Backcountry Camping the Everglades: Pavilion Key
It’s August in South Florida and you know what that means. Flood rains, world-class humidity, and tropic temperatures. All signs point to laying on the couch and watching the Olympics. Sinking and rusting.
On the other hand, there are a group of islands that reach from Marco Island around Flamingo on Florida Bay. The Ten Thousand Islands are part of Everglades National Park and its many beach and wilderness camp sites are all connected by a backcountry canoe trail called the Wilderness Waterway. When Florida calls, you answer.
There is an official park office in Everglades City. You should probably check in there and let them know you’re camping for a few days. Wouldn’t it be nice to know some was looking for you if you get lost in the wilderness? Camping is free in the summer but they still ask that you obtain a permit. One can also use the launch at Chokoloskee Island Park and Marina. It’s the southernmost jumping off point and for only a few bucks, they’ll watch your vehicle while you explore the depths of the Florida wilderness. This is the untamed edge of civilization. It’s where the wild fish live.
The trip from Chokoloskee, south through Rabbit Key Pass is about seven miles and takes you to Turtle Key, on the Gulf of Mexico. Once in the open waters of the gulf, wind and current matter in a canoe. Kayaks get away with it more because of their low profile, but if you’re going to pick a fight with offshore winds, a canoe is not a great weapon.
From Turtle Key, head south around Rabbit Key and expect to be surprised at how far away Pavilion Key appears. You will barely be able to make out the white beach on the north end of the island. That’s where you’re headed. Take your time. It’s only seven miles of open water.
Camping Pavilion Key
- Private: I know what you’re going to say. It’s August, of course it’s private. I mean real private. For the most part, there are no sounds of man, save the occasional angler, zipping by on his way through the boundless estuary. No one else stepped foot on the island the whole time I was there. The sound of the wind and waves were a perfect compliment to the solitude and honestly, it almost drowned out the screams.
- Fishing: That’s why we’re here, after all. To find the lost city of Xanadu. The place where the fish run wild and free. A bait net and a rig here can make a man a king. This is the place. All you have to do is sit back and let it happen.
- This soapfish (Centopomus undecimalis) was caught at Turtle Key on the way out. At about five o’clock, with an outgoing tide and a waxing crescent, the bait were jumping near the east side beach and a side-winder silver spoon quickly got the attention of this 28″snook.
- Pavilion Key: The finger mullet never stop moving along the beach in a constant battle to eat while avoiding predators. At sunrise, huge fish can be seen and heard attacking them in the shallows. Using a finger mullet for bait, trout sandwiches on onion rolls quickly became the daily special on the breakfast menu.
- Amenities: Not much. Other than two porta-potties, it’s au naturale. Don’t be expecting a Piggly Wiggly, or even a Hoggly Woggly for that matter. Fresh water becomes increasingly important after things like cheese and ice have gone the wayside. Camping is a different experience without ice. Ice can be the final way to experience the feeling of cold. After that, release from the heat only comes in the form of shade or water and sometimes, neither is enough.
- Critters: The wildlife doesn’t even seem to notice the occasional visitor. The roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) graze lazily beside the ditch chickens (white ibis). The marsh rabbits don’t scatter when surprised and the sting rays pilot the shallows en masse. The horseshoe crabs and lightning whelks come out in numbers that stagger the civilized mind and turtle nests could be found everywhere. Some were covered at the ends of drag tracks while other were empty and surrounded by shells. Although there’s a part of me that suspects raccoons raided the clutches, I’m confident the baby turtles danced on the backs of starfish right into the water. Confidentially, I was just upset the raccoons beat me to the eggs. They would have perfectly complimented the trout breakfast.
- Night Skies: The summer sky starring Mars and Scorpio was as thick as you’re going to get in South Florida. The Milky Way was richly painted across the middle of the sky and the distant glow of Miami and Fort Lauderdale outshined the lesser ones on the west coast. The crescent moon set just after the sun, and with the darkness, the phosphorescence trapped in the sea moss exploded and sparkled when touched. Yea, that all happened.
— Jason Nail (@NailTravels) August 9, 2016
- Biting Things: One of the concerns involved with summer camping in Florida is the presence of mosquitoes. There is a real fear of having so many mosquitoes on your body that they suck you dry like a cow in the swamp. For the uninitiated, there are plenty of mosquitoes on Pavilion Key. It’s in the middle of hundreds of miles of mangrove coasts and islands. LCMCD doesn’t fly this far kids and who cares, cover yourself with DEET. Rachel Carson was talking about me and how much bug spray I sprayed inside my tent the other night. I shot it in my eyes and used it as breath freshener. This would seem like the kind of place that would have biting flies and no see-ums, but if they were there, their natural fear of man kept them away. I will not abide biting flies for they can ruin a beach. There were also clouds of little black dragonflies that constantly worked to keep down the mosquito population. They surrounded and protected the warm-blooded traveler who strayed from the wind. The campsites at the north beach end of the island are in the open, so the wind blows mostly every night from one direction or another. Mostly.
- Cultural: There were no distinct mounds to be found on the island. If they exist, they could be further in the mangroves but no elevation or gumbo-limbos (Bursera simaruba) growing out of the shell midden were apparent. Many lightning-whelk shells appeared to have extraction holes but, what am I, an anthropologist? Two pieces of fired pottery were found on the beach, but were not in situ and could have come from any one of the many Caloosa sites in the surrounding area. Heading through the mangroves toward Watson’s Place, there are countless mounds just waiting to be explored. For more information on the Calusa culture on the southwest coast visit these articles on Mound Key and Pineland. Visit Calusa Indian Destinations: Pineland, Florida and read more about the natives that used to patrol these waters.
There are other campsites to the north, beginning with Jewel Key, west of Chokoloskee and many others along the wilderness waterway from Chokoloskee to Flamingo. Some are perched atop prehistoric mounds and others are on camping platforms over the water. A map and list of campsites can be found through the Everglades National Park website.
On the return trip, a left at Albuquerque got me backwards in the mangrove maze between Turtle Key and Chokoloskee. Lost and confused, I maintained with the comfort that there were enough provisions to last another day if necessary. Thankfully, the current and winds were still pointed straight home so nature, once again, provided. Other than that and the fact the boat got polluted with drops of “I can’t believe they used butter in the name” the journey was a perfect success and a continuing step toward Flamingo, Florida. The next trip will use Pavilion Key as a camping spot with daily missions to Watson’s Place, the Wilderness Waterway and more southern islands.
Perhaps they should call it, “I can’t believe it’s yellow” or “I can’t believe they let you eat this”. Just awful. I couldn’t bring myself you cook it with the trout. With fish that fresh, you want to taste every bit of it and trace it back to the source. But, I digress. If you think butter substitute tastes bad, you should smell and feel it all over your hands and feet. It just won’t go away. That stuff really doesn’t want to mix with water. Maybe it would serve as an insect repellent. There’s no way anything else would want to eat it.