This is an excerpt from "Everyday Adventures," a new guide to natural Florida by Times outdoors/fitness editor Terry Tomalin. The guide from Seaside Publishing includes 80 trips around the state, ranging from cave diving, camping and cycling to swimming with manatees, plus lots of tips from Tomalin.
Out among the islands of Florida Bay north of the Keys there are no traffic jams, crowds or cell phones to get the blood boiling. Spending a few days in the wilderness is a good way to decompress and blow off steam. It isn't hard to find a tiny key that you can have all to yourself, after all there are dozens of them here. The only catch is that you have paddle to get here. But fortunately for those who venture to this watery wilderness, there is no shortage of jumping off points.
The name Ten Thousand Islands is a misnomer. There are probably only a couple of hundred islands that stretch from Collier-Seminole State Park to the north down past Chokoloskee and Everglades City, tapering off before you hit Flamingo.
The northern islands lie within the boundaries of the 35,000-acre Ten Thousands National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of the largest mangrove forests in North America. Paddlers can camp on the uninhabited islands — some are better than others — but there are no facilities.
As you head southeast along the coast, you will find the islands more suitable for camping. The open water or windward sides of the islands tend to have the best beaches and more often than not, have fewer bugs.
But the southern islands fall under the jurisdiction of Everglades National Park, so if you want to pitch your tent on the Pavilion, Mormon, Turkey or any of the more popular keys, you will have to stop at the Everglades City ranger station and pull a permit. During the winter, these prime camp sites can be in high demand so get there early and have a backup plan.
From Chokoloskee, which is about 3 miles from the ranger station, it's a good half-day paddle to the closest keys. Be sure to study the tides. The current can rip through the narrow mangrove channels and make progress seem nearly impossible. It is far better to plan your trip out on an outgoing tide, even if it means leaving later than you want to.
Remember, once you leave the safety of the canoe launch you will be on your own. You need to carry enough food and water for your trip and extra, in case you run into bad weather and must stay put.
Running the outside
It is approximately 99 miles from Chokoloskee to Flamingo. Most kayakers take five to seven days to cover the distance, although hard-core adventure racers have been known to do it in less than 24 hours.
Such a journey should only be attempted by experienced paddlers with good navigational skills and the proper equipment. If you want to get a taste of what is it like on "The Outside," take a day trip out to Rabbit Key. Paddle out in the morning and return after lunch, then set a date for your overnighter.
Terry's Tip: Be realistic. Under best circumstances, an experienced kayaker can travel at 4 miles per hour and cover 10 to 20 miles a day. But an adverse wind and tide can slow that forward progress to a mile per hour. So plan for the worst, and hope for the best. When in doubt, sit it out.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.