The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

Month: February 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Everglades Wilderness Waterway: Monsters in the Murk

Day 5: 

The sunrise at Rodger’s River Chickee was one of the best of my whole trip. What had been, the day before, a churned up, whitecapped bay, was now a mirror image of the sky. Long before it was even bright enough to take a picture with my little digital camera, the beginning of the day was spectacular. There wasn’t a breath of wind and to make things even better, the mosquitoes weren’t out. I climbed out of my tent at the first sign of light, sat against one of the chickee posts, and ate my trail mix as I watched the sun peek over the horizon. 
I found this momentary good fortune in weather to be slightly odd. Based off of the weather report, today was supposed to be miserable and promised high winds and storms. But for the moment, I soaked up the good weather, and wasn’t dumb enough to point out Mother Nature’s mistake by saying something stupid like: 
“Sure is nice out”, or “Wow! There’s no wind at all”
Chuck and Anne were up about the same time as me and everyone began loading up their respective watercraft. Much like loading up my yak from Lostman’s Five, loading gear into the kayak from above at the chickee proved difficult. By the time I finally shoved off the wooden platform, my watch read 7:55. 
On this particular day, I had no intention of coming anywhere near the marked Waterway Trail. Weeks before while planning out my trip, I noticed Rodger’s River led directly to Highland Beach where I wanted to stay, and I opted to take it rather than follow the Waterway south and around. The only kicker to this plan was the tide. Should I be faced with an incoming tide, the paddle down Rodger’s River was going to be hell. If I was graced with an outgoing tide, however, my day would be short as I’d fly out of the backcountry with the current like I’d been shot out of a cannon.  I was still rudderless and my goal was to make it to Highland Beach where I could finally pull the yak out of the water and assess the damage to my rudder. The couple who camped with me asked if I could show them the way to Rodger’s River, so we set out for it with me leading the way.
Right about the time we reached the mouth of Rodger’s River, the wind began to pick up. Luckily, it appeared to be from the Northwest, and the tall trees and mangroves protected the waters of the narrow river. To my relief, the tide was running out. Actually…it was racing out. With the current, I found myself flying down the river and quickly on my way to the Gulf. And since I can’t help myself, I decided to fish a little while still covering water. To my surprise, Rodger’s River was full of fish. Jacks, Black Snapper, and monster Ladyfish inhaled my lure almost every cast. I’m not exactly sure why (as it’s very unlike me) but I failed to take any fish pictures that morning. I guess I was just having too much fun and with the exception of the giant ladyfish (seriously they were the biggest I’ve ever seen), nothing was really picture worthy. 
About a quarter of the way down Rodger’s River, the weather began to turn. Dark storm clouds rolled in from the west and high winds shook the tops of the tree branches around me. It would sprinkle rain occasionally, but never for very long. Still the weather worsened though, and I decided to put up the fishing rod and break out the paddle. After all, I’m not a huge fan of being stuck in the kayak during a storm. 
The paddle out to the gulf was relatively uneventful . The tide continued to run out and it wasn’t long before the banks of Rodger’s River fully exposed themselves. Tall mud walls lined the bank and in some places, little waterfalls trickled down into the river as the swamp drained. 
It was just past noon when I reached the mouth of Rodger’s River and got my first glimpse of the Gulf. Here, Rodger’s River and Broad River empty out and, over time, have created several little mangrove islands around the mouth. Considering I was less than a mile from where I camped, and the weather seemed to be holding for the time being, I opted to fish a little. This was where I had my first encounter of the trip with a good fish. On only my second cast up along the mangroves, I saw a boil appear on the surface immediately after the lure landed. Less than a second later I felt a bump, set the hook, and the fight was on. Unfortunately, it was to be a short lived fight. Whatever I’d hooked had no intention of sticking around. It took off like bat out of hell, screaming line off the reel, and before I even had a chance to think…
My line snapped. I fished for a little longer with absolutely no success, and paddled around the corner to Highland Beach for lunch. Chuck and Anne had gone ahead earlier in the day, and I met up with them as we all set up camp. By now the wind was howling. Out of the protection of the mangroves and on the open area of the beach, I realized just how hard it was blowing. At times, it was difficult to stand in and threatened to blow my hat right off my head. I was thankful that I wasn’t stuck out on some big bay, or paddling directly into the wind. 
After pulling my kayak up out of the water, I took a few minutes to walk around. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to stretch my legs and to have room to actually walk. For the first time in five days, I had more than 10 square yards to walk around on. I set up my tent out of the wind and on a mat of soft green vegetation that seriously felt like a pillow. I then ate lunch with the anticipation of fixing my rudder, going fishing, and starting a fire. The rudder was the first bit of business that needed taking care of. 
