By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: Indian Key, Ten Thousand Islands, Wednesday, March 5, 2 AM.
Finish: Highland Beach, Thursday, March 6, 3:30 AM.
Distance: 40 nautical miles (46 land miles).
Paddling time: 19 hours.
Stopped time (Chokoloskee, Everglades City…): 6.5 hours.
Average paddling speed: 2.1 knots.
I woke up to the sound of waves sloshing against the boats. Vlad was snoring beside me. I checked my watch in the darkness: 1 AM.
Why had I awakened? It was Vlad’s job to check on the boats, I thought groggily. He always awoke several times during the night to check on things. Surely he’d let me know if anything was wrong?
“Johna, use your own eyes and ears,” I thought to myself.
I unzipped the tent door and looked outside. Yikes! Both boats were floating, and was that my PFD and tow belt floating alongside them? And… hello! The water was lapping against the foot of the tent!
“Vlad, wake up!” I said. “The tide’s reaching the tent!”
Vlad woke up instantly. “I checked on the boats an hour ago, they were fine,” he said.
“Well, have a look now,” I replied. Sure enough, he confirmed what I saw: Both boats were floating, with some of my gear floating—unattached!—beside them. I thought I’d attached the PFD and tow belt securely, but something had come undone.
I hopped out of the tent and scooped up my gear, suffering a momentary panic when I couldn’t locate my sprayskirt. But luckily I had clipped it to the deck lines with a carabiner. So although it was floating in the water, it wouldn’t have drifted away.
The boats were fine where they were—although floating, they were tied to the mangroves. So we concentrated on taking down the tent while keeping the rest of the gear out of reach of the rapidly-rising waters. Despite our best efforts at hurrying, it took us almost an hour to finish packing—by which time the water had almost inundated the campsite. Our predictions the night before had been right on the money—a little too right.
We launched in the pitch darkness, heading up Indian Key Pass. As predicted, it was almost high tide and there was a good, solid current up the pass, so we moved along at a pretty nice clip. The pass was well marked with numerous reflective markers, some of them additionally lit with flashing red and green lights, and was very clear on the GPS. So, although in the darkness we could barely make out the mangroves that lined the pass on either side, we were able to follow its twists and turns without difficulty. And we were thankful there were no signs of last night’s hallucinations.
The float plan was a bit convoluted. We’d take Indian Key Pass up to Chokoloskee Bay, almost to Everglades City. But then we’d cross the bay to Checkpoint 2 at Chokoloskee itself. From there, we’d backtrack to Everglades City to get our permits for the Everglades, once the rangers’ station opened at 8 AM—their business hours were the reason for all these complications. Then we’d turn around and head back out through Indian Key Pass for the next leg of the trip—which we hoped would take us well through the Everglades. And we had to do that before the current through Indian Key Pass had stopped ebbing, about six hours hence. (Confused yet?)
The bottom line: We calculated we’d need to leave Everglades City by 9:00 AM, 9:30 at the latest. So even though it was the middle of the night, we didn’t have a lot of time to spare.
For now, there was nothing to do but paddle through the darkened mangroves. After what seemed a very long time—but was in reality only a couple of hours or so—we saw the lights of Chokoloskee ahead. We hoped to land at Checkpoint 2 (fortunately, at high tide, we’d be able to avoid the notorious deep mud of Checkpoint 2!) and find the orange box to record our times; we didn’t expect to see anyone up at this hour.
But we were wrong! From afar, we saw a waving flashlight directing us, and on landing were greeted by the checkpoint captain, NorthernLights (who had completed the Challenge in years past), and another racer, One-Eyed Jake, who despite the moniker, was clearly binocular. “We were expecting you guys,” NorthernLights said cheerfully, and I realized that the race organizers were tracking our progress on SPOT.
They directed us to the check-in box. And then we hung around and swapped stories for a while—we were surprisingly hungry for company. We were also surprised that we weren’t doing too badly in the race. Of course, the elite racers—including, I was happy to see, our friend Driftwood—had blazed through days before. In fact, we later found out that at that very moment Driftwood was pulling up to the finish line at Key Largo. And the sailing father-and-son-in-law pair had come and gone the day before.
