If you have lived any portion of your life in Florida, chances are you have been canoeing or kayaking. It is without a doubt on of the most relaxing and rewarding ways to get in touch with mother nature. The ability to to work as a team and slip stealthy down the waterway brings all of your surroundings that much closer.
I grew up as a Boy Scout, attended summer camps (focusing on nature and marine biology), and even has a family who demanded every Sunday be...well...family day. And those days were usually spent exploring the vast wildernesses of Florida. Needless to say, I have done my fair share of canoeing. However, it had been far too long since my last dip into the Florida streams.
So when I was driving across US 41, on my way back home from Miami, I noticed a beautiful river. All I saw was what looked like an area for parking, and a sign reading "Turner River Canoe Access." Once I got home, I went straight to the first canoe bearing friend and continually demanded we go check it out. Finally after months of persuasion, and the right weather conditions, he consented to the mission.
Well that morning finally came and my friend picked me up in his truck with the canoe loaded on top. We headed down to the river and arrived some time around 11am. Not a pro-start, but still a decent start to the day.
The parking lot was jam packed with vehicles and canoe trailers. It seemed like we were going to be fighting our way down the river for sure. There was even a government utility truck with their trailer parked on the launch ramp with barely enough room for us to get our canoe in the water. I figured we had stumbled into some kind of hotbed for man-powered boating activity, not quite the remote and isolated exploration I was hoping for.
Starting out off the ramp, things are rather tricky. Common sense dictates when you get to where the river splits, you should head north up the river, this only because there is a low-lying bridge to the south. However, you actually need to head right for that bridge and make your way under it. That is where all the action is going to be.
So we slipped under the flat bridge and made our way down. Already in those first 10 minutes we were already arms length from alligators, while large prehistoric gar fish were cruising underneath us. I think I had already seen two or three great blue herons as well.
At this point the river is a little wide. But up ahead you can see where the river takes its first turn and it looks to be rather narrow. The turn really did narrow things down and at this point we could hear a lot of voices ahead of us. I figured I better get used to the commotion out here. But when we made our way a little further up, we found that government skiff and about five canoes and kayaks clogging the pass.
Turns out, a bunch of foreigners on vacation were volunteering with the local park rangers in an operation to remove exotic hydrilla from the river. While we waited or them to clear us a path we received a minor lecture about the perils of dumping aquarium plants into natural streams. I do believe we gave them some dry humor about releasing snakeheads and other intrusive exotics into the wild. I couldn't quite tell if they were happy people or the kind that want to harm someone when they make sarcastic remarks. I hoped for the first and then they finally let us pass.
The path was now about eight feet wide at most and slowly constricting inward. We both couldn't believe how clear the water was and how great the weather had became. At one point we paused so I could take a picture of a water lily in full bloom, my mom loves those.
By now the path was about four feet wide at most, and the vegetation was starting to switch from cypress trees to mangroves. As we rounded a corner we came upon a group of three kayakers. One of them was standing in the river, pumping water out of her kayak. We said our hellos and they made the needed room to let us pass. As we passed by them, we asked if the river was going to widen up a bit down stream. They laughed and said it was just about to get really interesting.
I honestly had no idea just how interesting it was about to get.
A few turns further down the river (might as well call it a stream by now) things were getting a bit tight. I would guess no more than four feet wide. We had to try a little harder to keep the canoe going straight, but the mangroves were really beginning to close in at this point.
It was then that the river looked like it came to an end.
We continued to what looked like a dead end. But if you ducked down, you could see that this was actually a tunnel. A tunnel made out of mangroves. And this tunnel was not more than three feet wide in places. I was ecstatic! I couldn't wait to get deep into this crazy foreign world.
Inside the mangrove tunnel, the water was still crystal clear. The canopy of mangrove branches were so thick that you could barely see the daylight through the leaves. And clusters of what seemed like hundreds of small air plants clung in the balance of water and sky. All that could be herd was the dipping of paddles and the random wading bird taking flight from our silent approach.
And of course there was the laughter from us when it cam time to limbo under another huge mangrove branch. I think one mangrove tried to take our cooler from the canoe, vicious trees!
We both wished we were in kayaks so we wouldn't be sitting so high up. But then my friend had the greatest idea. He sat on the floor of the canoe! I followed suit and found a way to nestle myself in the space between the bow and the front seat.
After a bit of tunneling, we came to our first opening.
The opening was a small circular shaped "pool." While gar fish swam underneath, and alligators floated around, we took a little break before heading back into the tunnels. Looking around, you can only see what seems to be a little dent in the tree line. This is of course where the trail picks back up and where you need to enter to make you way forward.
By this time, we were tunneling pros! The space was so small and restrictive that you don't even need to use paddles. Just hand to hand mangrove root pushing is all it took.
I would like to say that this portion of the trip was the most immense pleasure I have ever experienced with the Florida outdoors. There was something so surreal about slipping down the tunnels with nothing more than your hands to move you forward. The sounds of wading birds calling out as you passed. And the cool water just slightly rippling by. I felt like this is what it it must have been like before Florida was settled. Amazing by all standards, across the board.
Well the tunnel finally spat us out into the grass marshes. I've got this thing for tall natural grass. I don't know, maybe it's the contrast on the waters edge and the blue sky that I love so much? Wet meets dry? Who knows, I just like it.
