Seventy Hours of Solitude
By no means am I unique as the pressures of modern society weigh down my soul. Between work, financial woes, being a father, a looming and likely ugly divorce, I find myself yearning for an adventure, a way to touch base with myself, a way to let off some steam, and a way to reconnect with my essence. One of the best ways to clear the mind, touch base, and reconnect is to get out into what I like to call God’s world. God’s world is anywhere on this planet that remains relatively unblemished by the human footprint. In other words, get out into the wild. It is not really about conquering nature, nature is indifferent. It is about testing and healing oneself through bonding with the beauty of nature and its indifference. It is about challenging oneself and facing one’s demons alone.
I had been mulling plans for this trip since August 2007. Growing up in Southwest Florida, I knew that long duration camp trips are better accomplished in the winter when the biting and stinging of mosquitoes, flies, and no seeums is less intense. I also knew that on December 6, I was to be a co-presenter at the Mark A. Benedict Science Symposium in Naples (I am a Scientist). I could launch my Kayak from Rookery Bay Reserve after my presentation on Thursday the 6th. Take a 35 mile paddle down past Marco Island out into the Ten Thousand Island area of the Everglades and have my cousin pick me up in Everglades City on Sunday.
I am familiar with the wilds of southwest Florida and have a good sense of direction. I am however a novice Kayaker and in mediocre physical condition. That being said, the following is an account of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of my first attempt at a long duration kayak voyage.
I learned earlier in the week that my presentation would be last at the symposium. I left the symposium at around 17:20 scoffing at the warnings from one of the women about manatees trying to tip the kayak. The dirt road leading to the launch site was in poor condition covered with pits and potholes and I had to drive extremely slow and cautiously in my antique 1981 240d Mercedes.
I arrived at the launch site as the sun was setting. I exited the car into a swarming cloud of mosquitoes that were as dense as some sea fogs I have encountered. So thick were they that I had to ensure that I kept my mouth closed and breathe through my nose. I quickly changed into my long sleeve Columbia shirt and kaki military fatigues. I loaded my pre garbage bag wrapped supplies, into my 17 foot blue Wilderness Systems Cape-Horn touring style kayak. I pushed off into the unknown blackness of night with only a hazy outline of mangrove fringe to guide me. To my relief the cloud of mosquitoes bid me farewell at the shoreline but the relief soon gave way to frustration as I quickly became disoriented in the darkness frequently referring to aerials and compass under flashlight trying to navigate through the darkness to my first camp site.
I could hear boats speeding around in the plethora of mangrove islands. My anxiety heightened by the fear that a boat would charge out of a channel, speed around a bend, and cut my kayak in two, leaving me and my mangled wreck floating in the darkness. Eventually I began to hear the surf out in the gulf and could feel the fresh sea breeze. I knew I was close to my camp site. I also heard many manatee surfacing and huffing for air. Much to my relief, the coordinated attack on me and my kayak I had been warned about never came. As I approached the area I had planned on camping in, I noticed that others had beaten me to it. There was a large bon fire raging and they were shooting off fireworks. I also noticed the obnoxious monstrosity of the brightly lit condos on Marco Island ahead. I decided that the shoreline at my starboard was sufficient for the night.
I got out of the kayak, stretched my already sore lower back, pulled my cell phone from the zip lock bag turned it on and noticed I had made it by 20:24. I made my check-in phone calls and began to set up camp. No bugs were biting. I was at a grassy part of the island chest high in sea oats and shrubs. Firewood was scarce but I found enough, though much of it stained with dye from herbicides, to start a fire. Next I decided to try my luck at fishing. On my third cast I caught a 12 inch flounder. I quickly cleaned it, coated it with salt and pepper, fried it up in the skillet, squeezed lime juice over it and ate. As I retired to my tent, the cacophony of wind, waves, and huffing manatees soon lulled me into a deep slumber.
I awoke around 08:15, broke camp and packed up the kayak. I ate a light breakfast of 2 granola bars and set out. In the daylight I could see as well as hear the manatees. They looked quite friendly, nowhere near menacing. I felt exponentially more confident navigating during the day. I knew that today was going to be my long distance day so I tried to maintain a brisk pace.
As I entered the intra-coastal waterway north of Marco Island something that could have been right out of a Disney movie took place just 30 feet directly in front of my kayak. Two dolphins leapt out of the water at the same time and did a perfectly choreographed simultaneous flip while criss-crossing each other before entering the water again. My immediate thought was “I can’t have that happening this close to my kayak” and I bee-lined it closer towards shore. I swear they must have been trained dolphin escapees. They went the same direction I was going for a half hour or so continually jumping out of the water engaging in similar acrobatic antics. In all my years on the water, the only time I had never seen anything like this, only in the movies or at Sea World.
