For the first time in recent memory, I woke up calmly. I didn’t jerk awake from the sound of my alarm clock, nor did I dose about groggily for hours before rising. I simply opened my eyes and was wide awake. My tent faced east and from the vantage point of Darwin’s Place, I watched from inside my sleeping bag as the first tendrils of light illuminated the sky.
It was going to be a good day. A day that promised to be full of fishing and exploring, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I sat up to unzip my sleeping bag…
…And immediately flopped back down in pain. If it was possible, my muscles were even sorer than they had been the day before. My whole body felt like it had been picked up and dropped. Repeatedly. Still secure in my sleeping bag, I inch-wormed my way to a dry bag, and produced more ibuprofen.
It was going to be a good day. And a short one…Thank god.
This day was to be my shortest of the entire trip. The distance between Darwin’s Place and my next campsite, Lostman’s Five, was a little over six miles. This meant two things: I’d have plenty of time to fish like I wanted and the short paddle would give my spent muscles a rest.
Considering I hobbled around camp like a 90 year old man, I managed to get everything loaded up into the kayak fairly quickly. Even with sore muscles, it’s impressive how much motivation thirsty hordes of mosquitoes can give a person to break camp.
Only a few minutes into my paddle, I spotted something swimming in the water. Upon closer inspection I noticed that it was an Alligator. Gators while out fishing, particularly in the Everglades, are something I rarely find to be noteworthy. But this one caught my attention. It happened to be the first one I’d seen all trip. Maybe it was the “chilly” weather, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention, but I found the fact that this was the first one of my trip to be slightly surprising.
But the lack of gators my first two days were quickly made up for. Within the course of an hour I spotted out more than a comforting amount, and quit counting at 30. They were out in full force, and the reasoning behind it remains a mystery to me.
Only a few miles from Darwin’s Place I encountered what I’d consider my first real creek of the trip. Appropriately named, Alligator Creek twists and turns to connect Tarpon Bay to Alligator Bay. It gets rather narrow in there and I even opted to lay my rods down on the deck rather than risk them getting pulled overboard by low hanging mangroves. The current was, of course, going against me in Alligator Creek. Though not particularly swift, it ensured that there would be no rest until I reached the other side. Had I stopped paddling for just a moment, I risked getting pushed up against fallen trees and essentially being stuck at the mercy of the current. It was a rather humbling feeling to realize that I absolutely –could not- stop paddling.
About halfway through the creek I had, once again, an experience with a little too much nature. As I rounded a bend in the creek, I looked ahead to see a gator swimming. He wasn’t particularly big, maybe 8 ft long, and he was riding the current down stream. I was, of course, going the opposite direction and in the tight quarters of the mangrove creek, our paths were quickly coming to a crossing point. Every gator I’ve ever come across has always disappeared underwater when the kayak gets too close, so upon seeing this guy, I wasn’t particularly worried. That was, at least, until we started playing chicken.
Still swimming on the surface, the gator was closing the distance between himself and my kayak. At 20 yards away he still hadn’t seemed to take notice of me. 15 yards and I’m starting to wonder just how close he’ll get before sounding. 10 yards and I decided maybe I should try steering around him just a –little-. 5 yards and the gator still hadn’t gone under. I could now see his entire body. His short legs remained tucked underneath his body as his long tail lazily steered him down the creek. And still he got closer.
With the exception of holding captured gators, I’ve never come this close to one in my life. While I brandished my paddle like some long plastic polearm to protect myself, he quietly passed within two feet of my port side without ever sounding. Had I wanted to, I could have elbowed him in the face without having to move. Being so close, every feature of the animal was vividly clear. The specks on his snout, the carved features of his head, his amber eye looking right at me, and even the small bits of algae growing on his back were plainly visible as he passed my kayak without incident. I turned to watch him as he floated on, unfazed by our encounter, and disappeared around the corner of the tannin stained creek.
Able to breathe again, I quit wielding my paddle like a weapon, and continued on down the creek. Only a few minutes later I ran into the first people I’d seen paddling since I left Chockoloskee. Two men in touring kayaks were heading the opposite way as me and, thanks to the current, I had only a moment to chat with them before being force to paddle on. Much like the lack of gators my first two days, I was shocked at how few people I’d run into who were paddling. From the way the park ranger had described it when I purchased my camping permit, the park was riddled with paddlers who were out camping. And yet my first two nights had been spent completely alone.
Once I made it through Alligator Creek, I began my paddle across Alligator Bay. The wind, just like the current, was directly in my face. But luckily the water wasn’t too rough and I was actually able to find a small point that was out of the wind to take a rest. There in the shallows, I noticed something unique about this area; the water was clear. Clear is of course a relative term when talking about the water in the Everglades. But this tannin stained water was clear compared to everywhere else I’d been. I could actually see sandy bottom about 4 feet deep in some places and I spent a few minutes fishing this area in hopes that I could sight cast to something.
