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.