Getting down to Everglades City was a trip in itself. It took about 6.5 hours. Blaine and I left the night before and camped at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring. I really enjoyed the company and learned a lot about the Okefenokee where Blaine is a wildlife officer. While sleeping in my tent I had a Raccoon paw at my feet. My feet were pressed against the tent and he must have thought it was food. Heck of a way to wake up.
We left early the next day and arrived refreshed at Everglades City with a couple of hours to spare. Others left very early the same day and made the whole drive in one day. Once there I was surprised at how small the put-in was. It's a narrow area provided by the Everglades National Park Service. Nothing fancy for sure but very functional. We were treated to a deluge of rain for about 30 minutes before we were supposed to launch. All did what they could with the kayaks then headed for cover to wait it out. It gave us a chance to catch up with old paddling buddies we haven't seen in a while.
Once the storm moved off to the north of us the weather cleared with some wind from the south. Everyone finished getting the kayaks to the launch point and loaded them up with gear in a somewhat loosely organized way. Like a bee-hive of activity with lots of excitement and anticipation of an awesome trip. This was a decent sized group of 16 paddlers. Once everyone got launched, we started across the Chokoloskee Bay.
With the wind in our face and muscles just getting warmed up we labored over to the mangroves on the other side. Once on this side the wind was not a factor and the scenery was great. We saw some interesting wildlife. In particular, a huge sea turtle popped up a couple of times to check us out.
We paddled for a few hours and stopped for a break at the appropriately named Picnic Key. It is still within the park and even had a portolet although that was the only sign of habitation. While paddling on the Gulf side we heard an Osprey screaming. We looked over towards the mangroves and this Osprey had a nice size mullet. He was flying as fast as his wings would take him. He kept looking back and soon we saw why. A very large Bald Eagle was chasing him trying to steal his fish. We didn't see if the Osprey got away but the Eagle was catching up to him very quickly.
Once rested, we paddled a couple more hours to our first camping spot at Camp Lulu Key. Some wanted to keep going to another beautiful spot but most were tired and ready to rest. This island had a nice beach with vines growing along the sand. We enjoyed our camping experience there and most sleep well. The next morning we were off to White Horse Key. It was about 2-3 hours paddle in the Gulf of Mexico.
John was trolling and caught a nice lady fish. Once we got there I could see why Greg wanted to camp there. It had a very long beautiful beach facing west and the sand was like sugar. There was lots of room to set up our tents and bring our kayaks on shore. The sunsets were incredible as we were right on the Gulf. Mabel and little Greg (Franklin's nephew from Michigan) collected wood for some fantastic bonfires at night. We sat around and traded stories and got to know our guests.
One of our guests, Ted, was from Ontario, Canada. He was a very accomplished paddler and athlete. He has paddled many places and had some great stories to share about paddling in Canada. Particularly on Georgian Bay, Ontario. Our other guest, John, is retired and has moved down here from the mid-west. He told us about his paddling experiences on the Great Lakes. He is currently Operations Director of the Florida Paddling Trail Assoc. He shared with us how the project was progressing. Little Greg was joy to have on the trip. His bonfire building skills are unrivalled. He came down from Minnesota to spend time with his (favorite) uncle Franklin. It was a joy having these folks with us and hopefully they will join us on paddles in the future.
On our second night around the fire big Greg had a surprise visitor. I was sitting beside him and looked over to see a 4 inch scorpion on his arm. We managed to extract the scorpion without incident. Greg said he felt something crawling around on his neck all night and swatted at it a few times. Good thing he missed. After that we kept a close eye out for them. We also had a visit from the Raccoons. They were large and daring. Blaine's tent appeared to be the Raccoon magnet for the group. Maybe it was the cologne he was wearing.
On the 3rd day some of us took a leisure hike after breakfast. Further down the beach was a guide group from Wisconsin (4 people in their group) that had taken a person in a wheel chair. They used canoes and seemed to have lots of creature comforts. Mesh was put down on the beach between the handicap person's tent and the camp table for easy access. They seem to be having a good time. Later on we all took a leisurely paddle together around the mangroves.
On our Key was a sandy peninsular. A guy was camping there alone and we met him on one of our hikes around the island. Well, later when we paddled around the island he was not to be seen but his tent was there and so were about 10 buzzards. It was very ominous. We decided to name that spot Buzzard Point for the rest of the trip. Then everyone split off and did some exploring, fishing or swimming.
John, Greg and I did some fishing around the mangroves. John & I didn't catch anything but Greg did. He had to so that Mabel wouldn't give him a hard time. I ran into Greg on the way back to camp and he pointed out an Eagle Ray in about 3 feet of water. At first it looked like a big shadow but when we got close it was about 4ft in diameter. It was just waiting on dinner to drift by. Blaine and Dave paddled up into the islands and saw crabs crawling up the mangrove trees. Blaine, Dave and Dan Jr did a lot of swimming and snorkeling that day and throughout the trip.
The weather cooperated the whole weekend with temperatures ranging from 65-85 and no rain except the 1st day before our launch. We also had a full moon which made for some spectacular nights. However, we did enjoy an incredible display of stars before the moon rose. A few of the paddlers could name constellations and which stars mariners used to navigate at night.
Sunday we left around 10:00 but the tide hadn't come in very far. We carried our kayaks loaded from the beach to the water for maybe 30 yards walking on hard sand. Everyone pitched in and made short work of it. I hurt my back last year and John, Mabel and others carried my kayak out to the water for me. You don't find better paddling buddies than that. We got on our way and with Greg's excellent leadership and planning skills we went the inland route thru West Pass to West Pass Bay with the tide moving with us. If we stopped paddling we would still have been moving at 3.5 mph.
It was a very pleasant trip back. We passed a couple at the edge of West Pass holding on to tree limbs for dear life. We asked if they needed help and they declined. They were heading out towards the gulf (against the tide) and were taking a rest. We paddled on thru the mangroves for a few hours and navigated the shallow channels.
I can see how someone could get lost in there. One interested thing we saw on the way out were dolphins fighting (mating / pre-spawn) in the bay. They were kicking up quite a spray. Finally we arrived at the take-out point in Everglades City. Once at the take-out it was like rush hour. Apparently another group was also getting back from a trip to a different area at the same time. It was quite chaotic but not too difficult. Everyone was cooperative. Once we all made it back safe and in one piece we loaded up the cars and some of us headed to the local restaurant for a late lunch.
The waitress, after some good natured poking and prodding from Franklin, appeared to be ready to get rid of us quickly. She even gave us names on our tickets like “smart ass”. The clincher was when she told us she wouldn't eat the grouper sandwich served there nor give it to her cat. This was after 2/3rds of us had eaten it. Great companionship, paddling, camping and all-around fun was had by all. Thanks to Greg and the others who make it possible. I would recommend a trip to 10,000 Island's areas to anyone.