Everglades National Park - Broad Creek by moonlight (part 1)
by Keith W
(St. Petersburg FL)
The tinny beeping of my alarm watch brought me out of a sound sleep. I pressed the light button on the watch to read the time - 1:30 AM, an early beginning of the fourth day of a 9-day solo canoe expedition through the wilds of Everglades National Park. Beneath my sleeping bag, the hard wooden platform of Harney River Chickee swayed gently in the strong current of the falling tide, and the gurgle of water as it tugged at the pilings was the only sound to break the deep silence of the surrounding wilderness. I lit the small camp stove just outside the door of my tent for a pot of coffee, and I dressed and began packing up my sleeping gear in preparation for an early departure. I had two reasons for wanting to leave so early. My final destination that day would be nearly 20 miles away at Camp Lonesome, far up the Broad River. The tide would be against me during the long paddle up the Broad River and would slow my progress, and I wanted to get an early start to help make up the time. The other reason was simply that I've always wanted to try a night paddle through the Everglades wilderness, and tonight I would get my wish.
I emerged from the tent into a clear night under a nearly full moon. Harney River Chickee is a wooden camping platform built over the water, and it sits against a small island in the middle of the river that it takes it's name from. Everglades National Park has more than a dozen of these platforms scattered along the Wilderness Waterway. This is the 99-mile long canoe trail that runs along the Gulf coast of the Everglades from Everglades City in the north, to Flamingo on Florida Bay at the south end. The chickee platforms were built by the Park Service to provide additional campsites in a place that has very little dry land. The word "chickee" is Seminole Indian for "house without walls", and it aptly describes the single and double platforms that are covered by a sloping roof but are otherwise open to the elements. This was my first night of camping at Harney River (which is located about 23 miles, as the crow flies, north of Flamingo) and it also would be my last - in the following year the Park would permanently close Harney River Chickee with the intention of eventually relocating it to a safer location. The tidal currents that run past the chickee are fierce and treacherous, and falling from the platform can be a life-threatening situation for even the strongest swimmers.
It was nearly 2 AM when I finished my coffee. I packed up my cooking gear and broke down the tent, and I carefully dropped my gear into the canoe tied to the pilings nearly five feet below the platform.
The tide was falling fast, and it was a precarious climb down the sides of the platform into the canoe that sat rocking in the strong current. After getting myself and my gear situated, I untied the canoe and pushed off from the chickee, steering it across the current to the far bank of the river. Directly across from the chickee was the entrance to a smaller stream that connects Harney River proper with the smaller North Harney River about a mile away. The North Harney channel forks about 1/3 mile to the east, and the left branch leads to the entrance of Broad Creek, a twisty little channel that begins as a shrouded mangrove tunnel before opening up and running out into the Gulf of Mexico several miles downstream. It was the Broad Creek tunnel that I would be making for by the light of the moon.
Once out of the big Harney River the current slackened, and it was a leisurely paddle under the clear night sky. The moonlight was bright enough to see clearly by and I had no need of the floodlight and headlamp that I had at the ready. The shiny leaves of the surrounding mangrove forest reflected the brilliant moonshine like a million tiny stars and the silvery light was reflected off the calm surface of the water. The silence was profound, broken only by the dip of my paddle into water and the occasional squawk of a startled night bird. The night was cool, a blessing in a place where nighttime travel is often impossible because of the sheer numbers of mosquitoes that can make the Everglades a hellish place in warm weather. The stream meandered gently for about a mile before joining the North Harney, where I made the turn to the right and east. Shortly, the fork appeared just ahead. Bearing left, I followed the channel to an area of open water where the entrance to Broad Creek was located. Hugging the left bank, I scanned the narrowing channel ahead, looking for the small opening to the Broad Creek tunnel...and could see nothing. It appeared to be a dead-end. I lit up the seemingly solid wall of mangroves with the floodlight looking for an opening, and I turned on my headlamp and checked my charts and aerial photos, feeling certain that I had followed the right course. For a moment I considered heading back a short distance to retrace my path on the chance that I had made a wrong turn somewhere. Just as I was getting ready to turn around, I spotted a glimmer of moonlight shining on an open pool of water just beyond the wall of mangroves ahead of the canoe, and I nosed the bow of the canoe into the trees, grasping the branches with my hands and pulling myself through. I had found the hidden entrance to Broad Creek.
(to be continued)