Canoeing the Everglades (part five) North River to Hell’s Bay.

This is part five of a multi-part travel blog. If you’d like to start at the beginning, check out part one here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

The Everglades are a vast and mostly inhospitable landscape of impenetrable mangroves, swamps, and lakes. It is a labyrinth of channels, rivers, inlets, and hidden bays, many of which are so remote and inaccessible that they’re rarely, if ever, seen by humans at surface level. On our third night, the rain came in sweeping sheets carried on the wind, a storm that, by the standards of a land used to tropical storms and hurricanes, was hardly a blip on its collective conscious, but to the two of us, really amplified the isolation and reality of where we were. There are no campers in the Everglades other than at the designated chickees and ground sites. There are no hikers, no wandering travelers. It is the one place in this country where you can be absolutely sure that there is no other human within miles of you, at least at night and in a storm that no boaters would brave. The North River Chickee is far from any of the main channels, and our isolation was palpable and primal. This might have been the worst night of sleep yet, but somehow at the same time, there’s something incredibly satisfying about being woken up by rain pounding on the roof of your shelter knowing that you’re safe and dry.

The rain held off until about 7:45pm the night before, by which time we were ready to close down our LED lanterns and go to sleep anyway. It rained through the night, hard enough at times to wake us from our slumber. At 3:00am, a different sound woke us…the sound of a pod of dolphins fishing in the river right in front of our chickee, breaching and blowing, the rain having diminished completely, allowing the dolphin trumpets to echo through the still night air. By five o’clock, I’d slept enough. I slipped from the tent and gazed out at a clear sky filled with stars. The river was smooth and calm, broken only by the breaching of the shadowy bodies of the frenetically fishing dolphins, their pale skin glistening in the starlight.

As the sky began to lighten, we made coffee and then took down our tent and heaved our canoe onto the chickee so we could dump several inches of accumulated rain water out of the bottom of it. We cast off at seven o’clock and paddled into the heart of the rising sun. The gleaming flat water gave rise to a light mist, shadowing the horizon and mirroring the sky so perfectly and almost unbelievably that I had to stop paddling for a couple of amazing pictures.

A dizzyingly perfect mirror

The paddling was smooth and easy for the first time the entire trip, and I told Tracy that it was about to get even easier. We were headed for The Cutoff, a section of river that joins together the North River and the Roberts River. The Cutoff flows southeast, and with the tide slack and the natural flow of the Everglades southerly, I told her The Cutoff should have a nice current that we could ride like emperors on the backs of our slaves, relaxing and letting the nature perform the heavy lifting for once. Boy was I wrong. Somehow, inexplicably, the current in The Cutoff flowed northwest, and not a nice, gentle flow, but rather fast enough to make strong ripples around each protruding stick from the bank. What in the actual hell?

We buckled down and dug in, with surprisingly little complaint from the front of the canoe, though I was certain I heard some mumbling and perhaps even a few curse words muttered on the calm air. It was tough to be certain. It didn’t take us too long to reach the Roberts River where we suddenly heard the puttering of a boat motor. We stopped paddling and listened, letting the current bring us to a stop and then gently push us backwards. The motor noise seemed to echo and come from every direction at once, and then we heard voices muttering faintly over the rumble of the motor. A boat suddenly appeared from the mist on the Roberts River, headed south and moving at a brisk walking pace. We were still on The Cutoff, and we held still as the boat passed. It was a sleek, newer-model, expensive, bass fishing boat with a smooth deck and no sidewalls, the large outboard propelling the occupants along at idle speed. Inside the boat were three rough-looking men, bearded and bulky, with tough expressions and palpably bad attitudes that could be felt from where we were, just about a hundred feet away. They spoke in hushed tones, their voices just carrying without the actual words. I was certain they were nothing but fishermen…of course, the lack of a single fishing line in the water gave some voice of doubt to that hypothesis. For the first time on the entire trip, we were glad to have the current working against us as we allowed it to drag our canoe silently backwards into the mist, widening the gap between us.

It was a real Deliverance moment, and neither of us had to say a word or share a glance to convey the message that we should make no movement or sound to draw their attention. They slid by the mouth of The Cutoff without a glance and continued southward on the Roberts River.

“That was weird,” Tracy commented with raised eyebrows when they’d disappeared from view.

“Not really, they were probably just dumping a body,” I replied with a shrug.

Neither of us laughed.

We resumed our paddling, turning right at the Roberts River and following the trail of the three banditos, carefully watching for any sign they had stopped, or any floating object that might have been a body, or possibly a bundle of cocaine. We never saw them again, and at 9:00am exactly, we reached the Roberts River Chickee, a newly rebuilt chickee of Trex and plastic that was secure, stable, and quite comfortable, and that I somehow neglected to take a picture of. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was the best chickee we’d seen thus far. We tied up and brought up our chairs, stretching out and enjoying a relaxing breakfast along with some more coffee. The sun was out in full and the day was perfect, with no bugs and only a light breeze.

