Everglades Shakedown, Day 5: Navigating the Shallows

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

<— Previous in Everglades Shakedown

Evening in Florida Bay

Start: East Clubhouse Beach.
Finish: Little Rabbit Key.
Distance: About 16 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 7.5 hours; average pace 2.1 knots.

Day 5

Day 5

Dawn

Dawn at East Clubhouse Beach

Last outpost of the mangroves

… at the edge.of the mangrove forest

Dawn broke early, with rose-streaked clouds. After the claustrophobic feel of the darkness last night, the water of Florida Bay stretched endlessly in front of us in the early morning light. The open water seemed to present us with infinite options for our day’s route.

Showers

Showers advance over the water out in the bay

But looks are deceiving.

In Florida Bay, the water can be very shallow—so shallow that even a kayak’s few inches of draw are too much, especially at low tide. And—as we would find out—you can’t just hop out and walk. Even when it’s overgrown by grass, the bottom is muddy, and you’ll sink, up to your knees or higher. A solo paddler could easily get stuck and have to wait, perhaps hours, for the tide to come in…

The trick lies in locating, and remaining inside, the channels carved into the muck. Most are formed by the natural movements of the water; a few are deepened and maintained by humans. The more important passes through the shallows are marked by stakes.So today, we’d need to find and follow the channels leading to today’s destination: Little Rabbit Key, a campsite key in the middle of the bay, half-way across to the final goal of the trip at Key Largo.

Campsite

Campsite with a view

About to launch

High time to head out!

Once we’d breakfasted and cleaned up, we were ready to launch. Right into… a steady headwind that strengthened through most of the day. Nothing super-severe, maybe 12 knots or so. But enough to kick up the waves and slow our pace to just over 2 knots. This was frustrating. However, Little Rabbit Key wasn’t all that far away. We had plenty of time—or so we thought.

Paddling out

We paddle out

So off we paddled.

And paddled.

And paddled.

Sun, waves, sky. Sun, waves, sky. Sun playing peekaboo with the clouds that came and went overhead. Waves. And sky. And more waves.

Magnificent seascape

Sun, sea, and sky

Hazy sun

Hazy sun sparkles on the water

Afternoon clouds

Afternoon clouds build up

Lost at sea

Lost at sea

Sun and shadow

Sun and shadow

And off on the horizon, a barely perceptible line of dark green dots-and-dashes: the keys of Florida Bay. But which ones?

Keys on the horizon

Keys are always on the horizon

We’d stare at the charts and GPS and make our best guess as to the names of the keys. Most of the time, it turned out we were right. A few times, though, the dots-and-dashes rose up into unfamiliar configurations, and we’d have to revisit the charts to get our bearings. And we’d pass the islands, and paddle onwards toward new dots-and-dashes.

Shallows

We just manage to cross a shallow bank

All throughout, we struggled to stay within the channels. Sometimes we were misled, and found ourselves on a shoal. Sometimes we could cross over the shoal to the next channel. Other times we’d have to cast about to locate deeper water. Fortunately, the tide was coming in, so the shallows got just deep enough to keep us from running aground.

As usual, we ate lunch on the water—it’s a good thing we’re accustomed to that. It was a strange feeling to have land so distant on the horizon—yet so close underneath our boats.

Declining sun

Declining sun

So we paddled and paddled, as the sun sank lower in the sky. Finally we located a low blob on the horizon, at the end of a trail of blobs. Little Rabbit Key!

Arriving at Little Rabbit Key

We negotiate the shallows around Little Rabbit Key

Just as the sun was setting, we pulled up to the island. Or almost. There was a shoal, just a few inches deep, blocking access to the island. We had to make a longish detour around it to pull up to the campsite, which was marked by a wooden dock jutting out into the water, with a tiny but solid beach alongside. Farther inland, there was a picnic table and a couple of port-a-potties. (Alas, there were no actual rabbits—none that we found, anyway.) We decided to set up the tent near the picnic table, a short walk away from the boats.

Landed

We pull the boats up…

But the island was ringed in mangroves, and we worried about bugs.

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Fortunately, our bug gear was up to the challenge. And after the sunset faded, we set about making camp and dinner,

Sunset display

… then go out on the dock to watch the sunset display

happy to have the picnic table to cook from.

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Bug protection

… with full bug protection, as usual

Pink over blue

Pink over blue

Last colors

Last colors of the day

As we trekked back and forth from the boats to the tent, I noticed something unusual on the trail: tiny sparks of electric blue glowing like luminescent jewels. They seemed to be embedded in the trail, but when I looked away and looked back again, they appeared to have moved.

End of day

End of day

I knelt down and realized they were… spider eyes, reflected in the glow of our headlamps. The tiny spiders froze when the light hit them, then quickly scuttled along when our headlamps turned away.

I was enchanted. I don’t mind spiders—in fact I kind of like them—but I’d never seen blue-eyed ones before. It seemed a good omen.

Here are more photos from Day 5 (click on any photo to start slideshow):

Even more photos are here.

Next in Everglades Shakedown —>

81 responses to “Everglades Shakedown, Day 5: Navigating the Shallows

  1. Great photos. So glad to have these to look at because doesn’t matter here whatever window I peer from it’s all white.

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  2. Pingback: Everglades Shakedown, Day 4: Portage, Paddling in the Pitch Dark, and Fending Off Furious Crows | Wind Against Current

  3. You have taken us on a beautiful journey with this post. Thanks for sharing.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

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

  5. What a stunning set of sky over ocean shots. Really beautiful shifting shades of light. I especially love ‘declining light’, but there are lots to love in this collection :-)

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  6. Beautiful sunset scene and the bug protection wardrobe looks quite stunning set against it. :) Were the spiders in large numbers or just curious beings on the path?

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  7. Good job taking us on your journey through the words and images! Thank you.

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  8. Wow…now THAT’S an adventure! I love what you said – the strange feeling of seeing land so far away yet it was so close beneath you. That will stay with me. Lovely – I look forward to reading more of your adventures!

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  9. Amazing shots, Vladimir…the sunset looks spectacular, but oh…you two must have been exhausted…

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  10. Such a brave adventure and so beautifully documented.

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  11. I’ve totally enjoyed your journey and so admire your knowledge of kayaking … What a wonderful way to spend your time with each other!

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    • Together but in separate boats—we were wise enough not to get a double kayak, a.k.a. a “divorce boat” ;-)

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      • Vlad your trip and photography are amazing and inspiring, but I respectfully disagree on the divorce boat comment. I respect and admire single kayaks, but, for us, it is quite the opposite… :) we’d never give up paddling in a tandem. So many opportunities to handle rough situations and take time with photography… Can’t wait to take the UBoat for another paddling journey… :)

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        • I somehow thought you might weigh in… ;-)

          My comment was tongue-in-cheek—but not entirely.

          Of course, it completely depends on the two paddlers, their relationship, and what they expect from the paddle. Some people are perfectly happy in a double, indeed more happy than they would be in two singles. You guys obviously are :-) And a double has some practical advantages over two singles—it is (at least theoretically) faster, it’s more stable for activities such as photography (probably essential for the ambitious photography that you do), can (perhaps) carry more gear. The two paddlers can never become separated…

          On the other hand, two singles can become separated, and that is partly the point. If one of the paddlers wants to paddle to the left to look at a bird, while the other wants to paddle to the right to surf a wave, they are both free to do so. For us, although we’ve never tried paddling a double, I think two singles offer the best combination of paddling together, yet being free to each do our own thing.

          In a double, neither paddler is fully in control of the boat, and unless they completely agree on what they are trying to do and where they are trying to go, that can become a problem. The “divorce boat” perception seems to come from the experience that it is then easy for each paddler to blame the other when things go wrong. Many long-distance kayak expeditions in doubles (and, on those kinds of trips, even in singles) have failed not because of distance or terrible weather, but because the participants simply could not stand each other any more…

          There is also the more technical aspect of kayaking. What most paddlers like about kayaking is being able to control the kayak with body movements, not just the paddle, in immediate response to the wind and waves. That is much easier to accomplish in a single than a double…

          Of course, a lot of that goes away when you put a sail rig, especially a rig with outriggers, on a kayak. Sailing a kayak with that kind of rig is a very different experience—much more like being in a small sailboat than a kayak—as I found out when I first tried it :-)

          Singles versus a double: a good subject for a post of its own…

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  12. vintagefrenchchic

    Amazing adventure. Love all these photos…and your bug gear. Don’t mind blue eyed spiders, huh? I think I would mind.

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  13. Very nice. Another successful effort to include us on your paddle. Thanks to you both for going to the trouble to share.

    George

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  14. That’s quite a selection of skies you have here, Vlad. I have to admit that I’ve never got close enough to a spider to see the colour of its eyes. :D

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  15. Impressive on all fronts. I bet you slept well that night!
    Thanks for sharing.

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    • Fortunately on this trip we did not have to get up every hour to check whether the rising tide was threatening to carry away our boats or flood our tent, as we have had to do on some previous trips… ;-)

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  16. So so beautiful!! Lucky you!!

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  17. Thanks for sharing your beautiful trip and photos! They give me hope that the cold Minnesota winter might end sometime!

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  18. Stunning! Love these photos :)

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  19. Thanks for these, it is like a mini vacation for me. It sounds like a wonderful time.

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  20. What an adventure, glad you finally made it. Wonderful pix of sea and sky.

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  21. Beautiful, I really love the color in that first image.

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  22. Very nice set of on-the-water images.

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  23. This whole trip is amazing to follow. You’re getting all the challenges we ever talk about, that’s for sure! And you’re not missing anything up here, the ice has only recently disappeared from the Hudson.

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  24. Magical scenes.

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  25. It was a strange feeling to have land so distant on the horizon—yet so close underneath our boats. –> I’ll bet. Kind of eerie!

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    • Eerie also because, in such an apparently open bay, you would expect bigger waves—but the shallows dampened them out. (Of course, in a real blow, the waves on the shallows would be, on the contrary, amplified, and might be quite hard to deal with.)

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  26. Lovely pictures, I like travelling with you!

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  27. Oh, you’re there! Happy warmth!

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  28. So very beautiful! Thanks for sharing your amazing journey.

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  29. The photos and the trip are amazing. So beautiful!

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  30. The vast watery floor — enticing & soothing! Winter so intense here it’s claustrophobic, many weeks to go unless March is spectacular in a good way.

    Are you paddling off the beaten trail? Surely Floridians don’t pack away their boats for the season — keep asking myself where is everybody?

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    • Well, all this is in the Everglades National Park, which is large and completely undeveloped—there are no buildings, no roads, no food, no water, very few places to camp. The water is very shallow in many places, so only small boats can go through. And most of the time there are only endless mangroves to look at. So boat traffic is pretty sparse—just people like us, and a few fishermen. Outside the park, of course, everyone is out on the water—winter is high season in Florida!

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  31. Oh those water and seascapes are just TOO, TOO, gorgeous! Even with the struggles, it must have been wonderful to be out there on the water.

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  32. That’s a LOT of paddling, but those sunsets are mesmerising :)

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  33. Pingback: Everglades Shakedown, Day 6: Headwinds and Homelessness | Wind Against Current

  34. Pingback: My kayak paddle is stuck together?

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