canoeing by james campbell

a watery wilderness

The sun is bright and warm, and I'm floating in my canoe a few hours into the first of eight blissful days on the Everglades' Wilderness Waterway. Two voracious mosquitoes are filling up on my left forearm, but when I think about the cold, gray skies of Chicago back home, I don't even care. I'm here to fish, loaf, and linger. In my backpack is Peter Matthiessen's evocative Killing Mister Watson, which is set in this tropical maze of mangrove islands and murky, tannin-stained waters. No less important is my supply of fresh water--enough, it would seem, to hydrate the entire Florida Coast Guard--and, for when the thrill of being in Florida in January wears off, bug spray.

Narrow channels wander off in every direction, and despite my charts and the occasional trail marker, I'm left guessing at my route. There are no landmarks to assist me, so I keep the sun to my left and hope for the best. The Wilderness Waterway is a wild, 99-mile route that winds along the western edge of Everglades National Park, from Everglades City in the north to Flamingo at Florida's southern tip. It is neither ocean nor river but a hybrid of the two. Here, salt water from the Gulf of Mexico melds with the sweet-water sheet that flows southwest through Everglades National Park from Lake Okeechobee.

To early European explorers, this land was so formidable that they told fantastical tales of prowling saber-toothed tigers. Today, looking around, it appears that little has changed in the intervening years. Prehistoric is the word that comes to mind. Though much of South Florida has been dammed, diked, drained, and diverted, I am in a postdiluvian world of water and wildlife. I round a bend, and snowy egrets and white ibis erupt from the branches of a tree in the kind of sky-darkening flock that isn't supposed to exist anymore. An alligator slithers by a little too close for comfort. And high-flying ospreys catch waves of wind and wait for lunch.

Four days into my trip, I hit high tide between the Lostman's River and the Shark River, and I'm spared the cruelties of a section called "the Nightmare." Had it been low tide, I might have been stranded here, run aground among muck and mosquitoes. But luck is with me, as it has been the entire trip. Now, halfway through my adventure, I've encountered only a lone fisherman, casting for redfish. I wanted wilderness, and the waterway obliged.


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© 2001  NASI

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shove off

Everglades City, on Everglades National Park's northwestern edge, is one of the entry points to the Wilderness Waterway. The route is marked, but charts, which can be purchased at the visitors' center (941-695-3311), are a must. Everglades National Park Boat Tours offers canoes for $20 a day at the visitors' center. North America Canoe Tours (941-695-3299) also rents canoes ($25 a day) and kayaks ($40 a day). For a fee, the tour company will shuttle your car. Campsites and stilt-supported platforms called chikees, which are equipped with privies, are spread out along the waterway. Permits can be reserved in person not more than 24 hours in advance.