Hurricane Irma roared through Florida in September packing winds in excess of 110 mph. It engulfed the entire state of Florida then headed up the entire east coast all the way to New England. On dry ground countless homes and businesses were lost, the power grid was destroyed and trees were ripped out of the ground then tossed about. It’s been three months since widespread catastrophic destruction and restoration work is still underway.
Caused by Irma, a huge storm surge found its way onshore and into the backcountry estuaries and bays. In particular the Everglades National Park infrastructure was demolished. All the chickee platforms in the backcountry lost their roofs to the wind and attached porta potties were destroyed and swept away. Ground sites were beneath six feet of seawater. Nothing was spared; visitor centers on both end of the park were trashed. Power, sewer, and water ceased to exist throughout coastal communities. A foot of mud brought in by the storm surge was left behind in buildings and on the grounds. An immediate “Alert” was posted on the parks website, “The entire (two million acres) park is now closed until further notice.”
A few weeks later water access into the park reopened for boat traffic. The park web site post was updated, “USE EXTREME CAUTION!! Many navigational aids are now missing and unaccounted for. Debris is everywhere. Enter at your own risk.” A map was also posted regarding backcountry camping. Every backcountry site was closed until further notice. Day use was the only option.
Then in mid-December the web site was again updated, “Backcountry campsite work has been completed in the southern (Flamingo) end of the park and now reopened for backcountry camping. The marina store and organized campground in Flamingo remains closed until further notice.” which translates into no fuel, no food, no ice and no camping. The campsites in the backcountry of the northern end of the park still remain closed until further notice.
Steve and I were waiting to hear some backcountry campsites had reopened. We had been planning a six-day camping trip to the park for some time. In mid-December I finally got through to a ranger at the Flamingo Visitors center, who filled me in regarding what chickees were now available. The rule is you can only occupy a chickee for one night at a time so we laid plans to chickee hop around Whitewater Bay, check in on some favorite spots and investigate a bunch of new fishy looking backcountry. When we arrived at HQ in Flamingo on December 18th we signed up for 5 nights of camping on newly refurbished chickees.
Our first couple days were spent fishing familiar spots around Hell’s Bay, where we found snook right where we left them during previous trips. Because Hell’s Bay is so far inland from the sea the storm surge must not have been as bad as along the immediate coast. One thing was very obvious. Mangroves had been striped of the majority of their leaves.
As we hopped from chickee to chickee we were in wonder of all the birds still around. Ospreys were rebuilding nests that were eliminated by the storm and there were shore birds everywhere. One speck of an island in Oyster Bay was obviously a rousting site and as the sun set flocks of brown pelicans, royal terns and frigate birds returned to roust on every available limb.
Whenever we were moving from one place to another bottle nosed dolphin we came across roared over to our boats to play in the bow wake. Some traveled with us for miles.
Another morning at the mouth of the Little Shark River there were schools of bonito, big jacks, ladyfish, blue fish, and big tarpon accompanied by hundreds of birds feasting on a zillion small baitfish drifting from the river back to the sea. Our two hand tied flies may have looked like finger mullet but they couldn’t compete among acres of bait so we became wide-eyed observers watching the spectacle in awe of it all.
It was a wonderful week spent on a wilderness waterway. Every star is the sky twinkled all night, every night. Every sunrise was every bit as beautiful as every sunset.
And we were grateful the park was again open to us humans to enjoy but best of all the critters that inhabit this untamed wilderness waterway were going about their business like nothing ever happened.