(read on and this photo will make sense - I promise!)
Length: Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Waterway has over 99-miles of canoe route available that connects Flamingo and Everglades City.
Outdoor Travels Rating: N/A - Although this trip COULD be wonderful, we failed miserably at planning a canoe camping adventure in the Everglades.
- The Everglades are truly beautiful. An abundant wildlife population of everything from osprey to dolphins makes for great animal spotting.
- Canoe camping in the Everglades can be great fun if planned and executed well.
- Good local fun can be had at Everglades City area watering holes. Grab a brew and do the Electric Slide – or just watch the local crackers cut a rug!
- Unless improvements have been made, the Lopez River campsites are incredibly gross, undesirable and blatantly unsuitable.
- Bugs! The mosquitos are fierce! Even with deet and visiting in November, they were more aggressive and numerous than I ever imagined!
- Inability to reserve (by phone in advance) camping spots along the waterway can create a real “grab bag” scenario, which, at least in this case, made for an undesirable trip.
- Plan ahead and be flexible. Plan at least two routes before arriving at the park in case your first choice is already filled. It doesn’t hurt to arrive a day early an “sit a day out” waiting for a your choice route to become available.
- Obtain the correct charts. Nautical charts are necessary for finding your way in the coastal zone, and are useful in planning your trip. Charts numbers are displayed on the campsite map. Charts may be purchased at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, the Flamingo Marina, Everglades City Boat Tours, and area bait and marine supply stores.
- Battling the tide sucks! Tides and winds can make canoeing difficult. Most canoeists plan to travel between 10 and 12 miles (16-19 km) per day. I can’t recommend anyone paddling against the tide that isn’t experienced and owns a swift craft.
- Bugs are bad even in November! We thought November’s slightly cooler temperatures would make the mosquitos subside a bit. We were wrong! Even a large amount of deet and protective clothing sometimes can’t compensate for the immense aggravation of hundreds of mosquitos following you around. December and January are supposed to be a little better, but that isn’t saying much.
by Dana Farnsworth
Canoeing a very small part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Waterway and learning a lot of things not to do
I have read some very glowing accounts of how wonderful canoe camping can be in Everglades National Park. Paddling from campsite to campsite, seeing the wonders of the Everglades all while enjoying the conveniences of canoe camping sounded very exciting and fun to me. I couldn’t have predicted it at the time, but the trip my wife Kelli and I were about to embark on would be a far cry from that idyllic vision. In fact, it would become one giant example of “what not to do in the Everglades.” Our planned weekend adventure transpired into a misadventure consisting of only a few hours of paddling, many mosquito bites, a couple bottles of wine mixed in with a few cold draft beers, Swedish tourists and a local bar fly club line-dancing exhibition.
The best-laid plans often get chucked out of the window
With our canoe on top of my car, Kelli and I headed south for a much-anticipated canoe camping expedition in Everglades National Park, Florida. I had read about camping on little mangrove islands and on chikees (wooden platforms) in the Everglades. It all sounded very exciting and fun. After all, I have a lot more experience backpacking, where everything you eat or drink, you have to carry on your back. With canoe camping, we could be more indulgent. Bottles of wine, food in a cooler and larger tents were all spoils of being able to paddle your supplies around as opposed to lugging them on your back.
Everglades National Park has 156 miles (251 km) of canoe and walking trails and 47 designated wilderness campsites. And incidentally, none of these sites can be reserved prior to arriving in the Park. Their policy is: “They (permits) may be obtained in person up to 24 hours before the day your trip begins.” It’s truly a first come, first served system that makes advanced planning sketchy at best. Undaunted, Kelli and I reviewed the tide charts (which prove to be very important) and carefully planned several routes that would work for us. Tide charts are important. You’ll want to coordinate your route so that when paddling to your campsite(s) you are paddling with the tide and also paddling with the tide when returning, as tidal currents can be quite strong and make for some difficult paddling.
Based on our estimated arrival time, the tide would be flowing out to the gulf, thus making it easy to reach any one of the numerous campsites that were to the west (towards the gulf) of the Gulf Coast Visitors Center, which is where we started. After purchasing a nautical map (another very vital item) from the Gulf Coast Visitors Center, we began our attempt at reserving a route that would work for us.
Unfortunately, for some reason, A LOT of people had chosen to explore the waterway, therefore campsites were scarce. None of the sites options we had planned were available! I guess, at this time, the smart thing would have been to try to reserve the areas we wanted for the following day and just hang out in nearby Everglades City for the night and start fresh the next morning. Undaunted, we accepted a plan that would have us paddling up Lopez River to the Lopez River Campsite and then onto two other sites the following two days, irrelevant now since we never made it past the first site.
