IT’S MY EVERGLADES—A Personal Account Of The 2012 Marshall Foundation River Of Grass Canoe Expedition
By Ron Haines
Day 1: Wednesday, January 18, 2012
As I drove up to the boat ramp at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge for the start of our trip, expedition leader Chris Carl’s organizational abilities were evident.
There were six canoes lined up, each with a red flag atop a long pole, and each already loaded with a portion of the expedition’s communal stuff—the latrine, the meeting tent, cooking equipment, food, water, first aid kit, etc. The red flags were for visibility (airboats and powerboats) and to make it easier for us to keep each other in sight.
Sponsored by The Marshall Foundation , this was the third leg of a multi-year project to follow the flow of water through the Everglades. The first, in 2010, went from the Kissimmee River south to the Grassy Waters Preserve in West Palm Beach. Last year’s took it from there to the Refuge. This year we would paddle from the Refuge to the Tamiami Trail west of Miami. Plans are already afoot for the next segment, from the Tamiami Trail to Florida Bay. All of the trips, including ours, included daily interactive podcasts with students in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
One of our paddlers, Victor Suarez of the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, came to the launch armed with a sheaf of drawings done by his young daughter and her classmates. Each repeated the theme of this expedition “It’s My Everglades” and many of them soon took a proud place on the poles below the red safety flags.
After the obligatory group photos and goodbyes, we set off, headed south along the L-40 canal. We were going to go just six miles today, a sort of short ‘shakedown’ cruise for the first day while we got to know each other and get into the camp routine.
The paddling was leisurely. An energetic Jim Jackson of Radio Green Earth wielded a mean double bladed paddle in the bow of my canoe and we moved along nicely. It was a straight shot down the canal, the levee on our left and a tall wall of cattails on our right. I would learn way more about cattails, and indeed a lot of other stuff, in the coming days.
Paddling sets one to thinking, and my mind wandered to how I ended up here today. I had known about the previous segments of this project, of course, and as a long-time Sierra Club volunteer, a veteran paddler and a recent retiree, I had some knowledge, canoe skills and time, so I applied for a slot this year. I figured the paddling on canals might be boring, but my fellow travelers would be fascinating and I would learn a lot.
Our first organizational meeting proved me correct about the people I would be with. I was floored by the skills and talents and outdoor experience of the folks around the table and their passion for and knowledge of the Everglades. In addition to that, I would learn as the trip progressed, there was a quality about each of them that made them just terrific human beings. I began to wonder why I’d been invited along!
We camped out atop the levee, about two miles west of Stonebridge Golf and Country Club in Boca Raton. We set up the ‘meeting room,’ a large, teepee-shaped tent in which we could gather together if driven inside by rain or mosquitoes. As it turned out, we had no rain, and the mosquitoes, while numerous and aggressive, only set upon us for about a half hour each evening and some mornings and then dropped off or disappeared entirely the rest of the time.
Our dinner gatherings and talk times were thus outside during the trip. Have I forgotten to mention dinner? How could I? Breakfasts and lunches were hearty and satisfying, but the dinners were unforgettable, thanks to the Marshall Foundation’s Gisa Wagner, who has the ‘army travels on its stomach’ point of view.
She drove the six miles down the levee on that first night with her homemade shrimp and sausage stew and throughout the trip either met us every evening with another homemade meal or had one packed with us that we could heat up. She also helped us keep supplied with breakfast and lunch fixings, water, and whatever else we needed.
After dinner today we had the first of our nightly chats into the Radio Green Earth microphone, facilitated by Jim Jackson. These were extremely wide-ranging and helped us discuss what we’d seen that day, what we thought about what we’d seen and answer any questions we had. I considered them, along with the student podcasts, to which everyone also contributed, the most valuable parts of the trip. (all of Jim’s material is available at Radio Green Earth and all of the podcasts, video and photos from the trip–as well as Jim’s material–will be available at the foundation site)
We talked about cattails tonight. They’re generally evidence that an area has been disturbed and that the water quality is low. If you only get onto the fringes of the Everglades, such as along this canal we were on, probably all you’ll see are cattails, and you’ll never get to enjoy a true Everglades sawgrass marsh, as we did later this trip. Cattails are also way tougher to paddle through than sawgrass is.
