By Johna Till Johnson
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? 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.
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.
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.
Sunrise on Lopez River: Jan 1, 2017