Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Three

By Johna Till Johnson

Faka Union Canal Sunset

Sunset on Faka Union Canal

I awoke to the sound of…not very much at all. A few birds piping, and the rustle of air high up in the leaves.

The front had passed through, but other than the droplets remaining after a late-night shower and a smattering of branches caught in the mosquito netting above, there was little to show for it. The sun was up in a cloudless sky. There was a gentle breeze, and a few whitecaps out in the Gulf.

Nonetheless, it would probably be wisest for me to stay on the “inside” today. If the wind picked up (as predicted), I’d be better off sheltered. Besides, I wanted to explore the marina at the end of the Faka Union Canal.  I’d plotted out the trip the day before.   I’d be traveling with the current if I left before noon and returned by sunset.

I decided to leave the campsite set up, and make this a day trip. I launched late morning, arriving at the marina in early afternoon. After dragging the kayak up the boat ramp and depositing it on a patch of grass,  I explored. There was a small convenience store that sold ice cream and other goodies. There was also a restaurant, which tempted my empty stomach, but it seemed too highbrow for a damp paddler with salt-encrusted clothing. And there was a large hotel-apartment complex overlooking the water.

I returned to the convenience store, had some ice cream, then decided to take a selfie to share with my best friend and business partner. For most of the trip I’d been out of cell phone range, and I knew she was worried about me. This would be a good way to let her know I was fine.

I posed with the boat ramp behind me, and smiled that awkward rictus selfie grin.

“Did you get it?” asked a bystander.

Gator selfie Edited

Gator? What gator? 

I shot him a puzzled look. What’s to “get” in a selfie?

“I mean the gator! There’s a twelve-foot gator on the boat ramp behind you! I thought that’s why you were taking a picture!”

I spun around and saw… nothing. The boat ramp was empty.

I’d almost convinced myself he was making it up when a group of teenage boys came over, chattering excitedly. Yes, there had been a gator. Yes, it had disappeared into the water just seconds ago…

Well, dang! My first encounter with a gator on the trip thus far, and I’d missed it! And I was about to get into the water where it likely lurked.

I forwarded the selfie to my friend,  packed up the phone, and launched.

The paddle back was long and leisurely, as the sun made its way down the western arc of sky. I was still about 45 minutes from home when it set, but I wasn’t worried—I had headlamps, and the campsite was already set up. I paddled through the deepening scarlet and purple skies, and landed just as the first stars were peeking out.

It was while preparing dinner that I first heard the unearthly sound: a bone-chilling screech from the other end of the island, trailing off into angry jabbering. What was it? Not a panther—everyone described a panther’s cry as sounding “like a woman’s scream”. This was harsher, and angrier.

I turned the headlamps on bright and scanned the wall of vegetation at the end of the island. At first, nothing.

Then I saw it: Eyes.

Twin green glittery reflections, low to the ground. An angry screech followed.

Great. Whatever it was now knew exactly where I was.

I banged a couple of pots together and shouted into the darkness: “Go away and leave me alone!”

The screeching ceased—for a few minutes. Then it started up again. I scanned the forest with my headlamp. Was that another set of eyes? Two of them?

My mind raced with the possibilities. What could it be? I kept coming back to one theory: a rabid raccoon. Yesterday, Carolyn had mentioned she’d seen a “sick” raccoon. Would it come over to the campsite in the middle of the night and attack?

But what about the second set of eyes? And the snarling sounded distinctly angry, not sick.  I finally decided it must be two raccoons arguing over food, perhaps a fish. In which case, they were unlikely to bother me.

If I were wrong, it could be unpleasant. But since there wasn’t anything else to do,  I decided to assume I was right. I finished preparing dinner, ate, cleaned up, and went to bed. At some point the snarling ceased, and I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Thankfully, no crazed raccoons had attacked me in the night (though several lines of fresh tracks passed remarkably close to the boat).

I packed up briskly,  because today’s plan called for a long-ish paddle: I had decided to venture into the Everglades. That meant checking in with the ranger station at Everglades City, and continuing on to the nearest available campground. In the Everglades, permits are required, and the rangers limit the permits by campsite to avoid overcrowding. This was “high season”, so my choices were likely limited.

