By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: Little Rabbit Key.
Finish: Sunset Point Park, Key Largo.
Distance: About 24 nauticalmiles.
Paddling time: Roughly 11 hours; average pace 2.2 knots.
Morning dawned fresh and clear, with a lovely tangerine sunrise.
A brisk breeze kept the island blessedly bug-free—although I didn’t think about the implications of that breeze just then. After all, today was the last leg of the trip! Destination: Key Largo.
Except… where, exactly? We’d planned for a friend to pick us up around noon the next day. Location TBD, but presumably at the parking lot of the Bay Cove Motel, which serves as the finish point of the actual Everglades Challenge. But we hadn’t actually figured out the final logistics of getting there. We had a permit to camp tonight at North Nest Key, which was about five miles from Key Largo, and had vaguely planned to paddle over from there tomorrow morning.
But as we sipped coffee and discussed our plans, it became clear we didn’t really want to go to North Nest. It was five miles in the wrong direction: we’d have to paddle back again in the morning. And then Vlad needed time to disassemble his boat, all before noon…
So we decided to make straight for the Bay Cove Motel, and call as soon as we were in cell phone range to confirm they had room for tonight. If not, there were several other motels and campsites nearby—even a small county park with a boat ramp. We had several contingency plans. We’d find something.
With that settled, we packed the boats and set off on our final paddle of the trip.
As we pushed off from the tiny dock around mid-morning, I felt a little bit of sadness. By this time tomorrow we’d be back in civilization. Goodbye jewel-eyed spiders! Goodbye, mosquitoes! Goodbye, fresh morning air, stars like dust, endless mangroves…
…and hello, headwind!
That “brisk breeze” I’d felt on the island had transformed into a solid but steady headwind.
We paddled hard, but moved slowly. And in the back of my head, a clock began to tick. We needed to get to Key Largo early enough to locate a place to stay, but at this rate, it would be well after dark.
The plan was to head southeast toward the southern edge of Florida Bay, marked by the line of the developed Keys, then follow the Intracoastal Waterway. A direct route east to Key Largo would have been shorter, mileage-wise, but we needed to follow the marked channels across the shoals. Plus, once we got close to the civilization, we’d be within cell-phone range, and we could attempt to locate our night’s lodging.
At first we made reasonable progress; the wind was coming from the northeast, our left side. But once we joined the Intracoastal Waterway and turned northeast, it became a true headwind, blowing straight into our faces.
We paddled. And paddled, and paddled. The sun rose high overhead, then began descending, slowly. The markers ticked by. Slowly. The clock at the back of my head ticked louder. The sense of urgency was oppressive.
So I coped the way I often do, during races or long open-water stretches where it’s important to make it to a waypoint by a certain time (before the current changes, for instance): I counted.
Given the wind, I knew I’d average 120-130 strokes per 1/10th of a nautical mile. (In calm water, it’s closer to 70-80.) So I’d check the GPS, start counting strokes, and check again after 120 strokes. Then I’d start all over again. And again.
Counting is calming. It focuses your concentration, and you stay entirely within the moment. One, two, three, four… everything is changeless… twenty-seven, twenty-eight… nothing exists except the sun, sky, waves, and paddle… sixty-four, sixty-five, sixty-six… breathe, twist, stroke, breathe… one-hundred-twenty, one-hundred-twenty-one… and the digital display clicks over another tenth of a mile.
I was deep into my concentration when Vlad broke the silence. “I think there’s a channel through those mangrove keys,” he said, pointing off to a cluster of keys in the distance. “We should be out of the wind, and close enough to land to make a phone call.”
So that’s where we headed. Sure enough, there was a little cove just off the mangrove channel. I tied the Golden Pony Boy up to a mangrove, to avoid drifting off, and Vlad and I rafted up. I dug out the cellphone and unwrapped it from its multiple layers of plastic.
First call: The Bay Cove Motel. The receptionist sounded slightly incredulous. I wanted a room for when? That very night? Sorry, all full.
Vlad had the names of several campgrounds, so I started calling. Same story each time: No, they had no spaces for tents, only RVs. Or, they had tent spaces, but none were available. Didn’t I know this was the busiest season in the Florida Keys? The weekend after Christmas?
After four or five tries, we were out of options. We looked at each other. What to do? “Well, there’s always the county park,” Vlad said. “On Google maps it has a nice boat ramp, and a good patch of grass. It’s small, but secluded.”
The only problem—we weren’t quite sure where the park was. In theory, we’d pass right past it as we paddled along the Keys toward Key Largo. In practice… Vlad recalled it was tucked away inside a small cove. And it would be dark by the time we got there.
But, the county park was our best option at that point. Scratch that—our only option. So I untied the boats, and off we went.
We paddled onward, as the sun slowly set. The clouds turned to rose, then purple, then faded into midnight blue. The wind had died down to a gentle breeze, and the night was pleasantly cool. Key Largo streamed by to our right, dark shadows of mangroves against the deepening sky.
“I think it’s about here,” Vlad said, finally. We pulled closer to land. There was a pool of darkness, then a pier and what looked like a brightly lit motel, with a beach. A couple of men were fishing off the end of the pier.
Vlad and I asked about the county park, but they merely smiled and shrugged. They didn’t speak much English, only Spanish.
We kept going. After a bit, we came to an inlet that broadened into a small basin, next to a spit of land on which there was a park bench. Promising! We paddled in and found a miniature marina, complete with a boat ramp. We landed on the boat ramp and got out.
Sure enough, this appeared to be a park—complete with a wire fence and gate (now shut). But something didn’t seem right. It was just a little too spiffy to be a county park. This looked like a private park, maybe a yacht club.
We got back into the boats and kept paddling. This part of Key Largo seemed to be a long string of beachfront houses, interspersed with small hotels (no more than one or two stories).
