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.