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.