A Solo Finale to 1000 Miles of Self-Powered Adventures
Kayaking 100+ miles through the Everglades – including “The Nightmare”route.

By: Kathy Holcombe

While, I have often ventured into the wild on remote and difficult expeditions, my husband Peter has always been beside me. He has always been the more skilled of the two of us. The one I relied on to know what to do when things went wrong. The one who would do the heavy lifting when things got hard and I was exhausted. He was the one who planned all of our exploits and, as such, carried most of the responsibility. 

I loved those adventures and learned a great deal about myself and the world around me from each one. However, after two decades of adventuring together, I realized that there were some things that I wanted to do that were of little interest to him. Specifically: backpacking across Great Smokey Mountain National Park. And while he didn’t want to join me in hiking 78 miles across a mountain range with a 40 pound backpack on my back, he was certainly supportive in helping me do it by myself (you can read about my adventures on the Appalachian Trail here). 

The feeling of accomplishment from that solo experience led me to ask myself what other adventures I might want to pursue (with or without him). That single solo backpack trip ignited a quest to complete a Thousand Miles of Self-Powered Adventures. 

Choosing the Finale for an Epic Year of Adventures

The adventures that followed were nothing short of extraordinary. In twelve short months, I had kayaked 280 miles of the Grand Canyon, bike packed 350 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, canoed 75 miles across the Boundary waters, and sea kayaked the entire length of the Florida Keys (125 miles). The only thing that stood between me and my goal was 100 miles.

It was December, and my options for wilderness locations were severely limited by weather. I scoured the web for a grand finale worthy of capping off an extraordinary year. It took weeks of searching, but eventually I found it…The Wilderness Waterway Trail: a 100-mile canoe trail across Everglades National Park. 

I pitched the idea to Peter and Abby thinking that they would love a week-long family kayak trip. And was hit with a resounding “NO!” from both of them. They both replied with contempt for flat-water paddling, mosquitos, and other unsavory swamp creatures, and expressed concern for my sanity in expressing an interest in this particular endeavor. But I remained undeterred in my commitment to complete my 1000 Miles of Adventure within a year. And so I would tackle this final mission just as I had the first almost a year earlier … alone.

Kayaking the Grand Canyon was the most difficult of all the 1000 Miles of Adventure. Here is Kathy at the bottom of a particularly challenging stretch.

I loaded up my kayak, and headed south to Everglades City where my final adventure would begin. I was nervous when I checked in with the park ranger, worried that my preferred camps would be booked and I would need to replan my route. But as luck would have it, there was NO ONE paddling through the Everglades that week. I asked some questions about my route, and he agreed that my plan of 20 miles per day for five days was sound. 

I had intentionally selected camps that were on “chickee” platforms, as I had no interest in sleeping on the ground in the swamp. Chickees are wooden structures that are essentially a wooden deck, perched high enough above the water so as to dissuade any overly friendly swamp creatures from coming in for a nighttime cuddle. 

My rationale was that suspending myself five feet above the swamp would keep me relatively safe. As the ranger finalized my permit, he inquired if I would be journeying through “The Nightmare.” Through my research, I knew about the Nightmare and that it would cut several miles from my journey. However, the name alone was enough to dissuade me from including it in my original itinerary. But the ranger insisted that it was the quintessence of the Everglades, and that it shouldn’t be missed. So I modified my route and headed back to the shore to finish loading the rest of my belongings into my kayak.

The Chickees provide a sanctuary above the swamp. There are typically two sides connected by a walkway with a port-o-potty in-between.

Solo Kayak Trip Through the Everglades

I set out on a beautiful afternoon with the wind at my back and 20 miles to my destination. I meandered through the marshes, watching egrets and rosy spoonbills wade amongst the grasses surrounding me. I reached my first chickee just as the sun began to sag toward the horizon.  

As I scrambled up the ladder and onto the deck, it occurred to me that my wide-open kayak cockpit was vulnerable to the nighttime creatures of the swamp, and so I tied a rope to my bow, and heaved my (100 pound) boat up onto the deck behind me. With all of my possessions stowed safely high above the water, I settled in for the night and cooked dinner as the setting sun set the swamp afire. Aside from the barrage of mosquitos at dusk, it was a glorious day.

