Essential Paddling Guide: Everglades, Exploring The River Of Grass

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The Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park provides adventure with solitude for paddlers./Michael A. Lanza.

On a windless morning, under the kind of flawless blue sky that always appears in ads for Florida vacations, our paddles send quiet ripples across the otherwise glassy surface of Chokoloskee Bay. As our two canoes glide past a signpost marking the Indian Key Pass water channel, two ospreys lift off from their nest atop the post and flap lazily over the water. Just minutes into our three-day, wilderness canoeing trip into the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park, we don’t yet realize that that will be the least-dramatic wildlife encounter we will have out here.

My wife, Penny, and I, with our ten-year-old son, Nate, and seven-year-old daughter, Alex—in canoes laden with camping gear, food, and five-gallon water jugs—have come to explore one of Earth’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries. Sprawling over 1.5 million acres, Everglades is the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States—bigger than Glacier or Grand Canyon—and home to 350 species of birds and 300 kinds of fish. But to really experience Everglades the place, we’ve decided to canoe and camp in this marine wilderness.

Indian Key Pass channel, ranging roughly 200 yards to a half-mile wide, meanders among tiny, flat islands covered in forests of dense mangroves. My nautical map shows hundreds of isles, or “keys,” knitted together by a maze of channels. Looking out on this ubiquitous land- and seascape, Penny and I agree we’re happy to have chosen one of the most beginner-friendly, multiday canoeing trips in the Everglades. It would be easy to get lost out here.

In the main channel, the air erupts with movement and noise. Songbirds chatter and flit among the trees along the shores. Cormorants and brown pelicans skim the water’s surface. Great blue herons lurk motionlessly at the water’s edge, ready to stab at fish.

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Some of the Everglades' natives -- Roseate spoonbills./Michael A. Lanza.

After a few hours of paddling—and at times, Penny and I stepping out of our canoes to drag them through green water just inches deep, as low tide fast approaches—we reach the outermost islands. Now, instead of the unbroken horizon of mangrove keys, we gaze out onto the vast, flat, wavy blue plain of the Gulf of Mexico. We swing around to the northwest, paddling past the tiny Stop Keys. Almost four hours after launching, we spot our destination: Tiger Key, another small, amoeba-shaped spot on my map of a constellation of similar spots in the Ten Thousand Islands. We pitch our tents on a white-sand beach that we have all to ourselves.

“Cast Away,” this ain’t. Penny and I, and even our kids, have camped in many wilderness settings; perhaps none have been so easy to take as this. We spend the warm, sunny February days with the kids playing in the sand and water, and taking canoes out to explore the shore of Tiger Key. We see more ospreys, white ibises, egrets—and canoe through a hidden mangrove tunnel into a secluded lagoon to find 10 fluorescent pink roseate spoonbills perched together in one tree. A dolphin swims circles around Nate’s and my canoe.

And every evening, we all stand awestruck on the beach watching a blazing, red-orange sun slowly submerge into the gulf.

Occasional contributor Michael Lanza is the Northwest editor for Backpacker Magazine. He also blogs about his outdoor adventures at The Big Outside, and is author of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.