After Alligator Bay came Dad’s Bay and I made sure to take a picture of it.
Going fishing in the Everglades has been a tradition with my dad and I for years. He’s the one responsible for getting me hooked on fishing and hunting in the first place and the Glades are a place we try to make it to every year. Unfortunately this year he was unable to make the trip with me, but I knew had he been able to, he’d be having a great time too (minus being horribly sore).
Plate creek was the next creek to navigate. By this time of the day, the tide was slack and the paddle through was perfectly calm. I took advantage of the nice conditions and slowly fished my way through the whole thing, catching some specks along the way.
When I emerged into Plate Creek Bay, I got my bearings and began paddling across it. Only a few hundred yards in, however, I encountered a slight problem: Mud.
Anyone who’s ever read some of my older articles has seen some of the unfortunate days I’ve had involved with mud. The kayak skittered up onto a grass covered mud flat and became stuck. Hopelessly stuck, in fact. My rudder had managed to bury itself into the weeds and muck, and no matter how hard I pushed with the paddle, it merely sank into the smelly depths of hell that the mud covered up. Poling out was now no longer an option and attempting to paddled accomplished nothing more than slinging black mud all over my kayak.
I didn’t dare step out of the kayak either. I’m pretty sure similar circumstances lead to prehistoric saber tooth cats and mammoths being preserved in tar pits. Instead, I stood up in the kayak (which is quite a feat in the Tarpon 160i), and spread my weight out. I then rocked it back in forth while simultaneously pushing at an angle with my paddle. The result was about 3 inches of movement.
I kept this up for about 20 minutes before I finally reached open water and floated the kayak to safety. I’m still not sure whether I actually pushed myself anywhere, or if the tide came in and lifted me, but the point is that I escaped.
Just around the corner I encountered my first chickee of the trip: Plate creek chickee. The white roof of the porta-jon stuck out like a beacon across the bay and I paddled up to take a closer look at it.
It was getting to be about lunch time and considering my map told me I was just about a mile from Lostman’s Five, I decided to paddle there for lunch. I figured I could set up camp while I was at it and then go fish for the rest of the day. It was just about that time that I heard a boat coming. I was slightly surprised considering I hadn’t seen or heard a boat for the entire day. It came around the corner and slowed as the driver saw me. The first thing I see painted on the side of it was “Park Service. Law Enforcement”
You can probably take the most law abiding citizen in the country, put them behind the wheel of a car, make a cop follow them, and they’ll still feel slightly paranoid even when they’ve done nothing wrong. This is about how I felt as I watched the boat slow and come to a stop next to me.
“How’s it going?” I asked as he got close. The man piloting the boat looked to be about my age and he spoke up as the motor quieted.
“Where are you camping tonight?” he asked.
“Lostman’s Five” I’m good too. Thanks for asking…
“Have you got your permits handy? Or are they tucked away below deck?”
They were –definitely- tucked away below deck with my wallet. Safe and sound in a dry box with my satellite phone, VHF radio, flares, and car keys. Now, I know you’re supposed to have such documents easily accessible for such scenarios, but I wanted my stuff to be safe. Considering he’d even asked me if it was below deck, I thought he was going to take my word for it. I was, after all, three days paddle in. I wasn’t exactly performing an elaborate scheme to fish and camp illegally in the National Park with my bright yellow kayak. So I told him they were way below deck.
“Okay”, he replied rather curtly. “Well you can paddle to Lostman’s right now and I’ll check. I’ll meet you there”. With that he cranked his motor, and sped off in the direction of my camp, leaving me rocking in his wake.
I never did figure out what species of animal had crawled up this man’s butt, but I found him to be exceptionally grumpy. I did, however, make sure that I took my sweet and precious time paddling to Lostman’s. He was (obviously) waiting for me when I arrived and once there, I took about an eon to pull my paperwork from the bowels of my kayak. Normally I wouldn’t have been such a pain in the ass, but every friendly attempt at conversation was shot down with one to two word short answers. I got the feeling this guy was –really- looking to write me a ticket, and since he was being such a jerk, I decided to blue-ball him and say things like:
“I know I put it in here somewhere”, and “Oh man, I really hope my fishing license is up to date” (I’d renewed it the week before).
I eventually produced the papers and after studying them quite thoroughly, he handed them back to me.
He hopped back on his boat, cranked the motor, and said “Oh, and you’ll have company tonight. They should be here soon. I checked them earlier”
And with that, he sped off around the corner, and the sound of his boat motor was swallowed up by the mangroves.
