The Everglades is a water world of shallow bays and lakes, flooded prairies, and narrow creeks. The early Calusa Indians recognized the canoe as the best mode of transportation through the Everglades, and today the canoe is still the best way to appreciate its beauty and wonder. Everglades National Park encompasses 1.4 million acres the entire tip of peninsular Florida.
Ten Thousand Islands
Everglades City is the hub of paddling activity in the western Everglades. It is located on the northern shore of Chokoloskee Bay and provides direct access to the well-known Ten Thousand Islands area, which has been classified by the state as an Aquatic Preserve. This myriad of islands forms countless passes and small bays. The fishing is excellent and the islands present an incredible number of fine camping opportunities.
The Ten Thousand Islands face directly onto the Gulf of Mexico, which makes them subject to the whims of weather systems coming ashore off the open water. The paddler is cautioned to check on weather conditions before venturing into the area and, once there, should always be prepared for sudden changes in wind or weather conditions.
Because of the almost infinite number of paddling opportunities in Ten Thousand Islands, the interested paddler should consult the personnel at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades National Park. These people know the area and can provide valuable information concerning interesting paddling trails for both day and overnight use. The ranger station is located on Chokoloskee Bay in south Everglades City, on the west side of CR 29, just north of where that road becomes a causeway.
Extending for nearly 100 miles, from Everglades City in the northwest Everglades to Flamingo in the southern reaches of the National Park land mass, the Wilderness Waterway crosses some of the most unique terrain in the country. It winds through rivers, creeks, and large bays as it traverses mangrove wilderness and sawgrass prairies. This predominantly estuarine area is home to countless marine species, including dolphins and manatees, as well as a large variety of beautiful wading birds such as roseate spoonbills and ibis. Of course, any paddler who ventures into the Glades is likely to see one of its main attractions, the alligator.
The minimum time required for a canoe trip across the Wilderness Waterway is one week. It can be done faster, but seven days provide sufficient buffer for delays due to weather and unplanned sight-seeing excursions. The National Park Service has constructed a series of campsites and camping platforms (called chickees) along, as well as in the general vicinity of, the Waterway. These can be used by paddlers traversing the entire waterway or taking shorter trips. The Park Service requires all back-country campers to obtain camping permits and file float plans. This can be done at the Everglades City Ranger Station or the ranger's office at the Flamingo Visitor Center. Plans are required for safety and to ensure that campsites don't become overburdened.
Detailed coverage of the Wilderness Waterway is beyond the scope of this guide. For more information, the interested paddler should contact personnel at either the Flamingo or Everglades City ranger stations. In addition, a copy of A Guide to the Wilderness Waterway of the Everglades National Park by William G. Truesdale is well worth the money. It contains a series of maps, which lead the paddler across the waterway, as well as a narrative covering the natural and cultural history of the area. Finally, a set of nautical charts for the Everglades National Park is highly recommended for both on-water navigation as well as pre-trip planning. These include chart number 11433 (Everglades National Park Whitewater Bay), chart 11432 (Shark River to Lostmans River), and chart 11430 (Lostmans River to Wiggins Pass). Nautical charts are available at most marinas as well as the National Park ranger stations and visitor centers.
Many paddlers consider the Turner River one of the finest canoe trails in the Everglades. Flowing into Chokoloskee Bay, it meanders from the northeast for about ten miles, passing through several types of mangrove forests, a large marshland of sawgrass, and several areas of high ground richly vegetated with tall pines and old oaks. Numerous side streams intersect the Turner, inviting exploration. Some end in impassable overgrowth, while others lead to interesting little bays. The river flows from north to south into Chokoloskee Bay, although within a few miles of the mouth of the river, the tides affect the direction of current.
The river was named after Richard B. Turner, a Seminole War scout who guided a military expedition up"Chokolisca Creek" in 1857. This trip resulted in several armed conflicts that effectively ended the Third Seminole War. In the early 1870s, Turner moved onto the river and built a homestead; its remains can still be seen along the eastern shore.
This guide covers the river from Chokoloskee Island to the Tamiami Trail; however, due to the nature of the river, it can easily be paddled in either direction.
Chokoloskee Island to Tamiami Trail
(A-B): 9.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate (some areas of confusing multiple channels)
Topo Quads: Chokoloskee, Ochopee
Access: Everglades City is located about three miles south of US 41, or Tamiami Trail, on CR 29. To reach Chokoloskee Island, drive 2.5 miles south of Everglades City on the CR 29 causeway. A large opening in the roadside vegetation on the left (east) side of the road about 100 yards north of the island marks the put-in point. There is ample and safe parking along the road in this area.
Trip Description: From the put-in, the mouth of the Turner River can be seen almost due east across Chokoloskee Bay. Care should be taken when crossing the bay, especially when windy conditions kick up a mild chop. Additionally, near the mouth of the river, there are a number of oyster beds to be avoided, as well as mud flats which appear during low tide.
