By Larry Rice
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLORIDA: No introduction is needed for this sprawling park at the tip of Florida-it is one of the flattest, most visited, most studied, most threatened units in the National Park system. What is not so well-known, however, is that the park has marked a 99-mile inside water route, from Everglades City, in the northwest Everglades, to Flamingo, in the southern reaches of the National Park land mass. For those who have the time and the inclination to escape the crowds, there is no better way to experience the mangrove wilderness of Everglades National Park.
What must surely be one of the most unusual trails in America, the Wilderness Waterway winds through a maze of brackish creeks, rivers, and large bays where once only mangrove-wise guides went. (Note: even though it's called a "wilderness," motorized boats are allowed throughout the Everglades; however, when I paddled the trail, I saw them infrequently, and on most days not at all.)
Nearly every kind of marine life found in the Caribbean is found along this predominantly estuarine labyrinth. You have a chance to see beautiful and often rare bird life such as roseate spoonbills and ibis, as well as elusive wildlife such as bobcats, black bears, and panthers. Porpoises, alligators, and possibly even the rare, shy manatee may swim by your boat.
Although numbered markers guide you through the mangrove forests and open bays and around countless islands, careful planning is necessary for this 6- to 10-day trip by canoe or touring kayak. Paddlers must be properly equipped with nautical charts and compass. The trail twists and turns as it penetrates the green jungle, past ancient Calusa Indian shell mounds and through nameless sloughs, sawgrass prairies, and eerie mangrove tunnels. The greatest danger, however, is wind; over half the trail is on open bays, which can get rough when small craft advisories are posted.
Camping is allowed at designated sites available along the route, either on shell mounds, island beaches, or "chickees" (wooden tent platforms built up on stilts over the water). Because the mangroves are virtually impenetrable, missing or not reaching a site means spending the night in your boat. Water has to be carried, as there is no fresh water available along the whole trail.
The best time to make a 'glades journey is during the dry winter months, since mosquitoes (there are 43 species in the Everglades, but only 12 of them bite) and sand flies make summer unbearable. No matter when you go, take adequate bug repellent and a tent with no-see-um-proof netting. Naively, I made a trip once lacking both-never again. Backcountry permits must be filled out at either of the ranger stations in Flamingo or Everglades City.
Contact: Everglades National Park, (305) 242-7700. You can rent canoes at the Flamingo and Gulf Coast visitor centers, where you can also get maps and directions. A backcountry permit is required for overnight camping, and a seven-day launch fee of $3 is charged for nonmotorized boats. Necessary reading: Guide to the Wilderness Waterway of Everglades National Park, by William Truesdell, available through the Everglades Natural History Association, (305) 247-1216.
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