The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

Month: March 2014

Everglades Wilderness Waterway: Escaping the Beast

Day 7: 

At the time, I honestly could not think of a time in my life when I was as cold as I was that 7th morning. Through my tossing and turning during the night, I’d managed to rip holes in my emergency blanket. And despite my exhaustion, sleep had eluded me. On several occasions, I was forced to crawl out of the tent and exercise in order to stay warm.

My troubles aside, the night was actually spectacular. With a full moon directly above, the landscape was completely illuminated. The tall, dead trees that lined the beach of my campsite shone bright in the moonlight, and the dark, murky waters of Ponce De Leon bay lapped quietly against the shells. After doing more squats than I cared to count, I sat down heavily on the beach and stared out across the water as I clutched the thin, silver blanket around me. Steam rose from my breath as I panted from the exercise, its tendrils briefly casting a semi-transparent shadow on the ground before disappearing into the night sky. Gone were all signs of the foul weather that had plagued me the day before. The waters in front of me reflected a mirror image of the night sky. The moon, and even some stars, stared back at me from both above and in front. Save for the gentle, lapping waves, the night was completely silent. There were no cawing birds, howling winds, or rustling mangrove branches. Only the sound of the calm water and my heavy breathing pierced the cold night air.

The scene was oddly inviting. The brief thought crossed my mind that I could actually paddle and make great time in this sort of setting. With fishing no longer an option, my primary goal was to just get out of the swamp. I had to escape. My clock read 2:40 am. But before the thought turned into anything more than just that, I quickly threw it out. I was reminded of the day prior and of just how unforgiving Mother Nature can be. I wasn’t about to risk a night paddle, especially after losing my map. And I what I really needed was rest, even if sleep was nearly impossible. Without much more thought on the subject, I got up off the ground, teeth clattering from the cold, and crawled into my tent to ride out the rest of the frigid night.

I broke camp at the first hint of light. At some point in the early hours of the night I’d lost all feeling in my feet. They were completely numb to the world from cold. But I still walked gingerly around on the broken shells as I feared cutting them up worse than they already were. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I packed a pair of ankle socks in my bag. These helped relieve my feet a little. I think. Maybe…but probably not.

The sun was barely up and already I was in a race against the clock. Just like the previous morning, the tide was quickly running out and I hurried to avoid another mud drag. But as luck would have it, I found floatable water fairly quickly and I was soon on my way.

My goal was to reach South Joe River chickee by the evening. It would be my longest day of the trip at just over 16 miles (I said something like 13 in the video but I was obviously delirious). But my first step was to get out of Ponce De Leon Bay and into the mouth of Shark River. Once I reached the mouth, I was immediately thankful that I had stopped where I did the day before. Much like Shark Point, the mouth of Shark River had the same earthen walls and sharp, dead trees lining the bank. I could only imagine how rough it had been the afternoon before and the mere thought brought flashbacks of flipping in the high waves.

By now the current was beginning to rip out into the Gulf. Thanks to my shallow launch, I’d yet to actually lower my rudder. I pulled off to a shallow bank in Shark river and got out in order to manually lower the rudder, and it was here that I witnessed an act of nature I’d never seen before. Far across the river was a high mud flat and a few feet from it, in the water, swam a dolphin. Suddenly the water erupted in a foamy explosion and several mullet scattered out of the way. One unfortunate fish managed to jump out of the water and land directly on the mud flat. And before it even had a chance to flop back into the water, the dolphin came out of the river, purposefully beached itself, grabbed the mullet, and wiggled its way back into the water with its prize. Now I’ve seen dolphin do some cool stuff. I’ve even seen the ones in Flamingo do the mud-donut thing to catch fish. But this was incredibly cool to watch.

With my rudder lowered, I continued on my way. Almost invariably, every cut that I paddled through was a fight against the current. Where I usually paddled about 3 miles/hr, I was averaging a whopping 1-1.5mph. It was exhausting work for an already exhausted body.