It was a near-perfect paddle: Warm (but not too warm) sun, light chop, and the never-ending panorama of keys to my left. When I reached Indian Key I decided to circumnavigate it and find the campsite Vlad and I had missed in the night during the Everglades Challenge.

To my delight, the sandbar at the inside end of the key held a stunning flock of white pelicans, which I was able to capture on camera.

Indian Key White Pelicans

White pelicans on Indian Key

Continuing on down Indian Key pass to the ranger station, I pleased myself by managing to recall its exact location.  I landed, stripped off my spray skirt, and tromped proudly inside.  My salt-encrusted jacket and squelchy paddle shoes garnered nary a glance from the uninterested tourists. And the rangers were pleasantly accommodating of  the damp footprints.

Their news wasn’t so welcome, however: Apparently the only available campsite was the Lopez River campsite, about five miles away. That wasn’t so bad—the current was with me, and if all went well, I’d arrive by sunset. And I was briefly excited at the thought of camping on a riverbank, rather than a beach.

But then I remembered Lopez River: Vlad and I had attempted to have a picnic lunch there on one of our shakedown cruises, and we’d been driven away by the sulfurous mud and clouds of mosquitos (even at midday). My memories of it were unpleasant enough, and in the evening, it would surely be worse.

Oh well. It was the only option, so I’d take it. As I set off towards Lopez River, I decided I’d plan to spend the least amount of time there I could. I’d sleep in my paddling gear, and launch early in the morning with the current.

True to prediction, I arrived at the campsite just as the sun was setting. There was already a large group at one end of the campsite, with eight or ten kayaks covering the beach, making it impossible to land.

Everglades Park Sign

Special regulations apply…

The only option was the other end, which was occupied by two picnic tables and a lone kayaker, a lean man with long graying hair and an appearance that made me think he was native American. By the looks of his gear, he was also a seasoned camper.

“You have a neighbor!” I announced.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t seem too happy: “There’s no room,” he replied. I explained that the rangers had sent me here, and assured him I’d respect his privacy and do my best to stay out of the way.

As he watched the sunset, I pulled the boat up and decided to pitch my bivy sack in the only available spot, a muddy patch of land between the two picnic tables. His gear was spread out on one, so I used the other.

We chatted briefly as I prepared and ate dinner. He was an artist from the West Coast, at the tail end of a 10-day trip (so my guess about being a seasoned camper was correct).

He seemed nice enough. And he was happy to listen to the weather report on my radio, which called for a mild enough night that I decided to eschew a sleeping bag. Maybe this campsite wouldn’t be so bad after all!

Wrong on all fronts, as I found out over the next few hours.

At first, things were fine.  Yes, the site was buggy, but I’d expected that. The head net kept the skeeters away from my face, and the jacket and waterproof pants protected me to the ankles and wrists.

And yes, the ground was hard and muddy, with just enough mangrove fingers poking up to make it impossible to find a comfortable position. And yes, there was the sulfurous smell I’d remembered.

Mud, bugs, bad smell: It wasn’t perfect, but nothing worse than expected—and I reminded myself again that I’d be launching early, ideally before dawn.

How bad could one night be? I was about to find out.

The first inkling came about 45 minutes after we’d retired to our respective tents. I was just drifting off to sleep when there was a loud, resonant rumble from his tent, so long and loud that it took me a few seconds to figure out what it was.

My neighbor had farted, the loudest, longest fart I’d ever heard.

It took a few seconds for me to realize that with a sound like that, there would also be…

…the smell reached me a moment later, the stench overwhelming the sulfurous mud. Whatever my neighbor had had for dinner obviously disagreed with him. And was now disagreeing with me. A few minutes later, there was another one, long enough that I could count the beats like a freight train.

I turned away and sunk my head as deeply as I could into the collar of my jacket, trying to avoid the fumes.

It was obviously going to be a long night.

