The Nature of These Islands

Camping in Florida's 10,000 Islands

Camping in Florida’s 10,000 Islands

Part One

The Ten Thousand Islands can be a bit intimidating when you are thinking of paddling Florida’s Circumnavigational Trail. Of course they are intimidating…there are 10,000 of them, right? Well, maybe. I didn’t exactly count them.

During my first venture into the region 25 years ago, I didn’t know enough to be intimidated. I had just gone on my first kayak camping trip with a group of friends. We’d paddled to Cayo Costa on Florida’s west coast for a long weekend and it was great! It was seven fairly easy miles of paddling and there was a well-run campground with facilities like running water, flush toilets, and showers. The beach was nothing short of spectacular, with miles of white sand, shells, and wading birds. After thoroughly enjoying that weekend, my friends invited me to join them on an upcoming kayak camping trip to Whitehorse Key in the Ten Thousand Islands. Not knowing anything about the area, I did the sensible thing. I grabbed my compass, my camping gear, and my homemade wooden kayak, and bought a chart at a bait shop on my way to the launch site at Port of the Islands. Let the adventure begin!

My friends had all been able to get off of work on Friday, but I had to work. So I set out for Whitehorse Key solo on Saturday morning. The trip started out beautifully, with mostly blue skies around me. That changed about an hour later, with a light rain falling as I started to cross Faka Union Bay. Luckily, I was well-prepared (NOT!) with my rain poncho and a couple of bungee cords, since I didn’t own a spray skirt. By the time I had crossed the bay, the storm hit full-force. The islands took the brunt of the storm, offering me some protection from the fierce winds, but the rain was pelting down so hard that the islands ahead of me appeared as ghostly shadows in the distance. I was happy to find that the channel out to Panther Key was well-marked. But even so, I found that I had to navigate by “shape recognition” since I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet ahead of me through the torrential downpour. My crazy “poncho spray skirt” shed the water fairly well. I had my chart and compass under the kayak’s deck bungees, and I referred to them both constantly. “What about GPS?” I hear you asking. News flash – 25 years ago, nobody had GPS units. This was old school. I would look at the chart and notice that the next island on the right was shaped like the number three…three points, with little bays in between each point. I could only see one point at a time in the driving rain, so I counted each one off until the last one, then checked my chart for the next recognizable feature. That is how I found my way. The storm was just beginning to ease up as I approached Whitehorse Key. My friends were finally able to get out of their tents. Just as they were all agreeing that it would take a crazy person to venture out in that storm, I came paddling up. My reputation was set in stone from that point on.

That was the beginning of many subsequent kayak camping trips into the Ten Thousand Islands. Since that time, I have camped on most of the “camp-able” islands in the preserve, and many of those inside the border of Everglades National Park as well. It also marked the beginning of my accumulation of many tidbits of knowledge about the nature of this incredible wilderness. If you are planning to explore in this area, prepare well (better than my first trip!). But also prepare yourself for the natural beauty of the place.

Ten Thousand Islands is almost completely unspoiled by humans. Think of the most beautiful Florida beaches that you have ever visited, and then think about the possibility of pitching your tent on that gorgeous bit of sand and sharing the island with just a few friends, rather than with a few hundred strangers. Watch the Ruddy Turnstones and the Sanderlings as they scurry along with the other shorebirds, making those soft peeping sounds as they dodge the occasional wave, trying to keep their feet dry. See the “dance” of the Reddish Egret, as it waltzes around the schooling baitfish, grabbing snacks here and there. See the magnificent White Pelicans in the hundreds, dwarfing the Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants that share their sandbar, waiting for the tide to return. Walk the tidal flats at low tide, when live Whelks and Conchs are exposed, and Fiddler Crabs march up and down the beach in the hundreds. At high tide, see the 200-million-year-old mating ritual of the Horseshoe Crab take place in front of your eyes. Manatees, Bottlenose Dolphins, and Sea Turtles are there for you to see and hear, if you pay attention. You may even be lucky enough to witness Eagle Rays flying through the shallows, or the rare sight of a Smalltooth Sawfish as it scans the nearshore looking for schools of mullet. All of these things await you, when you venture into the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park.

