This is part six of a six-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/
Two things had to meld together perfectly for our plans for the last day of our adventure to change so drastically. The first was that I had to spot that peculiar white pole sticking out of the mud and be bored and intrigued enough to check it out further. The second was that we had to have cell phone service from the Hell’s Bay Chickee, something that had been spotty and unreliable throughout our Everglades excursion.
Using binoculars, I tried to ascertain the purpose of the white pole that stuck jauntily from the bay at an angle like a flagpole that had drunkenly tipped over and lost its flag, but for the life of me, I was unable to figure it out. Not one to allow a mystery to go unsolved, I hopped into the canoe and paddled out to the pole. It turned out to be a PVC pipe with a couple of black-fading-to-brown lines painted around the top and the number 173 stenciled upon it like it was an escapee from a PVC prison. Curious. I paddled back to the chickee and decided to Google it since we had service. It turned out that this pole is the last of 173 marking poles that identifies the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail. I’d seen signs for the trail on the road into Flamingo five days earlier so I knew that the trail would end on that road, making it a possible exit point for us. The only question was, how would we get our copious amounts of gear, along with the canoe back to the visitor center? I mentioned the idea I had of altering our plan and taking the trail out instead, and Tracy was down with it. The fact that it was only a reported 5.5 miles of paddling to get out, that we’d be protected from the wind and not as susceptible to the tides in the deep backwaters, that we’d be able to avoid another excursion onto Whitewater Bay, and the fact that we’d yet to see a single alligator save the baby one during the first hour of the trip, and that a canoe trail winding through the heart of the mangrove-choked swamp seemed like our best chance of seeing one, all collaborated in our decision to go for it.
I called up the Flamingo Visitor Center and got connected to the canoe rental kiosk where they told me they would be happy to send a truck to pick us up at the launch point for the Hell’s Bay trail on the highway. We scheduled a pickup for noon, and, figuring that it probably wouldn’t take us more than 2 or 3 hours to work our way down the trail, we planned to take our time in the morning and make a leisurely half-day out of the trip.
We probably should have taken note that there was a reason they called this Hell’s Bay, and a reason that it was the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail. We probably should have Googled the origin of the name, which would have clued us to the fact that the name comes from the old-timers’ saying that the bay was, “Hell to get into, and hell to get out of.” Of course, I likely would have dismissed this as nothing but a fable or parable, but either way, we remained blissfully ignorant.
We enjoyed yet another spookily calm and quiet evening, the water of Hell’s Bay in glass-like perfection as the sun set behind us.
As we crawled into the tent that night, Tracy sat on her air-filled sleeping pad and prepared to crawl into her sleeping bag. Suddenly, with a loud popping noise, her pad deflated and she was sitting on the hard planks with a despondent look on her face. Glad that it had at least happened on our last night there, she took a sleeping pill, put our extra sleeping bag under her, and prepared for an even more uncomfortable night. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have much higher quality sleeping pads for multiple nights on the hard platforms of the chickees. These backpacking type pads might be fine for sleeping in the dirt or grass, but they were terrible here. Of course, they were better than nothing, which is what Tracy was looking forward to this last night. Thankfully, the sleeping pill would make her mostly oblivious to the misery, though she would wake up the next morning stiff and sore.
Late that night, or perhaps early the next morning, we were shocked to once again hear dolphins in the weed-choked bay, floundering in the shallow waters and breathing in a raucous cacophony of deep, guttural rasps and gasps as their tails thrashed the water, echoing through the silent gloom as they rutted through the weeds to herd and trap their dinner. It was amazing to us that no matter how far back into the Everglades we went, out of the deeper harbors and safer waters of the big bays, we never managed to escape the hunting grounds of the dolphins.
The next morning, the mosquitos were out in full force, the worst of our journey thanks to the warming weather and the calm conditions, and that caused us to rush out of there, something for which we would turn out to be grateful. We were off the chickee at seven o’clock on the nose, heading directly into the fiery sun as it cleared the horizon, towering clouds all around it appearing like ephemeral skyscrapers against the deep azure sky. We paddled to the first PVC pipe and then spotted the next one against the shoreline, positioned exactly as far away as you could see, the first couple of breadcrumbs that would guide us merrily and blithely along, a naïve Hansel and Gretel, skipping to our fate with joy and glee. As we paddled across the bay, through the still, clear water we could see the evidence of the dolphins’ excursions from that night in the form of newly-cut trails through the underwater weeds. The trails swerved and veered through and around the beds of underwater weeds, marking the passages of the hard-working dolphins. The only logical explanation for their presence in this dangerously shallow bay was that the weeds underneath us must have been choked with fish seeking refuge from the sun.
