Updated: Sep 20, 2019
Searching for plastic symptoms in Florida's iconic national park
As the first multi-day paddling trip for either Bryan or myself, the Wilderness Waterway proved to be a challenging and daunting expedition. We learned that the three main factors every paddler needs to be aware of are tides, weather, and navigation. These factors cannot be stressed enough. We set out in our tandem Mad River Canoe 14' Adventure, feeling mostly prepared for what lay ahead. We attempted to purchase nautical charts from the Flamingo Visitor Center, but instead, left with a National Geographic foldout map of the Everglades, and a few paper Everglades National Park maps (which were surprisingly quite detailed). We felt prepared with our emergency items and would recommend others bring: PFDs (required), a whistle (required), a compass, mirror, machete, an airhorn, flares, matches/lighters, a first-aid kit, and possibly a Spot satellite tracker. We expected to be in the Waterway for 7 to 10 days, and planned accordingly with enough food (held in two 5-gal buckets for waterproof, animal-proof storage), and 13 gallons of water (one 5-gal returnable Crystal water jug, and one refillable 7-gal jug, along with 6 reusable water bottles that we filled before we left). We finished eight days later, and had gone through 11 gallons of water, between what we used for drinking as well as cooking. We carried a Jetboil stove, which we highly recommend because it boils water within about a minute.
As for our plant-based, (mostly) plastic-free food options, we brought:
- SNACKS: nuts, seeds, sesame sticks, cacao energy squares, dried fruit and cranberries
- BREAKFAST: dried oatmeal, sometimes granola with plant-based milk in a carton
- DINNER: tri-color quinoa, green lentils, yellow lentils, and pearled couscous
- SEASONINGS/EXTRA: tortillas, dehydrated coffee, local honey, nutritional yeast, hemp hearts, peanut butter, jelly, vegetable broth (a must-have!), garlic clove, sun-dried tomatoes in oil, pepper, turmeric, Old Bay seasoning
We weren't quite sure what we were going to find as far as plastic symptoms go, but we were prepared to fill up our canoe with as much as we could safely carry back to the mainland. Anything else that we couldn't carry, we made sure to document with photos and videos. What we found was eye-opening for being in a national park.
DAY 1: (17 miles)
Flamingo Visitor Center to Joe River Chickee
The night before we set out for the Wilderness Waterway, we cozied up in our one-person Big Agnes Copper Spur tent at the Flamingo campground, while we were lulled to sleep by the sound of owls and blood-thirsty mosquitos. Because we were planning on leaving our truck parked in the Flamingo marina parking lot for 7-10 days, we were advised to cover it securely with tarps (which the visitor center has available free-of-charge) to prevent vultures and crows from picking it apart piece-by-piece while we were gone. Once we had securely fastened the truck, and packed up our canoe with everything we could fathom needing for our Wilderness trip, it was nearly noon. The day was sunny and hot, and as we got started, we got caught in a warm Florida afternoon rain shower. The Buttonwood Canal, leading north from the marina, was full of tourists in their rented kayaks, and was a beautiful, easy paddle to start our venture. We felt like we were on a Disney ride as we immediately passed several American saltwater crocodiles, American alligators, manatees, and exotic-looking Florida wading birds all during a short period of time. Soon enough, however, the canal opened up to a windy, choppy bay where none of the tourists dared venture. With the wind at our backs, we navigated through Coot Bay, though the waves were nearly at the top of our heavy-loaded canoe at times. Once we entered Whitewater Bay, we stayed to the left and followed Joe River to our destination for the evening. Because we didn't have very accurate maps (can't stress enough how important this is!), we kept getting confused on our location, and began singing Pocahontas' "Just Around the Riverbend" everytime we got our hopes up that the chickee camping platform would be just around the next riverbend. Finally, around 6pm, we reached the chickee and were relieved to find that we were the only ones there as well. There were two platforms and an outhouse in the middle. We set up our tent and cooking area under one roof, and hung the hammock under the other roof. Knowing that we probably wouldn't have much time before the mosquitos and no-see-ums came out, we quickly set up the tent and got started cooking, which would become the two most imperative order of operations whenever we arrived at our campsite. Bryan got to work cooking quinoa and green lentils with the Jetboil stove. We added some vegetable broth, fresh garlic, nutritional yeast, sun-dried tomatoes, and seasonings to the dinner and it actually tasted quite delicious for a backpacking meal! As the sun began to set, we saw dolphins leaping out of the air down river from us, and were happy as two peas in a pod swinging in the hammock while eating dinner. But as soon as 8pm rolled around, the no-see-ums started coming out in full-force, causing us to retreat into the tent for the next 12 hours. That evening, the full moon rose over the mangroves and we could hear a dolphin swimming around the platform, fishing for it's late-night meal.