By mid morning I’d reached a sort of 4-way intersection of cuts. The one I was traveling on ran north-south and the one it intersected ran east-west. But just looking out across this intersection showed how strong the current was ripping. A channel marker stood in the middle of the cut and acted as a good indicator of the strength of the outgoing current. A steady, standing wave had pushed itself up against the marker on the up current side and was sending a noisy, 2 foot high wake behind it. I could tell that crossing wasn’t going to be fun, so I took a deep breath, a swig of water, and started paddling for all I was worth.

At a dead sprint in the kayak, I average between 7-9 mph depending on conditions. I noticed, as I paddled as hard as I could, that I was barely making progress. Slowly I made my way across the cut and to the far side. But no where in the cut was there safety from the incessant current flow. By the time I reached the other side I’d been sprinting for over 5 solid minutes and I was still far from being out of the current. Only about 50 yards ahead of me was the entrance to the cut I needed to take, but my muscles were giving out. Still paddling my hardest, I watched in horror as I began to lose ground. The mangrove lined shore began to move backwards and signaled that I was on the verge of being sucked out to sea. Paddling back across the cut would have been impossible. The current was too strong and I was too tired. My only hope lay in what looked like an eddy about 200 yards to the east against a mangrove island. I quickly turned my rudder and put the kayak back into the middle of the channel. Slowly but surely, and with my muscles absolutely burning, I started gaining ground again. Only a few minutes later and the kayak finally escaped the clutches of the outgoing tide and glided silently into the calm waters out of the current.

I was panting like I’d just run 10 miles and my arms and shoulders were on fire. I realized, as I put the kayak up next to some mangroves and jammed my paddle in their roots as an anchor, that I was relatively lucky. Lucky that I’d had such a paddling challenge occur so late in the trip. I’d gotten stronger over the course of the week. MUCH stronger. And I know for a fact that had I encountered such conditions on the first or second day, that I would have worn out and been thrown out into the Gulf like being shot out of a cannon.

Having learned my lesson the day prior about pushing my limits, I sat there in the calm waters and rested; waiting for the tide to change. After about thirty minutes I heard the telltale sound of a dolphin surfacing and turned around to see one swimming along the edge of the mangroves. He was swimming right for me and I worried that in the muddy waters, he wouldn’t notice I was there until he’d actually run into me. I pounded on the side of the kayak and immediately startled him. But luckily he was far enough away that the massive boil he created in the water never reached my kayak and he swam a safe distance around me. I was envious as I watched the giant animal gracefully enter the nearby current and swim effortlessly against the swift water. It was a reminder of just how far out of our element we, as humans, are when it comes to the water. In order to travel any great distance through the water, I’d need at minimum this plastic boat and paddle. The dolphin, being in his element, swam completely unaware of the hardships that a human has in his environment. He never has to worry about making it to his chickee at night, getting a fire started, or navigating rough seas and currents. So I watched him disappear around the corner and glanced out at the channel marker. It showed that the current was far from slacking, and I’d be sitting there for quite a while longer.

Once the tide finally started to slack off, I felt it was safe to continue. I exited the maze-like delta that was the mouth of Shark River and entered Oyster Bay. Next to the biggest bay in the glades, Whitewater Bay, Oyster Bay is probably the second largest. Luckily for me, it had turned into a beautiful day. The wind was light out of the north and the bay was a flat, calm paddle. Far off in the distance, a small white blur appeared. It danced across the water miles away and moved back and forth across the bay. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what in the world it was until I got closer.

It turned out to be a boat. What I was seeing was the rooster tail that the motor was throwing and the flat water created a strange mirage at that distance, making it look strange. With the exception of the canoe at Graveyard Creek, this was the first motor boat I’d seen in days and it just so happened that I had to paddle right by them.

I passed within about 40 yards of the boat and gave the two men aboard a small wave. They asked me how I was doing and, with a strange look, asked me “Where’d you put in??”

“Everglades City. Seven days ago”, I answered.

One of them let out an almost disbelieving chuckle and the other simply responded,

“Holy shit man”.

They wished me luck on the rest of my trip to Flamingo and I paddled on. For me, simply seeing the look on their faces when I told them where I was coming from made my trip. The solo paddle through the Glades seemed somewhat crazy in my own mind, and those two fishermen were the first people to react to my (near) completion of it. I was excited to finish and with each stroke I put myself closer and closer to my goal.

