The winds were howling in the Gulf of Mexico as we made the passage north from the Florida Keys to the Everglades. Larry and I were happy to finally arrive at our chosen overnight anchorage in the Little Shark River. After setting the hook just inside the mouth of the river we shut down the engine and plopped back in the cockpit to relax.
We had heard the Everglades were a beautiful and unspoiled place to visit, but nothing prepared us for the experience we were about to encounter. In total defiance of the blustery conditions we had just left in the Gulf, we now found ourselves in a wondrous sheltered haven in which wildlife dominated our every sense. Although the wind howled in the distance over the trees, our own immediate surroundings resembled a sort of magical amphitheater. Creatures from land, sky and sea filled our vision with every turn of the head and the sounds of nature echoed hauntingly.
Large white cranes swooped across the water calling out in raunchy prehistoric croaks. Pelicans, one after another, flew bomber pilot-like patterns using our mast as a bearing while carefully surveying the river for dinner. Fish broke the surface of the water with such abundance that it sometimes appeared as if the water itself was boiling. Our cats, Endicott and Hinckley, ran about the decks in a frenzy responding to every new noise and looked imploringly at Larry to catch them some of those fish.
On this particular trip we had not yet loaded all our cruising gear aboard and found we had no fishing rods. Not able to ignore the pleas of the cats, Larry decided to try fishing with just a hand line, a hook and some bacon for bait. As he lowered the hook over the side he told the cats not to expect much, but to his surprise he immediately snagged a fish. With such instant success, he re-baited the hook and lowered it once more. Again, another instant snag. We repeated this action another dozen times, with me counting how many seconds it took before each fish was hooked. The longest time delay was 20 seconds. We couldnít believe it and the cats were in heaven!
While the cats licked their paws after their incredible feast, we continued to enjoy the ongoing show around us. The Pelicans had tired of their flight maneuvers and were now all perched on the branches of one tree, looking like peculiar Christmas ornaments. Dolphins gently rolled nearby and a sea turtle kept popping its head up out of the water, checking us out and wondering who the newest arrival in his habitat was. Larry and I decided that there was no way we could leave in the morning as planned, and that we simply had to explore this area a little more. If there was so much to see just here at the entrance to the river, what could possibly lie further in the enormous ten thousand island region that beckoned us so close by.
The next morning we prepared our dinghy for a little exploration trip. We packed a lunch, sun screen, bug spray, and a detailed chart and headed out. There is one marked channel, but there are also hundreds of other little detours you can take, which of course we did, only to soon realize that it would be all to easy to get lost in there. Although the Everglades is comprised of river grasses, pine forests, sandy beaches, and mangrove swamps, all of our immediate shoreline looked exactly alike. One mangrove tree after another, after another, after another. We soon became a little nervous in our navigating, so we religiously kept our finger on the chart tracing our progress with every turn around another identical looking island. We felt that if we lost our way, it would be very difficult indeed to find our course back to the boat, and the chances of another boat being on the same off beaten track as you at the same time is pretty unlikely.
The following day before heading out in the dinghy again, Larry and I added a few more things to our dinghy kit. This time we made sure we were armed with a hand held GPS, a VHF radio, a whistle, a compass and even a few flares. We were all too aware of how easily we could have gotten lost the day before. Our quest this day was to find an alligator. Iím not sure this was such a smart thing to be doing, seeing as how we were in an inflatable dinghy and all, but there we were just the same. The only sign of civilization we saw the entire day were a couple of high speed flats boats that zoomed by with a quick wave of the hand. Avid fishermen from all over the world are drawn to the Everglades. They hire fishing guides to help them find the hot spots, and probably to prevent them from getting lost.
After about thirty minutes of puttering inland, we saw our first alligator. Resting on the muddy bank was about an eight foot long gator, his eyes keenly watching our every move. urprisingly, he didnít seem too perturbed when I insisted that Larry swing by as close as possible so I could get a good photo. We saw several other gators that day, some resting bank-side and others swimming along, just breaking the water with the top of their head and crown of their back. An interesting fact about the Everglades is that itís the only place in the world that has both alligators and crocodiles side by side as residents. On this particular trip, we werenít lucky enough to come across a crocodile.
If thereís a downside to the Everglades, itís the bugs. Particularly during the wet season, that runs from May through November. No where else is it more important to have insect screens on all ports and hatches. On our first trip here, we were a little naÔve about the mosquitoes and didnít fully close up our boat until well after cocktail hour. This was a big mistake. After being driven below due to the mosquitoes in the cockpit, we were horrified to find literally hundreds of the pesky bloodsuckers waiting for us in the main salon and in our sleeping cabin.
Weíve learned since that first horrific mosquito episode to always leave our screens on every open hatch and port and to retire below soon after sunset. On our most recent Everglades excursion, we devised an anti-mosquito canopy that we drape over our dodger and bimini. This allows us to remain in the cockpit and enjoy the evening breeze and wonderful sounds of the night without becoming an unwilling blood donor. We made our anti-mosquito canopy ourselves from no-see-um mesh. The weave of this mesh is considerably finer than standard window screening, and will repel even the tiniest gnat. We drape our screen over our bimini and dodger, and the weights sewn into its perimeter hold it firmly down to the deck while repelling unwanted intruders.
Although most cruising boats anchor by the mouth of the Little Shark River, itís possible to head up river for several miles with a draft of 6 feet. Shallower drafted boats can continue their journey for miles and miles. Weíve learned that the intricate pattern of rivers around the many mangrove covered islands serve local mariners well as a hurricane hole with virtually an unlimited capacity.
The only civilization found in the 4500 square miles of the Everglades is in the towns of Everglades City and Flamingo. Everglades City has a rich history centered around the Rod and Gun Club. Many past presidents and other famous people have frequented this exclusive, out-of-the-way hunting and fishing club over the years. Everglades City can be visited with a draft of 6 feet or less. To get into Flamingo, you have to play the tides if your draft is greater than 4 feet, so not a lot of sailors frequent this area.
Our discovery of the Everglades began as an innocent, one night stopover on our way up the West Coast of Florida. Its remote beauty entranced us so much we ended up staying for five days on that first trip. We feel in a way weíve discovered how Florida used to be. ast, wild and natural. Itís a far cry from the beaches lined with condos, the fancy houses on man-made canals, and more golf courses in one state that in the entire rest of the United States. Since our first visit to the Everglades, weíve been back a total of four times and canít wait to return again.
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