96 Cayo Costa Island, FL to Flamingo, FL

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Two turns after entering a quiet Pine Island canal brought us to the exclusive Spence Marina. Instead of a dock we brought Odyssey along side Grand X Spence a Grand Banks 42. We’d found the canal side winter home of Annie and John Spence. They jokingly call their home Spence Marina as they so generously share their home and dock with boaters they’ve met during their travels. We’d met a year earlier while traveling the Great Loop. Time evaporated as we enjoyed each other’s company. We mentioned our plans to travel out the St Lawrence this summer and learned the Spences had made the trip and inspired us with their stories.

Sanibel Island became home while we waited for a front to pass through the area. It was a great place for reunions. Carol and Larry picked us up and we had a wonderful evening seeing their Florida home and the beautiful surroundings they live in during winter away from Milwaukee and RV traveling. Barb and Mike, cruising friends from Lake Michigan found us and spent time aboard Odyssey as we swapped cruising stories and poked around Sanibel Island having a delightful time seeing the shops and Ding Darling nature preserve.

From our mooring we could see planes on final approach to the Naples airport. Most of the incoming planes were small-unmarked corporate jets bringing CEO’s in for the weekend. Town reflected her wealthy fly-in residents and is jammed with art galleries, interior decorators and fine clothing shops sprinkled in small clusters around the city. Quiet city streets made for interesting walking and a nice sand beach seemed to attract everyone who wasn’t poking through the shops.

Dale Chihuly has done for blown art glass what Tiffany did for stained glass. His thin colorful flowing pieces seem to float and glow. Huge sculptures, which he prefers to call chandeliers, completely filled our field of view when we toured an exhibition of his work at the Naples Art Museum.

A huge crane lifted the roof to a new band shell into place as we watched. That and an art and craft fair provided interesting diversions on our walk for groceries. A backpack, and heavy-duty boat bags made the long carry back to the dock more pleasant. We walked to get as much exercise as possible in anticipation of a long stay aboard while in the Everglades.

A mud trail kicked up by our prop wash left no doubt as to where we’d been as we entered the Gulf just south of Marco Island. We were almost on the bottom. Finally our mud trail disappeared as the depth under our bottom increased to 4 feet. We came up to cruising speed and continued on toward the Everglades.

Up past where the chart no longer showed depths we turned off the main channel, turned again and felt our way into a mangrove-surrounded anchorage. We’d arrived in the Everglades and had our private anchorage with only the mangroves, sky and water for company. One civilization intrusion in the form of distant noise marred our otherwise great anchorage. Early each morning we could hear the fishing fleet heading out from Everglade City. During the day airboat engines could be heard.

A bike path took us from Everglades City to Chokoloskee Island. It was an easy ride on a pool table-flat surface to the edge of civilization. Modest homes mixed freely with parks full of travel trailers. Our destination, the Smallwood Museum, had been the island store for eighty years. We enjoyed reading an autobiography called Totch about the Everglades around Chokoloskee Island. The book and museum intertwined giving us the feel of early Florida.

Ear protection in place we sat in the front of the airboat as it sped down a narrow canal. The tour was interesting. There were alligators and a crocodile along the route along with other animals of tourist interest if the alligators aren’t around. The tour felt more like a Disney ride than a nature tour. Airboats we learned are banned from the Everglade National Park because of their noise.

Hanging a right at a Little Shark River channel marker we headed off into the miles-thick maze of featureless mangrove islands making up the Ten Thousand Islands portion of the Everglades National Park. Finger navigation–moving our finger on the chart as we passed each island–became our method tracking our location. A narrow channel between two mangrove islands looked inviting. The anchor set firmly and the quiet sounds of nature replaced the sound of our engines.

The local residents didn’t seem to mind their new neighbor. A group of ibis worked their way under and over the tangle of mangrove roots looking for lunch. A pelican splashed nosily into the water coming up with a fish. Every now and then a fish jumped otherwise it was quiet.

