Pythons, Mangrove Tunnels, Rainstorms, and Sunsets on the Everglades’ Hells Bay Canoe Trail

Between caving in Puerto Ricodriving cross-country with Jessica, and visiting Yosemite with my mother, 2014 was a busy year for adventuring, and I still had one adventure left!

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My mother and step-father live in Florida during the winter, so that means I get to jet south to warmer weather every Thanksgiving. This year, I decided I wanted to use the break as an opportunity to get outside. So, I planned a trip into The Everglades. Let me first clarify what The Everglades is.

The Everglades is an enormous wetlands area that functions like a slow moving river. When Lake Okeechobee overflows, the water enters The Everglades ecosystem and slowly makes its way towards Key West.

Everglades National Park contains a portion of The Everglades along the coast near Florida Bay and Ten Thousand Islands. While I had previously been to The Everglades on a fan boat, I had never beed to Everglades NP.

There isn’t much hiking to be had in The Everglades, so I invested in a guidebook for paddlers. That helped me get some basic info about the area. It also made me realize what I was most interested in seeing and doing. I wanted to paddle through narrow mangrove tunnels and to camp on a chickee. The easiest trail with access to both was the Hells Bay Canoe Trail.

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I arrived in Florida late at night and decided to start early the next morning. I borrowed my step-father’s Ford Explorer and made the twoish hour drive south to Tours in the Glades at the Everglades International Hostel. They rented me a two-person canoe (not sure why I couldn’t get a 1 person canoe or kayak) and helped me figure out how to mount the canoe on the car safely–though I was still nervous.

I definitely recommend Tours in Glades if you are headed towards the Flamingo area of the park. A National Park Service employee recommended them over the outfitter in Flamingo. I did, though, have to put up with a long speech about how the book Into the Wild inspired a ton of young men to head recklessly into the woods alone. I explained that I was only going for 1 night, had plenty of food, a tent, a camping stove, and a waterproof emergency satellite messenger, but in the end I still had to listen to their stump speech.

After getting my canoe, I drove to the Flamingo Visitor Center to pick up my backcountry permit. The above photo of a Burmese Python swallowing an ibis was on display at the desk. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I would later. From there it was off to the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail.

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The road through the southern section of Everglades NP is about 40 miles long and beautiful. It is mostly dead straight and flat, but it provides off-and-on views into grassland. As the wind blows across the wetlands, the brush floats back and forth in waves. It is mesmerizing. It doesn’t though, feel like the sort of place that you can begin a paddling trip. Still, right on cue, there was a small pull off, gravel to park on, and a small dock to launch from.

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Since this was my first solo trip and after the Into the Wild lecture I had received just hours earlier, I felt obliged to take a photo that could grace the cover of my book should something go wrong. The lower photo gives you a view into the mangrove tunnels that occupy the first couple miles of the Hells Bay Canoe Trail.

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This trail is AMAZING! It is about 3.5 miles to the Pearl Bay Chickee, and the first 3 miles of that is spent weaving in and out of a mangrove maze. Hells Bay got its name from the old time hunters who described it as “Hell to get into and hell to get out off.” The route is so confusing that the NPS installed PVC pipe markers to guide the way. Every 100 yards or whenever the trail takes a sharp turn, a short piece of pipe sticks out of the water. I had to pay close attention to avoid missing them (only missed one!).

Below is the Google Maps satellite image of the start of the Hells Bay Canoe Trail. You can see a canoe (for scale) a little ways from the road. You may need to zoom in!

More difficult was trying to navigate the 6 foot wide path and hairpin turns of the mangroves in my 2-person canoe. While the mangroves sheltered me from the wind, they made steering difficult. If I found myself at the wrong angle my bow or stern would wedge into the vegetation forcing me to back up and correct. About 30 yards from the launch, I managed to get both my bow and stern stuck in the mangroves. I had to walk back and forth from front to back pulling and pushing on the roots to wedge myself free. That didn’t instill a lot of confidence, but eventually I got the hang of it and started to make progress.

