Chickee camping in the World’s only Everglades
Wintertime in Florida is dreamy, and there’s no wonder so many people flock south to the beaches for winter. For us though, the real magic was in Everglades National Park, the world’s largest freshwater marsh.
A little history
The Everglades are actually a river, averaging six inches deep, 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. Rainwater moves from Lake Okeechobee through the Kissimmee River basin, down through the sawgrass region and into the mangrove estuaries before it drains into Florida Bay. The first national park ever dedicated for its biologic diversity as opposed to its scenic vistas, Everglades National Park is a landscape unlike any other.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) was a writer, feminist and an environmental activist who shed so much light on the Everglades, 86 percent of the park has been designated a wilderness area in her honor. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness, comprising nearly 1.3 million acres, is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the largest wilderness area of any kind east of the Rockies. In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass, forever changing the way the world viewed south Florida’s natural legacy.
The Everglades were once thought of as a messy inconvenience. A major network of canals were dug to drain and dry the marsh to make room for agriculture, slowing the southward flow of fresh water, a major undertaking that wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. Eventually south Florida’s tap water began suffering as salt water leached into the aquifers and more people became concerned about the environment Marjory had spent so long defending. Today the government is faced with the daunting task of not preserving the Everglades, but trying to restore the ecosystem to a healthier, previous version of itself.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century. Nearly flat and surrounded on three sides by rising seas, Everglades National Park is vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate. Already at risk for inundation, South Florida is also highly susceptible to salinization as it sits above a porous limestone plateau that resembles Swiss cheese. It’s safe to say, If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality. Luckily, we carry a kayak with us! Although, we had to rent a canoe for this paddling trip…
Our backcountry adventure was launched out of Flamingo, at the very tip of the Florida peninsula.
To get to Flamingo you have to first drive through Homestead, a tiny, predominately Spanish-speaking, agricultural community with gator tacos and exotic fruit stands.Eleven miles outside of Homestead is the park entrance, where you have to pay 25 dollars to get in. It’s another 38-mile drive through the park to the Flamingo Bay visitor center, marina and campground. It’s not someplace you end up by mistake!
Our first impression was that the place was run down, a little ghetto, but right up our alley. There are signs in the parking lot warning against vulture predation. Apparently the birds enjoy destroying the rubber around windshields, sunroofs and windshield wipers. A large container full of tarps are available to protect your car. WTH.
Two pink buildings, connected by a walkway, stand on the edge of Flamingo Bay. There’s a concrete wall holding the Gulf of Mexico back. The whole place is full of angular lines reminiscent of a Miami Beach hotel. The visitor center is one building and the Buttonwood Café, the only café in Everglades NP, is in the other building. Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma damaged the whole place back in 2005 and the restaurant was never repaired. A food truck now serves lunch and dinner in a screened-in porch below the boarded up building. Scrubby, wind-torn palm trees sadly offer little optimism against the peeling paint of the empty building. I felt like we arrived at an abandoned vacation spot.Despite the dinginess of the building itself, the location remains unparalleled. Founded in the late 1800’s by gator poachers, plume hunters and moonshiners, Flamingo has a colorful history. Being at the end of the road it’s still a remote and curious attraction. We were lured to Flamingo because we like exploring the edges of maps. A long time ago it was a popular spot for migrating flamingos, but they are rarely seen anymore. However, roseate spoonbills still frequent the area and we did see manatees right there in the marina, which I think is about the neatest thing in the world.
99-mile wilderness waterway
At the visitor center we found out about Flamingo being the southern launch point for a 99-mile Wilderness Waterway that connects Everglades City to the north all the way down to Flamingo. Right away I knew we would do it. I might have been nervous paddling my kayak around the harbor, but I was already scheming a multi day trip in the backcountry!
Since we hadn’t planned on a backcountry adventure we had to drive all the way back out to get supplies. A park ranger gave us a Wilderness Trip Planner with everything we would need to know. We visited family in Miami and spent a week in the Keys (awesome btw!) before we came back, loaded with better provisions.
Advance preparation is the key to exploring the backwaters by boat. Campsites are widely spread with limited occupancy and are allotted on a first-come, first-served basis. But, the earliest you can reserve a site is 24 hours in advance, in person, at the park office. So it was impossible to plan the trip before it began.
