The Canoe Story

It was Friday morning, November 27, 1998—the day after Thanksgiving. I was satisfied with my look at a Spot-breasted Oriole on the grounds of the Baptist Hospital on 88th Street in Kendall, Florida. I looked at my watch. 8:30am. Wow. It’s early. Flamingos, here I come! I drove south on Rt 1 through town down through Homestead. In Florida City I turned west on 9336 and headed toward the Everglades. I gulped the last of my orange juice, chasing down the remains of an Egg McMuffin while watching all the Eurasian Collared Doves. I made a few notes to myself. They perch on top of lamp posts and telephone poles, unlike Mourning Doves. I also noted how they very often sat at sharp angles on the telephone lines like Kestrels. The chunky, squarish look of this bird in flight reminded me of a White-winged Dove. Speaking of which, hey, there is one! And there’s a Hill Myna on another telephone pole. I passed by Robert’s and thought someday I’ll stop for a Key Lime Milkshake.

The only place to find “wild” flamingos in the United States is Snake Bight at the south end of the Everglades. It’s actually an established population from escaped birds from years ago. And Snake Bight has nothing to do with snakes biting you. The bight is the shallow bay. This would be my third attempt to see these birds in less than a year.

The farmed fields soon gave way to the great grasslands of the Everglades. I paid my $10 entrance fee and noted that the motel in town of Flamingo was full. I figured as much. It was Thanksgiving weekend. The 38 miles to Flamingo seems longer than it should as there are always fewer birds than I anticipate. There were however, good numbers of Great and Snowy Egrets, Red-shouldered Hawks, and a few gangly Wood Storks perched awkwardly in short trees. A couple of Broad-winged Hawks were a reminder to me of the small population that winters in South Florida. A Tricolored Heron flew over the road in front of me. I drove past Snake Bight Trail–home to kajillions of tiny, ferocious, Saltmarsh Mosquitoes. I smiled to myself and then as if to taunt the biting insects, “I’m renting a canoe today to go see the flamingos”, I proudly announced out loud.

I crossed the little canal and drove into the tiny town of Flamingo and took the first left to the marina. At the little store, I inquired about the Flamingos, but received a barrage of disparaging replies. Undaunted, I rented a canoe for half a day–10:30am to 2:30pm for a mere $22. While in line, I saw a dark phase Short-tailed Hawk sail right over the marina! Wow! *That* doesn’t happen everyday (maybe if you lived there, but certainly not for me!). I bought a turkey sandwich, some pretzels, and 1.5 liter bottle of water for my journey. I boarded my little canoe, a little wobbly, but too proud to ask for help. Ahh, well, I hadn’t been in a canoe for probably 20 years. Properly situated I paddled out into Florida Bay, feeling just a tad bit smug for my smart decision not to hike down Snake Bight Trail. Out of the marina, I paddled due east, toward Snake Bight. At no point was the water ever deeper than 2-3 feet. My paddle could always reach the bottom.

The water was a brownish blue and every now and then, it was shallow enough to see the clay-like mud on the bottom, with small mud-covered weedy vegetation, an occasional crab, and many whitish-colored fish breaking the surface of the water all around the boat. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what kind they were. This has to be one of the most relaxing things I’ve done this year. There was only a mild chop on the water in the Bay. I drank in the warmth of the sunshine, and the beauty of the egret-filled trees along the shore. Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and groups of both Brown and White Pelicans filled the lazy, blue skies above me. Flocks of White Ibis flew by with shallow wing beats. A Roseate Spoonbill passed in front of me in its brilliant, rosy splendor. This was truly an idyllic setting.

A couple miles out, however, I was beginning to think I was not as wise. I had nothing to cover my head and my skin was sans any SPF protection. I didn’t think anything more of it though, as I passed the point and could actually see the shoreline on both sides of Snake Bight Trail. Now I was really getting excited. The sunlight was in the right direction, too, something I had not thought about earlier. This area of Florida Bay is very shallow–maybe 18 inches at the deepest with several very long shoals peppered with hundreds and hundreds of egrets. Birds were everywhere. Groups of thousands of shorebirds were visible, but unidentifiable in the distance. A Reddish Egret was canopy feeding not 50 feet in front of me. I watched the unique display with interest. Along the westernmost shoreline, I scanned the egret-filled trees and came across not one, but two Great White Herons, the large white race of the Great Blue Heron. It was impressive. I paddled further, noting a fairly large group of pink birds along the shore, just west of Snake Bight Trail. I was optimistic.

