Visit Everglades City and the Ten Thousand Islands of Southwest Florida, the Everglades

Trekking Through the Everglades

Everglades City

by Captain Mike Merritt

Sometimes in life, you just do something because you’ve talked about it and the time for talking is over.

This is what got me started on planning a walk through the heart of the Mangroves here in the Everglades. As a young man, we always heard the old timers make remarks about how a man could walk from Highlands Beach to the Trail (US41) during the dry season. One such “Old Timer” was Denny Noble. I had seen him when I was just a kid running around out in the backcountry in my 14ft boat with a 15HP Johnson. Denny would always say, “you Merritt boys are everywhere,” to which we would just smile. We loved to explore, and this was before GPS or Google Earth, so we learned by memory.

Trekking Through the Everglades Captain Mike Merritt

Later in years, my buddy Ray Culver, who has since passed away, and I talked about doing this walk. Well, life gets busy, and we were both busy guiding, so we never did undertake this walk. About 2 years ago, I decided I was going to do it. I started planning and even made a lot of preparations last year by marking trails I would follow. I first went on Google Earth and looked at what the terrain was like that I would be traversing. I didn’t say much to too many people as it was just something I wanted to do on my own. After weeks of planning last year and even placing supplies in strategic locations, the time for my attempt was nearing. I scheduled a week off in late April, and then we got that torrential rain that flooded Ft. Lauderdale airport. This also put a ton more water on the prairies and in the Mangroves. I decided to put this Trek off for a year to see if more favorable conditions could be had.

So, after much planning and my son Michael agreeing to accompany me, I set a date to start. I went back and established trails for about 5 consecutive weekends. This included stashing water, food, and supplies. While doing this, it became evident that we would not find much, if any, high ground. With all preparations made as much as possible, it was time to go.

The plan was to walk from Highlands Beach to the Loop Rd. This would take us through all kinds of terrain. We would start in Cabbage palms and then enter a large Mangrove forest. We would traverse muck, marsh, cross over creeks, cross over rivers, needle grass prairies, sawgrass, cypress, and pine before we were all through. It was going to be challenging, but I really wanted to try.

We left my dock on March 30th, and Capt. Kyle McMillin dropped us off on Highland Beach at around 8:30 am. We strapped on our 50 lb. loads and started towards the 1st waypoint. I had my Garmin Inreach handheld GPS66i with my plotted course, a compass, food, water, hammock tent, first aid, eating utensils, etc. We quickly walked through the easy high ground that these cabbage palms had grown up on. Shortly after clearing this nice easy walk, we entered the tangled Mangroves that we knew we would be in for the next 6 miles until we reached Rogers River where we would swim across and camp for the night. At least this was the plan.

The progress slowed considerably as the mangroves were intertwined with so much deadfall that we literally had to push and fight for every yard we would make. This kept on for hours with no easy walking. Every step was in water, and below the water was 4”-6” of mud. The ground was wet everywhere. I only hoped as we got into the taller, older part of the Mangroves that it would not be as dense or as wet. But as I was learning, Google Earth did not give a clear understanding of what lies ahead. We were hoping this would get easier. When we were 4 hours into our walk, we came across an area I was hoping was sparse growth and solid ground. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We came across what I would describe as some of the toughest terrain I have ever crossed. It was a struggle to walk through this muck as you would not only fight to keep your balance but fight to pull your foot free from the muck every step of the way.

Trekking Through the Everglades Captain Mike Merritt

It took us 2.5 hours to get through about a thousand yards of this. Once we were free from it, we continued on our way. More thick Mangroves with fighting for every yard, but at least we were not in muck anymore. We continued on for 3 more hours and decided we would try to find a dry place to stop. After zigzagging through these Mangroves, it became apparent there was no such dry place. It was getting late, and I knew we were at least still 3 or more miles from where I had planned to make it on day one.

We decided to set up camp, and everywhere we looked, the water was 6” deep. So we wedged our backpacks into some mangrove roots to keep them up out of the water and proceeded to set up camp. We had purchased some hammocks that actually doubled as tents. We found some tree trunks large enough to attach to and got our beds for the night all set up. Unloading the packs had to be done carefully because if you dropped anything, it was going to be soaked. Once this was accomplished, we needed to build a fire. No easy feat in the water. So I found a tight group of tree roots and stacked up some of the plentiful dead wood that was hung up in the trees everywhere. We stacked up enough dry wood to form an elevated area and then built a fire on top of this. It worked great. We also formed some seating in the same fashion so we could actually sit and eat our meal somewhat relaxed. Our feet were never dry until we climbed into our hammocks that evening.