Anywho...we were now back up into sitting positions and moving along at a good click. All that slow touch-n-go really left us wanting to stretch our arms out. Along the route I noticed a blue crab in the river. And then another. I was so impressed to see them so far from the gulf that I wanted to take a picture. However, the buggers were a little fast and all I was getting were blurry shots. I could have dialed in my settings and taken something decent. But, my friend seemed to get getting tired of playing the role of my personal nature guide for a photo expedition, so we moved on with my collection of horrible blurred photos.
Now this is the place where it gets a little tricky. And it's here that I recommend you reference a map of some sort. If you are of the fancy type, you will have your GPS already out and running. Because what was once a single stream has now broken out into multiple paths through the marsh. And while it might seem obvious as to which way you need to go, on the way back, you might have some doubts.
As we paddled on, we came to a place where we saw a marker tucked in the mangroves edge. I thought for sure this must be the next tunnel we need to take. In fact it was the only marker we had seen all day. My friend made actually made the comment "I think it's a marker for where not to go." I called bullocks and we agreed to give it a shot.
These new tunnels were not quite the same. The paths were a lot more overgrown. And the mangroves seemed to be a lot more scraggly and thin. I figured we were just pushing the envelope and going where most people would have turned back.
It was soon then that we started to see "them". At first they were cool, we got a long well. They looked neat and we didn't mind having to push them away when they got too close. I even took some photos of them.
But then things got violently out of hand and they were getting WAY too close.
The tunnels were now a steaming hotbed of spider colonies of epic proportions. Fro what I could tell, there were two kinds. There were the long thin ones, not much body to them. And then there were the thick shiny dark ones with huge abdomens. Those are the ones I did not like...at all.
I know enough about spiders to tell that these were neither brown recluse or black widows. And as it turned out, they didn't seem to be the biting kind either.
By this point the tunnels were getting so thick with them that we had to stop from time to time to de-spider the canoe, and ourselves. Going hand-to-hand in the mangroves leaves you open to complete spider infestation. I had to also now carry an ore in my hand and to wand them down and clear the way. But since the tunnel was also overgrown, the spiders all ran to the leaves on the mangrove branches. The very mangrove branches that would drag over your body as you passed under them!
We finally broke out into a clearing and quickly de-spidered the canoe once again. I mentioned we might want to turn around, but then realized I was just being a pansy. The spiders weren't biting me, I was just getting grossed out by all the cobwebs my face and body was absorbing. Not to mention feeling the random spider crawling on the back of your next or arms.
So we pressed on. And the next tunnel we came up to, I went for it! Spiders feared me, and my friend just laughed at my occasional complete freak-out to get them off of me and clean myself of cobwebs before I got hit with more spiders. Keep in mind, the canoe was an object in motion. If I couldn't clear the spiders fast enough, I was going to be clearing them with my flailing body. And clear them I did!
This whole vicious cycle went on a few times. Until we both decided the was growing late and we best make our way back. Finding a clearing and turning the canoe around, I was filled with relief just thinking about traveling through semi-spider free environment.
We made our way back and out of the scraggly mangroves. There was only a minor spider problem, but very manageable this time around. It's funny, I could remember the exact opening where I wouldn't have to deal with another spider again. I was so happy!
On our way back through the grass marsh, I remembered seeing a tiny chunk of land with a couple sable palms on it. There also looked to be some man-made items on it as well. As we passed back by it, we decided to stop and check it out. Turns out, the parks or some kind people placed three picnic tables on the little spot of land. This would be one of the most picturesque and relaxing places in the Everglades to stop and have lunch. Too bad we already ate.
Continuing on the homeward journey, we only saw one other couple in a canoe. The man in the back of the canoe had an afro that reminded me of the horrible comedian Carrot Top. We laughed to ourselves, but then I soon remembered all the hard work I had done clearing the tunnels of the spiders. Oh how I would have loved to watch that man and his afro take on the spiders!
Going back up the main tunnels took a little longer since we were of course going back up stream. But the experience was just as great as it was when we first went through it. Along the way it seemed as if everyone had cleared out by now. Even the exotic water plant removers had finished up for the day.
Once out of the tunnels, and through the snaking river, we made out way back to the flat bridge.
We had made better time than expected, so we decided to take a look up past the bridge and see where the river would take us.
It's amazing how different the river was from one side of the bridge to the other. On the south its tight, twisty and overgrown. But right on the north side is a large cypress hammock with a wide static river.
The river itself didn't go too far. We followed it all the way to its end, or start, and then turned back around to head for the canoe launch.
All packed up, and on our way home, we took some of the dirt roads out in the middle of the Everglades. I believe we were on Wagon Wheel Road. I could hardly believe that people actually lived this far out in the middle of the swamp. But hey, I guess that's just what some people are in to.
Republishing this story, I can't even recall the amount of times I have praised this journey to my friends and family. I feel as if I need to learn a new vocabulary just to properly explain how amazing a trip it was. But then, I just get lazy and smile for hours remembering what a great time it was. I usually just tell people they need to see it for themselves.
Shooting photos in the tunnels was a little difficult for me. I wasn't prepared for the environment that I was going into. The light from the canopy was at an extremely high temperature, yet the tunnels were still dark and dim. Without a proper flash rig, my shutter speeds were mostly too slow. And to be honest, I was having too much fun to really sit and mess with the camera. However, this was almost a year ago. And now I have new gear, I think it's almost time to give this experience another shot, literally!
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!