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After paddling for about an hour and getting the hang of steering, I was feeling confident enough to enjoy a particularly narrow and overgrown section of the trail where the mangroves formed a tunnel. As I came around the corner I saw something move in the water a few yards in front of me. Immediately that image from the visitor center flashed back into my mind as I realized I was staring at a Burmese Python swimming in the middle of the trail. We looked at each other for a few moments while my heart raced and then it slithered its way through the water and into the mangroves. Once it was nearly out of sight, I paddled on feeling thoroughly rattled.

Burmese Pythons are not native to The Everglades (hence Burmese!). They are originally from Southeast Asia but enough have escaped/been let go that they have developed a self-sustained population in Florida. They are such dominant hunters that they are outcompeting many of the indigenous species. The National Park Service has done their best to remove them, but the environment isn’t conducive to tracking them. A few years ago they had a tournament to catch as many Burmese Pythons as possible. They invited snake hunters from all over and offered cash prizes as well as the chance to become a full-time NPS snake hunter. The event lasted a month and 1500 hunters signed up. In that time they caught only 50 snakes. The only hope of limiting the population is for Florida to undergo an extended cold-snap, but even that might not do it.

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Eventually I regained my composure–despite getting a shoulder brushing from a snakeskin dangling from a tree– and continued on. After a few miles, the trail opens up to increasingly larger bays. My ultimate destination was the Pearl Bay chickee. The increased expanse of water was a nice change, but introduced me to a serious issue with paddling a two-person canoe alone.

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My weight at the rear of the canoe lifted the front out of the water. I threw all of my gear up front, but that did little to help the problem. This wasn’t an issue in the mangroves, but in the open water the wind would regularly catch the front of the canoe and spin me in the wrong direction. I tried paddling closer to the shore, paddling from the front, paddling from the middle, and everything else that I could come up with. In the end, I just had to muscle my way through the more open areas. The wind was relatively weak, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I could have had an issue if a storm blew in.

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By the time I reached the Pearl Bay Chickee, I was tired but excited. Chickees are essentially platform docks with roofs that the NPS has built to allow for camping in the Everglades. Except for beaches along the coast, most of the land is too wet camp on, so instead you get to sleep on sweet platforms out over the water.

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Here is a the Google Maps satellite image of the Pearl Bay Chickee. Zoom out to see how remote the location is.

I set up my tent and then cooked dinner as the sun set. The wind died down and the mosquitoes came out. I made the mistake of wearing a shirt that wasn’t mosquito proof, and they annihilated me. I learned my lesson there. It was worth it, though, for the sunset.

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While there had been a gentle breeze all day, the chickee was built in the lee of a small cove. After sunset the wind essentially disappeared and it started to feel really hot! I have a sleeping bag rate for 30 degrees and it was about 85. Even sleeping on top of my bag was too warm. Eventually I fell asleep, but it was not my best night of sleep. I woke before sunrise and made breakfast while the sky tested out some new paint colors.

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After struggling across Pearl Bay with almost no wind, I used my satellite messenger to get a weather update. The forecast was breezy with thunderstorms and the probability of storms increasing throughout the day. With that news, I left the chickee before 7 AM, still struggling to keep the canoe pointing in the right direction. I was worried but thought I would still be able to make it despite the increasing winds. I also knew there were at least two couples behind me who would be able to help if I got stuck. At least the weather helped me to keep my mind off of the pythons!

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I worked my way back from the bays into the mangroves and watched the sky grow grayer and darker. Drizzling rain fell off and on until the wind suddenly picked up and the skies opened. It was like standing in a shower with 4 shower heads. Raindrops thumped the bottom of my canoe forming a pool at my feet and the water danced as the droplets made that overpowering and magical sound of a serious rainstorm. I was soaked by happy.

Ten minutes later the storm was over. I bailed out my canoe and continued following the PVC markers back to the launch. Despite horrible mosquitoes, an 85 degree night, a run in with a snake, a canoe with a broken steering wheel, and a dramatic rain storm, I was had survived my solo trip, and I cannot wait to go back!

