Small Towns and Everglades

Travelogue - March 6, 2007

Ten Thousand Islands

South of Marco Island we officially entered the northern edge of the Ten Thousand Islands. Don W. says it's really one island, ten thousand times. Either way this area encompasses a lot of undisturbed mangrove islands and a lot of water and a lot of tempting alluring byways, and a lot of blessed silence.

The south half of the Ten Thousand Islands are within the Everglades National Park. Tripod Key at the northern edge is at the tip of the iceberg. It's the first step on the moon. It's the heart of darkness. It's the silent tread of the puma and the swirl of dark water after a 'gator. It's the wilderness. We could hardly wait.


Sea Gator, Tripod Key anchorage We arrived at our anchorage near Tripod Key, just south of Goodland, on Thursday, February 15.

Goodland calls itself a "village". It is a 90 minute cruise and a 30 minute bike ride - and a world apart - from the self-conscious bustle of Marco Island. The streets (there are 11 of them) are named for fruits (Papaya, Mango, Coconut) or local claims to fame (Palm, Sunset, Angler, Harbor). They have three good resturaunts/bars, all of which have docks on the water and two of which are on Pear Tree street; one shop which sells baseball caps with the attached fake hair adjacent to $1500 earrings; a nice post office with a book exchange in the lobby on Mango Steet; and a couple of nice marinas.

Lagoon at Goodland The "back yard" of all three restaurants open onto a lagoon where many private and commercial fishing boats berth. Here's a view from a dockside table.

Despite the fact that it's been unseasonably cold here, we've had a really nice time. Even bundled up in long pants and sweaters and jackets it's still green and temperate and we're not complaining.

The day after our arrival we took Bump Head to Goodland's Calusa Island Marina and Yacht Club, surveying the facility for future reference. We ended up tying Bump Head there for a few hours, for there are no public docks available. From the marina it's an easy walk to town.

On that first day we walked to the Old Marco Lodge for lunch, and there we were introduced to "Sweet Fries". What on earth? Our server confided that they are her favorite: french fries made from sweet potatoes! Holy smokes, they were delicious.

Joe On the return walk we said "Nice truck!" and so we met Joe. This 1947 Chevy pickup, right, belonged to his granddad, and Joe has spent six years off and on restoring it. He reinstalled the body on a Chevy S10 chassis.

He also replaced the engine with a V8 - Rick checked it out. It barely fit but he made it work, saying "I don't want to putt-putt down the road; I want to GO!" He's still not finished with the interior, but we saw him driving it around town later. It's his TRUCK.

Rick, Joe, engine Tripod Key was an excellent anchorage, for as the winds whipped up that weekend we were snug and safe in the lee of the mangrove islands. It was too windy to drive the dinghy into town - we could see whitecaps whipping past the islands in the channel - so we stayed on the boat and worked and read.

When things eased off a couple of days later we made our way in to town again, motoring Bump Head to the dock behind Stan's Idle Hour - that's where the second photo above was taken. We quickly fetched our mail from the post office then had a late snack at a dockside table there. They had Sweet Fries on the menu but they had run out so we couldn't do a comparison trial.

Landscape plants We wondered, why were there so darned many tables all over the place? They had tables set up in the parking lot even. We learned that Sunday afternoons at Stan's are THE most popular event and that people come in droves and busloads from far away to participate. Stan's is apparently a regional legend.

Marco Island Bike Tours

Several times we dinghied to town then rode our bikes to Marco Island for the nearest grocery store.

Rainbow of pots On one excellent day we stopped at the Island Garden Center. It was a terrific place; they had all the popular landscape plants we'd seen in our travels (above right - some unlabeled unfortunately), they had an extensive collection of garden ornaments that were a lot of fun to see, and they had a glorious palette of every size and color pot you can imagine in your most enthusiastic gardening dreams. The place was lively and well-ordered and it smelled of mulch and clean soil.

Paul Their customer service was exemplary: we were ably assisted in our browsings by Paul Kruz, a friendly and knowledgeable transplant from Ohio. He gave us the gift of perspective. The entire bizarro world of sub-tropical landscape plants is no longer quite so overwhelming, because Paul talked about experimenting with plants and microclimates in his yard after he moved to Florida, and dealing with drought conditions and insect infestations, and design challenges generated by the Town's landscape requirements (Marco Island's mandate to look like a golf course conflicts with its annual summer landscape water rationing).

