Trying to sleep was a chore. The wooden planks of the chickee felt like concrete underneath my tent and I was constantly reminded of my lost sleeping pad every time my bony frame rolled over. Despite it being several degrees warmer than the previous night, I was actually colder and more uncomfortable on the chickee than I had been on the oyster beach. Open to the wind, the cold night air was able to blow between the water and the bottom of the chickee. So every ounce of heat that I clutched to underneath the towel and emergency blanket was quickly lost through the bottom of the tent.
But through the shivers I was able to drift to sleep. Morning couldn’t come soon enough. It had been one hell of a trip, but I was ready to get to civilization. My shredded feet were a constant worry to me as I had no first aid kit, and I wasn’t fond of the open wounds being caked full of low tide mud and God know’s what else. I’d just found a comfortable spot where it only felt like someone was stabbing my shoulder with a dull knife and had closed my eyes when I heard it.
A loud exhalation and immediate deep breath pierced the thin walls of my tent. Startled, and being half asleep, I shot up like a rocket, ripping my emergency blanket in two. The breath came from underneath me and it took me a moment to calm down and realize what it was. Though I never actually laid eyes on it, I’m 99% sure that a manatee was cruising around underneath my chickee that night. I heard him breathe a few more times some distance away before I curled back up underneath my torn blanket and fell back asleep.
I should note something important about emergency blankets: They’re for one time use ONLY. Through my tossing and turning over the course of two nights, I had absolutely shredded the thin blanket. Foot holes, knee holes, elbow holes, you name it and it ripped the blanket. So as if I needed any other gaps to let the cold air in, I was now hiding under two halves of a hole-ridden emergency blanket.
Life was grand.
I got up well before light. I simply couldn’t handle the cold any longer. Wearing every piece of clothing I had with me, I walked painfully back and forth across the chickee in the pale moonlight. My eyes fixed on the eastern horizon, I practically willed the sun to rise. I wanted off the chickee and to warm myself in the sun. And the moment I caught even the slightest hint of dawn, I broke camp and started paddling. This would be the earliest I ever left camp, and I paddled south out of South Joe River chickee so early that I still needed my headlamp to see.
This final morning of paddling would be for myself. In a strange way, I don’t particularly enjoy taking pictures. Every time I stop, take out the camera, turn it on, snap a picture, and put the camera away, I feel like I missing something. For me, I feel almost disconnected. The picture won’t do the experience justice to someone who isn’t there. The only real way to take it all in is to be there. Sure the pictures are nice to reflect on at a later time, but there is no substitute for witnessing things firsthand. The memory will always be much, much sweeter than any picture or story can describe. And I like to soak up every moment without worry of capturing it on film. So I shut the camera off and stowed it away below deck.
The sunrise that morning was spectacular. Whitewater Bay’s southernmost waters were a mirror image of the multicolored sky and scattered clouds shot the sun’s early morning rays in all directions. To the north, I could see in between mangrove islands to a vanishing point. The sky and water melted into one in several places where the far shoreline lay out of sight. For a while, I focused on the sounds around me. The rhythmic swishing of my paddle strokes in the water, the distant hum of a motorboat miles away, and the quiet ‘click’ of my paddle handle as it began to show wear from the arduous journey were all taken in. The paddling was easy going. There was no wind, no current, and no giant waves this morning. Merely flat water and several miles of gentle gliding lay ahead of me.
It was about this time that I really began to think about the entire adventure and of what I was about to accomplish. Why had I gone on this trip? What was I looking to do?
To this day, the answer remains a relative mystery. When asked why I went, I answer as honestly as I can: “Because I felt like going”. I left the shore of Everglades City with the intention of fishing and getting some paddling in. Of course I wanted to “get away from it all”, and I did just that. But the reasoning behind going was never any deeper. I wasn’t looking for anything, or trying to prove something to anyone.
But after thinking about it, I realized that I had, in fact, found something and simultaneously proved something. Over the course of the eight days and 100+ miles, I discovered something about myself that I never knew existed. I discovered a drive. A will, even, to complete a task regardless of the difficulties. Never before had I been as motivated to do something as I was every morning I paddled away from camp and shot a quick video. Each day had a goal: Get to my next campsite. And I never allowed myself to give up on that daily goal. Perhaps it was because giving up was never an option. I -had- to complete each paddle as my safety relied on it. I had several instances where I thought you got yourself into this mess…now get out. And with the exception of my one mishap, I did my best to complete each day as planned. I -wanted- to achieve each goal ahead of me. And that hunger was something I’d never experienced before.
I set out with no intention of proving anything to anyone, but I finished by proving something to myself. I’d honestly had my doubts upon leaving that I could complete the waterway solo. I half expected (in usual fashion) for something to go horribly wrong and force me to quit. Maybe I’d be forced to give up and paddle back to Everglades City to drive home in the Jeep defeated. I didn’t know. But the thought that I might -not- be able to finish was very real to me. And it wasn’t until I paddled through Tarpon Creek and into Coot Bay that realized I proved something to myself: I -could- do this. I DID do this. The journey was at an end, and I felt like (as cheesy as it sounds) I could accomplish anything if I really set my mind to it. It was my first time ever experiencing something so…profound. I once again, felt like I was standing on Highland Beach looking out across the gulf. I felt unstoppable, but it was a little different this time. My respect for Mother Nature had grown along with my confidence. I knew I’d gotten lucky at Shark Point, but with that healthy dose of respect for the elements came a strong sense of confidence. I’d set myself a task I wasn’t sure I could complete, and proved that I could do it, if to no one else but myself.
The roar I let out when I saw the channel marker to Buttonwood Canal was unrivaled in any memory I’ve had. Its sound raced across Coot Bay and was absorbed into the mangroves without echo, meeting only the ears of some slightly startled pelicans. I couldn’t believe it was over. The experience is still something that, to this day, I’m soaking in. I made it to the Flamingo docks at 11:15 am, January 18th, 2014: Eight full days after leaving Everglades City. A man launching his boat was nice enough to help me pull the yak up the ramp, and I limped over to the convenient store to buy a coke and some chips while waiting on my ride. I talked to several interesting people, most of whom wanted to only hear the story of my trip. I’m sure I must’ve looked happy about something to them as I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
I’ve got to give a huge thanks to my friends Brennan and Aimee, without whom, the trip never would have been possible. And a massive thanks to my family for being so supportive during something that I’m sure was a worrisome time for them. I’ll be back for sure, but never alone again. Next time I want to share the experience with friends. Solo paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway was an experience I’ll never forget, and I’ll be eternally thankful that I took advantage of the opportunity to go on such an awesome trip.
So until my next adventure,
Fish on, and just keep paddling.