Travel writer William Gray paddles and camps along Florida's Wilderness Waterway, battling mosquitoes, alligators and mites along the way
A hundred years ago, life was cheap in the Everglades. ‘Settle your own quarrels and cover your kill’ were unwritten laws in the frontier communities of Flamingo and Chokoloskee. The people who lived there comprised a lethal cocktail of fugitives, misfits and hermits who scraped a living from fishing, smuggling and brewing moonshine. They were mostly the kind of people who were running away from something.
That much, at least, is still true today. Just two hours’ drive but a million miles from the concrete plaza sprawl of Miami, the watery wilderness of the Everglades is a natural bolthole for Disney-dazed tourists. In a US state where anything seems possible – from face-to-face encounters with a great white shark (albeit a fibreglass one) to taking an African safari – this 160-kilometre swathe of subtropical prairie and mangrove swamp simply takes you back to basics. It’s for people who prefer their thrills unpackaged (not to mention cheaper and without the long queues).
My wife Sally and I began our exploration of the United States’ most threatened ecosystem, as most people do, by killing one of its inhabitants. The national park ranger at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City watched me flick the squashed mosquito off my arm. “There are 43 species of mosquitoes here,” she told us. “But don’t worry – only 13 will bite you.”
The ranger went on to explain that humans only provided about one per cent of their blood requirements. Furthermore, dozens of other creatures, like dragonflies, fish and birds relied on mosquitoes for food. Without them, the complex natural web of the Everglades would lie in tatters. Caught with blood on my hands I almost felt compelled to apologise, but the mosquito bite was itching furiously. Besides, there were other things lurking in the food chain that concerned us more.
“Are there many alligators around?” Sally asked casually.
“Used to be a problem ’gator at Broad River Camp,” said the ranger, stroking her chin thoughtfully. “But I think he’s gone now.”
Broad River Camp was one of the stops on our proposed ten-day canoeing trip along the Wilderness Waterway. Packing everything we needed into a five-metre aluminium canoe (including 20 gallons of fresh water), we planned to paddle 159 km through a remote and uninhabited mangrove forest in the Everglades National Park.
We had charts to help us navigate the convoluted route, enough 100% DEET spray to drop a charging rhino, and a cavernous dry box crammed with food. But we would be totally alone. Only when we signed out at the ranger station in Flamingo, at the other end of the Wilderness Waterway, would anyone know that we had made it.
Canoeing conditions were perfect as we set off early the following morning across calm, sun-spangled Chokoloskee Bay. Pelicans belly-flopped in the sea, scooping up fish in their voluminous bills, while a pair of ospreys pirouetted overhead.
We paddled slowly, stopping often to gulp water or smother ourselves in sunblock. Occasionally, fishermen from the resort on nearby Chokoloskee Island buzzed past in their motor boats – but few would be able to follow us into the maze of shallow bays and narrow creeks that form much of the Waterway.
Around midday, we slipped into the mouth of the Lopez River and a rising tide bore us irresistibly towards our first wilderness campsite. As we beached the canoe at the tiny clearing, a heron took flight from the crowded press of mangroves, its gruff call echoing across the river. In the silence that followed, the mosquitoes launched their attack.
We reacted swiftly – donning head nets and engulfing ourselves in clouds of repellent spray. It was only after my tenth bite in as many minutes that I felt the first prickle of alarm. The mosquitoes were large, with arrogantly striped legs, and they seemed to take to our pure DEET as though it were some kind of insect aphrodisiac. Our long-sleeved clothing proved equally useless and soon we were hopping around the clearing slapping each other like a pair of Tyrolean dancers.
Dinner was frantic. Our tiny, ingenious stove (that folds out of a bag smaller than a rolled-up sock and can boil a pan of water in under a minute) proved infuriating to light. After five minutes of careful priming, the flame either spluttered to nothing or flared spectacularly, a yellow fireball blooming in my face. So unbearable were the mosquitoes that, in her haste, Sally forgot to lift her head net and smeared lukewarm baked beans across the front.
We burrowed into our tent like rodents assailed by marauding eagles. A quick check around the inside revealed several unwelcome lodgers and we lashed out at them with genuine hatred. When the killing was over, we looked at each other with pained expressions and shook our heads. I counted over 60 bites on Sally’s back, each one swollen and white like a blister. It looked as though she had been whipped.
The mosquitoes were still there at dawn – clamouring at the tent door so close to my face that their shrill whining sounded like a dentist’s drill. We leaped from the tent like people possessed, tearing at pegs and bundling equipment into the canoe before scrambling aboard and paddling furiously. It was like the closing scene in an old movie – the shipwrecked couple escaping from a desert island on a makeshift raft just as the cannibals rush on to the beach.
We canoed for two kilometres until we reached Sunday Bay where a faint breeze dispersed the last few persistent mosquitoes. For several minutes we drifted in silence, soothed by the chuckle of water against the canoe’s hull.
