Everglades Diary

8 Day Tandem Trip - Camp Lonesome Loop


My son Bryan was able to accompany me on this trip, and it was nice to finally have some company. This was to be my longest expedition to date, and it would take us down the Gulf coast to the mouth of the Broad River, where we would then take the Wood River to Camp Lonesome, the most remote campsite in the Park. From there we would work our way up the inside in a series of short hops to the Watson Place. We would then finish with a final 15 mile run straight in to Chokoloskee. This trip was a memorable one, offering a combination of the best and the worst that Everglades canoe tripping has to offer.
Here is how the trip was planned:
  • Day 1 - Chokoloskee to Mormon Key: 15 miles - This was my first time camping on Mormon Key, and it was just about perfect despite the warm weather. A steady breeze kept the bugs at bay and we were able to sit out and enjoy our campfire long into the night.
  • Day 2 - Mormon Key to Highland Beach: 15 miles - The same breeze that made camping on Mormon Key so pleasant turned against us and made this a tough day. The wind problems were compounded by a very low tide (it was a new moon), and we were forced far out into the open, unprotected Gulf to find navigable water.
  • Day 3 - Highland Beach to Camp Lonesome: 15 miles - Another rough day, but not because of the wind. The extreme low tides forced an arduous, muddy portage out of Highland Beach, and we were again forced to detour far into the Gulf to clear the bars at the mouth of the Broad River. This was followed by a struggle through the jungle of the Wood River, and we were very glad to finally reach our destination at Camp Lonesome.
  • Day 4 - Camp Lonesome to Willy Willy: 10 miles - We were finally able to relax a little as we began working our way back north. This day ended with an "up close and personal" encounter with a rather large alligator at the Willy Willy campsite.
  • Day 5 - Willy Willy to Lostman's Five Bay: 8 miles - Another short run which took us across the chain of small bays at the top of Lostman's River. The Lostman's Five campsite was empty and we had the place to ourselves, making up for the unpleasant circumstances of my last visit.
  • Day 6 - Lostman's Five to Darwin's Place: 6.5 miles - I specifically planned this day to leave time to explore Gopher Creek down to the old Indian mound on Gopher Key. Gopher Creek should be renamed Gator Creek - we saw dozens of the great reptiles literally stacked up along the banks of the narrow creek.
  • Day 7 - Darwin's Place to the Watson Place: 4.5 miles - The shortest leg of the expedition allowed us to take a fishing trip down the Chatham River to Mormon Key and back. This was my third time camping at the Watson Place and it was beginning to feel like a second home.
  • Day 8 - The Watson Place to Chokoloskee:15 miles - We left early on our last day and made a straight run into Chokoloskee for the finish of the trip. It was my chance to show Bryan some of my favorite places along the Waterway: Liquor Still Bay, House Hammock Bay and Hurddles Creek.

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    Mormon Key Sunset

    Day 1 - Chokoloskee to Mormon Key
    Saturday, 12/15/01 - On Saturday morning, the day of our departure, we ate a hot pre-dawn breakfast at a local restaurant, and we were on the water shortly after first light. We made our way along the now-familiar eastern shoreline of Chokoloskee Island, and headed south into the backcountry. I was in my old 16´ fiberglass tandem canoe, now fitted with a center seat for solo paddling, and Bryan was paddling the newer 15´ Royalex solo boat. We took the usual course, following the narrow marked channel that winds between the network of bars and flats south of the island, and then worked our way through the tangle of islands through the channel that led into Rabbit Key Pass. This time, however, instead of making the usual turn to the south at Lumber Key, I maintained our course westward and circled Rabbit Key, stopping for a break on the exposed sand flats on the Gulf side of the key. The tide was at it's ebb, but was beginning to rise as we left Rabbit Key. We began working our way south under a calm blue sky, and we made good time as we crossed the open waters on our journey to our destination at Mormon Key.
    We stopped at the rock that I had previously named Coral Key for another break at about 11 AM, and finally reached Pavilion Key at noon where we stopped for lunch and a quick exploratory walk around the northern shores of the island. There were several camping parties already established here, some that had come in motorboats and bringing everything including the kitchen sink. I showed Bryan where I had camped on my last 2 visits, and we made tentative plans to come back again for a short overnight trip, then pushed off and began the final leg of the day's voyage. I once more followed the now familiar course through the group of islands east of Pavilion, passing Duck Rock and hopping from point to point along the Huston Coves, until we reached Gun Rock Point at the mouth of the Huston River. As we approached Gun Rock I was sorry to see that the beautiful old mangrove on the tip of the Point, whose long, skeletal arms once reached westard toward the setting sun, now lay uprooted by recent storms, the naked branches now groping blindly toward the unforgiving sky. We began the crossing of Chatham Bend, and by 3:30 PM we landed our canoes at the little cove that marks the main campsite on the northern shore of Mormon Key.
    The white, sandy beach at Mormon Key is littered with shell, and is bordered on the landward side by a wide, shallow depression that is filled with weeds and scrub. I located a flat spot near the lip of the depression and we set up camp, then sat and relaxed a bit while Bryan took off for an exploratory walk around the west end of the island. After he returned, we set out to look for firewood and amassed a respectable pile as the sun made it's inexorable way westward toward the distant horizon. I cooked dinner while Bryan got the fire started. We ate our evening meal under a spectacular sunset, and we were cooled by a steady easterly breeze that also chased the bugs away. The fire crackled as the the night grew dark under a clear, moonless sky, and we sat talking long into the night before retiring to the tent for a good night's sleep.

