So as you know I spent the majority of my break in the Florida Everglades on a canoeing trip. In my previous post I talked about just getting to the everglades, but that was just the surface of this trip.
After arriving at Flamingo campground we headed a few miles down the road to Coot Bay where we unloaded all of our gear and canoes and figured out how to organize that gear into the canoe and make sure that the weight was distributed evenly. It was definitely a game of tetras everyday.
My partner for the first day was Jameson. He was in the stern of the boat and I was in the bow. While I have been in a canoe before it had been a while and it was a bit harder than I thought to get coordinated. We as a crew paddled across the pond to the corner to a nearly invisible opening. Once we poked through the small opening we were into our first mangrove tunnel. It was pretty astonishing and we would have moved at a slower pace through it if we had not been swarmed by mosquitos. Little did we know it would just foreshadow our future experiences with mangrove tunnels to come.
After exiting the mangrove tunnel we paddled a bit farther and then we all gunneled up (tide together to look like a barge) for lunch followed by us getting out of the canoes to swim around our canoes to test our comfort level. Personally, I was still terrified that there was going to be some creature lurking near by ready to take my leg off. Getting back in the canoe was a bit of a challenge and required a bit of flexibility.
Our crew had a bit of paddling to do before we reached our destination for that night, Hell’s Bay Chickee. Farlin and Maggie (our course instructors) had one map and were making the calls since we were all completely clueless about how a compass works. When Farlin said that he had dropped the chart in the water we all looked around and just laughed because we thought he was just kidding…he wasn’t. So we had one chart left and the sun was setting. Both of these caused my anxiety levels to raise. Around 4:30 we asked if we should put on our bug layers, but we were told to wait…well we ended up going down the wrong creek and the mosquitos were the worst we had experienced. I have never seen so many people move so fast and so carelessly on the canoes to try and get their layers on. After getting out of the creek I began to panic because I knew the sun was going down and Farlin was not exactly sure where we were going. We did find where we were going and the stars were absolutely gorgeous. I have never witnessed so many stars in the night sky. Hell’s Bay Chickee consisted of two wooden platforms that had a roof, but no sides. When we arrived we tied up the canoes and unloaded the things we needed for dinner and the night (water jug, kitchen, propane, red bags, and food buckets). After dinner we strung a line across the chickee and set up our healy hammocks. Healy hammocks have enough room for one person and it is essentially a personal bug net. I was told not to touch the net by others during the night because the mosquitos would be waiting, but despite the warnings I accidentally touched the net and it definitely showed the following morning.
We woke up to the sunrise coming up and reflecting off the body of water. It was about 7am at this time and shortly after we were all being told to get moving and get packed up so we could make breakfast (oatmeal), make the float plan (where we had to go for the day), and get the canoes packed. We were on the water and on the move by 10:15. Paddling this day was not bad by any means because what was supposed to be about 16 miles turned into quite a different experience thanks to both the wind and the tides being in our favor. After going through the winding river and through Lane’s Bay we entered the beginning of White Water Bay. At this point wind was against us a little bit and it was the first time that we had come in contact with pretty large waves. We were able to paddle across to a side that was in the lee which allowed us to eat lunch and regroup. Upon starting to paddle again the wind was in our favor and we were able to actually sail. To do this we had to tie the canoes together and we used a tarp and some pea cord to allow us to use the wind. Sailing was very relaxing, quite and experience, and we got to watch the sunset in a whole new way. As the sun set though our ability to sail died, and we had to paddle with the stars overhead. We spent another night at the chickee.
The following morning though was not as glorious as the last because one of the crew members had gotten sick. Farlin had to paddle a canoe all by himself while the crew member Derrick tried to sleep and rest up. While we were paddling this day we saw several dolphins, a sting ray, and a manatee…oh and an alligator or two. We were able to stop at a chickee to eat lunch and use the porta potty. By this point we were grateful no matter the condition of the porta potty but we definitely rated them. Also Gold Bond was all of the girls favorite thing because our butts were pretty raw from being wet and sitting on them for such long periods of times. This night we had to make it to a camp ground. It was dusk when we made it to avocado creek which would lead us to the camp ground. This was honestly the creepiest part of the trip because birds were circling above, the mosquitos were out, the creek was narrowing and visibility was limited. We all described the experience as paddling to our death. By now though we were all used to setting up camp in the dark. From the water all we could see was a little wooden path leading back to a black abyss, but we just lugged our stuff back. After dinner it was the girls turn to wash the dishes so we headed back to the dock. Farlin had warned us about alligators and that we had to look for orange eyes. Of course we scanned the area and saw some…and then they started getting closer…and then they disappeared. At this time all four of us took off running back to Farlin. He made us go back to the dock and wash the dishes with him as he dunked them in the water. The next morning we found the gator just hanging around as we loaded up the canoes a little bit early than usual so we could have the tides in our favor.
The next morning after loading our canoe we had to back track avocado creek which was a lot less intimidating in the day light. I was partners with Troy today and I was sure it would be an adventure. After getting back into tarpon bay we took a small break to swim in the refreshing water that offered relief to our bug bite ridden bodies. Today we had quite a bit of ground to cover and a few mangrove tunnels to conquer. The first one we had to go through was wilderness waterway. It was quite smelly, buggy and difficult to maneuver. I honestly am blessed to have had Troy as my partner because he was motivated to get through it and not dilly dally. After making it through wilderness waterway we stopped for a quick snack and then we were off paddling with the tarpons which are huge fish that will fight to their death, but are terrible for eating. The next obstacle to tackle was the nightmare. This mangrove was adequately names. We all wanted to get through it before the sun was completely set so we started to move. We however miss judged and took a wrong turn that resulted in a narrow path and caused troy and I to end up out of our canoe and neck deep in the mangroves. I was frustrated and did end up crying a bit as we tried to get our canoe free from the grips of a mangrove. When we could go no further we had to turn around and back track. At this point the sun was setting and navigation was about to get ten times harder. In the tunnel it was hard enough to tell what way was the correct way in the light, but navigating ing the dark was ten times harder. We were all getting frustrated because it was dark, there was no clear path, our instructors would not help us, and people were having a hard time navigating. After lots of choice words, good navigating and a head lamp being lost we made it out of the nightmare and were greeted by sky full of stars. Our paddling was not done though and it was time to navigate into the Gulf so we could make it to the Highland beach (which isn’t really a beach, but more like hell). As we are paddling towards the Gulf I began to feel sick to my stomach and my PFD felt like it was constricting me. I told Troy and he told me to just stop paddling, but I felt bad so I just sucked it up and tried to breath through it. At this point Farlin came up to me and asked how I was doing and I began to cry a little because I was so scared that i was getting sick. Little did I know, but Maggie (our other instructor) was getting sick off the canoe as well. We pulled the canoes up at Highland and I got out and just laid down trying not to get sick. Farlin took two paddles and got my healy hammock set up so I could go to sleep…well, that didn’t happen immediately because I did end up running to use the Groover (our mobile bathroom) and then I got sick as well into the ocean all while being viscously attacked by mosquitos. This continued to happen through out the night, but I tried to get as much sleep as possible and choke down some water because I knew I had a long day of paddling ahead of me the next day. However, I woke up to Makenna getting sick and Maggie was still very ill. Makenna and I crawled into the tent where we fell asleep for nearly 24 hours only waking up to get water and when another crew member Mackenzie got sick. At this point 5 of us were sick and there was talk that the coast guard was going to have to come evacuate us. We ended up just spending an extra day on Highland Beach and I as I said it wasn’t really a beach. Then next day we were paddling and we crossed paths with the other crews. We kept paddling and that night we had to board up in Tom’s Bight. To Board up we have to tie all the canoes together and then we have to move everything out of one canoe and spread it to the others so the person can straddle the stern and pull the boards over their head and then we must put everything that we don’t need back in the canoe. After all the boards are up we put up a line to hang up our healy hammocks. Unfortunately in the process of setting up for the night it started to rain…rather pour. We had to issue our yellow rain gear and we just curled up in fetal position until it stopped raining. Luckily it stopped and we were able to sleep.
The next morning was pretty cold so I was glad to have my wool hat. We did not have very far to go that day, but the wind was very strong and the overcast sky was killing our mood. We were all very cranky and just wanted to get where we had to go. Upon arriving at the next beach we got put on solo day and it was raining. I had to set up my tarp in the rain and make sure that it was going to keep myself dry. I got set up and I was asleep before the sun was down. Solo day was a day that did allow me to reflect on life, but I don’t think it had me reflect more than any other day.
The day after solo day was a beautiful day and we all had a renewed energy because we were getting close to the end of the trip. We had 17 miles to travel that day and we all planned on paddling until 2am. If we did not get to the camp site we would have had to board up and that was not an option. The winds were strong, but our moral was high and we were able to make it to the campground in a little over 7 hours. When we were paddling the bioluminescence was crazy strong and there were jelly fish that would light up as we would hit them when paddling. It was a tight fit at the camp ground, but we managed and we all were excited to only have 8 miles left to basecamp.
The final day of paddling had us ready to go, but towards the end of the day we lost our motivation because we had become a bit nostalgic. Finally we reached basecamp at 4:30pm. Basecamp was on Sunset Island in Everglades City. We unloaded our canoes and set up camp for the last time. Over the next two days we spent more time together and reflecting on our trip and what we had just accomplished. I survived not showering for nearly 12 days and I survived not having my cell phone.
This was quite an experience, and I definitely learned a lot, but it is not something that I ever plan on doing again. I am excited to challenge myself some more and work on the things that I need to.
I encourage everyone to take time for themselves or to go on a crazy adventure to truly understand what they are capable of.