For today’s Floridian spotlight, Hipcamp voyager, Sara Ozim, gives us the epic guide of what NOT to do while camping in The Everglades. Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, protects the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, and is home to an incredible variety of birds, fish, mammals and reptiles. The park offers some pretty unreal year-round camping opportunities, including camping on a chickee [basically a wooden structure suspended above the water] in the middle of the mangroves. Sara wanted that particular adventure, but ran into some hiccups on the way. Her view? Definitely head out and explore the Everglades, but read her story first and skip making the same easily-avoidable mistakes (Justremember, as Yvon Chouniard once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” ) Happy reading!
The gators were grunting as I sat in my mostly-mesh-see-through Eddie Bauer on a chickee deep in the Everglades National Park watching the sun begin to creep over the horizon. The view was stunning and serene and the path to getting there was treacherous (although not nearly as much as it would be returning home), but, since I was still unaware of what was to come, I soaked in the warmth of the rays and indulged in a breakfast of pomegranate and mango.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and two days prior a friend and I had pitched a tent in Everglades National Park with a goal of making our way to a chickee in the middle of the swamp. That night the park was amazingly full and the previous day’s heavy rain meant the more remote waterfront campsites were not available so we ended up in one of the overflow camping lots. It was a rough night with little sleep for us as a family with no regard for campsite courtesy rolled into the campgrounds close to lights-out and proceeded to use their high beams to pitch their tents – illuminating the entire park and preventing sleep while their family played and screamed into the wee hours of the night. The lack of sleep would play a factor in the events of the next day.
Eventually the family settled down and we managed to grab a few hours of shut-eye prior to awaking to a beautiful sunny day in the ‘Glades. We merrily made our way to the Everglades office to obtain our backwoods camping permits, where we were required to give an estimated return time so that if we did not check in within a time limit they would send out a search and rescue team. I specifically did NOT put down my mother’s information since she was already on edge about the fact that I had skipped over family time to camp in a swamp.
After obtaining our permits we walked over to the rental store and made our first mistake of many: we rented a canoe. At first glance, one would assume this was the wiser of choices – after all, there would be two of us paddling AND we had a bunch of gear we were hauling. What we did not know at the time was how tight and windy the water paths through the mangroves were and how difficult it would be to navigate through them in such a large watercraft. I would definitely recommend a kayak instead.
We then returned to our campsite and proceeded to pack up and make breakfast while making our second and third mistakes of the day: with such a beautiful day we did not think it necessary to check the weather and we packed far too heavy, packing a huge tent, an air mattress, a cooler with food, blankets, and heavier jackets. A journey such as the one we were making should have been made backpack camping style. Always make sure to check the rain and wind patterns before embarking on a long journey. The lady at the office had assured us it would only be a 1-2 hour paddle to our chickee so we were unconcerned about time. About mid-afternoon we made our way towards the loading station where we would be transported to the entrance point of the Everglades waterways. We excitedly pushed the canoe off of the little ramp and began paddling.
We realized very quickly the canoe was a mistake as we struggled making the tight turns, each of us grabbing onto branches to help pull the canoe through the mangroves. At some points one or both of us would have to lay completely flat inside the canoe to avoid getting smacked in the face by a low laying branch. As we found ourselves constantly being pushed in and out of the thickest parts of the mangroves, we also noted that the trip might take a lot longer than the original 1-2 hours estimated by the park official that had given us our permits. She had also mentioned that there would be markers leading the way and that we were not to continue on our way until we had laid eyes on the next marker or we would easily get lost. The deeper we travelled into the Everglades, the more we began to struggle to find the markers. It turns out that many of markers were submerged under water or had been completely covered by the ever growing mangroves.
About an hour and a half into our journey we began to notice a change in the weather as black skies spread across the sky with lightning striking off in the distance. The minute we broke out into large sections of open water that we had to make our way across the wind picked up and we began battling 20+ mph winds. My shoulder began pinging with pain as just a few weeks prior I had dislocated my shoulder during a road bike accident. The markers were getting harder and harder to see as the weather steadily got worse and it began to drizzle. We started to begin to worry about the canoe taking on water. After nearly 4 hours of paddling we finally saw our chickee and we managed to pull up and unload the canoe just minutes before a storm erupted.
We enjoyed our evening, giggling and chatting late into the night while listening to the sounds of the rain and drinking champagne we had brought along for the trip (our fourth mistake). In the morning we noticed that the ladies that had shared the chickee site with us had begun packing and headed back towards the park at first light. We (unwisely) decided to enjoy as much time at the chickee as we could and did not begin to head back until late morning (fifth mistake), when the blistering sun was at its peak and swelteringly hot. We were having so much fun the night before we had forgotten to hydrate with anything other than the champagne. The open water and mangroves provided no shade to relieve the scorch of the sun.
I began chugging water but it was too late – I realized I was already severely dehydrated. As we now fought to see the markers from the glare of the reflection of the sun on the water it also dawned on me that the girls who had left at first light were obviously much wiser in the world of remote camping. We had been paddling for close to two hours and had just left the open water to enter into the mangroves when I realized that despite the heat, I wasn’t sweating. A sun headache began spreading and I knew enough to recognize the signs of impending heat stroke. I had lost the ability to really communicate with my camping partner and while we were navigating the winding waterways back I was acutely aware that she was not strong enough to paddle us to safety on her own and for the sake of both of us I somehow had to make it back to land. I paddled silently and steadily, with a determination I never knew I had. She led us through the maze of sunken markers and I trusted her every turn since I could no longer see clearly as everything was a blur.
Finally she called out that she could see the ramp with glee and as we pulled our canoe onto land, I walked a few steps unsteadily and began vomiting profusely. With whatever coherency I had left, I remembered that I needed my temperature to come down and my first aid training kicked in. I told my friend to pour whatever water we had left on the back of my neck and head to cool me down and she promptly did just that – and with one swift gesture prevented the worst kind of damage from heat stroke.
It was at this point that I blacked out and my friend told me later that she had unsuccessfully tried to flag down vehicle after vehicle that was riding into the park to ask someone to tell the park rangers to come and scoop us up as we had gone past our pick up time and had no reception to call a ranger for assistance (mistake number 6: we did not have an emergency locator beacon with us). Finally she was able to get someone to stop and explained the situation as I lay unconscious on the boat ramp. A ranger came to collect us and they were able to get me to wearily walk over to the vehicle and get in. I was starting to come to on our drive back into the park and so they dropped me off at the little restaurant that was next to the rental shop while they moved our gear from the canoe to our vehicle. Once again I remembered my first aid training and somehow managed to ask for a coke, knowing that the high sugar level would hopefully bring me back to life. The ranger let my friend know that the closest hospital was 45 minutes away and that if I wasn’t fully conscious by the time we were fully out of the park she should take me straight there to get an IV of fluids. Luckily for me, the A/C and soda was exactly what I needed to start to come to and I regained consciousness about 30 minutes into our drive.
While we made every rookie remote camping mistake we could have ever made, the beauty of the Everglades cannot be denied. To this day, it is still one of my favorite spots I have ever camped. I unabashedly share this horror story of mistakes to prevent others from making the same ones and look forward to repeating the experience of camping on a chickee in the swamp the right way.
Sara is an avid adventurer, SUPer, yogi and photographer. Get a glimpse into her world by following her intsagram here.
Don’t forget, at Hipcamp we want to encourage people to get outside and get camping, but we want everyone to be safe doing it. If you’ve never been camping, or haven’t in a while, review our Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking before you head out on your next trip!
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