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    Abandoned Ranger station at Lostmans River

    Day 2 - Mormon Key to Highland Beach
    Sunday, 12/16/01 - We woke just after dawn and stepped out to see that the new moon had brought a low spring tide that left us with about 50 yards of soft mud that we had to cross to reach the water. After eating and packing, we dragged the loaded canoes across the slippery flat, slogging ankle deep through the mud. We finally were able to board the canoes and paddle out to deeper water, making our way westward. As we rounded the tip of the island, I scanned the southern flats with my binoculars and could see exposed bottom at many points in the area between Mormon and New Turkey Key, with little or no navigable water between the open Gulf and the string of small islands that stretched south for three miles between Mormon Key and the Plover Keys.
    We paddled, but more often poled, our way south through the shallows. The extreme low tide forced us to stand out for several hundred yards to the west of Clam Point, itself the westernmost key in the group of islands that lay to the north of New Turkey Key. Looking on the bright side, the low tide had brought out the seabirds, and the flats were busy with hundreds of herons, egrets, and pelicans. A great flock of hundreds of white pelicans, winter visitors to the Ten Thousand Islands, covered the acres of exposed sand bars that stretched to the west and north.
    The wind was light, but I was growing uneasy at the sight of the fast approaching bank of low clouds that stretched ominously across the eastern horizon, and I searched in vain for a route that would take us in closer to the lee shore. I had hoped to make a sheltered passage between North Plover and Buzzard Keys, but the way was blocked by exposed mud and seagrass, and we were forced to pass to the west of the Plover and North Plover Keys, which were now joined by a land bridge of sand and oyster bars. We stopped for a rest in the shallow cove on the western shore of Plover Key, and were dismayed to see the wind rise perceptibly as the clouds passed swiftly overhead. By the time we reached Seminole Point at the southern tip of Plover Key, the wind had risen from a light breeze to gusts of nearly 20 knots. The calm leeward waters were replaced by wind-whipped froth as we came around the point, and from then on it was a struggle to keep from being blown out to sea by the strong easterlies.
    I set a course directly east, head-on to the wind, and heading for the leeward shore of Bird Key over a mile away across the open Gulf waters. It was a struggle to maintain a steady course, as the fickle winds shifted for brief intervals to the north and south. The distant spot of green that was the sanctuary of Bird Key grew slowly but steadily closer, and I kept an eye on Bryan as we fought our way across the choppy water toward shelter. It took the better part of an hour before we finally felt the wind go slack, blocked by the protective mangroves of the island, and we rested there for a little while, grateful for the momentary shelter.
    From Bird Key our course turned more toward the south, no longer head-on to the wind, and we were now subject to weathercocking, which is the effect of a quartering wind catching the sides of the canoe like sails and turning it parallel to itself, making straight tracking difficult if not impossible. However, there was no help for it, and we pushed off from Bird Key, gritting our teeth and fighting to stay on course as we made an erratic passage across the open water to the next small bit of shelter at Alligator Point. From here we were able to island hop across the string of small keys that shelter Tom's Bight, and we rested for a moment in the lee of the peninsula directly across from Wood Key before taking on the last stretch of open stretch of water at Wood Cove. The good news was that the wind was beginning to decline in strength, and the tide had risen, allowing a closer approach to the sheltering shoreline once we reached Hog Key.
    After crossing Wood Cove, we ate a quick lunch in the canoes and rested for a while a few yards out from the beach at Hog Key, which was now occupied by a kayaking party. A disturbance in the water drew our attention to a small nook in the mangroves at the far south end of the beach, and we could see the dorsal and caudal fins of a shark thrashing the shallows as it hunted mullet and other baitfish. After our rest we continued south, hugging the mangrove shoreline that led us in a shallow arc to the pass that marked the entrance to First Bay at Lostman's Key. The old radio tower of the abandoned ranger station rose over the trees to our left, and we briefly fought a fierce incoming tidal current as we crossed the pass before finally reaching the shoreline of Lostman's Key. We stopped to stretch our legs for a while at the sandy south beach, where the small island runs out at the second entrance to First Bay and Lostman's River.
    The rising tide and the sheltering trees made the rest of the journey to Highland Beach a leisurely affair, and it was about 3:00 PM when we rounded Highland Point and could now see the three miles of unbroken beach stretching south to the Broad River entrance. We grounded our canoes on the sand at the sign that marks the designated camping area, and we got out to explore. The wide beach here was backed by an impenetrable mangrove forest, and we finally found a high, sandy spot where there was a break in the trees that offered some exposure to the easterly breezes that would help to keep things cool and minimize the bug problem. After setting up camp, we moved out to collect firewood and explore our home for the night. We came upon several deer foraging in the scrub, and we sat quietly and watched them for a while before heading back to camp with our load of firewood.
    The wind that made our morning paddle such an ordeal had now dwindled to a fitful breeze, and the warmth of the gathering dusk brought out the mosquitos. We cooked our dinner in the shelter of the tent vestibule and ate inside the tent to avoid the bugs, but afterward we donned long sleeves and applied repellant in order to enjoy our campfire, the last one we would have for the remainder of the trip. The sun had set behind a wall of cloud and the yellow sands of Highland Beach faded to grey in the gathering darkness. A few stars twinkled overhead through breaks in the clouds, and the furtive sounds of the night animals in the nearby forest mingled with the whine of the swamp angels as we sat by the fire. We headed to bed early that night, aware of the possibility of a long, muddy portage in the morning. As I lay in my sleeping bag, I briefly considered a midnight departure to avoid the low tide and the portage across the flats, but Bryan was exhausted by our long struggle with the wind, and I decided to let him sleep through the night. Even so, I advised him that we would be up before dawn and on the water by first light in order to minimize the inevitable delay that the portage would cost us.