I slept fitfully that first night out. It was my first night in a sleeping bag on the ground in about ten years. The frogs were loud and terrific all night long, drowning out the urban hum, and the sky was of two minds, bright with the urban glow to the east and black as ink over the Everglades to the west.
Day 2: Thursday, January 19, 2012
The morning routine was simple and good: Up at six or so, breakfast, pack up, podcast to the classrooms from 8 to 8:30, then depart. Two of us were assigned on a rotating basis to police the site before departure.
Today was going to be tougher than yesterday. We were going 12 miles and, because of a construction project up ahead on the L-40 canal, we’d have to portage at least twice. The construction project would result in a future storm water treatment area, a part of Everglades restoration. So it was a good thing, but it was in our way nonetheless.
The planned portage spot was impossible, because there was no water visible to portage to, so a few leaders, including Susan Sylvester, operations director at the South Florida Water Management District, scouted things out by computer and on foot. Susan’s knowledge of the waterways and of the history of the Everglades was helpful at every stage of our trip, not just today. She also moderated the daily podcasts to classrooms and facilitated all of us contributing something to that part of the project.
While they figured out a way through, the rest of us relaxed in our canoes among the cattails and watched a brave little morehen as he paddled right in amongst us, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
The portage we found took us up onto the levee on our left, over it and down onto an older, overgrown levee for about 75 yards easterly through the woods and over the rocks to a bit of water that would take us south. Everyone pitched in like a well-oiled machine and soon the job was done. And I had some flashbacks to some tough portages I’d done in the past, when I was younger, and stronger. It’s good there were some younger, stronger folks than I along on this trip.
Susan worked the portage into the midday podcast. Subjects of other podcasts on the trip included our safety equipment, our route, our food and water, the plants and animal life we saw, evidence of Everglades restoration, and what we heard and saw at night along the way. Because it was an interactive broadcast, we were also able to answer specific questions from the students.
The narrow canal we ended up on took us south, right along the urban fringe. On the left we saw the huge light towers of a high school football field. Also on the left was the western end of Palmetto Park Road. Within a mile of us were hundreds of houses in gated communities. On both sides of us were steep banks of non-native vegetation, including the ubiquitous Brazilian Pepper (please don’t call it Florida Holly!)
We weren’t in the “Everglades,” that’s for sure, and we all knew it, but we were looking forward to the days ahead when we would be.
At the southern end of the narrow canal, we managed to slither through some small drainage culverts (slithering’s better than portaging) and ended up in the Hillsboro Canal (L-30), headed west and slightly north. Along our journey we had of course been picking up what trash we’d see along the way. To do a good job of that along this section of the Hillsboro would have meant extending the trip by at least a day. So we just held our collective noses and paddled on. On the left was Loxahatchee Road and its many speed bumps and on the right was a high bank and lots of trashy looking vegetation.
The plan was for Gisa to meet us at the small park at the western end of Loxahatchee Road with a resupply of water early in the afternoon. We were going through water faster than planned. And she also brought the dinner that we would eat that night. GISA!
At the flood control structure at the park we portaged for the second time today. Out of the Hillsboro Canal into another canal (L-36) going straight south, still on the western urban fringe.
The timing was good for a lunch stop. We had two portages under our belts today and we were roaring ready for lunch.
Tonight’s campsite was on some flat ground on the west side of the L-36 canal. Just steps past our campsite was the hulking levee called the ‘east coast protective barrier’ and to the west of that the Everglades. To our east across the canal was a scraggly strip of trees and bushes, a road, and the entryway to a gated community, complete with lighted fountain, roughly near NW 71St Street in Fort Lauderdale.
In spite of being at a spot that was not pristine Everglades and was cheek-by-jowl with urban Fort Lauderdale, we had two great wildlife sightings here. Until now, the ordinary stuff has been evident, blue heron, anhinga, morehens, cormorants, kingfishers, purple gallinule, egrets and the like.
David Block, an intern with the Florida Wildlife Service, took a walk up to the top of the levee and spotted and photographed some elusive otters in a pool of water. And a bit later, Carlos Arazoza, chairman of the South Florida National Parks Trust and founder of the South Florida Bushpaddlers Association, spotted a pair of snail kites and he and Jim Jackson scrambled to get into position to get some photos.
