By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Start: Highland Beach, Thursday, March 6, about 10 AM.
Finish: Checkpoint 3, Flamingo, Friday, March 7, 11:05 AM.
Distance: 39 nautical miles (45 land miles).
Paddling time: 20 hours.
Stopped time: 5 hours.
Average paddling speed: 2.0 knots.
As soon as I opened my eyes, I knew we were in trouble. Bright sunlight glowed through the thin tent fabric. And there was the sound of a brisk wind in the leaves overhead.
The bright light meant it was late. A quick glance at my watch confirmed it was 9 AM. Late meant that the tide was falling. And that meant we could be trapped on the beach for hours by the extensive shoals that emerged at low tide.
And the strong southerly wind meant the long-expected weather front would be upon us soon. Which meant we no longer had much chance of making it down the coast. We’d have to take the much longer “inside” route, winding our way through narrow mangrove-lined creeks and rivers. We were going to lose half a day—maybe more.
As quickly as possible, we broke camp and packed up the boats. At every moment, it seemed, the water dipped lower and the wind howled harder. Hurry, hurry, hurry…!
We made a hasty last-minute sweep around the campsite to make sure we hadn’t left anything. Even though there was not a second to be lost, Vlad paused to take the one photo he just had to take—of the whale skull. Then we were off.
Scraping the bottoms of our boats on the shoals, we just made it against the falling tide into the marked outflow channel of the Broad River. Then we were in deeper water. But we still had a couple of miles to paddle down the coast, directly into the strengthening wind, before we reached Broad Creek, the entrance to the “inside” route.
Finally we were at the mouth of Broad Creek. Shoals and mangrove islands divided the entrance into two narrow channels. Vlad decided to take the right-hand channel. I went for the one on the left—and we promptly lost sight of one another.
Damn. Now what?
We’d agreed that if we lost touch with each other, we’d call on Channel 13 of the marine radio. It was my idea, in fact—but I forgot about it entirely.
So I was incredibly relieved at the sight of Vlad’s yellow hat over the scrub mangroves. That was the first time I panicked that day—but it wouldn’t be the last.
As soon as we entered Broad Creek, the wind died down. Now it was just hot. And increasingly cramped—as we paddled along, the mangroves pressed closer and closer in.
I also noticed that Vlad was lagging farther and farther behind.
“My footpegs are broken,” Vlad said. “I need to land somewhere to fix them.” (For non-paddlers: Footpegs are how you transfer the power from your strokes into forward momentum. A boat with broken footpegs is essentially crippled.)
We scanned both sides of the creek. There was no place to land. Mangrove “knees” sliced into mud and muck that wouldn’t support your weight—as I discovered at one point when I wanted to take a pit stop outside the boat. “I think you’re out of luck,” I told him. “At least until we get to the Harney River Chickee.”
The chickee—a flat wooden platform—was still quite a few miles off. And from our previous experience with chickees, I knew it would present its own challenges. Depending on the tide, a chickee can be so high up above the water that working on the floating boat would be impossible. Pulling a fully-loaded Feathercraft onto the chickee would be equally impossible. So even if we made it to the chickee, Vlad might not be able to fix his boat.
But it was our only chance.
As we continued paddling—with Vlad making painfully slow progress—I started to worry. What if we didn’t find land? What if the chickee was too high up? Would we be able to make it out of here? Was the race over for us?
“Look, land!” Vlad shouted suddenly. “It’s practically a state park!” I looked over to where he was pointing.
Sure enough, a bright green mound, covered in what looked like grass, abutted the river. We paddled over eagerly, delighted with our luck. “Want to play a couple holes of golf?” I asked jokingly.
But as we got closer, delight turned to dismay. The “grass” was actually moss, or something very like it. And the “land” that it covered? I poked it with a paddle blade—which sank into mud the consistency of chocolate mousse. We weren’t going to be landing on this any time soon!
Hopes dashed, we paddled on. The creek had long ceased to be broad. Now, the mangroves met overhead. We were surrounded by mangroves: overhead, under the water, and on both sides, close enough to touch.
And the clear path through them was narrow, at times only inches wide, and twisty. Turns were sharp, 90 degrees or more. It didn’t help that it was still near low tide, exposing mangrove roots and logs that extended almost all the way across the creek. The tide was now rising, and we could see the current percolating through the roots. We had the current with us. But with the current driving us, it was difficult to maneuver, and we kept getting tangled up in the obstacles.
At one point, I untangled myself from the mangroves and discovered I’d picked up a passenger: A shiny-shelled tree crab sat huddled on the nose of my boat. He didn’t move at all, and for the next little while I had a mascot.
But then he started creeping methodically towards the cockpit. This was going to be too close for comfort, his if not mine!
I raised my paddle to knock him off the boat, but then stopped… What if he couldn’t swim? What if I accidentally cracked his fragile shell? Instead, I pulled over to touch my bow to a mangrove. The crab hopped off, almost as if he’d been expecting it, and I was left smiling.
