By Johna Till Johnson
Sunrise over White Horse Key
“How far ya headed today?” The speaker was a young man, trendily bald and healthy-looking in the bright morning sunshine.
He and a few other folks had just arrived at the island where I’d spent the night. The rest of his group was walking on the beach through the white powdery sand.
“I have no idea,” I replied.
His mouth opened and his jaw literally sagged. “You have no idea?” he repeated. Clearly, the concept of setting out without a fixed plan and a firm destination wasn’t something that he could comprehend.
“That’s right, none,” I confirmed.
That wasn’t entirely true: I had some idea. I had a chart marked with promising camping locations, and homemade tide charts indicating the optimal time to approach each. But exactly where I’d end up each night, and how far I’d go before I got there—I hadn’t decided. For the first time in my life I was without a fixed plan, other than to stay out in the Ten Thousand Islands for a week or ten days–or however long took my fancy.
Taking your grief into the wilderness is an established literary trope (cf Cheryl Strayed’s Wild). And I’d been desperate to get away from the looming darkness of a New York winter–not to mention to avoid confronting Christmas, which is one of Vlad’s favorite holidays. But I also wanted to find out how well I’d fare on a solo kayaking expedition: Did I have what it took to spend days in the wilderness by myself? Could I find my way? Handle the inevitable emergencies?
And most importantly, could I hoist a kayak onto a car top by myself?
The first step was to make sure I understood the area. The Ten Thousand Islands is a stretch of parkland on Florida’s Gulf Coast that runs south of Cape Romano and north of the Everglades. The name isn’t apocryphal: There are probably at least ten thousand islands—but most of them are mangrove patches, pretty to look at (and home to thousands, probably millions, of birds) but impossible to land at.
The Ten Thousand Islands
A few of the islands have sandy beaches and are camp-able—the trick is to know which ones, and how to get there. It’s easy to get lost in the mangrove swamps, where everything you see is a green bubble perched on an expanse of blue-green sea.
Fortunately Vlad had several nautical charts of the area, at different levels of resolution. I selected three to accompany me on the trip (plus a backup). But although they’re important, charts are no substitute for the most critical component of understanding the area: Local knowledge.
To that end, I sat with a friend (Russell Farrow of Sweetwater Kayaks) over a pint or two at one of the many microbreweries in the town of Dunedin. We discussed the area, and he pointed out several features that weren’t on the charts, including an indian mound at Pumpkin Bay, and many camp-able beaches.
Most crucially, he steered me to a website that listed the tides at several critical points in the Islands. The entire area is extremely tidal, and many routes that are passable at high tide are impossible at low tide. Equally importantly, many sites that appear to be camp-able are not… because the beaches disappear underwater at high tide! So a good knowledge of the tides isn’t just helpful, it’s essential.
After checking online, I faced my first challenge: How to capture the tidal information in a way that I wouldn’t lose it while out on the water? I decided to write them on plastic baggies with a Sharpie. I thought I was brilliant for arriving at this solution, until I found out it’s common among paddlers in the area. Oh well—at least I was headed in the right direction.
Homemade tide charts
Speaking of heading in the right direction, Russell also recommended Calusa Island Marina as a good launching place, with ample (albeit expensive) parking. I could leave the car there for the duration of the trip.
About that car… the idea was for me to rent a boat at Sweetwater, load it on to my rented SUV, and unload it when I got there. Simple enough, except I’d never put a boat on a car (much less an SUV) by myself before.
I did it myself!
Vlad and I could handle it together, but I really wasn’t sure I could do it solo. Not only is my strength lesser, but I simply don’t have the height to hoist the boat onto the car. “We’ll show you how,” Russell assured me.
Sure enough, they did. And I could! (The trick, it turns out, is using a piece of carpeting to slide the nose of the boat onto the roof—and standing on a stool.)
My courage bolstered, a few days later I arrived at the marina. It took a surprisingly short time to unload the boat from the car, pack it, and set off without a backwards glance. (A mistake, as it turns out, but that story comes later).
I was on the water around 10 AM. The day was warm, but not too hot, with a light wind. I wended my way through the mangrove islands, where the light turned the water green-gold, and headed out towards the open Gulf.
Suddenly I heard a splash, followed by a deep, throaty breath. A dolphin! No, a pair of them! They arced around me, diving and coming up for air, oblivious to the kayaker in the water. Apparently I was paddling over a roiling school of mullet, and the dolphins were enjoying breakfast. It was an auspicious sendoff!
…and a pair of blue dolphins!
I soon pulled past the last of the keys and turned left (roughly southeast), heading down the coast. To my left were the Ten Thousand Islands. To my right was open water, with the sun sparkling off the tips of the waves.Without any particular destination in mind, I kept going for a few more hours, ticking off the various keys as I passed them, pleased with my ability to track them by compass and chart alone (I had yet to turn on the GPS). Around three PM I decided to investigate potential campsites–although the days were longer in Florida than in New York, darkness still came early. The sun would set at 5:45, and I didn’t want to be caught without a campsite.