There were no frogs serenading us tonight. We figured the big levee to our west cut us off from the sound of them, but as we spent further nights in more natural spots later on we didn’t hear them either. The one and only night for a decent chorus of frogs was our first night out. What’s happening to the frogs?
There were a few crickets though, and the ever present urban hum. And of course we had the urban glow to the east and the black of the Everglades to the west, all night long.
Day 3: Friday, January 20, 2012
At 6 a.m. my slowly awakening brain thought it heard the sizzle of bacon frying. It was really just the hiss of the fountain across the canal. (NOTE: We didn’t do bacon and eggs on the trip, but the fruit, oatmeal, bagels, banana bread, grilled arepas, and coffee were always more than enough to get us up and moving—Thanks Chris for always being up and getting things going in the morning.)
Today’s plan was for 11 miles, one portage and a finish at Sawgrass Recreation Park at U.S 27, just north of I-75. The route looked downright exciting compared to what we’d been through. We’d be going WEST—bound to run into some real Everglades doing that! We would have marsh on both sides of us and the urban clutter would fall further behind us with each paddle stroke.
The promise held up. Later today we would see as much sawgrass as cattail and much clearer water and clean vistas.
But there was more urban clutter to get through first, unfortunately. We continued from the campsite south down the canal, still cut off from the Everglades by the massive levee on our right. On the left was the sprawl of the southeast coast of Florida. The Sawgrass Expressway was in sight and sound and smell from Sample Road to Atlantic Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
As depressing as that might sound, there is still something quite thrilling about moving along on the water, under one’s own steam, equipped to live outdoors, in the company of 11 great companions and being a part of a great educational project. I was getting a lot out of this personally and collectively we were putting a lot into educating the young and the public at large about the importance of the Everglades.
Soon we came to our portage, just south of the West Atlantic Boulevard interchange on the Sawgrass. As we crested the levee we could see what lie ahead: a due west course into the Everglades on the L-35B! Just going west instead of south was a thrill!
With a great breeze from the east we were all looking forward to a nice paddle with the wind. But Chris had a better idea: Using the flagpoles as masts, we were soon six-across, with a 10X20-foot tarp tied to the poles of the boats on either end and pushing against the poles of the other four boats. The wind was scooting us along the canal, as fast and at times faster, than we could paddle!
For the next four hours we were under sail. We talked, we snacked and had a terrific time. Using one’s own power to get somewhere is great, using the power of nature to get somewhere is even better. As the canal turned a bit to the southwest we staggered the boats to keep the sail productive in the crosswind. That worked for a while, but was hard to control and we ended up in the weeds. We were still fresh and ready to paddle though.
We were met at the campsite by John and Nancy Marshall of the Marshall Foundation, a great welcome by the folks who are making this voyage possible. Gisa was also on hand of course, armed with a terrific dinner, as well as Josette Kaufman of the foundation.
It was at this point that a planned changeover of some participants occurred. Victor Suarez, Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department; Janet Talbot, Sierra Club Miami Group, and David Block, Florida Wildlife Service, would be leaving.
And we were joined by Marissa Martinez, a Florida Wildlife Service intern; Robert Carew, Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, and Mac Stone, videographer and naturalist.
The evening, as all have been, was filled with good food and good conversation. Expert Alan Trefry explained the difference between spatterdock and water lilies. The leaves look round and similar, but the spatterdock’s leaves will ‘wave’ at you in a breeze, lifting off the water, while those of the lily lie flat.
Camped, as we were, right along U.S. 27, the evening sounds were traffic, and mostly trucks, several of which decided to sound like trains! The showers and indoor plumbing sort of made up for it. And we all knew the best of this voyage was yet to come!
Day 4: Saturday, January 21, 2012
It was a typical wet morning today. The dew has been heavy every morning and will continue to be so through the trip. But the weather overall on this voyage has been terrific. No rain, temps in the 60’s or a bit below at night and highs in the 70’s or 80’s. The sun, especially in the afternoon, is pretty intense, and typical for Florida, but there isn’t much to complain about, that’s for sure. Previous legs of this project have encountered really cold weather and a lot of rain. Glad I didn’t have the time to volunteer then!