At 11 o’clock, with the day warming up, we reluctantly cast off and resumed our paddle down the gently flowing Roberts River. As usual, the wind had picked up and was blowing right in our faces. It was bizarre how this seemed to happen every single day, regardless of which direction we were paddling. The first two days when we were traveling in a northerly direction, the wind was coming from the north, and now that we’d turned south, the wind had likewise shifted direction.

We were aiming for a tiny channel that seemed to cutoff a chunk of distance between the Roberts River and the Lane River, but somehow I missed it and we ended up having to paddle around a wide isthmus and hit the mouth of the Lane River, a wide, fast-flowing body of water with a stiff current that we had to dig in hard and paddle relentlessly to overcome. Luckily, it was only a short distance to a canal where we turned back north, out of the main body of the Lane and into a deep, complex labyrinth of backwaters, creeks, tight, twisting canals, and marshes. I kept a close eye on the map as we navigated the intricate entanglement of waterways, matching the unsteady shoreline with the dimples on the map, something at which I’d become significantly more adept in the preceding days. When we reached the channel that we were supposed to have taken from the Roberts River, it was wide and vacuous, and my bewilderment as to how I’d possibly missed it grew. We turned away from that waterway and wandered back into the maze, and the mystery would remain unsolved.

Arrow pointing to the channel that I somehow missed, adding a mile of tough paddling to our journey.

I somehow managed to navigate us through the expansive morass without error, and Tracy was lavish in her praise of my navigation skills, lovingly leaving out my failure to locate the space-shuttle-sized cutoff that had cost us a mile of very tough paddling. Re-entering the Lane at a narrower, much softer-flowing part, we continued up it, paddling once more against both the current, albeit slackened, and the wind, which was stiffening reciprocally, as if in a conspiracy with the river to assure that we earned every mile of this trip.

After a few miles, we reached the Lane Bay Chickee where we stopped once more to rest and have lunch. So far on this entire journey, through the course of five different chickees, we’d yet to have to share space with any other kayakers, something we attributed to the Pandemic, and for which we were very grateful. Lane Bay is an older chickee with just a single platform, so had there been other campers here, we wouldn’t have been able to stop. Hundreds of fish swarmed in the shallow water under the chickee, using the shadow of the wooden platform to protect themselves from the sun.

Lane Bay, day four and still smiling!

We relaxed on the Lane Bay Chickee for an hour and a half, eating lunch and snoozing occasionally in our camp chairs as we watched birds fly around and clouds begin to gather and build in the distance. At 1:30pm, we noticed that the clouds had stretched upwards into billowing towers blotting out the sun and stiffening the breeze. Fearing some impending rain, we scooted out of there, determined to pound out the final two-and-a-half miles and beat the rain to our destination for the night, the Hell’s Bay Chickee. We paddled south down the length of Lane Bay, found the canal we needed to cut through the mangroves into an unnamed bay, across that, through another tight and winding canal and into the large, smooth, and very shallow Hell’s Bay. It did rain on us for about fifteen minutes, but the cooling effect on the hot, humid day made it actually quite enjoyable.

Hell’s Bay is spacious, picturesque, and strangely shallow, the ground covered in thick beds of weeds that stick out of the water in numerous places, and grabbed at the bottom of our canoe quite a few times, forcing us to dig our paddles into the soft mud of the bottom of the bay to propel us forward. I was quite sure this would be the first night we wouldn’t be awakened by dolphins, as the water was clearly too shallow for them. I would turn out to be very wrong about this.

We arrived at Hell’s Bay Chickee, another of the platforms that isn’t quite where the map indicates. My best guess for this inconsistency is that the chickees sometimes get destroyed by hurricanes and the park service decides to rebuild them in a slightly different spot without notifying the cartographers. It only took us about ten additional minutes of paddling to find it, which wasn’t too bad, but it is slightly unnerving when seeds of doubt begin to grow and you think you might be in the wrong bay entirely, a scenario that would be a very real disaster in a maze like this if true.

Hell’s Bay, a very comfortable chickee, though not quite located where the map says it is!

It was not quite three o’clock, and this day had somehow felt relatively easy and relaxing, with plenty of stops and no sensation of needing to rush. In spite of our continued struggles with the winds, currents, and tides, we’d covered approximately 16.5 miles this day, and our muscles were definitely acclimating to the rigors of canoe life. We set up camp and then relaxed, enjoying the views of the expansive and beautiful bay that smoothed completely as evening approached. Birds fished in the distance, and the silence was deep and palpable in the Jurassic-like wilderness. The plan for tomorrow was to paddle due east, through the remainder of the labyrinth and back out to Whitewater Bay where we would turn south and retrace our path from day one, back through the Buttonwood canal to our starting point at the Flamingo Visitor Center.

This was the plan anyway, but that carefully laid plan for our last day would change drastically when, while enjoying the vistas through my binoculars, I spotted a peculiar white pole with black stripes and numbers at the top protruding from the mud of the bay on the far side of a small, thin copse of mangrove trees.

A well-earned dinner
Tired, but still smiling
Goodnight!

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