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    Into the Wood River jungle

    Day 3 - Highland Beach to Camp Lonesome
    Monday, 12/17/01 - As I had feared, we awoke the sight of seemingly endless mud flats stretching westward in the dim morning light. To make matters worse, our chosen campsite, which had seemed so ideal the day before, was directly opposite an extensive oyster bar that had been hidden from view by the high tide of the previous afternoon, and we would be forced to carry our canoes and gear another 100 yards down the beach to get a clear shot at the distant waterline.
    We decided to forego breakfast and eat later in order to get an early start on the grueling portage ahead. We emptied the canoes and carried them and our gear down the beach, clearing the oyster bar. Before starting the portage across the flats I scouted a route through the mud to a spot where the water seemed deep enough to float the loaded canoes, and was relieved to find that the mud was no more than ankle deep for most of the way. Still, it was a struggle to get the canoes and our gear out to navigable water, and the occassional knee-deep hole would open beneath our feet, making the portage a muddy and messy affair. After several trips we finally had the canoes loaded, and we pushed off into the shallows.
    We worked our way south in this manner, threading our way between the exposed bars and flats, and standing out nearly a mile from the now-distant shoreline as we tried to avoid pulling and poling the canoes across the shallower spots. The tide was still falling and we were forced farther and farther from shore, dashing my hopes of finding a dry spot to stop and cook some breakfast. We finally ended up cooking a meal of pancakes and veggie sausage in my canoe while taking a break just north of the Broad River entrance. We were both covered with dried mud from the portage, and we took the opportunity to bathe and wash the mud out of our clothes before continuing south.
    The extreme low tide had made a direct approach to Broad River impossible, and we had to skirt the complex of bars and flats at the river entrance and approach from the south, where a marked channel afforded the only navigable water. We followed the channel markers and finally reached the break in the trees at the river entrance. The tide had turned and a swift current drew us into the treacherous maze of oyster bars that guarded the river mouth. We soon cleared the oysters and the great river grew wide and deep as we headed east, carried along by the incoming tide.
    By late morning we had reached Waterway Marker 25 at the western entrance to the Wood River, where we left the Broad River and made a turn to the south. After a short distance we reached Marker 24 and we spied a pair of gators sunning themselves on the muddy southern bank. Here, the stream forked. The right-hand channel led to the infamous Nightmare, a tight, twisty, overgrown stream too shallow to pass on a low tide. Today, our course would take us to the left, so the Nightmare would have to wait for another trip, and after stopping for a few minutes to rest, we continued on our way up the Wood River.
    The current was strong and we moved quickly along between the high narrow banks of mud and mangrove. The channel widened a bit and it was easy going for a while, but the stream began to gradually narrow, the trees began to crowd in on both sides, and deadfalls and snags became more numerous. A couple of miles into the passage we finally hit the first obstruction, a spot where the mangroves grew together and seemed to block the river. We managed to wiggle our way through a tight opening in the trees, only to encounter another blockage a few yards further along. The forest on either side met overhead and canopied the narrow stream, and the long aerial roots of the red mangrove reached from the treetops down into the water in massive curtains that parted reluctantly as we pulled our way through. There was no breeze under the canopy, and the air was redolent with the odor of mud and decay. It became a struggle to find our way through the tangle of interlocking branches. Occasionally we would encounter deep, still pools of open water between the walls of foliage, and the snouts of numerous alligators could be spotted just before sinking into the gloomy waters. The narow channel was strewn with deadfalls and snags that sent ghostly wooden fingers reaching up from the choked river bed. The dull scrape of wood on gelcoat became a familiar sound as I threaded my way through the narrow gaps, and at times I had to force the canoe over sunken logs, pulling at the trees on either side for leverage.
    It soon became clear that we had entered the Wood River jungle at just the right time. If the tide had been any higher, we would have been hard put to find our way through the overhanging foliage; any lower and we would have been blocked by deadfalls at every turn. Still, the fast-moving current of the rising tide made it difficult to control our passage through the trees and at times I was sucked into an impenetrable tangle of branches, and was forced to back out and find another way through. And then there were the spiders. It seemed that every square inch of opening was spanned by the webs of the ubiquitous green-speckled orb weavers that are common to south Florida, and despite my attempts to clear the way with my paddle, I was soon covered with sticky threads of spider silk, and the canoe was filled with the scampering bodies of displaced arachnids. Bryan had the best of it in this regard, as I cleared the way for him, but even he grew tired of picking spider web off his face after awhile.
    We made our way in this manner for nearly two hours, pushing through the foliage, pulling ourselves over deadfalls, and growing irritable from constantly plucking spiders and their webs out of our faces and hair. Just as it seemed that the jungle would never end, the river began to widen, the clear spots between the trees grew more numerous, and the sky again opened blue and clear above us. We finally broke out into the open, and left the worst of the Wood River behind us.
    The stream soon grew wider and a couple of miles of paddling brought us to a fork in the river where we stopped to eat lunch. The left fork of the river led to a dead-end at the Mud Lakes, while the right led toward Wood River Bay, and our destination at Camp Lonesome. After eating, and clearing the canoes of the remaining spiders, leaves and dead branches we picked up during the jungle ordeal, we made for the right-hand channel and continued on our way. The stream narrowed again but was clear of obstruction, and in a short while it began to widen again as we entered the far western end of Wood River Bay. This was a long, narrow, stretch of open water that soon made a sharp 90-degree turn to the north, where it continued for nearly a mile before ending at the entrance to a skinny, winding little creek, the last stretch of the Wood River. We followed a large flock of great egrets through this creek, the snow-white birds flying at our approach only to stop again around the next bend, where they again took off as soon as we came into sight. This routine was followed at every turn, and continued until the creek eventually emptied into the upper reaches of the Broad River just west of the Camp Lonesome ground site.
    It was nearly 4 PM when we exited the Wood River and began the final few hundred yards to our destination. There was a motorboater fishing at the creek mouth, who took off to the east as we approached. We turned to follow in the same direction, tired and anxious to reach our resting place for the night. When we finally rounded the bend and approached the old mound at Camp Lonesome, we found this same boat tied to the dock, leaving no place for us to get out of our canoes. The boat's owner caught sight of us and scrambled to untie and pole the boat out of our way, and we expressed our thanks. As we tied our canoes to the dock, he then scrambled to move his tent from where he had set it up at the far end of the boardwalk, blocking the entrance to the clearing. We again thanked him, and entered the small clearing, looking around for a likely spot to set up the tent.
    Camp Lonesome, like many of the Wilderness Waterway ground sites, is located on the site of an old Calusa Indian mound, and a trading post of the Seminole Indians was located here as recently as the 1940s. Here on the boundaries of the freshwater Glades the monotony of mangrove is broken by a welcome profusion of trees and ferns. The site is enclosed on all sides by thick foliage and undergrowth, and overshadowed by tall figs, palms, and gumbo-limbo. The motorboater had taken the prime spot of level ground immediately to the right of the boardwalk at the entrance to the site, so we settled on a small, secluded spot at the far western end of the clearing, and we carried in our gear and began to set up the tent.
    Meanwhile, the motorboater puttered nervously around his boat for awhile, finally approaching us to ask where the nearest other campsite was, stating that he had decided to move to another site before it got dark. I advised him that Roger's River chickee was the closest spot, but might turn out to be occupied by the time he got there, so Broad River would be his best bet. It was tempting to put him on the spot by asking how he'd managed to get backcountry permits for so many sites on the same day, since it was clear that he didn't have a permit to begin with. Not knowing who this guy was or why he was here, I let it go, and was happy to see him hurriedly dump his tent and gear into his boat and speed away into the late afternoon.
    We quickly relocated to the spot vacated by our erstwhile neighbor, and set the tent up after spreading palm fronds over the damp spots on the ground. I made dinner while Bryan relaxed on the dock. The long, hard day had taken it's toll, and he was clearly exhausted, so I let him rest. I was in no great shape myself, and I was very glad when we finally cleaned up our dinner dishes and packed away our food and gear for the night. The sun had set and as the clearing grew dark we were treated to a spectacular light show, as hundreds of fireflys sparked and flashed among the trees that surrounded the clearing. We sat and watched the display through the window of the tent door for a while, for the mosquitos had joined the fireflys and made life outside the tent difficult.

