Solitude. You're camped on a platform ten feet in the air, in the middle of Florida Bay. There's a light breeze keeping the mosquitos away while you sit back to watch the sunset. A bottle of champagne is on ice, and you've nothing to do for the next two days except kick back and take it all in. Sounds great, right? Well it was, but getting there proved a little more of an adventure than we had in mind...
Since we started dating, Abbie and I have spent most of our Thanksgivings with her family in Florida. It's a welcome escape from our northern climes, and you can't beat an excellent turkey dinner on the white sand beach of Fort De Soto Park with family and friends.
We usually try to add a few days onto these trips, and see another part of Abbie's home state; the Keys, the Rainbow River, that sort of thing. Usually these are whole family affairs, but in 2016 we struck out on our own to do something a little more adventurous.
Abbie and I would fly in a week early, rent a car in St. Petersburg, borrow a canoe from her father, and then head south to Everglades National Park and spend three days canoeing the southernmost section of the Everglades Wilderness Waterway; a 99-mile maze of lakes, rivers, creeks, and bays that run from the town of Flamingo all the way down to Everglades City - we would only do a short portion of the trail near its southern terminus, traversing Alligator Creek on the West Lake Canoe Trail en route to our ultimate destination of Shark Point Chickee. In retrospect, Alligator Creek and Shark Point might have been odd places to choose for the "relaxing" journey I had in mind. But that's what I did.
At the last minute, while loading up the rental car in St. Pete, I ambushed Abbie's father with the "can I marry your daughter" bit... his track record with secrets isn't the best, so that's just the way it had to be. Permission in hand (thanks Tom!), and with the canoe on the roof (thanks again Tom!), my unsuspecting fiancee-to-be and I set off for Everglades City.
If you've ever been to Everglades City, you might look at the photo below and think "wait, that doesn't look right". That's because it's actually Key Largo. Turns out, Everglades City has some brutal -- and I mean brutal -- mosquitos in November. We stopped there to make our camping reservations, then drove over to the campground where we had planned to spend the first night. The only other people in the campground were two dudes sitting in lawn chairs, covered head to toe in mosquito nets; occasionally lifting them high enough from their faces to sneak a sip of beer. The only sound was the buzzing of mosquito wings. We gave that one look and said "bye". So the first night of our Everglades trip we ended up in the Florida Keys. Which was great. We sat under the stars and drank boxed wine while our beach neighbors fired off tacos and listed to mariachi music. Life could be worse.
The next morning we started our journey in earnest. We tied the canoe up to a dock on West Lake and loaded it with all of our gear - camping and camera equipment in waterproof portage packs, a packed cooler, plenty of fresh water, and various odds and ends.
Then we took a few minutes to survey the canoe. Abbie's father is a property manager, and took it as a trade for some work he did years ago... it hadn't actually been used in quite a long time. Given the number of alligators we could already see from the dock, we were of the mind to let it sit a few minutes until we were certain that there were no leaks.
Satisfied that our vessel was sound, we paddled out into West Lake. Abbie commented about how large the alligators were. They all look big to me, but when the Florida girl says they're big... We paddled carefully. Crossing West Lake took us a few hours. There was a quartering headwind so we mostly stuck to the windward shore, using the mangroves for cover when possible. Eventually we made it to the end of West Lake and started down Alligator Creek. The "creeks" we paddled were winding mangrove tunnels that connect lake to lake, and are just wide enough to maneuver a canoe.
The first tunnel was beautiful. We paddled into the heart of an egret rookery, and as we got within fifteen or twenty feet of the flock, groups of birds began taking flight and leading us down the tunnel. This went on for ten minutes or so, as we slowly glid forward in the calm water.
The second tunnel on Alligator Creek is where it all went sideways. We were paddling along happily, Abbie in front calling out directions around the many twists and turns, when she suddenly yelled "Spiderwebs! Duck!" I looked forward and ahead of us - right at head height - was the largest spiderweb I have ever seen. We're not talking the kind with individual threads and a dainty little spider hanging from it. We're talking a web so dense that you couldn't see through it. Think about the fake spiderweb stuff that people string up on their porches around Halloween. This was the work of a whole city of spiders. A translucent white weave that completely spanned the width of the tunnel. We ducked forward in the canoe, and cleared the web by inches as our momentum carried us under it. Once through, we let out a sigh of relief and were glad to have it behind us; little did we know that this was the first of many webs we'd be going under in the next half mile or so of creek. Not long thereafter, as we approached the largest web yet, Abbie yelled "duck!".