Over the years, I guess the steel cable had gotten weak and finally snapped. I tried everything I could think of, but had absolutely no luck pushing the broken end of the cable back through the kayak. I decided instead that I’d have to tie something from my pedal directly to the rudder. And it was here that I realized I’d left ANOTHER valuable piece of equipment at home: my tarred line. I like to always carry a spool of 300lb test tarred line in my kit. Its uses are endless and would have been exactly what I needed to fix my rudder. Instead, I was forced to scavenge. After combing the beach for about 30 minutes, I came across some old dockline that was tied to a piece of wood that had washed up during a storm long ago. It seemed to be the right length, so I cut it with my knife and set about securing it to the kayak. It was far from a beautiful fix, but sitting down and moving the pedals confirmed that I now at least had use of my rudder again; something that I would desperately need for the rest of the trip. 
The weather continued to get worse and it didn’t take much to prevent me from finding the urge to go fish. Dark storm clouds and gale force winds kept me sitting on that beach. So rather than fish, I opted to get a fire started. There was plenty of drift wood laying about, so I figured I’d have a roaring fire going in no time. But as I was gathering wood, something in the water caught my eye. 
It was a fin. But to what? A ray? It was too far for me to tell, and out of casting distance. It tailed for a moment before disappearing into the murk. I should note that unlike the waters of the back country, the waters around Highland Beach in the Gulf (at least on this day) were incredibly dirty. The water wasn’t the dark, tannin stained water that I was used to. Instead it had the clarity of milk and wasn’t far off in color.
I stared out into the water for a few minutes, hoping to see the tail again, but it seemed to had disappeared in the shallows. It was kind of odd to have such shallow water, only thigh deep at most, yet it be so cloudy. I continued gathering firewood when suddenly the fin emerged again, this time only a few feet from shore. 
What in the world?

It was massive, and now I could plainly see it was a fish as its dorsal fin was out of the water as well.
A Jewfish! It had to be. Nothing else could have been that big with that skin color and shaped tail. But what on earth was it doing in the shallows? As far as I’m aware, large grouper like that tend to stick around structure and a pretty much home bodies, rarely venturing far away. And yet this one was practically on shore and in such shallow water that half of his back was sticking out. Perhaps it was lost, sick, or maybe dying, but I took advantage of the rare opportunity and caught it on film. 
And yes, before anyone asks, I immediately put the camera down and grabbed my big rod. But alas, I never hooked the monster. 
From then on I was on high alert for fish in the shallows. I’d see the occasional mullet, but massive Jewfish tails never presented themselves again. However, just as I was getting ready to light my campfire, I spotted out what looked like a school of fish only a few yards from shore. I immediately grabbed my rod, cast beyond the school, and reeled until I felt a bump. I then set the hook…
…and realized I was in trouble. As a pulled hard on the rod, I watched as dark spikes emerged from the murk. A tail became suddenly visible, then a back. 
I’d managed to hook a gator. And not a small one either. If I had to guess, I’d put him at about 10 ft long. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but I was attached to this beast and he was only about twenty feet away. Somehow, however, the gator hadn’t noticed he was hooked. If anything, he seemed slightly annoyed that there was something tugging on his tail. 
I immediately let the line go slack and watched as the monster sank back into the murky waters and disappeared. I then began shaking the line in hopes of either breaking off the lure, or knocking it loose from the gator. For once, luck was on my side and the latter happened. The gator, now mildly curious as to what had tickled him, hung around on the surface for about 15 minutes afterwards and just watched me get the campfire lit. It was slightly uncomfortable realizing that there could be an animal that big hiding in the filthy water just feet from me without my knowledge of it. 
The campfire proved to be one of the most difficult fires to light in my entire life. The salt and rain soaked driftwood smoldered and refused to catch flame. After struggling for close to twenty minutes, Chuck came over with some alcohol fuel and we soaked a little bit of the wood in it. The fire roared to life soon afterwards and I made sure to not let it die the rest of the evening. 
Knowing I wouldn’t have a chance the rest of my trip, I took a long walk down the beach. It was a slightly strange feeling. I knew Chuck and Anne were back at the camp, but beyond that, how close were the closest people? Were they back at Rodger’s River? Lostman’s Five? I stared out across the gulf as I walked, watching the leading storms of the cold front race toward me from the horizon, and wondered about the others I’d met on this trip. How far had Johnny and his friend made it? Or the group of college students? And what of the lone paddler I ran across? Had he, like me, found company during the foul weather? Or had they all sought their own shelter to ride out the storm? So I stood there on the beach, wondering to myself before the growl of my stomach and the fading light told me it was time to walk back. I hoped they were all safe, and I was thankful to at least be safe for the time being. 
Back at camp, the scenery had changed slightly. Where giant beasts had, only hours before, swam stealthily through the murk, was now an extensive mud flat. Hundreds and hundreds of birds landed in the mud to feed during the low tide. Chuck and Anne turned out to be birders and their enthusiasm for the creatures made me really take notice of birds for the first time. 