But there were plenty of Challengers still on the way. Katamount, the girl we’d spent time with at Checkpoint 1, was still en route. And several folks we’d met at Checkpoint 1 still hadn’t arrived.
We wanted to keep swapping stories, but the clock was ticking. So, reluctantly, we said goodbye. Just as we were leaving, though, NorthernLights casually mentioned “the sandwich shop at Everglades City.”
Wait, there was a sandwich shop? Somehow we’d missed that during our visit in December.”Yes, they have hot coffee and breakfast sandwiches. And I think they open at 6 AM.” She didn’t have to say more: All of a sudden, we were ready to go.
I couldn’t stop dreaming about sausage-egg-and-cheese sandwiches. On croissants (thought I seriously doubted they’d have croissants way out in the mangroves).
As the dawn was breaking, we paddled back across Chokoloskee Bay to Everglades City. We arrived about 6:30 AM… only to find several WaterTribers there before us. We met Rawhide, an intrepid downriver paddler from Austin who was doing his first open-water race. And there was already a line waiting for the rangers’ station.
But… priorities! Vlad and I agreed to divide and conquer. He’d stand in line, and I’d run across the street and get coffee and breakfast. I offered to fetch breakfast for anyone who was interested, and found several eager takers. It took about half an hour for me to return with food and coffee… including one croissant-egg-sausage-cheese sandwich! (Yes, croissants out amongst the mangroves… who knew?!?) I don’t think I’d tasted anything so good in a long time.
After we finished eating, Vlad and I switched places on line. He would go fill our platypus bags with water, and I’d get the camping permits.
Previously, Vlad and I had agreed that we only needed one night’s permit. As we did during our shakedown paddle in December, we’d camp at Highland Beach, and from there follow the outer coast all the way to Checkpoint 3 at Flamingo. If we did that—staying “outside” the whole route—we could avoid the portage at Flamingo, which, our experience in December showed, would cost us several hours.
Of course, that presupposed that we could stay ahead of the front that was sweeping down from the north. But if we couldn’t… well, even if we had to travel through the inside of the Everglades, we figured we could make it all the way to Flamingo in one shot. After all, we’d just done some longer stretches!
Famous last words.
I hesitated just a moment when the ranger asked which campsite we wanted a permit for. What if we were wrong? It might be wise to get a permit for a chickee on the inside just in case we had to take that route, and couldn’t make it to Flaming in one fell swoop. But no, I stuck to our original plan. Highland Beach it was.
By the time we were finished with the permitting process, had loaded the boats, and were ready to relaunch, it was 9:30 AM. Just enough time to make it down Indian Key Pass before the end of the ebb.
We’d already been up for eight hours, but it felt like the day was just beginning.
As we paddled in the calm bright sunshine, we decided maybe we should check the weather. Last we’d heard—yesterday—the front was expected to arrive late on Thursday. That would be ideal, since by then we’d be around the curve of the coastline and well on our way to Flamingo. Everything would work out perfectly: On Friday we could catch the north winds that usually follow a front, and let them blow us to Key Largo… and arrive Friday night.
We got a nasty shock when we turned on the radio, however. The front was moving faster than expected. It was now expected to arrive Thursday—tomorrow—morning. Which meant we’d have to take the inside route for sure—and more to the point, we’d need to be well beyond Highland Beach by tomorrow morning, to be sure of making it inside before the winds hit. Instead of Highland Beach, we could camp tonight at Graveyard Creek, right before going inside through the Shark River—but we’d have to go quite a few miles farther than we planned.
So we settled in for a long paddle, once again racing the clock.
It was another calm, sunny day. We paddled past mangrove islands… and more mangrove islands… and still more mangrove islands.
We joked about learning to kayak fish, and how nice it would be to rent a cabin for a leisurely vacation: We’d set out on an overnight trip, catch some fish, arrive at our destination, cook the fish and open a bottle of wine, then have a good night’s sleep before paddling home the next day. (Nothing like our current expedition.)
We paddled… and paddled… and paddled.
By mid-afternoon, we’d already been up for over 14 hours, and were definitely feeling sleepy. We stopped for another nap on a key that looked inviting, figuring we had this “nap” thing down. We tied up the boats and threw ourselves down on the beach to sleep.
