For me it was a transition between seasons. I’d been in the mountains all fall and now it was time for winter in the Everglades. After an 8.2 mile paddle along a skinny canal we set up camp on boards that rested on top of our canoes. All had gone well that first day, but at dusk the mosquitoes were out in force. We had camped on swamp cabbage, and as our crew mate Patsy remarked, two kinds of mosquitoes breed on these plants. We set up our Healy Hammocks, which is basically a private bug net a little larger than a bivvy bag.
About an hour after laying my head down to rest I had to pee. I thought I could edge half my body out of the bivvy bag, zip it around my legs and quickly pee and get back in. On the first attempt I was swarmed, my body feeling stings from face to buttocks. So preoccupied with mosquitoes I couldn’t pee. I went back inside my bivvy. What a rookie mistake I thought to myself. I knew better, having spent two full season in the Everglades working for Outward Bound. Yes, I remembered, it’s worth the hassle of putting on your layers so that you endure the bites, pee, and get back to sleep. It worked. Then I spent the next 15 minutes swatting at the swarm that had taken up residence inside my netting. Other anxieties creep in during those early morning hours. Would my grass allergies kick in while traveling through saw grass all day tomorrow? All was well as I observed how beautiful it was laying beneath Orion and Pleiades, along with Jupiter.
The morning did nothing to alleviate any wary thoughts though, it only increased them. The sun once risen became brutal. I had to cup water into my hand and throw it repeatedly over my body to keep my temperature down. Was I still glad I’d signed up for this staff expedition?
At the beginning of each season returning staff are invited to take an expedition. We intentionally choose the hardest of routes so that we push ourselves outside of our own comfort zones, something we’re continually asking of our students. As the day grew the canal ended and we began trudge through the water and grasses, sometimes deep into the muck, dragging our canoes along with us.
It was Mary Rachel who first began to philosophize. She remarked that we don’t suffer with our students because we’ve suffered before, and these were the kind of situations in which we suffered.
Patsy, who’d gotten some beta on the route from a former staff member named Farlin suddenly spoke. “Farlin said, when you get to the end of the canal you’re going to reach a point where you’re going to do some soul searching and you’ll ask yourself why you’re doing this.” We all agreed that we were in the midst of it. We were all to agree later that this soul searching was premature. It was to get worse before it got better.
According to our maps we couldn’t be too far from the air boat trail, but things looked impassable. Jen then got the machete out and began to hack a pathway for the boats with the help of Jess and Mary Rachel while Bernie and Patsy reconnoitered other possibilities.
And suddenly, we were through! We’d found the sought after airboat trail.
It turned out that we’d only made about 4.6 miles that entire day. You’ll notice very little difference in the following maps. There was a 300 yard stretch that took us about 5 hours to navigate. We were well behind schedule. We paddled until around 8:30pm to get to that mileage, briefly lost our route and decided to board up for the night.
Spirits were good the next morning. An airboat cruised by before breakfast while Jen was sitting on the groover, a plastic bucket used as a toilet. They looked perplexed at this three-canoe-raft upon which we were camping.
After re-finding our route and paddling for about an hour that morning, the air boat came back by. They stopped for a brief visit. Two of the men were researchers with Florida International University and they were studying the minnows as part of a determination of the health of the ecosystem. They’d been 10 miles and back that morning already, mileage that it would take us a good 5 hours to cover.
Patsy had initially figured the route, but it seemed that every time we calculated mileage we had an extra 20 to go and at the rate we were traveling this trip could take far longer than the scheduled days. It was Jess who answered the next day when someone inquired into the remaining mileage when she said, “One mile, or 20, one day, or three,” to much laughter. The following video clip was made by Jen during our lunch that day.
We paddled into the late afternoon sun and right at dusk we had crossed the sawgrass hammocks and the waters began to gather and to feed the immediate tributaries leading to the Shark River. The tributaries were winding in all directions and we simply followed the flow of the water as the channels narrowed through white mangrove tunnels and eventually into a wider stream.
By the time we’d reached broader waters it was already past 9pm. We passed a campsite known as Cane Patch that was inhabited by a group of young fishermen who were clearly imbibing. They asked where we’d come from. Bernie told them we’d come from Hwy 41 through the sawgrass and on down the river. There was a pause as one young man took the information in. He then remarked, “You guys are fu@king crazy!”
We paddled on beneath the half-moon.
By the time the day was finished we’d paddled about 32 miles. Around 12:30am we reached the chickee on the Harney River. Exhausted, we slept hard that night. Just before sleep, a barred owl called.
We awoke the next morning exhausted, but there was weather due to come in the following day so we decided we’d paddle all the way back to Everglades City. It meant another thirty something miles. On this day though, things turned in our favor. As we reached the Gulf the winds were coming out of the Southwest, which meant only one thing. We could sail! And sail we did.
We sailed up the coast.
We caught some sea trout.
For around seven hours we sailed and never had to put our paddles to the water. We averaged around four miles per hour.
It was just perfect. That evening as the sun sank into the gulf waters, the skies were filled with roseate spoonbills and terns. It was simply magical. The Everglades offers it’s best in fleeting moments.
As the sun sank and the winds died down as we moved back inland, we picked up our paddles once more. Sore muscles groaned and missing dinner we paddled on into the night, arriving in Everglades City just past midnight, having traveled 39 miles that day. It was a wonderful journey, and the perfect tone-setter for the season.