Paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway
Dec 4-8, 2015


I first went to the Everglades in 2007, where Dave Harridan of the Ivy House showed Keely and I a lot of the stuff you'll see on this trip.

I took two more trips to the area while competing in the Everglades Challenge. In 2010, Mike Monies and I successfully completed the course. In 2011, we made another run at it, and ended up rather famously stuck in the mud of Florida Bay, where we were eventually rescued by a girl in a kayak ( Esther Alonso-Luft, owner-operator of the Paddle House of Miami, FL.)

In both of those events, I was in a sailboat, and didn't get to go through the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. That was a big disappointment to me as the Everglades is as strange a place as an Oregon boy is likely to see.

In early 2015, a guy calling himself Painen Dias set up a FaceBook page called the UnderwaterTribe as a protest to the WaterTribe, the guys who put on the Everglades Challenge. I told him how I'd like a chance to paddle the Everglades Wilderness Waterway without all the rules and fees of the Everglades Challenge.

On FaceBook, we conversed for about 5 months, trying to make this trip a reality. Painen is a veteran of many Everglades Challenge events, and experienced sailor, a leader in the local Boy Scouts group, and more or less seemed to have his stuff together.

I convinced my sailing/boat building friend, Rick Landreville, to leave his family, home, and business in Canada and come with me. Painen picked the dates, Rick and I bought plane tickets. Painen said he'd meet us at the airport with all the canoes, camping gear, and food we'd need - we just needed to bring the clothes and electronics necessary for a trip like this.

At one time, there were 17 people interested in the trip, though only five of us actually launched.

Some of what you are going to read will sound like I am being mean and petty. That might be true. I debated even writing this at all, but in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Rather than sugar coat it or gloss over the warts, I figured maybe some readers might pick up an idea or two on how to organize something like this.

11:55pm flight out of PDX was the usual "security" cluster eff. I was traveling light - just carryon consisting of only my clothes and toiletries. I couldn't even bring bug spray or a fork because if I did, the terrorists might win. Painen - a man I'd never met - said he'd have everything we needed when he picked us up at the airport. This was going to be the easiest adventure ever!

Too bad it didn't work out that way. Painen had said he'd be waiting at the airport. He wasn't. He said he'd have the food. He didn't. We tried to pick up groceries at the closest grocery store - actually a Hispanic bodega - but the prices were outrageous, like $1.95 for a can of tuna fish that costs $.79 at home.

After a bit, I balked and said I can't pay for this stuff, we had to find a cheaper place. The ensuing comedy would have made a great skit in a sit-com: Painen shouting into his phone "OK, Google, where is the nearest Publix?" and getting gibberish in return, us dragging a trailer full of boats around the streets of Miami, etc. Rick and I exchanged glances more than once. We finally found a Win Dixie and rush-bought $180 worth of food we hoped would see us through: Cans, heat and serve, oatmeal, even impractical stuff like whitebread.

I was pretty pissed by now, but I tried to put it past us as we drove the Tamiami Trail Highway, heading for Everglades City and our launch point at Chokoloskee. We'd lost a lot of time - unnecessarily - and had to skip stopping for a meal (I hadn't eaten during the red-eye and had been "promised" a meal of gator meat at the Indian reservation on the way. Ha.)

At the ranger station at Everglades City, we met another of our party, Shawn Payment (yellow shirt.) I hadn't realized it at this point, but all of us, Rick, Shawn, and I, are former Puddle Duck Racer "World Champions." The other member of our party, Doug Cameron, is a well known and respected member of the WaterTribe known as RidgeRunner. This was nearly a band of celebrities. Nearly.

It was at the ranger station we discovered another "skill" Painen has: Dumpster diving. While Rick and I were looking for geegaws at the ranger station, Painen bee-lined it for the trash bins and found a jacket he took a shining to. "It smells like banana peels and fish, but it should be great!" (photo credit: Rick Landreville)

At the launch point at Chokoloskee, I discovered most of the "gear" Painen was bringing us also appeared to be gleaned from trash bins. 0° sleeping bags for 70° weather, garbage bags instead of dry bags, even the eating utensils were rusty and bent. I was feeling pretty stabby by this point, but I'd already dumped a week's worth of pay and taken a week off work to do this trip, so I put on my smiley face and continued.

It wasn't all bad. Shawn brought us all these Insect Repelling Wristbands to drive away the bugs - and the bugs were BAD, real bad. The label says they last 120 hours after opening, so they should be great for the whole trip! Both Rick and I bought a can of OFF! at the marina, anyhow. ($8! per can!) We also got water - a gallon per day per man, which is double what I normally use. I didn't care any more. All I wanted to do was get on the water and get this trip started.

