As we paddled, pulled and pushed loose roots out of the path and flailed at spiders, Helmers and I speculated on how much paddling traffic this little-used, pain-in-the-butt river actually gets. Spotting a few old cuts in the timber, we could tell somebody had been here, but not in quite a while. Helmers, a maritime history hobbyist, said Weaver Station had been an outpost for the Southwest Florida Mounted Police back in the 1920s. He figured plenty of skiffs probably made the trip back and forth between there and Fakahatchee Island, a bustling settlement for probably hundreds of years. More recently, another paddler said, paddlers from Outward Bound plied the Fakahatchee.
After traveling for a couple of hours, we reached a series of small open ponds that diverted to the west of the narrow river trail. As we began to paddle into the first one, Helmers said suddenly, “It’s not right.”
He stopped and consulted his map and GPS as the rest of the group gathered round.
Helmers said the correct route was through the dense thicket of mangroves — not the ponds, which would eventually dead-end in a marsh.
Scanning the tangle of water trees at one end of the pond, he found a tiny opening and pronounced that forbidding path as the way forward. Most of us groaned, but everyone followed. Much later, he was proved to be correct. But the spindly route was blocked with more prop roots and deadfalls than ever, and our canoe became a constant battering ram. Twice I had to climb out of the craft onto a mangrove trunk and back into my seat to continue down the “river.”
To say this was not a leisurely trip would be a gross understatement. My shirt got ripped trying to duck sharp overhangs, and I got slapped in the face several times by elastic branches. The bottom of our canoe looked like the hopper on an industrial wood chipper, and it was crawling with spiders. I was so used to them by now that I just ignored them.
“This is annoying,” Helmers said, as if reading my thoughts. “It’s a good trail, a good river, but it hasn’t been maintained. It could be a real good paddling route.”
He had a point; the paddling trails on the nearby Faka-Union and East rivers, trimmed by unseen hands, seemed like wide Mississippis in comparison.
Past noon after bush whacking for nearly six hours, the river began to widen noticeably. Weary, we stopped for lunch. Arazoza said we had covered about four miles. And we still hadn’t reached the bay, which was the halfway point.
“You don’t measure things here in miles per hour; you measure them in hours per mile,” Arazoza said to weak laughter from the group.
No one dawdled over lunch; we were pretty set on making it back to Tamiami Trail before dark.
Finally emerging from the Fakahatchee river tunnel into the open bay in early afternoon, our relief was short-lived. An incoming tide and stiff south wind combined to try to push us backward and sloppy little white-capped brown waves splattered against the bow of the canoe.
Helmers and I had to dig in really hard to make way to the mouth of the East River at Daniels Point. The gap widened between paddlers struggling against wind and current. But no one capsized, and things got much easier as we headed north on the East, wind and tide pushing us onward.
The first time I paddled the East River back in the 1980s, I found its mangrove tunnels narrow and daunting and had a hard time traversing its windswept open bays. But on this day, it was a snap. Our entire group arrived at the take-out a good hour before dark. Total distance: about 11 miles.
Helmers was exultant; others, not so much.
“I would venture to say no one’s ever done this twice,” Arazoza said as he pulled his kayak on shore.
To me, our Lewis & Clark 1.5 expedition was a bit like childbirth — painful, but with a tangible result. Perhaps the memory would fade after enough time to want to do it all over again.