Now I’ll be the first to tell you; I hate birds. I mean, I like raptors, but I think that’s only because they kill other birds. I’ve done wildlife work with birds in the past and I just don’t really like them. But after sitting there on the beach next to the fire, watching several different species of birds interact, I gained a new appreciation of them. Actual bird watching was something I’d never done before, and though I’ll never make it a hobby of mine, it was interesting to do it, especially with some people who know a thing or two about the animals. 
That evening I ate dinner next to the fire. There’s something strange about a fire. It’s something I feel like every outdoorsman realizes, but can never put into words. Plenty of writers have tried, but none have ever accurately described the effects of a fire. Not just its warmth, or light, but the bizarre morale boost associated with it. The inability, at times, to look away is something I’ve noticed time and time again. And yet I still do it. I’ll make no real attempt to describe the way a roaring campfire can make a person feel as I won’t do it justice. It’s one of the many things you must experience to fully appreciate and Lord knows I appreciated it that evening. It was my first fire of the trip and I realized as I stared into the flames, listening to the crackling of old driftwood, that I felt alive. I wasn’t just camping, fishing, paddling, or surviving the Everglades. I felt like I was thriving. I wasn’t sore, tired, hungry, home sick. Nothing. I felt strong. The greatest, in fact, that I’d felt in years. I’m not sure if it was just that crackling campfire, or what, but at that time I felt as though I could stay out there on that beach indefinitely. I felt almost unstoppable. 
My tent set up simply couldn’t have been more comfortable. With the soft vegetation underneath the tent, and my sleeping bag and pad underneath me, I laid down to look out of the front of my tent. I watched as the dying flames of my fire faded into glowing coals and a flash of lighting through the night sky signaled that it was time to zip up the mesh windows. I slowly drifted to sleep with the sound of wind driven rain pattering the rain fly. I felt good, and was looking forward to my last three days in the wilderness. But little did I know, as I laid there in the dark, that in less than 24 hours Mother Nature would humble me in the most extreme of ways. Had I known what lay ahead, I would have gladly spent more time there next to the fire, watching the birds and the monsters in the murk.


Everglades Wilderness Waterway: Up S%@& Creek

Day: 4

How had this happened? The kayak is crippled…I’m stuck here, miles from the chickee. Storms are rolling in and I think…Yep. Oh yeah. Fantastic…
…I have to poop… 

I awoke to the sound of voices in the darkness. For a brief moment, I’d forgotten where I was, and the sound of men talking startled me into sitting bolt upright. It was then that I took in my surroundings. The tent, sleeping bag, water jugs, and the like. I was still at Lostman’s Five. Looking down at my watch revealed the time. 
Christ it’s early 
The sun was easily a half hour from even beginning to think about starting its trip across the sky, and yet Johnny and his friend were already loading up their canoe. I thought about getting up and at least starting to break camp. I did, after all, have a big day ahead of me. One that the weather forecast promised to be full of fun and excitement as I paddled into the wind actually. But I was comfortable, and I figured I could wait at least until it was light enough to see to leave. 
After quite a bit of banging around in the dark, the two men finally departed in their canoe, and silently paddled off into Lostman’s Five bay. It was still pitch black outside my tent, and I soon fell right back asleep until the sun rose. 
I broke camp and had the kayak loaded up a little later than usual. Because Lostman’s Five is essentially a dock, my kayak stayed tied up and in the water all night. This made loading up a bit of a pain since I had to lay down on my belly and reach down in order to open/close my hatches. The dock was, of course, soaking wet with morning dew as well, so I was able to start my day off soaking wet and shivering cold. But soon I found myself sitting in the loaded kayak and pushing myself away from the dock with the tip of my paddle. I said goodbye to a couple of the college students that had woken up early, and disappeared behind the mangroves on my way to Rodger’s River chickee. Based off of my map, Rodger’s River chickee was approximately 12 miles away. The wind was forecasted to be out of the south which would mean it promised to be in my face almost the entire paddle. 
But for the time being, the wind wasn’t bad. The creek leading from Lostman’s Five bay to Two Island Bay actually looked rather fishy, so I took advantage of the brief moment of good weather and put a few small jacks and black snapper into the boat. It was here that I saw my first manatee of the trip and simultaneously almost had a heart attack. For a slow, ungraceful animal, the manatee has a remarkable ability to sneak up on unsuspecting kayakers. Their favorite pastime is to come up for a breath just a few feet from the kayak, and the sound of some unseen beast breathing deeply just a few feet away sends the unfortunate kayaker into a momentary panic. I can only imagine they do this on purpose and chuckle to themselves after successfully making me spaz out. 
I soon made it through the creek and took off across Two Island Bay. While crossing this particular body of water, I realized one of the reasons why a person paddling the Wilderness Waterway cannot rely on the markers alone. 
The sun was shining exactly where I needed to go and the massive glare coming off of the water made it impossible to see the marker I was looking for. Rather than look for the marker and blind myself in the process, I opted to take out my map and compass, and shot an azimuth across the bay to my destination. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I made it to the other side of the bay, and didn’t even see the marker until I was about 50 yards away from it. 
