Florida trip days 3/4- kayaking the Everglades

Where to start…

Currently the kids are sleeping. We are camping at Long pine key campground in the eastern portion of the Everglades national park. They are pooped after an evening out and about. We had dinner at the little cafe in
 Flamingo; its the farthest visitor center at 38 miles from the entrance near Homestead. After that we took a nice jaunt along a 1/2 mile boardwalk trail through a mangrove forest. Zoe did well even though she was still gimpy from her injury- I’ll get to that. We finished the evening at sundown on the prairie tower watching the rays go down and the stars come out. This place is flat!! It is also not a swamp; it’s a mixture of wet prairie land and mangrove forest where the fresh and salt water mingle. It is also a bug paradise.

Tonight we are only dealing with a couple Mosquitos, but last night was ridiculous with a hideous tiny creature called a sandfly. We rented a tandem kayak from the Gulf Coast visitor center of the Everglades and paddled 5.5 miles out to Jewel Key. The water was choppy and rough with wind when we started at 10 am. Zoe sat in front and Avi took his spot on my lap. The first mile or so was across a vast expanse of choppy water called the chokoloskee bay. It was an arm strainer and a bit tough to figure out exactly where to aim the boat. Zoe attempted to paddle for a few minutes but gave up quickly. Avi was content to sit for a bit. Just as we were getting across the bay the wind picked up and pushed the yak a bit far off my aim point- some markers at the entry to Sandfly Pass. I couldn’t get it going or turned as this thing is a lot longer than my kayak and heavily laden with the kids and our junk for the night. We ran aground against some shoals. I was about ready to give up on this project and paddle back, but first I got out and pulled the kayak around the shoals to a deeper area and we floated out of the wind into the safety of a mangrove island. Wow. What a difference a wind break made. Now that the waves were no longer pounding the kayak sideways and spraying water inside I could destress minute. It was in that minute that we saw two dolphins swimming nearby!

I paddled toward the dolphins around our little protectorate island and we watched their fins come up and down as they swam in front of us. Ok, I thought, I can do this. And I could. Now that we were out of that windy bay and into the mangrove “10,000 islands” area life was good. I also realized that coming around the little island our way simply gave us a short cut to the pass.

From then on it was easy paddling along the pass. I followed along with my nautical chart and double checked my location a few times with my iPhone. Zoe enjoyed the ride. She looked for more dolphins: we saw another set briefly, and sang to herself, and watched the mangrove go by. Avi, however, got fussy. He snacked and then got scrootchy. Luckily at this point we ran into a shell bank to pull on and take a break. Zoe climbed trees and Avi threw mussel shells in the water. This was a rare spot. The only break point I saw on our whole trip.

This part of the Everglades is made up of large and small mangrove ‘islands’ that don’t actually have much (if any) land on them. It’s actually not a deep dark swamp but quite open and exposed. It’s also quite complex and maze-like with entire lakes surrounded by mangrove and only one entrance connecting them to the rest of the water. These little passes are the only places where it gets tight and trees overhang the water. For our trip out I avoided that by sticking to the main boat-way which is also where all the motor boats go. It was a very wide river-like route that connected the bay with the Gulf of Mexico. Our island, jewel key, was out there.

After our break, the paddling went quickly. Avi fell asleep, so I laid him on a pad on the floor of the kayak in front of me and made good time. As we rounded a final bend I spotted Jewel key and it’s beach across another expanse of water. This crossing was easier but still pretty choppy and windy out of the protection of the mangroves.

The afternoon was spent playing on our personal island! We setup the tent in a protected spot, walked our beach and explored the Gulf side of the island. It was only walkable since it was low tide. Avi loves splashing in water. He walked almost the length of our island in the water flats along the edge. He also got quite obsessed with a crab and sat for a long time watching it and playing with it as it tried to hide from him. Zoe mostly stayed on the dry land looking for shells and climbing the gazillion downed trees and driftwood. Occasionally a boat would go by, but it otherwise felt very remote until we made it back to camp and found a family of four and their guide setting up. Oh well, they kept to themselves.

As the tide came in Zoe took to the trees. She is a really good climber and even found one branch that she could jump and swing on. Unfortunately she did fall off a different tree while attempting a dismount and scratched up her bum pretty badly. Eventually, her climbing spot was at the edge of the water instead of up from the beach, and a lagoon had formed where I had originally dragged my kayak up the shore over 15 feet of sharp shells. Avi swam and swam. It got so hot I just let him naked and Zoe in panties most of the afternoon. She beautified our spot with shells, dead horseshoe crabs, and baby mangroves. we split our time between the lagoon where the tent was and the little beach just past Zoe’s climbing trees. What a relaxing time.