One and one-half miles into the trip, a large shell mound on the right (east) marks the location of the old Turner homestead. The Left Hand Turner River comes in from the north one-half mile later, and a short distance beyond that, Hurddles Creek enters from the south. From this point on, the Turner narrows gradually and begins to snake its way northeast.
For the next several miles, it's a very good idea to navigate with a topo map and compass, as this will help distinguish the myriad of side streams from the main channel. From five to seven miles, the river passes through a series of small lakes and open areas connected by short creeks and an occasional mangrove tunnel.
At 7.5 miles, the main river turns toward the north, while the paddler should continue in a northeasterly direction along the Turner River Canal. The banks of the canal, which was dug many years ago, are overgrown with lush vegetation teeming with wildlife. One and one-half miles into this scenic passage, the paddler will encounter the Tamiami Trail bridge. There are two take-outs: one on the southwest side of the bridge and one on the northwest side at H. P. Williams Park.
Take-Out (B): H. P. Williams Park can be reached from Everglades City by proceeding north on CR 29 to the intersection with US 41, or Tamiami Trail. Turn right (east) and proceed for 6.5 miles to the bridge over the Turner River Canal. The wayside park, located on the northwest bridge approach, has a large parking area and picnic facilities.
Flamingo, down at Cape Sable, is a focal point of paddle sport and other park activities in the southern end of the park. Flamingo is at the end of a 50-mile drive from Florida City that passes through mangrove forests, cypress stands, coastal and marl prairies, sloughs and hammocks. Observation and interpretive facilities are located along the road. Before attempting any of the canoe trails, paddlers should stop at the Flamingo Visitor Center for trail maps and current information on trail conditions and the bug situation. Low water can be a problem during the dry winter season and bugs, especially mosquitoes, can be unbearable during the warm months. Because of the flat terrain and lack of distinctive landmarks, map and compass are basic equipment for Everglades canoeing.
Nine Mile Pond Loop offers a taste of the awe-inspiring openness of an Everglades freshwater marl prairie. The Mud Lake Loop Trail is known for good birding and passes through mangrove-lined lakes, streams, and canals.
Nine Mile Pond Loop Trail
Difficulty: Easy (strenuous at low water)
Topo Quad: Mahogany Hammock
Access: Nine Mile Pond is 27 miles from the Main Visitor Center on the road to Flamingo and 12 miles from the Flamingo Visitor Center. Look for the Nine Mile Pond canoe trail sign.
Trip Description: The trip begins with a paddle across Nine Mile Pond out through a narrow, mangrove-shrouded channel. The trail is indicated by white pole markers. Tree islands with cocoplum and buttonwood dot the surroundings. A near-surface limestone layer limits the size of red mangroves that grow in small clusters.
The trail soon enters an open area of spike rush. The open expanse and sheer quietness of the landscape are impressive. No motors are allowed here, and the only sounds are the wind through the rushes augmented by insects and birds. Below the waterline, the rushes are coated with an alga that gives rise to the term"breadstick." Paddling through the rushes is strenuous at low water. While out on the trail, check the sky for bald eagles. These raptors, rare in many parts of the country, are seen frequently in the Everglades.
Finally, the trail passes through two small ponds and then reenters Nine Mile Pond. Take the opportunity to do some birding while passing through these ponds.
Mud Lake Loop Trail
Topo Quad: Flamingo
Nautical Chart: Everglades National Park (11433)
Access: The put-in is on Bear Lake Road 2.2 miles from Flamingo Visitor Center. Bear Lake Road parallels the west bank of Buttonwood Canal and intersects the main park road about half a mile northeast of The Flamingo Visitor Center. The turnoff is well-marked with a sign.
Trip Description: The canoe trail is laid out in a clockwise direction with numbered posts. The first 1.6 miles lie along the mangrove-shrouded channel of the old Homestead Canal. This canal is a remnant of an earlier time when canals were dug in an effort to exploit the Everglades. About a mile up the canal, the canal dodges around Bear Lake Mounda Calusa Indian relic.
A channel to the right leads into the shallow waters of Mud Lake. This is a good birding lake, and roseate spoonbills frequent the area. The trail takes a northeast tack across Mud Lake past a peninsula on the north shore and into Mud Lake Creek. This creek is believed to be one of many canals that Calusa Indians constructed to facilitate canoe travel through the Everglades.
The short trip through Mud Lake Creek leads into Coot Bay. In pre-park days there was an active charcoal-making industry along its shore. Buttonwood trees were cut down, stacked, and burned to make charcoal for sale to settlers in the area. Turn to the right after entering Coot Bay and paddle along the south shore. The natural tranquillity is compromised by powerboats that share Coot Bay.
A little over one mile of paddling leads to the entrance of Buttonwood Canal, which once led directly to Florida Bay; the effects of saltwater intrusion proved very damaging to plant and animal communities, so the canal was plugged. The take-out dock is 0.8 mile down the canal, on the right.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication