Sunday, November 23, 2014

West Lake - January 2nd,1987

I've put several of my first articles in blog format. One of my first, and definitely one of my favorites, is about my daughter, Monica, and a canoe trip we took on January 2nd, 1987. She was 15. 


Monica and I arrived at the West Lake boat ramp in the Everglades National Park over an hour later than planned. We were late getting up having spent the day before, New Year's Day, eating and watching football. Even though we packed my pickup truck the night before, we didn't get to the park office until well after sunrise. 

My daughter and I usually headed south to Everglades National Park every Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, while many of our friends crowded to Dadeland Mall for the annual shopping frenzy, but not this year. The day after New Year's was our first opportunity to canoe the park and camp overnight. We hoped we would have the vast National Park to ourselves once again.
Loading the canoe at West Lake Boat Ramp

The park ranger at the main gate advised us our destination, the primitive campsite at Alligator Creek, might be awash and probably not usable. He called the park office to check and they advised us not to plan on camping due to recent incredibly high tides. They had not issued any permits for over a week because lunar and solar alignment had caused serious problems as far north as the Carolina coast. The high tides had receded in the last several days however, and the rainy weather that spoiled everyone's Orange Bowl parade had finally dissipated. Bad weather wasn't due again until Sunday, two days away, so it was go now, or wait until my next time off in April. I convinced the ranger we could arrive at the campsite and have time to return to the facility at West Lake if indeed the site proved "uncampable." Everyone liked that idea and we were given the permit with the ominous warning, "WARNED OF HIGH WATER AT CAMPSITE" printed across the space for destination.

We wanted calm water to cross the first three open miles of water at West Lake in our fully loaded canoe. The first mile was no problem and we enjoyed the quiet lake taking time to just adjust to our cramped canoe. The calm air lasted until we were exposed in the center of the lake. The first ominous "cat's paws", the innocuous and slight changes in water color caused by the first minute ripples, the first gentle hint of wind, were beginning to scatter around us from the north. At first I was glad they weren't coming out of the east as I have no great love for paddling into the wind. It only took fifteen minutes and the waves were rolling against us, almost as high as our gunwale. We timed our strokes so the crest of the waves arrived as we had the port side as high as we could manage without rolling the canoe. For once I wished the wind were head on instead of dead abeam, or broadside. Luckily, the wind didn't get worse, and the waves held at less than white caps. Monica started facetiously singing about it being a pirate's life for her as we worked toward the far side of the lake.

Entering Long Lake
As we took our first breather and coasted up to the white plastic PVC pipe used to mark the trail at the end of West Lake, we noticed the old wooden marker was still in place. We had canoed West Lake before and knew the marker was the beginning of a short, twisty creek through the mangroves that leads to Long Lake. We usually turned around here on our day trips, this would be our first paddle all the way to the end of the trail

Heading into the shade of the mangrove canopy meant break out the industrial strength bug repellent. This is one routine we have down pat. We always wear long sleeve shirts, light cotton ones as much for the sun as for the bugs. We cover everything plastic we ever want to use again, from plastic sun-glass lenses to watch crystals, because the insect repellent will destroy most plastics. Then we spray each other down, buddy style. It doesn't pay to have your buddy upset with you or he or she may leave insidious gaps in your chemical armor. Today, however we are pleased by the comparative lack of mosquitoes. We have been here in the summertime, called the "off season", and paid dearly for it. Not just with mosquitoes but also horse flies and what we used to call deer flies. I'm sure they have a different name down here. Probably alligator flies.

We took it easy through the first creek and I checked the time. It was 10:35 a.m. We had shoved off shortly after 9:00 o'clock and had worked hard the last hour. We paddled the creek slowly, waiting for the hordes of insects we knew were waiting for us. We broke out into the northwest corner of Long Lake and searched down the lake with our binoculars for the next marker. The marker sits ominously in the middle of the next section of the trail. We picked up the pace again and watched a lone egret off against the western shore of the lake. The wind didn't effect the narrower, more protected lake as much as the first one, and we paddled without the constant fear of being swamped. We were between being quiet for the sake of seeing wildlife and the need to be as quick as possible with a full canoe.

