By GEOFFREY NORMAN
It occurred to me quite suddenly, as I loaded the canoe in the thin, early morning light, that about half of what we carried was water: four six-gallon jerricans plus a couple of individual water bottles and one old military canteen, which I’d brought along more for the cup than the canteen. It felt like packing a suitcase of sand for a trip across the desert.
My wife, Marsha, and I were making final preparations for a canoe trip down the Everglades Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile route from Chokoloskee to Flamingo that winds through the southernmost Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park. Not exactly river, neither ocean nor prairie, the region somehowmanages to mix elements of all three, and its water is far too salty for consumption. We were entering America’s great “river of grass,” to use the fleeted phrase of author and noted Everglades advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a place where tides are as influential as currents. Here, salt water from the Gulf mingles with sweet water that flows all the way down from Lake Okeechobee to the north. There is only one way to slip unobtrusively into this world of mangroves and saw grass, and that is to paddle, as we planned to do.
We packed a stove and the usual sort of go-light camp food – freeze-dried this, powdered that. Also fishing gear, a sheath knife, compass, maps, waterproof matches, a bottle of rum, and a mesh bag of fresh Indian River oranges to suck on as we paddled in the heat of the day. It was the week after Christmas, but it still gets plenty hot this far south, particularly when you are plowing water for hours on end.
Before we could finish loading, the mosquitoes came after us. Not remorselessly, like they would have in the summer, but with enough aggression to make me irritated to get moving. We pushed off, without ceremony, and started paddling.
For the first hour, I felt uneasy and claustrophobic. The air, thick and moist, was a real chore to breathe; dense green mangrove islands surrounded us, oppressively close, Brushing against the branches on tight turns, we showered ourselves with small yellow spiders. As the channel meandered pointlessly onward, I felt more and more like I was making my way through a vast tropical maze, and even though I had a waterproof chart spread across my knees, I’d seldom felt less confidence in a map. But the sun had come up, so at least I could tell with some degree of certainty which was was east. I comforted myself with the idea that if I were to keep paddling with the light over my shoulder, maybe I could reach the Gulf of Mexico and open water.
But escape was not the idea. Our trip was meant to last a week, though we knew it might stretch to ten days or more, depending on the tides, how well we paddled, how long we spent fishing or bird watching – and how often we got lost. Although it was my first time by canoe, this was not my first trip here, so I knew that one way or another when you are in the Everglades, you are often lost and searching your map for insight. What I hadn’t learned was how getting lost could be a good thing.
For years I had dreamed of visiting the Everglades, since I was a kid, really. We had lots of swamps where I grew up in north Florida, but nothing close to the Everglades, the second largest National Park in the lower 48. With some 600 animal species (from pygmy rattlers to red-shouldered hawks), 900 kinds of plants (including the rare cowhorn orchid with its yellow, cigar-shaped stem), and a variety of subtropical habitats (flooded sawgrass prairies, forests of bayhead, buttonwood, and pine) it’s not hard to figure out why the United Nations designated this a World Heritage Site. The very name “Everglades” resonates with wildness, like the Serengeti Plain or the Amazon Basin. There is simply nothing remotely like it anywhere on the planet.
Twenty years ago, I journeyed into the Everglades for the first time, with a former rumrunner and gun smuggler as my guide. We were only out a couple of hours, long enough to catch a few mullet for supper, but I felt lost the entire time. Every turn another channel was like opening a door and entering a room exactly like the one you had just left. It was all brown water, green mangroves, and blue sky.
Despite repeated trips to the Everglades since then, I still feel I scarcely know the place. But then hardly anyone has seen all of what the Calusa Indians called “Pa-hay-okee,” which translates, roughly as “grassy water.” On the early English maps, it was called “River Glades.” By 1823 that had somehow become “Everglades,” which seems like what it should have been all along. According to the hyperbolic tales of 19th-century white explorers, saber-tooths prowled this forbidding wilderness.
A century ago, the entire southern tip of Florida was still undeveloped, with a river 50 miles wide and six inches deep flowing unimpeded down to Florida Bay. But inevitably, it was thought necessary to “tame” the Glades. Engineers began to siphon off the river with an elaborate system of canals, dikes, and pipes to provide south Florida with fresh water for sugar production and its burgeoning population. The effort succeeded so well that in 1947, Everglades National Park was established to save what remained, some 1.5 million acres, barely 20 percent of the original Everglades. Much of the rest has vanished forever.