These immature brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) watched us prepare to launch. They were as unimpressed as I was.

Way too much gear. Way too much garbage. To save on our limited space, I decided to not take one of Painen's enormous sleeping bags - I'd sleep in my clothes with my coat and my borrowed (and moldy) PFD as covering. Rick had wisely brought his own sleeping bag liner (and PFD.) Still, there was way too much gear.

It was getting late. The bugs were voracious. Canadian Rick had a full, upper body bug suit. I had a can of OFF!

This was Painen's boat - a fat, 14' canoe, paddled backwards, propelled by a kayak paddle while he sat on the floor in-between the seats. See that cooler? It was cracked - useless as a cooler and bulky as a box. See that garbage bag in the front? It held Painen's sleeping bag. Garbage bags are not waterproof - all they do is hold moisture in. See that red blob? That's Painen's "new" Mustang Survival Jacket, good for keeping someone alive in the frozen Arctic - not really appropriate for the 85° waters of the Florida Everglades, even if it had been dry and mold-free.

It was getting late - already after 4pm and the sun goes down at 5:30.

We didn't have far to go, but it was late in the afternoon and we were moving slow.

And it was raining. No real problem there - all my stuff is quick dry and it was very warm. Let's take a moment to talk about boats:
Doug is an experienced paddler and has an absolutely stunning Kruger Dreamcatcher designed specifically for distance paddling. Shawn was in a 15' 6" Dagger kayak designed for recreational cruising. Painen had brought an 18' Sawyer racing canoe - narrow, sleek and fast, but with very little cargo capacity. He also brought a 14' Mohawk sportsman canoe, slow, fat, and designed for use with a motor.

In every flotilla, there will be a slow boat. In this flotilla, there was a slow boat by design.

It took us over two hours to get to our campground for the night - Crooked River Chickee. When we got there, people had already taken our spot. We had reservations, so they had to move. There are two campsites on a chickee, the other was already occupied as well, but they graciously allowed the squatters to crowd in with them.

In preparing dinner, we discovered the can opener didn't work. And the stove had only one setting - high. And there weren't any dishes to eat out of. And and and. Rick, Shawn, and I bunked in a tent, Painen in a hammock, and Doug in his own tent. I use the rain fly as a blanket and we all discovered Rick snores like a moose with adenoids - and might have sleep apnea. In the morning, Shawn said "When you poked Rick and said 'Dude, start breathing again.' well, that was really sweet."

In the morning, I met the squatters. As I spoke to them I asked "Where are you from?" They said "Ohio." I said "You have a bit of an accent, does everyone from Ohio talk like that?" They smiled and said "We are Amish. Maybe that's what you hear." I was stunned. Amish kayakers? Their clothing was rough cotton and they wore farming boots. "Um, all I know about the Amish is what I've seen on TV. Are you on Rumspringa?" They smiled and said "What you see about the Amish on TV is, um, romanticized."

Amish kayakers. Wonders never cease.

Breakfast of oatmeal and on the water at a bright and early 8:25 am. We hadn't even started and I was already frustrated.

No matter what the circumstances, the Everglades is magical. We don't have ibis in Oregon.

Doug's Dreamcatcher is a very nice boat. I was starting to get a wee bit lusty.

We had to stop and wait - a lot. Painen was doing his best, the situation was just wrong. We'd at least convinced him to turn the boat around so he wasn't paddling backwards, but we couldn't convince him to sit in the seat or use a canoe paddle.

That's a Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus - Doug had a bird book.) I like his little friar's haircut.

Naughty Buoy, the last freehold in the Everglades. When they converted the Everglades into a national park, they let anyone with a deed establish a freehold that would last for the lifetime of the deed owner. This guy turned the deed over to his 3-month old son just before the deadline.

Nice fleet shot.

Those spiky things are epiphytes, just hanging out, doing their epiphyte thing.

We pulled over for a bite to eat at 1:30 - Darwin's Place. Keely and I had stayed here on my first trip to the Everglades. The day was half over and we were far, far, far behind schedule.

Doug found a whelk - these were the major food source of the inhabitants prior to being wiped out by the diseases brought by contact with Europeans. There are huge mounds of nothing by whelk and snail shells.

Shawn, sitting pretty.

We were so far behind, we ran into WaterTribe legends DolphinGal (Kathy) and Intrepid (Libby,) people who left a day after we did and weren't expecting to see for another day.