But not for long. Ahead of us, the creek snaked into an impossibly narrow S-curve. I paddled into the curve… and got stuck.
Couldn’t move forward. Couldn’t reverse.
Behind me, Vlad was stuck as well. Neither of us could move. We looked at each other helplessly. This day was just getting worse and worse…
“We’ll just have to wait until the tide rises,” Vlad said. We rested for a few minutes and drank some water. But then we couldn’t resist trying again—and this time, miraculously, we broke free.
And slowly, slowly, the mangroves on either sides widened out, until we were out of the creek—now almost in the Harney River, and heading toward the eponymous chickee.
But overhead, the sky had turned an ominous gray, then black. The wind whipped up. A crack of thunder sounded. Then another. Lightning split the sky. And then raindrops the size of mothballs pelted down.
We rounded a corner in the hammering rain.
“Thank you Jesus!” I shouted. Dead ahead was the chickee—just a bare 18 inches above the water line. Vlad would be able to make his boat repairs after all! And best of all, it was a double chickee, with one half unoccupied—we’d be able to rest and cook under a roof, out of the driving rain.
We pulled up to the chickee and greeted its other inhabitant, a man named Hal who’d flown here from Alaska on vacation. Hal was more than happy to share the space, and curious about the Everglades Challenge. He was also, from our perspective, seriously underdressed in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. We were both wearing full wetsuits and a couple layers of outerwear.
We chatted as Vlad set to repairing his boat. I unloaded gear and started making dinner. We hadn’t had warm food for longer than I could remember—and we faced a long paddle in the chilly rain. So hot food and coffee was definitely called for.
Once Vlad had fixed his footpegs, we dug into the chili. Around us the thunder pealed and rain hammered down. But we savored the warmth and shelter—we were downright cozy, in fact.
Just as we were finishing up, a few more paddlers appeared. They were fellow WaterTribers: One-Eyed Jake, Calypso, and a few others. I was heartened by the fact that they were behind us—we weren’t paddling all that fast, but apparently we were making good time. Perhaps we’d arrive at Key Largo by Friday night after all! (Famous last words).
We said goodbye and launched into the Harney River. We still had the current with us. The rain had slackened to a gentle patter, our bellies were full, and at first we made brisk progress.
That didn’t last, though. We turned into the Shark River and found ourselves paddling against the current. Our pace slowed, and after a while our fellow WaterTribers from the chickee overtook us. We waved as they paddled ahead into the gathering dusk.
Shortly after dark, we caught up with another WaterTriber, a woman named Peacepaddler. She was planning to tie up to the mangroves for the night—her boat was large enough that she could sleep in it. “I’m jealous,” I admitted. It hadn’t even been 12 hours, but waves of sleepiness were washing over me. The idea of curling up in your boat and taking a brief snooze seemed almost unbearably delicious.
But after we mentioned the check-in time at Checkpoint 3 in Flamingo—10 AM the next morning—she decided to keep paddling, after a brief pause for dinner. So we waved goodbye and headed off. I worried a bit: Would we make it to Flamingo by 10 AM? But I pushed the thought aside. Of course we would—we had all night to get there, and not too much farther to go. We’d be fine. Right?
The rain had stopped, but the wind was still brisk, and the water was choppy. We passed the Shark River Chickee and took the Shark River Cutoff into Oyster Bay. Peacepaddler overtook us and waved as she headed on into the darkness. That should have been a clue that our pace was slowing down, but we didn’t think about it.
Instead, we were preoccupied with the choice we had to make: We could take the direct—and likely faster—route across Whitewater Bay. Or we could head west across Oyster Bay and then take the Joe River, which was a longer, but more sheltered route. The waves were kicking up, so we opted for the Joe River route—which we later agreed was probably a mistake.
The wind picked up another notch. Then another notch. Even in the “sheltered” Oyster Bay, the waves were a couple of feet high, and foam-capped. Nothing particularly extreme—nothing I hadn’t handled many times before—but exhausting. I had to stay on full alert, because even in this relatively unexceptional chop, a rogue wave could mean a capsize.
We paddled. And paddled. And paddled, bouncing up and down in the chop.
It was completely dark; there were no lights anywhere. Our course required us to navigate around numerous islands, which loomed up dimly in the night sky. We would paddle for a while, guided by the GPS, then stop and look at the charts and the islands, trying to stay stable in the bouncy waters, until we’d oriented ourselves. Then we paddled some more.
I was tired. Tireder than I’d ever felt before. The waves of sleepiness I’d felt earlier had become painfully acute—a tangible, visceral, craving for sleep.
Suddenly, much to my surprise, I started to cry. Not a few discreet tears, but out-and-out-bawling. I was a three-year-old up past her bedtime—way past. And I was having a meltdown.
“Are you okay?” Vlad asked. “No!” I shouted between sniffs. “I want to be asleep right now!”
“Do you want to quit?” he said worriedly.
I was so surprised that I stopped bawling for a second. “Of course not! I mean, if the Coast Guard suddenly appeared with a helicopter and promised to take me to the Miami Ritz… I’d go. But I don’t think that’s on offer, and anyway, I don’t want to quit.”
