Enter the Everglades Island Labyrinth

 Shane Luitjens / Alamy

From the huffing and the splashing, I sensed that something wild and big — very big — lurked outside our tent. A feral hog? A Florida panther? A python wrestling with an alligator?

I took a peek: Nothing but shimmering water and tangled mangroves surrounded our campsite, a chickee platform in the backcountry of Florida’s Everglades National Park.

But then, there it was again. Closer.

I looked out and glimpsed a pair of dorsal fins sliding beneath tea-colored Sunday Bay, leaving the cove so quiet I could almost hear the rising sun searing the clouds. It seemed impossible: We were a dozen miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but these fish-hunting bottlenose dolphins had ridden the tide far inland. Nothing is certain in this confusing, ever-shifting water land.

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I’d been coming to nearby Sanibel Island for the past 20 years, but I’d never ventured into Everglades National Park — the 1.5-million-acre expanse of protected land and water to the south. The Everglades is a contrary place of saw-grass prairies and cypress swamps, big gators, and bigger gator-eating Burmese pythons. Its history, a waterlogged version of the Wild West, features the exploits of Indians, fugitives, and hunters. I quickly learned that there’s no fighting the Glades. The best way to explore the soggy, wildlife-rich maze is on its own terms, infiltrating it with a silent canoe. Between Christmas and spring break, temperatures dance in the 70s, hurricanes aren’t even a blip on radar screens, and rookeries burst with white ibis, roseate spoonbills, and great blue herons.

Many paddlers follow the sign-posted Wilderness Waterway, which meanders 99 miles from Everglades City south to Flamingo, but I wanted to take the stream less traveled. So I enlisted my friend Jay F. Sullivan, a Vietnam veteran who’s also an EMT, and we charted a four-day backcountry float plan. Our 35-mile voyage would loop us through the labyrinthine Ten Thousand Islands, in the northwest corner of the park, where we could camp at an overwater chickee, a ground site, and a beach. When Sullivan saw MSN Virtual Earth satellite photos of the area before we left, he flipped out: “We’re going to be in the middle of nowhere!”

We put in at Chokoloskee, at the ass-end of State Road 29, our rented canoe loaded to the gunwales with camping gear and, for added safety, a two-horsepower outboard motor. Along the Wilderness Waterway, manatees grazed in the sea-grass beds to starboard; to port, mangroves formed an impenetrable thicket.

The Everglades is fed by freshwater spilling from Lake Okeechobee. Or it was, until engineers dredged, diverted, and dammed the fluvial landscape almost out of existence. In 2000, the Feds enacted a 30-year, $7.8 billion plan to restore the waterflow and resuscitate the ecosystem. While much of the Glades remains on life support, gradual increases of Florida panthers and American crocodiles offer hope.

Soon we eased over oyster bars at the mouth of the Lopez River, where a red-shouldered hawk swooped in and hovered 30 feet above us. The only hint of habitation in this relatively healthy section of the park was a century-old cistern at the campsite where we tied up for lunch. We continued up the Lopez, encountering only a few high-octane fishing skiffs, and followed Crooked Creek into Sunday Bay.

Sullivan studied our detailed 1:40,000 chart while I scanned the horizon with a pair of binoculars looking for an arrow-shaped Waterway marker. The Sunday Bay chickee should have been north-northeast of this guidepost. Nothing, however, except flooded forest. The site was so well-hidden, we had overshot it. Only while admiring a roosting tricolored heron did we spy the 10×12 wooden platform’s roof.

We pitched our tent, then enjoyed a quick dock bath, chasing the aches of a five-hour paddle. Steaks and home fries soon sizzled on my stove, and Sullivan pulled a surprise from the larder: an ’83 Château Latour. The sun melted over the horizon, and an overwhelming silence swept across a bold night sky studded with bright stars.

After the dolphins’ wake-up call, we broke camp and paddled toward Oyster Bay. Within a mile, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in a dead end, walled in by mangroves. David Harraden, the owner of North American Canoe Tours, had prepared us for this. “You’ll lose track of where you are,” he’d said. “If in doubt, follow the tide out. You’ll end up in the Gulf, where fishermen can pick you up.” It wasn’t that dire. We doubled back and soon found the Waterway. A few miles later, we veered south and navigated without markers until landing at a bend in the Chatham River, where the Glades’ most notorious citizen, Edgar J. Watson, once ran a Spartan sugar-cane plantation. Having read Killing Mister Watson, Peter Matthiessen’s novel about the 1910 Chokoloskee shoot-out, I wanted to soak in the history and camp here. But the insect-shrouded ruins spooked Sullivan, so we pushed for Pavilion Key, still eight miles away.

Strong currents carried us four miles downstream, but then the southerly wind and an incoming tide conspired against us. It was no time for canoeing purity: Sullivan cranked up the outboard, and we battled the Gulf. Whitecaps battered our bow for the four-mile crossing, leaving us so exhausted that we pitched our tent on the beach just yards from a Park Service portable toilet.

Sullivan remembered the ranger’s warning about raccoons and lashed our food cooler in a web of knots. We placed non-perishables in a duffel and locked them inside the only other hard-sided container available, the Porta-Potty.

At midnight, I awoke to Sullivan’s profanities; his flashlight illuminated a half-dozen raccoons assaulting the latrine. “This is like the Viet Cong during Tet,’’ he groused. “They’re coming through the wires.’’

When morning broke, our tent still stood, but shithouse technology had failed against the wily Procyon lotor. They’d raided everything but the canned goods. God help us if they ever get their paws on a Leatherman.

With a lighter load, we soldiered on, setting a northwest course for Rabbit Key, a small island that once held Watson’s bullet-riddled corpse. The wind kicked up fresh whitecaps as an osprey skimmed over our canoe, a mullet struggling in its powerful talons. We considered firing up the motor again, but then decided that today we’d take on the Everglades nature’s way.