DAY 2: (11 miles)
Joe River Chickee to Shark River Chickee
We woke up around 8am to the no-see-ums outside our tent slowly dwindling in numbers as the warm, south Florida sun started beating down on us. A we left the chickee, a couple of fishermen were just arriving to use the structure as their homebase for a two-day fishing trip. After we told them our story, they remarked "and we thought WE were hardcore for coming out in the wind and the [impending] rain!" I'll admit, it felt good to be back in the canoe and paddling off down the river to unknown territory again. We entered the open waters of Oyster Bay, and once again, found it to be quite choppy, but thankfully the wind was at our backs again. With Bryan in the back, watching the waves and directing how we tacked across the bay, I navigated with our affectionately-referred "Kindergarten maps" in front of me, directing us across the bay. From the eye-level of the water, it's difficult to distinguish the islands apart from each other, and therefore it's also difficult to spot the mouths of rivers. But we knew that if we went too far to the west we would feel the pull the current bringing us out to sea (we were on a receding tide), so we tried to make a straight-shot down the widest part of the Bay to reach the narrow entrance to Shark River at the opposite end. After a few snack breaks, and a few wrong turns, we finally found the entrance to Shark River, and an old channel marker tucked amongst the mangroves that was just barely visible. We took a break from paddling and let the flow of the river slowly pull us along. At that point, we both finally took a sigh of relief from the choppy, dangerous waters of Oyster Bay, and the fear of being lost forever in the Wilderness. I admitted that when we were paddling down the wrong river, I started feeling panicked, and sick to my stomach thinking about the prospect of being lost in those alligator and python-infested mangrove islands for the rest of our lives. It's so easy to get lost in the Everglades! Which is why having nautical charts, a compass, and knowing the tides and the weather are hugely important. As we continued down Shark River, we came to a fork in the river that we didn't recognize on our maps, so we continued and came to another intersection with another river and, once again, became quite confused and nervous we might never find the chickee. So after fighting the incoming tide for about ten minutes, we decided to turn around a retrace our steps, so-to-speak. Thankfully, we came across a boater at the first river fork, and he let us know the chickee was about a mile down the side river - where we wouldn't have thought to check based on our maps! Feeling another sigh of relief, we paddled off in the hopes that this time we would finally find our camping platform for the night, and indeed we did! The Shark River Chickee was just a single platform with an outhouse, tucked right up in the mud of the mangroves. We knew there were thunderstorms heading our way that evening, so we pulled our canoe up on the walkway and turned it over. We then quickly went about getting the tent set up and dinner made. The no-see-ums came out an hour early tonight (around 7pm), and there wasn't really anything we could do about them - our natural and DEET bugspray was no use, it seemed only long pants and shirts was the ticket. So, after frantically putting on the rainfly (because the rain from the storm was starting to come in under the covered roof), we realized to our horror that LOTS of no-see-ums had followed us back into the tent. It then became a looooong, hot, humid, and uncomfortable night of getting bit by these insects inside our tent. The only saving grace of the evening, was the initial hour of darkness where we laid in the tent watching the impressive thunder and lightning storm surround us, and feeling incredibly grateful to have found the chickee.
