The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

Category: Snapper (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: The Lord Giveth

Day Two:

I was paddling as hard as possible. And yet the distant dark green, mangrove riddled horizon failed to get closer. It seemed like I’d been paddling for hours and my body was damp with a mixture of sweat and sea water. Suddenly, the distant sound of a motor could be heard. Faint at first, then louder. A boat…It must be a boat. But a quick glance around revealed no power boat. Only open water, and that distant shore that remained fixed on the horizon. The sound of the motor grew louder. The boat must be close. But where? Does it see me? I’m stuck in this kayak after all. What if it hit me? Still the sound grew. It was almost on top of me now. It was close…
I jerked awake and nearly shot out of my sleeping bag as a power boat flew right past my camp on Lopez River. It took me a moment to realize where I was as I stared at the ceiling of my tent. The sound of the boat motor grew distant and the rhythmic sound of its wake slapping the shore next to my tent took over. It was then that I noticed I was wet. Drenched, actually. A cold sweat from that dream perhaps? But upon sitting up, I noticed that EVERYTHING was wet. The outside of my sleeping bag, my clothes I’d worn the day before, and even the floor of the tent was damp with water.
It’d been years since I’d camped, and I forgot one important detail of setting up your tent: The rain fly. No, it hadn’t rained that night, but enough dew fell that it went right through the tent, and soaked everything within. It was a mistake that I’d be sure to never repeat. The rain fly was to go on the tent. Every time. Regardless of how nice a day it was. 
A glance out of the tent revealed that I’d overslept. The sun was already beginning to peek itself over the horizon and several of the mangroves’ upper branches across the river were lit up in its orange rays. 
I need to get going, I thought to myself as I went to unzip the sleeping bag. But it was then that I noticed something; I’d never been this sore in my life. It felt like my shoulders, back, and arms had all been run over by a truck. I quickly became aware of exactly how physically unprepared I was for the trip that lay ahead of me. Apparently, my strict regimen of 12 ounce beer curls several nights a week wasn’t the best training exercise for a paddle through the Everglades. So with a groan, I dug through my toiletry bag and took a bunch of ibuprofen. 
Considering how sore I was, camp was broken down remarkably quick. I slid the kayak into Lopez River at 7:40 and began my paddle. It took maybe three and a half seconds of paddling to realize it was going to be a VERY long day. I had approximately 12 miles to paddle to Darwin’s Place, and if the wind was anything like the day before, it was going to be a nightmare. 
But I also came to the understanding that it didn’t matter HOW sore I might be. I absolutely HAD to paddle. There was no choice about it. I simply had to make it to my next campsite, regardless of how much pain I was in. And with that mindset, I stopped focusing on how terrible my shoulders and arms felt, and instead focused on the goal ahead. With no option to quit, you find the strength to complete anything. 
I navigated through Crooked Creek and rounded the corner in to Sunday Bay. It was here that I had my first encounter with the Everglades Wilderness Waterway markers. 
The official “path” through the Everglades is marked with numbered signs. All of these signs are brilliantly camouflaged brown, and without binoculars, are literally impossible to spot out. In addition, the signs are in the shape of arrows that have absolutely no meaning. It took me only a few times to figure out that the arrows served no purpose aside from making the day “interesting” by getting you hopelessly lost. They point no where in particular, and I began navigating solely by map and compass. 
I was only a few minutes paddle into Sunday Bay when I noticed something odd about the wind: it was at my back. Such oddities in nature are generally cause for alarm. Kayaking AND fishing AND the wind is at my back? Pushing me in the direction I need to go? Insanity. 
This stroke of good luck, however, came with a predicament. Do I merely bask in nature’s gift of a favorable wind and fish heavily along the way to Darwin’s Place? Or do I take advantage of it and paddle like a madman before Mother Nature changes her mind and clocks the wind around to the south. 
Not trusting the wind an iota, I opted for the latter and paddled like my life depended on it. At the speed I was traveling, I’d have plenty of time to fish once I reached Darwin’s Place. 
The crossing of Sunday Bay made me fully appreciate the favorable wind. When I made it to its southern pass, a quick look over my shoulder revealed a bay that was whipped into a whitecapped frenzy. Waves were hitting the kayak hard enough that water sloshed into my lap on several occasions and white caps continuous broke all around me. I was so thankful to not have to paddle into that. 
The next bay, Oyster Bay, was much calmer. About halfway across, I took a short break to eat some trail mix and just let the wind push me for a moment. It was there that I spotted out an otter only a few yards from the kayak. With as much time as I spend on the water, it may come as a surprise that I’ve only seen two other wild otters in my life. So as commonplace as this may have been, I found it to be a rare treat. After Oyster Bay came Huston Bay. Immediately upon entering it, something caught my eye. In the bay’s center lies an island. And on that island, a red building sits. I was once again reminded of how deceptive the distances can be out there, and the paddle to the building took nearly an hour. 
I’m honestly not sure what this building is, or who it belongs to, but I couldn’t help but think what an odd place for someone to decide to put a building. 
By this point in the day I’d become tired. My muscles were beyond hurting and my ibuprofen had already worn off. I decided to take about a 30 minute break and eat lunch, but wasted no more time than that for fear of losing the good wind and being cursed with another poor one. 
