Paddling the Everglades Trail

Kayaking Florida’s saltwater trail—with crocodiles, sharks, and other predators

The crocodile lay in the mud, flat-bellied and splay-legged, its black unblinking eyes taking me in. It was at least 10 feet long and had a pale-green crenellated hide, with bumps and ridges. I knelt down on the bank of the canal for a better look. Crocodiles are opportunists, lying still most of the day until something worth snapping at comes close enough. I wondered: How fast could this reptile clamber up the 30 feet of bank separating us? For just a moment, I wanted to see the world from the perspective of the prey. I was in the right spot; in few other places are the carnivores as big and plentiful as in Everglades National Park.

My friend Steve and I were at the southern end of the park. Our plan was to launch kayaks into Florida Bay, then paddle west along the coastal Everglades, camping on beaches accessible only by water. Our trek was a leg of the relatively new 1,500-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, the state’s effort to establish an aquatic Appalachian Trail, mapping the waterways so that kayakers can always be within a day’s paddle of a campsite. Before we began raising families, Steve and I had often teamed up on adventures like this, most marked by our shared unwillingness to be the one to call off a trip in the face of dire weather or equipment malfunctions. So when thunderstorms hit the night before, and I called Steve to see if he was still up for it, he replied, “Let’s drive down and you can make the call.”

Now here we were: the ranger station at the Flamingo campground, where a small-craft advisory warned of 18- to 24-mile-an-hour winds the next day. Our craft couldn’t get any smaller unless we downgraded to inner tubes. “It’s up to you,” I told Steve. We launched from the ranger station that afternoon.

I grew up in the North, where you could plant your boots firmly on the ground and take a hike under the shade of oak and maple trees. Maybe you’d see a deer, or a bear. It took me a while to adjust to the Everglades, a swamplike 1.5 million acres of mostly impenetrable saw grass, dotted with tropical hardwood hammocks, grilled by the Florida sun, and lorded over by mosquitoes.

What ultimately brought me around was the doomed poetry of the Everglades. I learned to see it not as a swamp, but as the wide, slow-moving, life-sustaining river it is, one that has become a refuge for the larger predators—the Florida panther, the saltwater American crocodile—as developers pave over the rest of Florida. Now one of the last redoubts of the threatened was itself endangered.

I wasn’t alone in my initial aversion to this jungle. The Everglades has historically been viewed as a messy inconvenience, to be drained and dried. But by stanching the southward flow of fresh water, we allowed salt water to creep in from all sides, leaching into the aquifers that provide much of South Florida’s tap water. Now the government has a plan to restore a modicum of water flow over the next three decades by dismantling some of what we’ve done.

My growing appreciation for the wildlife living in this balance of land and water didn’t extend to its mosquitoes. One of the ways to see the Everglades with minimal blood loss is by sea, away from the brush where blood-suckers thrive. Hence our kayaks. In the canal leading to Florida Bay, whose marine ecosystem is considered part of the Everglades, we saw two of the threatened, snaggle-toothed saltwater crocs and an endangered, corpulent manatee. As we slipped into the bay and headed west, our kayaks glided over viridescent water a few feet deep. Overhead, brown-and-white ospreys circled leaping mullet. Great blue herons and white egrets stalked the shoreline. Around one mangrove-tangled cove, a large small-tooth sawfish (endangered) writhed in the shallows, digging for shellfish. Farther along, a finning bull shark cruised the flats, followed by another, then—splash!—something big dove in front of my kayak. Whatever it was, I prayed it wouldn’t surface under me.

The paddle was almost perfect. “Almost” because the hull of my kayak was warped, and the boat pulled to my left, out to sea. I’d take 20 strokes, then have to correct the nose. “Steve, this thing is really screwy, you think this is a good idea?” I asked. We ended up taking turns in the bad kayak.

Our goal was to hit the beach at Cape Sable, the southernmost point in the mainland United States. But given our pace, we weren’t sure we’d make camp before nightfall; then a slender crescent of white sand came into view. Next to it, two bald eagles (protected) perched on the branch of a gnarled black mangrove. As we approached, one swooped over us to inspect. It seemed an appropriate spot. We slid ashore and collected silver driftwood.

Once the tent was up, we kindled our fire below the high-tide mark, as required, then sat down to smoked oysters, filet mignon roasted on sharpened spits, and rum. The sky shimmered with stars, and a steady southerly breeze dispersed the mosquitoes. The only evidence that other humans existed was an old lobster buoy in the sand.

By morning, the incoming tide had washed away any trace of our fire, and the wind was blowing hard enough to feather the water with what were sure to be muscle-busting whitecaps. The small-craft advisory loomed in my mind. But the sharks were already cruising the flats, the eagles were overhead, and I was grateful we hadn’t turned back when we had the chance.