By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
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.