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Kayaking a Trail in the Everglades

Kayaks in a mangrove"That's a kayak?"

It certainly didn't look like one. The kayaks I was used to were self-enclosed, with a spray skirt to hook you directly to the boat. This one was open-topped like a canoe, and seeing it threw me for a loop. Granted, I'd only ever been sea kayaking before, and though this water was brackish, it wasn't exactly in the ocean.

Our guide patiently explained that yes, that was a kayak, and he gave us our paddles. A few minutes later, we were pushing off down a "kayak trail," a path carved through interlocking mangrove branches in the Everglades.

A mangrove swamp is perhaps one of the least-accommodating habitats for a human being to move through: all stinking, sinking mud and dirty water and mosquitoes, impeded by a jungle gym of branches. But I hoped that to go through it on kayak, to maneuver through the shallows and twist through the trees, would be to see it in a different light.

It was very different from sea kayaking. In open water, the battering wind and surf can make it nearly impossible to keep straight. You get spray in your eyes, and you can fight all you want, but if the current is flowing against you, you won't go anywhere. Strong, straight, swift strokes are what you aim for.

But in this twisty corridor, this quiet, windless maze of crisscrossing roots and branches and roots that look like branches, strong, straight, swift strokes will only get the nose of your boat wedged in a tree. This was especially true when the path grew so narrow that my kayak couldn't turn around. This is something I learned, learned, and then learned again, and each time I crashed into a tree, the local population of spiders rained down on my head and into the boat. The secret, as it turned out, was to use precise, controlled, delicate strokes — strokes that only took you as far as you wanted to go.

The mangroves had a palette all their own. Peering through the clustered trunks was like looking into a monocolored jungle, everything a deep mud-brown. But the canopy just above was brilliant emerald, and the water was a color like golden tea. Then there were the egrets, decked out in brilliant white with yellow feet, and the young alligators, sunning themselves blackly on the banks. We gave these three-foot predators their space.

Paddling through the swamp, we moved through a dappled understory, under a mangrove bower. When we were done, having seen more mangroves than we ever thought possible, I turned around to see where we had been. And the dim tunnel of branches, flecked with dots of light, looked back at me like a liquid eye.

--Rachael Monosson is an editorial intern for Sierra and a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Earth Systems. She lives in San Mateo.

--Image by iStockphoto/Kileman.

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