We paddled through a few narrow canals and into a huge, unnamed bay, strangely unnamed because it was larger than Pearl Bay for sure, and nearly as large as Hell’s Bay. I was able to get a great panoramic shot in this beautifully reflective water before we continued on to Pearl Bay.
Popping out onto Pearl Bay, the sun glinted off the blue water, beams of reflected light dancing in our eyes. In the distance we could see a structure, the Pearl Bay Chickee, vibrant colors flashing from its platforms indicating the presence of fellow travelers. Tracy had to use the bathroom, and so we deviated from the canoe trail and headed that way.
Since this is part six of this lengthy blog, and since you’ve read this far into the story, I think it’s finally time to discuss something you’ve doubtlessly been on the edge of your seats to hear, and that is the status of the bathroom situation in the deep, wild Everglades. I’ll start by saying that the Everglades is an ancient and remote place, as I’ve mentioned before, but on top of that, though you’re surrounded by what is technically “land,” it’s not really anything like you’re probably thinking. The vast majority of the land in the Everglades is not terra firma, but rather a mucky mess of rotting shellfish mired in primordial sludge and covered in a thick layer of mangrove roots that stick up out of the sludge in a crisscross pattern that looks much like a bowl of spaghetti if that spaghetti was covered in spider webs, ants, bugs, blue and red crabs, and occasionally an alligator that might possibly be lying in wait under the top layer or a twenty-foot Burmese python hanging above your head. There is, quite simply, no easy place to just pull over and go to the bathroom. This applies to more than 99% of the terrain that makes up this part of the Everglades National Park.
Now, for a guy, it’s pretty easy when you have to pee. You tell your girlfriend to hold still, you stand and wedge your feet into the gunwales of the canoe and then lean precariously over the edge and do your thing. For women, it takes a touch more creativity.
When you need to relieve yourself of the more solid version of your bodily rejections, things become a bit trickier. I’ll first note that if you’re clever, and if the strange food-in-a-pouch or yellowish-brown marina potable water hasn’t created havoc with the daily timing of your toilet necessities, then you simply make sure you know where the nearest chickee is located and when you think you’ll need to use it and then make those two things come together. Of course, the pure and near complete silence of the greatest river on Earth combined with the approximate two-foot drop between the toilet seat of the Porta-Potty and the blue liquid that sloshes in the tank means that the privacy you get when you need to do your daily deed is visual only. The audible spash of that two-foot drop leads to a prompt dissolution of any mystery you may have remaining in your relationship.
Now, if you time things poorly, or the edibles and drinkables are indeed throwing off your schedule, you’re left with no option but to ram your canoe into the mangrove roots, climb precariously out onto the limbs, work your way back stepping gingerly onto the trees as your eyes dart nervously for any sort of insect, dinosaur, or man-eating snake, and then hang over the edge with one fistful of bark and the other of toilet paper, and do your thing while your partner turns away. Again, if you aren’t quite comfortable with your partner knowing way too much about you, you aren’t going to do well on a multi-day Everglades excursion.
On this occasion, Tracy was quite non-specific when she said she needed to use the restroom, so with the Pearl Bay Chickee in close proximity, we paddled that way. There was no sign of movement on the sleepy platform so we approached quietly, not wanting to wake our fellow travelers. Unfortunately, the bumping and scraping of our boat against the structure, and the noise of Tracy climbing out of the boat and up onto the dock caused their tent to unzip and a guy to come stumbling out, blinking and stretching like a cartoon owl. We told him we were just stopping to use the restroom and he smiled and gave us a wave and dipped back into the tent.
Done with the restroom, we beat feet south, traversing the length of Pearl Bay and then through a very narrow, very shallow canal and into another large, unnamed bay, following our PVC breadcrumbs which were occasionally tricky to locate. As we came out of the canal and into the bay, rounding the corner we heard a great thrashing noise in the water and saw the surface of the formerly smooth lake churning and boiling. My heart raced as I thought I was about to see an alligator fighting with some other animal, but it turned out to be yet another pod of dolphins that had herded up some fish and gone into a feeding frenzy in the shallow waters, dorsal fins and tails slapping the water into a bubbling cauldron as their panicked breath loudly echoed through the still morning. I was able to get a short video of just the end of the fight before the dolphins headed out of that bay and into the canal we had just exited. It was amazing to think that if we’d been just five minutes later, we would have encountered those five dolphins in that narrow—probably only four to five feet wide and less than three feet deep through most of it—canal. That would have been rather exciting, and I was sorry our timing hadn’t been just slightly better. Tracy, however, thought our timing was perfect.
