Everglades Challenge, Segment 6: Flamingo to Key Largo

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Last few miles

Start: Checkpoint 3, Flamingo, Saturday, March 8,  7:30 AM.
Finish: Race finish, Bay Cove Motel, Key Largo, Saturday, March 8, 9:10 PM.
Distance: 31 nautical miles (36 land miles).
Paddling time: 12.5 hours.
Rest time: About 1 hour.
Average paddling speed: 2.5 knots.

Segment 6

Segment 6

I opened my eyes, blinking at the early-afternoon sunshine, and sat up. We were still on the patch of grass where we’d sprawled out after arriving at Checkpoint 3 in Flamingo a few hours before.

There were some other paddlers nearby—it was One-Eyed-Jake and Calypso and the rest of the group we’d met at the Harney River Chickee—but we hadn’t said much beyond “hello”. The park seemed strangely subdued. No one had been manning the checkpoint when we’d arrived, and there were surprisingly few visitors. When I had gotten some lemonade and chips from the park store, I’d learned why: the storm that had passed over us the day before had knocked out power. (It would stay out for another day.)

When we’d gotten in, we’d pulled up the boats, I’d gotten us the snack, and then we’d collapsed on the grass to sleep.  But now I was awake, and Vlad was talking to a tall man in a sporty-looking shirt. “This is Lugnut,” Vlad said, introducing us. “He’s the Checkpoint 3 captain. And he says we’re fine.”

My heart leapt up wildly.

We’d arrived at 11:05 AM—an hour past the official cutoff time of 10 AM—and I’d been desperately afraid that we’d disqualified ourselves, after almost a week of exhausting paddling. But Lugnut explained that he’d given everyone an automatic 6-hour extension due to the storm. We were still in the race!

I was so delighted I almost hugged Lugnut, but managed to restrain myself. And he had more good news: We wouldn’t have to camp in the commercial campground more than a mile away. Instead, he pointed out a patch of ground right by the docks that served as an unofficial campground for the race. “Just don’t make a mess, and be out by dawn,” he said.

It would have been even better to leave still today. The brisk northwest wind following the front that had helped us surf down Whitewater Bay was predicted to continue blowing through the afternoon and evening. The other paddlers near us were planning to leave late in the afternoon to take advantage of it.

But there was simply no way we could do it—we were too exhausted. So we’d portage the boats from the freshwater side of Flamingo’s harbor to the saltwater side—something that our shakedown trip in December had shown would take several hours—then set up camp and have a real meal and a full night’s sleep. Then we’d leave bright and early the next day for the final leg of the trip.

We said goodbye to Lugnut, and dozed a bit longer.  To make the portage, we planned on using the floating docks owned by the park’s canoe operators—and the operators were using them until 5 PM. So we napped and rested. It was delightful not to have a deadline, or feel the need to hurry. For once, we had all night.

Shortly after 5 PM, we pushed the boats back into the water and paddled the short distance to the floating docks, where we unloaded the boats and carried them the few yards of portage.

A pair of ospreys had their nest on a tall pole just above the docks. The birds eyed us warily, and one made its characteristic “weep-weep-weep!” cry as we worked, warning us away from the nest. After a while, I stood up and said to the bird, “Relax, we’re not here for your nestlings. We aren’t going to hurt you!” From then on, she was quiet, although the “weep-weep-weep” started up again if anyone else came too close.

We needed to repack the boats. We worked slowly and methodically, conscious that our tiredness might lead to stupid mistakes. Just after dark, both boats were portaged, repacked, and tied up at a dock on the saltwater side of the harbor, near our planned campsite.  The mosquitoes were out in force—even the brisk wind didn’t keep them away—so we donned bug gear and set up camp.

I made us a double dinner—with luck, it would be our last on this trip, so we might as well eat up! Vlad set up the tent. And we took the time to savor our meal in the darkness.

Then we crawled into the tent and fell asleep for our first full night’s sleep since the race began.

The next morning, we were up at 5 AM, sipping coffee (made the night before) in the predawn darkness. Suddenly a boat appeared. It was a kayak, and it looked like one of our fellow WaterTribers. But the boat was coming into the harbor from the saltwater side, from Florida Bay. What on earth…?

It turned out to be our friend Rawhide, who’d suffered a bent rudder. But that wasn’t the worst of it. He’d left in the middle of the night, but had gotten stranded on a mudbank for the past five hours. While we were sleeping peacefully, he’d been waiting for the tide to release him—and had just now made his escape.

We helped him with his rudder and offered him something to eat (which he refused). Then he set out again into Florida Bay, leaving us shaking our heads with astonishment at his stubborn grit.

Sunrise in Flamingo

We get ready to launch at sunrise in Flamingo

Into the sun

We head out into the sun

We left later than anticipated—around 7:30 AM, when the sun was well up. It was sunny, cool, and calm. The only remnant of last night’s northerly wind was a whispery breeze. We felt considerably refreshed after the full night’s sleep and a couple of meals.

Markers

Markers mark the passes

Osprey

An osprey, with prey, reluctantly leaves his marker

Given the calm conditions, we expected this section of the trip to be uneventful. All we’d have to do was stay within the marked passes, since Florida Bay is surprisingly shallow. If we left the passes, we risked Rawhide’s fate of becoming stranded in the mud.  So we followed the markers, double-checking occasionally against the GPS.

Clewless

We chat with Clewless… before he moves ahead

The sun rose higher. A paddler in a sailing kayak caught up with us from behind.  It was Clewless, who told us an amazing story: He’d been sailing along that morning, minding his own business, when all of a sudden a shark had leapt out of the water and landed in his lap! Fortunately, he’d had the presence of mind to toss it back into the water. We were impressed. We’d seen sharks, and had small fish jump into our laps—but we’d never even heard of having a shark jump into a kayak!

Clewless said goodbye and sailed on ahead, propelled by the mild breeze. I was envious of his effortless progress… A bit later, another paddler, FalconSail (whom we’d already met at Checkpoint 1), caught up with us. We chatted. FalconSail sold kayak sails, and had the presence of mind to make an impressive sales pitch right there on the water. He gave me his laminated, waterproof card. Then he too took off.

FalconSails

FalconSails overtakes us

With those two past us, we wondered if we were the last folks left in the race. But if so, who cared? So long as we made it to Key Largo by 7 AM Sunday morning, we’d officially complete the event.

Shallows

We paddle over the shallows

Pass

Pass ahead

So we paddled on, into the lovely spring day. We navigated through the passes between islands and shoals. I practiced my navigational skills, locating an island on the horizon, double-checking with the chart, and then confirming with the GPS.

Other side

Out on the other side

After a while, I noticed something that wasn’t on the chart. Ahead of us, where a shoal was supposed to be, was a large, impenetrable mangrove island. I couldn’t figure it out—were we somewhere else? Had my navigation skills let me down?

New mangroves

Shoals grow new mangroves

Future islands

Future islands

Vlad cleared up the mystery: “The shoal has grown mangroves,” he explained. Sure enough, I began to notice several islands that appeared only as shoals on the charts! Not the first time we’d found the charts to be in error

Happy Johna

Happy Johna

We paddled on, as the sun crested, then grew lower in the sky. The water was an enchanting shade between turquoise and teal. Everything around us was bright, shimmering in the light. There was very little wind. The temperature was perfect: neither warm nor cold. It was magical.

Turquoise

Turquoise waters

Teal

… and teal

Evening colors

Evening colors

Last sunset

We watch the last sunset of the trip

We paddled on and on into the afternoon, and into a beautifully drawn-out sunset that striped the sky with rose, orange, and purple. Dusk fell slowly, and twinkling off ahead of us were… the lights of Key Largo!

Twilight

Twilight

Headlamps

We turn on our headlamps

Key Largo ahead

Ahead, the lights of Key Largo!

The last couple of hours seemed endless, or rather timeless. We felt suspended in time, so close to the end of the race, yet almost motionless in that strange infinite spell that comes over you during a long paddle: You don’t think of anything except the next stroke, and the next, and the next… Overhead the stars come out,  the shore lights sparkle, and the waves lap against your boat. And you’re frozen in the middle of all of it, taking the next stroke, and the next…

Then all of a sudden, we saw, now very close, the lights of the Bay Cove Motel. The finish line!

Spell broken, we pointed our boats toward the small beach. To our surprise, a small crowd had gathered on the shore. As we paddled in, people started to cheer. And when our boats crunched against the sand, welcoming hands helped us get out, and clasped ours with congratulatory handshakes. (That hurt—I hadn’t really realized until that moment that my right hand was creased with painful blisters.)

DirtyLittleRunnerGirl, who was there on the beach, has posted some photos of us finishing  here.

Chief handed us our shark’s-tooth necklaces—the award for completing the challenge—and everybody clapped some more.

We’d made it!

The rest of the evening was somewhat dreamlike.

We discovered that the hotel we’d booked next door had cancelled our reservation, since we hadn’t shown up the previous night. That was disappointing. But there was a “crash room” at the Bay Cove Motel where we could take hot showers and sleep on a couple of couches. So we showered and changed, and some of the other WaterTribers—Juice and MicroTom—brought us beer and cold barbecue from the feast earlier that day. So we got our barbecue after all!

We sat outside at a picnic table and ate and swapped stories. We found out there was one more boat expected to finish later that night. So we weren’t even dead last (not that it mattered).

And we discovered what had happened to many of the other Challengers. Rawhide, Clewless, and FalconSail had all made it in uneventfully earlier that day.

One-Eyed-Jake, Calypso, and the rest of that group of paddlers had endured a wild night crossing of Florida Bay, driven by powerful north winds and four-foot breaking waves. They’d arrived in the wee hours of that morning. Nobody had capsized, but it had been intense. (Calypso’s account is here.)

Amazingly, Katamount, the blue-eyed girl we’d met at Checkpoint 1, was still in the race. Officially, she was a DNF (did not finish) after she failed to make Checkpoint 3 in time. But she’d called to let the race organizers know that she was determined to make her way to the finish line, however long it took her. We were delighted to hear that, and even more delighted to learn later that she’d succeeded!

But the best story by far was from the father-and-son-in-law pair, SirTackAlot and WindWatcher, with whom I’d talked back before the race, during gear check.

Between Checkpoints 2 and 3, WindWatcher had gotten sick, with vomiting and dry heaves. He’d also developed hypothermia. Reluctantly, SirTackAlot called the Coast Guard, which airlifted WindWatcher to safety.

It turned out to be a good call: WindWatcher had developed rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which overstressed muscles start dumping their contents into the bloodstream, thereby stressing the kidneys. Without treatment, he might well have died.  Fortunately, after two days in the hospital he had made a full recovery. And SirTackAlot successfully completed the Challenge on his own. (Their full story is here.)

All in all, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. We’d made it without any major incidents. And we’d officially completed the Challenge…

… this one, at least.

As we drifted off to sleep in the crash room, we heard Chief discussing a new 300-mile Challenge, this one in North Carolina. A new Challenge? Hmm…..

_______________________________________________________

Photos from Segment 6 (click on any photo to start slideshow):

More photos (from all segments) are here.

Next in Everglades Challenge →

49 responses to “Everglades Challenge, Segment 6: Flamingo to Key Largo

  1. Pingback: Everglades Challenge, Segment 5: Highland Beach to Flamingo | Wind Against Current

  2. Congratulations! I so enjoyed this series and your adventure…well vicariously. A shark in his lap?! Unbelievable!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      We were pretty impressed! And he was quite surprised. Thanks for reading, and following….and posting!

  3. A very beautiful challenge! Amazing! Congratulations!

  4. Well Done!! Thanks for taking me along. Great effort, account and photographs. Your trip will be one of my year’s paddling memories, too.

    George

    • Thanks, George!

      I hope we’ve done enough in these posts to make you want to paddle yourself in the next challenge? ;-)

      • George Fatula

        Vlad and Johna,

        More than enough!! Your posts have been tremendous. The work you have done for us will sure make it easier than running it “cold”. Thank you again. If it happens for us it will evolve out of a more leisurely trip to the Everglades first and won’t be next year’s challenge. I am interested in putting a small sail rig on our Sawyer Charger. The boat is great in quartering seas and surfs easily. That looks like the prevailing conditions on the “outside”. We are planning to explore sails and a way to take turns sleeping in the canoe. I hoped there would be a photograph of you with your camera at the finish. That picture is still missing. G

        • I don’t think you should conclude that what we experienced was typical. I think we had unusually benign weather. The prevailing winds that time of the year are actually southerly, except when a front blows through, so most of the time you would actually expect head seas…

          The WaterTribe site has a wealth of stories from past years that repay study for anyone who wants to do the Challenge.

  5. Fantastic photos, Vlad. Congrats to you both. :)

  6. Thus an epic draws to a close — osprey-guided no less — a paddle narrative to cherish. Mega kudos to each & thanks!

  7. I love it. Do wish I could coax my body to have such an adventure. That said, I have greatly enjoyed the journey through your eyes!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Gentle is good! And we aren’t boring you with the weeks of recovery where we basically slept and sat around a lot (shades of “Waiting for Godot”: “Let’s go.” “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move…)

  8. Great story-telling, great accomplishment!!

  9. Congratulations, and well done. What a great adventure. You guys are hardcore, and Vlad’s pictures are sublime (Johna is on my PC wallpaper!). Thanks for sharing!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for posting! And agree on Vlad’s photos. Which is the one you have on the wallpaper? (And also, is your avatar the Flying Spaghetti Monster?) Thanks again for reading, and posting.

  10. Hey Johna,

    The picture is from about 5 posts back. You are in a kind of lumpy green sea, with the water looking curiously oily and sparkly. You are to the right in the pic and there’s a sailboat way off in the distance It’s beautiful and wild looking. The picture name is imgp3435-cropped-small.jpg.

    Yes, the avatar is the tasty FSM. I have been touched by His Noodly Appendage.

    I paddle a Feathercraft Wisper XPS, and a homebuilt Yostwerks Sea Ranger Greenland kayak. I’m in the throes of planning for my own epic adventure– I’m thinking of doing a Vancouver Island circumnavigation in a couple of years, and/or an Inside Passage trip. Or maybe a Outside Passage trip. Your writing has been very informative and inspiring. Thanks!

    Rob

    • Johna Till Johnson

      All hail the FSM! Ah, yes, the one captioned “The wind and waves increase”.

      When are you planning for Vancouver? That’s something we are hoping to do one day, too! And I hope you do undertake it–it’s really an amazing feeling to plan for something you don’t quite believe you’ll do… and then actually DO it.

      • I’m planning for 3 years out. I have two teenagers whom I have shanghaied into doing the trip with me– But first they have to build their boats :) Once they graduate from HS we’re off to the races.

        When would you be doing your trip?

  11. Wow, I could almost get into a canoe and have a go with these pictures – if I wasn’t so freaked out about doing the rolling upside down thing and the water in the river Mur is quite frisky!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Anna— I don’t doubt the Mur is frisky indeed! Chilly and fast, no doubt. But please don’t let the lack of rolling ability freak you out!!! Nobody’s born knowing how to roll (well, okay, I have one friend who did it the first time out, but even he had to practice a bit to get good at it). But even the clumsiest and most phobic of us can learn to roll–and it’s a wonderful feeling to have learned.

      And guess what—you can practice in a nice warm pool. Think about it…..

  12. Reblogged this on Locating Frankenstein's Brain and commented:
    Congratulations!

  13. Pingback: Everglades Challenge, Overview | Wind Against Current

  14. congratulations!!!

  15. I’ve only paddled around a little in Florida Bay. I spent two winter seasons working at the restaurant in Flamingo years ago, but have heard the 2005 hurricane damaged it and the hotel.

  16. What a great canoe adverture, well dome !

  17. Pingback: Birds, Aids to Navigation | Wind Against Current

  18. So impressive! Congratulations to you and those images are just stunning!

  19. Pingback: Everglades Challenge, Reflections: What Worked, What Didn’t | Wind Against Current

  20. Congratulations, what an epic.

  21. You are both amazing, well done on completing the challenge and thanks for sharing your voyage with us, I’m so glad you managed to find the time and energy to take such amazing photos on the way too. And Johna, I love your hat. :-)

  22. You two are amazing! Such a compatible, complementary team in so many ways. I saved reading this series for a quiet morning (this morning!) and thoroughly enjoyed your journey. Congrats on finishing and thanks for taking all of us readers along with you!

  23. Pingback: A Kayayer’s Guide to Hitchhikers | Wind Against Current

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