Jumping the Moat

Continued from Lost and Found.

Christmas morning we woke up early and laid there in the dark, realizing we could no longer hear the Gulf slapping the banks of our tiny island.  Even when we held our breath, we couldn’t hear the waves.

When at last dawn lightened the sky, we decided to get up and get an early start in our canoe.  We had about 8 miles of paddling in store for us and we were already sore from paddling yesterday.

When we stepped out of the tent, we discovered our tiny island had become a giant island at low tide.  Actually, it was still a tiny island, but now it was surrounded by a giant moat.  The Gulf was suddenly so far away, it was almost unbelievable last night we were worried our canoe would get washed away by high tide.

We ate breakfast slowly.  We walked around the island and watched the sunrise.  We packed up our campsite.  We loaded up the canoe.  All the while, the water was slowly rising, coming closer, but it still looked hopelessly far away.

Having nothing left to do, we sat and waited.  But then, the wind died and we were sitting ducks for biting insects.  We were suddenly motivated to find a way across the moat, dragon or not.

We slid our canoe along the murky shore while we walked as far as we could on dry land.  We found that the opposite end of the island was closer to deep water than our end, so we edged our way through thick mangroves until we finally stepped into the muck and pushed our canoe and gear through the shallows until there was enough water that we could get in and paddle away.  We were itchy with drying muck as we paddled off into the sun.

We hadn’t been out too long when we saw a strange line of evenly spaced white dots stretched across the horizon.  As the dots got larger, we realized it was a large group of American White Pelicans flying in precise formation, sweeping the surface in search of prey.  They flew to a shoal where a huge conglomeration of pelicans gathered.  That might have been the best Christmas present ever.

When we stopped for lunch somewhere between Rabbit Key and Tiger Key, we discovered a family of Osprey.  The young were nearly the size of their parents and angrily demanded to be fed while their parents seemed to argue that it was time for them to leave their nest.

We arrived at Tiger Key without any navigational hiccups.  But the wind soon died and we discovered “no-see-ums.”  I tried a trick someone told us–smearing baby oil on my exposed skin.  I ended up looking like human fly paper and they still bit me–my skin looked like a basketball.

Thankfully, we managed to keep the bugs out of the tent and fell asleep with smiles on our faces, dreaming of Osprey and Pelicans.

Lost and Found

The first day of our canoeing adventure along the Gulf Coast in the Everglades, I discovered a key difference between canoeing in the Everglades and canoeing down a river.  There’s only one way to get lost when you canoe downstream on a small river:  failure to stop at the pick up point.

Canoeing in the Everglades was a completely different story.  We had a permit to camp on a particular Key each night of our trip.  Our first day, we were supposed to paddle about 7 miles to Rabbit Key.  Unfortunately, we started out heading down the wrong channel through the mangroves.  As we paddled around trying to identify openings between tiny mangrove islands that matched shapes on our map, I realized how little a map drawn from an aerial perspective reflects what land looks like from the water.

As the navigator, I eventually gave up on the map all together, picked a channel that pointed generally Southwest, and took us through the maze of mangroves until we hit the Gulf.  Assuming we were West of our destination, we paddled East.

Paddling along the Gulf Coast through swells of salt water in a canoe identical to the canoes we’d paddled as children was a completely surreal experience in and of itself.  Then, we spotted a dolphin about 50 yards from our canoe.  It was a joyful sort of strange.

After having paddled long and hard in the Gulf (which is not at all like paddling down a river) we decided to break for food and try to locate ourselves on the map.  We figured we might just stay where we were.  We were rapidly running out of daylight and we really wanted to have our campsite setup before dark.

We took a walk around the island we’d stopped on, trying to get a sense of what it might look like on our map.  Fortunately, we stumbled across a sign that identified the Key we had landed on.  It was Rabbit Key, the key we were supposed to spend the night on.  While this was mostly pure luck, Pat was still impressed by my sense of direction (too bad it doesn’t seem to work in the Chattanooga area).

Taking some advice someone had given us, we found a suitable spot to pitch our tent where there was plenty of wind.  Then, we pulled our canoe well up out of the water so it wouldn’t float away at high tide.  We ate quickly and went to bed, exhausted.

In the middle of the night, I woke up and went out to heed the call of nature.  When I looked up at the night sky, I’d never felt so close to the stars.  I’ve been to the top of Maunakea, which is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to see the stars, but here at sea level on a tiny key in the Everglades, it seemed like the stars were within arms reach.  It was astonishing.