Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Journal Excerpts from our Backcountry Canoe Trip in the Everglades…

Saturday, December 30, 2006
Well, everything was a bit touch and go there for a bit, but we finally got a wilderness permit out of Flamingo and set off this morning. We opted for the South Joe River chickee, based on availability and the weather…

The first part of our journey was along a canal for just over 2 miles. The water was nice and flat, mangroves on either side. We saw a few wood storks and lots of herons and egrets. Then we got to Coot Bay…Coot Bay lasted for just under 3 miles. My first thoughts were surprise at how open it was. We had both assumed we’d be travelling through little canal-type terrain. We entered the bay and could not even see the opening we were supposed to be aiming for on the other side. All we had to navigate with was the nautical map, which we both have zero experience reading, and Steve’s GPS to help us out with direction – oh and a few buoys every now and then too…we managed to get pretty good at positioning our boat so that we were in line with the waves, we were actually surfing at times (which is kinda fun til you realize your in a canoe, not a raft, and that your entire backpack with all your gear is in the canoe with you, getting soaked)…

Our next segment was a short little creek that connected Coot Bay to the bottom of Whitewater Bay – which is HUGE! Every where we looked we saw water, water everywhere – we had no choice but to just head for where we expected the next opening should be. We stopped and tied our boat off at the next little section of mangroves, but since the mangroves don’t really count as land, had to stay in our boat and carefully get into our packs to get our lunch out…

We did some serious surfing in very open water for about 6 miles or so, and then came our turnoff. The minute we turned off we were on the wrong side of the wind for the first time of the day – the last half mile was quite intense. The wind blew us into the mangroves, then back out, and back in again – our tracks on the GPS looked like a pretzel, so we christened that section of river “Pretzel Pass.” We were both stoked to come around the corner and finally see the chickee, but we soon found out that the hard work was only just beginning…

dsc05415After crashing directly into the chickee, we tied off our canoe and threw our packs onto the platform. The wind was blowing so hard, it seemed impossible to get anything out of our packs, let alone set up our tent. After about 30 minutes of just sitting there being pelted by the wind, we realized that the wind was not letting up, and that we would have to somehow figure out how to get our tent up without it flying off the chickee (without stakes, mind you, since we were on a platform in the middle of the river). You would have thought we were 300 feet up in the air the way we clipped and slid all our gear through carabiners to keep it safe, but after an hour and 15 minutes we got our tent set up somewhat securely, but totally concave on the windward side. This included a lot of Steve engineering all sorts of meanderings with the rope and me doing a lot of laying down on tent parts to keep stray parts from flapping…

We are a bit worried about the wind situation tomorrow. It will be blowing against us the entire way, and the measly half mile that we endured that today did not go well at ALL. I spent a whole lot of time praying for the wind to die down or for us to be stronger than the wind. I kept singing that Isaiah 43 song to myself – “the wind and the waves will not overcome you….” I know that God is in control and that he will take care of us, but we are both anxious about what tomorrow will hold for us. Only time will tell.

Sunday December 31, 2006
…We put in at exactly 630, which was our goal. We both had headlamps on, but within minutes it was light enough to navigate without it…We made it down the Joe river and through Whitewater Bay slowly but steadily. The wind picked up a lot out in the bay, and it was painfully obvious we were so much slower today than yesterday, but the waves weren’t very big – yet…

The current was very fast in Tarpon Creek, forcing us to move at practically a crawl…we entered Coot Bay around 1000. We’d been paddling as fast as we could already for 3.5 hours (yesterday we made the whole trip in 4).What we saw at Coot Bay was beyond discouraging…

It looked like the ocean at low tide. The waves were easily swelling to 2 feet, and many had whitecaps. I said a quick prayer and kept paddling. It seemed as thought we had entered the bay at a good angle, hitting the waves head on rather then sidways – this makes for much harder paddling, and the person in the front (me) catches air and gets drenched on every wave, but you are not a slave to the wind and don’t have to worry about waves crashing into the boat. Like i said, it SEEMED as though we had entered the bay well, but as we all know, first impressions don’t usually last. Within minutes, we were helplessly smacked into the mangroves on the outside corner of the bay. We tried again. We got several yards out into the bay, but the wind found the side of our boat again. We were both paddling as hard and as fast as we could, trying just to hold our ground until the gust stopped, but we were rapidly approaching the mantroves again…

It was at this point that I started to wonder what would happen if we couldn’t make it – would we have to call the rangers and wait by our boat with our tails between our legs and they came to tow us out with a powerboat, only to charge us who knows what and look at us like we were foolish enough to even attempt such a trek. Or would we have to get out of the boat and walk in the 4 foot alligator water with our packs on for the remaining 6 miles?