Oops. Although we tied the boats securely, we’d picked a beach that, as the tide fell, began to feel the incoming surf. We woke up halfway through the nap with my boat slamming into Vlad’s, with both threatening to overturn.
We moved the boats to a more sheltered part of the beach, but by then it was getting late—no more time for napping. We had to get going, groggy as we were.
We paddled onward, into the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun. Another sunset, and we were in darkness.
We steered a couple of miles out into the Gulf to avoid shoals. It was almost perfectly dark, except for a few stars flickering between the thickening clouds, and the faint orange glow of the sky in the direction of Miami. As long as we kept that glow to our left, we were paddling in pretty much the right direction. (I breathed a silent prayer to all the inhabitants of Miami for using so much electricity that the city’s light emanations became a navigational aid!) But even with the glow, the almost complete darkness was disorienting. We paddled in the right direction, and avoided the shoals, by GPS.
We paddled for endless hours, and endless hours more, in the dark. Strangely, I don’t remember any hallucinations, although I was, if anything, even more sleep-deprived than previously. Vlad, however, had the illusion of being overtaken every few seconds by a giant wave that then rose up to meet the sky ahead—even though the sea was actually quite calm.
One thing that wasn’t a hallucination: Somewhere in the middle of the night, we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. Even though we were a mile or two out in the Gulf, somehow the critters found us! We had to put on bug nets and refresh our bug spray. (Later we found out that many Challengers reported the same phenomenon—even the sailors, several miles out in the Gulf, encountered the swarms.)
We paddled on… and on… navigating by the glow of Miami and the GPS. Eventually we crossed the mouth of Lostmans River and approached the dark shore on the other side. Our plan was to stay parallel to the shore and paddle past Highland Beach, our original intended campsite, the seven or eight miles to Graveyard Creek.
We kept paddling, trying to keep the shore to our left, but at the same time trying to stay far enough out to avoid the extensive offshore shoals that we could see on the GPS.
After a while I noticed something: Our progress had slowed dramatically. We seemed to be zigzagging back and forth, instead of following a steady course.
Pretty quickly I figured out why. Vlad, who was navigating, was getting tired—and quite possibly hypothermic. Every time he lost his concentration, we would begin to head in the wrong direction in the darkness. Then he would look at the GPS, and overcorrect—and we would head too far in the other direction.
I could see that with all the zig-zagging, we were making painfully slow progress. At this rate, we wouldn’t make Graveyard Creek by daylight—let alone with time enough to sleep.
“Sweetie, we need to head in to the coast now,” I said firmly. Vlad protested, concerned about the shoals.
But I couldn’t see any way out of it: We’d have to turn off the GPS, and simply follow the shore, paddling close enough to see it in the light of our headlamps, in order to make any progress. And if we encountered any shoals… we’d have to land and make camp.
So that’s what we did.
I took over navigation, and we padded along the shore. Tiredness sunk its fingers into us, almost physically dragging us backwards. We paddled on… and passed what looked like a sign on the beach, although I couldn’t make out what it was for.
Then we realized: This was Highland Beach! We both recognized the familiar clump of palm trees, which we had last seen in December.
“That’s it, we’re landing,” I said.
We dragged our boats up onto the beach. But what was that blocking our way? It looked like a white boulder, but as I came closer, I realized what it was: A whale skull, bleached white by salt and sunshine, gleaming in the light of my headlamp. I picked it up and placed it gently to the side.
As we unloaded the boats, I realized we weren’t alone. There was another WaterTriber asleep in a tent under the palm trees, with a kayak neatly tucked alongside. Although we tried to be quiet, I’m afraid we disturbed him—I heard him stir, and cough a few times.
It took longer than I’d hoped to set up the tent. Vlad kept wanting to sit down and rest. (He was pretty exhausted.) But finally the tent was up, we were inside (with a minimum of mosquitoes) and we could sleep for a blessed hour or two. With luck we’d wake up before the front arrived, and be able to make it to Shark River after all.
That was the last thought in my mind as I spun off to sleep.
Photos from Segment 4 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
More photos (from all segments) are here.