“Get the picture. It’s time to go,” as our quintet of two SUPs, two sailing canoes, and one kayak struggled to hold a pose. The rising breeze, harbinger of winds to come. We had come for Scott Baste’s, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida Keys, Everglades Challenge (EC) January Preview, to learn the routes, passages, and campsites between Everglades City and Key Largo. A collection of EC veterans and newbies, all of us were eager to escape into the Everglades wilderness.
This trip would be a series of firsts for me: my first time on the Wilderness Waterway, my first multiple 25+ miles days, and my first solo SUP camping. My 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard carried almost 80 pounds of gear, food, and water, enough to last at least 8 days. A Yeti Panga duffel strapped to my stern held my clothing, camping, gear, and food. My safety gear, including lights, flares, repair and first aid kit, was stuffed into an NRS Taj M’haul deck bag in front. I carried a 3-piece Werner Rip Stick as a spare.
A Seakayaker on a SUP?
Why SUP? After all, I have done numerous training
and coastal expeditions in my NDK Pilgrim Expedition. But I fell in love with stand-up paddleboarding even before I stood on a board, and the board plays well with our sailboat on Kevin’s and my SUP and sail trips. But there is a learning curve. SUP surf and SUP touring/expeditions have challenged me to adapt my kayak skills to a board. Wind and waves affect board and boat differently, for example, and I am experimenting to determine my limits. I recently began a SUP technique training program with Coach Larry Cain through Paddle Monster and am already seeing the benefits. Most important, I like my view of the world from a board.
Starting Out: Eight Miles to the First Chickee
Buoyed by a rising tide, the paddle to Crooked Creek Chickee went quickly, and we reached the platforms just before sunset. Joe and I paddled straight there, past Chokoloskee and up the Lopez River, while Scott, Brian, and Don added miles by going up the Turner River and through Mud Bay. Cramming five people’s gear and tents on the platforms is an exercise in geometry—especially after dark. Mangrove forests line the rivers in the Everglades, and there are few spots dry enough for camping. So, the Everglades National Park built a series of chickees, or raised platforms, along the Everglades’ rivers and in Florida Bay.
A 30 Mile, Windy Day
Our Everglades Challenge Preview started here: a 30 mile slog upwind, not even a real wind by EC standards. I left early, knowing that I am slower than the others. I relished the early morning calm as I paddled up the Lopez River to Sunday Bay, Oyster Bay, and Huston Bay. I followed my GPX track on my Garmin Fenix watch, but the occasional signs for the Wilderness Waterway, the 99 mile route between Everglades City and Flamingo, reassured me that I was on track. By the time I reached Last Huston Bay, the winds and my friends had caught up.
Reality set in, when we turned into the wind. The bumpy waters of Last Huston Bay grew to whitecaps and small waves in the long fetch of Chevelier Bay. I paddled my board up and over the waves, grateful for my long board surf sessions on Tybee Island. (When I returned to Chevelier Bay several weeks later, I had my best downwind surf run ever.) The tiny creeks linking the bays offered some respite from the wind and a chance to appreciate the beauty of the region. But, long days into headwinds are the reality of the Everglades Challenge.
The Everglades Challenge
According the website, “The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats. The distance is roughly 300 nautical miles depending on your course selection. There is a time limit of 8 days or less. Your safety and well being are completely up to you.”
A daunting challenge, especially on a paddleboard. But even more important to me, preparing for the challenge has sharpened a range of skills and introduced me to “kindred spirits”, in EC lingo. In 2020, I did the Ultramarathon, the shorter version of the Everglades Challenge, and planned to enter the EC in 2021. (Ultimately, I postponed until 2022.) This 30-mile paddle might have seemed long, but EC days can stretch to 40-50. I was tired when I reached Rogers Bay Chickee just before dark, but I felt surprisingly good both that night and the next morning.
Going It Alone
I faced a decision the next morning: remain with the group until Flamingo or separate and begin heading north to beat a projected front. Given the weather forecast and cumulative distance, I questioned my ability to complete that paddle. I assessed my water supply and realized that I needed to either continue to Flamingo or begin my trek back to Everglades City. I was sorry to leave the group—I loved the banter and cameraderie. But I also didn’t want to risk injury, and I knew that I needed to practice solo paddling.