Backcountry camping in Everglades National Park requires staying in designated campsites, and all but one requires a boat of some type to reach. Along the 99-mile wilderness waterway there are 45 sites in all and three types of campsites; beach sites, ground sites, and chickee sites. Of the three, we only stayed at chickee sites, elevated 10’ x 12’ wooden platforms with roofs and a walkway that leads to a self-contained portable privy.Although doing the whole 99 miles from north to south would be awesome, we wanted to do a trip that would not require a long shuttle, which meant doing a loop out of Flamingo. Our first inclination was to paddle around the gulf side of the Florida peninsula and back down through Oyster Bay and Joe River. That way we could experience both the bay and a beach site and chickees. But, the weather had been really stormy (we had to wait out a thunderstorm for two days before we even went in to the visitor to make plans) so we didn’t think it was a good idea to go canoeing out in open water. Instead, we decided to do a more protected loop on the inside, through the mangroves to Hells Bay. Approximately 60 miles, it would take us five days and four nights. Given that adverse winds and tides could turn a four-hour paddle between campsites into a desperate 12-hour struggle to make dry “land” before dark, putting together an itinerary felt like a high-stakes gamble. We had nine chickees to choose from for our selected route. Three of the chickees are single platforms and the other six are double platforms. We chose chickees that were 8-10 miles apart and single platforms wherever possible. Ten miles might have been ambitious but once you get to your chickee, there is absolutely nothing to do but sit and wait for tomorrow. We figured paddling was the best way to spend our time on the water.
Lane Bay-North River-Oyster Bay-South Joe River
Our equipment consisted of a tent, sleeping bags, pads, a hammock, lightweight raingear, hats, scarves, flashlights, books, fishing gear and sunscreen. We brought a gallon of water per person per day (and an extra), easy backcountry food, like macaroni and cheese, smoked salmon, tortillas, granola and rice milk, instant Starbuck Vias, and dehydrated potatoes. A canoe can fit a lot of gear! We brought three 5-gallon buckets; two stuffed with food and one for trash. You need a freestanding tent since stakes don’t work on the platform. We had a dry bag for our sleeping bags and plenty of rope to tie everything down, a camera, our phones, a trail map, binoculars and a Bluetooth speaker. We had neighbors at one of our chickees and they absolutely couldn’t figure how we didn’t have ice and cold beers. I wasn’t shy about asking for a cold one!A canoe trip through Florida’s saltwater trails had my anxiety stoked. The night before our departure, I lay awake worrying about pythons, crocodiles, mosquitos, getting lost, the weather….I was pretty sure that of all the potential dangers we might face, constriction by giant snakes was highly possible.
While we ended up battling wind, tides and navigation, the Burmese pythons stayed tucked in the mangroves, thank God! Our trip was surprisingly tranquil, even with the occasional death cry from a bird (Python attack!). Dolphins frequently swam by our side and we looked for manatees but never spotted one back there.
Day 1 Lane Bay Chickee
On our first day we had to paddle through a maze to get to Hells Bay, aptly named since “It’s hell getting in and hell getting out”. This was the only portion of our trip that had markers in the channel and they were extremely helpful. If you want to go to Hells Bay in a kayak, be aware that a kayak style paddle will not work in channels that narrow. You’ll definitely have to pull it apart.
Once you get to Hells Bay, there are no more markers and you are entirely dependent on maps to find your way to your next camp. I had a mild panic attack as the Hells Bay Chickee disappeared from view and I pulled out our trail map, trying to decipher the green dots on paper from the ten thousand islands surrounding us.
We made a wrong turn. And then another.The Everglades appear placid and the quiet feels like a sedative. There’s not a breath of wind, the water is like glass, there are no other boats or people within sight…..birds sing. It’s so beautiful. I was still on edge, expecting a python to drop in our boat at any minute, but the serenity of the water was seeping in.
It can be a savage place but also a zen escape from the rest of the world.We made it to our first camp fairly early in the day, but it felt like we traveled through an entirely new universe over the course of a lifetime. We survived our first day in the Everglades! The sunset was epic, dinner of mac and cheese was exceptional. Food always tastes better in the wilderness, doesn’t it? Cota fished and I read 100 pages of my book and soaked up the quiet.
