Everglades Diary

10 Day Though Trip, Nov - Dec 2004
Angry sunrise over Chokoloskee

Day 1 - Chokoloskee to New Turkey Key
The sullen redness that tinted the pre-dawn sky on the eastern horizon provided scant light as we unloaded my gear and packed it carefully and deliberately into the canoe sitting on the muddy western shoreline of Chokoloskee Bay. A light breeze ruffled the dark bay waters, and a flicker of distant lightning briefly illuminated the clouds building to the northwest ahead of the approaching cold front. A faint rumble of thunder drifted across the restless water, and as I checked and double-checked to be sure that I had everything I needed, I began to snap the coated nylon cover over the canoe in final preparation for the put-in.
With the canoe cover and skirt finally in place, and, satisfied that I had everything, I turned to Cherie and gave her a long hug. She was apprehensive and a little nervous at my departure under such dubious weather conditions, but I was feeling nothing but exhilaration at the prospect that lay ahead of me. The dream of a solo through-trip from Chokoloskee to Flamingo that I had been planning for the past three years, and that was put off each year for various reasons, was finally about to be realized. Still, I was anxious that she not worry too much, and I hoped that my own confidence would help to reassure her as I shoved the heavily laden boat out into the bay. I turned and said a last goodbye before stepping into the canoe and pushing off from the muddy shore. A few strokes of the paddle sent me gliding silently across the shallows, and I pointed the canoe toward the black tangle of mangroves that lay on the western edge of the bay. After a minute of paddling I turned for a last look, just in time to see Cherie's car pulling out on to the deserted causeway, headlights pointing back toward Everglades City, and then she was gone. I was now alone, and the trip I had waited for so long to make had finally begun.
Unlike all of my other trips out of Chokoloskee, this one would not take me up the Lopez River, or out through Rabbit Key Pass, but would instead begin with a passage through the maze of the Ten Thousand Islands that lay just a short distance to the west. Somewhere in the mass of dark vegetation was a narrow pass that would lead me into the maze, and to find this pass I would need to thread a treacherous complex of shallow oyster bars in the dark. The breeze began to pick up a little as I paddled along the shoreline of Chololoskee Island under the brooding cloud cover. Lights were winking on in the houses, where early preparations for many a Thanksgiving were just beginning as I made my solitary way westward. My own Thanksgiving dinner would be eaten alone on the shores of New Turkey key, but for now I was thinking only of finding the hidden pass that would take me into the tangle of mangrove keys, and the real beginning of my journey.
The dim, white shapes of PVC pipe marked the string of oyster bars that guarded the passage to the southern end of the Bay, and despite my caution, I felt the sudden scrape of shell under my hull. Standing in the canoe for leverage, I pushed myself away from the bar and back into the channel close to the Chokoloskee shoreline. The outgoing tidal current was very strong in the channel, and for a few minutes I could only steer with my paddle as I was borne outward on the tide, but I soon found the break in the channel I was looking for, and paddled into calmer water where I stopped for a moment to get my bearings. As I rounded the western point of the island, a brilliant shaft of red sunlight pierced the roiling clouds to the east, setting the restless water afire. The dim bulk of Smallwood's Store apeared in the sudden light, and I grabbed my camera to get a shot of the angry sunrise. After taking my photos, I put the camera back into it's waterproof case, and as I picked up my paddle and turned the canoe, I was startled by the sudden appearance of an incredible rainbow arching over the mangroves to the west, seemingly just over my head. The space inside the rainbow was glowing with an intense golden light, and a second, outer bow was beginning to take shape. I was riveted by the sight, and it was a moment before I remembered my camera, but before I could open the case, the sunlight was swallowed by the advancing clouds, and the rainbow disappeared as if somebody had thrown a switch. I sat for a moment, a little stunned and mentally kicking myself for putting my camera away too soon, but reality intruded in the form of a snaky, sinister web of chain lightning that rippled through the clouds where the rainbow had just been. A tearing crack of thunder, much closer and sharper than the last, reminded me that rainbows usually mean rain, and I had better be on my way.
Turtle Key after the storm
I nosed the canoe toward the wall of mangroves, and soon located the entrance to the pass that I was looking for, marked by a solitary length of white plastic pipe. The current of the falling tide sucked the canoe through the narrow passage, and the lights of Chokoloskee disappeared behind me as I entered the labyrinth of the Ten Thousand Islands. Rather than use my nautical charts to find my way through the confusing jumble of islands, I instead used a series of detailed aerial photos laminated in plastic, to navigate the mangrove maze. After about a half-hour of twisting and turning, and spending nearly as much time poring over my photos as I did looking around me, I spotted the broad water and channel markers of Chokoloskee Pass through a break in the islands. Overhead, the western sky continued to blacken with approaching rain clouds, and sudden gusts of cold air heralded the coming storm. I entered the Pass just in time to see a solid wall of rain bearing down on me from the northwest, and I hastily unfastened the tiedowns of my spray skirt and wrapped the velcro strap high around my chest, snapping it into place. I donned the top of my rainsuit over the skirt, and had just pulled the plastic hood over my hat, when the storm struck in a cold blast of wind and rain. Visibility dropped to nearly zero and I backed the canoe into the lee side of a tiny mangrove key, and there I sat while a stream of rainwater sluiced across the wide brim of my hat and splashed a small waterfall onto the spray skirt. The rain fell hard and steady for about twenty minutes while I sat immobile, waiting for the worst of the storm to pass. Eventually the sky began to brighten as the rain lessened to a steady drizzle, and I inched my way out of the mangrove cover and back into the Pass and resumed my paddling
By the time I reached the western end of Chokoloskee Pass, the rain had nearly stopped, but the wind had freshened and now blew at a gusty 15 knots out of the northwest under a sky ragged with clouds. I threaded my way through the last of the islands that bordered the Gulf, and managed to put the wind nearly at my back as I paddled across the open water of Rabbit Key Pass to Turtle Key, where I stopped to bail rainwater from the canoe. The cover I had made was nearly bulletproof in high seas, and kept the canoe dry in the face of waves breaking over the bow and gunnels, but the thinner ripstop nylon of the skirt allowed water to seep through where it puddled. During the period of heavy rain I had taken on over a gallon of water, and I unpacked the stern and scooped out most of the water, using a sponge to soak up what I couldn't get with the bailer. I hate to think of how much water I would have shipped had I not had any cover at all.
After I had bailed the canoe and snapped the cover back on, I pushed off from the lovely white sands of Turtle Key and paddled toward the looming bulk of Lumber Key to the south. The wind was fitful, sometimes gusting hard, and then falling to a whisper, and it was with some relief that I crossed the flooded sandbar that joined Lumber Key to Rabbit Key and stopped for a break on the lee side of the island. A pair of campers were just emerging from a soggy tent and they waved a hello as I landed. We sat and talked for a few moments about the storm, and they told of how their tent fly had blown off, soaking everything inside before they could refasten it. The last of the overcast had burned away as we spoke, and after bidding each other goodbye and good luck, I continued on my way south under a bright blue sky.
Pavilion Key pelicans
The wind fell to a steady 10 knots, varying from north to northwest, and it was a mostly pleasant passage across the open Gulf to Pavilion Key, where I landed on a high tide at about 1 PM for a stretch and a bite of lunch. I halved a ripe avocado and knocked the pit out, sprinkling a little garlic powder and salt on the two halves, and I ate the rich fruit with a spoon as I strolled around the northern end of Pavilion Key. I revisited the site of my first solo Everglades camping trip nearly five years earlier. Very little had changed since then, and memories of cold starlight and marauding racoons came flooding back as I stood under the buttonwood where I had pitched my tent. I walked westward through the trees and across the small depression carpeted with sea purslane and cactus, and passed the giant Spanish bayonet where I had stood and watched the first of many beautiful sunsets I would enjoy on my trips down the Gulf coast and the Waterway. For a moment I wished I could just stop here and relive that wonderful first time, but I still had some miles of open water to cross, so I turned and made my way back to the canoe for the final stretch to my first night's destination at New Turkey Key.
