Imagine the most primeval place you can conjure in your mind, for that is where my story begins. It takes place in a swampland full of live oak and cypress trees, alligators and vultures, and is rich with a stillness that knows no time.
There were several reasons for deciding to make such a trip. Fisheating Creek, as the place is known, flows into Lake Okeechobee, which then flows over the banks into the river of grass known as the Everglades. After paddling the Everglades for six seasons it seemed time to explore further inland, to the headwaters.
Working as a wilderness guide, we often ask people to step outside of their comfort zones. I decided to step outside of mine, to undertake an exploration of an unknown place to me, alone. The smattering of research that I did on the place revealed that it was pure wilderness and that one could “camp anywhere.” There is no telling how many times I mocked that phrase in my mind when looking for what turned out to be an alligator laden place to camp.
Earlier that morning I’d loaded a solo canoe, an old Grumman, on top of my truck and headed north from Everglades City. I stopped at the Fisheating Creek Outpost to arrange a shuttle to a place on the river known as Ingram’s Crossing, which would make for a 16 mile wilderness paddle. I was pushing it to make a 9am shuttle. The lady behind the counter said they didn’t do a noon shuttle everyday either, and just when I thought my lack of research would come back to bite me, she added, “…but we have a couple who scheduled one today so you can join them.” That couple was going to the Burnt Bridge put in so they’d be dropped off first and then the driver would take me on upriver. Perfect.
After the couple was dropped off, it was just me and the guy driving the shuttle. He asked some questions, perhaps to gage my experience level, and made just enough off-the-cuff remarks to make me question everything about being in this wilderness alone. “That swamp is like a big maze out there,” he’d say, “You only have that hand-drawn map?” The two lane road was only leading to more remoteness in Glades County, and ample metaphor for the road my mind was leading me down. The sky was completely overcast, in spite of the weather report calling for a 20% of rain only. It was suiting my new somber mood. Why hadn’t I done anymore research? Would that tendency of mine finally cost me?
There are several ways to react to being lost while alone in the wilderness. One is to panic. I couldn’t afford that reaction. The other would be to embrace it and allow it to change the way I experience the wilderness, to still my mind and overcome any self-doubt.
We turned off the two-lane and down a sandy path, through three locked gates towards the creek. My driver was on the constant lookout for wild hogs. Soon we were passing by saw palmettos and live oaks laced with Spanish moss. When we arrived at the creek he backed up the trailer and I unloaded all of my gear and watched and listened as the trailer slowly creaked and bounced away.
For the first time in quite awhile, aside from God, I was alone in the wilderness.
I loaded the canoe, shoved off through the muck and was soon floating on the tannin-laced waters. I soaked in the stillness, the primal feel of it all, live oaks undisturbed for centuries, gators drying on the banks, the feel of the paddle in the water, relying on no one but myself.
The creek is marked perfectly. There are few enough signs that you feel the wilderness, but just enough so that when you’ve been paddling for some time and the water spreads out like so many fingers, there is a marker assuring you’re on the river.
Whenever I’m in the backcountry I’m surprised at the old songs that suddenly come into my mind. There it was, Willie Nelson’s Poncho and Lefty, but in this case I was actually hearing it. It wasn’t long at all until the narrow channels opened onto the first lake, Johnson Lake, with cypress and oak trees unlike many you ever see. Sitting on the bank was a young guy fishing. I asked him where on earth he’d come from. He said his house was about three miles away, pointing back into the swamp.
Soon the lake meandered back into a narrow channel, passing among cypress knees and alligators. Traveling solo allows for some advantages. Suddenly to my left there was a crashing through the woods and water that was quite startling. Three white tailed deer were just as surprised by my presence as I was theirs and bounded back into the safety of the swamp, crashing loudly through the forest. I paused and just sat in awe. It’s something you just don’t get to experience with a large group of canoes. A little later I heard my favorite sound in the southern woodlands as barred owls called to one another. It was as though I was walking through the 5th day of creation and it was all good.
As the afternoon grew I began thinking of finding a place to camp. Remember I was told it was all wilderness and I could “camp anywhere.” I did find a few sand bars, and a few places with some grass, but not one without an alligator or more. I dreaded being alone at nightfall without a place to camp, it’d be hard to sleep in the canoe.
As a photographer, I was so thankful the sun had come out and I was eager to make a few photographs in the evening light. I also knew that as the shadows grew longer I’d need to find a place to camp. It was an uncomfortable feeling that I was glad to have again.
For some reason I passed by the Burnt Bridge put in and didn’t camp in the grassy area across from it. The light was good and I wanted to continue paddling and photographing. It was possible as dusk neared that I’d come to regret that decision. I paddled with a certain amount of tension. Looking at my hand drawn map I saw a place called Four Mile Crossing and hoped there’d be something there. Sure enough, there was just enough flat land between cypress knees, no gators were on it, and it would certainly do. The water level was at 2.6 feet, meaning that if it were any higher this ground wouldn’t be there, so I was quite fortunate to be paddling when I was.
Right after the above photo was made the mosquitos came out in abundance, reminding me that I was in the wilderness. I ate inside the tent. It had been a most satisfying day.
I awoke around 5:30am to the sound of rain. “No.” I’m used to enduring, and sometimes exalting in, rain when I’m working, but it’s often the last thing I want on a personal trip. This was to be one of those all day rains. I put on my brand new rain gear and greeted the day. As soon as it was light enough I began to paddle, deciding to make the most of the circumstances.
The weather wasn’t very conducive to photographing, but I did manage to make a couple of photographs that day.
Once back at the Outpost, I headed across the street to the old general store and ordered up a bowl of chili. So much had happened in just a couple of days. I had seen the world in a primeval state, or as close as possible in today’s world. I’d challenged myself with my outdoor skills in a place I’d never set eyes on before, all alone. While I enjoy discovering the world for myself, I photograph so that I can share it with others who may not have the same opportunity. For I know that if you come to know it, you too will care to protect it. Places like Fisheating Creek are the most important to protect, because they are places where things are still wild, and even if you don’t visit, it’s important to know that places like that still exist on this earth.