Paddling the Everglades (conclusion)

Standard

Day 8 – Grounded

A fierce electrical storm did indeed blow in. Thunder, lightening, and rain all around us. Even when the rain stopped mid-morning, the high winds continued to churn up the water. I was grounded by my ankle anyways and Gord busied himself drying out our wet sleeping bags, clothes, and gear. It was a good day off.

Day 9 – To pee or not to pee…

When we can’t hold it anymore, we paddle to a mangrove root and hold on. For Gord it’s simple. He unzips and goes. It’s not so easy for me. I wiggle my pants down while still sitting. Without putting any weight on my foot, I spin around to lever my butt over the edge of the canoe (still without putting weight on my bum foot) at exactly the same time as Gord (with eyes closed) leans backs out the opposite side (so the canoe stays balanced). “Don’t come back in without telling me or I’m going over,” he warns me. I assure him that I wont, as I try not to pee in the canoe. No dignity, no grace, just relief (who says I have no game). And to think I used to be embarrassed if a boy could hear me pee.

I must be getting better at navigation as we made it to ‘The Watson Place’ ground site without any detours. But we did have a wild run on one river though. Between a strong wind at our back and being in the right tidal flow, we literally rode the waves in. I just sat there enjoying the ride as Gord used his paddle as a tiller.

“Bloody Ed” Watson was a homesteader who is said to have murdered his labourers rather than pay them. He is also rumoured to have killed the Oklahoma outlaw Belle Starr. He grew vegetables and farmed sugar cane in the 1800’s. Nature has completely reclaimed the site but remnants of his machinery, including a large syrup kettle are still there. The spot is reputed to be haunted, but if ghosts roam the island, they had no problem with us because we slept like the dead.

Day 10 – Swamp people

We were savouring our last night in the tent at Lopez’ ground site when we heard voices hailing us. Gord went out to see three men getting out of a leaky, rickety motor boat. “Mand if we stay heer”, they drawled. They were oily polite and odd looking and set off our spidey senses big time. The Everglades attracts bird watchers, outdoor people, fishermen, and adventure types. These guys weren’t any of the those. It was full on dark at this point. We don’t know what their deal was – they said something about heading inland to wait out another coming storm but it didn’t add up. The glades also attract people who want to dump bodies, and people who want to hide. I was hoping they just wanted to hide.

Day 11 – Out and away

It was a restless night. Gord kept his knife unsheathed and I didn’t sleep at all. We packed up quick and were glad to be away. If the same guys had turned up at ‘Watson’s Place’ it would have been seriously spooky. As it was, it was just a little unsettling. We blasted the last 14 kilometres back to civilization. At the very end, in Chokoloskee bay, the wind gave us one last run for our money before spitting us out the other side.

It’s been a great trip. We paddled over 200 kilometres through a bit of everything. Being in the wild makes me happy and experiencing it in a canoe was a real treat. Seeing incredible birds and marine wildlife was a daily occurrence. Hurting my ankle was a drag but fortunately Gord was able to lever me into the canoe for the last few days (and it’s slowly improving). As always, I have loved sharing the adventure with you. Thank you so much for reading and coming along. Take good care and I’ll see you on the flip side.

Paddling the Everglades (part 2)

Standard

Day 5 – Briny fresh.

We woke up feeling grungy and stinky, but left post haste to catch the high tide. Getting stuck in the mud was funny, but once was enough. We managed to find Broad River but until we finally saw river marker #25, we still weren’t sure we were in the right place. All hail river marker #25!

There are three types of camp spots in the Everglades – beach sites (on the Gulf), ground sites (mostly early American Calusa shell mounds), and chickees (open-sided wooden platforms with a roof that is built over water) and they are generally spaced between 15 and 25 kilometres apart. If you take a wrong turn or miss the spot somehow, tying up to a mangrove root and sleeping in the canoe is the probable outcome. Tonight we made it to our planned ground spot. Yahoo!

We saw a huge alligator gliding down the river this evening. At least we think it was an alligator and not a crocodile. One way to tell the difference is that the fourth tooth of a crocodile overlaps it’s lip (if you are close enough to tell, you might already be in a spot of trouble). We took turns using the pail for a body and clothes wash. Briny fresh never felt so good.

Day 6 – Glass water and Gators

The water was like glass today. We paddled past many more alligators sunning themselves or swimming lazily and showing little to no interest in us. None came closer than 15 feet so there was no need to bonk any heads with the paddle. It was a marvellous ride and we arrived at Rogers River Chickee with energy to spare. We feasted on dry deli salami, blue cheese, jalapeño cheddar, and olives with crackers. I must say, Gord’s canoe camping edibles are far superior to my usual hiking fare.

We have only seen a couple of people so far but tonight we are sharing our chickee with two local fishermen, and if you ask Gord, they arrived in the nick of time. I had just caught the biggest, baddest six inch fish in the water wth a rod that didn’t reel in and I was hell bent that we were going to eat it, but Gord was less than eager. The fisherman guys told us that it was a loggerhead catfish and that catching one was locally considered to be a ‘negative one’ and that its quill was poisonous. At that moment its quill was imbedded in my leather glove. Fortunately, it didn’t reach my skin or they said I’d need medical attention. I threw it back in the water and sadly watched our supper swim away. The fishermen also offered us some of their 100% deet saying that “you glow for a couple of days, but it’s the only thing that works on the mosquitoes in the glades”. They slathered it on and probably thought our muscol was drinkable. To the mosquitoes, our muscol might as well have been lemonade.

Day 7 – Paddling scared

The myriad of twists and turns through the canals, islands, and rivers that we needed to cross today felt beyond my ability as chief navigator. And the technology I downloaded to help with navigation was useless, so I am using only the marine charts, a compass, and the odd river trial marker. In the end, I did ok, but we still ended up doing 27 kilometres instead of 20. At one point, we went clear across the wrong bay because a guy in a boat looked like a trail marker. Only once though, were we getting seriously stressed. I knew we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and found ourselves on the twistiest, turniest, littlest canal on an untraveled waterway. I kept praying that it would end in big water to our left. We would still be off course, but at least then, I would know where we were (according to the charts). But the canal just wasn’t ending. I was acutely aware at that point that no one knew where we were, there were no rangers, and we could reach no one. Images of our bones being found fifty years from now flashed through my mind. We figured we really might be in a bit of a predicament, when all of a sudden, the canal opened up to big water on the left. I gave a whoop of joy and we both breathed a big sigh of relief. Not today buzzards, not today.

Within minutes of our jubilant release into the big bay, 15 consecutive motor boats blasted past us, their wakes driving us sideways and almost swamping us. Maybe it was the pent up emotion of the last couple of hours, but for ages afterwards, I cursed them and raged against their mindless disregard.

We finally put in at Lostmans Bay ground site. Shortly afterwards, I slipped on a cross board and toasted my ankle. The pain is intense if I put weight on it. In any case, the fishermen told us that a bad electrical storm is blowing in tonight, so we are especially grateful to be safe in this sheltered spot and not sleeping in our aluminum canoe!

Stay tuned for the final segment tomorrow.

Paddling the Florida Everglades (part one)

Standard

We made it out! We have just emerged from our 11 days in the deep wilderness of the Florida Everglades 10,000 islands victorious and happy, but not unscathed. We are grubby, weary, itchy, stinky, wounded, infected, and scabbed. But we still have all our hands and toes firmly secured to our bodies, and what an adventure! I have decided to post it in three segments over the next few days. At the moment are off to visit family in Boca Raton. And God willing – take a shower!

Day 1 – Bliss

We made our first nights destination of Jewel Key. There were islands everywhere and they all looked the same but we eventually found ‘our island’ in the Gulf and felt very accomplished and proficient. Even with the heavy load, Gord’s aluminum canoe handled well. It suits us – it’s an old work horse with a back story and comes with a few bruises and dents.

Jewel key is beautiful and we have a view of the water on each side of the tent. But apparently our tiny island is also inhabited by many rats. We haven’t seen any but we’ve seen many raccoons and they look almost marsupial. It was a perfect first day on the water – dead calm and sunny, and an easy 8 kilometre paddle. For supper, Gord cooked steak on charcoal briquettes that we supplemented with pasta and Greek salad as we watched dozens of brown pelicans swoop and dive all around us.

Day 2. Paddling with Dolphins.

It was a longer, harder day today paddling across choppy water from Jewel Key to our next stop of Pavilion Key 17 kilometres away. When we started out, I said to Gord breezily that we would always keep land in sight. “Damn straight”, he replied back. Even though he’s an experienced canoeist, he’s no fan of big, open water. At times we were paddling through two-foot waves, which doesn’t sound like much, but it got the heart pumping. The highlight of the day was seeing a couple of sets of blue nosed dolphins beside us! Once, it was a mother and baby gliding in and out of the water. Such a beautiful and thrilling sight!

Pavilion Key has a gorgeous long beach and the island is all ours. The shells we are seeing are the quality of which you find in tourist shops and I’m loving collecting them in my white pail. Silly Gord – he said I could bring back all I wanted.

Day 3 – White caps, Black fins

We awoke to cold, cloudy skies. The wind was strong and neither of us slept well. And we had a 16 kilometre paddle ahead of us, half of which was across open water with no land in between (if you picture the letter c, our island was at the top end of the c and our destination island was at the bottom). It was the biggest, roughest water yet and we were happy we had worked into it gradually. We weren’t terrified but it definitely kept us acutely focused. Later Gord said that his heart was in his throat a couple of times when we were almost swamped. Sitting at the front, I couldn’t see the amount of water we took on – I just kept paddling hard. I was thirsty but intuitively knew I couldn’t stop paddling even for a moment. When we were able to let up a bit and expend the energy to talk, Gord said he was also thirsty but knew we couldn’t stop paddling in the roughest stuff. After four hours of fighting the tide and three foot swells, we arrived to the other side. A few hours after that we reached Turkey Key and found a sandy spot in the lee of the island where we were sheltered from the wind. It was a safe landing after a rough day. Ten minutes later we saw multiple large black fins with white bellies right in front of us zooming about in the water where we were just paddling. Wild! A successful day followed by a delicious dinner of roasted sausages on the fire. Really hoping for a good nights sleep and an easier day tomorrow..

Day 4. Caught in Riptides and Stuck in Mudflats

We are camped tonight at the edge of a bay that will lead us to Broad River where, tomorrow, we will turn inland into the everglades waterway. We overshot our destination camp today and ended up paddling 23 kilometres fighting riptides. That translates to paddling hard and making little to no progress. We were bone weary when we finally set in. And then we got stuck in a mud flat at low tide. Gord got out and immediately sunk up to his knees in gooey, cloying, stinky mud. And then he fell face first. Before it was all over, we were both knee deep and couldn’t stop laughing, even though we weren’t sure how we would get our canoe, our stuff, or us, out of the mud. We ended up having to wait for the tide to come in a bit before Gord could ferry our gear to shore and drag the canoe out. It was hilarious and awful depending on which of us you talk to. We are not in the prettiest spot in the world tonight but it will do. Nice sunset, nice fire.

We are happy to leave the sand and the Gulf in our (very small) wake. Gord has open blisters on his feet from salt and sand abrasion under the straps of his sandals. The sand has become pervasive and we are tired of eating it. And the Gulf is knocking the snot out of us. We later found out that the locals don’t go into the Gulf in the winter as it’s so unpredictable and the waves can get so high. Some fishermen we spoke to swamped their motor boat yesterday in the same big water, at the same time as what we were paddling through. Gord steered us well, we paddled smart. And we got lucky! But we are ready to move into the mosquitos-infested mangroves tomorrow. While Gord’s main concern about the trip was paddling in the Gulf, mine is navigating through the mangroves. Stay tuned to see how that goes.

It’s go time

Standard

We are in Everglades City (think population about 300) at the Everglades National Park Visitor Center and it’s completely empty. Nothing is open and there are no rangers. We expected that, given the government shutdown, but it still feels surreal and vaguely apocalyptic. Its just us and the mosquitoes. We are sleeping in the truck tonight and will set out tomorrow morning from a small launch that is functional, but nondescript. Our canoe will be loaded with 55 gallons of water, food for 12 days, camping gear, fishing supplies, first aid kit, and an emergency flare. When we leave, we first need to paddle across a dauntingly large lake (it’s much bigger than it looked on the map) to find a small canal that will lead us to the Gulf of Mexico. In the cold light of day, we are feeling somewhat nervous and wish there was someone around who could answer few questions

It was a good drive down, with the exception of driving through whiteout conditions in Pennsylvania, and a little accident in Tampa in a MacDonald’s parking lot. Gord was backing up at the same time as a little red sports was was below his line of visibility. I didn’t even feel the hit (neither did Gord’s truck) but the little car got its door bashed in. The people were not happy. Fortunately, no one was hurt and by the time the accident report was filled out, they were friendly enough.

As I write, Gord is reading the local rag; a paper called ‘The Mullet Rapper’ about the coming full moon and local black widow spiders. Oh, goodie. The man from the accident also told us that all the super ginormous alligators found in Florida are trucked to the Everglades (he wasn’t kidding). I’m sure that all will be well… truly. But if we’re not out in a month – send help.

Night melded into morning and this a.m. a couple of kayakers were loading into the water at the launch site but they weren’t especially helpful. I took a picture of the launch site but didn’t want to leave our canoe loaded and unattended while we went into town to post this. See you on the flip side. 👍

Adventuring – In at the deep end

Standard

Time for an adventure and Cuba doesn’t count. Cuba was a holiday – there’s a difference. On a holiday you know where you are sleeping at night and it generally involves a bed. My adventure this year is shorter and closer to home (because I am opening my blueberry u-pick this summer, there is too much to do to be away for long). I don’t know if my 2 ½ week foray into the wild will be relaxing or harrowing. Quite possibly both. I have started dating a friend named Gord Tennant, with whom I went to high school, and we are going to paddle a canoe through the Florida Everglades.

The Everglades Wilderness Waterway is a 99-mile-long trail that is a series of bays, channels and rivers that takes you through hundreds of mangrove islands, and along the route that early Native Americans travelled, while living off the bounty of the sea. I like the thought of living off of what we catch, but In case the sea doesn’t bequest it’s bounty to us, we are bringing enough food (and water) to carry us through the 12 days we will be unplugged and removed from civilization.

Yes, there are crocodiles, alligators, poisonous snakes and other creatures, but apparently the two biggest threats are, #1- navigating through the brackish, salty backwaters of the intersected canals (we have good navigational maps, a guide book, and a tide chart); and #2 – raccoons. Yep – regular old raccoons. They are so bold and clever that they will actually unzip the tent to get at any goodies inside. And they will decimate your food and water supply if proper precautions are not taken (Gord has an animal proof food barrel that we are bringing).

I am looking forward to this trip. With the exception of a two-day kayaking excursion that I took with my brother, I haven’t done any paddling in many years, so it’s a completely new adventure for me. Gord is an experienced paddler but hasn’t done the wilderness wandering that I have. So we are bringing different things to the table – literally – I think he’s bringing steak for us.

We have totally opposite travel styles. He has always pre-booked, reserved, and planned every minute of a trip, right down to where each meal will be eaten. I wander at will, make decisions as I go, see what comes, and eat whatever is available when I get there. The thought of travelling his way gives me hives, for real. And travelling my way is hell and gone outside of his comfort zone. It will be an interesting adventure on many levels. We aren’t making any reservations or hard fast plans but he is quietly plotting out our route and campsites. However, with the U.S. government shutdown, it means that there are no park rangers to register any backwater campsites with. But no matter, we’ll take it as it comes. We are both excited and eager. And curious.

We leave for Florida tomorrow evening (Jan 10th) in Gord’s truck with his canoe perched on top. Our plan is to drive straight through. When we arrive, we will take a day to rest and stock up before setting out from Everglades City in south Florida. From there, we will paddle down the Gulf of Mexico for a few days before cutting inland.

I won’t be able to keep you updated en route as there is no cell service. But I will try to write a short post along with a picture of the loaded canoe before we start. I have visions of it being weighed down so heavy that the top lip will be level with the alligator’s eyes. I hope the waves aren’t too high. I hope the wind is at our back. I hope we get along well. When we emerge back into the land of services and wifi, I will post pictures, and my journal entries. Let the adventure begin.

T’was the night before Christmas

Standard

I love Christmas. I have always loved Christmas. When I was a kid growing up in the North West Territories we had only our immediate family and we became very close. We treasured our traditions. Christmas Eve always started with a bath, followed by new pjs. Then came an extra special family evening with a program, singing from our homemade song books, and fancy snacks. And of course the hanging of the stockings before bed. For us, Christmas Eve was every bit as anticipated as Christmas morning when gifts were opened, one by one, but only after our beds were made, our rooms cleaned, and breakfast was eaten together. We didn’t get many presents, but with five kids, there was always the ‘wow’ factor under the tree. I carried on those traditions with my kids and they added a few of their own. They made a pact that the first one up Christmas morning woke the other two kids, and then the three of them would scamper downstairs together. I was always awake in my bed and listened with pleasure for their excited squeals of delight and their ooohs and ahhhhs when they saw the gifts under the tree. They opened their stockings together before ‘waking’ the parental’s.

For me, Christmas represents heartwarming and cozy family time and I steadfastly refused to believe it would ever change. But my kids have grown up on me and are now living their own lives. Alberta first nabbed Sabrina and Ben, and recently she has also snatched away Colin (damn Alberta with her high wages and great job opportunities).

In truth, our traditions have been slowly evolving over the past couple of years, but I have not allowed them to transition gently. I have railed against the mutiny and clung to our rituals with the same childish ferocity with which a toddler clings to her favourite blankie. But this isn’t Neverland and even Peter Pan couldn’t fight the tides of change forever.

My family are all well this holiday season. Colin is working hard in Peace River, Alberta where, in October, he was hired as a truck and coach diesel mechanic. I recently had a wonderful visit from Sabrina and Ben. They are happy and loving the mountain life in Hinton and Jasper. Max, is in his fourth year at Bishops University, and is the only one with me this Christmas eve/day. It’s just the two of us. It seems I must finally allow our traditions to sail into the realm of cherished memories.

In a preemptive strike against sliding into melancholy this Christmas, I booked a last minute trip for Max and me to Cuba. So here we are. I am writing this post as I stare out on a turquoise sea. Sink or swim right! So we swim! We rest, we eat, we read, we eat some more. And think about how incredibly fortunate we are for wonderful memories, loving family and dear friends.

Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.