Florida Everglades Wilderness Waterway Canoe Adventure Part 5


       Everglades Wilderness
  Waterway Canoeing - Part 5

 

 

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 Bill and I have not seen anyone all day. As we set up camp, a kayak and a canoe pull into our site. Although there's plenty of camping space, I resent the intrusion by these strangers.

There's something about the way they act that makes me cringe at the thought of sharing the island with them.

  

My instincts are correct. This three-some is from the Mid- West and they have come to the Glades to observe birds. They obviously don't know what they're doing. They skin several ladyfish, a hard-fighting species that is regarded as inedible, a trash fish.

In provisioning, they assumed they would be able to eat fresh fish at the end of every day. So it's ladyfish or nothing. Considering the options, I'd take nothing.

  

The mosquitoes are beginning to clog the airways a little early this evening, so Bill and I deliberately make our campfire more smoky. Smoke is a time-honored, proven deterrent against skeeters.

The earliest white inhabitants fired up smudge pots at night for protection. I've even heard of one man trapped in the Glades overnight who minimized his carnage by smoking cigars and cigarettes all night belching smoke to discourage the bugs.

  

One of the birders calls over: "Why, where I come from, smoke attracts mosquitoes." He smiles at his companions with a superior look, then he walks over to his gear pile and drains a glass of liquid from a container labeled "Buffalo Bob's Camp Water ."

Evidently plain old tap water isn't good enough. Maybe it's the ghost of old Watson working on us, but Bill and I take a strong dislike to this ignorant. arrogant dandy.

  

We search for a name that suits them: we decide on "Tweeters," a slight alteration of the term birder. This is childish, of course, so perhaps it indicates how starved we are for amusement. We make no comment when they start complaining about the "disgusting taste" of ladyfish.

  

Our own dinner consists mainly of dehydrated foods. A day's menu consists of hot chocolate, oatmeal, and peanut butter and jelly for breakfast.

Lunch while underway in the canoe comes from a can, often mixed fruit, pudding--anything wet and loaded with sugar and carbohydrates to keep us moving.

Dinner is the most elaborate meal, consisting of soup and a pouch of something like lasagna, beef stew or spaghetti. Even with all the starches, we will find we lose weight thanks to the non-stop activity.

At the beginning of the trip, when the daytime temperatures are often in the 80s, I fantasize about the thing I miss most: ice.

  

The third day we are on Alligator Creek, a narrow corridor almost as striking as the mangrove tunnel on the Turner River . As we paddle to the end of the creek, we meet three dolphin entering. They roll playfully on the surface until they notice us. Then they rocket past us, generating a canoe-rocking wake.

  Our third camp site is called Lostman's Five. Appropriately, we've been warned to follow the trail strictly here and not take any shortcuts. Or we could end up lost in a mangrove maze for days, as others have done.

  We have this camp to ourselves. The Tweeters are camped on a platform several miles back. A good thing since this is a small place. The ground is soft muck--I can stomp on it and rattle things laid out on the site's fixed wooden picnic table.

  At 12:20 a.m., I am awakened by a noise near the canoe, which is tied to a dock. It is a strange sound: a huge splash followed by a loud gulp, the kind of thing that makes sailors believe in sea monsters capable of swallowing ships.

  Bill hears the noise, too, and we venture out to check the canoe in case the rising tide has trapped it under the dock. The canoe is where it should be, tied alongside the tiny pier. The moon is bright and full, yet I see nothing that might have made the noise. Bill decides to fish but the mosquito brigade soon drives him inside his tent.

  Day four starts with pink-tinted clouds on the horizon, looking like an instant replay of last night's twilight. They should have reminded me of the old sailor's warning: "Red sky at night, a sailor's delight; red sky in morning, sailor take warning."

  Bill decides to cook pancakes for breakfast, which will mean a slower than normal start. Instead of staying ahead of the Tweeters, they pass us around 7:40. As Bill cooks, I listen to my small portable radio. It's announced the launch of the space shuttle "Challenger" is delayed because of high winds, showers and a thunderstorm, with temps around the Kennedy Space Center expected to drop into the low 30s the next morning. The forecast says even the Everglades , almost 300 hundred miles south of the launch, might experience these same temperatures. That's a very unsettling prospect. We came geared for warm/cool weather, not freeze conditions.

  It takes about an extra 20 minutes for Bill to prepare the pancakes. Not a long time, but maybe if we didn't lose just those 20 minutes, what happens next could have been avoided. Maybe not.

As soon as we shove off, the wind picks up. Today it is mandatory we cross one of those wide, shallow bays that can become so dangerous in the kind of high winds we're experiencing. Lostman's Bay looks like a mini-mountain range: white caps and rollers of 3-4 feet will make this a perilous crossing because our canoe still sits low in the water. There is a good chance we will be swamped if we challenge those breakers. Our trip, successful so far, may be headed for disaster.

  The wind and waves are finally at our back, but ironically in these conditions I would rather plow into them. Propelled from behind, it's harder to keep the canoe on track, pointed where we need to go.   