DAY 3: (10 miles)
Shark River Chickee to Harney River Chickee
In the morning, the no-see-ums didn't leave the outside of our tent until about 9am (an hour later than yesterday morning), so we waited until the coast looked clear before exiting our mesh cave. After cooking oatmeal for breakfast, we got going by 10:15am. We followed the Shark River to Tarpon Bay, then the Harney River to the Harney Chickee. Today's paddling route was more straight-forward (thank goodness!), but we were paddling northwest, and had a northwest wind against us, as well as an incoming tide. So paddling the Harney River was difficult, but we took several breaks for snacks and water, and to regain our strength. We reached the chickee at around 4pm, a somewhat leisurely time to end the day, so we set up the hammock and took about an hour nap in the late afternoon sun. It was a double platform chickee, and once again, we had the chickee to ourselves. Each day we've been seeing fewer and fewer people on the water, which is refreshing but also eerie at times. The water surrounding the chickee was coffee-brown, so we just lowered ourselves down the deck ladder enough to rinse off quickly without actually getting in the alligator-laden water. We made quinoa and lentils for dinner, set up the tent, and quickly got in it around 7pm as the no-see-ums started to come out to reign the night. The sunset from the tent was beautiful, and we watched a dolphin swim around the mouth of the Broad Creek right next to us, as it was hunting. There were also ibis' and other wading birds hunting for food in the mudflats as the tide was going out. Unfortunately, we hadn't left very much slack on the ropes holding the canoe to the chickee, so for the next few hours we listened nervously for the possible sound of our canoe handles snapping under its weight and all our gear sinking into the murky depths. It wasn't worth leaving the tent and risking another night of getting eaten alive by no-see-ums (seriously, folks, that's how bad it is). But thankfully, that didn't happen, and everything was still there in the morning.
DAY 4: (11 miles)
Harney River Chickee to Highland Beach
For the first time since we started our paddle, I woke up with the sunrise and was out of the tent around 7:45am because miraculously the insects weren't that bad! Watching the sun slowly rise over the still, quiet Harney River, and the birds begin to stir and fly to their feeding grounds was a peaceful way to start the morning. I boiled some water for Bryan's coffee (a necessary peace-keeper for the trip), and we ate oatmeal and leftover dinner for breakfast. Then something truly strange happened... the no-see-ums started attacking us around 9am! We were getting eaten alive! So we threw everything in the canoe and took off from the chickee in record time. Instead of taking the narrow, windy Broad Creek up to the notorious "Nightmare" pass through the mangroves, we decided to take the wide, lazy Harney River directly out to the ocean. Frankly, we felt like we had enough of the insects and alligator-infested water, and wanted to experience the coastal islands of the Everglades. Thankfully, the tide was still going out, and the wind hadn't picked up yet, so we had a quick, easy 4mi paddle out to the ocean. Near the mouth of the river, we saw several species of egrets, herons, and even a roseate spoonbill! Once we reached the ocean, the water was surprisingly calm and flat. We paddled north along the shoreline until we started seeing buoys and fishing line tangled up in the branches of the mangroves. Some of them were nearly out of our reach, so we figured Hurricane Irma must've placed them there. A little later, we untangled a fishing lure and hook from a small mangrove tree where black-bellied plovers were resting. In the early afternoon we made it to the white sands of Highland Beach. We pulled up the canoe and were disappointed to find quite a lot of plastic and other trash strewn along the entire length of the beach. Much of the debris was from fishing vessels (crab traps, fishing line, lures), and we found the usual suspects of bottle caps, balloons, plastic bags, cups, straws, cans, and more. After picking up the beach, and taking photos, we settled on a windy campsite and set up our gear. Bryan got started making a fire to try to keep the insects away longer tonight. We ate peanut butter and jelly tortillas by the fire and watched the sunset, and it was glorious.