Alligator River! THIS is what the Everglades should look like: Close in, birds, bugs, all kinds of 'gladey stuff.

We hit Lostman's Five a little after 5pm. Rick and I had paddled ahead to get the tent set up. There's a good story about Lostman's Five - well worth the read.

And within minutes - this. Ahh, the joys of camping, a fine and pleasant misery.

We had another long run today. Rick and I made a decision and relieved Painen of command of his canoe. We put him (and his kayak paddle) in the front of the Sawyer 18 and I went to work repacking the Mohawk.

This . . . this . . . Oh well, nothing to do but do it.

I know it sounds like I am beating on Painen, and I am. The thing is, he's a great guy and I'd expedition with him again - in a heartbeat. I just won't, you know, let him be in charge of anything.

Our first alligator! About 8 or 9 feet long.

Even though I'd taken control of the green canoe, it was still the slowest boat in the fleet. The others would have to pull up behind a mangrove and wait - long enough for the mosquitos to attack.

The vast majority of the waters of the Everglades are HUGE - and shallow. As we were crossing Big Lostman's Bay, the winds were pretty brisk - gusting into the high teens. The waves were picking up and the overloaded Sawyer was taking water. As I paddled for all I was worth, I looked up and saw Rick bailing for all he was worth. He said it was a near thing - they almost lost the boat. We pulled over at a little mangrove island to bail out and assess.

We rested a good bit - it had been really tough going all the way to 'bailout island' and the winds were increasing. We gritted our teeth and stepped off - and I was immediately blown backwards. I was finally able to pick a place to shelter, took a few deep breaths, and started out again. I was blown against the mangroves and fought my way along the edge of the island. The rest of the fleet was already out of sight, blocked by the island. I was tiring quickly and saw a sheltered point. Even though I knew the guys would be worried if I took too long, I decided to head for the point and rest. Too bad the was an alligator resting there already. Nothing to do but do it. I continued on.

We joined back up, ate some peanuts, drank some water (which we were using at a little less than 2 quarts per man per day) and took off again.

Another alligator. That's what we came here for - to see alligators.

There's another! At least something was going right.

Being the slowest boat is lonely and frustrating.

Spanish Moss - pretty cool.

I'd been wearing my water shoes ever since we'd started. I don't know how long skin has to be kept wet before it starts sloughing off, so I decided to see if I could dry them out a bit.

Another alligator!

Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) When I was a kid, these things fascinated me. Never saw one before I was over 40, but they fascinated me.

After a long, threatening day of paddling, we finally exited the Rogers River and into the Gulf of Mexico. They call this is an ocean? Where are the waves? It was getting late - we needed to keep going and I was nearly spent.

Sunset at Highland Beach. We met up with DolphinGal and Intrepid again, too!

The bugs were MERCILESS. DolphinGal appointed herself master of the fire and got one going, so everyone huddled in the smoke to try and keep a little bit of their blood. I crawled in the tent and after 20 minutes of bug killing, tried to sleep. It was all of 6pm, but I was wiped out. Later, when Rick and Painen came in, we needed to kill bugs again. And again after the 3am potty break.

There were thunderstorms and flashes of lightening to windward of us, so we put up the rain fly. At one point, I thought I heard raindrops pattering on the side of the tent, but it was really just mosquitos battering the tent in their lust for my sweet, sweet blood.

We had another looooong day ahead of us, and we had to get started early to catch the rising tide up the Harney River, then ride the outgoing tide down the Shark River. Doug was invaluable - he had local knowledge, maps, and knew the tides.

Rick was in the Green Torture Machine today. Lucky him.

On the long paddle up the Harney, I had time to really look at the environment. The mangrove islands are absolutely impenetrable - if a person was deposited 50 feet inside, they'd have a hard time getting out.

After three hours of paddling, we pulled in at the Harney River Chickee for a break. Rick was visibly, palpably, upset paddling the slowest boat. I was trying to get Painen to slow down - telling him to stow his paddle, stop paddling, slow down, but he . . . didn't. I barely did any paddling at all, just steered the boat, and we still outpaced the green canoe. Painen was having a fine old time, laughing and telling stories.

After resting for a half hour, we paddled for three and a half more to reach the Shark River Chickee. It was a very pleasant day and I wasn't pig dog tired for once.

We got to the Oyster Bay Chickee at about 4:30 - an hour before dark, and got set up. Dinner was served on the half water jug.

Chickees aren't really set up for 3 tents plus cooking space. The other half of the chickee was occupied by three fishermen (high up muckety-mucks in the Win Dixie organization, actually.) and Rick entertained them with tales of the social utopia of the Great White North while I napped and fed the mosquitos. After a bit I got up and joined in the discussion, where Shawn, Rick and I amused the natives with tales of wonder and small boat adventuring.