  We never have the option of retreating back to camp. The wind is so strong and the waves so high we are committed once we enter the bay. To try and turn the canoe broadside in order to retreat definitely would swamp us.

  A particularly big waves crashes into us, pouring several gallons of water into the boat. This one could do it for us. Assuming anything floats--the sleeping bags may, the heavy tents and food and water will not--the wind and waves will scatter it beyond recovery. If our canoe rolls over or swamps, we must stay with it, keeping a firm grip on the frame as well as our paddles.

  Someone upstairs must be looking after us, because although waves threaten to swamp us many, many more times, they do not and we make it across Lostman's Bay right side up.

After Lostman's, we're confronted with another bay where the waves appear even worse. We decide not to press our luck but to skirt the trough of rough water by using several mangrove islands as buffers.

  But we were warned not to stray from the course here, and Lostman's soon lives up to its title. Our short cut gets us completely lost. Instead of fringing the bay, the mangroves lead us away from it. And, wouldn't you know it, we end up in yet another bay. Our compass says we should cut directly across, which will put us broadside and perhaps swamp us. Instead, for an hour we let the wind push us the wrong way, intending to reach the far end and then hug the shoreline-- where conditions are slightly calmer--to get to where we need to be.

  We have absolutely no idea where we are, much less the name of this new bay. We know we should travel southeast in the direction of our next site, called Willy Willy. Fitting name; these high winds are giving me a good case of the willies.

  For more than an hour we inch forward in the four-foot waves topped with both white caps and streamers of foam. Using both our compasses, we stay headed southeast, since it's the only way we know to go. To our incredibly good fortune, we see a Waterway marker in the distance, Marker No. 47, which puts us back on track. The last marker we saw was No. 57, so we were well off course for quite some time.

  The marker takes us to a canal that deposits us on yet another wind-whipped bay. Fortunately, we have an alternate route up a small side creek that would take to the camp site by a back way. To find the creek, we have to cut diagonally across one corner section where the wind will come from our right side. Definitely not the best approach for keeping water out of the boat, but what the hell. It's the only way, and we're close to exhaustion.

  We stay exceedingly lucky: we cross the bay upright and find a creek--which we decide to call Life Saving Creek--directly in front of us. Of course, we're not precisely sure this is the creek that will take us to Willy Willy, but at least we're out of the wind. We can sleep in the canoe here if we have to.

  Life Saver puts us at Willy Willy at 3 in the afternoon. We should have been here hours before since the paddle was a short one, only 8-1/2 miles. Of course, we did get lost for a couple of hours, which destroyed our timetable.

  The heavy rains come at 3:45. The tents are up by then. The Super Bowl starts at 4. My radio picks up mostly static. The Tweeters, who took the long way around, arrive around 5, after spending more than an hour in the chilling rain.

  The forecast again warns of low temps in the 30s. I have an aluminum space blanket which I stuff inside my sleeping bag. It keeps me warm, but at what a price. Every time I turn it crinkles, sounding like logs crackling in a fire. And do I sweat. My self-induced sauna makes me so rank I begin to smell myself. Considering the weather, bathing is out until the end of the trip. Hopefully my smoky clothes will help cover the odor.

  Bedding down, I see the bright moon on one wall of the tent. I use it to gauge time in the dark. The moon rises over the doorway about the time I go to sleep and disappears behind my head when it's time rise.

  Shortly after midnight as I snap, crackle and pop while adjusting my sleeping bag position, I hear a dragging/slithering noise close to my tent. I don't dare venture outside of a look for there's only one thing this can be: alligator.

  What kind of smelling apparatus do gators have? Thanks to the space blanket, I must smell like I've been dead for several days. My Eau de Corpse may be like cat nip to him. I keep my knife handy just in case I have to exit the other side of the tent. Of course, I will escape successfully only if the gator takes his time clawing and snapping through the thin tent fabric, which is probably not his style.

  Breathing is a luxury I deny myself as I listen intently for more gator sounds. It's now even with my head, which puts it precisely between Bill's tent and mine. I have an uncharitable thought about which of us the gator should choose.

  The gator keeps sliding forward. Finally I hear it reach the water behind us. I breathe again easily.

  Strange how stuffy it's gotten in the tent even though gusts of wind 20-30 mph sometimes shake the tent. This change is due to the dampness that will plague us for the next few days as damp becomes a way of life. It's so bothersome that I am pelted by water dripping from the tent ceiling the morning following The Night of the Gator.

  That morning I also notice mildew is beginning to grow on the tent's door flap. When it hasn't rained, we've always had heavy dew. The morning sun is too weak to dry the tent thoroughly before we depart.

  It's cold this morning, but not anywhere near the 30s forecast. That's something we're very thankful for.

  As if last night wasn't enough, today we must confront another Nightmare. That's the off-Waterway stretch that holds the unsettling name for several reasons. First, the unusually tall mangrove trees that form a thick canopy over the narrow creek have a huge twisted root system reminiscent of nightmarish horror movies.

  The creek is also notorious for leaving people stranded high and dry at low tide when the water flows completely out. The mud bottom is too deep for us to walk a canoe through; we'd sink up to our waists. Once stranded, the only thing to do is wait for the tide to reappear.