“I read somewhere that there are up to 100,000 mosquito eggs in each square metre of the Everglades,” said Sally at last.
“They say mosquitoes used to kill the cows and mules of early settlers,” I added.
“I don’t think I could live here,” Sally said.
“Not even for the next eight nights?”
We fell silent again, reluctant to voice the conclusion we had both reached. Part of me wanted to press on. The Wilderness Waterway was a journey – it had a beginning and an end; a neat, measurable target. But the prospect of eight more nights of mosquito-inflicted masochism was overwhelming.
We made it back to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center by noon. The ranger recognised us and grimaced.
“It was no fun out there,” I said, trying to sound macho, but actually feeling guilty that we had given up after one night. I told the ranger how many bites I had counted on Sally’s back, but she didn’t seem impressed or shocked. She was busy erasing our names in the campsite register. I watched glumly as our great Everglades adventure was scrubbed out in seconds.
“So where do you wanna try next?”
“Somewhere not so buggy,” Sally ventured.
“Kingston Key’s good,” said the ranger. “You’ll get a nice sea breeze to blow the bugs away and the sunsets are great.”
With renewed enthusiasm, we set off the following dawn, this time turning west into the Ten Thousand Islands. A chain of marker posts guided us through Indian Key Pass, but we often strayed from the main channel to nose about in the maze of islands. There were occasional sandy beaches strewn with the empty carapaces of horseshoe crabs – bizarre helmet-like structures that could have fallen from a ship carrying a consignment for a Star Wars movie.
It only took three hours of gentle paddling to reach Kingston Key, where we found the ‘chickee’ on which we were to spend the night. Named after a traditional Indian dwelling, the chickee resembled a small section of wooden pier that had become marooned in a shallow bay off the key’s eastern shore.
We moored alongside, and pitched our tent on the boardwalk. Just as the ranger had promised, there was a brisk, insect-ridding sea breeze and we settled down to our first relaxing afternoon in the Everglades, lulled by the rhythmic slosh of waves against the chickee’s oyster-encrusted pillars.
A manatee had entered the bay, rising every few minutes to breathe, its stubby, bristled snout just visible above the surface. There are only 2,400 West Indian manatees left and 90% are scarred by boat propellers – their main threat.
Lowering ourselves gingerly into the canoe we edged slowly across the bay, eager for a clearer view of such an endangered creature. But the manatee proved elusive, always surfacing in the spot we had left five minutes earlier.
In the days that followed, however, our encounters with manatees became more frequent and intimate. On one occasion we were surrounded by a family group of five and, stowing our paddles, we simply let the canoe drift with the herd as it grazed peacefully on seagrass.
The manatees, which can reach four metres in length and weigh over 1,300kg, seemed totally unconcerned by our presence – perhaps even curious. When one surfaced directly behind the canoe I found myself face to face with a podgy mermaid figure hanging upright in the water, flippers clasping a beer barrel body, and tiny eyes lost in the wrinkled maze of its face.
Gradually, we settled into the natural rhythm of the Ten Thousand Islands, rejecting our wristwatches in favour of the passage of the sun or the tidal mark on exposed mangrove roots. As we paddled from island to island, camping on chickees or deserted sandy beaches, we began to embellish our wilderness clock with subtle cues: the flock of waders returning to their roost half an hour before dusk; the ospreys calling in the predawn with their anxious, high-pitched chirps; and the racoons always active in the late afternoon.
Inevitably, logistics and schedules intervened. As our backcountry camping permits expired and our water supplies dwindled, we were forced to abandon our castaway existence and head back to Everglades City. After signing out at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center we took a taxi to Naples, our senses suddenly bludgeoned by the noise and fumes of congested traffic.
We sought refuge from the town by hiring a car and driving north to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Purchased by the National Audubon Society in the 1950s to protect its cypress forest from loggers, the Sanctuary remains a vulnerable oasis. Today the threat is not from chainsaws, but from thirsty people.
“The Everglades is actually a shallow, 50 mile-wide river flowing south from Lake Okeechobee to the coast,” explained a warden as we set off along the boardwalk that meanders through Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
To cope with Florida’s burgeoning population of 900 new residents every day, an extensive system of canals taps into the Everglades’ water source. Agriculture and lavishly watered golf courses place an additional strain. In 1992, Congress passed a water redevelopment plan to help restore the Everglades, but much has already been lost. Since the 1930s the number of wading birds nesting in the southern Everglades has plummeted 93% from 265,000 to 18,500. Among them is the endangered wood stork, now down to just 500.
Through a wild tangle of branches, festooned with air plants and orchids, we glimpsed a few wood stork nests – part of Corkscrew Swamp’s precious breeding colony. But as we walked deeper into the Sanctuary, it became harder to imagine the environmental threats stalking the Everglades.