The next body of water was Onion Key Bay. By this point of the day, the wind had picked up. It was coming more from the Southwest than the South, so I made a decision to veer off the Waterway for a few miles. The path I’d chosen would put me in protected waters and, with any luck, would make my paddle much more bearable. Using my binoculars, compass, map, and a series of landmarks, I set off across Onion Key Bay and essentially blazed my own trail. 
I weaved in and out of a few islands for several miles and constantly checked my map to make sure I wasn’t becoming hopelessly lost. The wind was getting stronger every minute and rounding the corners of island into open water was almost always met with a brutal gust. For a while, I was paranoid that I might make a wrong turn and end up wasting most of my day in an attempt to find myself. Or worse, and just stay lost all day. But eventually I cruised into a small creek and breathed a sigh of relief when one of those stupid brown markers came into view. 
The wind had now shifted and was blowing straight out of the west. This would normally be a massive problem except, in an odd turn of events, I actually needed to paddle east during this particular leg of the trip. 
To say I made good time would be a huge understatement. I practically flew across some small bays and did the same across Big Lostman’s Bay. Even though I could have probably not paddled at all and still made good time, I decided to get it over with and just paddle along anyways. I realized about halfway across Big Lostman’s Bay that I wasn’t sore any more. Instead, this weird numbness had set in. My muscles were, in fact, exhausted. But they no longer hurt. Each paddle stroke seemed to take very little effort and yet I still seemed to be paddling well. Maybe I was getting stronger? It was a thought I mulled over while stuffing my face full of trail mix and looking out across Big Lostman’s Bay. My trail mix was becoming one of the best pieces of “gear” that I brought with me. I kept it resting on a rubber hatch directly behind my seat, and though I’m not much of a snacker, it was always there to take a few handfuls of. In a strange way, that gallon bag of M&M’s, nuts, and raisins acted as a constant in an environment where nothing is constant and eating it actually put me in a bit of a good mood. 
So I was happily munching away when something caught my eye in the distance. Far off to my east, there was a small speck of white that kept flashing in rhythm. I took out my binoculars and checked out what the speck was. It turned out to be another kayaker. A solo kayaker, in fact, and the flashing was his paddle as he attempted to fight the wind. He was unfortunately paddling due west and it actually seemed like the weather was getting worse. Dark storm clouds were rolling in and if it was possible, the wind was still building. We both saw each other and made sure to pass within talking distance. But thanks to the foul weather, there wasn’t much to be said unless he wanted to lose valuable ground to the wind. He was an older man, paddling alone (the only other solo paddler I met), and was aiming to get to Plate Creek chickee by the afternoon. He wasn’t fishing. Instead he had a long, narrow, sit-in touring kayak and though he looked exhausted, I imagined he’d be alright in that set up. And as quickly as we said “hey”, it was time to say “bye”. The weather was just too rough to stay floating in the center of a bay that was essentially becoming a washing machine in the wind. So we both paddled on and I was overly thankful to have the wind at my back this particular day. 
After a couple hours of paddling, I crossed Big Lostman’s Bay and rounded the corner along the eastern side of Rodger’s River Bay. Rodger’s River Bay is one of the biggest along the Waterway and it was here that I encountered my first bout with what I deem as “sketchy” water. The wind, having had a little over two miles of water to cross, had succeeded in making legitimate swells. Whitecapped waves and churned up swells raced across the bay and slammed themselves against the mangroves. I could, of course, see this as I rounded the corner and left the semi-protected waters before paddling into Rodger’s River Bay. 
Immediately I was hit with the wind. It was perfectly broadside with my kayak and the force of it passing my ears made for a deafening roar. Spots of water that weren’t churned up into a swell or whitecap rippled with wind rash and long stretches of foam from crashing waves streaked themselves across the top of the water. The swells were now lifting the kayak and making me paddle in an almost wobbly fashion. As the bow rose, the stern would get pushed and the 16ft kayak would lurch to one side before crashing into another wave and sending water into my lap. For the first time in the trip I was…nervous. I’m not a big fan of sketchy water and all I really wanted to do was finish crossing that ¼ mile of Rodger’s River Bay and get back into protected waters. So unfortunately I have no pictures of that bay as I was too busy paddling my arms off. 
I breathed a massive sigh of relief when I finally left the waves and glided into the small creek on the east side of the bay. It was about this time that I felt a small twinge in my stomach. I realized I was going to need to use the bathroom soon, but luckily I was within a mile and a half of Rodger’s River chickee which had a porta jon. So I stepped up my paddling and raced down the creek. The whole time, however, I was worried about the final mile of my trip. The path I chose left that final mile as a paddle due west; straight into the wind. When I finally reached the end of the creek and approached my turn to go into the wind, I took a short break. Ahead of me I could already see rough water as small waves raced from right to left in the opening at the mouth of the creek.  I stuffed my face with a handful of trail mix, took a swig of water, gave myself a pep talk, and prepared to paddle into the wind for one final mile. Looking down, I noticed that my inflatable butt pad in my seat had slid forward, so I lifted my butt to slide it back. Suddenly, I heard a loud pop and my right leg shot out from underneath me, nearly toppling me into the water. 