Between the houses and the hotels, the shoreline was brightly lit. It was a lively night, and there were plenty of people out on the beaches. We stopped and checked several times, but nobody seemed to know where the county park was. Pretty much everyone was a tourist, it seemed. People were friendly and cheerful, but not much help.
Finally the lights petered out, and the houses disappeared. We could hear the hum of the highway, and see cars going by, very close. “We’ve gone too far,” Vlad said, as we inspected the chart. We’d come to a part of Key Largo where the highway passed right along the shore. The county park was somewhere behind us. It had to be.
We turned around. It was getting late—close to 9 PM. We paddled back along the shore, waving occasionally at the people we’d talked to before. Lights… beaches… hotels… I was getting tired, and colder. The temperature couldn’t be much lower than 65 degrees, but that can feel mighty chilly when you’re tired, damp, and dehydrated. If we didn’t find someplace to stay, we’d be paddling all night.
Finally we came to the pier where we’d started, with the two guys fishing. They were still there, and we waved. Behind them was that pool of darkness that we’d noticed before. “I’m going in there,” Vlad said suddenly. He turned left, and I followed him.
Seconds later, his voice came out of the darkness. “This is it!”
No way! Right where we’d started—if we’d only explored the dark corner instead of asking the guys on the pier, we’d have been there hours ago.
We pulled up onto a narrow cement boat ramp, got out, and looked around. It was a small, quiet park. Bordering it was a small road, with no sidewalks or streetlamps, with houses on the far side.
There was a concrete slab next to the boat ramp, with a picnic table and a trash can, and several large trees. Vlad said there was a fence around the park, but I couldn’t see that far into the darkness.
We quickly found a good spot to set up the tent—near the picnic table but not too close to the trash can, which smelled faintly of fish. Nobody would see us in the darkness… we hoped.
We kept our headlamps on “dim” and quickly made dinner, then curled up inside the tent. Suddenly a bright light shone into the tent. A flashlight? Someone patrolling the park?
It was a flashlight, but not in the park: Since there were no streetlights, the residents carried flashlights to walk down the road, and every now and then one would flash over in our direction. After a couple more instances, I finally convinced myself that Florida was unlikely to have the resources to patrol a county park—particularly when, if Vlad was right, it was fenced in and already locked up for the night.
And so we fell asleep.
* * * * *
The next morning, we woke in the gray predawn light. Working quickly, we took down the tent and packed up. Within minutes, there was no sign of illicit camping: we were just a couple of paddlers on an early-morning expedition. We sat at the picnic table, brewed some coffee, and watched the sun rise.
Once it was light, we walked around the park. Sure enough, there was a wire fence and a gate, now locked. A sign read that the park would open at 7:30 AM. Various other signs festooned the fence, announcing prohibited activities (such as bothering manatees).
“That’s how I could tell that this was a government park,” Vlad said. “The first thing they do is put up signs telling you what you can’t do.” But interestingly… not a single sign prohibited camping.
We put on another pot of coffee as the sun rose higher. By now it was almost 7:30 AM, and there was some traffic on the small road. An SUV drove by, with a large dog’s head poking out of the passenger window. “That guy probably wants to come here to walk his dog,” Vlad said. A pickup truck drove by, with a small motor-boat on a trailer behind. It was likely he wanted to come in, too.
7:30 AM ticked by, and nothing happened. Maybe, on a Saturday, they wouldn’t open the park—how would our friend pick us up? I pushed the worry out of my mind. It was a beautiful weekend morning. Why wouldn’t they open the park?
Then right at 7:40 AM, an official-looking car drove up. A man got out and unlocked and opened the gate (not even glancing at us). He drove away, and the influx began: First the pickup truck with the boat, which drove right to the boat ramp. It turned out this was a man taking two young Asian men—likely tourists—out for a day’s fishing on Florida Bay.
Then the SUV pulled in—sure enough, Vlad had been right. As one of the largest dogs I’ve ever seen romped through the park, its owner came over to chat. He was a Michigan snowbird, who lived down in Key Largo half the year. The dog came over and put its head on my lap. Or more accurately, on my shoulder: The dog—whose name was Wilson—weighed more than I do.
We chatted for a while longer, and Wilson and his owner left. The boat with the tourists had already left. Vlad began to disassemble his boat, so I decided to see if there was any possibility of breakfast—not to mention more coffee and indoor plumbing.
I was in luck. We were just a five-minute walk from the main highway, and right across the street was something called the Key Lime Cafe, cheerfully decorated with a welter of colorful pottery and wind chimes. The cafe wasn’t open yet, but there was a gift shop next door with a breakfast counter that offered coffee and… surprise surprise, Key lime pie!
I’m convinced you can only get good Key lime pie in Florida—something about the fresh Key lime juice. Proper Key lime pie isn’t green or yellow; it’s more a beige color. And it isn’t particularly sweet—more tart and creamy. So if it was on offer—in the actual Keys, no less—I had to have some!
I savored a giant slice of Key lime pie, along with some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. I lingered over the pie and coffee, since now we had plenty of time. Finally I packed up a slice and a cup for Vlad, and headed back across the highway.
When I returned, he’d almost finished taking his boat apart. He took a break for breakfast. Then we both went back to packing up, taking our time and enjoying the fact that we no longer had any deadlines.
Right when everything had been packed, our friend drove up in his Jeep. It took only a few minutes to load up.
And just like that, the trip was over. Only memories remained: sunrises and sunsets, jewel-eyed spiders and pitch-black darkness. Mangroves, mosquitoes, and sandy beaches. And stars. And endless sun, wind, and waves.
Goodbye, Florida Everglades! Hope to see you again soon!
* * * * *
Here are more photos from Day 6 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.