Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Post-Thanksgiving Florida Trip

Each year, it seems, I go to Florida in November or early December to paddle and explore.  There are fewer bugs and tourists and the temperatures are pleasant this time of year.  This time I had planned to paddle and sail a circular route from Flamingo around Florida Bay, but Bill warned that predicted high winds would cloud the Bay's clear waters and drive away the birds (and maybe the water).  So we planned a trip to the backcountry in the north of the Park so that he and Gary could explore the possibilities of doing the Wilderness Waterway in a Sea Pearl without a motor.

The Wekiva

Michael was having wrist problems, so we planned on a one-day paddle on the Wekiva River with Marty on our way down.  We put in on the St. Johns and paddled upstream a couple of miles to the Wekiva.  After a bit on the Wekiva, we branched off on Blackwater Creek, a large wetland wilderness area.  Marty said that, outside of the Everglades, this is one of the few places in Florida where the Ivory Billed Woodpecker might still exist.

I think the sign fell in.  The water wasn't that high.

A small (18") alligator.

A small part of a large flock of ibises.

Michael (in a Kruger Sea Wind) and Marty (in an Epic 18) on the Wekiva



Skinny little Blackwater Creek

. . . on to the Everglades

My first Everglades trip was 41 years ago next month with the Sewanee Explorer Post. . .

The next day I left Ocoee early to catch up with Bill and Gary.  They were planning to be at Park Headquarters in Everglades City at 10 and depart at 11.  I would have to catch up at night - they called to tell me that I was included in the backcountry permit and that the first campsite was Darwin's Place on the Wilderness Waterway.  I knew I would be paddling/sailing into the night, but the moon was full.

After a stop for groceries, I drove to Chokoloskee to save about 4 miles and launched just before 3.  It was a quick sail across the bay, then an upwind slog against the tidal current on the Lopez River.  Freed from the tide at Sunday Bay, I was able to power sail (paddle and sail) across Sunday Bay and Oyster Bay before sunset.

Sunset over Oyster Bay

Moonrise over Huston Bay

 My GPS track for Day 1

I continued to paddle sail across the Houston Bays and Chevelier Bay, arriving at Darwin's Place at about 7.  Bill, Gary and I sat there by the shore for another hour or so, enjoying the warm moonlight and having a beer with the mosquitoes surprisingly light, even for this time of year.  Gary and I set up tents and Bill slept on board his Sea Pearl, Moonshadow.

The next day had the unknown challenges for the Sea Pearl.  Alligator Creek and Plate Creek are narrow, meandering passages.  Power skiffs (of the day fishermen) and a canoe have to pass carefully to get past one another, and the canopy can close overhead, making masts a real liability.  Though they got through the wider Alligator Creek by rowing and furling their sails, skinnier Plate Creek required that the masts be taken down.  Even in my Kruger, I dropped sails and had to watch both inflatable amass and the mast at the same time.

In Plate Creek, Bill and Gary encountered an Anhinga warped in fishing line and impaled with a fish hook.  They managed to unhook and untangle the bird.  Toby, who joined us later, suggested that they had deprived an alligator of a meal.

Sea Pearl Moonshadow sailing

Moonshadow on Alligator Creek

After Plate Creek, the passages opened up and we were able to sail more.  Arriving at second Bay of Lostman's River, we turned downwind and sailed WSW toward the mouth.

Sailing on Onion Key Bay

Sailing on Onion Key Bay

We had a faster and faster run down Lostman's River as the fetch made the waves larger and larger, surfing us along.  We stopped at the entrance at the site of the former ranger station, campground and radio tower.  When I first came to the Everglades in the early 70s, the tower was a navigational landmark on the coast.  Now we have GPS.

We then sailed down Highland Beach in building winds, protected from the fetch by the shore.  We found our campsite beneath some cabbage palms early.  After setting up tents, we all got on the Sea Pearl and sailed down to the Broad River entrance to show Gary (this was his first Everglades trip.).  Beer and Jarlsberg cheese and crackers made this a sunset cruise to match any commercial ones.