The original schedule was to have us spend the night at the South Joe River Chickee, but both Rick and I (and probably Shawn and Doug) were ready to pack it in. Another command decision and a nine mile trip became a 21 mile trip.

We started with Rick in the Green Torture Machine. My plan was to take over at the South Joe River Chickee and do the majority of the trip - I'd actually forgotten (blocked?) that Rick had been in it the day before.

I think that was the only smile I saw on Rick that morning - and it looks forced.

Believe me, I was! Where were they?

We stopped at the Joe River Chickee for a breather and Shawn pointed up a little creek "Look at that bow wave!" and we saw two porpoises coming towards us. They saw/smelled/sensed us somehow and came shooting out of the creek like rockets.

I swapped places with Rick and bent my back to paddling the green canoe. That vulture up there fit my mood perfectly.

South Joe River Chickee. It was only 11:30 and there wasn't no way we were stopping there for the night.

Still can't get over how nice an expedition boat that is.

Fleet shot - on a nice and windy day. I was really glad the sun never came out the whole trip - we would have been roasted.

Down at the bottom of the Joe River, we ran into some more paddlers. These guys had come down from Everglades City, touched at Flamingo, and were headed back. Dudes, wear your damn life jackets.

We also ran into Sandy Bottom - a rather famous WaterTriber.

Hey! The fishermen from last night! They came by to see if we were OK and they were impressed with our distance covering ability.

Fleet shot. One of the few times I was in the lead.

We were in for a rough go of it, the wind was blowing stink from the NE which meant we'd have the waves on our beam. The good news was we were significantly lighter because of all the eating and water consumption, the bad news was - it was still bad.

Yet we prevailed! And it wasn't so rough, after all. Thanks to Shawn for hanging back with me. We passed through Coot Bay without incident and headed into the canal to Flamingo.

The canal wasn't quite as easy as I had hoped. We were passed by at least three tour boats. They were nice and slowed down, but . . .

. . . they churned up the water something fierce - and those bubbles were filled with a stink that makes cesspools smell like Starbucks.

Actual land! Haven't seen that for a while.

Flamingo - at last! At least 89 miles of traveling at an average 2.5 miles per hour.

Flamingo is a neat place - well, I like it at least. There is a lot of wildlife. They also have a resident crocodile that is rumored to hang out on the Florida Bay side of the harbor. On the way, I saw this osprey being all proud of her nest.

When I got to the harbor, what did I see but a manatee! No, TWO manatees! And they were gettin' busy makin' a third! I called Shawn over, and pretty soon we were joined by Rick.

I'm no manatee scientist, but I think that is the smile of one satisfied sea cow. We watched for a while (manatees have impressive stamina, apparently) taking pictures. After a bit, we started feeling a bit creepy. Eventually, we turned back and left them to their bliss.

On the way to Painen's place in Miami, we stopped off at the Gator Grill for some local eats.

Oh, man! I'm having the Gator Tacos!

Here's a shot of the happy crew. We did it, folks!

Painen's place in Miami was really nice and his wife was very understanding. Rick was having a blast telling about how he narrowly avoided death by drowning back in Roger's Bay.

The next morning we had two missions: Retrieve the vehicles and find a cheesy souvenir shop to buy some cheesy alligator tooth necklaces (if you complete the Everglades Challenge, you get a cheesy shark tooth necklace. If you complete it AND paddle through the Everglades while doing so, you get a cheesy alligator necklace, too - Shawn thought we'd earned the right to own a cheesy alligator tooth necklace.)

"Dangerous Reptiles" indeed.

Parting ways at the end of an adventure like this is . . . poignant. There's a pretty fair chance most of us will never see each other again. Rick lives in British Columbia, I live in Oregon, Painen lives in Florida, Shawn lives in South Carolina, and Doug lives in Tennessee. It is great to live in an age where people from such disparate backgrounds and distant lands can come together for adventuring.

After Shawn and Doug left, there was one last event of the trip was have another meal of gator meat. That's some fine eatin'.

That's it - we finished two days early and, all in all, had an adventure. We knew it was going to be hard before we started and we were prepared for the hardships. What we - or at least I - was not prepared for was the hardships we faced that would have been easily prevented with a little effort and consideration.

As I said earlier, I don't hold anything against Painen. I appreciate what he did do for us, and I understand the cost and efforts he went through. I'd sail with him again, without hesitation.