Fifteen years ago, I spent four days solo kayaking the Everglades on the northwest portion of the Wilderness Waterway, and since that trip, I’ve often felt the siren-call of that vast river of grass beckoning me to return. In December, 2020, while the global Covid-19 pandemic raged, the empty and lonely wilderness of mangroves and prehistoric beasts seemed like a great place to escape the troubled world at large.
My experience during the solo kayak trip from a decade-and-a-half earlier had been amazing, but I really wanted to share this country with someone else, and luckily, I was able to cajole Tracy into coming with me. We spent a good amount of time planning the trip in the months prior to our departure. I’m not a planner by nature, preferring with nearly every trip to just get out there and wing things, dealing with changing circumstances by being adaptable and flexible, but the Everglades is not a place where you want to allow chance or misfortune a handhold. We would be taking a canoe for this journey and exploring the southeastern portion of the Wilderness Waterway, a one-hundred-mile path that skirts through the tidal rivers, lakes, and marshes of the southern coast of Florida. Mangrove forests permeate the land, their vast root systems choking every square inch of solid ground, making unscheduled stops along the way difficult to impossible. Camping is done on chickees—wooden platforms constructed on pilings over the water, usually in small bays or backwaters. Reservations are required, and each chickee can take only one or two small parties of travelers. There are no sources of fresh water in this portion of the Everglades backcountry, the tidal nature of the low-lying swamp making every bit of the vast wetlands brackish. With few unique or distinguishing characteristics of the land and terrain everything looks the same and it’s easy to get lost and difficult to describe your location to any would-be rescuer…if you can even find a cell signal to call for help. Other travelers, particularly during a pandemic when people tend to avoid leaving their homes, would be few and far between, another source of possible assistance that would be non-existent. With all of these factors, careful planning of this trip was imperative.
In the weeks prior to our departure, we ordered a ton of gear that would be necessary for a successful and stress-free trip. I got a large, foldable, waterproof map of the area, several compasses, an astrolabe, and a sextant for navigation. Okay, maybe not the last two, but the waterproof map I ordered would prove to be invaluable for navigating the difficult turns and small, hidden passages along our route. We bought a free-standing tent, a required item for the chickees where tie downs are unavailable. LED lanterns, flashlights, a propane stove, packaged just-add-water meals from REI, waterproof gear bags, collapsible water containers, hats, gloves, ponchos, mosquito nets, sleeping bags and pads for the hard wooden planks of the chickees we’d be sleeping on, first-aid kits, lighters, waterproof matches, chargers, stackable pots and pans, eating utensils, a French press, and numerous other items for safety and comfort all had to be ordered or acquired. By the time we were finished gathering and packing all the gear, it looked like we could have outfitted Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to find the missing Doctor Livingstone in the dark heart of Africa, but knowing we’d be well-prepared for anything that might go wrong was helpful to Tracy’s continued enthusiasm for this excursion.
On December 8th, I packed all our gear into a plastic bin and a large suitcase and flew from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale where I rented a car and then met Tracy’s flight in from Las Vegas. We drove down to South Beach where my perpetually single and devastatingly rakish buddy, Will Riedlinger had just recently moved. The three of us had a fantastic dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab, followed by drinks at a nearby hole-in-the-wall bar that just happened to have a small amount of fifteen-year Pappy Van Winkle gathering dust on the top shelf. Pappy makes Rick happy, so Will and I polished off the remainder of the bottle which garnered us the attention of the bar owner who generously gave us the last half-shot of the precious liquid gold for free. Feeling warmed and full, Tracy and I said goodnight to Will and walked back to our room at the Kimpton Hotel.
Our plan for the next day was to sleep in and then make the long drive out to Homestead where we would gather our last few necessities and spend another night, getting up early the following day to get started on our first day of paddling, an ambitious seventeen miles from the Flamingo Visitor Center up to the Joe River Chickee. Of course, even a well-planned trip doesn’t always work out the way you expect, and our trip would end up taking a much different turn that next day.