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.
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
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.