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Taft Point and the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park

After 3 straight days exploring Tuolumne Meadows, wandering among Giant Sequoias, and hiking Half Dome, we were ready for a vacation day that felt…well…more like vacation.

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After sleeping in, my mother and I drove up the Glacier Point road to Yosemite Valley’s eastern rim. There are many viewpoints a short walk from the road and we opted to visit Taft Point. All things considered, my legs felt pretty good the day after taking down Half Dome, but I was glad for the easier objective.

The views from Taft Point were a bit hazy due to forest fires and our late start, but they were still spectacular. In the above photo, you can see that railings allow you to walk right to the edge of the cliff. The trees look like sticks as you view them from directly above. The view of El Capitan too is incredible.

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After visiting Taft Point, we went home and cleaned ourselves up for our big dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel. The Ahwahnee opened in 1927 and has since become the premier hotel for Yosemite. It has a wonderful rustic feel and one of my all time favorite warning signs:

We had a wonderful meal in the historic dining room. It was a wonderful way to cap off an amazing trip.

Climbing the Cables on Yosemite’s Half Dome

After two days of exploring Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows and the Mariposa Giant Sequoia Grove with my mother, it was time to head out on the most ambitious hike I had ever undertaken: day-hiking from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Half Dome and back.

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Half Dome is an enormous granite dome rising nearly 5,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley. It gets its name from appearing as though half of the dome was broken off by glaciers, and, aside from El Capitan, it is probably the best known feature of Yosemite National Park.

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There are a few different options for reaching Half Dome’s summit. The most direct is to free climb up the northwest face, but I’ll leave that for Alex Honnold. For non-climbers, the NPS has installed a cable railing system (known as “the cables”) to help hikers reach the summit. The route is so popular that the park instituted a 300 person per day limit to avoid creating dangerous overcrowding. Many hikers opt to split the trip to Half Dome’s summit over two days. With my mother skipping the hike, I chose to take the one day route so as not to leave her waiting for two days. For the August hike, I had to apply online in March. I was lucky enough to get my permit on my first choice date leaving me with nearly 5 months to get nervous!

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Even before the cables, you have one heck of a hike in front of you. Reaching the base of the cables means hiking seven miles and gaining over 4,000 feet of elevation from the Happy Isles Trailhead. That’s a lot! It is like walking to the top floor of the Empire State Building over three times.

Knowing how demanding this hike is, I got an early start. My mother dropped me near the trailhead right around sunrise. I was nervous about how my body would respond to the hike I had been thinking about for months. Things started off poorly when I began heading up the wrong trail!

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In my defense, there is a pretty nasty web of trails in the Happy Isles area and cars are not allowed to drive directly to the trailhead. My mother dropped me off at a hikers’ lot about a half mile away. After walking on a trail along the road, I turned onto what I thought was the trail. But, after worrying that I was on the wrong side of the river (I was) and seeing a trail that looked like it was headed in the correct direction on the other shore (it was) I pulled out my map and turned around. By the time I reached the trailhead I had already walked well over a mile.

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The first few miles of the hike are brutal, gaining 2,000 feet on what is essentially a giant granite staircase. You don’t really notice the burn in your legs, though, because of the incomparable views. The trail climbs right next to two enormous waterfalls: Vernal Falls then Nevada Falls. Both are astounding and beautiful. Even though most of the park’s waterfalls had shut off for the summer by this time in August, Vernal and Nevada were still roaring. The trail along their sides is known as The Mist Trail because of how wet you can get from the falls’ spray.

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After climbing past the falls, I reached Little Yosemite Valley. This is the only flat part of the trail. Just to be sure you don’t enjoy it too much, the trail is mostly soft sand. The trail runs right along the Merced River and gave me a chance to refill my water bladder. In my trip planning, I worked hard to limit my pack weight. Instead of lugging enough water for the full day (probably 1.5 gallons), I elected to bring my Sawyer Water Filter. At only 3.5 ounces, this was sure better than carrying an extra four or five pounds of water. I took a short break in the shade of the Merced River, refilled my bladder and then strode down Little Yosemite Valley before starting back uphill towards Half Dome’s base.