DAY 5: (13 miles)
Highland Beach to New Turkey Key
Last night was actually chilly enough that I needed to break out my 20 degree sleeping bag! Up until that point we had been using a fleece blanket, but with the constant wind from the north all night (which successfully kept away the no-see-ums and mosquitos!) we were chilly enough to need an extra layer. While I made oatmeal and coffee, Bryan walked the beach, picking up and documenting plastic symptoms. He returned with a burlap bag full of plastic, as well as a handful of crab trap pots. It was extremely low tide by the time we got everything ready to go, so we waded out into the shin-deep water with the empty canoe, and I held it in place while Bryan made multiple trips back to the beach for our gear. He almost managed to strap all the plastic he found on the back of our canoe, but at the last minute he noticed a black widow spider, and immediately abandoned that plan. We finally set out at 10:15am. It was so shallow around the islands that we had to use our paddles to push off the sea floor, gondola-style for the first mile or so. It was another gorgeously sunny day with no wind and a perfectly flat ocean. We were treated to multiple sightings of dolphins, sea turtles, rays, and even a small shark! New Turkey Key was where we decided to call it a day, and we had the entire island to ourselves! It was a small, stunning island with sugar white, fine sand. Surprisingly, there was an unsightly port-a-potty on this island, as apparently there are at most of the Everglades beach camping sites. Unfortunately, this island also had a pile of manmade garbage which seemed to consist of a mangled tent, camping chair, and canopy in the middle of the grassy part of the island. After building a fire, having dinner, and taking multiple pics of the sunset from my hammock, we retreated back to the tent as the no-see-ums came out with a vengeance around 8pm, just after the sun sank below the horizon.
DAY 6: (10 miles)
New Turkey Key to Rabbit Key
During the middle of the night, our campsite was visited by some furry raccoon friends who took a curiosity to our fresh water containers. Thankfully, they weren't able to figure out the spigot on the water jug, nor were they able to break inside of our 5gal buckets of food. So instead, they had to settle on the plentiful amount of horseshoe crabs lining the shore in droves as it just happens to be their mating season. We met two fishermen (Ernie and Matt) who pulled their boats up on the shore that morning, and set up camp to stay there a few nights. Ernie had been coming out here for ten years, and had never seen so many boaters around these islands - which is funny, because we felt like there were barely any, but had noticed a slight increase in boaters the further north we got. The fishermen were also appalled by the garbage left on the beach, and we asked if they would consider dragging it off the island with them when they left, as the items were definitely too big to take with us on our canoe. They asked if we needed anything before we left, and we agreed to water. However, they only had plastic water bottles, so unfortunately we ended up using about three of them to fill one of our 40oz Klean Kanteens. My stomach didn't feel good this morning, so we hung around a little while, and didn't set off until about noon. It was another calm, flat, beautiful day on the water. We encountered more fishermen, but still no paddlers. The ocean had been treating us well, so we decided to continue along the islands as opposed to going back inland and paddling the mangrove route. There were multiple opportunities to follow the rivers back to the inland portion of the Wilderness Waterway, but we were having too much of a nice time on the ocean side. We arrived at Rabbit Key around 4pm, and somewhat to our disappointment, discovered that there was already another group of people who had set up camp on the beach. We were almost going to leave when a tour guide from an Everglades City tour boat gave us a tip to go around the southern end of the island where there was a beautiful, west-facing beach. We followed his direction, and sure enough, found a secluded beach all to ourselves, with the occasional osprey neighbors. Earlier in the day, Bryan had discovered a green inner tube amongst the mangroves that was still inflated, so we took it out for a spin at our little private beach. Afterwards, he set up the hammock and built a fire, while I got the tent situated and made a delicious dinner of couscous and yellow lentils. It was so good we actually made seconds! Bryan had set the hammock high up in the mangroves, hanging rather precariously over the prop roots and oyster shells. But we managed to eat our dinner(s) without disaster, and had a relatively no-see-um-free night. Because somehow I always manage to wake up in the middle of the night and pee, we had devised a box for me to pee in while inside the tent so as to avoid massive amounts of no-see-ums following me back in for a free meal. This night, however, I forgot my convenient "pee pee box", and had to escape the tent, ninja-style, much to Bryan's chagrin. Luckily, though, only a few mosquitos got in, and thankfully they were easy to hear and catch.