In other words it's not magic and it's not cut-and-dried - it's just like we are accustomed to in Wyoming (USDA hardiness zone 2). I can now begin to learn my plants one at a time. Thank you, Paul!

Bull pen After the joys of the garden center we continued our ride to the Tax Collector's office, where we submitted to the State of Florida's annual blood-letting.

Game in progress On the way we stopped at a ball field and watched these gentlemen play. It was a surprise and then a pleasure to see Florida men doing something other than golf or fish. They were serious, too, they trash-talked and they hollered and they cheered, they lunged for grounders and leapt for flies. They did everything except slide in to home - and from the looks of the knees on the fellow on the left end of the bench, there may have been sliding going on that I just didn't see.

Company in the Anchorage

Little Mick anchoring One fine morning our cell phone rang. It was Mickey and Gary calling from Little Mick. The last time we saw them it was last winter, in Sarasota after the Citrus Caper of Cape Haze, and the last we heard from them recently they were eastbound across Lake Okeechobee.

This morning they called to ask, "How did you continue south past this bridge at Marco Island?" Rick talked them through the tricky part, and less than two hours later they were anchored at Tripod Key next to us! What an excellent surprise.

At Stan's Idle Hour We enjoyed dinner on each other's boats, and late snacks at Stan's (right), and sharing stories of our past summer's adventures.

One morning Gary and Mickey kindly invited me to join them on an outing in their dinghy. We toodled around the anchorage, exploring some little nooks and crannies and side channels. The mangrove islands are a wonderful, unique environment. The twisted tangled roots defy logic; I don't see soil, I don't know where you'd stand if you went ashore. And find your way around? No way!

Exploring a channel We moved some branches aside to continue down this little channel (left), and there we saw ibis and herons and snails. And spiders. Oh yes indeed.

Gary paddling Then we found a hidden little side cove off the adjacent Sugar Bay. When the water began to look a bit shallow Gary tilted the outboard up and we broke out the oars. It was slower but nice and quiet. We slipped through the still waters feeling as though we were the first people ever to be there. Who knew what we would discover?

Creeping along silently in that manner we saw four exquisite roseate spoonbills. Roseate Spoonbill

They were a startling pink. Cotton candy pink. Bubble gum pink. Junior prom pink. Later, as we were leaving the newly-christened "Spoonbill Cove" they all lifted into flight at the same moment like a burst of fireworks.

Calusa Island Marina and Yacht Club

On a Saturday we bid Little Mick a temporary adieu and motored Sea Gator in to the Calusa Island Marina and Yacht Club. Just in time, too, as the wind began to pick up as we approached our designed slip. It was then we saw that the slip was already occupied by a pontoon boat. We confirmed with binoculars and I radioed the marina; before their dockmaster could arrive a friendly neighboring boater had manually towed the poacher out of the way so we were able to tie in safely.

Calusa Island Marina boardwalk That neighbor, Tom, was only one of the many very fine people we met who either live aboard or keep their boats there. And it was a really nice place. They had managed to fit in a lot of boats without undue disturbance of the mangrove creek edges. Since we were on the end of a "T"dock the view from Sea Gator across the channel was entirely of undisturbed mangrove islands and tempting shallow channels.

In fact, you hiked the boardwalk through the mangroves to get from the boats to the shower/laundry building. One evening I saw a raccoon fishing below the boardwalk, and many pelicans found a living there as well.

Aunt Claire

Collard/Hebert Family On Sunday, February 25, we were treated to a long-anticipated visit with Rick's Aunt Claire. She arrived about noon with Don and Lu and Theresa. She had journeyed all the way from New Hampshire, and had spent the previous week in Tampa with her brother Arthur and his wife Roshni. It was great to see her, and she brought us some delicious caramels that one of the sisters made for her to share. We sat on the sundeck and visited for awhile, then we headed to lunch.

We got to see Stan's Idle Hour in full swing! The place was rockin' and it appeared to be packed. There were rows of motorcycles and Escalades and Hummers and it seemed the whole town had turned into a volunteer parking brigade, selling parking in vacant lots. Even that was barely enough. It was a hoot - from a distance. We crept on past.

Aunt Claire We went next door to the relatively quiet The Little Bar and had a nice lunch on their screened porch. Then Don drove us to Marco Island and we got to see the high-rise high-end condos and hotels, mile after mile of them. The upkeep of the landscapes could not be faulted. But it was a relief to get back to our little dock in the mangroves.