But it was only getting started. After my neighbor’s stomach rumblings had subsided, a loud, unearthly moan issued from his tent, startling me. Apparently he was having a nightmare. Over the next few minutes, he thrashed and moaned, sometimes muttering unintelligibly.

I was wide awake, nerves tingling from the adrenaline rush.

After a while, the silences between the moans grew longer, and I relaxed. Maybe the show was over, and I could get some sleep.

I was just drifting off again when he shouted, in a voice full of menace, “You want more? I’ll give you more!”

Now I was actually afraid. There was no possible scenario in which those words, uttered in that tone of voice, could be benign. But he was clearly asleep, I reminded myself. People aren’t responsible for what they dream.

No matter, I wasn’t falling asleep for a long while. Because after the noises subsided, the cold began. Contrary to the predictions, the night got colder… and colder.. and colder. I could tuck my legs up inside my jacket and be warm enough, but after 20 minutes of sleep I was stiff and aching, and had to change position. I could always go get my sleeping bag from the boat, but it would take a while and subject me to the clouds of mosquitos that still whined incessantly outside, despite the chill. Plus, repacking the sleeping bag would delay the morning departure—which I was now awaiting with a mounting crescendo of desperation.

The night stretched on, and on.  Every few minutes I checked my watch to see if it was close enough to morning, and the current’s change, to launch. Then I’d doze for a few more minutes, the mangroves poking into me, my limbs stiff and cramped.. and wake again, to repeat the cycle.

The current was supposed to change around 5 AM. Perversely, when that hour rolled around, I couldn’t bring myself to face the cold outside. As uncomfortable as it was inside the bivy sack, it would be worse outside.

It wasn’t until after six that I hit on the one strategy that forced me out : I let the air out of the air mattress. As my body touched the hard, muddy ground, I suddenly decided the cold outside was preferable to remaining in the bivy sack.

Thankfully, it took very little time to pack and launch. I was on my way in the pre-dawn twilight, never so happy to be back on the water as I was then, despite the exhaustion pounding inside my skull.

Before me, the river was calm as glass. Behind me, the horizon slowly brightened. As I paddled, I thought about the ghastly night I’d just endured.

And then I looked over my shoulder… to the most beautiful sunrise I’d seen in a long time, maybe ever.

It wasn’t until then that I realized what day it was: January 1, 2017.

If the difference between the last night of the old year and the new dawn of this one was any indication of the future, my life was about to take a marked turn for the better.

I paddled onward, my spirits lightening as the sun rose.  I’d survived hidden alligators, crazed raccoons, and Deranged Fart Man…but today was a new day—and the dawn of a whole new year.

Lopez River Jan 1 Sunrise

Sunrise on Lopez River: Jan 1, 2017



22 responses to “Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Three

  1. Good grief, I worry about camping near snorers!! Great write up Johna.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Lyn! I still have to laugh at the phrase Deranged Fart Man… Because it really was funny, when you think about it! (Not that I’d want to live through it again…)


      • Johna Till Johnson

        And oh yeah… that “jacket” was actually my ChillCheater! Which I’m also wearing in the selfie. Not the first time it saved the day–nor will it be the last.


  2. If you are still down there, my friend Kevin Whitley aka Kayak Kevin is currently paddling Ten-Thousand Islands. He’ll be paddling for the next 6 months heading north to the Chesapeake Bay. Unless it’s mating season, them gators should be scared of you, but don’t keep food around your campsite.

    My campsite next to the Verrazano Bridge got raided by raccoons. One of them pulled my 30lb food bag off the table where I had left it. It thumped her on the head and she let out a cry. I came out of the tent to find her and her babies running away and up the tree. I put the food into a bear box after that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I sure WISH I were there, but no, I’ve been back in New York for over two months, sigh.

      Where does Kayak Kevin live when he’s not paddling? I’m looking for someone to teach me to kayak fish (of course, this means buying yet ANOTHER boat for my fleet…)

      I’m familiar with gators, having lived in Florida for 6 years. But I have yet to encounter them kayaking, that I’m aware of (other than one very brief view during a shakedown paddle for years ago).