The mosquitoes were not bad. I was pleasantly surprised by this. Not sure exactly why but there are many factors. Everywhere we saw water, there were tons of mosquito fish. The weather was still very mild, and rainy season had not yet started.

During this day’s walk, we had crossed 2 small creeks that were obviously tidal creeks. These had a slight flow in them which obviously came from the river. We were able to cross them by finding areas where the Mangroves were growing nearly completely across. This is one thing that I made observation of while doing this walk. It is that the Mangroves grow very rapidly and aggressively. They will close up a flowing source of water no matter how deep the channel. The only thing that seems to slow them down is either a freeze or very powerful storms like a hurricane. I believe that is why there was so much dead intertwined in these Mangroves. I remembered the freeze of 2010 and of course several hurricanes. But these trees have definitely overcome all of that and are rapidly spreading.

After going to bed physically exhausted, we needed a good night’s sleep. The hammock proved to be somewhat comfortable, and as long as we had something under us to keep the mosquitoes from biting our backs, we slept.

Waking up the next morning and knowing you had to step out of your hammock into 6 inches of water wasn’t exactly motivating. I got up, started a fire, and put on some coffee. We had some oatmeal and smoked sausage for breakfast. We packed up camp and started out on day 2 to hopefully make it to the river crossing. I checked the GPS and saw that we had only walked 1.83 miles in 9.5 hours. I was not confident at this point that we could make up the difference and make it to our next source of water. We agreed that we would walk for 6 hours or so and see how far we made it before deciding what to do next. We only had enough water to make it through one more day.

The walk this day was all Mangroves. We would walk for an hour through dense grueling growth only to find that it got thicker. We kept joking with each other that if you think it can’t get any tougher just wait. Anytime we would come across a small area where the growth was not dense, it just didn’t last long. I remember planning this trip thinking at worst we would walk 1/2 mile per hour and at best 1 mile per hour. Turns out we were getting less than 1/4 mile per hour. There was no way to increase our speed. We came across the widest creek on the 2nd day. This creek was 15 ft. wide and about 4 ft. deep. It did not show up on my search when planning this trip. We searched along the bank and finally found a way to cross the creek without swimming. This ate up about 30 minutes of our day. Time was valuable, so I was a little disappointed in this. But, it was part of the walk, and we managed to cross.

Trekking Through the Everglades Captain Mike Merritt

At about 3 pm, I checked our progress and knew that we would not make it to our water. We were down to a 1/4 of a gallon between us, so I decided we would make our way to the edge of Rogers River and send a message to inform my wife of our decision. We found a small clearing and sent a GPS text message. We told her we would send coordinates when we reached the river. We then turned towards Rogers River and encountered the most dense growth yet coupled with deadfall that was completely wrapped in vines and briars. At one point, I was searching for some easier route and I could not see 3 ft. ahead. We pushed through and eventually made it to Rogers River and the first high ground we had seen since starting. We sent the coordinates, and being unsure of them being received, we prepared to spend the night.

Capt. Kyle McMillin showed up in surprisingly good time to extract us, and we headed home. I am disappointed in not being able to complete this journey. But I intend to pursue it again next year and experience what the rest of the trail has for me. This was an extremely physical hike but also seeing the vast and difficult terrain was very cool. Along the way, the plant life can seem very mundane, but when you really pay close attention, you see how it changes drastically depending on sunlight, air penetration, density, soil, and of course, the height of the ground. I figured out that the trek I had planned to accomplish in 6 or 7 days will actually take a month if it is possible at all. I don’t think the Everglades get as dry as they used to when I was a kid and the old timers made their comments. The Everglades are in a battle for their very existence, and it is scary to think about all the irreversible damage that has been done. I love these Everglades, and that is a big part of why I chose to attempt this hike.

One day I hope to talk about how it is possible and encourage others to do the same.
Capt. Mike

2024-04-25T10:51:48-04:00April 29, 2024|Parks, Wildlife|

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