From the archive: One man, a kayak, the open, angry sea — Solitude is the quest

Published May 20 2016
Updated May 20 2016

Editor's note: This was the first of a three-part series chronicling Times outdoor writer Terry Tomalin's 75-mile journey down the west coast of Florida in a sea kayak. It appeared in print on Feb. 23, 1993.

EVERGLADES CITY — The ranger appeared amused at my plan.

"You're going to run down the outside alone," he said. "Why?"

Solitude, I answered, and the physical challenge of carrying myself along 75 miles of inhospitable coast with nothing to bank on but biceps.

"Well, if solitude is what you want, you'll get it," he said. "There's nobody out there.

"As for exercise ," he laughed and shook his head.

Paddling "The Inside," as the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway is sometimes referred to by guides and outfitters, is adventure enough. Twisting and turning through the rivers and bays of the Everglades, one must be prepared for anything.

But venture to "The Outside," the unprotected waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where a winter storm can capsize a small craft without warning, one must be prepared for everything.

"Gotta warn you," the ranger said. "They're calling for heavy winds. Once you're out there, you're on your own."

That is why I had come.

We live in a world of seemingly constant human contact from family, friends, co-workers _ somebody is always there to ease the pain of ordinary life.

But deny human stimuli and the mind suddenly finds itself in an unfamiliar position.


It's enough to make a sane person crazy. Or as one friend suggested, a crazy person sane.

"It all depends on the individual," said Anthony Reading, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of South Florida. "For some people, solitude can be very refreshing. But for others, it can be unnerving quite upsetting."

There's no way to tell, that is, unless you try it. That's why Outward Bound includes "solo" time in its wilderness training programs.

Solo sailors, rare adventurers who circumnavigate the globe, have long celebrated the art of solitude.

Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail around the world alone, probably best described the solo adventurer's attitude: "I tried to take the offensive, relying on willpower and action; to be a pilot rather than a passenger on the sea of life."

But as one might expect, passion for solitary adventure leads to life on the edge, outside the safety of the pack, where an error in judgment might mean the difference between life and death.

As I packed my kayak on that overcast January morning, I thought of Slocum and what went through his mind that lonely day in 1909 when he disappeared en route to the Amazon.

Was it faulty rigging? Careless navigation? Maybe a collision at sea? No one will ever know. A peculiarity of solo adventure victories and defeats are celebrated and suffered in silence.

And while discretion might be the better part of valor, preparation takes precedence for the solitary traveler.

That's why I checked and rechecked everything before leaving the shelter of port. Seven-day's water for a five-day trip; freeze-dried emergency rations; weather radio; tide chart; spare compass; backup flashlight; extra paddle; life vest; flares and a signal mirror.

I knew the 13-mile passage to Pavilion Key would prove easy with an outgoing tide. And the sea remained cooperative for most of the day, until my craft approached Rabbit Key, the last sheltered island before open water.

Then, vulnerable for the first time, the wind kicked up, topping the waves with scattered flecks of white. Two fishing boats cruised up the channel, took one look at the gulf, then retreated back to Chokoloskee.

Within the hour, the western sky grew dark and menacing. Purple and black clouds blotted out the sun as the kayak made landfall.

"Be sure to put your tent up in the trees," the outfitter had warned. "A storm can roll in at night and blow you right into the gulf."

My tent was tested in the mountains, I assured him.

"Yeah, I thought mine was too," he said, "that is until I woke up in the middle of the night rolling down the beach."

So I heeded his advice, picked the less glamorous of two possible camping sites and braced for the approaching storm.

I unloaded the boat and placed it strategically on the windward side of my tent. Then I placed my heaviest items in each of the four corners. The last of the equipment was stowed when darkness fell and a sheet of rain hit with a wall of wind.

Cowering inside my shaking tent, I listened as the storm worked itself into a frenzy. I was alone on an island, but for a moment thought I had set up camp in the middle of a highway.

Then I remembered hearing the familiar accounts of tornado victims. "Sounded just like a freight train when that twister hit," said a woman whose mobile home had just been reduced to scrap metal.

Every few minutes, jagged lightning illuminated my tiny shelter. Finally, I summoned the courage to unzip the tent and peer outside. I saw no stars, no boats, no distant lights of land, just the void of the night.

But as quickly as it had come, the storm passed. I ventured outside and, with self-confidence bordering on arrogance, applauded my preparation.

Tomorrow would be a day of decision. Another storm with deadly lightning and I'd be forced to take the longer, safer course along the shoreline.

But if the gods were with me, I'd gamble and try the shorter, riskier route across open water.

Sure. Out there, anything could happen. But if predictability was what I wanted, I would have gone to Disney World.