Day 2 North River Chickee
Navigating was tricky, but not impossible. Our five-dollar trail map (waterproof and tear–resistant) with a scale of 1 inch to 1.6 miles was incredibly detailed. Once we trusted what we were seeing around us, picking our way through the islands became a welcome challenge.
It worked out really well for us to stop at a vacant chickee for lunch and a pee break (since I didn’t dare hang my butt over the side of a canoe as alligator bait, or tie up to the mangroves with pythons lurking overhead!). We never saw anyone else camping at the chickees and I often wondered if we were crazy for being the only ones out there paddling our little hearts out in those swamps.
Our second camp, at North River chickee was my favorite. We were on our own tiny island in the middle of a river. The sunset was epic and the bugs weren’t too bad. Miami glowed in the distance and it was easy to get my bearings from those big city lights.
Day 3 Oyster Bay
Our third day was the most difficult for navigating and intimidating because we had to cross big water.
We stopped for lunch at the Watson River chickee on the edge of the bay. Looking out at the big water, I decided I liked the mangrove trails a lot better! We knew the bay was big, but no one told us a canoe would be a stupid idea. People do it all the time. But, I’m telling you, it’s a bad idea. There’s no way to accurately predict the weather several days out and it makes a huge difference on the open water. Normally a breeze is welcoming, but out here, it meant we’d have to paddle a lot harder.
Trying to pick our way between 10,000 islands was frustrating and we made one wrong turn and ended up paddling upriver, against a tide with a fierce headwind for the last two miles. It sucked. Feeling defeated, I let Cota tie the boat up to some mangroves for a minute. I really was terrified of snakes in those trees. I just had to cry a little before I could keep paddling.
Eventually we made it to the chickee, wiped out only to find our refuge in the most bug-ridden hell I can imagine. We set up of camp, and then got back in the damn canoe just to get away from the mosquitos. My arms ached. I was sunburned, dehydrated and frustrated. We paddled back to our tent and with nothing else to do I finished the only book I brought with me.
We heard a fancy motor boat pulling in just as it got dark. Before they even tied off, I unabashedly asked them if they had beer!! Can you believe we didn’t bring any beer? Our neighbors on the double chickee that night were colorful characters with a fancy bottle of rum and a cooler full of ice and beers. They were ready to party, and show off a little. Gary, a highly successful architect was eager to share all the photos on his phone with me. He had stories of hiding out Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Everglades, back in the day, when Mikhail was defecting from the USSR.
They were a fun group and so unprepared it was hard not to laugh at them. We ate exotic fruits from the fruit stand in Homestead and mixed cocktails. None of them had a working flashlight and the next morning they realized the six pound propane tank they brought for cooking was completely empty! HAHAHAHA. We used our BioiLite stove to heat some hot water for their coffee and said farewell.
Day 4 (and 5) South Joe River
After saying goodbye to our neighbors, we easily paddled into Joe River where the tide was with us and we floated downstream. We saw tons of dolphins and Cota caught fish off the back of the boat. It was a relief to have an easy day.
A ranger stopped by to check out backcountry permit and I thought to ask him for the weather report. He tuned into the marine channel on his radio and we heard the forecast was for 30 mph winds the next day. Aaagghhh! Wtf. Our canoe would capsize in that!! We tied everything down and hunkered in our tent for next 38 hours while a cold storm pelted us. The ranger never bothered to pass on the fact that he’d seen us or that we weren’t going to attempt the trip out as scheduled. Cota actually started collecting rainwater incase we couldn’t make it out for a few days.
Day 6 Flamingo
Yes! The sky is finally blue again and the water is flat! We packed up and headed down river, excited to be on our way home.
Since our rental canoe was late getting returned, search and rescue actually came out looking for us. I guess there’s a plus side to having to spend 250 dollars on renting a canoe :)
Go through Hells Bay, camp at North River, bring several books, fishing gear, plenty of cord, and a trail map.
Don’t: paddle into Oyster Bay or any of the big open water. If you are in a canoe or kayak, stick to the Hell’s Bay trail and go in and out.
Backcountry paddling in the Everglades was one of the best experiences of my life. Challenging, crazy and remarkably memorable. Like visiting the glaciers before they melt, there is no better time than now to visit the Everglades!