Just when we thought South Florida’s dry season finally had taken hold, a passing front dumped about an inch of rain at the Pahayokee water gauge located about 12 miles west of the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park. Now this little hydrological tidbit wouldn’t mean much to most people, or even to the average park visitor who typically walks out on the Pahayokee boardwalk to gaze at the vast sawgrass marsh of Shark River Slough.
But to veteran Glades paddler and explorer Terry Helmers, 60, of South Miami, it meant an extension of the “grass-paddling” season — the opportunity for probing wet marshes by canoe and kayak looking for inland trails connecting various regions of the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi.
For some 30 years, Helmers has been searching for a paddling route from Pahayokee — a Seminole word meaning “grassy waters” — heading west for about six miles to a former airboat trail with deeper water known locally as “Main Street” that cuts northwest to southeast through the middle of Shark River Slough. If he could discover a viable trail, he reasoned, then future paddlers could embark at Pahayokee and take “Main Street” to Rookery Branch and a campsite at Canepatch in a single day. Opening up Pahayokee also would give paddlers heading south from the central Everglades through Shark River Slough a respite before continuing west to Canepatch.
“Pahayokee looks inviting,” Helmers told a group of paddling friends. “What we’re out to do is take logic and methodology to find the best way to get from Pahayokee to Main Street, trying to connect the areas where the grass is not as thick.”
Using GPS and Google maps with detailed aerial views of the region, Helmers charted out a course through the marsh and decided to ground-truth it in his canoe. He managed to convince me and five others to join him.
All I can say after grass paddling is: What were we thinking?
First off, Pahayokee is designed as a scenic overlook, not a canoe/kayak launch. We had to climb over and under the railing to board our paddlecraft. And I don’t think we paddled more than 100 yards or so before dense stands of sawgrass and clinging globs of periphyton forced us to get out and pull/push our craft forward. Esther Luft, on a stand-up paddleboard, gave up and returned to the boardwalk. Helmers, Chris Carl, Flex Maslan, Dan Crossett, Mark Lewis and I, for some reason, kept going.
“What we need is a 30-foot alligator to go back and forth around here,” Helmers said.
It looked like the narrow path we were following could have been a gator trail, but there were no signs of the reptilian trailblazers. The rough vegetation clawed at me, and the uneven mud and rock bottom caused me to stumble more than walk. I couldn’t wait for the water to get deeper and the grass to thin out so we could resume the relative luxury of paddling.
That didn’t happen for probably a mile. We rounded a hammock and came upon an odd sight: a formation of tall, dead reeds standing starkly like a teepee in the swamp.
It seemed like such an anachronism that I took a photo of it.
But the teepee ended up becoming something of a landmark for deepening water and easier passage. We also spied a soft-shell turtle — the only reptile we saw that day. We resumed paddling, and noticed that tall sawgrass gave way more and more to short spikerush with easy-to-follow channels.
When we reached a relatively open slough about 25 yards wide, somebody yelled out, “Lake Michigan!”
To which Helmers replied, “Wait till we come to Main Street. It’s so wide and deep you’ll get seasick!”
But even though the paddling became easier, we had spent a lot of time slogging a circuitous route through the slough on foot, and by noon, we had made it only halfway to Main Street — a linear distance of 2.43 miles in about four hours, according to Carl’s GPS. We likely had paddled farther than that with all the twists and turns.
“People are going to say, ‘Bunch of wimps — they couldn’t even go three miles,’” Lewis said.
“Like anybody would want to do this anyway,” I grumbled.
Replied Crossett: “That’s what they said about the moon.”
We ate lunch and unanimously agreed that trying to push on for Main Street would take too long and delay our return to Pahayokee until after dark — a bad idea because we had no camping gear and had only brought lunch and water. So we turned back.
The return trip was just as slow and clumsy: we started off paddling, then had to get out and push/pull. I used a paddle as a staff to lurch through the swamp’s uneven terrain, but fell in the water once anyway.
I was tired, muddy and irritable when we finally arrived at the Pahayokee overlook at midafternoon. Tourists taking photos of the slough looked astonished at our stumbling approach. We must have looked like the Everglades version of The Walking Dead after more than seven miles of swamp trekking.
Helmers, ever the optimist, said the journey would be more doable in early fall with higher water levels.
“We have made a great discovery,” he said. “What is significant here is we followed spikerush and sawgrass channels. We broke through the hard part. This isn’t an easy thing to do.”
Exactly, and I’m not sure how many disciples he will find next fall.
Said Lewis: “I guarantee I won’t be doing this one again.”