HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The entrance was like the hole Alice fell through to Wonderland, just an aperture in the thick foliage, but a portal to another world.
We paddled into the labyrinth of Hell's Bay Trail and encountered the mythical Everglades, a watery jungle that exists more in the imagination than in reality.
First-time visitors to Everglades National Park at the southern end of Florida often are surprised to discover a wet prairie of waving sawgrass, but we seemed far removed from those boundless expanses as we maneuvered along narrow, sinuous channels.
Most visitors tour the Everglades by car and foot on paved roads and well-tended boardwalks. But canoeing the subtropical wilderness offers a challenge harking back to the frontier days of South Florida.
A total of 1.4 million acres has become a park as well as a United Nations World Heritage Site ranking with Mt. Everest, the Galapagos and the Serengeti Plain. Within the effusive "river of grass" are stands of cypress and mahogany hammocks and mangrove swamps. Several canoe trails, including Hell's Bay, have been designated, with markers placed as guides.
We quickly learned the meaning of the trail's name as we tangled our paddles in the canopy of mangroves, and more than once found passage nearly choked off by their extensive prop root system.
Known as "walking trees" by the Indians of the Everglades, mangrove swamps are breeding grounds for shrimp, shellfish and minnows. Besides serving as an important link in the food chain, the roots filter pollutants from the water.
By late morning we emerged into the first of a series of shallow lagoons. There was no shoreline, no place to stretch, only the relentless mangroves. It was difficult to imagine that anyone could make a living in such raw wilderness, but the Everglades has a 2,000-year history of human habitation.
Before the Spaniards arrived, the Everglades were inhabited by aboriginal Indians including the Apaloachee, Timucan, Ais, Jeaga, Tequesta and Calusa. Later, Creek Indians driven from Georgia migrated here and split into two bands known as Seminoles and Miccosukees.
Twists and Turns
One point about the Indians became perfectly obvious as we paddled. Their sense of direction must have been finely tuned. How else could they have found their way through this maze?
We were like Theseus in the Minotaur's labyrinth, twisting one way, switching back, turning into the sun again. Numbered markers every few hundred feet were our ball of thread. And when high water had swallowed one of them, we invariably turned down the wrong branch and found ourselves at a dead end.
Finally we reached the open water of Hell's Bay. In the distance, rising out of the shimmering water, we saw our home for the night. Marked as a red triangle on our map, it was an open-sided structure on stilts, called a chickee by the Seminoles. About 50 yards from the closest mangroves, it was the only campsite on the bay and we were the only campers.
As we pulled alongside the chickee we were greeted by a four-foot alligator. Its primeval eyes peered at us over the surface of the water; as we unloaded the canoe, it continued watching us. Then suddenly it slapped its tail in a show of spume and shot off toward the mangroves.
The wind was gusting across the chickee as we set up camp. Our nylon tent billowed and flapped and as we struggled with the frame, one section of a pole rolled off the side into the choppy water. Every time one of us reached over to retrieve it, the alligator shot forward, mouth gaping, eyes fixed straight ahead, and that was that. We chose to fend off mosquitoes for the night rather than chance losing a hand.
Moon and Mosquitoes
Twilight is short in the Everglades. One moment the sun was sinking low and red, and the next, the stars were out and a full moon was rising. By then we had cooked and eaten our dinner and created a makeshift shelter with the tent fly.
But once the wind stilled, it provided little protection from insects. During the night we rose to cover ourselves with more repellent, turning the flashlight toward the water when we heard a noise. There, drifting through the dark near our chickee, were two points of light, glowing like miniature red moons--the alligator, vigilantly on patrol.
The next morning the wind returned and with it, an air boat skimming the surface of the bay. After our solitary day and night, the sight was a reminder that hundreds of thousands of people live less than an hour's drive from this wilderness.
Despite its development, the park still has much of the wildlife it always had. Although they are rare sights elsewhere, roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, American bald eagles, great white herons, brown pelicans, sandhill cranes and Everglade kites are relatively common. Flamingos also, occasionally.