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Nature’s View: Kayaking in the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp

Ray Harden rayharden2@aol.com
Ray Harden rayharden2@aol.com
An alligator sleeps in the mangrove roots.
An alligator sleeps in the mangrove roots.

In January my wife and I spent a week kayaking in the Florida Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp; we paddled the East River, Halfway Creek, Turner River, and Chokoloskee Bay. It was an interesting adventure. We saw alligators close-up, one swam alongside our kayak for a while. There were also many interesting birds: vultures, anhingas, herons, and ibis. We usually saw them from a distance and sometimes they would startle us as they flushed from the tall grass as we paddled past. At one lunch stop we watched a group of four manatees swimming in the water.

Paddling through tunnels formed by mangrove trees was a new experience. The branches of the trees were dense living arches above the waterway, blocking our view of the sky. In several places the kayak paddle was too long to use in the narrow channel so we took the paddle apart and used it like a canoe paddle. Many of the low hanging limbs were heavy with bromeliads and orchids. Our guides were very good naturalists and were able to tell us about the plants.

One late afternoon we paddled the East River in the Big Cypress Swamp. We were led through tunnels of mangroves that went from one small pond to another. Once we were in the pond the low hanging vegetation made it was difficult to see the opening that was the way to the next pond. Finally we reached the halfway point of our journey; we were out of the dense mangrove trees and in a saltwater marsh that gave a magnificent vista. We paused to watch the sun set over the sawgrass prairie and the Gulf of Mexico. The view was enhanced by many flocks of birds flying, such as roseate spoonbills, wood storks, and white pelicans going to their roosting areas.

After the sun set it was necessary to paddle through the dark mangrove tunnels to get back to the van. Our headlamps helped us stay in the channel and avoid low hanging limbs. Each kayak had a glow stick that served as a tail light that helped keep the group together. Our lights would often catch the glowing red eyes of an alligator in the mangrove roots. We also observed the emerald green eyes of fish eating spiders an inch or two above the water as they stalked tiny fish swimming past.

The next day we paddled more than a mile across Chokoloskee Bay. The crossing went very quickly because we had a tail wind and the tide was going out. Our destination was Sandfly Island. Where we saw a 1900 homestead; the only remnant of the two story house was a concrete foundation and a cistern. The family that lived there grew tomatoes as their primary source of income. A mile long nature trail meandered around the island. Our guide pointed out many interesting trees, such as gumbo lumbo, coffee, and white stopper and told us their uses. He also told us the history of the area.

We paddled around many of the other smaller islands through narrow channels. In one passage we got stuck in a bed of oyster shells and had to find a different route. Paddling back across the bay was a challenge; the wind and tide were against us. Sometimes whitecaps came over the bow of the kayak and the wind blew the water off the paddles into our faces. We were wet and cold when our boat hit the shore, but I was sad that our adventure was over.

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