Everglades National Park - Broad Creek by moonlight (part 2)
by Keith W
(St. Petersburg FL)
Once I had found the entrance to Broad Creek I also found that the way beyond was far from obvious. The creek here is completely overgrown with mangroves, blocking the view of the sky. Moonlight was no longer of any use, and I stopped frequently to scan for the way ahead with my headlamp and firing up the floodlight in the more confusing spots. In the pitch darkness there was no clear channel to follow through the scattered mangroves, and I found myself using the current of the rapidly dropping tide to guide me. The surrounding forest was noisy with the sound of falling water that seemed to come from all directions at once, as dozens of small tributary streams ran over the banks on either side. The birds here were more numerous, and I often startled roosting herons and egrets that rose through the trees with loud squawks and a great flapping of wings. The overall effect was one of confusion and disorientation, and I soon lost all sense of direction. If it weren't for the steady westward current to guide me, I might have spent the rest of the night trying to find my way through. Yet, for all of the disorientation and uncertainty, this place held an eerie magic that quickened my pulse, and I never for a moment regretted coming this way. I had wanted the adventure of a night paddle in the Everglades wilderness, and I was getting it in spades.
Occasionally the tunnel would open on a small clearing, and the moon would shine through once more. At one of these clearings, I was surprised to see the surrounding trees filled with dozens of large birds with feathers reflecting pink in the bright moonlight. They were roseate spoonbills, and I stilled my paddle as I passed by them. Spoonbills are notoriously shy of humans, but these birds were either asleep or oblivious to me, and not one of them stirred from its roost. For a magical minute I drifted through the clearing, with only a faint rustle of feathers breaking the silence, and then I was swallowed up again by darkness as the canoe was drawn once more into the mangroves on the other side.
The clearings became more frequent, and the tunnel less overgrown, and the canoe finally passed out into the open. The tunnel was just over a mile long, and took a little more than an hour to pass through, but it seemed like I'd spent most of the night there. The westering moon was now directly ahead of me and lit the surrounding landscape with a brilliance that seemed like full daylight after the darkness of the tunnel. The tide had fallen considerably, and banks of gray mud rose high on either side of the creek. I had to paddle carefully to stay in the channel and avoid running aground in the shallows. Soon, a fork in the river appeared ahead of me where Broad Creek split in two on it's way to the Gulf, and I turned the
canoe to the right. After about a third of a mile, a Wilderness Waterway Trail marker glowed bright in my headlamp, and the entrance to a small creek appeared on the right. This was the southern end of the infamous Nightmare, the 3-mile-long mangrove tunnel that is so tight and shallow that it is only passable on a high tide. It's called the Nightmare because getting stuck there for hours would be like having one, especially during the warm mosquito season. I knew I had no chance of making the passage on this tide, and it was with a pang of regret that I passed by the creek opening and continued on my way westward.
Oyster bars became more numerous as I approached the end of Broad Creek, and the channel grew more confused. Finding my way through the shallows resulted in scraping the bottom of the canoe across sharp oyster shells more than once, but it wasn't much longer before I finally saw the opening at the creek mouth that led into the Gulf. It was nearly 6 AM by now, and the sky behind me was beginning to glow pink with the coming dawn as I made my way through the cluster of small islands and bars that obscured the creek's entrance. On the exposed oyster bars the red mangroves were left high and dry on their prop roots, and in the dim light they seemed to me like some fantastical many-legged creatures, spelled by the dawn and frozen into silence.
Finally, I passed between the small islands guarding the creek entrance and entered the Gulf of Mexico. Before me the full moon sat like a great ball of silver on the western horizon. Behind me the dawn brightened, the close darkness giving way before it. All around me the vast glory of the Everglades wilderness opened like a great flower in the clear light of morning. My canoe scraped to a halt in the shallows at the creek entrance, but all I could do for the moment was stare about in wonder, overcome by the sheer beauty of it all.
I eventually continued on my way and made my destination at Camp Lonesome by early afternoon. Two nights later, on the return trip, I made a nighttime run of the Nightmare, leaving the Broad River Campsite at 3 AM to catch the high tide, and I revisited the Broad Creek passage at dawn, going back the other way to Harney River and the Cane Patch campsite ... but that's another story. In the years prior to this trip, and in the years following, I've put hundreds of miles of water under my canoe between Fakahatchee and Florida Bay, and I've seen much of what the Everglades has to offer, but the night of my first trip down Broad Creek will always stand out in my memory as the defining moment that solidified forever my love for this special and unique place. Marjorie Douglas said it simply, and said it best: "There are no other Everglades in the world."