We were camped at the very tip of Florida(if you don't count the Keys), at Flamingo Campground on Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.
We studied our maps and talked to some Park officials, and found that there was a way through countless small islands and mangroves, through the everglades to a shore about 20 miles to the west of Flamingo, called Cape Sable.
Cape Sable was said to have a pink beach literally made from shells, and also was habitat to the rare and elusive Cape Sable Sparrow, which we all wanted to see.
We figured that we would likely see other wildlife and interesting plantain this little-frequented wild area of the national park, so we loaded up the canoes and took off at dawn one day.
The canoes had to carry everything from mosquito repellent to food and water, to sleeping bags, plus five people each,so they were loaded nearly to the gunwales.
Our blue Sheltie, Duncan,resident genius and veteran of many expeditions, rode in the canoe that I was paddling.
Our prow guy was Alan, and I paddled from the built-in bench at the stern. Two more people sat in the canoe's center, and Duncan positioned himself just in front of me.
The water was reddish with tannins from all the mangrove stems, and tiny islands went by on either side as we pulled away from Flamingo,hundreds of islands.
Seen from the air, we knew that the area would appear as a watery labyrinth, flat as flat, with rather shallow brackish water and a few islands with ground above water.
This large expanse of island-dotted shallow water is open to the sea to the south and west, and is called SharkBay.
Most of the "islands" were drowned by a few inches of water and we recovered with mangroves, those low trees with large leathery leave sand exposed prop roots.
We paddled for hours, liberally coated with mosquito repellent, through clouds of the tiny hummers, encountering herons, egrets, spoonbills, alligators, and other interesting creatures.
Duncan was a veteran of many canoe day trips,and looked eagerly forward as we came to each new twist and turn in the mangrove maze.
At midday, we drew our canoes together into a floating island of aluminum pods, and shared out sandwiches and drinks.
Duncan was most interested in this aspect, and of course I had made a tuna sandwich just for him and had brought some Milk-Bones as well as a canteen and his water dish.
Finally we found a large island of solid ground under only six inches of water.
It was the best we could do, so we indicated girls' and boy's areas, tied up the canoes to mangroves, and sloshed around to find hidden places.
We paddled. We paddled and paddled and paddled, knowing that there was no choice: we absolutely HAD to reach Cape Sable before dark.
Otherwise we might miss a trail marker and get lost in the watery mangrove maze, and certainly would be eaten alive by mosquitoes the moment our insect repellent ran out.
As the sunshine began to fade into dusk, the whine of the mosquitoes seemed deafening.
We paddled faster. "I am not tired," I began to think to myself. "No, I am absolutely not tired."
As the red sun sank into the black arms of the passing mangroves and the clouds turned to orangey-gold, fish began to break the surface of the water, rising through fiery reflections to the swarms of insects. Some smallish jumped.
Soon, larger fish joined in. Many of these were mullet, the pale,torpedo-shaped edible fellows of brackish bay and estuary.
Most of the mullet were about as long as a forearm. Duncan was fascinated by the splashing of the fish, and stood up to lean over the gunwale where he could get the best view.
Suddenly a great gray head burst from the water. A silver body as long as I am tall thrust itself five feet into the air and fell on its side in a thunder of water. Belatedly I realized that this was a tarpon!
Their mirror like scales flashing orange in the low-angled light of the sunset.
The tarpon arrowed from the water to heights that seemed impossible, then fell with a crash in fountains of spray.
This was exciting, and I found myself wishing I had brought fishing gear.However, the light was fading fast, and we paddled on
Without warning,something heavy and wet hit me in the chest, instantly knocking me flat on my back.
I sat myself up just in time to see a four-foot tarpon in the boat, its head between my knees. Its huge tail thrashed back and forth, smacking little Duncan in the face each time.
With a final convulsion, the big fish wriggled itself out of the canoe and into the water again.
Damply, we paddled toward the place where the sun had gone down, tarpon smacking the water all around us.
At last, just as true darkness closed upon us, the lead canoe's paddlers cried, "Land ho!"
We set to with renewed vigor, and in a few minutes came out upon a pale, dry beach perhaps 30 feet wide and a hundred yards long, backed by the watery mangrove maze.
We had made it to Cape Sable. Duncan jumped from the canoe,wagging, and rolled on the beach, digging in his shoulders, his ultimate expression of satisfaction. This was dry land. It was good.
Built a driftwood fire, and set about cooking the evening meal.
The stars were out in force: Cape Sable was far from the usual sources of air pollution.
Little wavelets lapped at the shore, but otherwise it was silent. Eventually,full of hot food and steaming coffee, we dosed ourselves yet again with mosquito repellent, found the right sleeping bag in the long line laid out on the sand,and fell asleep.
We found that Cape Sable was indeed a beach made of pink shells, unharvested and beautiful.
The Cape Sable Sparrow made an appearance and was seen by all.
Backed by breakfast, packed up, and loaded the canoes for the return trip.
"Piece of cake," someone said.
The bottle of mosquito repellent for one of the canoes had some how disappeared.
We turned out our whole kit, but it was gone. The rest of us had just enough in our bottles to make it back to Flamingo.
I remembered an expedition to Mexico years before, during which I had somehow moved one upper arm outside my mosquito netting at a beach campsite near Mazatlan.
Over 300 mosquito bites had puffed my arm to twice its size, making it hot and swollen.
I had been very sick for days, and there were far more mosquitoes here than had been there. So what should we do?
One of us realized that if we abandoned the mangrove trail and instead took to the ocean, the distance would be shorter by one-third, faster because there wcould be no winding about, and hopefully the breeze on the open sea would keep the tiny menaces at bay.
We could still canoe all the way to Flamingo. We would take a tangential path right across Florida Bay
None of us had ever canoed in the sea before, but there was nothing left to do but begin.
Waves and swells were something new in our experience.
We shipped some water. I looked at Duncan,but he was leaning into the wind.
His ears were up and his tail was gently swinging from side to side. He well knew that this was an adventure.
Before long, we learned how to deal with the swells and small whitecaps.The day was bright and warm, the breeze just enough to blow the pesky mosquitoes back to shore.
Far out to sea, great ships passed; closer in, and sailboats skimmed along. It was a great day.
Paddle along a marked trail to backcountry campsites. The Everglades Wilderness Waterway is real wild Florida and is by far a favorite paddling route in the Everglades...