I hugged the lee shore of Pavilion Key as I made my way south, riding high over the bars and great clumps of oysters that covered the muddy bottom, and following the sharp turn of the island to the east where it ended at a point of sandy beach. This beach was normally empty, as camping is now prohibited here, but today the beach was occupied by an enormous flock of white pelicans that covered the entire point. I edged the canoe away from the shoreline, not wanting to disturb the birds, but they were unperturbed by my approach and didn't fly away, instead only shifting from foot to webbed foot in mild annoyance at my presence. The sand here is very fine and brilliantly white, but it paled in comparison to the great flock of white birds that fairly glowed under the bright sun. Their beauty was undiminished even when, as I passed the tip of the point and came downwind of the flock, I was struck by the strong, fishy odor of their guano, and I paddled faster to get out of range of the overpowering stench.
As I passed into the open water of the Gulf, the grey-green marl silt gave way to emerald clarity, and the ripples and dunes of the bottom sand could be clearly seen more than eight feet below my hull. In the distance, about five miles off, lay the string of islands that clustered along the shoreline south of the Chatham River, but they were nearly invisible at this distance, blending in with the background of the mainland. Setting my compass to the heading I had marked earlier on my chart, I set out across the great stretch of open Gulf and made a beeline for New Turkey Key. The northwest wind was blowing a steady 10 knots directly at my back, and long, slow swells nearly 4 feet in height lifted the canoe as I paddled at a steady 3.5 MPH toward the mainland. It wasn't long before the uniform green began to resolve into individual islands and keys. Mormon Key was the first to separate itself from the shoreline, a little to the left of my course, and soon the chain of smaller islands to the south could also be made out.
Osprey nest on New Turkey Key
An little over an hour after leaving Pavilion Key, I could finally make out the shoreline of New Turkey Key, and I began to make my approach. I turned the canoe a little to the north, cutting around the group of mangroves at the north end of the island to approach from the east, wanting to get a look at the entire eastern side of the island. I passed by the flat, sandy area at the northeast tip of the island, briefly considering this as a likely campsite, but rejecting this in favor of the main camping area farther to the southwest, where I grounded the canoe and stepped out to explore the area. The main camping area is located on a high ridge of sand sheltered from the wind by a thick line of trees, but as I walked around looking for a good spot to pitch my tent, I was swarmed by no-see-ums and mosquitoes in the warm, calm air. I made my way back toward the northeast and found a more open spot just on the other side of the trees, where the breeze blew more freely and there were no bugs.
I unloaded the canoe and pitched my tent, then set about preparing my Thanksgiving dinner. I don't eat meat or poultry, so turkey was not on my Thanksgiving menu, but I do like the occassional seafood dinner, and this night I was to have a thick tuna steak, marinated in a tangerine teriyaki sauce, with rice pilaf and fresh corn-on-the-cob. I dragged the canoe up near the tent to provide some shelter from the breeze, and set up my stove on a small wooden cutting board. I fished the tuna steak out of the bottom of the cooler, and placed it into a ziploc bag with the teriyaki sauce to marinate while I cooked the pilaf and corn. When my sides were done, I brought my small cast-iron skillet with just a little oil in the bottom to a searing heat, and dropped the marinated tuna into the pan where it sizzled for a few minutes on each side, cooking just enough to blacken the outside while the center was just barely warmed. As a finishing touch, I toasted a small handfull of sesame seed and sprinkled these over the tuna. I found a clean, sandy seat on the shoreline next to a fallen mangrove trunk and watched the sun sink into the west while I ate my Thanksgiving dinner in the cooling breeze, certain that life was now perfect and couldn't possibly get any better.
After cleaning up my dinner dishes, I relaxed by wandering the island with my camera in the growing dusk. I found an osprey nest sitting low in a dead mangrove at the storm-wracked southern tip of the island, but the occupants were nowhere in sight. I took several shots of the nest, and of the setting sun, before retiring to the tent for the night, where I jotted down my notes of the days events, and recorded the GPS marks I had taken along the way. Despite the day's stormy beginning, it had been a most satisfactory start to my long-awaited trip, and I slept the sleep of contentment, lulled by the wash of the tide on the nearby shore.

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