Ten Thousand Islands is part of Everglades National Park, and you can spend weeks canoeing the waters around these islands. If you look at a map of Florida, Ten Thousand Island takes up the entire southwestern part of the Everglades National Park, all the way from near Naples to the Flamingo Bay Visitor’s Center.
We drove to Everglades City where there is a visitor’s center and a place to rent canoes and get camping permits. We stood in line to reserve a camping spot on one of the islands, but by the time we were helped, the only camping spots were a far canoe trip away. We had all day to get to a designated island to camp, and given that you can canoe at least as fast as you can walk, we didn’t think much about a 10-15 mile canoe trip.
There is no fresh water out on the islands, so you have to bring enough water for your entire trip out. It’s recommended to bring at least one gallon per person per day. You can actually canoe a waterway that is 100 miles long, and you can imagine how many gallons of water you would need to stash in your canoe to start that trip.
We got most of our stuff into a dry bag and what didn’t fit and could get wet, we put in a backpack separately.
It wasn’t obnoxiously hot, but the sun was beating down, and once we were in open water, there was no escaping it. We were so glad that we had stopped to buy sunglasses when we realized that we forgot them, but we also stupidly forgot our floppy hats. We were canoeing right into the sun, and could barely keep our eyes open even with the sunglasses on. I could feel my forehead burning despite the sunscreen. If only we had SOMETHING to put on our heads! I scanned the contents of the canoe and my eyes rested on our life-jackets which were uselessly discarded in a pile in the middle of the canoe. I reached back to grab one and put my head through the hole and tightened the straps. It wasn’t comfortable, but it worked!
I kept a compass around my neck and often checked the map, but since there are no hills and all the islands are simply covered in mangroves, it was impossible to tell one thing from another. We were just moving around in the water, and all around us there were bodies of land covered in mangroves. It was hard to tell if a certain land mass was an island or a peninsula, or whether an inlet was actually a boating channel or just a dead end. Without a GPS, trying to keep track of where we were was almost impossible.
We were lost, but at least we knew generally speaking which way to go, so we kept paddling. We kept drinking a lot of water to stay hydrated since we could feel the sun sucking up the moisture from our bodies. Once we saw the horizon we knew to paddle towards open ocean, and we knew we could then figure out where we were. The water started to get a bit choppy, so we headed directly to the closest island, which had a cute little beach. We paddled against the wind to hit shore. Once there, I pulled out my iPhone and looked at the compass app, which was very helpful, because it shows GPS coordinates. I figured out exactly where we were (Turtle Key) based on corresponding those coordinates to our map.
Once we both peed, drank some more water and agreed which land masses we should be headed for next, we got back into the canoe and headed out. The waves got worse. It was so choppy that waves were breaking into the canoe, and paddling against the wind and the waves was exhausting. I knew we had a long ways to go to get to our island, but given the conditions, we decided to stop at the very next island.
We pulled up onto the beach, and there were two guys already there. They told us that they were the only ones on the island so far, but that the rangers allowed 2 groups to camp on Rabbit Key. Apparently, there was one more group yet to come. The island was big though, and given the conditions, we thought it would be best to call it quits here. The two guys headed to a different side of the island and told us they thought we’d be fine camping there even though our permit was for a different spot. There was room for another group if they showed up.
In the end, no other groups showed up. We set up camp, pulled the canoe onto the shore past the high tide line, and watched the birds. As the tide came in, I sat on a sandy beach that separated two sections of the island and watched as the water rose and cut the island in two. I sat there for at least an hour watching the birds on the beach move with the tide.
I then tried to cook dinner. I use the word “tried,” because in fact, I totally failed. I pulled a “Dirt Stew.” As I was draining the pasta, my hand slipped and all the pasta fell onto the sandy beach. This is exactly how Dirt Stew got his trail name, only he spilled the pasta in mud. I carefully picked each piece of pasta up off the beach and put it in a ziplock bag in order to carry it out and throw it away. Ironically it was the shell type of pasta. Luckily we also had instant mashed potatoes with us too, so we ate that instead. I looked over at Dirt Stew as we ate our meal and asked him, “without looking at your watch, what day of the week do you think it is?” “Uhhh, Thursday?” He replied. “Nope! It’s Saturday!” I told him. This was obviously a good vacation.
We got into the tent and fell asleep as the sun set. I was probably before 7 PM.
The sunrise woke us up again in the morning, and we broke down camp and dragged the canoe over the isthmus to the other side of the island in hopes of having more sheltered waters for our return trip.
We canoed directly into the wind, fighting the tide for the first couple of miles until we got into more sheltered waters. This time I kept much better track of exactly where we were with respect to the map, and we managed not to get lost. We pulled out of a passage that we never would have found on the way in, because it was basically invisible unless you were on top of it.
As we entered into the larger bay close to the mainland, a dolphin sneaked up on us. It swam beside us for a good 15 to 20 minutes as we paddled closer to shore. I think it enjoyed our company. Once it decided to take off, it was clear that it could swim much faster than we were paddling, and it had really slowed down to swim with us for a while. I felt honored.
We pulled up onto shore and returned our canoes before heading out for more land-based exploring. We felt the rocking of the boat lingering in our bodies as we drove off.