Everglades Diary

5 Day Tandem Trip - Sweetwater Loop

Sunset over the Ten Thousand Islands

This was my first multi-day trip on the Wilderness Waterway, and we were only spending 3 nights in the backcountry. My son Bryan accompanied me on this trip, and it was definitely a learning experience for the both of us. I had done some canoe camping before on the Withlacoochee River in north central Florida, but this was my first true wilderness journey. We didn't have a camera for this trip, so there aren't any pictures to go along with the journal.
Here is how the trip was planned:
  • Day 1 - Chokoloskee to Lopez River: 5 miles - A very leisurely first day took us across Chokoloskee Bay and up the Lopez River to the site of the old Lopez homestead.
  • Day 2 - Lopez River to Sweetwater Creek: 11 miles - The wind and tides made this leg of the journey something of a chore, but we reached our destination safely and with plenty of time to spare. This was also my first time sleeping on a chickee platform, and the next morning I vowed to bring an extra sleeping pad the next time I did this.
  • Day 3 - Sweetwater Creek to Sunday Bay: 9 miles - The weather remained cloudy and windy, and we had to struggle against a strong headwind for the entire trip to Sunday Bay.
  • Day 4 - Sunday Bay to Chokoloskee: 8.5 miles - The wind let up and the sky finally cleared for the last day of the trip. We were tired and a little sore from our struggle with the elements over the previous two days, so we wasted little time on the return trip to Chokoloskee.
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    Day 1 - Chokoloskee to Lopez River
    Thursday, 12-21-00 - We left St. Petersburg early, about 4 AM, and arrived at Everglades City by 7:30. By then, the Ranger Station was already full of campers applying for their backcountry permits, and we weren't able to get a spot at Sunday Bay for our first night, as we had originally planned. We settled for the Lopez River groundsite for our first night out, and, after arranging to park my truck at the Outdoor Resort in Chokoloskee, we finally pushed my old 16´ fiberglass tandem canoe off from the eastern side of Chokoloskee Island at about 9 AM As we moved out into the bay, I became a little concerned over the lack of freeboard caused by the heavy load we were carrying. Up until now most of my camping had been done out of a car or truck, and my gear reflected this. We were carrying a large 2-burner Coleman gas stove and fuel, a 5-person cabin tent, our sleeping gear, and a pair of folding camp chairs. We also brought plenty of extra water, food, clothing, and other miscellaneous crap, "just in case". Combined with the fact that neither of us were exactly lightweights, it was soon clear that I'd have to revise my camping lists to eliminate the unnecessary stuff, and to make a concerted effort to downsize the necessary gear before making the next trip.
    Even so, we were in high spirits as we paddled without any particular hurry across the ruffled waters of Chokoloskee Bay. It was a chilly 50°, and the area had been plagued with storms the day before, but now there was a clear sky with a light breeze blowing steady from the northeast. The tide was out and the water shallow as we glided past the entrance to Rabbit Key Pass, and we soon reached the mouth of the Lopez River, where we stopped to rest and take a last look at civilization before rounding the bend that took us into the Everglades backcountry.
    We paddled steadily up the Lopez River against the falling tide, keeping an eye out for the numerous sand and oyster bars, nearly running aground at several points. There was a marked channel at the river's entrance that we soon learned to follow until we reached more open waters. We made our way up the river with the rising tide until we finally rounded a dogleg in the river and could see the sign marking the Lopez River campsite about a half-mile ahead. It was about noon when we landed, and we dragged the canoe up onto the steep, shell bank at the north end of the site, and tied it up to a mangrove stump. We met a lone kayaker who was loading his boat and preparing to leave, but otherwise the site was empty and we had our choice of tent sites.