What the…?
My right pedal was now all the way in the front of the kayak. Pressing on the left one did absolutely nothing and the right pedal remained stuck. I turned around to see if maybe something was wrong with my rudder, and quickly noticed the problem: The steel cable that attaches the rudder to the pedal had snapped on the right side. The broken cable had now worked its way through the kayak and was slack up against my leg. 
I was now without a functioning rudder. To make matters worse, the rudder was stuck turning the kayak in a left hand turn. I couldn’t raise the rudder with the leash either because of the sharp angle that it was stuck at. A quick glance around revealed no suitable spot to get out and attempt to fix the broken piece of equipment either. Now, I talk to myself all the time. It’s usually witty remarks, violent cursing, or even the occasional pun. But I remember saying out loud to myself:
“This is not good”. 
Since I couldn’t do anything but paddle in a circle, I turned the kayak around. I also became suddenly aware of how badly I needed to be at that porta jon on the chickee. I’m still not entirely sure how, but through a series of bizarre paddles, pushes, and maneuvering, I managed to get the kayak up against the mangroves and found a somewhat solid mud bar to stand on. 
The urge to use the bathroom was now reaching full blown emergency status. I did an extremely unhappy waddle-dance there in the water as I straightened the rudder and raised it by hand. With the kayak no longer threatening to send me in infinite circles, I hurriedly attempted to get back into my seat. But I realized I was going to be too late. The porta jon was too far away, and my emergency was happening  there in that knee deep water of the creek whether I wanted it to or not. 
I was literally up Shit Creek without a paddle rudder. 
Having two near disasters almost simultaneously averted raised my spirits quite a bit. The rudder issue was still a little concerning though. I was still four days of paddling from Flamingo and a full day of paddling before I could even consider pulling the yak out of the water to try and fix it. But I had to get to Rodger’s River chickee first before I could even begin to worry about that. So I took a deep breath, and paddled around the corner into the brutal wind. 
Almost immediately I had the life scared out of me and it was a good thing I’d already used the bathroom. As I hugged the edge of the mangroves, I heard a crashing noise. I turned and looked to see about a 7 ft gator who’d been resting on the bank about six feet away. We’d somehow managed to startle each other; Him, being a surprise gator, and me being a giant yellow beast. From where he was resting on the bank, he was about shoulder height with me. But in his panic to get back into the safety of the water, he managed to ram his face directly into a mangrove root. Instead of going around said mangrove root, I watched in horror as the gator looked up, and went OVER the root. This meant he had to actually climb. Fun fact: When gators are threatened by giant yellow monsters, they get so freaked out that they can climb trees. I was now staring at a gator who was in full blown panic and at least two feet above my head. He finally cleared the roots and branches and dove head first for the water, mere feet from the kayak. 
That little bit of adrenaline rush gave me enough energy to finish the last mile into the wind. Not having a rudder made keeping the kayak straight a bit of a chore, and thanks to the horrible wind, my final mile took almost 45 minutes to paddle. 
When I finally got to the chickee, I tied off, climbed out, and flopped down triumphantly on the wooden platform. The wind continued to howl and I had no intention of going back out to fish in such weather without a rudder. Instead I propped myself up against a pole, and ate my lunch.
Only a few minutes after lunch, something caught my eye in the distance. A canoe with two paddlers had rounded the corner from where I’d come and were on their way to the chickee too. It looked like I’d have company for the second night in a row. 
The canoers ended up being an older couple, Anne and Chuck, who were doing a loop trip out of Chockoloskee. Since I was stuck on the chickee for the rest of the day, we chatted quite a bit and the company was a welcome change from what had been a relatively lonely trip thus far. Later in the afternoon, the couple decided to shower off. Now, there isn’t exactly privacy on a chickee. You’re literally stuck on a platform with other people. So I went to my respective side and fished while faced the opposite direction. I couldn’t help but chuckle at my luck. The day before I’d missed out on swimming with a bunch of college girls. Today, I’m front and center for a showering older couple. Those that know me personally know that this is the kind of luck that only happens to me. 
Chuck, Anne, and I ate dinner together that evening and watched as the nuisance gator we’d all been warned about from the Ranger station showed up. He really was getting far too close for comfort and made washing dishes in the water very uncomfortable. 
Chuck spoke with me about their path the following day. As it turned out, we’d be sharing another campsite together at Highland Beach, and I shared my planned path with him which differed from the Wilderness Waterway. They both asked if they could follow me on my path the next morning, and I gladly obliged. 
I was surprised that even out in the middle of the water on the chickee, the mosquitoes still came out in full force. They drove us into our tents relatively early, but not before the moon rose and extended the twilight of the evening just a little longer. 