Then I resumed bawling, much to Vlad’s consternation.
“Well, we have to do something. We’re going to paddle to the nearest chickee and camp there,” Vlad said firmly.
“We can’t do that,” I said, remembering back to the Everglades City ranger station. Other WaterTribers had already reserved those chickees. If we arrived there in the middle of the night, we’d disturb them.
“Too bad,” Vlad said. “This is an emergency!”
“No, it’s not,” I said in my normal voice. “I’m not sick, I’m not injured, I’m not hypothermic. Just because we failed to plan ahead properly doesn’t make it an emergency.”
“Well, what do you want to do, then?” Vlad asked.
What to do? There was nothing to do, really… just keep paddling.
So we did. I sniffed a few more times, bucked up, and we kept paddling.
We decided that if we found enough shelter from the wind and waves we’d pull in and try to nap. We might find dry land—but this was unlikely. So maybe we could figure out how to sleep in the boats…
… which is what we did, eventually.
We passed the entrance into Joe River Chickee and kept paddling. Eventually we found a sheltered spot among the mangroves, out of the wind and waves. We tied up the boats and pulled out the space blankets—the same ones that DolphinGal had critiqued during the starting gear check, which seemed a million years ago. We wrapped ourselves up in them, sitting upright in the boats. And surprised ourselves by dozing off.
We napped for an hour, and woke up warm and refreshed. We drank some coffee, ate some mint cakes, and resumed paddling.
We paddled onward through the night, along the meandering Joe River. Around 4 AM Vlad started to get sleepy, so we pulled off and took another nap. We woke up 90 minutes later, with the sky just growing light.
Dawn was breaking. It was Friday morning.
We decided to make a quick stop at the Little Joe Chickee, where we’d spent Christmas Eve during our shakedown trip in December.
The chickee was deserted (we later found out that One-Eyed Jake, Calypso, and the others had spent the night there and left around 3 AM). I used the porta-potty while Vlad checked the radio. Unsurprisingly, after the front, the forecast called for hearty northerly winds—perfect for crossing Florida Bay.
Except that we weren’t yet in Florida Bay. In fact, we still had some distance to go before we made it to the checkpoint at Flamingo. And in our exhausted state, it was unlikely that we’d be able to take advantage of the winds to cross Florida Bay that afternoon. There went my dream of arriving Friday night…
… But we had more imminent worries. “I don’t think we’re going to make it to the checkpoint by 10 AM,” Vlad said.
Surely he was being overly cautious? It was barely 7 AM and we had… another twelve miles to go. Yikes! We’d have to paddle at four knots to make it—and even with the wind at our backs, that was unlikely to happen.
The rules allowed us to call for an extension, so I broke out my cellphone and attempted to call the checkpoint. No luck—not surprisingly as there weren’t any cell towers around.
So there was nothing to do but keep paddling—and hope we’d make it.
As expected, a strong northwest wind picked up, driving us ahead of it and creating delightfully surfable waves. We surfed our way down the bottom of Whitewater Bay—but even with the wind and waves behind us, we were going very slowly.
We paddled down Tarpon Creek. The sun rose and it began to get warm. Vlad stripped off his outerwear. I kept mine on because we were moving so slowly that I was afraid I’d get cold, but sweat trickled down my back.
Slowly, slowly, we crossed Coot Bay and entered Buttonwood Canal, which led to Flamingo, and Checkpoint 3.
We were in the home stretch! Three miles to go! But it was already about 9:20 AM. Would we make it by 10 AM?
As we paddled with all our might, my hope faded. I simply couldn’t keep moving in a straight line—I was so tired that I zig-zagged from one side of the canal to the other, crashing into mangroves on either side.
An excursion boat motored down the canal. I could pick up the guide’s voice over the loudspeaker—he was talking about alligators, sharks, and… the Everglades Challenge? Sure enough, he was describing the race to the curious passengers who gave me puzzled glances as I crashed into yet another mangrove… I couldn’t begin to imagine what they were thinking, and I was too tired to care.
From time to time I glanced down at my GPS. We were moving quicker than I’d anticipated, about 2 knots. But when I stopped paddling, I realized the wind was contributing at least 1 knot of that. Going all out, I wasn’t able to move faster than 1 knot.
I felt the tears welling up again. After all this, we were going to miss our checkpoint and disqualify ourselves! Damn it!!
Vlad tried to reassure me that we’d be okay, but I was having none of it. “I’m not going to keep going to Key Largo if they disqualify us,” I threatened. Wisely, he didn’t argue. “We’ll see,” was all that he’d say.
Finally—finally!—the barrier at the end of the canal, and then the docks of Flamingo, hove into view. We’d made it!
We landed on the boat ramp and checked the time. 11:05 AM. We’d missed the check-in time by a little over an hour.
We’d made it…. but would it matter?
Photos from Segment 5 (click on any photo to start slideshow):
More photos (from all segments) are here.