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    Sunrise over the dock at Willy Willy

    Day 4 - Camp Lonesome to Willy Willy
    Tuesday, 12/18/01 - We were able to sleep in for a bit on our fourth day out. The trip from Camp Lonesome to Willy Willy would be relatively short and there was no need for an early start. We set out at about 9:30 AM, heading west down the Broad River and making for the Wilderness Waterway trail at Marker 26 in Broad River Bay. It was warm and sunny, and we were in no hurry, so we took it easy for this part of the trip. We reached the bay in less than an hour of leisurely paddling, and made a hard turn to the north just before reaching Marker 26, where we entered the cutoff that joins Broad River Bay with Rogers River Bay.
    By 11:00 AM we had negotiated the cutoff and made our way through the pass at Cabbage Island, and got our first glimpse of the small southern end of Rogers Rivers Bay. The sky had begun to cloud over, and a light breeze ruffled the waters from the south. I wanted to get a photo of Rogers River Chickee, so Bryan hung out and fished for a while near the mouth of the pass at Marker 32 while I made a detour to the west, following the southern shoreline of the big island that divided Rogers River Bay. I had heard that the chickee was not plotted correctly on the NOAA charts, so I wasn't surprised to find the small cove empty where the chart indicated the location of the double platform. Continuing west, I rounded a point about a quarter-mile to the west of where the chickee was supposed to be, and finally spied the elusive platform sitting at the entrance of a long, narrow lagoon. The sky was still cloudy, but I managed to squeeze off a couple of shots before turning around and rejoining Bryan.
    We were passed by a canoe party heading the way we had come, probably leaving from Willy Willy as we made our way north through the long, straight pass that led to Rogers River Bay proper. The wide waters of the great Bay opened to our left as we passed Marker 35,and we rested here for a moment before continuing on. Another discrepency in the chart appeared at Marker 36, which was located about 400 yards to the east of where the chart indicated. We stayed close to the eastern shore of Rogers River Bay and stopped for another break where the Trail entered the pass leading to Big Lostman's Bay.
    The conventional route to Willy Willy would take us into the souteastern end of Big Lostman's, and approach the campsite from the west along a winding creek that opened into the upper eastern corner of the Bay, but I decided instead to shorten the trip a little by taking a diferent route. We were sitting at the north end of a small, T-bone shaped mangrove key where the pass forked to the southwest. Directly across from our resting place was the entrance to a small creek that doglegged north, then west, then north again. We made for this creek and worked our way along it's winding channel to where it ended at a point about 500 yards to the east of Marker 38 at the entrance to Lostman's Creek. We crossed the Creek to the opening of a big lagoon that took us to the north before narrowing into a skinny little waterway that led to Rocky Creek.
    Here, deep in the eastern reaches of the magrove coast, the water is very nearly fresh as it runs out of the immense sawgrass plains of the freshwater Glades. The tannin-stained water was very clear and we could see the limestone boulders that gave Rocky Creek it's name strewn along the channel bottom as we worked out way north. We pulled to the side at the sound of an outboard running at full throttle, and a moment later a Park Service research boat came careening around a corner, cutting it's engines as we came into it's driver's view. The wake from the boat rocked our canoes and washed into the mangoves as it passed, moving much more slowly now, and we resumed the final stages of our day's journey after it was gone.
    A short while later we reached Rocky Creek Bay, where we turned to the west and began looking for the dock of the Willy Will campsite. It was about 2 PM. Soon, the dock came into view and we pulled up to the entrance to the old mound. The campsite is built on one of the many old mounds that date back to the original Calusa inhabitants of the Everglades, and it has seen use by Indians, traders, gator and plume hunters, and campers for hundreds of years. As we unloaded the canoe I noted the clear, shallow water and clean, sandy bottom at the end of the dock, and thoughts of a freshwater bath hovered enticingly at the edges of my mind. I found a spot at the eastern end of the open clearing, and set up the tent while Bryan finished unloading the canoes. While I was arranging our sleeping gear, I heard him call to me to come out to where he stood at the end of the dock. When I got there he pointed to an object floating about 15 feet from the dock, which quickly resolved itself into the head of a sizable gator. Bryan said that the gator had arrived shotly after we did, and had been sitting in the same spot for the entire time. It became immediately clear that this was a human-habituated animal, and was probably fed by campers at the site, and it was probably waiting for it's evening snack. My hopes for a much-needed bath were initially dashed, but as we sat and watched the gator, the hare-brained thought came into my head that as long as I could see the animal, I was in no danger.
    Now, what comes next is not something that I would ever recommend that anybody else ever try. Looking back on it now, it occurs to me that this was not the brightest thing I or my son have ever done, but let's face it, we both stunk to high heaven and, at that particular moment, the thought of spending another warm night in a closed tent far outweighed any thought of getting eaten by a hungry gator. So, keeping my eyes locked on the motionless reptile, I stripped down to my shorts and gingerly lowered myself into the cool, refreshing water. It was pure heaven to be clean again, and I washed the dried dirt and sweat from my body while never taking my eyes from the gator, who remained motionless about 15 feet away. I kept one hand on the dock, ready to pull myself out of the water should the animal make any move at all. I completed my bath and climbed back on to the dock, feeling much better, if not much wiser, for the experience. After a few moments of consideration, Bryan too felt the need to be clean strong enough to overcome gator-fear, and he took his bath while I watched for him. During this time the animal never budged from his spot, and we dried ourselves off feeling that we had won a victory over nature.
    It was getting late, and we ate dinner as the golden rays of the afternoon sun sent streamers of light through the wall of trees at the west end of the clearing. We sat for a while on the dock and watched the sun set, before retiring to the tent to escape the swamp angels. Our friend the alligator finally moved away, disappointed by the lack of a handout, and not realizing just how close to a free meal he had actually come.

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    Alligator taking a morning stroll

