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Terry Tomalin's last tale takes his son and him to Wilderness Waterway

JEWEL KEY

The kayak guide had warned that the tide would be terrible in the morning, but the thought of hash browns and eggs over easy proved too much for my canoe companion.

"Let's go for it," George Stovall said. "We can paddle through anything."

Over the years, we had gone up and down this coastline a dozen times. They call this area Ten Thousand Islands, and though I've never stopped to count, I know I've seen at least 100 of them, and they all look the same.

"I'd hate to get caught halfway there when the tide turns," I said. "But then again, I'd do just about anything for a couple of pieces of bacon."

So we stood on the beach, argued and laughed, talked about the time we paddled the entire 99-mile Wilderness Waterway Trail, a trip that experts say should take a week. We did it in a mere 28 hours.

Of course, we were younger then — 15 years, to be exact — and in much better shape. And this trip through Everglades National Park was different for another reason. George, a chiropractor by day, had brought his 12-year-old grandson, and I had brought my son, Kai, 14.

The 2,357-square-mile wilderness, most of which is covered by water, is unforgiving. It's a land of unrelenting sun ruled by no-see-ums, mosquitoes and alligators. Cellphone reception is nonexistent, and all of the mangrove shoreline looks the same, so it is easy to lose your way. On a back bay many years earlier, I came across a pair of German tourists who had been wandering in circles for days. I offered them ramen noodles, which they devoured, dry.

I had been lost here myself before, on a solo trip, among the hundreds of coastal islands that separate the inland lakes and rivers from the open water of Florida Bay. At the time, it was a humbling experience, but now it seems funny.

"I wasn't really lost," I said to my son. "I knew I was somewhere on the southwest coast of Florida."

Kai had been begging me for years to go on a real adventure. He had done all the touristy things — airboat rides, swamp buggy tours — but this time he wanted to see the real Everglades, the fabled River of Grass, home to big bull gators, the legendary Swamp Ape and the ghost of Ed Watson.

"I want to camp on an island where we can't see the lights on land," he said. "I want to cook over an open fire and sleep under the stars. I want to do what you do … please?"

Among the islands of Florida Bay, there are no traffic jams or crowds. Spend a few days among the mangroves and you'll feel stress dissipate — as long as you don't find yourself turned around and paddling the wrong way against an outgoing tide.

Everglades National Park has dozens of campsites to choose from, some a few hours from civilization, others that will take you days to find. You can choose a chikee, an elevated wooden platform that can sleep up to six people. There are also ground sites, such as the former homestead of the Everglades outlaw Watson, which are ideal for larger groups. But my favorite camping spots are the beach sites, such as Mormon, Turkey and Pavilion keys.

The open water or windward sides of the islands tend to have the best beaches and fewer bugs.

"It doesn't take but an hour or so to get out to Jewel Key if the tide is in your favor," kayak guide Dillon Griffin told us before we set out. "But coming back will be tough if you time it wrong. The last thing you want to do is get caught out there when the tide turns."

Griffin, who spends his summer months running white­water in his native North Carolina, works out of the Ivey House, a hotel/hostel in Everglades City that has been catering to paddlers for decades.

"Jewel Key is my favorite place to camp," he added. "You have the best sunset in Florida, and no matter which way the wind is blowing, you always get a breeze. It is nothing short of paradise."

The island, small enough to walk around in an hour, is fewer than 5 miles as the crow flies from the park's visitor center. It is one of the park's newest campsites, with a beach barely big enough for a few tents and a fire ring.

Griffin paddled out with our small group and was mad that he had not brought his camping gear when he learned that we would be frying alligator and wild boar in a cast iron skillet for dinner.

"Wish I could stay," Griffin said as he headed back to civilization. "But remember to keep your eye on the tide. Sleep in. Enjoy the morning. Then head back with the tide when it turns."

Florida is known for its sunsets, but there is something about being far away from civilization at the magic moment when the sun melts into the horizon. As darkness descends, the noises of the night — fish feeding in the shallows, raccoons scrounging for food — tell you that you are on your own and far from home. It's scary, yet exhilarating, a feeling found only in the wilds of a national park.

The park's wildness trip planner echoed Griffin's sentiments: "Beware of swift currents and tides when securing vessels overnight; tidal ranges can exceed 4 feet in some locations. … Use tides to your advantage in travel."

So why, then, would a couple of veteran paddlers ignore both professional and institutional advice?

"I'm hungry," I told my friends. "My stomach is growling. I say we go get a hot breakfast."

The planner also emphasized the importance of a nautical chart and a compass for navigation. Stovall and I once paddled 300 miles down the coast from St. Petersburg to Key Largo. Another time we traveled from Florida across the Gulf Stream to Bimini in an outrigger canoe. We know the value of a good chart, compass and GPS.

But for some reason, with our destination just a few miles away, we didn't think to consult the charts until after we had gone right when we should have gone left.

"Dad, do we know where we are?" my son asked as we paddled up a narrow creek that probably hadn't had a human pass that way since the days of the Calusa.

"Somewhere on the southwest coast of Florida," I said, hoping to get a laugh.

But secretly I was starting to worry. I knew there was a very real possibility that I could be stranded for hours, perhaps even overnight, with a moody teenager in dire need of a good meal.

We paddled deeper and deeper into the mangroves, the canopy eventually blocking the sun. When we thought we could go no farther, the tide turned against us.

"Is it supposed to be this hard?" my boy asked as we struggled against the current.

"Paddle. Paddle. Paddle," I yelled. "Paddle!"

Let up for a second and the canoe would be pushed backward — or worse, sideways — and capsize. After 10 minutes of nonstop exertion, we broke through the wall of green and came out into a marked channel.

"Now all we have to do is follow the numbers," I said.

An hour later, back at the ranger station where we had started the day before, I asked my son what he thought of the trip.

"It was a real adventure," he said. "I especially liked the part where we got lost."

So we unpacked our canoes, cleaned our gear and loaded the truck to head back home. That's when I looked at my watch.

"Dang! It's 11:30," I said. "We missed breakfast!"

Terry Tomalin's last tale takes his son and him to Wilderness Waterway 06/17/16 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2016 9:18pm]
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