We were startled by a Great Blue Heron that made great squawks as it jumped from the overhanging foliage just a few feet from our port bow as we passed to the right of the first mangrove island. We saw no more wildlife for the next hour as we worked our way down an appropriately named lake. The mangrove islands make it a little more interesting than the first lake. The National Park Service has done a well thought out job and there is no need to take any maps at all as long as you follow the trail markers. Anyone could canoe this trail without any serious detours into never-never land. They might complain about the endless mangroves, perhaps, and maybe about the lack of convenience stores for beer or soft-drinks. They would most certainly complain about their bladders. There is no solid ground on this 8 and a 1/2 mile trail and endurance here is a necessity. We carried bottled water as we stay away from soft drinks especially in the sun.
Red Mangroves at Long Lake

As we approached the end of Long Lake we were startled by the sudden and dramatic change of water color; It turned red. Not clay red or just reddish, but blood red. Monica suggested it was probably from 'gator feeding. The color was from decaying red mangrove leaves. It is startling, none the less. Oddly enough, it was the only place on the trail that was that color. By the time we had paddled on another five minutes, the opaque water again turned a brownish color.

After a short, wide creek came a sharp left that skirted the edge of a wide pond that is actually Long Lake. The turn takes you into a mangrove canopy that is so thick the overhead foliage does not belie the presence of the shallow, wandering trail. If it weren't for an occasional tree limb obviously cut with a saw you would think you had made a wrong turn at the last pond. We startled a small green heron into flight. It flew down the creek with nowhere else to go but along the creek.

We took another breather, this time a little more seriously, and in the silence we're soon startled by voices coming from further down the trail. As we emerged out into the next lake, called the Lungs, we surprised two men fishing from a blue canoe tied to the trail marker. They appeared as startled as we were. We exchanged small talk. While we were talking one caught a salt water catfish. The other held up a stringer of what appeared to be good sized drum. When we told them we were going to Alligator Creek campsite they told us it was muddy, but usable. I was relieved to hear we would be able to pitch our tent but I was still concerned about conditions.
Monica made another crack about a pirate's life for her and we started across the last long stretch of open water. There are three markers in the Lungs, one at each end to mark the creeks, and one where the trail bends to the west about halfway across the lake. The wind was at our backs for the first time since we started. We talked about the return trip and decided this would be the hardest part of the return trip if the wind didn't clock around on us.

We started the next creek surprised by how much wider it was than the earlier ones. The foliage changed, too. Buttonwoods and hardwoods covered the banks as we realized this was more than just mangroves. We startled flocks of tri-color herons and egrets of all sizes as we worked slowly into the narrowing creek. As the noisy herons settled down it got quieter and quieter. Soon, not a sound could be heard. Not even our paddles softly pushing us further and further into the overhang made any sound. After five minutes or so, we stopped paddling altogether just to marvel at the stillness. We glided silently along the creek, neither of us paddling. My ears began to ring as I looked around the creek. Monica sat motionless. Our creek had become an environment neither of us expected.

There are times in your life when you forget what quiet is. Really quiet, absolute stillness, when your visual senses become so heightened you think you've lost your hearing. When you experience it again you are amazed by the impact of silence, a feeling of almost deafness. Our incredible stillness exploded when a large alligator crashed through the creek overgrowth inches from our bow and crashed heavily into the water almost hitting the side of canoe. The spray from the splash got Monica more wet than me. She sucked her breath and pulled her paddle tightly across her chest. We sat motionless for a few moments as the entire experience slowly evaporated back to the silence that allowed us to hear our own heartbeats.

Monica finally exhaled, still clutching her paddle across her chest. We watched the trail of bubbles that marked the alligator's path through the brown, murky water. After a few moments we paddled on, neither saying a word. I noticed Monica wasn't taking a full bite with her paddle. The gator was at the bottom, below us somewhere, waiting for us to leave. We have startled alligators completely out of the water with our paddles before, and seeing the size of this one, I didn't blame her. I hit one in the back with a paddle accidentally while pushing through a slough at Noble Hammock and scared it as badly as it did us when it jumped high out of the water alongside our canoe. Monica had been sitting in the middle of the canoe between my brother and me and got to see the white underbelly as the gator flopped back into the water.

