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Reflections on Wilderness

How one weekend paddler found his park on an eight-day kayak trip across the Everglades

By Don Finefrock

The moment of truth arrived early, before I even dipped my paddle in Chokoloskee Bay.  Two companions and I had decided to paddle the Wilderness Waterway in Everglades National Park, starting in Chokoloskee and ending – with any luck – in Flamingo eight days later.

I was standing on a narrow strip of shore with a mountain of gear beside me – nylon tent and sleeping bag, cook stove and fuel, food, clothing, water – and only one place to put it, my kayak. Would it all fit? And would my kayak – loaded like a stuffed burrito – actually float?

Thinking about the gear – what I needed, how to pack it – turned out to be the hardest part of my 99-mile trip through the Everglades. Once the gear was stowed and my kayak touched the water, the paddling came easy. My kayak rode low in the water, but it floated. We pushed away from the shore and paddled south toward Lopez River and our destination for the night, Sunday Bay.

Over the next eight days, we paddled through some of the wildest – and most beautiful – scenery in South Florida. The Wilderness Waterway delivers what the name promises – and honest-to-God wilderness experience on the fringe of a major metropolitan area.

No speeding cars, no ringing phones, no chirping email and absolutely no neon. Just water – lots of water – and plenty of wildlife.

On the second day of the trip, two dolphins swam within feet of my kayak, pushing a wall of water in front of them. The boat rocked in their wake and I could hear the wet blast of air when they broke the surface to breathe.

That afternoon we craned our necks as a flock of Roseate Spoonbills circled overhead, their long necks outstretched and their legs trailing behind. We made camp that night on Sweetwater Bay. A resident alligator kept silent sentry as we prepared dinner in the failing light and slept to the sound of splashing fish.

We spent our days on the water, paddling through narrow creeks and across open bays, often in happy isolation. At night – bugs permitting – we traced constellations in the sky and looked for passing satellites and shooting stars.

One morning we woke to discover our campsite shrouded in fog. We finished breakfast and then pushed off into the mist. We quickly lost sight of each other as we searched for an opening in the mangroves to lead us into Rogers River and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

We hugged the shoreline, paddling around submerged snags and branches. Fat drops of water clung to spider webs in the branches above us, making them glisten like necklaces. We found the opening and pushed down the river, chasing birds ahead of us as we went.

Navigating the Wilderness Waterway can be challenging, particularly if you choose to chart your own course, but one of my companions had been this way before. Between our charts and his memory, we managed to stay on course for the entire eight-day trip.

We saw few boats – and almost no paddlers – until we reached the Gulf of Mexico, where we met friends on the fifth day of the trip and camped for one night on Highland Beach. There, we stretched our legs and warmed our feet by a camp fire.

The next day we navigated “The Nightmare,” a narrow channel that snakes between the Broad River and Broad Creek through a dense wood. We made 20 miles that day – the longest paddle of the trip – and celebrated with cold beer, compliments of our friends.

On the final morning of the trip we awoke to an eerie calm. The wind lay down and the water turned to glass. As we glided across Lane Bay, our images were captured in the water below, a perfect double. The smooth surface of the water reflected the deep blue of the sky above us and the white clouds hanging on the horizon, transforming the bay into a painted landscape.

The effect was stunning – a final reminder of how beautiful wilderness can be, once you find it.

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