By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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!
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.
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Congratulations! I so enjoyed this series and your adventure…well vicariously. A shark in his lap?! Unbelievable!
We were pretty impressed! And he was quite surprised. Thanks for reading, and following….and posting!
A very beautiful challenge! Amazing! Congratulations!
Thanks! It was pretty awesome to live through.
Well Done!! Thanks for taking me along. Great effort, account and photographs. Your trip will be one of my year’s paddling memories, too.
I hope we’ve done enough in these posts to make you want to paddle yourself in the next challenge? ;-)
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.
Fantastic photos, Vlad. Congrats to you both. :)
Yes, he’s the only person I know who stops to take photos in the middle of a race! Well, actually, quite a few of the other WaterTribers did…. must be a characteristic of the breed… :-)
Hehehe. A true blogger to the core. :)
Thus an epic draws to a close — osprey-guided no less — a paddle narrative to cherish. Mega kudos to each & thanks!
The ospreys were pretty cool. And the fishing was evidently good…
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!
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…)
Great story-telling, great accomplishment!!
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!
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.
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!
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?
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!
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…..
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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.
The restaurant in the visitors’ center is still there—we almost had a hamburger there :-)
But the hotel was completely destroyed, and it still has not been replaced.
That must be the Buttonwood down below. There was a restaurant up top with great views of the bay.
We didn’t investigate, but it looks like the Buttonwood Cafe is all there is now.
HI Jeri (and Vlad): Apparently they had a $78 million plan to replace the hotel, but that got scrapped recently as too expensive (actually, the plan included upgrades to the Marina and concessions, which is weird since those seem to work ok!). However, they are experimenting with “eco-tents” on the site of the old hotel: http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2012/12/everglades-national-park-try-moveable-eco-tents-flamingo-area-lodging22565
Johna, thanks for the link. I hadn’t thought about Flamingo for years until a few months ago when I started writing about all my national park experiences. I hadn’t realized until then how much damage the hurricane had done. I guess the saying out of sight, out of mind rings true.
What a great canoe adverture, well dome !
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So impressive! Congratulations to you and those images are just stunning!
Thank you!! :-)
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Congratulations, what an epic.
Thank you!! :-)
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. :-)
Thank you so much—so glad you enjoyed coming along with us on the trip!!
Yes, the hat is by now Johna’s trademark :-)
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!
You are most welcome—we thank you for coming along!! :-)
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Epic journeys you two!!!!
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Wow….one hell of a trip! I’ve had my sights on this for a few years. I paddled my sup 300+ miles up the St.Johns river in Fl but I spent nearly 12 days. I would love to give it a go on my expedition board. I’m alittle concerned with the navigation and head winds. On a sup you are more wind sensitive…head wind is almost impossible to make progress. I can’t imagine paddling for 20+ hours straight! I’d guess 35 miles is my longest day so far…thoughts?
I think you should do it, of course! :-)
That being said, some thoughts:
First, you should probably ask someone at Watertribe (i.e., Chief) whether a SUP would be allowed. As far as I know, nobody has yet done the Everglades Challenge on a SUP. However, windsurfers have done well. In the year we did it, 2014, there were two windsurfers. They moved very fast and finished in just a few days, I believe. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that one of them was an ex-Olympic athlete, or something close to it…) Chief will probably have some concerns about whether you can carry all the gear you will need on a SUP, but the example of the windsurfers, who have pretty much the same problem, should be persuasive. Chief is very reasonable about allowing all kinds of strange craft into the Challenge, if the crew can show that they know what they are doing.
The Everglades Challenge is getting a bit too popular, so I believe it will now be restricted to just 100 boats, first come first serve. The 2016 Challenge is already full, I believe, with a waiting list.
You have to be comfortable on your SUP in rough water. Although it is possible to go much of the route on the “inside”, in protected water, there are sections where you will have to go out into the Gulf. Especially if you move relatively slowly, so that you don’t have time to spare to wait out bad weather, you will have no choice but to move even if the conditions are not ideal, if you want to finish in time. We were lucky—in 2014 the weather was unusually good. But in 2015 a number of boats (particularly kayaks) capsized in windy conditions right at the start, crossing Tampa Bay, and the Challenge was canceled under pressure from the Coast Guard.
Navigation: a mapping GPS will come in handy. In the Everglades, if there is no moon, it is pitch black. There are absolutely no lights (except for a faint glow of the lights of Miami, which we used to keep ourselves oriented in the right direction when we weren’t looking at the GPS). That being said, if you follow the Wilderness Waterway through the Everglades, there are reflective markers at intervals that are fairly easy to spot at night with a headlamp. But otherwise, there are endless mangrove islands and meandering waterways that all look much the same.
In good conditions, you will probably need to do significantly more than 35 miles per day, especially if bad conditions (head winds, etc.) then reduce your mileage on one or two days. On the other hand, the entire trip doesn’t amount to 300 miles—that’s just a nominal distance. The real distance, if you pick your route right, is significantly less.
Thanks for the helpful info. 2 guys have completed on a sup so far. I believe 2013,14. Didn’t realize it’s full….shoot! I just emailed the Chief to get more info. Storage isn’t a problem on my sup as I have 2 lash points for dry bags, water etc. It’s the same board the 2 guys paddled from Key West to Maine on. Not your regular sup, more like a yak.
Good to know that SUPs have done it! And you should check whether it’s really full or not—don’t take my word for it. A lot of people sign up and then drop out at the last moment.