    The Lopez River campsite is situated on an extensive shell mound where Gregorio Lopez built his homestead back in the late 19th century, and where the ruin of the large cistern that he built still dominates the site. We pitched the tent at the north end of the small clearing under a group of trees, and, after eating some lunch, we rigged our poles and set out to do some fishing. We paddled upriver as far as Crooked Creek, stopping to rest at Waterway Marker 125 near the entrance to Sunday Bay, where we debated the idea of paddling further on to get a glimpse of Sunday Bay Chickee. It was starting to get late and the sky was beginning to cloud over, threatening rain, so we dropped the idea. We fished for a while longer without any luck, and finally headed back down the river to our campsite.
    After returning to camp, we sat and relaxed for a while and watched the steady flow of the river as it made it's inexorable way between the green mangrove walls. It struck me then that it was absolutely quiet in a way that I've seldom experienced before, and my ears were filled with the faint phantom roaring of total silence. Even while canoeing the backwaters of Cockroach Bay and Terra Ceia in lower Tampa Bay, the sounds of traffic on the nearby highways and planes flying overhead are ever-present reminders of civilisation, but here, far from any road, and away from the flight paths of commercial airliners, there is nothing to disturb the silence. I sat for a while and listened. The cool weather had quieted the insects, and there was little wind. Even the slap of jumping mullet, a sound that is ubiquitous everywhere along the Florida Gulf coast, was absent on the Lopez River. We unfolded the camp chairs and set them up on the river bank, and cast our lines out into the river as the afternoon lengthened into dusk, the skies now grey with overcast.
    After a while, I set up the stove and cooked a hot dinner. By now, another party had arrived, a pair of kayakers finishing up a 4 day trip. They told of being caught in the storms two days earlier near Pavilion Key. They had become separated from another member of their party during the rough weather, but didn't seem too concerned over his fate, trusting in the his ability to make his way back to safety.
    It was getting dark, and after cleaning up from dinner we resumed our seats down by the river bank. I was hoping to do some wilderness stargazing but was disappointed by the increasing overcast. We sat for a while longer by the river, where we were treated to a different kind of light show, as brief sparks of phosphorescence flashed in the shallows of the river. Bryan soon identified these as small, biolumenescent jellyfish that were drifting downstream on the falling tide. The silence was broken occasionally by the squawking of night herons, and the brief rush of wings as flocks of ibis returned to their roosts for the night. The darkness deepened into black night as we sat and talked softly for a while before we were finally ready for sleep.
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    Day 2 - Lopez River to Sweetwater Creek
    Friday, 12-22-00 - We awoke to find that it had rained during the night, and the morning sky was overcast with low, wet clouds. We ate breakfast and broke camp, finally putting in at about 9 AM and heading upriver against the outgoing tide. As we left the Lopez River and into turned into the winding channel of Crooked Creek, we were hailed by a passing Park Service boat, and the Ranger stopped to ask us where we were headed. We told him that we were on our way to Sweetwater Chickee, and he abruptly waved us on, eyeing our overloaded canoe and remarking that we had a long way to go.
    We soon reached the northern entrance to Sunday Bay, and from there we paddled steadily south until we reached the pass leading to Oyster Bay, where we stopped for a short lunch break. The sun had returned to shine between the low, fast-flying clouds as we crossed Oyster Bay and stopped to rest in the pass that led to Huston Bay. The tide was running in from the south, creating a strong current that wanted to pull the canoe left, while the brisk, northeasterly wind insisted on blowing the canoe to the right, making for an interesting paddle across the choppy surface of Huston Bay. The waves were beginning to mount, and would sometimes slop over the low sides at the bow, and Bryan soon became soaked from the knees down.
    We stopped near Marker 103, at the northern entrance to Last Huston Bay, where I set a compass heading that would take us off the marked Waterway Trail and across the top of Last Huston Bay to the mouth of Sweetwater Creek, nearly 2 miles away. The pass that led to the creek was invisible in the distant wall of mangroves, so the chart and compass would be necessary to guide us to the right spot. Even so, this was my first attempt at navigating by dead reckoning in unfamiliar waters, and it was with some mild apprehension that I pushed out into the choppy waters of the open bay. The strong breeze was raising whitecaps, and I wasn't so much concerned with getting lost as I was with having to deal with the wind for any longer than I absolutely had to. After about half-an-hour of hard paddling against the northeast wind, we finally spied the opening we were looking for, exactly where the compass pointed, and it was with a sigh of relief that we pulled into the pass that led to the entrance of Sweetwater Creek.