We entered a lost world of giant trees and swamp ferns that rioted through ponds the colour of well-brewed tea. Alligators and turtles languished in the primeval lake smothered with floating water lettuce, while a little blue heron tiptoed across the leafy raft in search of crayfish.
Strangely, there were hardly any mosquitoes. When I asked the warden why, he pointed to a shallow pond spattered with ‘raindrops’. Each dimple, he told me, was in fact a tiny mosquito fish feasting on mosquito larvae – Corkscrew’s natural alternative to chemical sprays.
The following morning, we drove east along the Tamiami Trail, which strikes like an arrow through the heart of the Everglades. Scattered stands of pine and cypress gave way to an open vista of sawgrass prairie, a scene captured in the title of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ pioneering book The Everglades: River of Grass. Known as the ‘Mother of the Everglades’, Douglas fought tirelessly for the protection of Florida’s wilderness until her death, aged 108, in 1998.
Others gave their lives prematurely in the struggle to save the Everglades. In 1906, poachers who were plundering an egret rookery killed Audubon warden Guy Bradley. At the time, the birds’ feathers, destined for women’s hats, were extremely valuable.
Early settlers gave little thought to the environmental consequences of their actions, and probably even less to cultural ones. The Tamiami Trail, completed in 1928, is a prime example. As dredgers scooped earth from the prairie for the road’s foundation, they left a canal which drained the surrounding land and destroyed the ancient canoe trails of the Miccosukee Indians. Abandoning their traditional lifestyle, the Miccosukee began exploiting the road to improve access to choice hunting sites. Nowadays, they snare passing tourists with roadside attractions, such as alligator wrestling and airboat rides.
We turned south off the Tamiami Trail before it reached Miami’s suburbs, and entered the Everglades National Park shortly beyond Florida City. The 61-kilometre road to Flamingo, at the southern tip of Florida, traverses every major habitat in the Everglades, from pineland and freshwater prairie to mangrove swamp.
When the road connected Flamingo to the outside world in 1922, many hoped the tiny, remote settlement would flourish. But the road had the opposite effect. People used it as an escape route from the rigours of pioneer life and the community’s population decreased.
Now, most of the annual one million tourists who visit the Everglades throng the road to Flamingo. We stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, the first of a series of interpretation points designed to tempt people from their cars and transform the road from an 80kph air-conditioned dash to an amble of discovery. Every few kilometres, there would be another tempting car park from which we could walk directly onto trails threading through reedbeds teeming with alligators, entering copses of mahogany trees or scaling an aerial boardwalk above a vast untrammelled plain of sawgrass.
By the time we arrived in Flamingo, the sun was smouldering low over Florida Bay. We knew the mosquitoes would soon be out in force, but it was difficult not to linger for a few reckless moments by the water’s edge. Silhouetted against the amber path of the setting sun, a lone tern dived on hapless fish, each splash carrying clearly to where we sat, while a lazy line of pelicans rose and fell above the sea, their wingtips almost brushing the waves as they flew towards their roost.
“I think I’ve been bitten,” whispered Sally.
“Me too,” I said.
Well and truly bitten.
When to go: Although the Everglades can be visited year-round, the best period is from late November to the end of April when it is drier and cooler. Daytime temperatures reach 29C and plenty of wildlife is attracted to the lower water levels as the floods recede. Thunderstorms occur during the hot and humid summer season (May to October), which is also the worst time for mosquitoes.
Things to do: Big Cypress National Preserve covers almost 300,000 hectares of cypress swamp, prairie and hardwood hammocks to the north of Everglades National Park. Head to Oasis Visitor Center, midway between Miami and Naples on the Tamiami Trail, for details of ranger-led bird walks and bicycle tours.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary features a two-mile boardwalk through pinewoods, open prairie and the largest forest of ancient bald cypress in North America, some of which towers over 30 metres tall. The 4,455-hectare sanctuary is also renowned for supporting the United States’ largest nesting colony of endangered wood storks.
Everglades National Park has the most extensive tourist facilities. Five visitor centres provide excellent background to the 607,500-hectare park, as well as details of a wide range of independent and ranger-led activities. You'll need a mandatory, minimum seven-day entrance permit.
At the Royal Palm Visitor Center, the hour-long Anhinga Trail offers one of the best opportunities for close-up views of birds, alligators and other wildlife. Continuing south towards Flamingo there are several short, well-interpreted trails (many of which are wheelchair accessible) leading from parking areas along the 61km Park Road.
At Flamingo Visitor Center, boat tours explore Florida Bay and the backcountry. There are also several canoe and walking trails nearby. Canoes can be rented from the marina.
At Shark Valley Visitor Center, off the Tamiami Trail, a tram tour leads to an observation tower providing superb views across sawgrass prairie or the ‘river of grass’.
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City is the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands, a mecca for canoeists, anglers and birdwatchers.