Using vehicles and a canoe trailer, we portaged across U.S. 27 and a short ways south to a boat ramp on the L-68A canal to begin our 14-mile day. We’d camp tonight at the junction of three canals, the wide L-67A, the narrow L-67C and the wide C304 (AKA Miami River). Fortunately tomorrow we’d be following the smaller, more paddler-friendly L-67C.
I was paddling today with Rick Poston, a photographer and painter of Everglades landscapes. The trip leaders were constantly assessing the canoe pairings, trying to balance things out so no canoes were too strong or too weak. It’s easier to travel as a group when all the canoes move at roughly the same speed.
It was a bit of a slog against the wind today. It was manageable and we were able to make decent time, but it was a serious affront to us, after having enjoyed four hours under sail just yesterday! How could the wind be so fickle?
Way fewer cattails today and way more sawgrass. This is what it is all about. We left the canal and poked into the sawgrass marsh a couple of times to just enjoy being there. Cattails grow dense and because of that encourage the buildup of sediment around them and that inhibits travel through them. Sawgrass is lighter, freer and lets the water flow through it. Sawgrass is what the Everglades is all about.
Tonight’s campsite was just spectacular. We were perched on a levee above the swamp. We could see to the east on the horizon 12 miles away all the lights of the urban strip that is southeast Florida. We could identify a huge cement plant on the west edge of the urban area and we could see the lights along Krome Avenue and the Miccosukee casino building down close to the Tamiami Trail.
How many people on this planet have looked at all of this from the viewpoint we have tonight? Very few I suspect.
One of the long range goals of this multi-year expedition is to demonstrate that this kind of travel is possible and maybe someday what we have done will convince folks who control these areas that there is value in permitting other trips to these mostly closed areas so that other groups can see what we saw and continue the battle to keep it intact.
I slept well tonight. In fact each night along the way has been a better night’s sleep than the previous one. Getting used to the sleeping bag again I guess. Or maybe I am just very tired?
Day 5: Sunday, January 22, 2012
It was a nice, 11-mile day today down the narrow, paddler-friendly L-67C canal.
For any paddler, the scale of the waterway makes a difference. A wide canal seems way more uninteresting and drudgerous (Not a word, but I like it anyway) than a narrow waterway.
In a narrow waterway your eyes tell you you are moving because the sides are close and passing by quickly and your other senses tell you your voyage is interesting because you can see the swirls of the fish, hear the plops of the turtles and tense up at the loud splashes of the alligators as you paddle along. I will take a narrow passage over a wide one any day.
I think all of us perked up at the pleasant waterway we had today. I know I was happy to have it. Bob Carew was my paddling partner. He had joined us midway through and was the same, outdoor savvy and friendly person as all the others on this trip have been.
We saw some tourist airboats today from Everglades Holiday Park, which is at the western end of Griffin Road, a few miles to the east. We also saw a couple private ones and a few powerboats.
Today’s chat during one of Jim’s taped dialogues for Radio Green Earth included apple snails. I had never realized there is difference between the native and the non-native ones. I guess I never knew there were non-native ones. Turns out the imports are thicker and heavier and thus basically useless for the endangered everglades snail kite, which cannot pierce the thick shells easily and find food. The indigenous apple snails are lighter and have a thinner shell, perfect for the kite. The imports are displacing the indigenous ones.
We camped for the night right at a break in the levee along the L-67C. It was a manmade break, and there would be more made in the future, in an attempt to ‘decompartmentalize’ the Everglades and get the flow of water going once again. The compartmentalization of the past, as Susan Sylvester explained to us that evening, had resulted in diverse ecosystems, and the goal was to undo as much of that as we could, as part of the restoration of the Everglades.
The flow of water south through the break in the levee was evident to all of us. The ongoing construction of a raised bridge along the Tamiami Trail south of us was also part of this project to get the water moving through the Everglades. I have heard the term Everglades Restoration for many years. It is great to get out and see it in action.
From atop the levee tonight we could see the setting sun glinting off the buildings in downtown Miami miles away to the east. I think all of us felt a sense of satisfaction that we got to where we are tonight under our own steam.