As night came, the bugs drove us into our tents and Bill to his boat.  After being rocked about by the minimal surf, Bill rowed farther out to get a better night's sleep.

Highland Beach, we knew, was subject to mud flats when the tides go out, but we hadn't quite comprehended the distance that a new moon low tide would bring.

Bill wades in from his grounded boat on Highland Beach

Just as much ground offshore of the Sea Pearl as there is between it and the shore!

We were in no hurry, since the next campsite was only 15 miles away and the winds were favorable.  Finally freed from the low tide, we launched around 10:30.  High winds encouraged us to stay as close to the shore as the charted shallows would allow.  We did, however, have to cross the wide-open mouth of Lostman's River with nothing to block the wind from way back into the mangroves.

Gary's video of me sailing across the mouth of Lostman's

My video of Bill and Gary in the Sea Pearl at about the same time

Once past Lostman's, the seas were smoother, though the wind built a little. I kept the main sheet in my hand the whole time so that I could spill the wind when a gust threatened to tip me over.  By 1:30 we were at New Turkey Key, our destination for the day.  Toby, who had been following our SPOT track on his waterproofed iPad, was waiting there for us.

New Turkey Key is actually three keys (at high tide) that are getting cut into pieces and diminished by the wind and waves of the Gulf.  Man is not interfering much here, so new land is being built somewhere else.  Sand and shell islands are ephemeral things - change is the norm in Nature.  We waded to another part to explore, and Gary found a live conch.  Toby told us how it conch drill holes in clams to eat the organisms inside (I had always wondered where those holes came from.).  

As we prepared supper, a big trawler pleasure boat pulled up and anchored just offshore.  Anchoring within sight of a designated campsite is against park regulations.  They went inside to watch TV as we sat on the beach, watching the day end and the night begin.  Different strokes for different folks.  At least they weren't running a generator.

The GPS track for Days 2 and 3

The next day we started early to take advantage of the lighter winds since we would have a lot more open water today.  Toby and I went inside through the shallows, while Moonshadow went on the deeper outside route.  By the time our courses converged in the channel behind Pavilion Key, they were well ahead of us.

Toby sailing near Rabbit Key

Toby sailing reefed early on

Sailing unreefed later in the day

The wind eased a bit, and we shook out our reefs around the remains of Little Pavilion Key.  By late morning, we had reached our destination at the new Jewell Key campsite.

As we nibbled on lunch, Bill and Gary began to calculate the variables for the trip in to Everglades City the next day.  They would be faced with another New Moon low tide and the current and wind would be against them.  They decided to see how far they could get today, planning to meet us for the shrimp and salad bar at the old train depot in Everglades City the next day.  Toby and I felt that it would be an easy paddle in in our Krugers, so we stayed, not wanting to end this stay in Paradise.

Flocks of white pelicans (they're mostly black from underneath!)

Shorebirds nestled down at sunset

The Jewell Key campsite

We explored the little island, set up our tents, put away our sail rigs, and sat in the shade to read and nibble.  We watched large groups of white pelicans (what is the collective noun?) move about as the rising tide captured their sandbar gathering places.  After dark, with moonrise still a couple of hours off, we used an app on Toby's iPad to explore the stars in the heavens and the map app to figure out which towns made the glowing areas on the horizon.  Then, as we did every night, we crawled into bed well before 8.

Dawn the final morning
Toby and I rose at dawn, folded our tents, and paddled into the tide and wind to explore Sandfly Pass.  The elements kept us below 3 mph most of the time, but in two hours we were at the Ranger station at Everglades City.  A note on Toby's truck told us that Bill and Gary had left the evening before, but we would wait around for the shrimp and salad bar to open.  We were the first customers when it opened at 10:30!

The GPS track for days 4 and 5the grey 
(The red line is an Everglades Challenge track.  The grey line is this track.)

It was a relatively easy trip - 67 miles in almost five days.  Great friends, cool weather, favorable winds, few bugs, and the extravagantly abundant life of the Everglades!  I'll be back next year.