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Destination: Florida

Glade Runners : Two women learn it takes some doing to pilot a boat in the Everglades

September 28, 1997|ARLINE INGE | Inge is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — When my friend Nancy Belcher told her son that, after visiting friends in Miami, we were going to sail the watery wilderness of Florida's Everglades National Park, he patted her on the shoulder and gave her an avuncular smile. "You want to take a boat into the Everglades alone? Two women who don't know port from starboard?"

Not one to be patronized, especially not by her own child, Nancy marched to the phone and made reservations. Sandy Asche, at that time the boat rental supervisor at the park's Flamingo Marina, had told her, "Anyone can learn to drive a houseboat." Didn't that mean us?

Nancy had whetted my appetite with photos, taken on a previous Everglades trip, of canny-eyed alligators and inky anhingas spreading their fringed black wings to dry in the sun. But she had seen her tropical wildlife at ponds and swamplands surrounded by park service boardwalks and manicured paths. To taste the mysteries and solitude of endless mangroves, swamps and saw grass plains--found nowhere else in the world--you need to get out on the water.

In the northern Everglades fed by Lake Okeechobee, the freshwater marshes are carpeted with waving saw grass. As saltwaters from the Gulf of Mexico invade the sloughs and shallow rivers farther south, where we were, the scenery grows more dramatic. Bushy salt-loving, leather-leaved mangrove trees move in, bunching together to create an ever-changing landscape of impenetrable islands. Map makers throw up their hands as hurricanes keep tearing islands apart or making a single island out of two by silting up the streamlets between them.

*

"Come and let me check you out," urged Sandy, as we stood watching a 5-foot alligator sunning itself near the dock. She led us to the ungainly Tarpon, bearing the name of Florida's fiercest fighting fish but looking like a 1950s trailer on pontoons--powered by an outboard motor, top speed 7 mph.

The Flamingo Marina has only eight houseboats for rent. Four of them are sleek 37-foot fiberglass Gibsons, fitted out like luxury yachts and sleeping six. They come with an upper sundeck and upper and lower helm stations and the luxury of air-conditioning. These are at a premium during the hot humid summers when the gargantuan mosquitoes are at their worst and the fishing is at its best. (The drier winter season that we enjoyed is prime time for birders.)

The rest of the fleet is like the cheaper, non-air-conditioned, 40-foot Tarpon, which sleeps eight. Our on-deck amenities were limited to two plastic chairs, an ice chest for the fishing clientele in front and a well-used barbecue grill on the stern.

We stashed our Lean Cuisines, English muffins and chardonnay in the fridge and followed Sandy to the helm. "One of you takes the wheel while the other navigates." She patted the compass and unfolded a big marine map. "Follow the printed red line between the numbered channel markers and don't go beyond these boundaries." She drew an ominously heavy line in Ponce de Leon Bay and cautioned us to stay in the areas shown on the map in deep blue. Lighter blue meant extremely shallow, and if we drifted into the palest areas next to the mangrove shores, the blades of our motor could easily get stuck in the shallow silt. She showed us which button to push to extricate the motor and went on to give us the rules of the road.

"Remember to keep the red markers on your right and the green ones on your left going out. Coming back it's the reverse, green on your right."

After a driving lesson and life-jacket inspection, we practiced our radio call: "Flamingo Marina, Flamingo Marina, Flamingo Marina, this is houseboat Tarpon."

"You also can sound your horn for help in case of disaster," Sandy said lightly. Chuckles all around.

Setting the anchor looked like what we used to call man's work, but I stifled the thought. One of us would have to put the boat in reverse while the other lowered the 35-pound monster single-handedly. To raise it, one drove forward, the other grappled with the chain. "It's all in the book," said our mentor, leaving a well-thumbed binder on our table. Then she started us up, untied the line and leaped back to the dock. "Turn wide," she called, as we entered the narrow canal, "and watch out for small boats."

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The Flamingo Canal is the start of a singular 99-mile waterway that cuts through the park's southwest heel from the recreational center of Flamingo on Florida Bay to Everglades City on the Gulf of Mexico north of Ponce de Leon Bay. Canoeists can navigate the string of lakes, marshes and streams in eight days, sleeping along the route on Indian-style platforms called chickees, which the Seminoles devised to protect themselves from marine predators below. Houseboats, usually rented for short fishing trips, are restricted to the area around nearby Whitewater Bay. Landing on the mangrove islands is discouraged, as is swimming in the tea-colored snake- and shark-infested waters.

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