I will never tire of watching the sun set the Everglades on fire!

The next day was much of the same, with the exception of a wicked storm that blew through just as I was arriving at camp. As I watched lightening dance across the mangroves, I was struck by how fortunate I was to have this extraordinary place all to myself. In fact, I hadn’t seen another soul since I left the ranger station the day before. 

I awoke the next morning anticipating a big day. It was my halfway day where I would cross the line where I was exactly the same distance from where I started to where I was going, and that happened to be in the midst of the Nightmare stretch. 

The park ranger had given me one more piece of friendly advice before I left: “Be sure you time the Nightmare with the high tide.” And so I dutifully noted that high tide was at 10:30 AM and that I had 10 miles to go before reaching the turn for the Nightmare. Based on my speed the previous two days, I knew it would take 2-3 hours to get to the entrance channel. 

I left my camp at 7 AM to give myself plenty of time. As I paddled away from the chickee, it occurred to me that aside from a huge diversity of birds, I really hadn’t seen any of the classic creatures of the Everglades on this journey. And while I wasn’t too keen on an up close encounter with an alligator, I would be pretty disappointed if I didn’t see one at all!

Moonrise over the Everglades at dawn. Getting up early has its advantages. :)

As I paused for a mid-morning snack, I checked my time and noted that I was a bit behind schedule. Earlier I had entered into the Broad River where I found myself paddling against the current. It wasn’t debilitating, but it had definitely slowed my pace … to almost half of what I anticipated! I was going to have to kick it into gear if I was going to make it to the Nightmare by high tide. I quickly shoved the rest of my bar into my mouth and turned on the gas; it was going to be a race to beat the tide for the rest of the morning. 

As I was mentally recalculating my timing, I spotted a log in the water ahead of me. It was as black as midnight, and a stark contrast against the muddy river water. I changed course slightly to take a look, and as I approached, I froze mid-paddle stroke. The log was slowly sinking into the river, dropping down ever so slightly until it was just two eyes and a snoot staring right at me. It was an alligator! 

My boat continued to drift toward the gator as if its gravity was drawing me in. Just as I was getting close enough to stare deep into it’s piercing eyes, it silently slipped below the surface of the water and disappeared. The vanishing act snapped me out of my stupor and spurred me back into action. I made a mental note to avoid anything that looked like a log and hurried on toward the Nightmare. 

Setting out on the Broad River at dawn. Little did I know what awaited just ahead.

Heading Into “The Nightmare” 

It was 9:45 AM, and I still had four miles to go. It was going to be a sprint to the entrance of the Nightmare, and I wasn’t certain I was going to make it in time. As I looked down the river, I noticed there were several dark figures, more gators, ahead of me. But the river was wide, and there was plenty of room to maneuver around them. 

Just like the first one, these gators were also shy and reclusive and slid beneath the surface as I passed. I was grateful for their predictability. I continued on at an increased pace, still hopeful I could make it to the Nightmare on time, when I spotted something different moving quickly along the left riverbank. 

It was big, longer than my 14’ kayak, lighter in color than the shiny black gators, and it seemed completely undeterred by my presence. I had read about this majestic creature when I was researching this adventure, and here it was in the flesh … my first encounter with an American Crocodile. And it did not appear to be shy or reclusive at all. 

It held its course along the left riverbank, and I quickly paddled to the right. In fact, I paddled as far to the right as I could as it swam past. As I turned back to continue onward, I was shocked to see a second croc sunning itself on the bank right beside me. I MEAN LITERALLY FIVE FEET AWAY FROM ME! And it was a BIG fella, again, much longer than my kayak! 

I completely froze knowing that I was WAY too close for comfort. Thankfully, my forward momentum carried me past him without a sound, and he didn’t twitch a muscle. As soon as I was a reasonable distance away, I slammed my paddle into the water and sprinted away.

After that, I was on high alert: scanning, searching, and watchful of EVERYTHING around me. I dodged crocs and gators for the next three miles, each of us maintaining a safe and reasonable distance from each other. 