As I laid there in my tent, I looked out across the small bay. With the full moon above, and the wind having died, everything reflected off the smooth water. It was a beautiful panorama from my tent and thanks to the positioning of the tent on the platform, looking out across the water made it almost feel like I was floating. I jotted down my notes for the day, laid my head back, and closed my eyes to the sound of barred owls in the distance. Tomorrow I could assess the damage to my rudder. To add, I could finally build a fire and have a smoke bath. Lord knows I smelled like death.

Everglades Wilderness Waterway: Isn’t it Terrifying?

Day 3
For the first time in recent memory, I woke up calmly. I didn’t jerk awake from the sound of my alarm clock, nor did I dose about groggily for hours before rising. I simply opened my eyes and was wide awake. My tent faced east and from the vantage point of Darwin’s Place, I watched from inside my sleeping bag as the first tendrils of light illuminated the sky. 
It was going to be a good day. A day that promised to be full of fishing and exploring, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I sat up to unzip my sleeping bag…
…And immediately flopped back down in pain. If it was possible, my muscles were even sorer than they had been the day before. My whole body felt like it had been picked up and dropped. Repeatedly. Still secure in my sleeping bag, I inch-wormed my way to a dry bag, and produced more ibuprofen. 
It was going to be a good day. And a short one…Thank god. 
This day was to be my shortest of the entire trip. The distance between Darwin’s Place and my next campsite, Lostman’s Five, was a little over six miles. This meant two things: I’d have plenty of time to fish like I wanted and the short paddle would give my spent muscles a rest. 
Considering I hobbled around camp like a 90 year old man, I managed to get everything loaded up into the kayak fairly quickly. Even with sore muscles, it’s impressive how much motivation thirsty hordes of mosquitoes can give a person to break camp. 
Only a few minutes into my paddle, I spotted something swimming in the water. Upon closer inspection I noticed that it was an Alligator. Gators while out fishing, particularly in the Everglades, are something I rarely find to be noteworthy. But this one caught my attention. It happened to be the first one I’d seen all trip. Maybe it was the “chilly” weather, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention, but I found the fact that this was the first one of my trip to be slightly surprising. 
But the lack of gators my first two days were quickly made up for. Within the course of an hour I spotted out more than a comforting amount, and quit counting at 30. They were out in full force, and the reasoning behind it remains a mystery to me. 
Only a few miles from Darwin’s Place I encountered what I’d consider my first real creek of the trip. Appropriately named, Alligator Creek twists and turns to connect Tarpon Bay to Alligator Bay. It gets rather narrow in there and I even opted to lay my rods down on the deck rather than risk them getting pulled overboard by low hanging mangroves. The current was, of course, going against me in Alligator Creek. Though not particularly swift, it ensured that there would be no rest until I reached the other side. Had I stopped paddling for just a moment, I risked getting pushed up against fallen trees and essentially being stuck at the mercy of the current. It was a rather humbling feeling to realize that I absolutely –could not- stop paddling. 
About halfway through the creek I had, once again, an experience with a little too much nature. As I rounded a bend in the creek, I looked ahead to see a gator swimming. He wasn’t particularly big, maybe 8 ft long, and he was riding the current down stream. I was, of course, going the opposite direction and in the tight quarters of the mangrove creek, our paths were quickly coming to a crossing point. Every gator I’ve ever come across has always disappeared underwater when the kayak gets too close, so upon seeing this guy, I wasn’t particularly worried. That was, at least, until we started playing chicken. 
Still swimming on the surface, the gator was closing the distance between himself and my kayak. At 20 yards away he still hadn’t seemed to take notice of me. 15 yards and I’m starting to wonder just how close he’ll get before sounding. 10 yards and I decided maybe I should try steering around him just a –little-. 5 yards and the gator still hadn’t gone under. I could now see his entire body. His short legs remained tucked underneath his body as his long tail lazily steered him down the creek. And still he got closer. 
With the exception of holding captured gators, I’ve never come this close to one in my life. While I brandished my paddle like some long plastic polearm to protect myself, he quietly passed within two feet of my port side without ever sounding. Had I wanted to, I could have elbowed him in the face without having to move. Being so close, every feature of the animal was vividly clear. The specks on his snout, the carved features of his head, his amber eye looking right at me, and even the small bits of algae growing on his back were plainly visible as he passed my kayak without incident. I turned to watch him as he floated on, unfazed by our encounter, and disappeared around the corner of the tannin stained creek. 
Able to breathe again, I quit wielding my paddle like a weapon, and continued on down the creek. Only a few minutes later I ran into the first people I’d seen paddling since I left Chockoloskee. Two men in touring kayaks were heading the opposite way as me and, thanks to the current, I had only a moment to chat with them before being force to paddle on. Much like the lack of gators my first two days, I was shocked at how few people I’d run into who were paddling. From the way the park ranger had described it when I purchased my camping permit, the park was riddled with paddlers who were out camping. And yet my first two nights had been spent completely alone. 