Alone, I retraced my route through Rogers Bay, Big Lostmans Bay, and Third Bay, then headed west through the creatively named Second and First Bays to the mouth of Lostmans River. It felt strange to be on my own, but also exhilarating. I was confident in my abilities to handle the conditions and navigation, but now I needed to be completely self-reliant. By the time I reached the mouth of the river, the wind had picked up, and the tide was coming in. I made camp on a small beach just north of the river mouth and settled in for the night. It had been a 15 mile day.
I placed my tent in vegetation that looked both hidden and above the high tide line. (Despite multiple washings, those leaves still cling to my clothing.) I built a small fire on the beach and reflected on my trip and the solitude. I hadn’t seen anyone after I left Big Lostmans Bay, and the horizon was empty. I was really alone.
I carried multiple communication devices in case of emergency, including a VHF radio, PLB, and a Garmin Inreach, I also carried two GPS, heeding Chief’s admonition that ‘two is one, and one is none.’ Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Since I had preloaded GPX tracks onto my Garmin Fenix watch, I rarely turned on the GPS instead glancing at my wrist for route and waypoint information.
Day 4: Lostmans to Highland Beach, 26 miles
Where to paddle? The north winds that were giving my friends a killer downwinder would have made my north-bound paddle hell. So, I decided to take advantage of those winds and paddle back up Lostmans River, past Rogers Bay, and down the Broad River to Highland Beach, just several miles south of Lostmans River. By now, some of these bays felt like old friends, but with benefit of tailwind. Bays I had struggled through now passed quickly. That is, until Broad River Bay where I fought for every inch.
I dragged my board and myself through the bay, down the river, and across the very, very shallow river mouth. I wanted to get as far from the delta and its tidal flats as possible. I knew that the next morning’s low tide would trap me on the beach if I didn’t get far enough up the coast. The west wind pushed me towards the shore, and I felt like I was paddling through mud, which I was. Later, I realized that I had been dragging my fin though the mud.
Highland Beach was my second night solo camping, a skill I knew I would need for the EC. It seemed odd to be so far removed from any signs of people, although I wasn’t fully cut off. I texted Kevin through the Inreach, and frequently checked the forecast on the Inreach, itself a form of entertainment. (In return, the Inreach taunted me with promises of a tailwind.) Further, the occasional chatter on my VHF radio was interesting. But I was never bored.
Stalled by Tidal Flats, Then the Wind
Despite my best efforts at an early start, the tidal flat trapped me for several hours. I started a fire and watched the water creep over the mud. Eventually, the water had risen, and so had the winds.
After paddling for several hours, I did the most un-EC thing ever—I declared a beach day. I spent the afternoon bathing and reading on Hog Key. That evening, I burnt through even more of my required fire survival kit. A glorious day.
Day Six: 28 Miles and Too Many People
Northward bound, I passed New Turkey, Mormon, and Pavillion Keys then ran into a group of kayakers from Iowa near Jewell Key. It started to feel crowded!
I reached Lulu Key, where I intended to camp, but music-blaring jet skiers were too much after days of solitude. I doubled back to Tiger Key, where multiple raccoon prints alerted me to my evening adventure. I hadn’t seen any critters until then. I stored my food in a bear barrel and my water in a heavy plastic container, and each night I placed my water bag under the weight of the board. The raccoons came out at dusk, not daunted by my fire. I slept with my paddle nearby and woke to a raccoon licking condensation off my board.
The Last Leg: Tiger Key to Everglades City
Tired, happy, and stinky, I rode the tide into Everglades City. My only complaint: after miles of fantasizing about lunch, Nelys was closed that day.
This trip was an enormous learning experience and confidence builder. I paddled distances unimaginable the year before and explored a remote and fascinating part of the Everglades. It was the culmination of a year of skill-building and training, including SUP and sail trips with my husband and an overnight crossing of Florida Bay in December. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do the Everglades Challenge in 2021, but I’ll be ready for 2022.