Twenty minutes later I was still paddling toward the pink birds and was still out range for my 10x binoculars for a positive identification. I worked hard crossing one of the shoals diagonally. The water was only 4-6 inches deep and the canoe would scrape bottom often. I scooted my canoe through the mud, fueled by the pink birds before me. Another twenty minutes passed. The birds were just barely identifiable. Unfortunately, I could see their whitish heads as they occasionally raised up from feeding. I also saw that these birds were more rosy pink than the orangish pink of a flamingo. I counted 25 birds in the tight flock. I could tell, too, that they were not tall birds by noting their reflections in the water. The spoonbills were spectacularly beautiful.

Surprisingly, I found it hard to keep the canoe pointed in a single direction to look for the flamingos. Even a small breeze would easily turn the canoe in a different direction. I paddled west and got snagged on a shoal. I backtracked and headed out at an angle. I got stuck again. I backtracked and tried headed back the way I came into this area. Stuck again. What was going on? I pushed through the mud and shallow water. My skin was starting to feel tight and my head was already warm from the heat of the sun. I was also starting to feel uncomfortably tired, too. I looked at my watch. It was almost 1:00pm. I would have to turn around and head back to the marina soon. I decided to wind drift out further into the Bay while I ate my lunch and drank my water. Ten minutes later, I was still scanning all the visible shoreline without any success. Where were the flamingos? I found myself in the shade. Shade? I looked up. A huge cloud was above me. Let’s see now. There was a breeze blowing from the South, but the cloud was expanding toward the South. Hmmm. It made me think about a thunderstorm, which, an hour and a half from the marina in a canoe in the Everglades is not a particularly pleasant thought.

I hurriedly paddled back toward the point. It was much easier paddling with the wind at my back. I round the point and made a beeline for the marina. I checked my watch. I might even be a few minutes early. For some reason, the water seemed much shallower. Had I not followed this route on the way out? I figured I must be slightly off my original course. I steered my canoe a little further from land. It was still not deep…and getting shallower by the moment. I looked at my watch again. I realized that the time was within two hours of low tide. Doh! I quickened my pace, but it was all for naught. Within a quarter mile of the waters for the marina I was grounded in two inches of water. Less than a hundred yards in front of me, a shoal perpendicular to me was visible with wading birds feeding all over it. I had scooted through at least 100 feet of mud and was tired. To my right, Willets were wading in the water. The water was not deep there. In front of me, Snowy Egrets were feeding in ankle-deep water. No-go there either. To my left was a White Ibis, also in ankle-deep water. Only one direction without any indicators–the way I came into this mess. I used my oar like a pole to turn my canoe around with much awkwardness and great difficulty. I scooted myself back to the beginning but it was more shallow than when I had started.

I could see the current flowing out into the Bay. Now I knew I was in trouble. I was maybe 200 yards from shore. A couple of teenage fishermen were amusing themselves with my antics now. One of them finally called out, “You might as well head back in this way”, he said as he motioned for me to move in toward shore. Should I believe him or was it a prank? I thought if I could at least get to shore, I could walk my canoe back to the marina.

I was running out of time for my half day rental. Being spontaneous sometimes has its drawbacks. Today happened to be just one of those days. I got out of my canoe. This was NOT a smart thing to do. The first foot sank quickly in the soft, mushy, grayish muck. Quickly, I removed my other foot from out of the canoe to keep the boat from tipping over and it sank equally as fast. I paused for a second. I was in this slimy, putrid mud that was well over my knees. With great effort and care (so as not to lose a shoe), I took a step hoping quite vainly that I might step into less mud. But this did not happen. I slogged on for maybe 50 feet. This was immensely difficult work. I was already breathing hard, my heartbeat was raised, and I was perspiring. Time kept on ticking.

I managed to pull my canoe another 30 feet or so. Suddenly, my left foot sank with frightening speed. I felt myself losing my balance as I lurched forward in the quagmire. Hastily, I threw my right arm over the front of the canoe and gripped the far side ferociously. The canoe slid forward in the mud as I grasped the front with my left hand and prayed it would not slip any more. Both legs were now in thigh deep mud.

I was gasping uncontrollably for air. Each breath I inhaled my throat would make a sickening, asthmatic wheeze. I don’t have asthma, but the combination of overexertion and fear was having some ill effects. I was feeling queasy and light-headed and my head felt hot. The sun was taking its toll, too. Altogether, I was overwhelmed with unreasonably fearful thoughts. Were there any alligators here? I saw one less than a year ago in the canal along Snake Bight Trail? I made a hasty scan of the waters around me searching for the large reptiles.

I calmed myself purposely. “This was *salt* water. No alligators. Don’t panic. Besides, it’s only $8 more dollars for a *whole* day of canoe rental. Why are you risking a heart attack for $8 dollars?” I reasoned with myself. On the outside, I was still taking in huge gulps of air. The other me still a little panicky whined, “What if the mud is over your head?”. I stifled the whiney little voice by mustering all the energy I had, and hoisted my two-ton, mud-caked, putrid smelling body out of the water and plopped myself down in the boat. Gross globs of mud and pungent smelling water covered the bottom of the canoe, on my bag, and splattered my binoculars.