About mid afternoon I reached Joe River Chickee. I stopped here for lunch and upon setting foot on the Chickee, I realized how hurt my feet were. Now that they’d warmed up, each step felt like I was stepping on glass. I took tally of how much drinking water I had, and decided I had enough to spare to wash all the nasty mud from my feet. Doing so instantly revealed more cuts than I realized I’d sustained. My feet looked like they’d been hit with a cheese grater and several deep cuts were the cause of my pain. 

I ate a quick lunch and kept moving. South Joe River Chickee was just a few miles further down the river and I wanted nothing more than to be within easy striking distance of Flamingo for the next morning.

Honestly, the paddle down Joe River was pretty unremarkable. I passed several boats which came as no surprise. It was a Friday and Flamingo wasn’t a far run away. The weather was gorgeous so it was only expected for there to be a thousand people on the water. I did, however, have to look away multiple times from fishy looking spots. Joe River looks like prime fishing, and it pained me every time I wanted to cast and remembered I had no gear to do so.

It was late afternoon when I rounded a corner and came within sight of South Joe River Chickee. I breathed a sigh of relief as I paddled up to it and realized that this would be my last night camping on the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. I quickly set up my tent and got ready to eat like a king. I still had a good deal of food and despite it being a nice day, it was still chilly out and I wanted a lot of hot food. Though I’d been craving pizza and beer since about day two, I settled for spam and macaroni.

I was busily carving my initials into an upright on the chickee when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look and saw a homemade sailboat puttering up to the chickee. There were two people aboard and I helped them tie off when they got close. Their names were Lisa and Tom and they’d just started what was to be a very long journey sailing around the Glades. They’d stopped to use the porta jon and we chatted for a few. I was (obviously) looking a little rough at this point in my trip, and I told them of my current situation. They asked if I needed anything, and with a shrug, I asked if they had a spare towel I could sleep under to stay warm. They gave me a towel and a pair of thick wool socks.

Never in my life has it felt better to put on clean, dry socks. My feet were an absolute wreck and I was overly thankful for Lisa and Tom’s generosity. I agreed to return the socks and towel to them once I made it to Flamingo by putting it in the bed of their truck. After chatting for a bit longer, it was time for them to leave and they puttered off into the dying light of the day. It’s refreshing to run into nice people and with the exception of the Law Enforcement Officer I’d met earlier in the week, everyone I encountered on this trip was extremely nice.

I stayed on the chickee alone that night, and I watched my last, spectacular sunset of the trip. Flamingo was within striking distance. By lunchtime the next day I would have finished my journey. Overcome with a mixture of emotions, I sat quietly and watched as the sun dipped below the horizon to end the day; signaling not only the end of the day, or even the week, but the end of an adventure. I couldn’t believe it was almost over, and I sat there on the wooden planks of the chickee well past sunset before the cold drove me into the tent.

Everglades Wilderness Waterway: The Lord Taketh Away

Day 6: 


I awoke to a dull grey twilight. It was chilly. Far colder, in fact, than it had been the entire week. But for the time being, I lay comfortably in my sleeping bag and slowly began getting dressed. The flapping of my rain fly outside told me that the wind had not died an iota overnight, and I threw on my long johns and raincoat before unzipping the tent and stepping outside.

The first thing I noticed upon stepping out into the cold morning air was that the tide was, once again, out. I knew the tide would be falling all morning, so I hurried to break camp before my inevitable drag became any longer.



Chuck and Anne, the couple who were sharing the beach with me, were already loaded up and getting ready to go. I walked over to bid them farewell and see how difficult their drag out to open water was going to be. They were going to be faced with the God awful task of paddling straight into a 20+mph wind all day, and I honestly worried whether or not they’d make it to their next campsite. 

After watching them struggle through the mud for a while, I turned and went back to finish breaking camp. It looked like they’d found open water relatively quickly and were busily paddling into the horrible wind. Not wishing to waste any more time, I dragged the kayak down to the mud and looked out.