    Day 5 - Willy Willy to Lostman's Five Bay
    Wednesday, 12/19/01 - We slept in again and didn't get on the water until after 9. It would be a relatively short trip to Lostman's Five Bay and we were in no hurry. A bright sun broke through the slight overcast and sent golden streamers dancing across the water as we left Rocky Creek Bay and entered the narrow, winding creek that led westward to Big Lostman's Bay. We made our way through the mile-long channel and emerged into the open expanse of the big bay, where we set a course almost due west, aiming for the first of several passes whcih would take us into the northern reaches of Third Bay, and then through the chain of small bays that would lead us northwest into Onion Key Bay. The morning was warm and the slight breeze was welcome as we wound our way between the scattering of big mangrove keys, and we entered the west end of Onion Key Bay just after 11 a.m.
    After a short break we crossed the bay and passed Waterway Marker 56 on our right and entered the half-mile long pass that led to Two Island Bay. We were once again following the Wilderness Waterway trail now, and I recalled the last time I'd come this way nearly a year ago. My arrival at Lostman's Five Bay was less than enthusiastic the last time I'd camped there, after I had caught sight of the sprawling profusion of cheap outdoor and picnic gear that my neighbors on that occasion had brought with them. The day had degenerated into a noisy, uncomfortable evening spent as far from their tent as I could manage. I hoped our luck would be better this time.
    We made the crossing of Two Islands Bay and entered the creek leading to Lostman's Five at Marker 59. It was shortly after noon when we entered Lostman's Five Bay and rounded the point where the campsite was located, and we pulled up to the dock and tied the canoes to the pilings. The clearing was empty, and we had our pick of the tent sites. The ground was wet and muddy, and the previous tenants had spread out a mat of saw palmetto and palm fronds to help keep the floor of their tent dry. We took advantage of the ground cover and pitched our own tent over the same spot. After we had set up camp, we ate some lunch and then took to the canoes again for a trip up Lostman's Five Creek.
    We made our way up the creek aided by the rising tide, and soon entered the stretch of open water about three-quarters of a mile from the creek entrance. The mangroves began to give way to reeds and sawgrass as the water became increasingly fresher, and the occasional splash and swirl of water along the banks betrayed the presence of alligators. While exploring a small, shallow creek that led off to the west, I heard a sudden rush among the sawgrass, and a small gator catapulted into the water from the bank and passed directly under my canoe, it's tail slapping the hull as it swam by in a panic. I quickly revised my plan of exploring the creek, and headed back out into Lostman's Five Creek. After a couple hours of exploration we turned and headed back to camp.
    We ate our dinner in the thickening dusk, and sat for a while on the dock to watch the sunset. It was still warm enough to bring out the swamp angels, and we retired to the tent shortly after dark and eventually fell asleep.

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    White ibis flock over Gopher Creek

    Day 6 - Lostman's Five Bay to Darwin's Place
    Thursday, 12/20/01 - We had another short day ahead of us, and again started late. We crossed Lostman's Five Bay under a bright morning sun, and wended our way through the skinny creek that led to Plate Creek Bay. We passed the chickee on our left and made for Marker 65 at the far northern end of the bay. Plate Creek was calm and silent, the mangroves arching and sometimes touching overhead, and we were undisturbed by any passing boats. We exited Plate Creek and crossed Dad's Bay, and stopped for a moment at the entrance to Alligator Bay. The weather remained warm, and there was little breeze as we made the crossing of the big bay, aiming for the tiny speck of Marker 75 at the southern entrance to Alligator Creek. We entered the creek and began the final stretch of our trip to Darwin's Place, our next campsite.
    The winding mile-long channel of Alligator Creek is very narrow in spots, allowing passage along much of it's length to only one boat at a time, and we were forced to pull into the mangroves to make way for a couple of motorboats that chugged by at idle speed. We eventually came out of the creek into Tarpon Bay at Marker 77, and passed Markers 79, 81 and 83 in short succession, finally reaching Cannon Bay and rounding the point at Marker 85. It was just past noon when we entered the channel that sheltered the Darwin Place on Possum Key, and our canoes scraped bottom on the sloping bank of ancient shell at the campsite.
    Darwin's Place had become much more overgrown since my last visit here. The once bare foundation of Arthur Darwin's old homestead were now overrun with brush and weeds, and was overshadowed by the great fig tree growing through the wreck of the old house's chimney. The site of my last camp, a small clearing far back behind the ruins, was now covered with brambles and the Brazilian pepper trees that crowded in on all sides. We chose a relatively flat spot and pitched our tent near the edge of the foundations, as far back from the water as we could manage, and then stopped to eat some lunch.