    The creek itself was well hidden in the mangroves and we wound up overshooting our mark, paddling about ¼ mile to the south before realizing our mistake. Retracing our path, we finally located the hidden entrance to Sweetwater Creek and began the final leg of the day's journey, making our way between the sheltering mangroves and arriving at the chickee by mid-afternoon. The lagoon where the chickee was located was relatively calm, and we were alone as we pulled up to the platform and tied the canoe to the wooden pilings.
    We unloaded the canoe and sponged out the water that we had shipped during the rough crossing of the Huston Bays, and spread out our wet sleeping pads on the catwalk to dry. I set up the tent, a "camper's condo", which just fit with only inches to spare on three sides of the platform, leaving about 2´ of walkspace along the inside edge. Despite the shelter of the surrounding trees, the wind still broke through with the occassional strong gust, so we tied the corners of the tent down to the wooden planks along the outside edge for good measure. I had hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the upper reaches of the creek, but the struggle against the wind and tide had tired us both, and we were content to set up the camp chairs out on the catwalk and relax in the cool afternoon. The overcast had broken and a pale winter sun played hide-and-seek in the scattered cloud cover.
    We were still alone on the chickee as the day drew on to dusk, and we finally ate some dinner, after which we sat again for a while in the deepening gloom, bundled in our jackets against the cold night air. As the sky darkened, nocturnal predatory fish began to hunt the schools of baitfish that lived in the lagoon, and we were treated to a dazzling display of phosphorescence as the surrounding water erupted into scintillating flashes of bright silver whenever a fish broke the water in pursuit of its prey. At times, entire schools of frightened fish would jump in unison and the resulting splash and spray of water would spread trails and tracers of brilliant phantom light across the dark surface of the lagoon. The effect was hypnotizing, and we sat and watched the show long into the night.

    Day 3 - Sweetwater Creek to Sunday Bay
    Sunday, 12-24-00 - The morning found me groaning after a poor night's sleep on the hard wooden platform. My thin, self-inflating sleeping pad had done little to ease the discomfort and I vowed to bring an extra pad on my next trip. The night hunt in the lagoon also contributed to my sleeplessness, with the loud splashing of panicked fish waking me at short intervals throughout the night. I admit to being a bit disenchanted with chickee living at this point, as I crawled groggily from my sleeping bag into another grey, overcast morning. We ate breakfast, cleaned up, and broke camp, pushing off at about 9 AM and heading back down Sweetwater Creek to the windy waters of Last Huston Bay.
    The bay surface was roiled by a nasty chop as we paddled out from the shelter of the pass on this first leg of the return trip. The wind was still blowing hard out of the northeast, this time quartering across the starboard bow, and in the deeper water we encountered 3´ swells that continually threatened to break over the low gunwales of the canoe. We soon learned to roll the boat with the waves, keeping the hull of the canoe as parallel to the tilting surface of the water as posible. While this proved to be an effective tactic in keeping the canoe relatively dry against the heavy chop, it also made it harder to track a straight course, and the occasional wave would still slop over the side. Bryan took the brunt of these, and his legs were once again soon wet to the skin.
    For all of our difficulties, our spirits remained high, and Bryan remarked later that, despite getting wet, he had actually enjoyed the rolling passage across the open bay waters. We stopped to rest in each of the sheltered passes that separated Last Huston, Huston, and Oyster Bays, and by noon we sat once again at the south entrance of Sunday Bay. The chickee which was our destination lay outside the margins of my nautical chart, and I had to get out my copy of Johnny Molloy's Paddler's Guide to Everglades National Park in order to pinpoint it's location. After I was satisfied that I knew where we were going, we headed out into the bay on the last leg of the day's journey.