  If a canoe is marooned overnight, the conditions are more likely to be hellish than nightmarish. The no-see-ums (tiny almost invisible insects with shark-sized teeth) are so thick at dark that repellent is effective for only the first 15 minutes. Oh yes, stinging caterpillars may also fall on us from overhanging mangroves. Adolph's meat tenderizer and long-sleeve shirts are supposed to remedy that problem.

  To avoid a full-blown Nightmare experience, we've plotted the tide beforehand. We should arrive at the entrance on a rising tide. We do, and the paddle through the forest of mangroves is uneventful. Not even a caterpillar falls on our head. Somehow, we don't mind the lack of excitement.

  Instead, we can relax and enjoy the subtle beauty of the Glades. As every day, we paddle through virtually pristine, natural regions changed little since the days of the Seminoles. Orchid-like bromeliads hang from the trees, porpoises flash under our canoe and fish hawks fly above us so closely their wings sound like helicopter rotors.

  Man may visit the Everglades, but the Everglades obviously remains as wild as it ever was.

  That night we must camp on a wooden platform known as a chickee, because there is no dry land anywhere nearby. The platform is just barely large enough for our two dome tents. The tents do need to be erected even though the chickee has a roof: the sides are wide open and a tent is the only shelter from mosquitoes, no-see-ums and the inevitable dew. It is unfortunate that my air mattress develops a leak so I must sleep directly on the wooden planks.

  The wind is still blowing, but today the Nightmare helps us avoid it. But not tomorrow. Tomorrow we are scheduled to paddle across several miles of open Gulf of Mexico . If the winds remain high, that will be impossible. We will have to take an alternate, more protective route.

  I do not want to cross another choppy bay. In fact, I wouldn't mind if I never saw another bay except as a leaf added to season spaghetti. We could have died in Lostman's or several other white-capped bays.

  We never do get a weather forecast until the next morning. The blow is over and we should have calm canoeing the entire day. The paddle across the Gulf is uneventful except that it accidentally provides us with our first fish.

  Angling opportunities have been a real mixed bag, since we move through stretches of fresh water creeks, then into salt water. Big largemouth bass are rumored to exist in several places we visit, but the cold front virtually killed fishing activity. Saltwater fishing for trout and redfish is also dead. Embarrassing to admit, our only fish of the entire trip is a mullet that jumps into the canoe after colliding with my paddle as we cross the Gulf. Smoked on our grill, the mullet will make a good snack.

  Ironically, it turns out that not alligators or mosquitoes pose our most serious wildlife problem. Instead, it is the comic-looking raccoon.

  Fresh water is extremely scarce for Everglades raccoons, so we must either sleep with our water jugs or hang them from trees to keep the coons from raiding our precious supply since there is no opportunity for reprovisioning anywhere.

The raccoons at our last camp site, Graveyard Creek, are especially adept at stealing water. Graveyard is close enough to the town of Flamingo (about 35 miles away) that powerboaters regularly use it. Which means the large raccoon population is accustomed to human visits and they know all our tricks.

  I arise in the middle of the night to relieve myself; when I step outside, I'm amazed to see over a dozen coons marauding the camp. My water bottles are locked securely in my tent. Some campers have strung a clothesline and have their jugs tied to the line. The trees at either end of the clothesline are filled with raccoons. One coon attempts a high-wire act. He crawls to the suspended bottles but when he grabs for one, he falls off.

  Seeing this, I realize these sharp-clawed devils could enter my tent while I'm away. My time outside is brief.

  Packing the canoe the next morning, Bill and I comment that this is only the second day our muscles don't hurt. The first few days was agony as we paddled our bodies into shape. Bill's liniment known as Tiger Balm was used unsparingly. But today, like yesterday, I'm looking forward to the paddle. I am enjoying the strenuous exercise.

  A good thing, too, since we paddle 35 miles that day, all the way back to Flamingo. We're supposed to overnight at another chickee but neither of us enjoyed the confinement or the discomfort of the last one. We prefer a regular campsite.

  We reach the chickee in early afternoon but decide to push on. We make good time even though we paddle against a strong tide. It turns out we paddle against the tide the entire day but amazingly without discomfort.

  Our last contact with the Everglades wilderness is an alligator. The approach to Flamingo is a long canal, more of a ditch really, and we reach it at twilight. We hug the right bank since powerboats charge by us without regard for their wake. It's like being back in one of the treacherous bays again.

  We never see the gator. Instead, we paddle right up on top of him as he floats just below the surface. The noise of the collision is pronounced. The surprised gator flips its powerful tail and dives, shaking our canoe from side to side.

  We realize instantly what is happening. We sit still in case it resurfaces. We keep our paddles poised in case it tries to imitate the crocodile in Peter Pan and board us. But we see no more of it. This second gator encounter provides added incentive to our strokes. Our canoe fairly zips over the surface.

  When we arrive at Flamingo we have the option of pitching our tent or taking a hotel room. The choice is not difficult. I need a shower so badly that I have to seal my paddling clothes in an airtight garbage bag for the trip home.