 


I groaned at the thought of the character building exercise that lay in front of me. But knowing I had no other choice than sit around waiting for the tide to come in, I opted to take my first steps into the cold mud.  

And  immediately lost my shoes.

 

Now when I say ‘lost’ I don’t mean that they just slipped off in the mud. No no. My crocs were sucked up into the muddy depths of hell and almost never returned. Thankfully I was able to extricate them after fumbling around in the mud up to my elbows, and stowed them on the yak. I wouldn’t be able to walk while wearing them, so I proceeded to go barefoot.


For some bizarre reason, I thought I’d only be dragging the yak for about 50 yards. But the further I dragged, the further, it seemed, that open water was getting. At one point I actually stopped, took out my binoculars, and scanned the distance to find the closest water. To my horror, I found it to be hundreds of yards away, and there was a seagull standing in it. 
Walking through the mud barefoot was a more difficult task than expected. Not because of the mud itself, but for what was underneath the mud. Sharp shells and oysters were buried landmines to my bare feet, and I hobbled and cringed every time I stepped on one and felt it slowly tear apart my feet. But eventually (and I’m not sure how long it took) the kayak started floating, and I turned south to start my day.

 

By this point the wind was absolutely howling and it took little to no paddling to actually cover ground. I was tired from dragging the yak, and took advantage of the wind to munch down on some more trail mix. I’d become almost overly pleased with how well I’d rationed my trail mix. At the rate I was going, I’d have enough for the next two days and have just enough left over when I got to Flamingo for a nice snack. But knowing I had a long paddle to Shark River Chickee, I put away my trail mix and started making really good time down the coast. Far in the distance, I could see Shark Point. It was my current destination as I’d need to round that corner before entering Shark River itself. 
It wasn’t long into my paddle that I noticed a change in the seas. What had been nearly flat seas were now building. Half foot to a foot. One foot to two feet. And as I continued to paddle, the waves continued to build.

 

Now I’ve been in rough waters before, and I’m used to paddling in them. But at this point things were getting sketchy, even for me. The tide had changed and was now coming in at full tilt, and with the combination of tide and high winds, the seas got extremely rough. A quarter mile ahead, I could see Shark Point. Tall dead trees lined the shore, their grey skeletons standing watch over a point doomed to erosion from crashing seas. And it was about this time that I was officially nervous. Not wishing to be far offshore should an incident happen, I paddled to within 100 yards of the shore. The term “shore”, however, is rather misleading. Where Highland Beach was a legitimate beach, this particular piece of land was anything but. A tall, eroded earthen wall shot up at almost a ninety degree angle and crashing waves were sending sprays of water well over 15 feet in the air. Amongst all of this lay dead trees and roots, scattered against the wall and being pummeled by the relentless waves. 

The seas were well over three feet now, and thanks to varying tide and wind direction, they caused a nauseating washing machine effect. My stern would rise and a swell would shove my bow in a different direction. I’d correct it, only to be rocked this way and that with the seas. Water had begun crashing across my lap with almost every swell and I paddled for all I was worth to round the point and get out of the foul seas. By now I was close enough to hear the crashing waves against the trees, and I made sure to get no closer than I already was. I was within 200 yards of the point and safety, when it happened.

 

A large swell picked up the kayak and when I was brought down, the kayak landed directly on a submerged log that I hadn’t seen. I felt a powerful jolt as the plastic collided with the wood, and a long scraping sound met my ears as it slid across it. Unbalanced on the log, and combined with the high waves, the kayak flipped. 

Oh shiii…

 

It was a strange sensation to suddenly be thrust underwater. Where I had once been inundated with the noise of high winds and crashing waves, I was suddenly met with an eerie silence. A completely different world exists below the waves. Save for my own bubbling, everything was quiet. I opened my eyes briefly to see almost nothing as the dark brown water let little light penetrate it. The water felt cold as it soaked every inch of my body and I noticed something slightly disturbing: I couldn’t touch the bottom. 