A noisy ‘phoof” as a dolphin exhaled caught our attention. We watched fascinated as two dolphins worked the mangrove roots along the island 30’ away chasing down an occasional fish. Their low tide visit became a regular event. Often two great blue herons hop-scotched along the shore alert for the odd fish that darted their way as the dolphins stirred up the water. Their noisy squawks mixed nicely with the dolphins blowing.

Occasional powerboats passed our anchorage. Kayak groups passed silently and were harder to spot. One kayaker stopped to say hello. We learned he was three days out from Flamingo. Things got crowded on the weekend with five or six boats passing by on the other side of our island-sheltered anchorage.

Sound conveyed a story as a passing houseboat grounded on the shoal on the opposite side of the island. Motor sounds made it evident the houseboat wasn’t successful in freeing itself. We took the dinghy over to help. Working like a tugboat and pushing in strategic locations soon had the houseboat on it’s way again. We’re beginning to feel like we should get little boat decals to add to the dinghy side each time we make a save.

Exploring by dinghy we decided there would be no change of scenery if we relocated. All the mangrove islands look alike and might not have regular dolphin visits for entertainment. We got some exercise exploring by kayak along the mangroves and up into some of the cuts extending a few hundred feet into the island center. We’d paddle in until the cut came to an end with muddy flats the ibis enjoyed at low tide.

Shore leave and walking weren’t an option. None of the islands at anchor in the Little Shark River have beaches or even shore. Instead mangroves march to and out into the water. Except for the muddy flats exposed at low tide in the cuts, we didn’t see dirt or sand, just mangrove roots for our entire time in the Shark River area.

Days filled with reading, bird and dolphin watching slipped by rapidly. Ruth would take time out to quilt, and I’d do some computer work while we enjoyed our wilderness surroundings. Additional solar panels on the roof worked as intended, and we extended the quiet periods without having to run the generator for days before turning it on to heat water for a hot shower.

After seven days of relaxing in the wilderness the anchor came up, and we headed for Flamingo to explore the Everglades from shore. A marina, lodge, campground, restaurant, housing for employees, a small general store and one pay phone for the entire complex make up Flamingo.

A pie-eyed grebe surfaced near the edge Eco Pond was spotted by one of the more experienced birders. We amateurs strained to get a glimpse then rapidly looked it up in our bird book and marked the date and location. The early morning walk was led by George and Mary, volunteer tour guides, who helped us and the many others who showed up find and identify some of the harder to spot birds. With the help of all the extra eyes our sighting list grew rapidly with birds we hadn’t seen before.

Picking a different trail each day we’d walk or ride bikes absorbing the different feels of the Everglades. One trail provided views out over the vast grasslands that in the rainy season turn into inches-deep rivers. Now only hard-cracked, long dried out mud was visible in bare spot between the grasses. On higher ground ( a relative term since higher meant 1-2 feet) cactus could be seen. The dryness tamed the famed Everglades mosquitoes, and we rarely needed repellant.

Boat launching began well before dawn on Saturday morning. Odyssey’s cockpit provided perfect viewing of non-stop activity at the marina boat ramps as an eclectic fleet of small fishing boats and kayaks were launched. Trailer backing skills or lack thereof made for great entertainment while enjoying our morning orange juice, coffee, and tea. Body language conveyed great and sometimes sad stories about boating skills and confidence. On one launch ramp a young teen casually held their just launched boat in check with his foot as he talked with his dad. On the next ramp over a boy of about the same age, shoulders hunched and arms drawn in tentatively held the stern line as his dad hustled importantly about. For two non-stop hours we watched the unplanned entertainment event.

With great reluctance we backed Odyssey out from her Flamingo slip and headed out into Florida Bay. Gray light just before sunrise made it easy to see the channel marks. Smooth waters gave us a fast passage, and we were soon along the Florida Keys. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to rejoin civilization so found an anchorage off of Key Largo to enjoy one last night of quiet.

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