I did, and we glided forward just as we had before. Unfortunately this web was situated right at a bend in the creek. Failing to navigate the turn, we came to halt against a clump of mangrove root - still underneath the web. Abbie yelled for me to backup. I glanced up at a few hundred spiders inches above my head and, not grasping at this point that we were up against a mangrove, paddled forward even harder. It was a mistake my wife may never forgive. We struck the mangrove tree with enough force to shake it - and the web. I am not exaggerating when I say that dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds of spiders, rained down from that web, onto us and into our canoe. No horror movie could do it justice.
To our credit (read: Abbie's credit), when the shit (spiders) hit the proverbial fan (our boat), we melded into this singular survival-instinct-driven machine. Abbie barked out orders from the front, and I listened for once. Next thing you know we were out of the creek and into the next lake. I was brushing-off/flicking/squishing spiders on and around me when I looked forward at Abbie and saw her sitting motionless. She slumped forward in her seat, spiders crawling all over her jacket. "Abbie are you OK?" No response. "Abbie, ARE YOU OK!?" "No Kevin. I am not OK. I am covered in spiders."
She just sat there, having given up on life. I couldn't help but laugh a little while I leaned forward and starting swatting spiders off her back. She soon joined in, and within a few minutes we had extricated most of the arachnids from our vessel. For a few hours one would crawl out every now and again, to be stomped on or flung out with a paddle. As we regrouped in the lake we actually had a laugh at the whole situation. Abbie said something to the effect of "that was terrible, but it's going to make for a great story". She didn't even know that she was about to be proposed to that evening! Another hour, or maybe two, went by in the mangroves. No more spiders thankfully, but the mosquitos got thicker as we went. The only other noteworthy occrunce in this section happened when we rounded a corner in the creek, and surprised a very very large alligator which had been sunning itself on shore. It charged us, mouth open and hissing! As it rushed forward I raised my paddle to "bop" it on the nose if it came within striking distance. Abbie yelled at me not to "bop" it.
To bop or not to bop a charging alligator is still the subject of some contention in this house.
The gator submerged directly abeam our canoe, and swam beneath us. I don't know how big it was, but we were in a twelve foot canoe and I remember thinking in the moment that the alligator wasn't much shorter. It was an alarming few seconds, but ended as suddenly as it began.
Just after the alligator charge, we cleared the mangroves and paddled out onto the ocean at Florida Bay. It was fantastic to be out in the open, but we knew that we'd eventually have to paddle back the same way we had just come in.
It wasn't long in Florida Bay before we finally caught site of our destination. Shark Point chickee beckoned us in the last few miles. The paddling was smooth and the mosquitos were gone. Spirits were high and we paddled with purpose.
The afternoon was just beginning to fade as we pulled our canoe up on the lowest platform and setup camp aboard the chickee.
I should take a moment here to express my appreciation at having the opportunity to camp in such a wild place, and to note that it is available to anyone who can make the trek out there, courtesy of our National Park Service. The Everglades has a long and oft-troubled history of constant battle between development and preservation, and we are very fortunate that a small fraction of this incredible ecosystem has been preserved for generations to come (I highly recommend Ted Levin's book Liquid Land if you'd like to learn more about the Everglades and its conservation).
OK, back to the story. So we setup camp, broke out that box of wine again, and kicked back to watch pelicans and dolphins feeding on a school of fish a few hundred yards out from our campsite. We basked in the success of our longer-than-expected journey.
As the sun set, the big moment was upon us. I told Abbie that I was going to set the camera up on a tripod, so we could get a photo together at sunset; and while doing so snuck the ring out of it's hiding place in my camera case. I hastily laid out a tarp on the floor of the chickee - lest the ring be dropped through the deck planks and into Florida Bay - and asked Abbie to join me for a photo.
The rest went something like this:
The next few days were relaxing. We read books, talked, and just enjoyed being disconnected from the outside world. Abbie taught me to cast-net for minnows at night, and during the day we each took turns taking quick dips in the bay while the other kept watch for sharks and saltwater crocs.
The paddle back was uneventful - no alligators, no spiders, no drama at all. Which was just fine with us. There was much to be thankful for.