Jeff Ripple’s 2004 book, Day Paddling Florida’s 10,000 Islands and Big Cypress Swamp, doesn’t have much good to say about paddling the Fakahatchee River.
The author calls the narrow stream that winds south from Tamiami Trail between Miami and Naples to Fakahatchee Bay a “gnarly route” where “you will invariably get lost” and where “it will be difficult for anyone to rescue you.”
The only reasons to do it, the book says, are for the solitude and because it’s there.
“Expect to be whipped, thrashed, slashed, smashed and otherwise similarly abused,” Ripple warns.
Such a ringing endorsement for the possibilities of self-flagellation would deter most paddlers. But not veteran South Miami explorer Terry Helmers, 59. Since late last year when someone inquired about the river on the website gladesgodeep.com, Helmers became fixated on checking it out.
“What attracted us to it, it is a hard trail. The people on the website like that stuff,” said Helmers, who disdains what he calls “brochure trails” found in many local parks.
But the meticulous planner and researcher wanted to learn all he could beforehand. In January, fellow ’Glades explorer Jay Thomas volunteered to do some preliminary reconnaissance.
Thomas managed to paddle from Weaver Station on Tamiami Trail south on the Fakahatchee for a mile or so before turning back. On another trip, he launched from the river’s southern end at Fakahatchee Island and headed north for a distance before once again turning back.
With the middle third of the river still untried, Helmers pored over Google Earth maps of the region, made color printouts, and overlaid them with GPS coordinates. His plan was to attempt to paddle the entire five miles or so of the Fakahatchee River to the bay, then return to the highway via the more manicured East River trail. Then he invited others to join him on the February expedition.
“Just because it’s been done doesn’t mean it’s doable,” quipped Helmers’ friend Charlie Arazoza, who signed on anyway.
Ready for battle
Eight others joined the trip, armed with varying degrees of healthy skepticism and trepidation — including me. Helmers advised everyone to eat their Wheaties and be prepared to use canoes and kayaks as battering rams — getting very wet and muddy in the process.
Our group launched four canoes and three kayaks before dawn at Weaver Station (directly across the highway from the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk), and headed south on the Fakahatchee canal, which quickly narrowed to a shallow, muddy and twisting creek surrounded by arcing red mangrove prop roots. Some might call these jungle-like mazes mangrove tunnels, but that would be generous. These are pipelines — so tight that we had to eschew paddles completely and propel ourselves hand-over-hand, ducking overhangs constantly.
Sitting forward in Helmers’ 13-foot aluminum canoe, which led the single-file procession, I probably crashed through 10 spider webs in the first 15 minutes. I tried to fend them off with my paddle, but mostly used my head. After that, I stopped counting. If you suffer from arachnophobia, this trip is not for you.
Occasionally, we emerged from nature’s culvert pipes to small ponds flanked by open prairies. Several “slides” ostensibly made by alligators dotted the river bank, but I never saw a gator. Every now and then, a heron or some other shorebird would rustle or squawk up ahead of us, but I think most birds heard us clanging, splashing and chattering way beforehand and made a quick exit.