Whoever named the bodies of water in the Everglades had a sick sense of humor. When I reached the end of Huston Bay, I wearily opened up my map to see what was next. Huston Bay was by no means small, so I actually looked forward to the next body of water and being rid of Huston Bay for good. A quick glance at my map revealed my next obstacle: Last Huston Bay. 
Hardy har har. 
Last Huston Bay was just as miserable as Huston Bay and just as big to boot. I did manage to take a short break on the far side of it though and fished the mouths of some creeks with only a few small Jack Crevalle to show for it.  
The final body of water to cross for the day was Chevelier Bay. It proved to be the biggest bay of the day. By this point in the afternoon, I noticed that the wind had actually slacked off. It was no longer pushing me right along to my destination and I was forced to really start paddling. So reluctantly, I grinned and beared it, and paddled my way across the bay. 
When I was about halfway across the bay, a massive explosion of water erupted about 100 yards away from the kayak. I turned to see a pod of dolphin chasing mullet around in the shallows. Three of them rose up out of the water, revealing their shiny grey bodies and dorsal fins, and disappeared below the tannin stained water. Being relatively bored since I wasn’t fishing, I rapped on the side of the kayak to get their attention and continued to paddle. To my surprise, the pod turned from the direction they were traveling and came straight at the kayak. Suddenly all three appeared and took a breath about 10 yards from my port side. They then came right under the kayak with the last one suddenly ramming my bow with its body. 
This all came as a bit TOO much nature far too quickly for me as I greeted them with a series of well placed expletives while trying to remain upright in the kayak. Their splashing put water across my bow and well into my lap. Almost immediately they came to the surface again, this time on my starboard side, and one of them turned on its side to show its eye. For a brief moment it held its head just far enough out of the water to have a good look at me, and with a quick spray of mist from its blowhole, it turned to join the others who’d already made their way into the distance. 
Nature is pretty awesome…At a distance…when it’s not trying to capsize me. 
I’m pretty sure everyone in Flamingo could hear my sigh of relief when Darwin’s Place came into sight. It was still mid afternoon and I had more than enough time to fish. I wearily set up camp and as soon as I finished putting up the tent (rain fly included) I took a seat on one of the convenient park benches at the campsite. 
I then faceplanted onto the old wooden table top in pure exhaustion. My eyes began to get heavy and…
No! I suddenly shot back upright. I’d come on this trip to fish. And by God, I was going to fish. Not spend a whole day paddling and then sleep away my afternoon. 
As I began to get ready to fish, I had a small itch right between my collar bones in the center of my chest. I scratched it and immediately let out a yelp. It felt sunburned. But how? I’d been wearing my Sun Buff all day. Having no mirror, I quickly took out my camera, took a picture and had a look at myself to assess the damage. Somehow, with only the top most button on my shirt unbuttoned and my Sun Buff secured around my neck, I had a little triangle of skin open to the sun all day. Had I stayed in the sun much longer, I’m pretty sure it would’ve burned me to my esophagus.
I wondered whether or not I had the foresight of packing some sort of sun burn relief in my first aid kit and I quickly began digging through my pack for it. It was then that I made a startling discovery: I left my first aid kid in the Jeep. Two days prior, I remembered having the kit in my hand and thinking “I don’t need this, I have another one in my pack”
No Alex…No you do not. And now you’re two days into the Everglades with no first aid kit. There wasn’t really anything I could do, so I simply covered up, and went fishing.  
The small creek that Darwin’s Place is located is loaded with Black Snapper. I wore my DOA shrimp out catching one after another. It was a slight shame that I had no real way to cook fish on this trip. Those little morsels would’ve been fantastic. 
As the sun began to set, the bite really picked up. I tossed my shrimp up underneath some mangroves and almost before it hit the water, a huge explosion erupted underneath it. A fat snook came flying out of the air and put on quite a show as I set the hook. He turned, came out into the creek and jumped several more times next to the kayak. But suddenly he turned, and almost as quickly as the fight began, it ended with a quick “snap” and a broken line. 
I fished the rest of the evening as the sun set with minimal success. Even though the wind had died almost completely, my sore muscles screamed at me not to paddle far. 
That night, back at camp, I learned three important things: 
1. A can of Pork N Beans is remarkably misleading. Where I expected a hearty meal of beans, mixed with chunks of delicious canned pork, I was met with a simple can of baked beans. Reading the ingredients on the can reveals that “Pork Fat” constitutes as the “Pork” in Pork N Beans. But after an exhausting day, the entire can along with a full pot of rice was devoured in mere moments. 
2. My awesome C.R.K.T “Eating too” (read: spork with frills), rusts when washed in saltwater. 
3. Deet and Thermacells are gifts from God. The mosquitoes at Darwin’s Place were hellacious. But thanks to a potent mixture of the two repellents, I sat comfortably by the water’s edge, and inhaled my meal for the evening. 
When I finally laid down in my tent, I was pretty sure nothing shy of The Reckoning was going to move me. My arms and shoulders were numb from exertion, and I laid there in sore, sunburned agony. I was so thankful that my next day was to be the shortest of the trip. I jotted down my notes for the day and felt inclined to include the following: 
I smell like fresh death. I can’t wait for a smoke bath Wednesday night
And with that I put away my notes, closed my eyes, and drifted off to sleep with the light pattering of raindrops beginning to fall on the outside of the tent. 
Glad I put up the rain fly.
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