We were sorry to see Sister Claire leave. She will be missed in Florida, that's for sure.

The next day we returned to the Tripod Key anchorage to await good weather for our crossing south. There we were told what it was like at Stan's: Gary and Mickey were drawn to the event, and they stood in a long line to order a hamburger and beers, then stood in another long line to get their lunch. They said it was a perfect place to people-watch; just not a great place to go if you were REALLY hungry.

Lightening Strike

We knew a storm was on the way, and we battened down.

A sailboat and a Krogen "Manatee" trawler came in to anchor in Tripod Key just before the skies opened, so we were all safe and sound.

Thunder crashed and lightening flashed, and CRASH! BOOM! deafening thunder rattled the windows and instantaneous lightening lit the boat. We rushed to the windows and saw a puff of black smoke billow from the sailboat's mast. Rick grabbed binoculars and I got on the radio: we couldn't raise the sailboat on the VHF, but we didn't see any flames either.

The lightening had struck the sailboat's mast, knocked out their anchor light and fried their electronics. Fortunately the sailors were visiting aboard the trawler so no one was hurt. As soon as the storm ended the two boats weighed anchor - they had less than an hour of daylight and were heading for a boatyard for repairs.

After the storm Minutes after the rain ended and the injured boat limped out of sight, birds chirped overhead and Sea Gator and Little Mick rested on placid water as though nothing had happened. All was as it had been in Tripod Key Anchorage.

Gulf Cruise

Chart On Wednesday, February 28, Little Mick weighed anchor and headed out. We followed suit an hour later, heading south. This was our second off-shore cruise, and all went well. As before we duplicated our dead reckoning way-finding with the hand-held GPS and the PC charts. Here is the GPS chart showing our route from the Coon Key Light near Goodland to the Indian Key Light, then upriver to Everglades City.

Dolphins Unlike our cruise south of Ft. Myers Beach, here we saw undisturbed mangrove shorelines the entire route. There were a few campsites here and there where we could see tents on the beach. We saw more and more of the mangrove islands and narrow channels that typify the Ten Thousand Islands. The water became clearer and greener. Dolphins came to join us, and for the first time EVER I actually got a picture of them. Yay!

After several hours we located the lighted marker signaling the entrance to Indian Key Pass.

Ten Thousand Islands We had timed our arrival with the tides so we slipped easily up-current on an incoming tide. It was a wonderful scenic ride. We saw dozens of the Ten Thousand Islands, and a couple of nice side channels which our guidebooks tell us are good anchorages. There were lots of birds, and several pontoon tour boats from the Everglades National Park. We were immersed in the landscape of the Everglades.

Everglades City

An hour upriver we came to the outskirts of Everglades City and pulled in behind Little Mick at "Mystery Condo Dock" - a floating concrete dock on the riverbanks of an abandoned bankrupt defunct condominium project. On shore, two very large concrete buildings gape blank-eyed and skeletal from the midst of a large weed choked clearing, but the riverside is full of life. There were fishermen up and down the dock, and another boat in front of Little Mick.

Boats at Mystery Condo Dock Tying up was tricky because the dock was rather low for our high side decks - I had to leap to the dock which is a stunt whose days are numbered. Fortunately Gary and Mickey helped us with our lines and soon we were secure.

Air boats First order of business as always is Lunch. We launched our bikes and then rode into town. We had lunch at a fine little fish market / cafe overlooking the Barron River, and we watched the commercial airboats plying the waters.

Tour Later we took our fact-finding mission to the Gulf Coast Visitors Center, which is a headquarters of Everglades National Park. It was, of course, an excellent informative establishment, and we signed up for the Park's weekly Thursday activity: a bike tour of town.

Bright and early Thursday we arrived, fully drenched in sunscreen and bug repellent. The tour ride was fun. The four of us, plus a gentleman named Paul who had already ridden his bike the 30+ miles from Marco Island, went on a two hour Park-sponsored bicycle tour of the estuary and the town of Everglades City.

Bank building, Everglades City Gail Fox, the Park's knowledgeable bicycle touring ranger, led us first away from town, to the banks of the estuary, above right. She discussed the relative geologic youth of the area and the rapid changes that have occurred here; she tied this in to a discussion of the original inhabitants and their adaptations and ultimate fate. She also talked about aquatic life, mangrove habitat, endangered wildlife in the area, and Everglades preservation efforts.