I immediately shot up to the surface and was met with the howling wind. To my right, my kayak lay upside down and all around me my gear was floating and sinking away. I looked over my shoulder just in time to see the tip of my fly rod as it disappeared into the murk. My other two rods were already gone. My paddle was floating away and I immediately grabbed it. I swam over to the kayak, flipped it right side up, and strapped my paddle to it with a bungee cord. I quickly started grabbing everything within reach that was floating. My crocs, Rubbermaid, cookset, trail mix, -anything-. I turned over my shoulder and saw my tackle box floating with my raincoat. They were about 15 feet away and it was here that I made what could have been a terrible mistake: I let go of the kayak. I swam all the way over to my gear, grabbed it with both hands, and started trying to swim back. But since my hands were full, I was only able to swim with my legs. In the high winds, I began to watch as my kayak started gaining distance on me. It was getting away, and I had to make a snap decision: Keep swimming with my gear and risk losing the kayak while I’m still two days paddle from help, or ditch the $250+ worth of gear and be with the kayak. I chose the latter and said goodbye to my tackle box with literally every lure and piece of tackle I own. 

I swam back over to the kayak and grabbed hold of it. Down below, I could feel sharp sticks as I was being dragged across more dead submerged trees. I clung to the kayak, waiting for a break in the waves so that I could get back in, when suddenly another breaker hit me.

 

I remember shouting “NO!” as I was picked up with my kayak and flipped head over heels in the churned up waves. The force of the wave ripped the kayak from my grip and once back on the surface, I had to swim over to grab it again. And once again I had to start collecting gear. This time I watched as my crocs floated away and my map sank slowly into the murk. By now my drag bag with the sleeping bag and sleeping pad was getting tossed around like a rag doll up against the earthen wall. Recovering it amongst the broken trees and high waves would have guaranteed an injury. Myself and the kayak were also quickly heading that direction. And it was here that I once again had to make a quick decision. Do I risk stranding myself for this gear? The gear I –need-? Or do I paddle away with what I have to avoid getting hurt?

The decision took no time at all. With a hard kick and a groan, I lifted myself out of the water and into my kayak seat. I immediately unlatched my paddle, and started paddling away like a madman. I looked down at myself and noticed something that made my stomach turn: My camera was gone from my shirt pocket. The camera that I’d captured the entire trip on was gone, doomed to quietly rust away in the murky waters at Shark Point. To make matters worse, I turned around to take one last look at my gear as it floated away and spotted it. My trail mix. It was knocked out of the kayak in the second flip, and I was now floating away in the high seas. You know that scene in Castaway where he loses Wilson?

 

 

It was something like that. 
As I paddled away, however, I spotted something small and black floating in front of me. In passing, I noticed it was my camera. Somehow, enough air was trapped in the case and it hadn’t quite sunk yet. I quickly grabbed it, shoved it in my teeth, and took off.

 

Honestly, the next fifteen minutes of paddling were a blur. I was a soaking wet mass of adrenaline and fear. I can safely say that for the first time in my outdoor career, I was legitimately afraid. The entire thing didn’t even seem real, and I couldn’t mentally process what had happened. But as my adrenaline waned, I calmed down and realized that my problems were far from over. All around me were still breaking waves. Even though I’d rounded the corner of Shark Point, the waves and rough conditions continued. I tried to steer the kayak with my pedals, but something was wrong. They weren’t responding right. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the problem: My rudder was gone. And it was then that I noticed another, much more serious problem. I was shaking uncontrollably, and it wasn’t from shock. I was freezing. 

Shark River Chickee was still another 9 miles ahead and I needed to get out of my wet clothes immediately. I looked to my north to see a shell mound against the mangroves. It was the only suitable looking place within eyesight and I made the decision to paddle over and get out of the kayak.

 

By the time I reached shore, I was shivering so hard that I could barely think straight. Though the 50’s aren’t particularly cold, those temperatures will certainly chill a person who’s soaking wet. I pulled the kayak from the water and immediately began looking for my dry clothes. As luck would have it, my dry bag with my clothes managed to stay latched to the kayak. I quickly stripped down naked on the beach, and put my clothes on. I then did jumping jacks and push ups to try and warm my body. 

