South Florida’s fall paddling season is officially open.
I know this because this region’s answer to explorers Lewis and/or Clark, Terry Helmers led more than two dozen kayakers and canoeists on a winding, 11½-mile trek through Everglades National Park’s swampy back country on Nov. 1.
The fifth or sixth annual trip — nobody really agrees on exactly when the tradition actually began — has been dubbed the “invitational,” though the title only means that anyone willing to get wet and dirty, drag their craft through sawgrass and mangroves, and maybe even get lost is welcome to attend.
“Never a brochure route,” is how Helmers, 61, describes these adventures, which seem to increase in attendance each year for reasons no one can really explain.
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Helmers’ foremost goal is to explore the Everglades, and that means charting obscure routes that do not appear on any tourist maps. To plan a trip, he pores over Google maps of the region overlaid with GPS coordinates to create a path through the seemingly endless maze of mangroves dotted with hammocks.
The Nov. 1 trek began adjacent to Paurotis Pond some 24 miles inside the park’s Homestead entrance before dawn. But instead of launching at the pond’s small ramp, Helmers picked an obscure opening in tall vegetation about 50 yards away.
“The reason we didn’t start in Paurotis Pond is because we can’t get out,” he explained. “This is the southern end of an old airboat trail.”
The string of paddlers followed Helmers and me in our canoe as we plowed through the brush and headed into the marsh. I sat in the bow serving as spider slasher – breaking through the incessant arachnid webs with my paddle — while Helmers steered from the stern. It wasn’t the first time I’ve run critter interference on these trips, so it didn’t bother me.
“Don’t get too used to this,” Helmers warned as we paddled fairly effortlessly for a short distance.
He was right. We entered a forest of low mangroves he has ominously dubbed the “Widowmaker” because there’s no easy way to paddle around them. In many spots, you have to lift your kayak or canoe over the dense water trees, then drag it through narrow, shallow sloughs till you get to deeper water. This goes on for roughly a mile.
Eventually, a creek channel emerged deep enough to paddle the canoe. Just behind us was Susan Sylvester, chief of operations for the South Florida Water Management District.
“You have survived the Widowmaker!” Helmers told her.
“Awesome!” she replied, beaming.
From the Widowmaker, our armada wound roughly southwest for several miles past tree islands decorated with distinctive Paurotis palms, through marshes of spikerush, sawgrass, mangroves and sometimes all three clumped together. Small cichlids darted ahead of us, and one crashed into the side of Esther Luft’s kayak, startling her. I saw a couple big snook lying in the shallows ahead of us, and also a turtle. But I imagine the size of our flotilla probably frightened off most of the birds and other wildlife for miles around.
Occasionally, we emerged into wide open ponds, which inevitably prompted some wag to call out, “Whoa! It’s the Great Lakes!” or “Must be Biscayne Bay!” But for the most part, we wound through mangrove tunnels or creeks that were scarcely more than depressions in the wet prairie.
The creeping clumps of mangroves dotting what is supposed to be a freshwater marsh miles inland from brackish Florida Bay prompted some grumbling among the paddlers.
Appeals Court Judge Thomas Logue noted it was “amazing to think that saltwater intrusion has extended so far and so fast to cause the sawgrass to die out and the mangroves to march north.”
Added another paddler, referring to the mangroves: “They may not be exotic, but they sure are invasive.”
Many mangrove stands held bromeliads, a few of them blooming bright red. In several tunnels, we smelled. then saw the thick green stems of vanilla orchids. Very fragrant.
In early afternoon, we passed briefly onto the marked (gasp!) Hells Bay Canoe Trail, but only in order to reach Lard Can, a small island with a dock and a portable toilet where we stopped to eat lunch. From there, we paddled a short distance –maybe two waymarks—on the Hells Bay trail before leaving it to head southeast toward our planned take-out near Noble Hammock on the main park road.
The path was so narrow and twisting that several paddlers got separated only yards apart and couldn’t follow it. Helmers held his paddle high in the air so the stragglers could see it above the mangrove thicket, and someone else blew a whistle.
Eventually, the entire group made it to the culvert that marked the end of the trip.
It had taken nearly 10 hours to cover 11.3 miles. Everyone was wet, muddy and sweaty, despite a strong northerly breeze that had persisted most of the day.
“Excellent!” attorney Charlie Arazosa said of the trip.
“An adventure, as always,” said Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of Biscayne National Park.
As they loaded their kayaks and canoes onto trucks and trailers, the paddlers started chattering about where the next outing might be.