We paddled on and stopped at Lard Can, an aptly named ground camping site that occupies one of the very few patches of actual solid ground in the entire southern Everglades. During the planning stages, I’d considered this as one of our stopping points for the night, and I’m telling you right now that if we’d arrived at this campsite for the night, I would be a single man writing my breakup story to you. Dismal, murky, muddy, buggy, and depressing, with a pungent, musky aroma of earthen rot and mold, this site, while almost certainly a fantastic breeding ground for mosquitos, is not fit for human habitation. We did enjoy getting out of the canoe and stretching our legs a bit, me walking the trails behind the camp while Tracy nervously waited on the mossy old dock. Ten minutes there was more than enough, and we gladly put Lard Can in our rearview mirrors.
At this point, we veered south again and left the open water behind, entering the thick, narrow mangrove swamps and canals that is the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail proper. How do I describe this trail? First, if you’re in a single kayak or small canoe, this trail is probably great. When you’re in a 3-person behemoth, this trail is brutal. A constant stream of tight switchbacks, tumultuous turns, intersections where you can’t figure out which way to go until you are committed to what usually ends up being the wrong direction and then finally spot the hidden PVC pipe behind you, a narrow maze of channels with overhanging mangrove branches that require you to duck and weave all while trying to slow your progress to avoid crashing into the shore, or to back-blade feverishly to cut 180 degrees in the opposite direction while the sun beats down on your head and mosquitos and biting flies swarm your face…it was a truly miserable experience. We saw no animals in this hellscape, but what we did encounter were quite a few day paddlers, all headed in the opposite direction which forced us to grab onto mangrove roots and pull our canoe to the side to allow them to pass.
Any time we would find a straightaway and start to build up some momentum, the path would suddenly come to an end, a 150-180 degree turn forcing us to backpaddle furiously, usually slamming our canoe into the bank like a bumper car before bouncing off and making the turn as our bow scraped one side and our stern the opposite. In the front of the canoe, for at least the first few miles, Tracy was experiencing her own challenges in the myriad of spider webs that crisscrossed the canals right at head level, many of which, based on the screeching, sputtering, and scratching at her hair and face that I was forced to bear witness to, she was unable to spot in time to get her paddle up. The only good thing about finally beginning to encounter the day-paddlers was that the spider web fiasco came to a merciful close.
We paddled harder this day than we ever had, searching futilely for the veteran canoers’ special balance between speed and maneuverability, sweating copiously under the unrelenting sun with no breaks as branches scratched us and clawed us and we tried desperately to stay on the right path and not become lost in Hell’s abyss which awaited any wrong turn with alluringly clear and appealing canals that beckoned to the unvigilant rower. The PVC pipes became our beacons of hope, their descending numbers encouraging us as we marked the milestones of #50, then #40, then #20. We found ourselves getting copious feelings of elation when we would see three PVC poles in one visible stretch, the daffy joy of ticking thrice in a short distance toward our goal of PVC #1 undeniable.
At post #10, we passed a rather plump couple in a small canoe who were having an even more miserable time than us, quarreling loudly and bitterly without a care in the world for our presence in their little spat. When they’d passed, we both laughed and smiled at each other, completely unembarrassed at our blatant display of schadenfreude, gleeful that we were at least keeping our composure after a long and tough journey. This couple must have turned around shortly after we passed them, because they would show up at the launch point still arguing just five minutes after us, a nice Everglades excursion for them that lasted all of a half hour.
When we finally reached the end of the aptly named Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail it was just fifteen minutes before noon. It took us almost five hours to make the journey, much longer than the three to four hours I’d anticipated, though we had stopped a few times and been leisurely with the paddling at the start. We hauled the canoe out of the water, high-fived and hugged each other, and rejoiced in the end of an extremely challenging, extraordinarily rewarding journey. The guy from the canoe rental place showed up just a few minutes late and we loaded the canoe into the truck and helped him tie it down. I jumped in the cab for the ride back to our car, leaving Tracy to wait with our gear. On the drive back to the marina, he asked me how the trip had been.
“It was great until that very last part,” I said to him. “That trail was really tough in this big canoe. You guys probably shouldn’t even allow people to take that trail in your 3-person canoes.”
He gave me a sideways glance and a smirk. “We don’t,” he replied, simply. I guess when I’d made the call the night before and asked if we could be picked up at the canoe trail launch, the clerk hadn’t realized that the dockmaster from five days earlier had upgraded us to a 3-person canoe from our reserved 2-person one.
I dropped off the canoe and popped into the small convenience store to pick up a treat that I knew would be much appreciated. It had been a tough, challenging journey, but one that we’d thoroughly and Truly enjoyed!