As we traveled west from the East Coast and across the freshwater plains of the Everglades things really didn’t look that bad. It was interesting to speculate on how the winds must have howled across the low open expanse of sawgrass. When we turned south we were past the wetland glades and skirting the edge of the Big Cypress Swamp, which is the western raised edge and ridge. There the open plains give way to swamp hardwood trees and hammocks. And still, the damage didn’t look that bad.
But as we traveled further south, and approached the saline zone things began to look more somber. The few remaining large stands of non-native Australian Pine, favored in earlier years ironically for windbreaks, were unceremoniously bent and broken. It wasn’t until we reached the town of Everglades City that the real effects were realized.
Dazed a bit by the devastation to the man-made environment that the locals used to call their homes, we turned onto the usual street to the ramp and immediately had to stop. The road was closed. Instead, we were looking at acres of the tents and trailers that emergency personnel had erected to feed and support the devastated local community. Personally, I felt rather uncomfortable arriving with a beautiful flats boat in tow for a day of frivolity when other people were experiencing a reality much, much different.
We launched anyway and idled out onto a river of high dark water filled with debris, some recognizable and some not. Our usual route was thwarted by the branches of numerous trees strewn across an expanse of flats that we usually skim on plane. Birds were conspicuous by their absence. There were few obvious signs of fish until we reached the area where the river mouths empty into the open gulf. There we found baitfish and the usual birdlife hovering and feeding from above.
We planned on running south and back along the coast of Everglades National Park but an unexpected chop made us change our plans. It was still early and conditions always worsen as the day ages. Both of us had physical reasons not to subject ourselves to an uncomfortable ride. Besides, there was little to be optimistic about, fishing wise. So, instead, we dredged some points with weighted flies and sinking lines. Our goal was achieved when we caught some species usually considered irritating bycatch, but at least we got our strings stretched.
The coast took a beating from the tidal surge and winds. The usual verdant and dark green mangroves, normally impenetrable to light and sight, were replaced by brown naked trunks of defoliated trees that one might think were sandblasted if it were not so obvious that they had spent much of the time submerged. It was easy to see hundreds of feet back behind the shoreline.
Despite the coastal damage, the rest of the environment actually looked like it took the storm in stride. There were signs of regrowth on a low mangrove tree where a crucified dead pelican had hardly begun to decompose. A friend once slid his motorcycle at speed and was covered with road rash but remained optimistic: he sustained no serious injury and would heal in time. I got the same sort of feeling from the ‘Glades.
The human component I fear is in much worse condition. Everglades City and the island of Chokoloskee further south are, or were, the epitome of the definition of a fisherman’s paradise. There is little down there other than a small tourism industry, commercial fishermen, and anglers willing to live on the edge. With so many other larger and more affluent cities having taken a beating by the same storm, these small forgotten towns have received little attention by the press, yet it is the area that was subjected to the most potent quadrant of the hurricane.
The relatively minor damage, mostly vegetative, along the SE coast had me unprepared for the extent of what happened over there. I now am very concerned for our friends down in the Keys. Has anyone heard from the Keys resident SL folks like Gordy or WJC?