IMG_1580This was my first view of Half Dome along the trail. I immediately thought, “How is it still so high up and so far away?” At this point I was really feeling the hike. In attempt to avoid rush hour at the cables, I had been booking it. I had begun to pass folks who had camped in Little Yosemite Valley that evening. I even passed one group of women who had started hiking at 5 pm the night before. They looked miserable. I would be miserable too if I had been unable to enjoy the views of Vernal and Nevada Falls. I had my own discomforts going on though. I had already climbed 3,500 feet and needed some motivation to continue. Seeing Half Dome spurred me on, and I continued up the trail while my calves and quads burned.

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After powering dragging myself uphill a bit farther, I began to be able to make out the hikers climbing the cables. Things didn’t look too bad from here!

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After showing my permit to the ranger (who had an iPad?!) and confirming I could continue, I walked to the base of the cables. I had forgotten my gloves (whoops!) but there was a pretty hefty pile waiting at the base. I eventually found gloves that fit my hands and began climbing.

I left my camera in my pack at this point for obvious reasons. But plenty others have brought GoPros and other gear up the cables. Here is one video I found:

I have done some pretty hairy and scary hikes including Angels Landing in Zion (twice) and some climbing in the Tetons on Class 4 terrain, but the cables scared me more than anything I had previously done. The cables were exposed and on polished granite at a 45 degree angle. By the time you reach them your legs are fried, but you need them to get you up the steep slope between the 2×4 resting spots. You can see in the video that it takes real arm strength to get from one wooden step to the next too. Despite this, I was pretty sure I had the strength left to make it up (and down) without falling. I was more nervous about the other people.

People are not smart! Having spent a good chunk of time in National Parks, this is one of the clearest lessons I have learned. I have seen people five miles from a trailhead wearing jeans in 95 degree heat, with no water, and walking barefooted because they got horrendous blisters from their Tevas. I have seen people standing ten feet from a bison just to get a better picture. And, on Half Dome’s cables, I saw people doing ridiculously dumb things.

I should clarify by saying that most people were great! They moved patiently, gave each other room, and took their time. However, there were folks climbing up on the OUTSIDE of the cables. There were folks who insisted on jumping from 2×4 to 2×4 and sliding down the slope without holding onto the cables. Their choices are extra scary on a route like this, where a fall could lead to them pin-balling down the face while knocking others off. On my way up the cables, it was relatively less crowded. I often had to wait on each 2×4, but I was rarely sharing a resting spot. Taking my time I eventually reached the top.

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Reaching the summit of Half Dome was amazing. Humility be damned, I felt like a total badass. The top, though, was not what I expected. First, it was MUCH larger –easily a few acres and mostly flat. People were setting up all over, enjoying the view and rehydrating and eating after the arduous climb.

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Half Dome has an amazing feature known as the Summit Visor (often mistaken as the diving board). The Summit Visor is a block of granite that leans out over Half Dome’s edge. You can walk out to the precipice and have your photo taken. Everything feels fine while you are standing there, but when you see the Summit Visor from the side you see how overhung and exposed the rock is.

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After about an hour on the summit, I began my trip down. I survived rush hour on the cables, dropped my gloves back into the pile, and started the long trek down the trail. At this point I also took my camera out of my pack and held it while I hiked. On the way up I had it stored so I would keep moving, but on the way down I wanted to capture many of the views and sights I had missed. Here are a few shots.

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While the trip back down to the valley was long, it was not as tiring as the hike up–no spoilers here. While my leg muscles recovered, my joints were really feeling it. For no good reason, I had decided I wanted to make it back to the parking lot in 9 hours, so I power-walked my way back to the lot. By the time I reached the Mist Trail, it was packed. I had to wait for the swarms of visitors to move out of the way as I tried to weave between them on the granite staircase. Eventually I reached the hiker’s lot and collapsed for the day. In the end my hike totaled to about nine hours and I covered eighteen miles with 4800 feet of elevation gain. Not too shabby!