With a lot of excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation, we geared up and dumped our canoe in at the Chokoloskee boat ramp, paid for parking our car in an adjacent privately owned lot and began our trek. (If there is free parking around this ramp, I couldn’t find it). It wasn’t long before the first of our fears was realized - we were paddling, better yet, fighting AGAINST the tide.
Rank Toilet on the Beach and a Plague of Mosquitos – What Fun!
“One of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever undertaken in the wilderness” – best describes what transpired. Our canoe had always handled and paddled like a barge. It wasn’t ever going to be confused with a fast, sleek or easy to maneuver craft. Paddling against a quickly retreating tide and a stiff headwind, Kelli and I were going nowhere fast. In fact, I think at times, we were actually going nowhere. Through periods of us really “digging”, I would try to keep us from losing ground while Kelli would take a break. We could see where we needed to go, it just didn’t seem like we were getting any closer. At one point we both needed a break. What to do? If we stopped paddling, we would most certainly end up in the gulf. We dug in hard and paddled our butts off to get to a channel marker (a log sticking out of the water). Once there, I grabbed it and hung on so we wouldn’t drift backwards. What a site! The water in this area is pretty shallow and is also shared with motorized boats, which would later cause us more stress.
After a short break, we made for the mouth of the Lopez River. Once there, the tidal pull was almost non-existent. Whew…. We began a nice and easy paddle towards where our campsite was located. I for one was looking forward to a nice rest after fighting the tide for over two hours! For the first time, we could relax a little and look around at the wildlife.
It was a little before sunset as we approached our first campsite. We readied ourselves with a generous application of deet in preparation for landing. I said, “What’s that noise?” A buzzing, slightly humming sound was growing louder. Kelli replied, “What’s that cloud moving towards us?” “MOSQUITOS!”, we both exclaimed wildly! The mosquitos had not been fooled by the deet and were closing on us at an alarming rate. They met us about 30 feet from shore. In a flurry of slapping the air and additional deet application we quickly landed the boat and began an assessment of where we could pitch our tent (in a hurry).
It became immediately obvious that something wasn’t right. First, there was a porta potty that smelled of rotting corpse covered in bull dung perched of all places, on the beach, not 20 feet away from the first available camping spot. Second, a dilapidated structure’s concrete foundation was acting as a backwoods garbage dump and water retention pond further adding to the pristine and romantic aura of this campsite. I wasn’t staying and neither was Kelli. After a very quick assessment, we made a very fast executive decision to screw the whole trip and get the hell back to where we started! The mosquitos followed us for at least the first 20 yards in a very annoying send-off. This particular site has to be the single most dilapidated, forgotten, grotesque, nasty and undesirable place that I’ve ever been expected to camp in. The National Park system should be ashamed. No small wonder that no one else had reserved the Lopez River camp spot for the night.
Defeated but not broken, our canoe now effortlessly glided along with the exiting tide as my wife Kelli and I paddled into one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen. It was so incredibly beautiful that I can only imagine that it was a small gift for the disastrous adventure we had had so far. With two bottles of wine in storage for the next two evenings and nowhere to go, the equation became simple: Open wine, drink wine, watch sunset and ride the tide back to the dock.
All seemed wonderful. It was hard to imagine that in the previous couple of hours, all of our carefully laid plans had gone more perversely awry than what was humanly imaginable. For now though, I sipped a tasty glass of smoky merlot with my wife and watched the day slip into the gulf. But wait! It was now dark, and we were in a waterway that included motorized boats! Quickly, I grabbed our flashlight and strapped it to the back of the canoe. It was a good thing we had done that, as more than one boat buzzed up within 100 feet or so of us and spotted our light.
Hometown Drinking, Line-Dancing and Swedes Seeing America’s Butt Crack
Back at the dock, we loaded up our canoe and went searching for some cheap lodging in Everglades City. We found some motel (the name escapes me) that resembled a very large doublewide trailer. It sucked, but it was fairly clean and cheap. After checking in, we headed for a bar, any bar with cold beer was going to be fine with me. I wanted to relax and have a good laugh recapping our misadventure. What proceeded is notable.
We found a little local-yokel bar and ordered up a round. An old man was on the dance floor with two trailer queens line-dancing while nearby another man sat at the bar with his ass crack prominently displayed for all to see. Kelli and I began chatting with a couple that looked about as displaced as we must have – there really is comfort in numbers. As it turned out, they were tourists from of all places, Sweden! After asking what in the heck brought them there, they said, “We want to see America!” I quickly pointed to the plumber’s crack at the bar and said, “There you go, now you’ve seen America!”
We had a good time as well as a lot of laughs there. We had really put POTA to the test that night. POTA means, Part Of The Adventure. When things go bad, sometimes you can make the best of it by making it just part of the adventure. It helps, as does several cold alcoholic beverages and a night in a trailer motel!