    The last time I had camped at the Darwin Place, my plan to spend the day paddling down Gopher Creek had been thwarted by strong winds blowing from the east across Cannon Bay, but today it was calm and warm, and after eating we made ready to set out again to explore.
    We pushed off from the shell bank under the early afternoon sun, making our way through the channel that led to the southeastern end of Cannon Bay, and soon located the entrance to Gopher Creek. We entered the creek, which was very narrow and was bordered on both sides by a thick tangle of dead and broken stumps of storm-blasted mangroves. The scene appeared to be one of devastation, with the twisted stumps of dead trees predominating among the low, scrubby mangroves that spread out on either side, and I wondered if the area had taken a direct hit from a hurricane sometime in the not-too-distant past.
    As we paddled through the wreckage, we spied alligators sitting along the mud banks. They reptiles became more numerous as we went, sometimes laying on top of each other in groups of three or four. At one spot the creek grew extremely narrow, no more than a few fet across, and the fallen trunk of a great mangrove lay parallel to the stream. On top of this trunk, at eye level, a very large (or so it seemed at the moment!) gator was sunning himself, his yellow eyes half open in contentment. I longed to grab my camera out of it's dry box and get a couple of shots, but was terrified of startling the great animal out of it's reverie, an act which could prove disastrous, since the only way off the trunk was straight across my canoe. I paddled by gingerly, making as little noise as possible and warning Bryan, who was behind me, to do the same. We passed by the supine critter, leaving him to his sunbath, and continued down the creek.
    The gators weren't the only wildlife in abundance on Gopher Creek. Birds were everywhere. Great flocks of ibis, great egret and white pelicans were encountered at seemingly every turn, and large numbers of herons and egrets of all species were everywhere, fishing in the shallow waters on the falling tide. As the channel opened and grew wider, the numbers of birds increased, and their shrieks and squawks filled the afternoon air. We broke out of the confines of the narrow creek and crossed a very shallow bay to see flocks of birds sitting in the trees and stumps on every side.
    We crossed the open expanse of Gopher Key Bay, our paddles sometimes digging into the thick silt in the shallows, and passed into the channel leading to Gopher Key. One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was investigate the great Calusa mound on Gopher Key, and this was where we were now headed. We entered the small bay where the mound was located, and spied the huge pile of shell, now overgrown with trees, rising just ahead and to the right. We began to look for a spot to land, finally locating a tiny break in the mangroves where the bottom was covered by a thick layer of clam shells, said to have been brought in long ago to by the Calusas line the channel leading to the mound. We wedged the two boats into the narrow landing and stepped out onto the flat, mangrove choked fringes of the giant shell mound. After pushing our way through the trees we came out into a narrow open area, with a network of muddy tidal pools lying between us and the steep slopes of the mound. Using fallen branches as makeshift bridges to cross the mud, we finally reached and began to climb the tree-covered pile of ancient shell. The trees and undergrowth were thick, but we found our way through and scrambled up to the top of the mound. There was no breeze under the trees, and the still air was warm and a bit stifling. An eerie silence ruled as we sat looking around at the brush-covered slopes falling away on either side, absorbing the sense of antiquity that cloaked this ancient ceremonial center, and trying to imagine what it must have been like when the Calusas still inahabited the area and poled their dugout canoes along the channels of Gopher Creek. After a while the mosquitos began to converge and we finally made our retreat. The bright sunlight and cool breeeze was welcome after the stifling atmosphere of the forested mound, and we made our way back to the boats.
    We paddled with the falling tide back up Gopher Creek where the dense gator population was now dispersed by passing motorboat traffic, and we returned to our camp on Possum Key. While we ate our dinner, we tuned in to the weather radio to hear of the approach of a mild cold front which would bring lower temperatures and rising winds during the night. The cooler weather would be welcome after the unseasonable wamth, but the wind would not be greeted with as much enthusiasm. The mosquitos became annoying at dusk and we retired to the tent where we both fell asleep shortly after dark.