Crap traps Then we rode into Everglades City. Gail described the Town's history, its evolution to meet the shifting economic challenges over the past century+, including adjusting to the new Park's requirements. She pointed out that a number of families have lived in the town for its duration.

Fishing for crabs was and is an important industry (see the stacked traps, right). There are some great old buildings (the old Bank, above left, and the City Hall, pictured on the Travelogue index page) and some determined long-term residents. The Town also has a rather optimistic street layout: its founders anticipated a thriving metropolis, and in fact it was the County seat during its heyday.

What I liked best about Gail's presentation was her obvious respect for all folks in all eras. It was an excellent tour.

Guests aboard Sea Gator When we returned to the dock a tri-maran had tied up behind us, and so we met Cathie and Phil from Kimosabi out of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Theirs is a folding trimarin, and amazingly it is the very folding trimarin that was the hot topic of discussion at the Ft. Myers Beach mooring field in January. It's a small world indeed.

The six of us spent several very pleasant evenings in each other's company, finding myriad topics in common and an equal number of previously unknown topics that were just as interesting. I say again, Rick and I appreciate the good fortune that brings us to good-hearted people on our voyages.

Everglades National Park

We had heard about the Everglades all of our lives, and I don't exaggerate when I say that it was the realization of a dream to be here.

Everglades National Park The Park headquarters at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is actually the westernmost entrance gate. There are three other entrances: Shark Valley on the north, Ernest F. Coe on the east, and Flamingo at the end of the southernmost road. The Park includes a well-marked 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, complete with backcountry campsites. There is also the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve - there is a lot to see!

Unlike Parks established to protect a visually stunning environment, Everglades is the only Park created in an attempt to protect a threatened ecosystem. The Everglades continues to be endangered - the source of its vital water is mostly outside the Park boundaries.

But there is cause for hope. A dedicated and diverse group of heavy-hitters joined forces to ensure passage and funding of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the world's largest environmental restoration project. Over its 30 year duration the plan intends to return water to more natural patterns. However, exploding population growth continues to compete for limited water resources.

Outward Bound

Jeff Our first evening on the dock a friendly stranger approached to welcome us to the neighborhood. He was Jeff Lovett, Sea Program Director of the Everglades Base Camp of Outward Bound. Their headquarters is located just across the Barron River from the Mystery Condo Dock.

At Jeff's invitation, Gary and Mickey and I dinghied over to their island campus to visit. We toured the historic buildings and learned about the organization and its mission. You, too, can meet Jeff, see photos of the campus and learn about Outward Bound in general and its Everglades programs in particular. See our article Outward Bound - An Inward Journey.

Paddlers On Friday morning groups of students returned to the campus. We saw them paddling their aluminum Grumman canoes up-river on a rising tide, looking tired but satisfied. Meanwhile, another group was seen paddling from campus toward town in a large fiberglass canoe while singing a reasonably rendered "Stayin' Alive". They were definitely enjoying themselves.

Southward Bound

Phil aloft We had been watching the weather. We wanted two contiguous days of smooth sailing to get us to the Keys, and Rick prefers moving on a weekend so he will not miss work. That opportunity came sooner than expected, and we made plans to depart on Friday, March 2.

Friday morning at the crack of 7:00 the six of us rode our bicycles the three miles to Chokoloskee - literally the end of the road on the west coast of Florida - where we obtained the only breakfast available in the Ten Thousand Islands. The Havana Cafe ("Escape, Relax & Enjoy") served excellent café con leché, and breakfast sandwiches on chewy cuban bread, and home fries sliced paper thin and loaded with onions. Thankfully the ride back to Everglades City was a good start to working it all off.

Bird's eye view After breakfast Cathie and Phil made some repairs to their rigging - see Phil aloft, right. When he was finished up there he took a photo of the dock - there are Sea Gator and Little Mick far, far below, and the channel meandering toward the Gulf seven miles or so beyond. Then Kimosabi cast off and headed downriver. At the mouth of the River they would turn north into the Gulf on the first leg of their journey back to Wisconsin.

Gary and Mickey were planning to stay and enjoy Everglades City, so Rick and Goldie and I bid them a regretful farewell and we headed downriver. Out in the Gulf we would turn south and continue our voyage toward the Keys.

But that's a Travelogue for another day.

Hope you are all well, and keeping warm.

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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