January 2020

Genesis of the Trip

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Day 1: “What’s an old guy like me doing on an eight day paddling expedition through the Everglades wilderness?”, I ask myself as I prepare to launch at the beginning of the trip.  These days, it seems that every time I sign up for an adventure like this I’m anxious about leaving home and Lisa, and about my ability to successfully complete an activity like this.  And the trip was my idea.  

It started after a casual comment by Bruce Romanchak, a friend I have paddled with for some twenty years.  He said he wanted to paddle the Everglades Wilderness Trail.  After many days of emailed comments and opinions by Bruce and other like minded friends about whether we should use a guide or plan the trip ourselves, the arguments seemed to be going nowhere.  Joe Shearer and I said enough.  We hired a guide, Joel Beckwith, set trip dates, and invited any of the others who wanted to join us to sign up as well.  In the end there were seven of us, plus the guide who made the trip.  

I was dead set against doing the whole hundred mile trip, Everglades City to Flamingo, on our own.  There were several reasons for my opinion.  The Everglades Wilderness Trail inside Everglades National Park can be confusing.  Getting lost, at least temporarily, is a given.  This would not happen with an experienced guide.  As kayakers, we wanted to avoid camping on chickees (raised platforms standing in the water where no solid land exists), because of the difficulty of getting us and our gear up ladders and onto the crowded decks.  And with eight of us, there weren’t many chickees, which were the only places to camp in the southern part of the trail, that would hold us.  An experienced guide could plan a route that would keep us inside on the wilderness trail until that was no longer feasible, then take us out to camp on Gulf of Mexico beaches.  But the biggest reason for using an experienced guide is the national park’s rule that you can’t preregister a route in advance of a trip.  You must show up at the park office no more than twenty-four hours before your departure date to register for campsites.  The places you hope to camp on may or may not be available.  Having a guide who knows the ins and outs of the park will allow him to adjust the route as necessary in ways that are most beneficial to the group.  Working on our own, we could wind up in some really undesirable locations.  

So there I was on that early Sunday morning, packing eight gallons of water, one eighth of the trip’s food, and my camping gear into my seventeen foot kayak, knowing that not everything I had brought would fit, making on the spot decisions about what to take and what to leave behind.  

Once Joe and I had committed to the late January trip dates and had paid our fees, the others quickly signed on too.  Besides Joe Shearer from Merritt Island and myself from Sebastian, Florida, there was Bruce Romanchak from Castleton, New York, Farley and Karol Doucette from Jacksonville, Florida, Rebecca Yeomans from Georgia, and Phil Salvador from Huston, Texas.  We all travelled to Everglades City on the day before our departure, as we expected to meet our guide at 8:00 AM the next morning at the park’s western station.  A last minute email from Joel Beckwith, our guide, asked us to be at the park by 7:00 AM, to be on the water before low tide.  So we all agreed to meet at the restaurant next to the Everglades City Motel at 6:00 AM for food and coffee before meeting Joel.  

Joe, Phil, Don, Farley, Bruce, Karol, Rebecca

We are all experienced paddlers, so it didn’t take us long to pack our water, the group gear, our personal stuff, and launch.  From past experience at the Everglades Park kayak and canoe launch site, I knew that getting on the water at low tide was problematic, as it required dragging loaded boats through thick mud till you got to water deep enough for paddling.  But because of our early start and quick packing, we got on the water at half-tide, avoiding a muddy start.  From the park we headed for Sandfly Key, a Calusa Indian shell mound island, some three miles away.  We took the Sandfly Pass, southeast around Rabbit Key, landing on the northwest beach of Pavilion Key in the Gulf of Mexico, having paddled about 12 miles in warm, sunny weather.  This would be our home for the first night of the trip.  

Pavilion Key is a popular stop on the Wilderness Trail.  It can accommodate several large groups on its beautiful beaches.  Bruce and I, along with two other friends, had camped there on the last two nights of a five day self-supported and self-guided trip some years before.  

We placed our tents at one end of the key where breezes could reach us from three directions and keep the bugs down.  Before long we had camp set up.  After my tent was up and ready for the night, I made a cup of coffee using my Jetboil and Starbucks instant, then settled into my REI chair for a relaxing few minutes before dinner.  

I knew that there was a porta-john on this much visited island.  With so many campers coming here the National Park did not want people digging cat holes and relieving themselves all over the key.  That’s why they placed a porta-john here.  So I set out to locate it, walking down the  beach on the west side of the island, the side I had seen it on before.  

I walked for what seemed like a long time until I came to a stand of trees that partially blocked my way.  “I must have somehow walked right by it”, I thought to myself.  So I turned around and headed back along the  same path I had just taken.  I was almost back at camp and I still hadn’t found the porta-john when Phil came walking toward me looking for the same facility.  I turned around and we walked back along the beach, but this time when we met the trees, we walked we around them.  There we found not one, but two porta-johns.  Looking inside we discovered that they hadn’t been pumped out for quite a while, but never the less, they were there and usable, so we mentally marked their location before returning to camp.  

Each night Joel cooked dinner for all of us on a small one burner propane/butane stove using only one pot, a sizable pressure cooker.  That’s when we learned that Joel was a vegetarian and that all of our dinners would be meatless.  Lisa and I eat meatless meals a couple of times a week, so this was no problem for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed Joel’s Mexican, Indian and other creations.  Several others were vegetarians also.  I think that Joe, who appeared to be the carnivore among us, was the only one who suffered under this regimen.  That night we began a routine that would continue throughout the trip.  We gathered our chairs in a circle with Joel at the apex serving appetizers and cooking dinner, as if we were around a campfire.  Most people were drinking wine and consuming brie and crackers while waiting for our evening meal (boxed wine bags removed from the box travel well in a kayak’s hatch).

After we had eaten, dishes were washed, first in cold soapy sea water, then rinsed in more cold chlorinated sea water before being air dried.  By six-thirty it was getting dark.  Conversation continued for another hour or so.  Then folks all headed for their tents, most falling asleep almost immediately.  But not me.  I stayed up organizing my gear and reading a book on my iPad before turning in around nine o’clock.  As I drifted off I could hear muted snores from nearby tents and the scrunch of bodies moving on air mattresses.  

Next Page: Going Inside

 © Don Yackel 2020