Everglades Shakedown, Day 4: Portage, Paddling in the Pitch Dark, and Fending Off Furious Crows

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

<— Previous in Everglades Shakedown

Fending off the crows

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).

Day 4

Day 4

Dawn

Dawn on our chickee at South Joe River

Uncharacteristically, I awoke at dawn… to the blessed freedom of a gentle breeze and no bugs! Yesterday’s front had clearly passed through.

Sunrise

We watch the sun rise

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.

Coffee

Coffee!!

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?

Boats

How to load the boats from the chickee?

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.

Leaving the chickee

We leave the chickee behind

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!

Wind

Wind…

Brown water

… and brown foamy water

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.

Buttonwood Canal

In Buttonwood Canal

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.

Crows

Expectant crows watch as we repack our boats at Flamingo

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.

Christmas dinner

At East Clubhouse Beach: Christmas dinner, 2013

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):

Next in Everglades Shakedown —>

47 responses to “Everglades Shakedown, Day 4: Portage, Paddling in the Pitch Dark, and Fending Off Furious Crows

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

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

  3. What an exciting adventure. I feel as though I was there.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

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  4. That’s some real adventure… :) and superb images.

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  5. Oh boy, that place for tent really makes me hope neither one of you is a sleep walker ;)

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  6. What a great Christmas celebration after such an adventure! I didn’t like the slithering fish in the pitch black one bit :) I’m afraid there would have been a loud squeal out of me!

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  7. Whooo! Plagued by oysters, canoe traffic, crows and dying GPS…and you persevered! Loved reading this…more power to you guys!

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  8. you two are absolutely amazing and incredible! love this account. Oysters?!! there? really? huh. And, purslane is delicious, mmmm! Paddling in the dark, the fish in the lap–great salty tales! xoxo c!

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    • In many places, thick growths of oysters have attached themselves to pretty much every mangrove root, up to the high-tide line—

      and they also form plenty of oyster bars and reefs in the shallows—

      Deadly to folding kayaks!

      It was presumably like that once in New York Harbor too…

      Delicious sea purslane: we found out it was edible only after the trip, and so haven’t yet tasted it :-)

      Like

  9. Love these photos and reading about your adventure. I paddled the outer keys from Everglades City in the late 90’s and this sure makes me want to do it again. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thanks!! I hope you do get a chance to do it again! :-)

      As it turned out, we didn’t get much of an experience of the outer keys and beaches. (Next time!) But we did get in a couple of days of paddling around the keys of Florida Bay, on Days 5 and 6—coming up next!

      Like

  10. You all are all that!…as my Granddaughter says…Love to ride along…from my computer chair…

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  11. Wow, what an adventure! Those crows must have been quite scary, and as for the fish plopping into your lap. I really had to laugh at the thought that you could catch a fish with no effort at all. I enjoyed the ride, but am so glad I wasn’t really there when you were paddling in complete darkness. 8O

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    • I don’t know about no effort at all… they plop into your lap, but the next moment they plop out. You have to be quick :-)

      And paddling in complete darkness was a treat! There is no place where we normally paddle, in the Northeast, where there are few lights, never mind none at all…

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  12. Hey, by the way, if I’m ever lucky enough to move to NY, can I check with you how to start kayaking? I miss it!

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  13. Fun post, thanks! Crows are smart. And obnoxious–like African Grey parrots, ahem.
    Love that photo of you paddling in the wind, Johna!

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  14. It still amazes me that you do these kind of trips. Especially with all of those bugs. So glad that you came home safe and sound.

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  15. Just finished rereading Day 4, you two are so unflappable (at least that’s how it seems when you’re in the midst of GPS failure, strange “lap fish” and paddling in the pitch dark). The great mangrove shots finally prodded me to post our estuary paddles of Nov. and Dec. No big oysters in the Costa Alegre estuary mangroves, but lots of big fish and weird crabs. And one pic is of a white ibis! Thanks Johna and Vlad, looking forward to the next segment of the Everglades shakedown.
    ps Love the pic of the xmas dinner, eating standing up in costume after a long day of sitting!

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    • I just saw your post a little while ago—great! Much of it is strangely familiar ;-)

      We would have sat down for our Christmas dinner, but it had just rained, and the beach was made up of sharp broken shells…

      Thanks so much for reading along!! A couple more days still to come :-)

      Like

  16. And fun Title alliteration!

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  17. Read the first first chapter when we arrived in Tokyo, the second when we got to Bangkok, the third in Hanoi and this one sitting on a small island north of Cam Ran Bay looking through the palms at the kayak I ought to be paddling right now. Your trips and tales are too addictive. Not going to read your next chapter ’till we do a circ of the island.

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    • It’s actually our turn to be envious—it’s your turn to go out kayaking in tropical waters while back here in NYC we are all iced in, and have been for weeks…

      You’ll probably be in yet another country by the time we produce the next installment :-)

      Have fun, and hope to see you when you get back!

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  18. Jeanie and I have been considering the EC and your shakedown has been invaluable. The reply I got back from the “Chief” is that no one has done it in a “regular” canoe. Thinking it will be just a much longer paddle than some of the ocean stuff we do every year in our “covered” Sawyer Charger.

    A “few” years back I had the pleasure of hosting Verlen Kruger and Steve Landick in Eastport, Me, and paddled them out to Sail Rock on their “Ultimate Canoe Challenge”. We were all paddling Sawyer canoes. Landick and Kruger still in their original Monarchs, we were in a 16′ 6″ ww Canadian. One of the impressive accommodations they devised was the tandem linking pole system they used to become a raft so they could sleep in their boats at sea. Could you have paddled the entire trip “outside” except for the required check points? Wind and sea conditions? Your “slow” speeds are surprising. Thinking, for a race, outside would be faster? Possible? Not stopping, too? For a canoe camping trip, into the Everglades would the way to go.

    Thanks again guys! Building a new canoe rack this month and doing “laps” in Seal Harbor to keep from forgetting how.

    George

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    • Yes, I think quite a few people paddle (or sail) the EC in Kruger canoes, but, as you found, not in regular canoes.

      The “catamaran conversion” is something we’ve been thinking of, too, for our kayaks (although not for this year’s EC).

      We didn’t try all that hard to go fast on this trip. Lots of meandering, taking photos, also quite a lot of paddling against the current. (Currents can be quite strong on the “inside”.) For the EC itself, hopefully we’ll go faster. But realistically, we’ll never go all that fast. So the key to completing the EC is to keep going for long stretches, without camping, something that I think we can manage…

      The “outside” should be faster, especially with a favorable wind. It’s straighter and there should be less contrary current too. I think most people go “outside” in good weather, “inside” when the weather deteriorates. In the northern part of the route, from Tampa down to Fort Myers, there isn’t that much difference between the two in terms of distance, anyway. Then from Fort Myers to the 10,000 Islands, there really isn’t much of an “inside” route—you have to go “outside”. In the Everglades, I think we’ll certainly want to avoid the “inside” unless we absolutely have to go there.

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