This was our first 'gator on the trip but not our last. We paddled another hundred yards and scared three more sunning gators off the creek bank. They dove into the water one after another as if choreographed. It was like someone throwing refrigerators in the water one after another. I have been around alligators since I caught my first one in a shrimp net when I was twelve. I don't fear them but I certainly don't get careless either. They can be very dangerous, and can cause serious damage or injury even accidentally. I hadn't envisioned a startled gator crashing into the canoe, or worse yet, in it. I was curious about the size of these guys, though. Usually we see smaller ones in greater numbers than the big ones, but not here. We have seen only fairly big alligators. None of the four we scared off the bank were under nine or ten feet. We thought we had been observant before, but now we were really observant! 
The famous Noble Hammock trip with Dean & Monica
 Taking a break after accidentally hitting an alligator. 1979

The largest of the three arrogantly surfaced not six feet off Monica's left shoulder. Monica started to raise her paddle and the 'gator slipped quickly back beneath the surface. I told her he was looking for a peanut butter sandwich. I'm sure that as remote as this seems, the trail is very popular and I'm sure it had been fed before. Sort of an odd comparison to the bears out in the western parks I suppose, but the effect of free food can cause problems with any creature.

We start around the very next bend, and because we are tense and nervous, make a big mistake. We run up on one of the submerged logs that are plentiful in this one section of the creek. Stranded! We were stuck with our canoe bow wedged tightly in a submerged dead tree. We paddled backwards, at first normally, then almost frantically, but to no avail. Without speaking we stopped trying to free ourselves. We sat quietly watching the tidal flow. Watching the tidal flow for telltale bubbles. We finally spoke to each other and decided to backstroke hard on the left side while we both leaned to the stern of the canoe. One! Two! Three! and we were free. Traveling quickly backwards, we shot into the overgrowth on the creek bank behind us. After a few quick references to my canoeing ability, Monica leaned forward and started her Mark Twain act and called out the few logs and limbs we encountered as we slowly continued paddling down the trail. We scared one more alligator off the bank before we finally broke into a wide pond.

All the breaks we took before were simply for sore arms and tired backs. This break ranks in the Guinness Book of Records for total relief. We were both exhausted, as much from the tension as from the physical paddling. I checked my watch. It was almost one o'clock. We had paddled almost four hours. If we couldn't stay at the campsite, we would have to be back at West Lake ramp by sunset at 5:45 pm.  I checked my chart and was positive we were close to the campsite. We decided to press on.

As we started across the pond, I noticed a blotch of pink in a buttonwood tree at the far end. I talked Monica into a short detour to take a look. I managed several photos before the most beautifully plumaged bird I have ever seen in the wild flew off giving the appropriate noisy protests. It was a Roseate Spoonbill in full courting colors. It circled the pond several times, and as we left the pond, returned to the branch it rested on before we disturbed it. They are beautifully plumaged birds with an incredibly ironic twist; Nature gave them heads that would make a buzzard wince.

We pass a small island and start into the second half of Alligator creek. It is narrower than the first part but still wide enough for two canoes. We come across another large 'gator on the bank but this one doesn't move. We watch it at eye level as we glide past not six feet away. The lower branches of the overgrowth have eelgrass hanging from them. The water had been recently very high here as the eelgrass hanging at eye level had only started to dry out. We pass a clearing on the north bank. Camp site? No, no markers. We passed the remnants of an old wooden bridge, left over from the cotton days back at the turn of the century. It is at the end of the hiking trail that follows the old logging road.

Alligator Creek Campsite

The camp site lays just a little west. It is not a primitive campsite, it is a wilderness campsite. There is no chickee. There is no platform. You can see Florida Bay from the landing. You can also see the alligator lying not ten feet from the landing.
A ten foot alligator quietly watches from across the creek. Its head is directly above the bow of the canoe.

This campsite has a Macho Factor of 10. I was under the impression Alligator Creek was a primitive campsite with a chickee, a chickee being nothing more than a raised platform with a thatched, palm frond roof cover, it isn't; it is a wide spot in the mud.