After about 10 minutes I had finally stopped shivering. Exhausted from the drag, the paddle, and struggling in the water, I sat down on a mass of broken shells and just stared out into the water. Now began the tally of what I lost:
-Literally all of my fishing tackle. 3 Rods, 3 reels, tackle box. Everything
-My good bushnell hunting binoculars
-My shoes
-Map
-Sleeping bag and pad
-Raincoat
-Canteen
-Trail mix

 

Even to this day I haven’t tallied exactly the cost of it all, but I’m guessing around 5-600$ I wanted to cry as I sat there on the broken shells in the mangroves, but the tears never came. I was too thankful. Too thankful to still be alive and kicking. I had water, food, the kayak, and my GPS that had miraculously not fallen out of an open pocket in my kayak seat. I was, for the time being, safe. I noticed too that I hadn’t completely lost my rudder. During the flip, it had come loose of its mounting bracket and was just being trailed in the water behind the boat. It was thankfully a quick fix and I made sure it wasn’t going to come loose during my next two days of paddling. I ate lunch there on the beach and decided that I’d had enough paddling for one day. The conditions were just too rough for me to continue. So I set up camp there on the shell mound and prepared myself for what was going to be a long night. 

Once camp was set up, I decided I wanted to look for my gear. Being within a mile from where I flipped, I hoped that some of it had washed up farther down the beach where I might be able to grab it. I really wanted my shoes and sleeping bag as I was cold and my feet were being cut to ribbons on the shells. My trail mix would’ve been cool too.

 

So I began walking. I weaved my way through the mangroves for over an hour, carefully stepping to make sure nothing happened to my bare feet. I walked for close to an hour before I reached a creek. The aptly named Graveyard Creek empties just east of Shark Point and I walked to the edge of it before realizing it was impassible by foot. I’d need to swim if I wanted to cross it, and I wasn’t about to get soaking wet again. All the way across the creek, I could see Graveyard Creek campsite with its porta-jon. And to my surprise, I saw a canoe. Someone was at the campsite and had dragged their canoe up out of the water. I thought that maybe they could help. Perhaps they’d even seen some of my gear wash up. I started whistling and yelling, hoping that they’d hear me and help. But no one ever came. I stood there, knee deep in the murky water of Graveyard Creek for almost fifteen minutes before finally giving up. Disheartened, I turned around and weaved my way back through the mangroves to my makeshift camp. It was getting dark and I needed to eat dinner. The small spit of land I’d pitched my tent on had almost no firewood, and what it did have was completely soaked. As bad as it hurt, I opted to go without fire for the evening. 
 

After dinner, I put on every dry article of clothing that I owned, and crawled into my tent. It was supposed to be in the low 40’s, and without sleeping bag or pad, the hard shell ground felt frigid underneath me. I lay there and began to shiver when I suddenly realized that I had actually REMEMBERED to carry something important with me: An emergency blanket. 

For the first time in my life, I was forced to use an emergency blanket for its intended purpose. Staying underneath the blanket proved to be almost impossible. I should also note that the blankets aren’t designed for someone over 6ft tall. I simply could not cover up my feet and my shoulders at the same time.


Sleep eluded me for almost the entire night. I kept having to get up and do squats and push ups to stay warm. What little sleep I got was riddled with nightmares of high waves and sinking below the water. It was strange to think that less than 24 hours beforehand, I was on top of the world. I’d felt alive and unstoppable. Now, I was huddled underneath an emergency blanket, humbled beyond all belief by Mother Nature. I was a mixture of emotions. I felt extremely unlucky to have lost all my gear. I’d been beat up in the waves, my feet were cut up, and I was absolutely freezing. But at the same time, I felt lucky to be alive. I was thankful that I still had my vital gear with me and aside from some sore muscles and minor cuts, I was uninjured. 
There was no sense in dwelling on what had happened. The day was passed. I still had a lot of work to do and another two days of paddling before I reached the safety of Flamingo. My fishing trip was over, but my adventure was still very much under way. So I closed my eyes, pulled the silver emergency blanket up around my shoulders, and rolled over on the crunchy shell ground before letting out a long shiver.

 

Still alive.

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