I made my way along fairly well growing ever more confident in my navigation method using aerial photography and the compass. At the south end of Marco Island I stopped and had an apple and 2 granola bar lunch. I remained in high spirits even though my muscles were beginning to tighten. I finally entered the Gulf of Mexico after about four hours. What a beautiful sight. At this point I was officially in the Ten Thousand Islands area and leaving civilization behind. I turned east along my route heading in the direction of Turtle Key. The paddling was a little tougher now due to the light chop and higher winds. But I felt exhilarated as my senses filled with the salt air and refreshing gulf wind blowing in my face.
As I approached Turtle Key I casted a line out and trolled behind me to see if I could catch any protein for dinner. After three strong hits I landed a Jack Crevalle. Although edible, I had often heard that they taste awful but I kept it anyway. I reached my campsite around 15:10 or so. I was extremely hot and thirsty so I stripped down naked and put on my “Navy Seal” tactical amphibious assault boots, grabbed my fishing pole and headed out into the water to cool off. After wading for what seemed to be 200 yards from shore with the water never coming over my thighs, I squatted down in the water a couple of times to cool off then headed back to shore.
I set up camp on the beach, gathered fire wood for the night, and made my campfire and ate. After noticing the tide was heading out, I found some circular pits that were still holding some water. I decided to try to make a “survivor man” crab trap. I jammed a series of sticks in the outside rim of the pit leaving the shoreward end open. I cut the Jack in half with my knife and placed it inside. I then settled down to watch the fire and a most spectacular sunset. I soon heard a lot of thrashing by the crab trap. I headed over to check out the ruckus and saw a rather large set of fins take off at my approach. No crabs. I replaced the half of jack that the fish had been trying to work out of the pit and went back to the fireside. About fifteen minutes later I heard more thrashing around the crab trap. I grabbed my iron seven pronged spear and flashlight and headed over and found a 2 foot long catfish in the trap eating the jack. I hurled the spear and it bounced off its bony head plate. The fish broke through the side of the trap and in a disoriented state nearly beached himself. At this point I did not feel hungry and did not feel like cleaning and cooking that large fish so I chose not to take another shot with the spear and I let him slowly swim off. In hind sight this turned out to be a mistake, although a minor one. I probably should have forced myself to eat that fish. There were still no crabs in the trap. I retired to my tent and realized that sand was everywhere and in everything. Even in my cigarette roller. As I lay there in my tent relishing in the night sounds I drifted off into a restless sleep, restless mainly because of the sounds of this wild place. The activity of the sea life was intense with constant thrashing and splashing all along the shoreline all night long. Pelicans were diving, herons and frogs croaking, crickets chirping, raccoons jabbering, and even loud tree crashing sounds coming from the island interior. The air was charged with the high energy of life. It was better than any nightclub or discotheque. Yet at the same time it was peaceful, comforting, and my mind was clear.
Day 3 –
I awoke around 07:00 to find the water’s edge around 200 yards away from shore. I would be here for a few hours more than expected. That was okay as I had anticipated a short 2-hour leisurely paddle to Lulu Key, my next campsite. I always found it amazing how quickly my circadian rhythm (internal clock) adjusts when I am out in nature. At home it takes all my will power to roll out of my hammock in the morning a mere five minutes before it is time to head for work. But once I am out in the wilds, I always adjust to waking up at sunrise and falling asleep four hours or so after sunset. I decided to take it easy today. I woke up stiff and sore from the long paddle the day before. I used the previous night’s coals to stoke the fire. I checked the low tide pools to see if I could find some protein for breakfast. I saw plenty of starfish, sand dollars, and whelks but no clams, scallops, or crabs. So I cooked up a pot of quinoa for breakfast and ate the entire thing.
After breakfast I was still pretty stiff and sore and opted for about 15 minutes of yoga while I waited for the tide to come in. I slowly went about breaking camp which always involves leaving no traces of your presence; no trash and the fire pit completely out and covered over with sand etc. I learned this at an early age. The outdoor experience is magnificent and one of the greatest aspects of that experience is the feeling that one is going somewhere where no other has been. Even though it may be an illusion, it is a pleasant one that is often shattered by getting somewhere and discovering other people’s trash. Maybe it’s just one of my idiosyncrasies. I even dislike return trips. I always wanted my outdoor excursions to be one-way, or a loop at least, so I do not cover the same ground. Even as a child when I would hike along streams, I would at least cross the stream to return on the opposite side. I sat down and prepared a lime, onion and cucumber salad, heavily salt and peppered, and put it in a plastic container to marinate for later in the day. I meticulously packed the kayak. The tide had come in far enough by then.
I was in the water and headed to Lulu Key by 10:44. As I rounded the southern tip of Turtle Key to head east I discovered that this day’s paddle was going to be a little tougher than the previous. I was heading into a fair headwind and light chop and realized I would need to maintain a good paddling rhythm. Every time I stopped, the wind and current would turn my kayak around and set me backward. I also started noticing that the mangrove fringed island coastline began to look the same making it hard to estimate my position. After a little while, I passed three older gentlemen fishing from a boat and they offered me half a sandwich and asked if I was headed to Key West. I gratefully accepted the ham and bologna cheese sandwich and told them my travel plans and bid them farewell. I knew I was moving more slowly but soon saw what I assumed to be Lulu Key in the distance. I became confused however, because I saw a small island gulf ward of the island coastline that did not show up on my aerial photographs. I learned later that the island was covered by some text on the printout.
I decided to try my luck at trolling the fishing line out behind me again. After about 15 more minutes of paddling and no bites on my line I looked back to see the fishing line tangled around the rudder. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes untangling everything and finally I cast out the line again. That’s when I noticed that my paddle was gone. This was one of those pure adrenaline rush moments. Like in the milliseconds before you rear end a car in front of you. It was that kind of feeling. As the adrenaline rushed a fish hit my line rather hard. I quickly reeled it in to find that it was a catfish. I had no time to mess around with removing the hook from its mouth while avoiding the spines and quickly, too quickly, pulled out my knife and sliced the line as well as the tip of my thumb. So there I was bleeding and adrift about a third of a mile from land. I soon calmed myself and collected my thoughts on what to do. I feared getting in the water with a bleeding thumb. So I figured I would need to improvise a paddle. I
looked down at my spear. I decided to see how that worked as an oar and to my surprise it began to move me along, albeit slowly. I finally reached the Island and decided I would call my friend Jeff who had mentioned coming down in his skiff the next day to meet me and do some fishing. If he were indeed coming I would have him bring me another paddle. If not it looked like I would have a long night ahead of me trying to make a new one out of mangrove branches. I took my GPS coordinates and called. Although the cell phone reception was poor, I was able to get the information through and he agreed to bring me a paddle the next day. Then I busied myself with setting up camp. I fished with no luck then got the fire going, ate cucumber salad, and cooked a pot of rice and a can of black beans. I began to ponder several things I could have done to avoid losing my paddle, which could have been a deadly mistake under different circumstances. I could have dummy-corded that thing to the Kayak. I could have wedged it under the straps. I could have put round bright colored floaties in the center. Hell, I could have brought a spare paddle. This was an important lesson for my next trip. I still felt good though as I once again witnessed a spectacular sunset complete with a dolphin cruising along the shoreline and tail slapping fish into the air and eating them. After the sunset the stars came out into a moonless sky. It had been a long time since I had been so far away from ambient light and seen the sky so lit up with stars. I lay down for a while on the bare sand by the fire and watched the stars while breathing in the fresh natural sea air and listened to the chaotic symphony of the living sea all around me.
I awoke around 07:00 and hiked along the extremely low tide line looking for any protein to eat and gathering more firewood along the way. I found nothing substantial to eat other than oysters and decided that I would not risk a crippling stomach sickness by munching on oysters. So I made Ramen soup for breakfast. I also heated up the uneaten half of the baked potato from the previous night and ate it. I then watched the tide come in. Once again, I tried my luck at fishing but to no avail. I spoke with Jeff several times to ensure that he was on his way. I took my time packing up as I knew I had the entire morning. Jeff finally arrived at around 12:30 with paddle and a dummy cord to attach the paddle to the kayak. Jeff told me of the many sharks he had seen on his way out, all in thigh deep water. I decided to put that vision out of my mind. We decided that I needed to get paddling, as today was a 9-mile trip. My forearms were so sore from the previous days of paddling that my heart sank as I rounded the southern tip of Lulu Key and headed into a 10 mph headwind and moderate chop. The going was slow. Every time I stopped for a breather, I shot backwards. Not only was there a strong headwind, but I was also paddling against an outgoing tide. It was a daunting task to keep my arms moving and I soon realized that this would be akin to a 9-mile uphill bike ride against the wind. Every once in a while Jeff would take a break from fishing and motor over to where I was and see how I was doing. Eventually I held on to the side of his boat for about a mile and a half break. As we entered the bay south of EvergladesCity I had to let go. The waves were splashing off the side of his boat and into the kayak drenching me from the chest down. So I dug in and crossed the bay and made it to the ranger station in a half hour more. It was definitely a test of my physical endurance. But it was a test where I had no choice but to complete. The best kind of physical challenge, are those where quitting is not an option. The endorphin rush from the intense physical exertion mixed with the triumph of success is truly a superb feeling. The sense of accomplishment left me feeling like I was standing at the top of Mount Everest staring down at the world.
I found the trip a majestic personal challenge full of many lessons. I had made the trip to touch base with myself and clear my head. I realize that a trip like this kept me fairly occupied. There was no real time to focus on my life’s woes most of my mental energy was focused on the task at hand. Therefore, clearing my head came easily. The sights, smells, and sounds as well as the exercise kept me in high spirits for days afterwards. Even though I lost my paddle and needed some assistance, I know that I could have completed the trip on my own. In retrospect, my biggest mistakes were the care of my paddle; a kayak is useless without one. I also should have brought better protein rich food and forced myself to eat more (Ramen noodles, although tasty, do not provide much energy). All in all, it was an excellent experience and one of the highlights of my life. I cannot wait until my next trip, a hundred mile trek from Everglades City to Flamingo. For that trek, there will be no cell phone coverage. No Mistakes!