I didn’t care what I looked like right now, nor did I care what the fisherman or any passing boat thought. I closed my eyes. I still felt light-headed. I regained my composure and reassessed my options. The shore was still 100 yards in front of me. I was not getting back out of the boat. I didn’t care how long it took. I plunged my oar into the mud at a forward angle on my left until it completely covered the paddle and part of the handle. I placed both hands on the top and grunted as I pulled the canoe forward over the mud maybe two feet. I reached back and pulled the oar out causing my canoe to move backwards another foot. I continued. Forward two feet. Backwards one foot. Forwards two feet. Backwards one foot. One of the fishermen on the dock hollered out, “You’re making progress”. I managed a meager laugh and thanked him. I continued the monotonous struggle.

Within 50 feet of the shore, I found myself in 8-10 inches of water–enough in which to paddle freely. Immensely relieved, stiff, sore, and exhausted, I paddled feebly toward the marina. Amazingly, I was only 10 minutes late returning to the boat dock and was happily not charged the additional $8. I hosed myself down on the dock. Tourists got a good laugh as they watched the spectacle of this goofball hosing all the mud off his clothes.

I waited on the 4:00pm Bald Eagle boat tour on the remote chance of seeing the Flamingos. The low tide was so severe however, that the last boat cruise was canceled. Physically exhausted and emotionally spent, I headed back up to Florida City for the evening.

I drove back to the marina in Flamingo and arrived by 9:00am, Saturday morning. Today, I wanted to deal with neither the ravenous mosquitoes nor hiking through the stinky mud. I inquired about hiring a fishing guide for half a day. The going rate was $210. Oof. That was WAY more than I wanted to spend, but I was feeling pretty helpless to find the flamingos myself at this juncture. I had visited the Snake Bight area of the Everglades now three times in the last year without any success on the flamingos. I was not really too hopeful anymore and thought this grand expenditure would be my last hurrah. The last guide, however, was already out fishing. I was somewhat relieved about the money anyway. “Money is real…the flamingos are not”, I told myself. I decided to rent a canoe for the day for my last ditch effort, even though I was still pretty beat up from yesterday’s ordeal.

At the same time, a man walked into the marina with a nice set of Bausch & Lomb binoculars around his neck. He looked serious and seemed focused.

“Are you a birder or do you just have a nice pair of binoculars?” I joshed.

With a perfectly straight face and a tiny, ornery twinkle in his eye he replied, “Yes.”

“Are you looking for flamingos?” I blurted.

“Yup.”

“So am I.”

“He’s gonna rent a canoe for the day.” offered the marina clerk.

“I’m gonna hike Snake Bight Trail.”, said the birder.

“Have you done the trail before?” I poked.

“Nope, it’s my first time.”

Aha. “A newbie” I thought. “Gotta long-sleeved shirt?”

“Yup.”

“You’ll need it. The trail’s pretty bad. You’ll need good bug juice.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard lots of war stories.”

“You’ll probably have some of your own stories by the end of today!” I laughed.

Considering my options, I decided that maybe being eaten by mosquitoes wasn’t all that bad. “Mind if I tag along, even though I’ve missed the flamingos on the last three attempts?”

“Not a problem.” he smiled.

We walked outside and exchanged introductions. He was Ken Allen, a Florida resident, and a birder for two years.

I was already outfitted in proper canoe garb: shorts, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. We chatted about how tough it was to get any information about flamingos from the staff here in the Everglades while I carefully laid out my long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans on the ground and proceeded to spray each item in its entirety with Deep Woods Off. I think Ken was amused. I even sprayed my cap. I think I used almost the whole can of Off. I retrieved my mosquito head netting. I put on my prepped clothing. We got into my rent-a-spec and drove the five miles over to the entrance of Snake Bight Trail.

I loaded up my backpack at the pullout with my scope head in the bottom, a quart of Lemon-Lime Gatorade, my trusty can of Back Woods Off, and finally my little travel tripod set in the pack vertically. I zippered it up and strapped it on, put on my cap, mosquito head netting, and finally my binoculars. I was armed and ready.

Just 100 yards down the trail, we stopped to apply more mosquito spray. Ken admitted the tiny, Saltmarsh Mosquitoes were pretty ferocious. It was already hot and muggy. We were shielded from the sun by the thick canopy of leaves over the path. The constant, annoying din of the tiny critters made me think we were somewhere deep in the Amazon on some National Geographic expedition. I looked over at Ken. The clouds of mosquitoes hovering around his body reminded me of the dust around the cartoon character, Pigpen. I had to get my hands out of the protection of my pockets frequently to brush the mosquitoes from off the front of my head netting, as they were obstructing my vision.