      Where do you put the bear box when paddling? I’ve had good luck keeping everything (food, trash, dishes) in the hatches, with the hatch covers on. Obviously the first time some creature claws its way into the hatches, my luck will have run out… but I also tend to keep food, trash, and washed dishes in sealed drybags, which limits the amount of smell that leaks out.

      Which side of the Verazzano did you camp on? The Brooklyn side or the Staten Island side?


  3. Great post Johna. So well written and quite scary. But that sunrise looks like great compensation

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ” Deranged fart man ” ! Thx Johna , I almost spit my coffee out this morning laughing at this ! Campground is located in Fort Wadsworth. It’s actually a nice little urban campground with a fairly new bathroom . It’s close to a sandy beach where I sometimes launch my kayak with Hoffman and Swinburne islands right there in front of you . Bear Canisters – I’ve been canoe/kayak camping the Adirondack’s since my teens , [ 52 now :) ] and have had my share of black bear , raccoon, skunk , squirrel, field mouse etc.. encounters including a hard learned lesson on how not to leave your sweaty = salty hiking boots outside the tent when one of the aforementioned varmints dined on mine one summer night . I went on a group trip where we quickly found out that the Bear canisters/barrels we rented would not fit through any of our kayak hatches . I was tasked with toting one which I decided to stow between my foot pegs so for the 15 miles in I didn’t stretch or move my legs and feet around much , a happy camper I was not . My friend strapped the other one onto his deck behind the cockpit and at nearly 40 lbs was not happy either trying to stay balanced. I use the PCT method of hanging a Bear bag when the proper trees are available and have had great success . When trees aren’t available as with most beach camping there’s a product called the ” Ursack ” which my friend swears by which can be easily fit into/through kayak hatches . There’s an interesting youtube video of a brown bear trying to get into an ursack without any success although whatever the contents were I’m sure they were pulverized lol , friend says he mostly eats dehydrated meals so no big deal says he . Most of my trips are solo so I’m enjoying your story and the moments you have to just improvise and get things done yourself. Love that ” Can Do ” spirit , keep it going !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      “Almost spit out your coffee”–my mission here is accomplished! As you’ll see from the next post, I thought of that phrase afterwards (in fact, while I was enjoying a well-earned coffee later in the morning) and I just could not stop laughing myself. So I’m happy you shared my glee!

      Interesting info on Fort Wadsworth and the Ursack… many meanings of “ur”–“Ursa” is latin for bear, but “ur” is also something else (Sanskrit?) for “over” or “above” or “uber”.. the “urGod” would be the primeval God. I’ll have to check it out.

      I”m with your friend on mostly dehydrated. It saves a lot of time and effort. Also you tend not to find squashed rotten fruit under your footpegs later on in the trip…

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the info!!


  5. Marvelous post! Glad you made it through the night.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey, Johna. Excellent series!! We enjoyed it immensely :) :) as obviously, you did, too. (Deranged Fart Man aside.) Looove that 2017 began with a gorgeous sunrise. Ya, that’s a good sign. See ya soon! J&A

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, Johna, you have the most terrific gift of storytelling,. That gator-on-the ramp story – suspense, disbelief – then the reveal. Nice! And I loved your phrase: “that awkward rictus selfie grin.” yes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful tale of solo adventure, a needed lift for two lubbers languishing in month-long loathed melancholy.

    To hear the fart begin its flight,
    And smelling startle the dull night,
    From the windhover on the beach,
    Till the dappled dawn doth reach…

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Four | Wind Against Current

  10. What a great and crazy story, one that I’m sure will get many retellings!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You had me jealous of your adventures, as I was down there this winter and didn’t get a chance to paddle in the Ten Thousand Islands… but your description made me feel a little better about the route I took! I completely sympathize with your description of a cold, buggy, uncomfortable night… but the story of your neighbor really takes the cake!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Haha! Yes, deranged fart man was definitely the low point of the trip. But you have to have a few of those episodes to appreciate the rest….

      Liked by 1 person

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