About the author:
Don “Woodkayaker” McCumber has been kayaking for 25 years. He works as a paddling guide, taking guests on day trips and kayak camping trips with Everglades Area Tours in Chokoloskee. He is certified as a Coastal Master Naturalist through the University of Florida’s Master Naturalist Program. Don is an FPTA volunteer and is available for public speaking events.  

Trip Report – Transported Base Camp (October)

“The Shutdown Couldn’t Shut Us Down”
The recent government shutdown did, in fact, shut down Everglades National Park, but it didn’t shut down Everglades Area Tours. We are positioned perfectly to enjoy another area of spectacular natural beauty: Florida’s 10,000 Islands.
Our first camping tour during the shutdown, was a group consisting of 28 High School students and their 5 chaperones, all traveling here from Scotland, England, Germany and as far away as Nepal. The group had a challenging trip to Camp Lulu Key created by the shutdown, paddling against a strong tide new moon tide. They were up to the challenge and spent a night on a beautiful barrier island facing the Gulf of Mexico.
While there, they learned about the ecology of the area, with the many oyster shoals and mangrove islands that help to create this unique estuary ecosystem. They took a low tide walk to learn about the creatures that live on the sand flats surrounding the island, and at the campfire, they also learned to enjoy an all-American treat, S’Mores!

This past weekend, I guided a trio of intrepid travelers from the other end of the “age spectrum”. Chuck, his wife Betsy, and Chuck’s sister Joanna, are all in their 70′s, but they don’t let age slow them down. We were transported to Camp Lulu Key in the “Yak Attack”, a dedicated kayak transport boat that Everglades Area Tours uses for base camp kayak camping trips. This allows us to add levels of comfort that we normally couldn’t enjoy when packing kayaks or canoes for multiple night camping trips.

For dinner on the first night, we enjoyed salads, Linguini with chicken Alfredo sauce, and garlic bread. The fare for the second evening was a Cajun boil with a variety of veggies, and keilbasa, spiced somewhat mild, so everyone could add their own heat if desired.
We paddled to nearby islands, seeing dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees, along with quite a variety of shore birds. Chuck was the expert on shore birds, checking in his bird ID books to verify the different species, like ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and various pipers. Of course, there were herons – great blue, little blue, tricolor, night, and little greens, along with the egrets – great, and snowy, among others. It was a wonderful trip, with stories shared by everyone around the campfire. We all agreed, that you’re never too old for a new learning experience, or to enjoy a spectacular sunset, and you’re never too old to enjoy S’mores as well. We certainly did.
Speaking of ageless people, watch for my article in the December issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine: “The Xtreme Dream… The Role of Kayaks in Diana Nyad’s Swim From Cuba to Key West”. In the article I share the experience of being the Captain of Diana Nyad’s kayak team. Come meet me at the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival on Saturday, November 2nd, where I will give a presentation on wilderness kayak camping in SW Florida.
Don “Woodkayaker” McCumber
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Everglades National Park Shutdown

Well our elected officials have done it again … bumping chests and doing nothing.  The shutdown has affected the tours that we conduct directly in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress. However, the Boat Assisted Kayak Eco Tours, the Mangrove Tunnel Kayak Eco Tours and the Swamp Walks continue. The Boat Assisted tours depart from Marco Island/Goodland.

Fox New 4 interviewed us about the shutdown …. http://www.fox4now.com/news/local/Collier-Tourism-Affected-By-Shutdown-226238881.html

A message from Don “Woodkayaker” McCumber …

This has been an exciting first year for me, with Everglades Area Tours. I’ve shared some great nature experiences with our guests, and have been host to different groups, ranging from fishing buddies, to old childhood friends, and families. I want to thank everyone for welcoming me into your circles.

