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.