Later, a family with 2 other small kids pulled up with a motorboat and swam in the lagoon. I had been avoiding that area and swimming further down because I knew all those sharp shells were underneath. I mentioned this but the parents didn’t seem to care and there was no way I could tell Zoe not to have fun and play with the other kids. Of course one of the kiddos had to get cut: mine. Zoe screamed that her knee got cut but when I offered to look at it she refused and kept swimming. A bit later when she did come out she began screaming when she saw her knee. It was a deep cut! Probably stitch worthy. Plus all the water was pulling out blood, so she was bloody all down her leg. I busted out the med kit and cleaned it (I’m sure the salt water had already helped quite a bit). I got the bleeding stopped which hurt since it took a lot of pressure and time. She screamed the whole time. I finally got her calm and laid her in the tent where I could also contain Avi and got the cut taped shut with 2 steri-strips. Zoe was now interested and commented on how the inside of her leg looked like jelly. Gross… True. By now it was getting late and the motorboat family left. Zoe napped while Avi and I beach combed and then cooked dinner. My Thrive foods make for amazing camp meals btw.

As the sun got low I started a fire with the wood we had slowly gathered throughout the day. It torched up great like driftwood always does. Zoe’s leg was stiff and painful so I carried her to the fire. It was a nice evening watching the sunset around our beach fire. I got Avi his own little log seat and he loved it so much that he stayed put! I think it also helped that anytime he ventured away the sand flies would get him. They are tiny tiny flea like creature that bite. Horrible creatures! When it was time to get in the tent I had to throw the kids in and then worked as fast as I could to put out the fire and still I got all bit up. These things don’t seem to care one iota if you have coated yourself in bug spray. Again in the morning they were back. Uck.

We all slept amazingly in the tent with the sound of the water lapping and the coolness all around. No one woke until morning just as the sun rose. I packed quickly since I wanted to try and ride the last hour of the high tide in. I really wanted to cross the first open water into the mangrove before the tide changed. Success. After a quick pop tart breakfast I sat a groggy Zoe, who still felt like her leg hurt to much to walk, by the water. Avi helped me pack. He likes stuffing things, and did a great job stuffing our trash and towel into the kayaks’ dry hold (that was wet and leaked).

When we got on the water it was so calm and crystal that the open water crossing was a breeze even with my sore shoulders from yesterday. I decided to avoid the main pass on the way back and navigated my way through the maze of mangrove islands and trapped lakes back out to the big bay. This time was much more enjoyable. We were in smaller waters and even had to go through a mangrove tunnel or two. Avi was fussy for a while: snacks only held it off a bit. As I was looking and hoping for a place to pull up and break he fell asleep. Unfortunately he missed the best part of the return trip. As we rounded a bend I heard a big splash and got nervous (alligator?). Then right in front of us a big dolphin flew out of the water and splashed down. It did it over and over before rounding another bend out of sight. It’s friend followed! Zoe and I were so excited to see dolphins playing!! She kept her eyes pealed the rest of the trip, and though we didn’t see anymore we did find an osprey nest complete with parents squawking at us to leave.

The final crossing in the open water bay was uneventful as the water was way more calm. It still took me a while; by mow I was fighting an outgoing tide. Avi slept the whole time. After packing up the car, and calling Bryan, we drove down the road for a quick stop and a passport stamp at Big Cypress National Park. Then it was two hours to Homestead.

We approached Homestead along a road packed with fruit stands, plant sellers, and people picking produce. I finally stopped at a place south of town called Robert is Here. It advertised a splash pad and milkshakes so it wasn’t your run of the mill fruit stand. In the back was also a ‘zoo’ with goats and emus and tortoises and chickens. The kids ran in the splash area to cool off. We got a key lime and a black raspberry milkshake and bought a handful of key limes to try.

Just down the road we drove into the eastern portion of the Everglades park and picked the camp site with the most shade- not an easy fete as its very open. Just a few tall spindly pine trees, but lots of low growth for privacy. This isn’t an issue, however, as it’s mostly empty. Spent the afternoon airing out and drying wet clothes and bedding, tidying our mess of a car, and doing a couple Easter egg hunts. The kids got there baskets before we left home. They both fell asleep for a power nap on the half hour drive to Flamingo for dinner.

Tomorrow we will venture toward that giant orange glow we noticed in the night sky: Miami. We are headed to Biscayne national park just south of the city.

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