 

 

Three weeks ago, I had a very special adventure, serving as the kayak team Captain for Diana Nyad, as a part of her “Xtreme Dream”. She finally did it! She overcame the obstacles of sharks, jellyfish, weather, and sleep deprivation, in order to swim the 110 miles from Havana Cuba, to Key West, in just a bit under 53 hours. I look forward to sharing my stories with you all. I have just finished writing an article for Sea Kayaker Magazine, telling about the kayaker’s perspective of this epic swim. It just went to the final edit and layout for an upcoming issue. As soon as I know the publishing date, I will send you an e-mail letting you know when it will hit the stands, so you can read the article, if you’d like.

 

 

We’ve shared some pretty spectacular adventures together on our trips with Everglades Area Tours, and I look forward to many more stories that we can all tell around a campfire. We have seen dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and sharks, and one guest even picked up a baby diamondback terrapin (turtle) out of the water, just a few yards away from the Smallwood Store! (It was released unharmed, after capturing the little cutie in pictures) One guest was lucky enough to have a large smalltooth sawfish swim directly under his kayak, when he was in only about 1 ½ feet of water. We have seen the millions-year-old ritual of the shoreline spawning groups of horseshoe crabs. One family group had the exciting pleasure of being able to do a night time paddle in the brightly lit phosphorescent-rich water, with schools of mullet appearing like skyrockets trailing sparks in the water… absolutely spectacular. We have wandered the tidal flats, beachcombing to see the shoreline treasures, like the starfish, the lightning whelks, king’s crown, fighting and horse conchs, tulip shells, the pretty little rose tellins and the sunray clams. Amongst the mangroves, we have seen the mangrove snails, oysters, fiddler crabs, and a female mangrove crab that held its cluster of tiny eggs close to its body, under its tail. One beachcomber even found a small octopus, not much bigger than a silver dollar. A pair of majestic bald eagles flew over our camp and landed in a tree, no more than 100 yards away. Magical moments.

 

 

The fishing was not without its occasional difficult conditions of winds & tides, but we’ve had some pretty spectacular catches as well. There have been several trophy size spotted sea trout, a few “Gulf Coast Slams” (snook, redfish and trout), and I even had three witnesses watch as I had a short but exciting battle with a HUGE tarpon, while using my lightweight trout rig. The giant fish put on quite a show, with three tail-walking, head-shaking leaps, before it spat out my lure and left me to catch my breath… just thrilling. One family group decided to do some shark fishing from shore, and we caught some sharks from shore, right at camp! The largest was a 6 ½ foot-long lemon shark. All were safely released alive.

 

 

If you are able to join me for more adventures, I would love to be able to spend some time with you again. If you aren’t able to do that, please share our adventures with your friends, family, and co-workers. If you could take a moment (if you haven’t already done this), please visit Trip Advisor at tripadvisor.com, and give an honest evaluation of our experience together. In case you haven’t copied your pictures from my photo albums at Picasa, be sure to follow the link below. Right-click on any pictures that you would like to save to your computer. You can follow adventures with other guests, and my own personal kayaking trips by choosing to “Follow” my new uploads. What does a kayak guide do on his days off of work? I don’t know about other guides, but THIS ONE goes kayaking. The adventures just keep coming. I still have many of the videos that we have talked about, on You Tube, and I will be adding more soon… so again, feel free to follow my adventures there, under my You Tube name of Woodkayaker.

 

 

Thanks again, for sharing your time with me. I look forward to seeing you on a future trip!

 

Don “Woodkayaker” McCumber
Video from Diana Nyad, of me escorting her from Cuba to Florida:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyoVtvnLLyY

My videos on You Tube:

 

EVERGLADES AREA TOURS SUPPORTS LONG DISTANCE SWIMMER DIANA NYAD’S HISTORIC ATTEMPT TO SWIM THE FLORIDA STRAITS

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:

Capt. Charles Wright, Charles.evergladesareatours@gmail.com, 239-695-3633

 

EVERGLADES AREA TOURS SUPPORTS LONG DISTANCE SWIMMER DIANA NYAD’S

HISTORIC ATTEMPT TO SWIM THE FLORIDA STRAITS

Chokoloskee, FL (August 29, 2013) – On Saturday morning, 64-year old long distance swimmer Diana Nyad will once again to try again to swim solo the 100 miles from Marina Hemingway in Havana, Cuba across the Florida Straits to Key West.  Everglades Area Tours, based in Chokoloskee and Marco Island, is supporting Nyad’s epic effort with the donation of a fully outfitted kayak, a satellite phone and two kayak guides as members of the

6-person kayak crew that is part of the 65-person Extreme Dream Team support crew. 

