This is part three of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/
The guttural, echoing trumpet of air woke me from a troubled, freezing, uncomfortable sleep. I opened my eyes to darkness and shivered in the frigid air. I’d neglected to bring a sweatshirt or a wool hat, thinking that it couldn’t possibly get cold enough to need them. Our sleeping bags were the summer-weight type, and I’d shivered all night trying to stay warm. Beside me, Tracy slept soundly in her sweatshirt, knit cap, and gloves.
The sharp blast of air echoed through the night once again, a swishing of water as a body sliced expertly through the small, shallow bay. A dolphin hunting its breakfast, I realized. I got up and stretched my sore joints and muscles, and then quietly opened the tent, slipping out into the chilly pre-dawn morning. The dolphin continued its hunt in the otherwise still and supreme quiet of the pending sunrise. I sat in one of the chairs and listened, hoping the hunter might come close enough to see. He roamed the bay for ten more minutes, and then, as darkness slipped away and the sky began to slowly lighten, he slid quietly out of the backwater and out through the narrow canal to the deeper waters of the Joe River.
I set up the stove to make coffee and watched as the sun, an orange billiard ball of flame, quietly rose into view, fingerpainting the sky with streaks of gold and burnt amber. The water, now sans dolphin, was completely still, a near perfect mirror of the sky that was incredible to see.
The water on the propane stove came to a boil, and I added coffee to a stainless-steel French press, pouring the water over it and stirring the grounds. A few birds flew over, and a fish jumped, briefly disturbing the perfect mirror with symmetrical rings as I sipped the brew and enjoyed an absolutely exquisite Everglades morning. After about an hour, I stepped into the canoe and untied it, quietly paddling out into the bay to take a few pictures of the South Joe River chickee. Designed for two parties, one on each of the platforms, it’s a tight fit, but with us as the sole occupants, with room to spread out with our tent on one side and our living room on the other, it was more than enough room. The chickees are built out over the water on purpose, providing relief from the mosquitos and no-see-ums that swarm closer to the mangrove shores. We were fully prepared for the insect hordes, but had been thoroughly blessed by an almost complete absence of them the night before and again so far this morning.
Eventually, Tracy woke up and stumbled out of the tent blinking like an owl in the sunlight and looking for coffee.
After a leisurely breakfast, the wind began to pick up and we loaded the canoe and pushed off, heading back through the canal and turning left at the Joe River. Here, the wind was gusting right in our face, and the tide, incoming for the last hour, caused the river to flow noticeably against us. We hunkered into the wind and began to paddle hard. We only had 5.5 miles to go today to reach the Joe River chickee, the destination we’d originally reserved for this night, with our original plan of leaving this morning. Our decision to leave the day before and knock out the bulk of the mileage was sure starting to feel like a good one. The wind and current made conditions so difficult for paddling that it was impossible to take even a quick break. Setting the paddle down for even ten seconds stopped all our forward momentum and pushed us backward. Even when just Tracy took a break and I kept paddling, I could barely keep us moving north. If I took a break, Tracy alone couldn’t even hold us still.
It was misery and agony. It took us four hours of non-stop paddling before the Joe River chickee finally came into sight. Our tired muscles groaned as we pulled the final half mile and turned right into an inlet, finally finding a lee from the wind. We stopped and rested our paddles on the sides of the canoe, breathing hard and stretching our sore backs, relieved to finally be done with what had been a torturous four hours of constant and strenuous exertion. We tied up to the chickee, unloaded a few things, and then collapse with exhaustion.
Eventually we recovered and discussed setting up our camp. I had booked the Oyster Bay chickee as a backup in case we wanted to do more than 5.5 miles today, but we both agreed that paddling another 5 miles was not in the cards. It was officially settled when we saw another canoe approaching our chickee, our first sighting of another human since dusk the day before. Bill, a solo traveler stopped to use the porta-potty and told us he was heading up to Oyster Bay for the night. He’d crossed Whitewater Bay from the North River chickee, which was our destination tomorrow. With him headed to Oyster Bay and us not wanting to share our solitude with anyone, the decision was made. We saw Bill off and then set up camp.
In the early afternoon, I talked Tracy into taking an excursion behind the chickee where a canoe trail led back into a swamp that appeared to open up into some small lakes. The mangroves were dense and the path was difficult in our large canoe. After about a quarter mile of bumping, ducking, and spider webs in Tracy’s face as we futilely looked for alligators or other wildlife, we gave up and backed our way out of there, returning to the chickee. We spent the rest of the evening just relaxing and watching a pod of dolphins fishing and breaching right where the Joe River and the small inlet we were camping on met. Toward dusk, a few mosquitos showed up, our proximity to land allowing them to sense us. We covered up with our head nets and sprayed ourselves down with Deet, and that was enough to keep them at bay. That night was another uncomfortable one where we both suffered on our thin, almost useless blow-up mats, and I stove off freezing by putting on all my clothes and stealing Tracy’s wool hat.
The next day we would be venturing across the vast Whitewater Bay, an endeavor about which we were both very apprehensive.