As I paddled, thinking about the history of this place, it began to seem like a gift to be lost in the mangroves. It had taken the first two hours of our trip, but I was now able to stop thinking about schedules and maps, and ready to open my eyes to the world around us.
The first thing we noticed were the birds, just a few at first, then more and more. (It was hard to believe that there were ten times as many wading birds here a half century ago.) We would turn a bend and come into a new bay, startling a hundred birds off the branches of a mangrove island that they had stained a chalk white with droppings. But the variety – more than 300 species are found in the park – was even more remarkable than the numbers. We saw thousands of ducks, small white egrets, and curlew with their strangely bent bills; great blue herons carefully stalked in the shallows, and ospreys soared on thermals like stealth bombers ready to pounce on dinner in the water below.
As we made our camp that evening by the Lopez River, thousands of birds flew over the thin watery lines set against a blood orange sunset. There was no human life to speak of, other than a lone fisherman passing by in a powerboat, its wake like a clean white seam stitched into the black water. But after he had passed, the sense of utter emptiness returned, sweet and melancholy. It was almost like a physical presence.
We felt that the same lonely presence the next day at The Watson Place, a site on a sandy island on the Chatham River. Ed Watson, a mysterious figure, was rumored to be the man who killed Wild West outlaw Belle Starr. Watson himself was killed in 1910, in the general store in Chokoloskee, by a posse of men who believed he’d murdered the hired help who cut sugarcane on his island. Today, the site of his home is marked by a bright poinciana tree. But the house itself is gone, hauled away by the park service after two powerful hurricanes leveled it.
After a quick look around, we left the melancholy site behind.
The next day, at the mouth of Lostmans River, we found a spot with a nice sandy beach where we could swim. Though we would spend some nights of the trip on “chickees,” stilted platforms maintained by the park service, we preferred to stay on the few islands where there is high ground. So we made the beach our camp and spent the afternoon fishing.
We managed to catch a couple of sea trout and sauteed the fillets in a pan with bacon grease, squeezing key lime juice over the ample feast. Afterward, we swam and dried off in front of the driftwood fire, then fell asleep watching the sky for meteors.
But we didn’t make it all the way to morning. In the middle of the night, I awoke to a bang and clatter outside the tent. I ran the beam of my Mag-Lite across the camp and caught a raccoon jumping up and down on a full jerrican of water like it was a trampoline. When that didn’t work, it picked up a nearby empty can, raised the can over its head and threw it half way across the small island. I think it would have killed for fresh water. I finally ran it off, then went back to sleep, and dreamed of a giant raccoon, so huge it threatened to flatten out tent.
Somewhere between Lostmans River and the Shark River we found ourselves enclosed in the tightest mangroves of the trip. This stretch is called ‘The Nightmare” for good reason: Any poor souls who try to pass through at low tide will find themselves in a cramped, windless trap, run aground and assaulted by mosquitoes. At the beginning of the trip, this would have set off all my claustrophobic alarms. But we were more than halfway through the journey now; we’d caught the tide perfectly and I was at peace.
Then on the Harney River, we ran into the most memorable of the dozens of gators we had seen so far. More than half as long as our Old Town canoe, it seemed unusually aggressive as it swam up to us. When it was a few feet away, it took a parallel course, fixed one cold reptilian eye on us, and made a deep menacing hiss. We snapped a picture and then, perhaps because the gator thought we were suitably intimidated, it turned away with a sweep of its massive tail, making enough wake to leave us rocking precariously and wondering just what the hell that had been about.
Perhaps it was a sign. By then, we’d had enough of swimming and bathing in salty water, and we were sunburned, sore, and out of rum. We picked up the pace. Below the Shark River we make the longest sustained run of the trip, from Whitewater Bay to Flamingo – more than 20 miles – and we finished the journey with drinking water to spare.
On the highway to Miami, I realized that for the first time in days, I did not feel lost. I missed the feeling.
GEOFFREY NORMAN has written for Esquire, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure magazines. He is the author of 12 books, including Riding with Jeb Stuart: Adventures of a Free-Spirited Bird Dog, and Two for the Summit, a memoir of mountain climbing with his daughter, Brooke. He and his wife, Marsha, split the year between Vermont and the Gulf Coast of Alabama. For a complete list of his books see his Authors Page on Amazon.