Photos by Jenn Stone
When you think of the everglades, the first thing that comes to mind is speeding across a grassy marsh in an air boat, the huge fan creating a howling wind in it’s wake. Although that does conjure fond memories of the long ago show Gentle Ben (readers my age will remember this), it wasn’t exactly how The Doc and I wanted to explore the area. We wanted a quieter adventure. Something a little more up close and personal.
This is where Everglades Adventures comes in. We found them online after we booked a flight to visit friends in Florida. “How about kayaking in the Everglades?” The Doc casually mentioned this one morning while perusing his iPad. My initial response was “I don’t think so.” I honestly didn’t think I was a good enough paddler for such an adventure until I looked at their website. Everglades Adventures is the leading provider of eco-tours in the western Everglades. The photos were stunning. Calm waters. Beautiful birds. I was all in. We booked the adventure called the Fakahatchee Combo, which was a morning of kayaking followed by a guided wet walk in the afternoon. Once booked, we waited and waited and waited because it would be over two months before this adventure would begin.
We arrived at Everglades City the night before and checked into The Ivy House, home base of Everglades Adventures. Everglades City is a bit of a misnomer. It is more like a small town that, according to Wikipedia, has a population of just over 400. To me it was like going back in time to the 50’s. I kept imagining it as a setting for an old black and white movie.
The next morning was beautiful. Sunny. Not hot. Not cold. The sky was a clear blue. Perfect kayaking weather. We met Dillon, our guide, at 7:30. We drove to a launch area in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. The water was calm and we could see a few alligators partly submerged, enjoying the sun even before putting the kayaks into the water. For this very reason, there were people who thought we were nuts when we told them that we would be paddling in the Everglades, but The Doc and I were as calm as that water. Dillon explained that alligators have brains the size of a marble. The reason they have survived for 85 million years is because they keep things simple. If something is smaller than they are, they consider it food. If something is larger than they are, they consider it a predator and will avoid it. To put it simply, our kayaks were larger than the alligators. This was a logic we could relate to. During our first few minutes of paddling, we saw seven alligators, all in the distance, totally ignoring us.
We paddled the East River, a calm body that looked more like a narrow lake. Herons, cranes, pelicans, cormorants and numerous other birds flew above us and in and out of the trees that line the banks. I would like to say that I got some great pictures, but paddling and taking photos at the same time is not something that I can claim I am good at. I did take a few point and click shots and hoped that the autofocus on my Canon was up to the task. What I got are some great memories, not necessary top-quality photos, but I’m OK with that.
Leaving the river, we entered a tunnel in the mangrove trees. Their roots rise out of the water to help support the trees, which are wider than they are tall. The channels were twisty and meandering. I sometimes ran off course and into the roots while making turns, only to back out and reset my direction. We spent the rest of the morning paddling between open river and mangrove tunnels, some of these tunnels were so narrow that we had to take our paddles apart and use a single blade to move forward as if in a canoe. It was both difficult and exhilarating and unlike anything we had ever done before.
As we headed back to the launch site, we could see a large alligator laying completely out of the water on the sand where we needed to land. Dillon went ahead. I really wanted to get closer but stayed behind like a well-behaved tourist should. The alligator must have seen Dillon approaching because he slowly eased himself back into the river and glided away without looking back.
Part two of our adventure began after a nice picnic lunch thoughtfully packed by Dillon himself. It was the best meal we had while in Everglades City. I’m not sure we would have found the resources to provide our own lunch so we were very grateful to have one given to us.
With backpacks, long pants and shoes that could get wet and muddy, we left the dirt road we had hiked up after lunch and entered the swamp. The sun filtered through the trees and the air was comfortably cool. We didn’t require insect repellent or sun block or nose plugs because there were no mosquitoes, no direct sunlight and not a hint of that septic odour sometimes associated with a swamp. We were expecting the smell we get in the lake when the leaves that have sunk to the bottom and decayed are disturbed. In actuality this swamp was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen.
The variety of vegetation is astonishing. Numerous ferns and companion plants grow on trees and stumps. Mounds of greenery reach out of the water everywhere we look. It is stunning. Roots that can’t travel far downwards turn and grow upwards forming knees that rise above the surface of the water. The area is home to the Ghost Orchid, which is the rarest orchid in the world, and the night scent orchid, which is also rare. These orchids grow on trees and their root systems travel down the outside bark to reach water.
We walked gingerly with poles, made from repurposed canoe paddles, to provide stability when stepping around roots and submerged logs or branches. Our feet sank in mud and compost. Not too deep, just deep enough to remind us where we were. We were in a place where one needed to be very careful. Careful not to trip and fall and careful not to damage the ecosystem that we were lucky enough to visit. This time I took loads of pictures because when we left the swamp and stepped back out onto the gravel road, I wanted to make sure that I would remember as many details of this magical place as possible.
Thanks for reading.