DAY 7: (4.5 miles)
Rabbit Key to Jewell Key
We woke up with the sun, as usual, and I made coffee and protein-packed oatmeal which we ate in the shade of a tree on the beach. We knew we were close to the end of the Wilderness Waterway (Everglades City), so we decided that we were going to take our time today and only paddle a few miles and camp one more night in the islands as opposed to heading home early. After we had fun with our found inner tube (which sadly met its fate on some submerged oyster shells), we relaxed in the hammock and simply enjoyed the beauty of our surroundings and the novelty of being out of cell phone range. After a few easy miles in the calm open ocean, we arrived at Jewell Key and took a while deciding where we were going to set up camp because there were so many osprey nests along the shore. After setting up the tent, I duct taped the inner tube, and discovered that it worked again! Bryan made another fire, and we made another delicious dinner of couscous and yellow lentils with garlic, veggie broth, and sun-dried tomatoes. We ate in the hammock, went to bed after the sunset, and stayed up late killing no-see-ums in the tent while simultaneously trying to enjoy the stars.
DAY 8: (5 miles)
Jewell Key to Chokoloskee
We had another night of raccoon neighbors curiously checking out our campsite, but thankfully they didn't end up disturbing anything. As we paddled toward Everglades City (EC), the tide was in our favor and the wind was at our backs - we couldn't have been more fortunate with our timing! We swiftly made our way through the thick of the Ten Thousand Islands, a confusing matrix of mangrove islands where the tide can be your worst enemy if you time your navigation wrong. We used our compass (your best friend in the Waterway) and our two conflicting maps to try and find Everglades City via Sandfly Pass. We finally gave in and asked a couple of fishermen to help us with directions, and realized that we were only off course by one wrong turn. As we made our way through Sandfly Pass we started seeing more boats, and could make out cars driving by on the road from EC to Chokoloskee. It was a surreal, scary, disappointing, yet relieving feeling to see civilization again. We turned our phones on as we approached our destination, and immediately started getting bombarded by messages as our cell service picked up for the first time in a week. After pulling up our canoe at the NPS boat ramp, we walked over to the quiet visitor center to let them know we made it. The park rangers were excited to hear about our trek and congratulated us on our feat. We realized that most of the Everglades NP employees we met had never paddled the Wilderness Waterway, which we found rather surprising. Once we were over the thrill of finishing the Waterway, we were faced with the task of finding a ride back to my truck which was parked nearly a three-hour drive away at the Flamingo marina. Because we started our paddle right after the park closed for the season, most of the local operations were no longer running, so it was especially difficult to find a ride. We chatted with an older couple from Utah who was paddling parts of the Wilderness Waterway, the only other people we met the entire time who were also paddling. Reluctantly, we got back in our canoe and headed upstream to Everglades City marina, where Bryan flagged down some boaters to ask about getting a ride. They all suggested we try our luck at the busier marinas of Chokoloskee. Three miles later, we arrived at a public marina on Chokoloskee near an RV resort. We sat at the docks chatting with some friendly locals while we tried in vain to find a ride. Bryan contacted a fisherman who agree to give us a ride in the morning if we met him at the marina around 8:30am. Luckily, the owner of the RV resort gave us permission to camp near the marina and use their restrooms. Another friendly boater let us take showers at his place across the street because Bryan and I looked like a couple of stray cats and probably smelled like one too. My all-natural bugspray had accidentally opened and spilled inside my backpack that afternoon, so everything smelled potent and I was not a happy camper. But it's amazing what a hot shower can do! After a restless night, we were able to get a ride from our fisherman friend the next morning back to Homestead. Once in Homestead, we gratefully used our friend Gillian's (of @gilliansadventures) van to drive into the park and get the truck. What a whirlwind!
Purchase nautical charts
Always carry a compass
Always carry first-aid and safety supplies
Have a tide chart
Arrange a ride back to your vehicle ahead of time
Bring at least 10 gallons of water for two people for a week-long trip
Carry your food in sealable 5gal buckets
Bring a hammock
Bring sunscreen (being on the water intensifies sunburns!)
Insect repellent doesn't really work - wear long-sleeves and pants
It's possible to be plastic-free (and vegan!) by buying in bulk and carrying reusable tins, bamboo/metal utensils, and reusable water bottles
ENJOY being out of cell phone range and away from civilization