When I turned towards the keys, I found I had a choice of two keys quite close together: Gullivan, which wasn’t an “official” campsite, but which Russell had marked as quite camp-able; and White Horse. White Horse was bigger, with a long stretch of beach, and higher ground, particularly on the inside tip. But I could see campers there already: at least two large tents, plus what looked like a sailboat anchored nearby.
Gullivan was empty, and for the first night out, I fancied being by myself. So Gullivan it was!
I paddled around the inside end of the island. Just as on the chart, there was a small curved bay, with a sandy bar protecting calmer water. The sand bar didn’t seem high enough to withstand high tide, though, so I continued around the curved end. There, on the side, facing White Horse, was a long sloping beach, with trees, grass, and high ground behind it. An ideal campsite.
I landed the boat, unloaded the water (the heaviest part of the load was the roughly 50 pounds of water I’d packed, in collapsable Platypus bags, and I couldn’t move the boat myself without emptying it of waterbags), and dragged the boat up on shore.
First campsite on Gullivan Key
Then I set up the campsite, on the highest point I could comfortably manage. It was a couple of feet above the highest high tide mark. High tide would hit around midnight, but with luck I’d be well above it. If not—well, there wasn’t any higher land on the island. So I’d better hope for luck.
“I’ll be fine,” I thought blithely. The wind was brisk, so since I didn’t have stakes, I used the water bags to weight down the tarp. The breeze would ensure no mosquitos. All in all, I was quite satisfied with the campsite.
After a short walk around my deserted island, I broke out the Jetboil and made dinner. To my delight, I was hungry. I hadn’t had much of an appetite in recent weeks, and though my last meal had been a breakfast croissant nearly 12 hours before, I hadn’t felt hungry yet today. But the smell of the freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce was enticing, and it tasted even better than it smelled. I couldn’t have enjoyed dinner more if it had been a meal at the Four Seasons.
After dinner, I snuggled into my bivy sack. Comfortably cushioned by the air mattress and two pillows (such luxury!), I was protected from the anticipated late-night chill by my sleeping bag, and from any mosquitos by the netting that covered the bivy sack’s opening.
A five-star meal on the beach!
And I discovered something wonderful: As the night deepened, I could see stars! In an open bivy sack, your face is exposed directly to the sky–it’s not like being in a tent. So through the wispy veil of mosquito netting, I was looking directly up into the spangled heavens. It was a clear night, and the stars glittered brilliantly–including Venus, which hung close and bright to the fading crescent of a waning moon. My last conscious thought was: “I’m sleeping under the stars!” And then I was.
I awoke a few hours later, in the dark, to the sound of waves lapping the shore. I looked up and there they were—foaming and frothing just a few feet in front of me. Sure enough, just as predicted, the tide had risen—but when would it stop? It was already strikingly close to where I’d camped (though still below the previous high-tide mark). And high tide was still about an hour in the future. What if it came up higher?
What to do? I could trust to my calculations and assume the tide wouldn’t come up much higher. But if I were wrong… I’d be frantically trying to pack the boat in the dark as water sloshed around everything, perhaps pulling my gear out to sea. I’d done that once before during the Everglades challenge, and I didn’t want to risk it.
The alternative would be to pack up the boat and, since there was no higher ground on my island, paddle across the short stretch of water to White Horse Key. The night was warm and calm, and I’d paddled at night many times. It wouldn’t be particularly risky… but it would be disruptive. Locating a campsite and setting up camp in the dark would probably consume the rest of the night, and I hoped to get some sleep.
I decided to split the difference. I packed up the boat, changed into my paddling gear… and sat and waited, with my headlamp on. The water was still creeping up the beach, higher than it had been when I first awoke. So I drew a line in the sand. If the water crossed that line, I told myself, I’d launch for White Horse.
It was roughly 11:45 when I drew my Rubicon. High tide was predicted for around 12:30. So I had 45 minutes to go. I sat up and dozed intermittently, turning the lamp on every five to ten minutes or so to see what the water was doing. By around 12:20 the water had stalled… and by 12:30 it was clearly receding. I gave it another 10 minutes or so to be completely certain… then I unpacked the tarp, bivy sack, air mattresses and pillows, and changed back into my sleep clothes.
I snuggled back into my nest with a feeling of triumph. My calculations had been correct! And if they hadn’t—I was confident I could have made it to White Horse without trouble. In just one day I’d managed to get the boat off the car, navigate my way to an unmarked campsite, and survive the tides. I was on my way!
The next morning, I awoke before dawn. I was sleepy but felt impelled to get up, almost as if Vlad were nudging me. He always liked to take pictures of the sunrise, and of everything else in the clear morning light. I tried to resist the impulse, but like Vlad himself, it was overwhelming. I grabbed the camera and unzipped the mosquito net just in time to see the sky brighten over White Horse into a glorious sunrise…
The sun rises over White Horse Key… marking a successful night