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Bill Belleville Paddles the Everglades

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By canoe, we are about four days into the heart of the western Everglades via a twisting waterway route that has led us through sawgrass, mangrove forests, freshwater creeks and broad, shallow bays that were alternately serene and threatening. We are at the midway point of a nine-day, 120-mile trek: two men—photographer Timothy O’Keefe is my wingman—with 250 pounds of food, drinking water and camping gear and one 17-foot canoe.

As an environmental writer and documentary filmmaker with a passion for water-driven areas, I’ve long been fascinated by the Glades, which I’ve explored a number of times by canoe and kayak, figuring a modern version of the early dugouts used by the Calusa Indians might better inform my quest to feel the sublime energy of the place. Our route would generally follow that of the Wilderness Waterway that winds north to south between Everglades City and Flamingo, an old fishing village now reclaimed as a ranger station at the tip of the Florida Cape. Each day we would have to find our way to a specific campsite (averaging about 13 miles); if we took a wrong turn or paddled too slowly, we would end up tethered to a mangrove branch somewhere for the night.

We would be in a largely brackish water zone that supports an amazingly rich variety of birds and fish. We would face strong currents, heavy winds and waters that we would share, at different times, with alligators and sharks. Clearly the Glades is far better known by name than by direct experience: We’d encounter only six other canoes.

While the role of the park as a vast ecological cornucopia is well known, much of its wealth is rooted in its waters and is not always easily discernible. It was only when we saw large dolphins cruising the inland bays and rivers and hunting under the mangrove branches for food that the role became more apparent.

Tomorrow we’ll rise at dawn and head for Lostmans Five Bay, where, right after sundown, an alligator will drag itself from the water and crawl through the camp between our two tents. Beyond that will be rain and tropical winter sun, wild orchids and Gulf mullet that leap into the canoe.

And we will emerge, when our expedition is over, with the knowledge that this undoubtedly is a place of its own terms, a place of the soul.


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