Not even five minutes later, my company showed up. A canoe and two kayaks rounded the corner. It ended up being a group of college students from Indian and their guide. Four girls, and two guys. And almost before they could get their boats tied up, another canoe arrived with two men. Lostman’s Five had quickly become Lostman’s Nine.
It seemed that it only took two days of paddling alone in the wilderness to forget all of my manners. I literally did not introduce myself to a single one of the eight people I’d be sharing a camp with that evening. I talked to some of the girls a little as I ate lunch, and learned from their guide about where they’d come from, where they were heading, etc.
I soon finished eating, pitched my tent, and prepped the kayak to go fish for the evening. As much as I love chatting with attractive college girls, I really wanted to get some fishing in. They would, after all, be there when I got back. It’s not like I was going to miss anything.
I discovered the creek next to Lostman’s Five was loaded with fish and I practically wore my arm out catching them that afternoon. Black Snapper, Jacks, Ladyfish, Snook, and even Largemouth Bass called the creek home. The Everglades is pretty unique in that freshwater fish and predominately saltwater fish inhabit the same areas. I even had a bluegill strike at my fly moments after I landed my first Snook of the trip.
The creek emptied out into a narrow bay. I glanced down at my map to see that the map actually ended –right- in the center of the bay. What laid beyond it was anyone’s guess. I paddled as far into the bay as I felt comfortable with, and snapped a picture.
I couldn’t help but get the “edge of the world” feeling as I looked out across the bay. It was the end of the road for my map, and though my GPS could have probably gotten me a little ways in, I wasn’t willing to risk getting lost just before dark. So I turned around and paddled back just as the sun was beginning to dip low on the horizon.
I was already getting hungry again and actually needed to use the porta-jon quite badly when I made it back to camp. Everyone else was beginning to cook dinner and I rushed down the dock to grab toilet paper from my tent. Back at the end of the dock, I passed one of the two men from the canoe as he left the bathroom before me.
“How gross is it in there?” I asked in passing. He merely chuckled and said
“Welcome to Egypt…Land of the pyramids.”
I didn’t quite understand until I looked down into a porta-jon that had zero blue water in it, and probably needed to be emptied about 4 months prior. It was by far the grossest moment of my entire trip.
After I left the bathroom, I passed by the other man who’d shown up in the canoe. He was busy smoking a cigar and taking notes in a journal. He asked me if I’d caught anything and after telling him all about it, he proceeded to tell me what they’d been doing all afternoon.
“You missed out man. Everyone got in their swimsuits and went swimming off the dock for a while. It was great”.
It was then that looked over to notice that all the girls had their hair up to dry. Apparently I had, in fact, missed out. But it was something I didn’t care too much about. I live right next to The University of Florida which is might as well be “Hot College Girl Capital of the World”. So missing out on swimming with a few attractive girls in the Everglades wasn’t –that big of a deal.
I cooked myself dinner and chatted with everyone at the camp. I learned that the man smoking the cigar was named Johnny Molloy, author of A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park. He was apparently there working on his third installment. I, admittedly, have not read any of his books, but he was still fun to talk to and I wish I’d had more time after dinner to pick his brain. While talking with one of the girls and telling her about paddling this trip alone, she asked me “Isn’t it terrifying?”
Until that moment I hadn’t really thought about paddling solo as being frightening. Worrisome for my friends and family, maybe. But there was nothing at the time I could think of that was scary about the trip. I was confident in my paddling and navigational abilities, and I had the right gear should an emergency arise. So I answered honestly.
“No, not really. As long as you’re careful, there’s nothing to really worry about while paddling alone”.
I didn’t know it at the time, but had she asked me that question after the trip, my answer would have been slightly different.
We all watched the sun set, had a group photo (somewhere is cyberspace is a picture of me with 8 strangers at the end of a dock in the middle of nowhere), and talked amongst ourselves before being chased into the tents by the swarming flocks of mosquitoes.
Just before bed, Johnny turned on his weather radio and let us listen to the forecast for the next couple of days.
“Winds 17-20 knots. Offshore seas 12-14 feet”. Those were really the only things that stuck with me from that little computerized voice on the weather radio. I knew the weather was going to suck. But winds that strong could put a serious damper on my plans. As I laid down to go to sleep, I couldn’t really help but fret about the coming days. Was I going to make it to my next stop, Rodger’s River? Or what about the day after at Highland Beach, when the weather was REALLY supposed to get bad? I tried not to think too much about it as I stared at the ceiling of my tent. The full moon above was casting shadows of the mangroves down on my tent, and the constant buzz of the mosquito horde outside forced me to check the inside of the tent several times.
When I finally closed my eyes, I did at least notice one bit of good fortune: I was done being sore. Maybe with any luck, the 13 mile paddle to Rodger’s River wouldn’t be too bad.