This is Diana’s fifth attempt to swim the Florida Straits without a shark cage. The first attempt was 35 years ago at the age of 25.  It was July of 2011 before she would try again. Recent attempts have been thwarted by severe stings from jellies. In the 1970’s Diane was heralded as the greatest long distance swimmer in the world and is an inductee in the Women’s Swimming Hall of Fame.

This swim attempt by Nyad came to the attention of Capt. Charles Wright, owner of Everglades Area Tours, through one of his kayak eco-adventure guides, Don McCumber, who has served on two of Nyad’s previous swim attempts.  “Don is fully committed to Diana and her Extreme Dream.  It was an easy decision to have Everglades Area Tours join Don to support Nyad’s incredible spirit of adventure, courage and athleticism in this historic effort,” said Wright. 

McCumber is the kayak team captain, serving on his third Nyad Cuba-to-Florida swim.  On the team for the first time is Everglades Area Tours guide Darlene Meadows. Rounding out the team is Brenda Anderson (kayak leader on the July 2011 attempt), Elke Thuerling (2012 kayak captain, 2011 mother ship captain), Buco Pantellis (on all four recent swims) and Mike Devlin, President of the Paradise Coast Paddlers Club based in Naples, Florida.

Nyad and the Extreme Dream Team are scheduled to leave Key West by boat for the trip to Cuba early Friday. Today at 2:07pm Nyad posted to her blog at www.diananyad.com, “Tomorrow I leave for Cuba for the Final Attempt. This is the end of the journey. And the journey has been magnificent.”  Nyad plans to deliver a press conference Friday, August 30 at 4:00pm in Cuba, where she will announce the final determination on the start of the swim based on weather and conditions. 

Everglades Area Tours provides a wide variety of recreational and educational paddling, motor boating and hiking experiences including motor boat-assisted kayak expeditions into the Wilderness Waterway portion of Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands region around Marco Island.  Everglades Area Tours is recognized as a sustainable tour provider for its actions on tours and in the community and is certified as a Silver Level Eco Tour Operator by the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism.  For more information visit www.EvergladesAreaTours.com or www.Facebook.com/EvergladesAreaTours.

Follow Diana Nyad’s progress on Twitter @DianaNyad and on Facebook, www.Facebook.com/DianaNyad by using the hashtags #XtremeDream and #CubaToFlorida.

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10th Annual Everglades Area Tours Paddle-In

The date is set …February 22, 2014. Mark your calendars.

This year’s event is scheduled for Saturday, February 22, 2014 and we are looking forward to another great day. The event will be the same informal format as in the past … very casual. It is a social event to bring together paddling folks for a day of family-oriented fun. It is a great opportunity to meet new friends who enjoy the paddling the area, learn a bit of the colorful local history and experience a wonderful part of Florida.

There is no cost for the event. However, we always try to raise money for a worthy non-profit. The Florida Society for Ethical Eco Tourism is the beneficiary for this year’s event! Please visit their website, become a member and signup for their newsletter.

Details will be available soon, so please stay in touch!

 

Raptor Migration

Every September, there is a large migration of raptors that passes over this area and the Keys. Thunderstorms will cause them “drop out” and hang around in viewing range.

Last year 651 Peregrine Falcons were counted in just one day in Marathon.  This past week, we were on the Everglades National Park Birding and Wildlife Expediton, near the mouth of the East River, in Fakahatchee Bay.  There were several hundred Swallow Tailed Kites who gathered together and then simultaneously rode a large thermal to altitude where the all turned south … and were gone. Spectacular to witness.

See you next season!007