Stephen O. Sears
A Voyage to Everglades City
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Entering an inlet from the open ocean, I have often been struck by the transition from blue water to beaches, marsh or a built up community of condominiums. Arriving at the mouth of the Barron River, downstream from Everglades City, Florida is somewhat different and similar to driving into a forest from an empty plain. The shoreline is marked by mangrove trees that form a dense thicket about 20 feet high, interspersed by winding channels. Without the channel markers, it would be impossible to follow the safe, deep route upstream to Everglades City and avoid running aground in the shallow water between the mangrove islands. The water is brown colored but clear. Tidal currents overwhelm the seaward flow from the freshwater Everglades to the sea at high tide, and produce a current of about 3 knots on an ebb tide. The mangrove forest is a protected habitat of brackish water, and rolling tarpon, diving birds, and jumping mullet are evidence of the abundance of marine life. Part of the Everglades National Park, it remains a wilderness even today.
Everglades City is a small village found on the southwest coast of Florida, about 80 miles south of Fort Myers. At one time the county seat of Collier County, it is now a center for commercial and recreational fishing. To get there by boat, it is necessary to run south along the coast in the Gulf of Mexico from Fort Myers, or north from the Florida Keys, turning inland at the green marker No. 1 situated at the mouth of the Barron River. After turning inland and cruising through the channel bordered by mangrove trees, one encounters dry land and a small town on the southern bank. Docks for boats unloading fish and crabs are interspersed with homes, a school, and the famous Rod and Gun Club.
The town was laid out with visions of a much larger and prosperous city. Wide boulevards with grassy medians intersect a traffic circle, the site of a large white building which was once the county courthouse. Impacted by a series of hurricanes, the town has a fair amount of vacant land, some newly built homes, and well preserved older buildings including the Museum of the Everglades.
I visited Everglades City by water in November 2019. A friend from high school, Roger, had read my novel Sunniland and proposed a cruise to see the town where the story in Sunniland takes place. Roger has a boat docked on the Florida east coast in Boca Raton, where we started our journey. The first day started by traveling north to Stuart, Florida along the Intracoastal Waterway on a sunny November morning, then turning inland on the Okeechobee waterway to our first night’s destination in Indiantown. The following day we crossed Lake Okeechobee, stopping at a marina in Fort Myers. After tying up, we met Mike Kiniry, a radio show host for Gulf Coast Live on WGCU, on the boat for an interview about Sunniland.
The next day saw us running south along the coast, turning inland at the Barron River and docking at the Rod and Gun Club in mid afternoon. Originally started in 1864, The Club is a rambling set of buildings with a lobby of dark wood walls displaying stuffed animals and fish, including a bear, a Florida panther, and every species of fish that can be caught in the waters surrounding the town. There are also numerous newspaper articles displayed in the entrance about the history of the Club. The buildings are surrounded by a green lawn, ending at a dock along the Barron River, and that is where we moored for two nights. A bar, restaurant and a veranda comprise the remainder of the establishment, along with hotel rooms. Roger’s boat, the Lucky Duck, is shown below tied up at the dock.
We spent part of three days in Everglades City. It gave us a chance to meet some interesting, helpful and kind people.
Marya Repko is a local author and historian, who has reviewed Sunniland for the Mullet Rapper, an appropriately named local newspaper. She also arranges for the local hardware store to sell Sunniland. (There is no bookstore). I have been corresponding with her via email for about 6 months, so it was great to meet her in person. We had breakfast the next morning, before taking a photo near the old truck at the back of the Rod and Gun Club.
We were planning to leave for Islamorada the next day, but had to address a an unexpected boat repair. (Repairs are never totally unexpected if you are used to boating). We needed some help to raise a recalcitrant hydraulic boat lift and fortunately met a local fisherman named Sergio. He cheerfully spent the better part of a rainy day helping us get to a point where it was safe to run the boat and continue our trip. Roger backed the boat close to the dock where Sergio was able to use his forklift to pull up the hydraulic lift. After securing it, we felt confident that we could travel in the open Gulf.
After a day spent on the boat, we retired to the bar where we met Taylor, an excellent bartender. She works in the same job that her mother and grandmother held at the Rod and Gun Club before her. Very pleased to meet a third generation Everglades City resident, we learned a lot about life in the small, isolated town over the years. Roger told her about Sunniland and its setting. Taylor was one of a number of people we met who were very happy to learn that someone had written a book about Everglades City, and she was eager to read the book. I’m looking forward to her opinion. The photo below is Taylor and me below a pouncing Florida panther.
The next morning was clear and sunny, but windy with small craft warnings offshore. A parade of fishing boats, some with guides and some on their own, headed downstream into the calm waters of the ten thousand islands. The fishing is still phenomenal. Tarpon worked the sea wall where we were tied up, crashing down on small baitfish. Stone crab season had opened a few days earlier, and the wake of departing crab boats rocked us about 4 am.
I thought about how hard it would be to pull up crab pots in the 3 to 5 foot seas predicted offshore, and was glad I had taken up novel writing instead of commercial fishing. The wind was from the northwest, however, which meant we would have a following sea on the way to the Keys. We decided to leave, and headed down the channel toward the open Gulf, seeing the small village of Chokoloskee off to port and slowing down for a group of kayaks. We found relatively calm seas nearshore after leaving the shelter of the mangroves, so we throttled up and headed south to Islamorada, our next stop before returning north the following day to Boca Raton and completing a circle around the lower part of Florida.