I started to get a bit frustrated with God – actually lets be real, I felt a bit pissed off, and a little bit confused and hurt in and indignant but vulnerable sort of way…An “I trusted you and thought you were going to take care of me” type of feeling….I had offered up such sincere prayers yesterday, with every belief that God would follow through. I’d felt a peace that everything would go smoothly – that we’d wake up to find that God had stopped the wind with a word, or give us superhuman strength to deal with it. Well, so far, none of that had happened. At this point, we’d been paddling literally as hard and as fast as we could, we were just a little over halfway, and were spiralling out of control towards more of those stupid mangroves.

Out of a solid mix of exasperation and pure exhaustion I cried out in my mind, “I prayed and had real faith that you would be here for us – if your presence is here, I haven’t felt it yet…you could snap your fingers and stop all of this insanity right now if you wanted to, but it doesn’t seem like you want to. We physically cannot do this on our own, and we are depending on you – where the heck are you?!?” The wind threw us easily about 30 more feet – any gains we had acheieved before were now lost. I braced myself and got ready to duck before the impact, when all of a sudden our boat turned.

I don’t see how it turned. It certainly wasn’t b/c we suddenly paddled harder. It clearly wasn’t b/c the wind let up. It was like all of a sudden, what we were doing was enough. Our boat was in correct alighment with the waves, and we started moving forwards. So slowly that for about 30 minutes I went back and forth trying to decide if we were going forward or staying in the same spot.

For about 45 minutes from the time our boat was turned for us, it was silent except for heavy breathing and an occassional groan. During this time I felt like a machine. My memories of this section are a blurry haze of paddling to the right until i was exhausted, switching to the left until i was exhausted, etc etc…eventually we saw the opening for the canal. I turned to Steve and said, “I think we might make it.” It seemed as though the imminent concerns had passed. At that moment I felt very small – I felt a bit silly for having doubted God, as I pictured him turning to our boat and giving it a little breath in the right direction to straighten us out…

dsc05429So with the canal about a mile away, and my faith restored, we realized we were in a section of the bay where the sea grass came to within a couple of inches of the surfact of the water. Supposedly the water was 3 feet deep in this area, but it was unnerving paddling through it, b/c it appeared as though we were going to ground ourselves any minute – plus the drag the seagrass creates on the boat is needless to say unhelpful. But here we are, trudging along at a snail’s pace, when all of a sudden there was a huge implosion/splash/glugglugglug kinda noise RIGHT beside our boat. If it had been any closer it would have been under our boat. Clearly we had disturbed some sort of very large creature that had been lurking in the sea grass. Steve and i looked at each other with huge eyes and “what the crap is in the water” faces, but the distraction was just long enough for the wind to get us out of alignment and overtake us again – so try as we might, we were tossed helplessly into the mangroves yet again. This time i had to lay flat on my back so as not to get hit by the overhanging branches with all sorts of crazy spiders on them ( later we found 3 big spiders on the boat, and 2 small spiders on me, and a small infestation of microscopic spiders in my pack…)

We took a small break to catch our breath for the final push to the canal and also discussed the Loch Ness Monster encounter. We decided it had to be a manatee, based on size and location, which is pretty neat really – i wish it would have occured at a more opportune time so we could have stuck around and watched it for a while – and exchanged apologies for scaring each other 🙂

After a few minutes we pushed off, determined to make it to the canal. At this point there were several powerboaters that appeared to be watching us from the middle of the bay, as well as a couple of hopeful canoers that seemed to be having second thoughts about heading into the bay. We finally made it into the canal w/ only two minor incidents – Steve almost fell out of the boat (I’m still not sure what happened – if he had, he most certainly would taken me and both packs out with him), and the wind took one last shot at us and we had to precariously maneuver through several large chunks of dead trees before finally skidding haphazardly into the canal…

The last hour of this epic journey was so peaceful and relaxing it made us forget the hour and a half struggle of man vs nature we had just endured, as well as the 3.5 paddling marathon before that that had started in the dark. (Our trained-wrecked muscles were there to remind us the next morning though.)..

dsc05404In the canal, for the first time since yesterday the current was in our favor, albeit no more than a slight breeze. We casually drifted along, paddling every now and then, just long enough to keep up the momentum, laughing about the manatee incident, the one-liners that were exchanged during intense moments, and just enjoyed being out on a boat in the Everglades. The canal was a great way to end our adventure…We saw 3 gators, 2 were lounging in the sun, and one was actually swimming not too far from us! We also got really close to several wading birds, before they would fly away honking at us 🙂

…All in all, I’m pretty proud of our accomplishments. I think we did a great job reading the map and navigating through the open water. We didn’t give up, and we made smart decisions. Things got tense at times, but we didn’t lose it with each other. When things seemed impossible, we kept going and didn’t freak out or give up….So, all that being said, looking back now i’m realizing that just b/c you can’t always FEEL God’s presence doesn’t mean he’s not there…That was quite an experience. Some parts are in the like category, and some parts are in the dislike category, but all in all it was a crazy experience that we are both very glad to have had together.

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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN