By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: Darwin’s Place.
Finish: Highland Beach.
Distance: About 18 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 8 hours; average pace 2.3 knots.
By the time we woke up the next morning, the sun was high, and the other campers were long gone. But we weren’t alone: A small group of black birds clustered in the trees.
Every now and then, one of them uttered a soft “woof”. So that’s what I’d been hearing last night, as we drifted off to sleep. But what kind of birds were they?
I examined them carefully and realized they were… vultures. Barking vultures!
But they looked nothing like the stereotype—these birds were beautiful, with glossy black feathers, soft brown-colored heads, and gentle eyes. I was enchanted.
But enchantment or no, it was time to get moving. We set to taking down the tent and making breakfast. Unfortunately, the bugs that had been absent last night came out in force. We sprayed ourselves thoroughly with DEET, but still quite a few managed to sneak bites in. So we hurried. Besides, we had a long day planned!
The goal for today was to wend our way through the mangrove bays and creeks until we got to Lostmans River, then cut through to the Gulf coast. We’d camp that night at Highland Beach—which we’d heard was one of the most beautiful sites in the ‘Glades—and tomorrow continue the rest of the way down the coast. (That was the idea, anyway… but as the English proverb has it, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip!”)
One thing we hoped for: An alligator sighting. Since this would be the last part of the trip among the mangroves, we hoped to see at least one gator. And since we were going through a waterway called “Alligator Creek”, maybe we’d be in luck.
We launched as quickly as possible (and were gratified to find that our increased organization cut down our packing time tremendously). Then we were off, paddling a bit slowly against the tide.
The sun wasn’t yet high in the sky when we turned into Alligator Creek. We scanned the edges eagerly, certain that each gray log was a gator. Except none of them were, until…
“Vlad, there’s one!” I whispered. Sure enough, that long bumpy thing was a tail, attached to a torso, then a head and a snout… I was just able to catch a split-second glimpse of a round dark eye, which widened slightly in fear. A 17-foot boat must look fairly intimidating to an alligator, particularly a medium-sized one like this.
Then a splash, and the gator was gone. Vlad, who was just behind me, didn’t get the chance to see the creature’s head. But at least Alligator Creek lived up to its name!
A bit later, we heard the sound of a boat motor, and then, round the next bend of the narrow creek, came head-to-head with a park ranger’s boat. The ranger greeted us politely, complimented our boats, and inquired about our route. We showed him our permit, which we’d kept handy for this exact reason. “Highland Beach?” he said. “That’s where the dead pilot whales are.”
We vaguely recalled news stories about pilot whales dying off the coast of Florida a few weeks back—but we had no idea we’d be seeing them.
Or what remained of them: “The vultures have eaten most of what’s there,” the ranger assured us. “There’s hardly any smell.” (The vultures are beautiful and useful, too!) The ranger also stressed how lovely the Highland Park campsite was, and gave us careful instructions for finding it. Unfortunately, all I remembered was something about a whale skeleton and a cluster of palm trees—which proved more confusing than helpful, in the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Then we were off again, paddling the dark waters as the changeless mangroves slid by. It was hypnotic after a while: Trees, water, sky, trees, water, sky….
The sun rose slowly, hovered overhead, and imperceptibly began its downward trajectory.
We had another mid-afternoon lunch on the water, and kept paddling…
… until late in the afternoon, we finally exited the mangroves into the Gulf and turned left down the coast.
Beaches, at last! Well, not just yet, but surely we’d find them soon…
The sun was getting low in the sky as we paddled along the shore, straining our eyes to locate the campsite. Slowly, slowly, the mangrove forests broke into patches of bare sand, but where was the campsite?
It didn’t help that Vlad’s chart and mine had locations for the campsite that were a mile apart. And in retrospect the ranger’s directions seemed less than helpful, as well.
We saw mangroves… a patch of sand… the skeleton of a pilot whale… some palm trees… another whale… more palm trees… more sand…. but where was the darn campsite? (In days to come we would find ourselves repeating this process several times—somehow, campsites were never quite where they were supposed to be, either on the charts or according to the directions.)
Finally, just after sunset, when we were about to give up and camp willy-nilly on the beach… “There it is!” Vlad shouted. Sure enough, there was a brown sign. Moreover, there was a man and a woman sitting on camping stools on the beach, and… was that a canoe?
It was. We paddled closer and exchanged greetings. It turned out they knew the area well—the man had led Outward Bound expeditions to that very site. “Where’s the second-best campsite on the beach?” Vlad asked, joking that the couple had of course taken the best.
The man directed us to a spot a little ways down the beach, perfectly private but close enough to visit our neighbors, who seemed exceptionally nice. As we paddled towards the site, we talked about maybe visiting for a short while after dinner.
But first, it was time to make camp. Sure enough, our neighbors had pointed us to a lovely spot, high, dry, and flat, with a panoramic view of the ocean. It was too late to watch the sunset, but dawn would be beautiful.
We landed the boats and hopped out… into a lethal swarm of insects. Everything we’d experienced before paled in comparison. We sprayed ourselves frantically with DEET, but it wasn’t much help—the critters found every square millimeter that wasn’t actively coated with repellent, and crept in under our clothes.
Slapping and scratching, we put up the tent in record time. Vlad dove inside. “I don’t want to eat,” he said. Now, if you know Vlad, that’s an extraordinary statement—he’s indomitable, and he always wants dinner. Particularly after a long day paddling! But he was serious. All he could think of was escaping the torment.
Usually I’m the one who can’t handle the bugs, but this time I just gritted my teeth and started the JetBoil. No way were we going to skip dinner. I started cooking, while Vlad sat inside the tent, slapping at the bugs that had made it inside.
The flame from the JetBoil might have helped a bit to keep the bugs away, but I too had to keep slapping and scratching as I cooked. My arms and legs were coated with bug spray, but the critters got inside my neck, sleeves, and the legs of my shorts. And let’s not talk about my feet, which were literally black…
Fortunately, it didn’t take long, and a few minutes later we gulped down our bowls of stew. All thoughts of visiting our neighbors, or doing anything except escaping the bugs, went right out of our heads.
After dinner, I joined Vlad in the tent. Washing up (both me and the dishes) could wait until morning.
But the tent was only marginally better—a cloud of mosquitos darkened the inside near the top, and it took us nearly an hour to kill most of them. Swaddled in our sleeping bags, listening to the whine of the bugs, we discussed how to cope for the rest of the trip.
Clearly, the bug repellent wasn’t working. We needed some sort of physical protection—some kind of clothing that wouldn’t allow the bugs to creep in… something like… “You know,” I said suddenly. “We should wear our paddle jackets. And paddle pants.” Paddle jackets and pants have gaskets: they can be made to fit tightly at the neck, wrists, waist, and ankles. We hadn’t thought about it before, because the weather was too warm for jackets. But as bug protection, they might do the trick.
We decided to try them the next morning, and drifted off to sleep.
Here are more photos from Day 2 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.