Obviously, there is no decision to be made. We will be back at West Lake as soon as possible. We will walk out carrying the canoe, if necessary. We may even walk out without it at all! Monica states firmly that she does not like being watched while she eats. We had to land the canoe. I had to stand up and walk around. We landed the canoe and cautiously stepped out into the wet grey marl that looks amazingly like someone backed up a dump truck and unloaded several tons of modeler's clay. Everything was wet. There was nothing to use as firewood. The twelve footer had slowly turned itself for a better view of the newcomers to what is without a doubt, his domain. We knew we were being watched as we checked out what is really a great campsite.

We checked the time. It was twenty minutes after one pm. We gave ourselves ten minutes to stretch and eat. The eating didn't take long as Monica never took her eyes off our host. The thought of sleeping in the wet mud with no fire, separated from the inhabitants of Alligator Creek by only the thickness of tent fabric was not particularly appealing. I could have stayed home and watched Penn State and the University of Miami go at it in the Fiesta Bowl. It was time to go.

Monica knew the return trip would not be fun. We have been canoeing for several years and know when to switch sides, strokes, and even when to swap insults. She starts singing jokingly but we are soon saving our energy for the hard part. We are tired but not yet sore. The spoonbill watched cautiously, but since we didn't come close this time, decided not to fly off. I was sternly warned of logs in the second half of the creek and we avoided any problems. We scared only one gator off the bank during the return trip.

 We met two young men in a rented empty, aluminum canoe going toward the campsite just before we broke out into the Lungs. They were German tourists and naively wore only shorts. From what we could see, they had nothing with them except one bottle of water. They asked us politely if we had seen any alligators as they hadn't seen any. Not one! They were unimpressed with our experiences, so we smiled, wished them the best and pressed on. They probably paddled all the way to Flamingo without seeing anything. I didn't know what their plans were but ours included paddling hard for the next four hours.

Our worst fears were confirmed when we broke out into the Lungs. We were dead on the wind. It wasn't quite a mile but we couldn't pause even slightly as the wind was causing us more grief than expected. The blessed relief of the next creek, the overgrown one, was an opportunity to catch our breath. The fishermen were gone. We had our second wind as we started Long Lake, No jokes about the water color. No jokes about how the lake got it's name. Just plain, hard work. The wind was off our starboard quarter and while not helping any, it wasn't as bad as the Lungs. We pulled up into the lee of one of the small mangrove islands and broke out the drinking water. Our planned ten minute stay lasted only a couple and we were again under way. Monica had settled into the repetitious state similar to long distance swimming. Stroke after stroke after stroke. As we passed the last marker leading to the last creek before West Lake, we sighed with relief. Just through the crooked path was West Lake and finally, the ramp. Just three more miles to the ramp! We had been paddling hard for over two and a half hours, but the knowledge of only one last challenge, I believe the motivational books call it, brought back the humor and the feeling of accomplishment.
West Lake 

We headed into the lake with the wind from the north and still very brisk. We stayed closer to the north shore and avoided the problem we suffered when caught in the middle of the lake earlier in the day. Pain had set in long, long ago, but if we knew if we kept up a constant pace we would be back at the ramp well before dark. We knew we didn't want to be in the canoe in the dark. We were in the lake for an hour and ten minutes.

Making the final right turn into the short, narrow channel to the boat ramp was quiet satisfaction for both of us. After several hard strokes, we silently coasted toward a group of tourists standing on the modern concrete dock, intently watching a medium size alligator floating in the water at the foot of the boat ramp.  
He too, is looking for a handout. The startled gator quickly disappeared and the surprised tourists watched us in awe as we tied up and unloaded at the dock.

I am immensely proud of my daughter. She hasn't complained once. Well, other than commenting on my canoeing skills. Nor has she quit. Monica put in more than a full day's work, and she still smiles, helping pack away the gear and tie the canoe down on the truck. By 5:00pm we were headed down the highway toward the campground at Flamingo. The last time we camped there we suffered one of Florida's coldest, windy April nights to watch Halley's comet at 4:00 a.m. But that is a different story.

The Coleman stove and lantern worked just fine. The tent was pitched and no sooner was dinner finished and the gear washed than we were both in the tent. Dry and somewhat warmer, we tuned a portable radio to the station that would carry the National Championship football game. Could Vinny Testaverde and the Hurricanes do it again? It didn't matter. By halftime we were both sound asleep.

© 1996, 2014 George Mindling