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    Chatham River entrance, looking toward Pavilion Key

    Day 7 - Darwin's Place to the Watson Place
    Friday, 12/21/01 - We awoke to a chilly dawn, and ate a quick breakfast before loading the canoes for the shortest leg of the trip so far. The Darwin Place was sheltered from the northeasterly winds that blew in with the cold front, but we could see and hear the wind as it blew through the treetops across the narrow channel. The Watson Place was only about 4.5 miles from Possum Key and would only take a couple of hours to reach, but I wanted to get an early start in case the wind turned out to be a problem once we left the shelter of the trees.
    As it turned out, the wind was only a minor annoyance which soon dwindled as the morning progressed. The sky was a clear blue as we crossed Chevelier Bay in good time and and stopped for a mid-morning break in the lee of a group of small mangrove islets at the eastern mouth of the Chatham River. The tide was was just beginning to fall, another stroke of luck, as we would be following the tide downriver on our way to the Watson Place, about a mile and a half to the west.
    We stayed close to the northern bank of the big river, allowing the current to pull us downstream and steering with our paddles. We soon reached the fork in the river where the Chatham split off into a northerly channel leading to Huston Bay. we stayed our course and reached the dock at the Watson Place at about 11 a.m. Another party of two were there before us, but they turned out to be a couple on their way to Mormon Key, and were only stopping here for a break. We set up our tent and ate some lunch, then decided to head out again to do some fishing.
    My plan was to paddle down to the Gulf entrance of the Chatham River and fish for a while on the flats that lay between the River and Mormon Key. It was an easy ride down the river with the falling tide and we carefully negotiated the now-exposed oyster bars that lay beneath the surface of the river delta at Chatham Bend. The wind had picked up again, still from the east, and we stayed close to the shoreline, or at least as close as the shallow waters would allow. The couple at the Watson Place appeared a little while after we had entered the Gulf and stopped to chat for a moment before continuing on to Mormon Key. The cool morning had given way to the the warmth of afternoon, and we were having little luck catching anything but ladyfish, so after a while we gave up and headed back up the river against the tide and the freshening easterly winds. It was a long haul against the strong current, but we managed to arrive back at the Watson Place by about 3 PM.
    Another couple had arrived by canoe while we were gone, and they were to be our neighbors for the night, the first we'd had for the entire trip so far. They were a pair of young people who were also on their last day of a through trip from Flamingo. After making their aquaintance, Bryan and I spent a little time exploring the fringes of the clearing, and I showed him the remains of an old truck that lay rotting among the Brazilian pepper trees, the rusted chassis the only recognizable part left of the truck. The alligator that once inhabited the small water cistern in the clearing was now gone, it's fate unknown. The small trails leading to the big cistern and the scattered foundation blocks of the Watson house was now too overgrown to penetrate, and the mosquitos were daunting in the underbrush, so we contented ourselves with hanging out on the dock and relaxing in the breeze that blew down the river from the east.
    We ate our evening meal shortly before dusk, and were then confined to the tent for the rest of the night. The mosquitos had come out in force and the hellish whine of hundreds of the blood suckers surrounded our tent, the worst we'd experienced for this trip. Bryan had never encountered such a concentration of mosquitos before, and he expressed his disbelief that any warm-blooded creature could survive a night outdoors under such conditions. He confessed that as much as he'd enjoyed the trip, he would be glad to see it finished tomorrow. He was tired of paddling, of sleeping on hard ground, and above all, tired of the bugs. I sympathized with him and expressed my pride in his nearly completing a trip that few others would ever experience, and promised him an early start in the morning.

