My First Everglades Camping Experience

I really don’t consider myself an overly superstitious person, or at least I didn’t till my first camping experience in the Everglades backcountry nearly a decade ago. It was February, prime time for camping on chickees deep in the backcountry that are only accessible by boat.

Hells Bay

Hells Bay

I really don’t consider myself an overly superstitious person, or at least I didn’t till my first camping experience in the Everglades backcountry nearly a decade ago. It was February, prime time for camping on chickees deep in the backcountry that are only accessible by boat. Fellow IGFA co-worker Adrian Gray and I had planned for a two-day, one-night fishing trip in search of snook, redfish or whatever else we could catch.

For some reason at the time, I was under the incorrect assumption that access to the chickees was on a first-come-first-serve basis that required no paperwork. Little did I know that Everglades National Park has a system that requires people to sign up for particular camping sites. They do this not only to keep tabs on who's out there camping, but also to ensure that paddlers traversing the Wilderness Waterway will have places to rest along the way.

The fateful day in question started innocuously enough. We had great weather when we launched and proceeded directly to the Roberts River chickee to deposit our camping gear. Once the boat was unencumbered of the way-too-much gear we had brought, we set out to fish all the way to the Shark River. The weather continued chamber-of-commerce perfect and, if I recall correctly, we caught a fair number of fish along the way. You’d think I’d have a better recollection of the actual fishing, but the events that transpired after that seems to have occluded that part.

It was late afternoon and we decided to head back to our chickee to set up camp and perhaps do a little dusk fishing afterwards. I was taking a bit of a circuitous route through a twisty, mangrove-lined creek that had numerous smaller creeks emptying into it. I was paying attention, and by that I mean taking mental notes that this might be a good area to fish later. What I wasn't paying attention to was where I was actually going because I ran my old Whipray on a low plane into a mangrove point. Immediately after impact, Adrian stood up, uttered a nervous laugh and said that he wasn't hurt in the least. After I saw that Adrian was fine, I next turned to see what condition my skiff was in. Mangrove branches and leaves littered the cockpit but an inspection outside of the hull miraculously revealed only cosmetic smudges from mangrove bark. Luckily, all I had done was dealt a glancing blow to one of the mangrove's prop roots. I remember us laughing after we found all was OK, and one of us commented something to the effect of "at least we got our bad luck out of the way." Boy, were we wrong.

The rest of the ride to the chickee was uneventful and we reached our destination to find that a paddler had taken up residence on the other half of the chickee (this particular one was designed to house two camping parties). The paddler appeared to be wearing a pair of shorts and that was about it, which struck me as odd, as there are still a few bugs even in winter in the Glades. As soon as I pulled up to the chickee, which is about four feet above the water line where we sat the paddler came up to us and proceeded to give us grief because we were not displaying the mandatory backcountry camping permit (which we did not have) on our camping gear. After a few seconds I lost track of what exactly he was saying when I realized that paddler-guy was not wearing a pair of shorts, but some type of loincloth with nada underneath. Tarzan the Paddler continued to give me a hard time as he looked down at me while I was unfortunately looking up. Needless to say I told Adrian, who had somehow been oblivious to the paddler's attire, to throw our gear back on the boat.

Adrian was quite happy we left the scene after I had informed him of what I had regrettably witnessed and, as it was nearing dusk, we decided to work our way back through Lane and Hell’s Bay to see if there were spaces available on one of those chickees. Unfortunately, there wasn’t and we conceded that we should hightail it back to the ramp as light was fading fast. Hell’s Bay can be tricky to navigate in daylight but it gets downright nightmarish when it starts getting dark, so I was quite happy when we reached the creek that leads you out of it. I was cornering one of the final bends of the creek before entering Whitewater Bay and a relatively easy trip back to the ramp, even in darkness, when my outboard over-revved. Somehow a bolt had sheared loose on the foot of the lower unit, which left us without mechanical means to get home.

The water was shallow enough for me to use the push pole but we were still close to ten miles away from the ramp, so Adrian called the marina in Flamingo for help. The nice lady working the radio said that they could send the park patrol to come get us, but we'd have to leave my skiff. The other option, she said, was for her to call over to the adjacent lodge to see if one of the fishing guides staying there would come give us a tow. Adrian thanked her, gave her his phone number and we waited for a call as I continued to poll in darkness towards the ramp.

I was relieved to hear Adrian’s phone ring, not 10 minutes later. Good news: the gentleman on the phone informed me that we were lucky to have reached him, as he was a “veteran guide” of the area and would have no trouble finding us and towing us back in the dark. Bad news: said gentlemen wanted the tidy sum of $200 for what would be no more than a 30-minute round-trip. I tried to barter with the guide and told him I worked at IGFA, which ended up being the final, and perhaps worst (although the dude in the loincloth still has me scarred) piece of bad luck of the trip. It turned out that in my first year at IGFA we were petitioned to reinvestigate a permit fly record that had been recently approved. After reinvestigating the record, we had no other choice but to rescind it. As luck (the bad kind) would have it, the only dude in Everglades National Park who would give me tow was the guide of the angler whose record we rescinded.

In the end I sucked it up, paid the guy and we got home safely. I will admit that I did get some joy weeks later when a friend told me he witnessed our Good Samaritan completely dump his skiff off his trailer hard onto the dry ramp as he was backing it in. As for Adrian, it was four years before he agreed to go on a camping trip with me in the Everglades.