The Everglades isn’t called the “River of Grass” for nothing. After canoeing 13 miles through the eastern portion of the national park a couple weeks ago with 26 others, I found myself wishing the region was more river and less grass.
Spike rush, peppergrass, hydrilla, sawgrass, cattails — I felt like a botanist when this all-day trek was over. On many stretches, we used our paddles more like hiking staffs or crutches than marine propulsion devices. In a line of canoeists and kayakers crossing one particularly tedious meadow, paddlers cried, “Mush, mush!”
Sled dogs would have come in very handy, but I think they would have conked out in the first couple miles.
Of course this trip was organized by Terry Helmers of South Miami — renowned parks volunteer and bush paddler who disdains what he calls “brochure trips” that follow marked trails. Helmers’ idea of fun is to pore over Google maps of some of the remotest areas of South Florida wilderness and use GPS to devise paddling routes to penetrate them.
Most of these routes do not make for easy paddling. In fact, veteran paddlers from previous expeditions openly call themselves a “group of crazies.”
A memorable trip along the Fakahatchee River in southwest Florida last winter involved so much bush-whacking and spider web slashing that even the crazies agreed they wouldn’t do it again anytime soon.
But the East Everglades route seemed very doable — following mostly airboat trails through wet, open prairies as opposed to walls of tangled mangrove thickets. Water levels were fairly high for mid-fall, and tree islands would provide dry rest stops.
The group embarked just after dawn at Frog City, the site of a former attraction on the south side of Tamiami Trail about 12 miles west of the turnpike. The planned route would take us southwest to Causey Camp on a tree island, continue southwest to Tyre Camp on another tree island, then east-southeast to the take-out at the Chekika day-use area of Everglades National Park.
Skies were cloudy and a breeze blew barely noticeably from the east as the group set out. I paddled from the bow of a canoe, with Tom Watts-Fitzgerald steering from the stern. The first few miles along the airboat trail to Causey Camp felt pretty easy. Water levels were high enough to pass smoothly through the marsh. We startled a couple of fish and watched ducks, osprey and herons overhead.
After a rest stop on the tree island, we were back out in open swamp, slowed down occasionally by tufts of grass, but nothing impassable. Just after noon, we arrived at Tyre Camp, a distance of about nine miles from Frog City. A baby gator sat quietly in the shaded lagoon, unmoving even as our noisy fleet of paddlecraft pulled up on the bank.
“Where’s his mother?” asked kayaker Miguel Caridad.
But before the Ma gator could appear, we heard the roar of an approaching airboat and it putt-putted up to the island a few minutes later. The baby gator skedaddled.
“What a surprise!” the unidentified airboater said when he saw our un-motorized navy. “Be careful of the airboaters. They’re drunk as [skunks].”
I think most of us became extra vigilant following that warning, but as we turned east-southeast toward Chekika, we heard only distant rumbling. No airboats crossed our path.
After the lunch break, I would swear (and I suspect Watts-Fitzgerald would, too) that water levels in the Everglades had dropped since we set out that morning. Paddling went from aquatic recreation to meadow-hopping in pretty short order. Ahead of us, Helmers, sitting in the stern of his canoe with Sula Jacobs in front, was using two paddles like leap-frog crutches to get over the thick grass. Jay Thomas in his solo kayak was doing the same thing. Several paddlers got out and dragged their craft.
That’s when the chorus of “mush, mush” arose among the fleet.
The rest of the way to Chekika was a real slog, kind of like Heartbreak Hill near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Just when we thought we were out of the tall grass, it would rise again, slowing our progress to a near crawl.
That final leg of the trek was broken up by the discovery of a rusted-out track buggy that probably dated back to the 1970s and a tree island called Peterson Camp that harbored the wreckage of an Airstream trailer and an unhappy hawk.
I was very glad to arrive at Chekika some 10 hours after we embarked.
In the unlikely event that you would like to attempt this feat, be advised the water-level window has probably closed for the season. You’re welcome.