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    Osprey nest near the Cross Bays

    Day 8 - The Watson Place to Chokoloskee
    Saturday, 12/22/01 - We rose early for our last day out. The morning was cool and the swamp angels had dispersed, allowing us to eat our breakfast in peace, and we were packed and on the water by 7 AM. We headed back east upriver and turned at the fork leading to Huston Bay. This time there was no friendly dolphin to accompany us, but the sky was clear and blue, and we were in good spirits and ready for the 15 mile trip back to Chokoloskee.
    Upon reaching Huston Bay were bore to the northwest and entered the Huston River with the intention of paddling across House Hammock Bay en route to Sunday Bay. We made a short detour at Liquor Still Bay, where I took Bryan through the narrow winding creek that hid the small bay from view. This was the spot where Totch Brown's father ran a moonshine still to support his family during the Great Depression, and lived there with his wife and two sons on a man-made mound of oyster shells brought in by boat in the manner of the Calusas. I had heard that Totch kept a replica of the still on the old site to show to visitors, and I had an idea of trying to locate this spot. We paddled along the margins of the bay, searching for the remains of the still, but either the Park Service had done it's usual thorough job of eradicating all sign of human habitation, or nature had seen to the job in it's own inexorable way. We left the bay and headed back out to House Hammock Bay and continued our trip north.
    We reached the channel leading to the pass that separated Sunday Bay and Oyster Bay, and we stopped here for a break. The weather was warming and there was only a slight breeze as we left the shelter of the pass and made our crossing. At the entrance to the Lopez River we caught up with the young couple who had shared the Watson Place campsite with us the night before. They were heading west toward the Lopez River and the long crossing of Chokoloskee Bay, while we were taking the more roundabout route north through the series of bays leading to Hurddles Creek, and then down the Turner River to Chokoloskee Bay. It wasn't windy, but what breeze there was came from the northeast, and I wanted to avoid a long crossing of the bay against the wind, should the wind pick up in the afternoon.
    We again parted company with our Watson Place neighbors and began the trip through the pass leading to the Cross Bays. The tide was starting to fall and the passage through the Cross Bays and Mud Bay was accomplished mostly by poling our way through the shallows with our paddles. Mud and sand bars were beginning to show at the northern end of Mud Bay, and we were relieved to finally reach the deeper water of the Creek, where we picked up our speed in anticipation of the end of the long 8-day journey.
    Hurddles Creek has always been one of my favorite places on the Waterway, and it's beauty was undiminished in my eyes for having visited there so often. The mangroves along sections of the creek are very tall, and the understory is open and free of obstructing scrub, allowing a view far back into the mangrove forest. The slightest sound echoed among the ranks of tall, slender trunks, seeming to come from everywhere at once. We took it slow through this section of the Creek, enjoying the silence, which, for now at least, was unbroken by the inevitable weekend roar of outboards. Soon, the stream began to widen, and we passed the small creek leading to the maze of Hell's Half Acre to the east. We skirted the mud bar at the northern end of the creek and made our turn to the west at Turner River, hugging the southern shore of the river as we made our way toward Chokoloskee Bay.
    As we paddled along the river bank we soon spied a series of high shell banks, remnants of an extensive Calusa mound complex that extends deep into the mangrove jungle. The banks of the Turner River have played host to human habitation for many centuries. In 1874 Richard Bushrod Turner, an Indian scout and veteran of the First Seminole War, settled on the river in 1874, giving it his name. At the turn of the 20th century the river was the site of C.G. McKinney's settlement at Needhelp, an aptly named truck farm that flourished for a short time, then withered due to the poor soil and salting from storms that repeatedly flooded the site with brackish tidal water. Today these sites are all overgrown with mangrove and scrub, with only the high banks of ancient Calusa shell to show where they once were.
    We worked our way ever westward, following the wide, winding course of the river and dodging the hidden oyster bars that made navigation treacherous on the low tide. At last, the river nouth appeared, and the low skyline of Chokoloskee Island came into view in the distance across the bay. The wind had kicked up from the northwest and small whitecaps could be seen beyond the shelter of the trees. We stopped to rest for a moment before making the final run of the trip across the windy bay.
    Finally, we both pushed out into the open bay into 15 knot winds that quartered from the right. I leaned into the paddle as I fought to keep a straight track against the wind, sometimes digging into the mud of the shallow bay bottom. We were both anxious to make our final landing, and the small red speck that marked my pickup truck in the Outdoor Resort parking lot grew larger and more defined as I made my steady way against the strong breeze. At last the wind abated in the lee of the mangroves that line the causeway leading to the island, and I felt the canoe bottom slide against the mud of the canoe landing. The tide was low and I hopped out to pull the boat up, looking around for Bryan. He had lost some speed against the wind, but steadily drew nearer until he too, with a triumphant raise of his paddle, ground his canoe against the muddy shores of Chokoloskee Island. I greeted him with a hug and a handskake, congratulating him for a job well done. After eight long and sometimes arduous days, we were both happy to be back and we lost no time packing the gear into the truck and loading the canoes onto the rack. With a long look back across the windy bay, we climbed into the truck and began the long drive home.

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