Although we're locals, we have never tried kayaking in the Everglades so when the opportunity to take a 3 hour guided Mangrove Tunnel Tour came up, we jumped at it. Late one afternoon at the end of January, we met at JT's in Choko-loskee, were introduced to our guide Chris Schuld and headed back to a launch site off US41. Chris, who is a Florida Master Naturalist, gave a great overview of the area for us and our three kayaking companions, showing us where we would be paddling and how the Everglades eco-system works.Our kayaks were comfortable and stable and it was comforting to note that no-one had capsized one (not recently anyway!). The lake was calm and edged with mangroves and after we had paddled 100 yards or so it was diffi cult to believe we were so close to the highway. Slowly the quietness crept upon us as we absorbed the strange kind of beauty that surrounded us. This was nature at its best.Tunnel aheadWe continued down the lake, silently and unobtrusively, until Chris pointed to a very small entrance in the mangroves that was so narrow it required us to take apart our paddles and use only half of one. It was easy to see why they are called mangrove tunnels - the mangrove trees on either side met about ten feet above our heads to form a canopy. The creek through here twists and turns, providing some interesting challenges for the novice kayaker, but it was nothing we couldn't cope with as we took in the beauty of the sunlight shimmering through the canopy and the overall peacefulness.Eye level with alligatorsAt the end of the tunnel we found ourselves in another lake. Chris signaled for us to get close as he had seen a number of alligators in the water and a large one sunning himself on the bank. Over the years, we have seen hundreds of alligators in different situations but never has our experience seemed so intimate, watching them at eye-level at the water-line, only feet away. They are shy animals and after a while they quietly submerged and the one on the bank slipped silently into the lake.
Disturb the sounds of silence After navigating several more tunnels, we turned around in order to be back at our starting point in time to see the birds returning to the rookeries at sunset. As we approached, fl ocks of birds, many of which we had seen on our trip, from ibis to egret and all shapes, sizes and colors of herons, passed over-head. It was here that I felt more than anywhere else on the journey, that we were in their world and that we had found the most natural way to experience this part of the Everglades. Wave after wave of birds kept coming as the sun slowly dropped below the horizon. The cacophony of sound was truly amazing as close to a thousand birds jostled for prime position. It was tough to imagine that this scene is played out night after night and I felt most privileged to experience it. At one with the environment Chris was a very informative, knowledgeable and entertain-ing guide who clearly enjoys what he does and has a lot of respect for the eco-system. He exuded confi dence from the outset which was key to making this adventure safe, accessible and fun. The 3 hour round trip was well paced, the paddling was not too strenuous and our lack of expertise did not detract whatso-ever from the truly memorable experience. It's hard to convey in words what a different tour this is; pictures defi nitely do a better job, but they still cannot get across the feeling of to-tal tranquility and being at one with the environment that any lover of nature and wildlife will fi nd absolutely enchanting. Visit Evergladesareatours.com or call239.695.3533 for more details