I flew through the water in a desperate attempt to reach my halfway point and the entrance into the Nightmare. But I was late, fifteen minutes late, when I spotted the channel marker that noted the official entrance.

It took another ten minutes to reach the turn. Twenty-five minutes behind schedule, I entered the Nightmare.

It was a narrow channel, barely ten feet at the widest point. There was a canopy of mangroves that draped over me, giving the impression of kayaking through a green pipe. I took it all in, carefully noting the lack of space for both me and a large reptile to coexist comfortably. 

I paddled on deeper into the corridor, where the bright morning sunshine was dimmed to a dusky twilight by the thick mangroves. It was difficult to see anything with clarity in the shadowy confines around me, and frequently flocks of snowy egrets would burst from the foliage right above my head, stopping my heart at their abrupt exit. 

The tube of greenery closed in, ever closer until I could’t take a full paddle stroke without disturbing the branches above me. The shaking limbs dislodged hermit crabs and sent them plummeting down on my hat. Even more alarming were the roots of the mangroves that stretched up out of the water creating a maze in the path in front of me. 

Sometimes my boat was too long to end-run the brambles that blocked my path, and I was forced to stow my paddle and pull my boat up and over the roots.

The sign on the bathroom door of a chickee certainly did not inspire confidence.

Eventually, I conceded to the thick underbrush and permanently stowed my paddle in favor of my newfound technique through the thicket of mangroves. It was certainly clear why this segment of my journey was coined the Nightmare, and I cursed the ranger who recommended it. 

After an hour of scraping and clawing my way through the thicket of terror, I came to a clearing: a small pond that provided a brief reprieve from the spiderwebs and deluge of hermit crabs. 

I took a minute to look at the map and assess my progress. I was about two thirds of the way through the Nightmare (and thankfully had not encountered any large reptiles in the narrow passage!). It looked like only another mile or so to go. 

I was exhausted and hungry but didn’t want to rest until I had safely made it through. That’s when I noticed the waterline on the roots of the mangroves. There was a six-inch span of wet roots sticking out above the surface of the swamp. The tide was dropping ... FAST!

The waterline on the mangrove roots indicated that the tide was dropping.

I immediately sprung into action and paddled frantically back into the tunnel. The roots were all much higher out of the water and the width of the channel was four feet at best. It was as if someone had pulled the drain plug out of the swamp and the water was leaking out beneath me. 

I clawed at the branches around me, hoisting my heavy kayak up and over the roots, one after the next as the water level continued to drop. I envisioned myself high centered on roots, stranded as the darkness engulfed me. I pictured a ring of crocs closing in and finishing me off. 

My mind swirled and whirled with all of the terrifying things that could be if I didn’t make it out of the Nightmare before the water completely vanished. My heart raced and my muscles screamed as I heaved my boat through the snarl of roots. And then I spotted it, a lightness at the end of the tunnel, and my escape from this terrible place. The end of the Nightmare was in sight. 

In one final burst of strength, I pulled my way out of the tunnel of terror and glided into the larger river on the other side. There was an alligator at the exit who slid beneath the surface right on cue as I passed beside her. The tannic water turned muddy once again as I continued on through the swamp where the large reptiles roamed, thankfully in a river that was broad enough to accommodate us all.

Looking up the muddy river toward the Nightmare, incredibly grateful to have escaped its grasp before nightfall.

I coasted along on lingering adrenaline for the final miles to the chickee, desperate to rest my weary body and my hyperactive imagination. I clambered up the ladder, hoisted my boat onto the dock, and set up camp. 

As I cooked my dinner, I was overcome with gratitude for the chickee on which I sat, well above the creatures of the swamp, and yet still immersed in it all. I watched a rosy spoonbill walk along a nearby bank searching for an evening meal, and flocks of birds swirl overhead. A gator grunted in the distance. Eventually the hum of mosquitoes forced me into the screened-in shelter of my tent, and I fell asleep the instant my head hit the pillow.

The next two days were, thankfully, much like the first and relatively uneventful. I paddled across large bodies of water and meandered through marsh grasses and mangrove forests. The current and winds were kind, and my progress swift. 