    We had to bear more to the east as we worked our way across the bay to the group of small islands that sheltered Sunday Bay Chickee. This put the wind in our face and made it much easier to track, and the shallow waters combined with a low tide kept the waves down, so this final run of the day was relatively easy. After about 20 minutes of steady paddling we pulled into the pass between the two islands that sheltered the lagoon and soon spotted the chickee standing near the mangroves at the northern end of the small bay. Another canoe party was just leaving the chickee, and they passed us on their way out, warning us to avoid the shallow center of the lagoon, where we could see mats of exposed seagrass just beginning to show in spots. Despite the warning, we still managed to get stuck, and had to pole our way out of the soft muck, our paddles sinking deep into the ooze as we pushed our way to deeper water. We finally reached the narrow channel that circled the eastern end of the lagoon, and made our way to the chickee platform.
    After unloading the canoe and setting up the tent, we sat and relaxed from the arduous trip. It was only 8 miles from Sweetwater Creek to Sunday Bay, but the wind had made it seem twice as far, and we were both tired and quite content to just sit for a while. The sky was beginning to clear, the sun shining briefly through breaks in the cloud cover. The wind was still brisk, and we spent most of our time in the tent sheltering from the chill breeze.
    We were soon joined by a pair of kayakers, a young couple that were making the long run to Flamingo. We chatted for a while until the buzz of an approaching outboard attracted out attention, and we could see a Park Service boat enter the lagoon and make it's way carefully along the eastern fringe of the shallow bay. There were two Rangers on board, and, after docking at the chickee, they asked to see our permits. I had packed our permit in a dry bag to keep it from blowing away and it took me a moment to locate the flimsy piece of paper. As I handed the permit over to one of the Rangers I was struck by what I perceived as a decidedly cool attitude on their part. Attempts to chat were rebuffed by monosyllabic replies, and I was not sorry to finally see them leave. This was my second encounter with the Park Service while in the backcountry, and I was beginning to develop a negative opinion. I still don't know what the problem was (if any), and I have since had no such unpleasant encounters with Rangers while out on the trail.
    Being the first campers to reach the chickee, we had taken the side with the bench that runs along the back side of the platform, and this proved to be a good spot to set up the kitchen and cook dinner. Afterward, we retired to the tent to relax and play cards for the rest of the evening before finally turing in for the night.
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    Day 4 - Sunday Bay to Chokoloskee
    Sunday, 12-24-00 - We awoke to a brighter, warmer day, and the wind had fallen to a light breeze. We ate breakfast and broke camp, heading out into the bright morning at about 9:30 AM We paddled across the open expanse of Sunday Bay until we reached Waterway marker 125 at the mouth of Crooked Creek. We followed the looping channel of the creek, and soon reached the Lopez River, moving quickly with the falling tide as we made our way downriver.
    We stopped for a short break at the Lopez River campsite, and then continued on our way. The tide was beginning to rise again as we reached the river mouth and began to make the crossing of Chokoloskee Bay. The wind had again picked up and we had to struggle against the quartering east wind and the occasional swell, but we had by now dropped a bit of weight and weren't subjected to the drenching that we had gotten on the previous two days of windy travel. At about 1 PM we finally beached the canoe at the landing near the Outdoor Resort and loaded our gear onto the truck, congratulating ourselves on completing our first Wilderness Waterway journey.
    Before we hopped into the truck and headed north, I stopped to take a long look across the windy waters of Chokoloskee Bay and knew right then that I was hooked - I would be back soon for another, longer trip, armed with better and lighter gear. Little did I know at that time just how hooked I was, and that my next journey would be just the first in a series of expeditions that, over the course of the next two years, would see me covering nearly every part of the Wilderness Waterway from Everglades City to Flamingo, and from the Gulf Coast to the edges of the freshwater Glades. With a last glance at the wild water to the east, I started the truck and we headed home.

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