Nine-Day Trek Across A Strange, Soggy Land

We begin at 7:01 a.m. with a slight breeze in our faces and the entire width of the Florida Everglades stretching before us in the morning light.

It takes 90 minutes to paddle our two aluminum canoes from the ranger station at Everglades City to the Turner River. Water gurgles at our bows, and we feel the pull of the tide drawing us into the brown-and-green mosaic of mangroves, vines, and dark water that locals call simply "the backcountry."

Behind us, the houses on Chokoloskee Island slip away as we begin our trip into one of America's most forbidding wildernesses. Our trek coincides with the 50th anniversary of this national park's dedication.

Here alligators and crocodiles reign at the top of the food chain. The murky, tannin-stained water is the color of Coca-Cola. Dry land is so scarce between campsites that any delay means we'll be sleeping in our canoes.

"That's the last bit of civilization we'll see for at least a week," I tell Monitor photographer Bob Harbison. He glances back toward Chokoloskee, his paddle hovering momentarily above the water. I wonder if he is having second thoughts.

Over the next nine days we would paddle more than 117 miles across southwest Florida, through the heart of Everglades National Park. There are no roads in or out. For mile after mile there is only saw grass, mangrove, and water in a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

This is what south Florida looked like during the time of Jesus, when the Calusa Indians fished these waters and hunted deer in the grassland. It is the same scenery Juan Ponce de Len saw in 1513 when he sailed up Florida's southwest coast in search of gold, slaves, and potential farmland.

As for us, we came not so much to rack up mileage as to experience this wilderness. We wanted to celebrate the mystery and magnificence of the region by moving through it as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. Powered only by our arms and paddles, we left behind nothing more than the echo of a camera shutter, a little carbon dioxide, and a slight ripple across the water.

Green pastures and still waters

Fifty years ago, President Harry S. Truman came here to turn 1.5 million acres of wilderness into what is now the nation's third-largest national park. On Dec. 6, 1947, President Truman dedicated the park in an act aimed at preserving forever what he termed "an irreplaceable primitive area."

Tomorrow - Dec. 6, 1997 - the park will be rededicated at Everglades City in a ceremony to be attended by Vice President Al Gore.

In his speech, Truman spoke of the nation's parks as being important not only because they preserve and protect our natural history. National parks, he said, are also places for "conservation of the human spirit ... where we may be more keenly aware of our Creator's infinitely varied, infinitely beautiful, and infinitely bountiful handiwork."

Facing Chokoloskee Bay and the Everglades beyond it, Truman added, "Here we can truly understand what the Psalmist meant when he sang: 'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.''

Civilization gone, only nature now

At 11 a.m. our canoes enter Sunday Bay and cross a point in the backcountry beyond which I have never before traveled. As for Bob, he's been around the world many times over on Monitor assignments, but this is his first trip to Florida, let alone to the darkest corners of the Everglades.

As we head across Sunday Bay, the slight breeze disappears and the water is smooth as glass. Every sound is magnified. Drips from a paddle blade sound like a mountain brook. The sky is powder blue with suspended cotton puffs. The clouds and surrounding mangrove are reflected perfectly in the surface of the bay. The day has become so still it seems almost a surreal dream, as if we are paddling through a watercolor painting.

For me, this is one of those moments of which Truman spoke. A moment of quiet restoration.

We could have completed our entire 117-mile journey in a single day had we taken boats with motors. But then the constant drone of the engines would have frightened off most the wildlife before we could see it, and our trip would have been completely different. No subtle sounds. No possibility of hearing the exhalation of a manatee surfacing for air a quarter-mile up river, or detecting the stiff rustle of feathers as a wedge of seven ibises flies 10 feet overhead, or recognizing the distant din of a trillion mosquito wings hovering over the mangrove forest and creating a sound like an 18-wheeler whining down an interstate.

The trip was not easy. We each made at least 49,000 paddle strokes over nine days, or roughly 418 strokes per mile. On calm days drifting with the tide, we took fewer strokes. On windy days against the tide, many, many more.

We made our way up rivers, across bays, down sloughs, and through marshes. We encountered alligators and crocodiles at their level, on their turf, including a nine-foot croc in a shallow saltwater bay who seemed to be eyeing Bob in his canoe the way a gourmet scrutinizes a dessert tray at a fancy restaurant.

We saw birds of all kinds, including brilliant pink roseate spoonbills and endangered wood storks.

We found ourselves on a secluded Gulf of Mexico beach face to face with a wild boar sporting two menacing tusks. We watched an osprey snatch a meal of live mullet from a tidal pool on the mud flats.

We battled 25 mile-per-hour head winds to cross a 2-mile-wide bay deep in the backcountry. It took 4-1/2. The name of the bay - of all things: Big Lostmans Bay. We paddled up Alligator Creek where the tannin in the water ran blood red.

Daily, we coated ourselves in a pungent sheen of sunscreen and mosquito repellent. At night, when even bug spray wouldn't work, we draped nets over our heads and wore double socks, long sleeves, and gloves as protection.

One night, we peered out from our campsite as alligators patrolled the cove like submarines cruising for targets to torpedo, their red eyes glowing in the beam of our flashlight as they watched us, watching them, watch us.

Oatmeal and Oreos

Two men. Two canoes. Twenty gallons of fresh water. Close to 60 pounds of photographic lenses and cameras. And enough granola, oatmeal, and trail mix to gross out an entire Boy Scout troop.

This was our one major miscalculation in preparing for the trip. We shopped for our food when we were really, really hungry. And we failed to realize that after paddling eight to 10 hours a day our appetites would be naturally suppressed.

Make no mistake, we ate well. But we ended our journey with probably enough food to remain out there for another nine days.

I mean, is it possible that two men - under even optimal conditions - might consume 40 packets of instant oatmeal? Or 112 Oreo cookies?

I don't think so.

Into the unknown

When we started our trip we were concerned that alligators and poisonous snakes would pose the biggest threat to our successful completion of the journey.

We also knew we would face strong winds and tides that could make paddling impossible.

And before the trip was over we would probably be forced more than once to undertake extraordinary measures to avoid becoming prisoners of the wilderness.

* Dec. 9: The story of Ed Watson and why it was fitting that vultures circled the Watson place as we arrived to set up our first night's camp. Dec. 11: Quest for the 'River of Grass.' Dec. 16: Encounter with a 9-foot croc. Dec. 18: Stuck in the mud flats. Dec. 22: Midnight paddling and heading home.

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