Given the circumstances, I was surprised at Ken’s patience as we stopped to look at a couple of Great-crested Flycatchers and an Ovenbird on the way. I was also impressed with Ken’s ability as birder, too. For only two years experience, he was pretty sharp. A couple of downed trees on the path hampered our progress, but we persisted. Once we reached the boardwalk at the end of the two-mile Trail of Death, the mosquito population dropped significantly leaving only a few hundred little peskies whirring around our faces.
We set up our scopes and started to scan. I was prepared to stay for a long time. Besides, I was in no hurry to go get eaten alive again any time soon! It was about 10:30am–only half an hour after high tide.

“I believe I’ve got them!” I remarked as calmly as I could. It was too great a distance for my Swift Searcher 20x eyepiece to make a positive ID. I was looking east from the platform through an opening in the leaves on the bush in front of us. Through that hole on the far shore were some orangish pink dots. The dots had reflections that gave them an appearance of having long legs. I recalled to mind the group of two dozen Roseate Spoonbills from the day before on the West side of Snake Bight. Those birds were brighter, and were of a more rosy hue. I managed to maintain my excitement with caution.

Ken came over and looked through my scope. He agreed with my initial instincts, but both of us were desirous of better views. I moved my tripod and he set up his rig–a Kowa with a 20-60x zoom eyepiece. The view was better, but the birds were still extremely distant. It was easier to see that these birds were tall and gangly, but their heads appeared to be tucked. I counted 32 birds in the group. In an hour and a half of staring, we had seen two birds raise their pink heads and necks confirming positive flamingo status. Ken and I discussed trying to get a closer look. After yesterday’s experience in Florida Bay quagmire, I was unwilling to attempt walking around the shoreline to vie for a closer view. I must have had a convincing argument as Ken decided against it as well.

By 11:30am, the heat distortion had increased so dramatically that only 6 pink spots were still visible (we had a pretty steady vigil and we never saw them fly) and were no longer identifiable, even at 60x (only magnified the heat distortion). Although satisfactory for identification, today’s distant views were less than desirable. But it was all we were going to get. I was happy that it was more than I have seen in the previous three attempts!

We now paid more attention to the throngs of shorebirds around us. Least Sandpipers were abundant as were huge flocks of dowitchers and Willets. A Whimbrel, 6 Black-necked Stilts, and a Reddish Egret were out to our right. Ken found a Great Black-backed Gull on the beach. I looked through his scope, hoping of course, for some other strange oddity. Ken’s initial ID was good, though. It’s still a decent bird from this location.

Suddenly, swarms of shorebirds rose to our right. Then more swarms rose out in front of us. Was it a falcon? Yesss! Ken spotted the Peregrine Falcon first far above us, yet shorebirds were still being spooked. This bird is always a delight to me. Other birds I enjoyed were several Bald Eagles that passed overhead as well as a huge kettle of White Pelicans circling effortlessly on the morning’s tropical air currents. It’s such a pleasant sight!

We made our return trip hastily. I turned on the car and let the air conditioning run for several minutes before we got in. Mosquitoes do not like cold air. We unpacked, brushed as many critters off of us a possible, and gulped down copious amounts of water. Both of us were drenched with perspiration from our trek back to the car. Yuk. We were covered in fermented bug juice and sweat. We got into the cool car and only had to deal with a couple dozen of our tiny voracious friends.

I remembered well my first terrifying Snake Bight fiasco as I came running wildly out of the woods and jumped immediately into my car and closed the door with 58 KAJILLION mosquitoes…INSIDE my car. I had mosquitoes then for the rest of my vacation. Yes. It was one of a few important Snake Bight lessons…ALWAYS USE A/C TO REDUCE THE NUMBER OF MOSQUITOES. Haha!

We ate a relaxed lunch at the restaurant in Flamingo and met a group of British birders. After chatting briefly, I found out that they knew Andrew Raine, who birded with me in California in September. Small world. Their group had seen a Brown-capped Flycatcher and a Smooth-billed Ani on the Anhinga Trail two days ago. I immediately asked if the flycatcher was calling. Indeed, it was.

I decided to head up to the Anhinga Trail with Ken. I had called the Florida Rare Bird Alerts the night before. There was no news of new year bird possibilities for me. Unfortunately, we found neither the flycatcher nor the ani. We parted ways and I headed north to Florida City again for the evening.

I called Southwest Airlines to see if I could fly home on Sunday. Ha! They laughed at my request. It was WAY too busy a time to change travel plans. Yes, it was still Thanksgiving Weekend.

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