By Johna Till Johnson
It wasn’t until midmorning that the humorous side of yesterday’s events hit me.
I stopped at a sandy island to make breakfast, and couldn’t stop chuckling. Of all my fears about paddling alone in the Ten Thousand Islands, the worst thing that had happened to date was my encounter with… Deranged Fart Man.
As if to make up for everything that had happened, the day was splendid: Sunny and cool, with just enough breeze and chop to be interesting. Which was just as well, because I decided I was homeward bound. Originally, I’d planned to camp on Pavilion Key in the Everglades. But the ranger had mentioned I’d be the 18th camper at the site—and after yesterday, I’d had my fill of neighbors. I decided to paddle back through the Ten Thousand Islands at a leisurely pace, and pick an isolated camp spot not too far from the marina where I’d started.
After a few more hours paddling, I found the perfect location at Camp Lulu: A secluded beach, partly facing the gulf, with a meadow and small forest behind me. Best of all, I discovered, there was an osprey nest off in the woods. The “weep weep” of the osprey parents was a cheerful backdrop as I went about setting up camp.
Night fell clear and quiet, and blissfully free of neighborly noises and smells. As I nestled into my bivy sack, I gave thanks for the soft sand. Overhead the stars blazed in a dark velvet sky. I fell asleep to the gentle sound of waves lapping.
The next morning I woke early, and was treated to a spectacular sunrise. I took my time packing up, succumbing to a familiar feeling: the trip was coming to an end, and I didn’t want it to. So even simple chores took longer and longer, as I tried to delay the inevitable.
Eventually, despite all my delays, I was packed and ready to launch. I waved goodbye to the ospreys (who were no doubt happy to see the interfering human depart), and set off.
The wind was brisk, and I made good time, despite my reluctance for the day to end. To my surprise, I reached the Coon Key marker in early afternoon. In an hour or so, I’d be back at the marina, unpacking and maybe savoring a burger.
Not so fast!
It took longer than I expected to navigate my way through the mangroves to the marina. When I arrived at the boat ramp, everything looked subtly different. The main building seemed set at a different angle than I’d recalled. And the boat dock seemed… larger, somehow.
No matter. I pulled the boat up on the dock and began quickly unloading it, conscious of the fact that powerboat owners might want to use it. A friendly man, a middle-aged midwestern transplant and fellow kayaker, kept me company. We chatted as I worked: about his wife (who was pushing for them to buy a condo in the area), his son (who did technology work at Amazon), about paddling. I made good time unloading the boat, and he helped me carry it to a grassy patch near the boat ramp. Another anomaly: the grass wasn’t exactly where I’d remembered it. And hadn’t there been a tree overhanging it?
But it wasn’t until I went looking for the car that I grasped the problem.The large, half-full parking lot was completely unfamiliar. “Where’s the big tree?” I asked my new friend, puzzled. “What big tree?” he replied. At the Calusa Island Marina, the helpful woman behind the desk had told me to park “under the big tree”. And indeed, the tree was unmistakeable: Over 100 years old, it towered over a circle of parking spaces. I distinctly remembered parking my white SUV in its shade. Yet it was abundantly clear that there was no big tree to be found.
Somehow I’d managed to arrive at the wrong marina.
It had looked like my marina… but then, I had a foggy recollection of not looking back when I first set out. Big mistake!
What to do? My new friend was as puzzled as I. Then he gestured to a trio of uniformed men. “The police might know,” he said.
I asked, my questioning hampered by the fact that I couldn’t remember the name of the marina I’d started from. They seemed doubtful, but finally gave me directions to “the other marina”. I needed to paddle around the peninsula we were on, go under a bridge, and there it would be.
Something about the directions didn’t seem right—I didn’t recall going under any bridges—but then I hadn’t exactly been paying attention when I set forth. We’d proven that.
I reloaded the boat, said goodbye to my new friend, and set off. As I paddled, I realized the wind and current were both with me. If by any chance this was the wrong direction, returning would be a challenge.
As I paddled, I savored the view of brightly colored waterfront cottages, tiny, but each with its own dock. Several were decorated whimsically, partly for the holidays, but partly with that quirky South Florida bohemian vibe.
Soon I pulled away from the inhabited areas. There was, indeed, a bridge in front of me—but I could swear I’d never seen it before. Surely I hadn’t been that clueless? With a deep sense of foreboding I paddled on. Ahead was a tiny boat dock, by the side of the road, with a few decrepit cars nearby.
It wasn’t where I’d started from. And now I had no idea where that even was, let alone what it was called.
This situation called for the GPS. I turned it on—and got a rude shock. It kept telling me I was at Marco Island, several miles away. And no matter what resolution I set it at, I couldn’t find my missing marina.
There was nothing for it but to go back to the marina that wasn’t mine (which I found out later was called Walker’s Coon Key Marina) and try again.
Which I did. Only paddling against the wind and current, it took me two hours to return, as compared with the 30 minutes or so to paddle out. When I finally arrived in late afternoon back at Walker’s, I was still as stumped as before. Acting on a hunch, I continued on past the marina. Unlikely as it seemed, maybe there was another marina behind the first?
Indeed there was. If I’d only kept paddling when I’d first arrived, I’d have been at my marina within minutes, instead of taking a three-hour detour.
Moral of the story: Pay close attention to your launch point, so you can be sure to find it again!
I unloaded the boat for the second time, put it on top of the car (yay!), and left the marina, tired but satisfied, around sunset. This particular adventure was over… but stay tuned. More to come!