Once I made it through Alligator Creek, I began my paddle across Alligator Bay. The wind, just like the current, was directly in my face. But luckily the water wasn’t too rough and I was actually able to find a small point that was out of the wind to take a rest. There in the shallows, I noticed something unique about this area; the water was clear. Clear is of course a relative term when talking about the water in the Everglades. But this tannin stained water was clear compared to everywhere else I’d been. I could actually see sandy bottom about 4 feet deep in some places and I spent a few minutes fishing this area in hopes that I could sight cast to something. 
After Alligator Bay came Dad’s Bay and I made sure to take a picture of it. 
Going fishing in the Everglades has been a tradition with my dad and I for years. He’s the one responsible for getting me hooked on fishing and hunting in the first place and the Glades are a place we try to make it to every year. Unfortunately this year he was unable to make the trip with me, but I knew had he been able to, he’d be having a great time too (minus being horribly sore). 
Plate creek was the next creek to navigate. By this time of the day, the tide was slack and the paddle through was perfectly calm. I took advantage of the nice conditions and slowly fished my way through the whole thing, catching some specks along the way. 
When I emerged into Plate Creek Bay, I got my bearings and began paddling across it. Only a few hundred yards in, however, I encountered a slight problem: Mud. 
Anyone who’s ever read some of my older articles has seen some of the unfortunate days I’ve had involved with mud. The kayak skittered up onto a grass covered mud flat and became stuck. Hopelessly stuck, in fact. My rudder had managed to bury itself into the weeds and muck, and no matter how hard I pushed with the paddle, it merely sank into the smelly depths of hell that the mud covered up. Poling out was now no longer an option and attempting to paddled accomplished nothing more than slinging black mud all over my kayak. 
I didn’t dare step out of the kayak either. I’m pretty sure similar circumstances lead to prehistoric saber tooth cats and mammoths being preserved in tar pits. Instead, I stood up in the kayak (which is quite a feat in the Tarpon 160i), and spread my weight out. I then rocked it back in forth while simultaneously pushing at an angle with my paddle. The result was about 3 inches of movement.
I kept this up for about 20 minutes before I finally reached open water and floated the kayak to safety. I’m still not sure whether I actually pushed myself anywhere, or if the tide came in and lifted me, but the point is that I escaped. 
Just around the corner I encountered my first chickee of the trip: Plate creek chickee. The white roof of the porta-jon stuck out like a beacon across the bay and I paddled up to take a closer look at it. 
It was getting to be about lunch time and considering my map told me I was just about a mile from Lostman’s Five, I decided to paddle there for lunch. I figured I could set up camp while I was at it and then go fish for the rest of the day. It was just about that time that I heard a boat coming. I was slightly surprised considering I hadn’t seen or heard a boat for the entire day. It came around the corner and slowed as the driver saw me. The first thing I see painted on the side of it was “Park Service. Law Enforcement”
You can probably take the most law abiding citizen in the country, put them behind the wheel of a car, make a cop follow them, and they’ll still feel slightly paranoid even when they’ve done nothing wrong. This is about how I felt as I watched the boat slow and come to a stop next to me. 
“How’s it going?” I asked as he got close. The man piloting the boat looked to be about my age and he spoke up as the motor quieted. 
“Where are you camping tonight?” he asked. 
“Lostman’s Five” I’m good too. Thanks for asking…
“Have you got your permits handy? Or are they tucked away below deck?”
They were –definitely- tucked away below deck with my wallet. Safe and sound in a dry box with my satellite phone, VHF radio, flares, and car keys. Now, I know you’re supposed to have such documents easily accessible for such scenarios, but I wanted my stuff to be safe. Considering he’d even asked me if it was below deck, I thought he was going to take my word for it. I was, after all, three days paddle in. I wasn’t exactly performing an elaborate scheme to fish and camp illegally in the National Park with my bright yellow kayak. So I told him they were way below deck. 
“Okay”, he replied rather curtly. “Well you can paddle to Lostman’s right now and I’ll check. I’ll meet you there”. With that he cranked his motor, and sped off in the direction of my camp, leaving me rocking in his wake. 
I never did figure out what species of animal had crawled up this man’s butt, but I found him to be exceptionally grumpy. I did, however, make sure that I took my sweet and precious time paddling to Lostman’s. He was (obviously) waiting for me when I arrived and once there, I took about an eon to pull my paperwork from the bowels of my kayak. Normally I wouldn’t have been such a pain in the ass, but every friendly attempt at conversation was shot down with one to two word short answers. I got the feeling this guy was –really- looking to write me a ticket, and since he was being such a jerk, I decided to blue-ball him and say things like:
“I know I put it in here somewhere”, and “Oh man, I really hope my fishing license is up to date” (I’d renewed it the week before). 
I eventually produced the papers and after studying them quite thoroughly, he handed them back to me. 
“You’re good”
He hopped back on his boat, cranked the motor, and said “Oh, and you’ll have company tonight. They should be here soon. I checked them earlier”
And with that, he sped off around the corner, and the sound of his boat motor was swallowed up by the mangroves. 