Reflecting on 1000 Miles of Adventures

As I paddled my kayak the last few miles to the boat ramp at Flamingo, with 1000 miles of adventure under my belt, I reflected on my journey, not just this adventure, but the entire 1000 miles. 

There were brilliant moments of beauty, incredible encounters with wildlife, and many, many moments when I thought I just didn’t have enough strength or bravery to make it through. And yet somehow, every single time, I managed to just take one more paddle stroke, one more step, which led to another, and another. And eventually the worst was behind me. 

Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’’” 

It’s true. Each experience left me immediately craving the next. I couldn’t wait to test myself again in the wild to push the limits of my strength and character.

While these experiences didn’t change the world, they certainly changed me, and I hope that the resulting stories invoke a spirit of adventure in you, a desire to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new. 

In honor of Women’s History Month, I encourage you to remember that “well behaved women rarely make history” (by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). So get out and do that thing that you’ve always wanted to do and write you own history – even if you have to go by yourself. 

Write your history in a way that makes you stronger and braver, one that tests your limits, one that shows you that you can do incredible things beyond your wildest dreams. Because I promise that those experience will change you, too.

Home sweet home on the chickees in Everglades National Park.


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User commented on March 14, 2023 6:58 PM
User commented on March 19, 2023 11:53 AM
Wow! What a story and an incredible challenge. You are much braver and tougher than me.
User commented on March 19, 2023 12:04 PM
Congratulations. You're awesome.
User commented on March 19, 2023 12:11 PM
I absolutely am 100% amazed and impressed with your strength and desire to follow your dream by yourself. You are an inspiration. Thank you for testing yourself to encourage others to do the same. Vicki Kuhl
User commented on March 19, 2023 12:41 PM
Great read! Love the glades & keys! Grew up in Coconut Grove in 40s & 50s. Fished & tent camped out of Flamingo Many times! Always wanted to do journey you made. Regret never did it. You had me mentally on your journey. Thanks! Art.
User commented on March 19, 2023 1:00 PM
Very inspiring article Kathy! Thank you for the detailed story of your adventure. I felt like I was paddling with you and being very Leary of those logs. Thank you, Vanessa
User commented on March 19, 2023 1:18 PM
Way to go!
User commented on March 19, 2023 1:56 PM
What a magnificent journey of strength! Gratefully, Sharon Bostrom
User commented on March 19, 2023 5:09 PM
What an amazing story! I admire your physical and mental strength. Thanks for sharing! -Debbie
User commented on March 20, 2023 1:08 AM
Thank you for sharing your story through the Everglades. I admire your bravery and sense of adventure. I also enjoy adventures…just not as challenging as yours! You are correct that no matter how easy or challenging an adventure may be…there is always something that tests your strengths and you get to write your own history. Keep going!
User commented on March 20, 2023 9:03 AM
I really enjoyed reading about your journey. You are such an inspiration! I'm a 65-year old women that travels in my Class B with my dog, and you've certainly got me thinking about our next adventure. Thanks for the great article!
User commented on March 20, 2023 12:38 PM
User commented on March 21, 2023 10:18 AM
I am impressed with your courage and tenacity. When people, often ask me aren’t you afraid to travel and explore parks. I respond I’m more afraid no to. Some of us need to experience nature in all its glory. Happy Trails, Kathy de Boer
User commented on March 26, 2023 1:27 AM
You are incredibly brave to kayak the Everglades alone and to choose “The Nightmare” section. Love the chickees, crocs & gators🐊 encounters, your photos and storytelling. Everything about 1000 miles of self-powered adventures is inspiring. Congratulations Kathy and thank you for sharing.
User commented on March 28, 2023 5:45 AM
Kathy, congratulations on completing your goal! You are a master storyteller who doesn’t just tell inspirational stories; you live them. Thanks for modeling and promoting intentional growth! Noel
User commented on May 16, 2023 10:18 PM
Kathy- you are a true inspiration!! ❤️
User commented on May 17, 2023 9:37 PM
Excellent, well written story Kathy. I enjoyed your adventures with all those crocodiles! Thank God none of them were hungry! You are a brave and courageous woman ! I'm sure Peter and Abby are proud of you . Thank you for the good read ! Jon and Daphne