Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail -- It's hell to get in and hell to get out. That's what they used to say until the trail was marked. Now, it's an all time favorite for tourists and locals alike.
“Hell to get into, and Hell to get out” is what old timers claimed about the mangrove maze leading into Hells Bay. Here, near the headwaters of the mangrove swamp, a confusing and seemingly infinite series of ponds, islands and narrow creeks becomes the landscape’s dominant theme. Whether you complete the whole trail or just paddle for an hour or two, your experience will expose you to the complex and distinctive mangrove ecosystem.
TIME & DISTANCE
Three-miles to Lard Can another half-mile to Pear Bay. We will paddle between three to four hours to Lard Can or Pearl Bay and back. We can stop for lunch at one of the sites. Lard Can is a ground site and can be muddy. Bring proper footwear -- no flip flops please.
WHAT TO BRING
Recommended supplies include water, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent and/or bug jacket, rain gear as needed, snacks, PFD, camera, and a waterproof bag for gear. Any further navigation beyond the marked canoe trail requires Nautical chart #11433. We will not go that far this time.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The Mangrove Swamp
A tangled web of reddish, arching roots rises out of the tea–colored water. The red mangrove, stunted due to thin soil over the limestone bedrock, dominates the landscape here. It’s stilt–like prop roots hold the tree upright in the soft mud and water, and aerial roots drop down from the branches to lend further support. The red mangrove’s ability to grow in soil that is mostly submerged by saltwater affords them the luxury of not having to compete with other plants for light, nutrients, and space.
Green beans, anyone?
As you paddle along, you may notice what appear to be giant green beans floating in the water or dangling from the mangrove branches. These are the red mangrove’s young offspring, called propagules. After a propagule falls from a tree, it either anchors in the soft mud, or, if it falls into water, drifts along until it becomes waterlogged and sinks to the bottom. Tiny roots will sprout from the tip of the propagule, anchoring it into the mud. A new mangrove is born!
Bromeliads, often called “air plants”, perch regally upon mangrove branches all along the trail. Rainwater is captured and stored by the plant’s vase–like base. Mosquitoes and other insects deposit eggs and reside in the bromeliads, attracting tree frogs, lizards, and birds. Decaying leaves, animal droppings and other ingredients mix with captured water to form a nutrient base for the plant. These plants are nonparasitic squatters using the host tree only as a perch from which to gather sunlight and nutrients.
You’ll need to look carefully for wildlife as you wind through the mangroves. A few resident alligators haul themselves onto exposed clearings along the creek bank. Watch for these “roadside pullouts”. Alligators normally don’t nest in the mangrove environment, but an abundance of fish provides them with plenty of food.
A closer look into the maze of arching roots might be rewarded with a glimpse of mangrove crabs, snails, and anoles. Then the birds and the reptiles. Most life in the Everglades is avian or reptile. Few mammals call the Glades home. As the weather cools the number of birds grow. Once fertile hunting grounds for plume hunters, the glades still boast a healthy avian population.
The mangrove swamp offers juvenile marine life—such as fish, crabs, and shrimp—an ideal nursery ground. The tangle of arching red mangrove prop roots is a suitable hiding place from predators. Also, decomposing mangrove leaves, coated with tiny bacteria and fungi, are high in protein and form the basis for food chains upon which these creatures depend.
As the fish, crabs, and shrimp mature, they move into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. It may be hard to believe, but most of the sport fish, food fish, and shellfish that are captured off our tropical coasts depend on the mangrove as a nursery or feeding ground for at least part of their lives.
Hells Bay and Beyond
Trail markers end at the Hells Bay Chickee. But before beginning your return trip, take a moment to float on the open water. Open your ears to the songs of birds, the splashes of fish, and the choruses of frogs. The mangrove swamp through which you have just traveled serves not only to house, feed, and protect these and many other creatures, but it also provides us with a true wilderness experience; one that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.
The fine print:
By participating in any of our paddles you assume all risks and responsibilities for your personal health and safety and for your equipment; as well as the safety and equipment of your guests. It is important for everyone that each participant be prepared for the trip. Please use your discretion and best judgment when joining an outing. Be sure you are up to the paddle -- physically, mentally and that your equipment is appropriate for the intended trip. All night paddles require lights; even for rentals or borrowed boats. PFD and whistles are required. Intermediate to Advanced Paddles are for those who have substantial experience, skill, and solid knowledge of boat handling and self-rescues. Kayaking has inherent risks. Often, we are the smallest boats on the water. We each individually assume these risks each time we go out on the water. With all that being said, we all look forward to yet another great day on the water.
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