Not even five minutes later, my company showed up. A canoe and two kayaks rounded the corner. It ended up being a group of college students from Indian and their guide. Four girls, and two guys. And almost before they could get their boats tied up, another canoe arrived with two men. Lostman’s Five had quickly become Lostman’s Nine. 
It seemed that it only took two days of paddling alone in the wilderness to forget all of my manners. I literally did not introduce myself to a single one of the eight people I’d be sharing a camp with that evening. I talked to some of the girls a little as I ate lunch, and learned from their guide about where they’d come from, where they were heading, etc. 
I soon finished eating, pitched my tent, and prepped the kayak to go fish for the evening. As much as I love chatting with attractive college girls, I really wanted to get some fishing in. They would, after all, be there when I got back. It’s not like I was going to miss anything. 
I discovered the creek next to Lostman’s Five was loaded with fish and I practically wore my arm out catching them that afternoon. Black Snapper, Jacks, Ladyfish, Snook, and even Largemouth Bass called the creek home. The Everglades is pretty unique in that freshwater fish and predominately saltwater fish inhabit the same areas. I even had a bluegill strike at my fly moments after I landed my first Snook of the trip. 
The creek emptied out into a narrow bay. I glanced down at my map to see that the map actually ended –right- in the center of the bay. What laid beyond it was anyone’s guess. I paddled as far into the bay as I felt comfortable with, and snapped a picture. 
I couldn’t help but get the “edge of the world” feeling as I looked out across the bay. It was the end of the road for my map, and though my GPS could have probably gotten me a little ways in, I wasn’t willing to risk getting lost just before dark. So I turned around and paddled back just as the sun was beginning to dip low on the horizon.
I was already getting hungry again and actually needed to use the porta-jon quite badly when I made it back to camp. Everyone else was beginning to cook dinner and I rushed down the dock to grab toilet paper from my tent. Back at the end of the dock, I passed one of the two men from the canoe as he left the bathroom before me. 
“How gross is it in there?” I asked in passing. He merely chuckled and said
“Welcome to Egypt…Land of the pyramids.”
I didn’t quite understand until I looked down into a porta-jon that had zero blue water in it, and probably needed to be emptied about 4 months prior. It was by far the grossest moment of my entire trip. 
After I left the bathroom, I passed by the other man who’d shown up in the canoe. He was busy smoking a cigar and taking notes in a journal. He asked me if I’d caught anything and after telling him all about it, he proceeded to tell me what they’d been doing all afternoon. 
“You missed out man. Everyone got in their swimsuits and went swimming off the dock for a while. It was great”. 
It was then that looked over to notice that all the girls had their hair up to dry. Apparently I had, in fact, missed out. But it was something I didn’t care too much about. I live right next to The University of Florida which is might as well be “Hot College Girl Capital of the World”. So missing out on swimming with a few attractive girls in the Everglades wasn’t –that big of a deal. 
But still…
I cooked myself dinner and chatted with everyone at the camp. I learned that the man smoking the cigar was named Johnny Molloy, author of A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park. He was apparently there working on his third installment. I, admittedly, have not read any of his books, but he was still fun to talk to and I wish I’d had more time after dinner to pick his brain. While talking with one of the girls and telling her about paddling this trip alone, she asked me “Isn’t it terrifying?”
Until that moment I hadn’t really thought about paddling solo as being frightening. Worrisome for my friends and family, maybe. But there was nothing at the time I could think of that was scary about the trip. I was confident in my paddling and navigational abilities, and I had the right gear should an emergency arise. So I answered honestly. 
“No, not really. As long as you’re careful, there’s nothing to really worry about while paddling alone”. 
I didn’t know it at the time, but had she asked me that question after the trip, my answer would have been slightly different. 
We all watched the sun set, had a group photo (somewhere is cyberspace is a picture of me with 8 strangers at the end of a dock in the middle of nowhere), and talked amongst ourselves before being chased into the tents by the swarming flocks of mosquitoes. 
Just before bed, Johnny turned on his weather radio and let us listen to the forecast for the next couple of days. 
“Winds 17-20 knots. Offshore seas 12-14 feet”. Those were really the only things that stuck with me from that little computerized voice on the weather radio. I knew the weather was going to suck. But winds that strong could put a serious damper on my plans. As I laid down to go to sleep, I couldn’t really help but fret about the coming days. Was I going to make it to my next stop, Rodger’s River? Or what about the day after at Highland Beach, when the weather was REALLY supposed to get bad? I tried not to think too much about it as I stared at the ceiling of my tent. The full moon above was casting shadows of the mangroves down on my tent, and the constant buzz of the mosquito horde outside forced me to check the inside of the tent several times. 
When I finally closed my eyes, I did at least notice one bit of good fortune: I was done being sore. Maybe with any luck, the 13 mile paddle to Rodger’s River wouldn’t be too bad.  
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