Back in the 1970s and 80s, Everglades paddlers commonly covered the 13 miles or so from Flamingo to East Cape Sable using the Homestead Canal to avoid the sometimes windy and powerboat-riddled open waters of Florida Bay. Although man-made and mostly straight, the canal provided a pleasant, back country wilderness experience on the way to setting up camp on the Cape.
But nobody has been able to use that route for a very long time. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew’s winds toppled mangroves and other vegetation, making passage difficult, and Hurricane Wilma’s 2005 assault blocked it completely.
A couple of years after Wilma, a volunteer group calling itself the Swamp Apes, led by Plantation engineer Tom Rahill, launched a project to clear the Homestead Canal from Flamingo to Bear Lake, including a loop trail through Mud Lake. The Swamp Apes got the job done, but the section of the canal between Bear Lake and Gator Lake remains impassable today. It seemed like the only way to get from Flamingo to East Cape was by crossing Florida Bay — not always a fun prospect in the typically blustery winter months that are best for camping in the Glades.
But all that changed last weekend.
Three Everglades explorers — Terry Helmers, Jay Thomas and Bill Evans — in a daylong paddle Saturday found an obscure, intermediate-level, natural path entirely within the back country that led them from Bear Lake all the way to Gator Lake — a distance of about 6 1/2 miles — with only one short portage. I paddled along with them, and when we made the discovery, I think we all felt a little like astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon for the first time. It wasn’t necessary for us to cross Gator Lake and continue on to East Cape Sable to prove the point because that path is already open and accessible.
“We not only found a replacement inland route, but what we found is better than the old route used before it became impassable,” Helmers said.
And here’s a bonus heads-up to anglers: Bear Lake and the unnamed adjacent lake to the west are full of fish — snook, redfish, and tarpon. We didn’t spend much time trying to catch them because we were on a mission, but if you make a day out of it, you are likely to be successful.
Setting out in three canoes from the dock beside the Swamp Apes’ well-manicured trail took us practically no time to reach Bear Lake. But Helmers, Thomas and Evans wanted to see if it was possible to continue west on the Homestead Canal. After clawing our way through maybe 100 yards of fallen trees in an hour, we gave up.
“All I see is wood,” Evans said. “It looks like a lumber yard.”
Armed with Google maps of the region and multiple GPS units, we emerged from the blocked canal into Bear Lake, hugging the mangrove shoreline as we paddled west, continuing into an unnamed body of water we dubbed “West Bear Lake” — an angler’s paradise that I departed reluctantly.
Next came the hard part — trying to find the narrowest land barrier to cross to get into Gator Lake. After skirting several extremely shallow mud bars, we spotted a small, creek-like opening blocked by a three-foot mat of pneumatophores, or black mangrove roots. We simply pulled our canoes over them and started looking for the clearest path to continue west.
Evans found a narrow waterway that twisted north then west with a few minor blockades easily pushed aside to emerge in a shallow bay where we spooked a roseate spoonbill. Naming this small but important waterway Spoonbill Pass, we continued west to Gator Lake and stopped for lunch, very pleased with ourselves.
“Once you get to Gator Lake, you can get to Cape Sable,” Helmers said.
Returning to the Bear Lake put-in was much quicker than the trip out since we simply backtracked using our GPS coordinates. As we re-entered Spoonbill Pass, a red-shouldered hawk greeted us from atop the mangroves. (Note to birders: you should definitely check this route out.)
Reflecting on the day, I remembered that when the Swamp Apes were clearing the Bear Lake Trail a couple of years ago, they said they hoped someday to unblock the entire Homestead Canal all the way to East Cape. But our discovery last weekend renders that project unnecessary.
“Now that we know Spoonbill Pass exists, write off the Homestead Canal,” Helmers said. “We don’t need it. This was it.”