Day 6: Monday, January 23, 2012
Mixed feelings: Today would be our last day of paddling, but it would also be the most interesting. We only had ten miles to go so this morning we had time to take a side trip into the sawgrass marsh along an open trail that a couple of members of our group had explored yesterday after we pitched camp.
Pushing through the sawgrass to get off the canal was way easier than pushing through cattails had been and soon we were on a watery path through thin sawgrass that went off the channel and formed a loop. It was shallow, only a couple feet deep and wading around in it was pretty easy. Alan Trefry talked to us about the water and food value of sawgrass. The four inches above the root is good for sucking out moisture and chopping up for food. He did so and passed the bites around. It was pretty good.
Alan also explained the periphyton, the slimy stuff that floated on the surface and could be seen through the clear water coating rocks and plants under water too. A mixture of algae, bacteria, microbes and detritus, periphyton is a source of food for invertebrates and some fish. Its presence is generally a sign that the waterway is healthy.
Along the way, Susan Sylvester and Mac Stone scouted the crest of the levee on our left and found remnants of turtles eaten by turkey vultures. The birds scout out the levees and if they see a turtle they tip it on its back. If it can’t right itself it dies and the vulture comes back later on for a meal.
As we paddled along today we came across someone else out there! It was a team of four researchers from Florida International University (FIU). They were using ‘drop nets’ to measure water creature presence to create a baseline for the future when the levee would be dropped more and water flow increased, so the results of that could be more accurately measured.
They showed us the critters they’d been finding, including a scary looking small insect called an alligator flea. I don’t think any of us had even heard of it, and there it was.
This was great fodder for our educational efforts: Jim interviewed them for a story for his Radio Green Earth programs and because the timing was right, Susan and Tomas Boiton, co-leader of this trip and CEO of Citizens for Improved Transit, worked together to make the FIU folks’ research the basis of a podcast to students.
And then lunch was served: Bread and condiments on one canoe and cold cuts and cheeses on another. We invited the FIU guys to join us of course, and everyone waded around in the sawgrass marsh and enjoyed lunch.
The FIU folks, when they saw us, had wondered what the hell we were doing out there and we, when we first saw them, had wondered that the hell they were doing out there. It was great to get together and chat and have lunch.
Our destination today is a campsite across from a boat ramp along the Tamiami Trail west of Miami. The plan was to link up with Carlton Ward Jr.’s expedition going northward from Florida Bay.
We pulled in and set up. Nancy Marshall, Gisa and Josette joined us and it wasn’t long before a lavish barbecue dinner was underway. We’d paddled about 75 miles in six days, learned a lot about each other and the Everglades, and broadcast real-time news and information about the Everglades Expedition into classrooms up and down the southeast coast of Florida. There was indeed a lot for us to celebrate!
Carlton Ward Jr., filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and bear biologist Joe Guthrie pulled up in their kayaks well after dark, after being helped with their portage across Tamiami Trail by members of our group. They’d been delayed by low water south of us and were very happy to join in the camaraderie and barbecue provided at our campsite by the Marshall Foundation. They said they could smell the food long before they arrived.
Jim interviewed them that evening for his Radio Green Earth program and they were the subjects of the podcast to students in the morning.
It was a great joining of two expeditions, one going south and the other going north, both with the goal of spreading the word about the importance of the Everglades and the concept of the connections between the natural places in Florida.
I went to bed tonight grateful for the experience of paddling with the great folks I have met on this trip and happy that I would be packing up my bedding and tent in the morning and heading for home and my nice comfy bed.
I am thankful to the Loxahatchee Group of the Sierra Club for funding my participation in the 2012 River of Grass Canoe Expedition.
I am thankful to the Marshall Foundation for its continued support of this project to keep the youth and others in Southeast Florida aware of the importance of the Everglades. “It’s My Everglades” is an apt motto for this voyage. I think all the participants came away with that feeling and I hope the publicity and educational efforts helped other Floridians feel the same way. As Floridians take the Everglades as their own, restoration becomes easier to accomplish.
And I am thankful for meeting all the wonderful folks who participated in and provided support for this trip and wish you all the very best in the future. You are all really special people.