Paddling Florida’s great unknown

scocking@miamiherald.comMarch 27, 2013 

Terry Helmers pauses from paddling his canoe through a mangrove tunnel in the Fakahatchee River in Florida's Everglades. In the background is Charlie Arazosa in his kayak. SUE COCKING - MIAMI HERALD

SUE COCKING — MIAMI HERALD

Jeff Ripple’s 2004 book, “Day Paddling Florida’s 10,000 Islands and Big Cypress Swamp,” doesn’t have much good to say about paddling the Fakahatchee River.

The author calls the narrow stream that winds south from Tamiami Trail between Miami and Naples to Fakahatchee Bay a “gnarly route” where “you will invariably get lost” and where “it will be difficult for anyone to rescue you.”

The only reasons to do it, the book says, are for the solitude and because it’s there.

“Expect to be whipped, thrashed, slashed, smashed and otherwise similarly abused,” Ripple warns.

Such a ringing endorsement for the possibilities of self-flagellation would deter most paddlers. But not veteran South Miami explorer Terry Helmers, 59. Since late last year when someone inquired about the river on the Internet, Helmers became fixated on checking it out.

“What attracted us to it, it is a hard trail.,” said Helmers, who disdains what he calls “brochure trails” found in many local parks.

But the meticulous planner and researcher wanted to learn all he could beforehand. In January, fellow Glades explorer Jay Thomas volunteered to do some preliminary reconnaissance.

Thomas managed to paddle from Weaver Station on Tamiami Trail south on the Fakahatchee for a mile or so before turning back. On another trip, he launched from the river’s southern end at Fakahatchee Island and headed north for a distance before once again turning back.

With the middle third of the river still untried, Helmers pored over Google Earth maps of the region, made color printouts, and overlaid them with GPS coordinates. His plan was to attempt to paddle the entire five miles or so of the Fakahatchee River to the bay, then return to the highway via the more manicured East River trail. Then he invited others to join him on the February expedition.

“Just because it’s been done doesn’t mean it’s doable,” quipped Helmers’ friend Charlie Arazoza, who signed on anyway.

Ready for battle

Eight others joined the trip, armed with varying degrees of healthy skepticism and trepidation – including me. Helmers advised everyone to eat their Wheaties and be prepared to use canoes and kayaks as battering rams – getting very wet and muddy in the process.

Our group launched four canoes and three kayaks before dawn at Weaver Station (directly across the highway from the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk) and headed south on the Fakahatchee canal, which quickly narrowed to a shallow, muddy and twisting creek surrounded by arcing red mangrove prop roots. Some might call these jungle-like mazes mangrove tunnels, but that would be generous. These are pipelines – so tight that we had to eschew paddles completely and propel ourselves hand-over-hand, ducking overhangs constantly.

Sitting forward in Helmers’ 13-foot aluminum canoe, which led the single-file procession, I probably crashed through 10 spider webs in the first 15 minutes. I tried to fend them off with my paddle, but mostly used my head. After that, I stopped counting. If you suffer from arachnophobia, this trip is not for you.

Occasionally, we emerged from nature’s culvert pipes to small ponds flanked by open prairies. Several “slides” ostensibly made by alligators dotted the river bank, but I never saw a gator. Every now and then, a heron or some other shorebird would rustle or squawk up ahead of us, but I think most birds heard us clanging, splashing and chattering way beforehand and made a quick exit.

As we paddled, pulled and pushed loose roots out of the path and flailed at spiders, Helmers and I speculated on how much paddling traffic this little-used, pain-in-the-butt river actually gets. Spotting a few old cuts in the timber, we could tell somebody had been here, but not in quite a while. Helmers, a maritime history hobbyist, said Weaver Station had been an outpost for the Southwest Florida Mounted Police back in the 1920s. He figured plenty of skiffs probably made the trip back and forth between there and Fakahatchee Island, a bustling settlement for probably hundreds of years. More recently, another paddler said, paddlers from Outward Bound plied the Fakahatchee.

Wrong way

After traveling for a couple of hours, we reached a series of small open ponds that diverted to the west of the narrow river trail. As we began to paddle into the first one, Helmers said suddenly, “It’s not right.”

He stopped and consulted his map and GPS as the rest of the group gathered round.

Helmers said the correct route was through the dense thicket of mangroves – not the ponds, which would eventually dead-end in a marsh.

Scanning the tangle of water trees at one end of the pond, he found a tiny opening and pronounced that forbidding path as the way forward. Most of us groaned, but everyone followed. Much later, he was proved to be correct. But the spindly route was blocked with more prop roots and deadfalls than ever, and our canoe became a constant battering ram. Twice I had to climb out of the craft onto a mangrove trunk and back into my seat to continue down the “river.”

To say this was not a leisurely trip would be a gross understatement. My shirt got ripped trying to duck sharp overhangs, and I got slapped in the face several times by elastic branches. The bottom of our canoe looked like the hopper on an industrial wood chipper, and it was crawling with spiders. I was so used to them by now that I just ignored them.

“This is annoying,” Helmers said, as if reading my thoughts. “It’s a good trail, a good river, but it hasn’t been maintained. It could be a real good paddling route.”

He had a point. The paddling trails on the nearby Faka-Union and East rivers, trimmed by unseen hands, seemed like wide Mississippis in comparison.

Past noon after bushwhacking for nearly six hours, the river began to widen noticeably. Weary, we stopped for lunch. Arazoza said we had covered about 4 miles. And we still hadn’t reached the bay, which was the halfway point.

“You don’t measure things here in miles per hour; you measure them in hours per mile,” Arazoza said to weak laughter from the group.

Homeward bound

No one dawdled over lunch; we were pretty set on making it back to Tamiami Trail before dark.

Finally emerging from the Fakahatchee river tunnel into the open bay in early afternoon, our relief was short-lived. An incoming tide and stiff south wind combined to try to push us backward and sloppy little white-capped brown waves splattered against the bow of the canoe.

Helmers and I had to dig in really hard to make way to the mouth of the East River at Daniels Point. The gap widened between paddlers struggling against wind and current. But no one capsized, and things got much easier as we headed north on the East, wind and tide pushing us onward.

The first time I paddled the East River back in the 1980s, I found its mangrove tunnels narrow and daunting and had a hard time traversing its windswept open bays. But on this day, it was a snap. Our entire group arrived at the takeout a good hour before dark. Total distance: about 11 miles.

Helmers was exultant; others, not so much.

“I would venture to say no one’s ever done this twice,” Arazoza said as he pulled his kayak on shore.

To me, our Lewis and Clark 1.5 expedition was a bit like childbirth – painful, but with a tangible result. Perhaps the memory would fade after enough time to want to do it all over again.

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