlamps casting a narrow cone of light in whatever direction we looked…
… And Vlad’s GPS promptly died.
Again! (This seems to be a theme—the same thing happened during our 2012 Long Island circumnavigation.)
Fortunately, mine was still working. (And we both had charts, of course.) That made me the de-facto navigator: we worked from my GPS, keeping the shoreline to our right, but attempting to stay far enough—about a mile—out to avoid the extensive shoals along the shore. I’d guide, and every so often, we’d raft up and compare notes.
I can’t even begin to describe the eerie feeling of being surrounded on all sides by complete darkness, and hearing nothing but the “plop” of our paddles entering the water.
Our headlamps illuminated the water for a few feet around, but there was no meaningful sense of “forward”. You could paddle hard, or gently, and have no sense of progress. Without the GPS, we could easily have been going in circles. At first, we were following the marked channel out from Flamingo to avoid the shoals on either side, but only occasionally did we approach a reflective marker, and confirmed our location. Later, we paddled through completely open water.
What was that?! Something slithered across my sprayskirt, momentarily flashing silvery blue in the beam of my headlamp. It was a sizable fish that had landed in my lap, then bounced back into the water. For a few minutes we saw fish, perhaps attracted by our lights, leaping out of the water all around, some hitting our boats.
We went on for a couple of miles like this, with me navigating from the GPS and Vlad double-checking from the chart, before we were able to draw close enough to the shoreline to use it as a guide. Even so, it was spooky, with our headlamps illuminating the ghostly gray mangroves.
Once again, we had trouble locating our destination. The shoreline didn’t quite match the chart or the GPS. We paddled on in the darkness. We were more than ready to give up and camp on any beach we found—but the problem was there weren’t any beaches, just thick mangroves lining the edge of the water.
Finally, we passed a point of land, and came upon a long, glorious stretch of sandy beach. Behind it was what looked in the light of our headlamps like a flat, grassy plain—no mangroves. (We later found out the “grass” was sea purslane.) We pulled the boats up onto the beach and pitched the tent—just as a few fat raindrops began to spatter down.
Fortunately the rain mostly held off, and we were able to cook Christmas dinner. I’d bought it specially: Freeze-dried chicken and mashed potatoes. It was delicious!
But that wasn’t the last of the treats: Vlad dug around in his boat and produced a slightly battered bag of gourmet chocolates that he’d bought as a Christmas surprise. Chicken, potatoes, and chocolate—a wonderful Christmas dinner!
By the time we crawled into the tent, it was a few minutes before midnight. It had been a short day mileage-wise, but a long day of travel. We fell asleep almost immediately.
Photos from Day 4 (click on any photo to start slideshow):