For me Christmas is best spent in the Great Outdoors beyond the world of calendars. It is a gift of time to find the timeless in a place where I feel the seamless kinship with all things.
After a year of anticipation, research and planning, Christmas in Florida's Everglades of was finalized. Then my worst nightmare. A week before we were due to leave, Dick and Marty, my canoe partners got sick and had to cancel.
"Call Jay Heath; he'd like to go," Dick suggested trying to ease my disappointment."
Canoeing with someone I'd not met was a concern, but my fears subsided when I talked to Jay on the phone. We discussed the challenges - the endurance required to paddle across vast, breezy bays or against the current of tidal rivers, turning over in the boat, being vulnerable to hypothermia, having to drag the canoe across sharp oyster beds in waist-deep mud or getting lost. The guidebooks also caution against salt-water mosquitoes, alligators, crocodiles, sharks, and raccoons that steal food and fresh water. Although the park service recommends that inexperienced boaters use a guide, we thought we would learn to navigate on our own. We agreed to use my car, canoe and charts.
A cold front with below-freezing temperatures approached the Southeast two days before our departure.
Jay arrived at my house after lunch on December 22, to leave for the trip. His brown eyes and furrowed brow were hidden behind thick-rimmed glasses. While I drove, we talked about ourselves in an effort to get to know each other. Even with our common interest in outdoor adventures, the conversation began to lag. A couple of hours later we were silent.
When we arrived at Everglades City the following morning, a park ranger persuaded us leave the following day as gale-force winds and below freezing temperatures were expected. We reserved campsites for nine nights starting the next day, December 24, and slept at the Captain's Table Hotel.
My apprehension increased when I looked over our two large waterproof charts of the Everglades. A hundred miles seemed a long way, paddling two miles an hour, about ten miles a day, for ten days.
My anxiety intensified at the Chokoloskee launch site at daybreak. A local fisherman told Jay how to exit the bay, while I went to an outfitter who charged us $150 to drive my car to the Flamingo Ranger station where the trip would end.
The sun, pale and watery, peeked out from behind gray misty clouds, when we headed for Lopez River, our campsite with a heavy load of gear and fifteen gallons of water. Sitting only a couple of inches above the water line, the canoe threatened to overturn each time we moved. My heart fluttered in my chest.
The icy, howling twenty-five-knot northwest tailwind pushed us across the white foamy waves. My rain jacket flapped in the gusts sounding like a paddle boat. My breath quickened. Our sixteen-foot green Mohawk canoe was a tiny speck in the vast gray bay.
The boat veered to the right. I swallowed and looked around. "Jay, steer to the left," I stammered, for he controlled the canoe's direction from the stern.
"I am!" he yelled, his face hardening. He narrowed his eyes and stared at the horizon. "At least we won't drown," he hissed. Chuckling, I began to relax. He was right; the bay was only a few feet deep. "Crunch," came the sickening sound of the canoe grounding itself on an oyster bar. I cast about wildly. We talked of pulling the canoe to deeper water, but the razor edged shells could cut our feet when the sticky, low oxygenated mud gripped our shoes. We studied the water for another route. Paddling backwards, we found a deeper channel. Relieved, we allowed the shrieking wind to drive us forward without effort for five miles.
Located on the southwest tip of Florida, the up to seventy-eight-mile-wide Everglades National Park starts at Lake Okeechobee and ends a hundred miles south at the Gulf. Nearly half of the Everglades lies in three-foot tidal flats with scattered islands or "hammocks" of trees and shrubs dotting the mostly saw grass and mangrove wilderness. The slow, shallow, fifty-mile-wide, freshwater Everglades River flows southwest towards the Gulf, covering only one-and-a-half miles per day.
The northwestern section of the Everglades is named the "Ten Thousand Island" region because the river meanders through a labyrinth of mangrove keys. The sturdy aerial roots of evergreen red mangrove trees, freshwater plants that have gone to sea, bind the nutrient-rich silt to build new land and act as a nursery for mollusks, crustaceans, fish and algae. The brackish hundred-mile Wilderness Waterway alternates between narrow rivers and wide, shimmering bays.
For the last thirty million years the sea has ebbed and flowed over the Florida Plateau, changing its shape. Florida's shoreline extended farther seaward when the ocean levels dropped around three hundred feet during the ice ages some ten to twelve thousand years ago. The warm climate and absence of glaciers probably account for the mastodons, mammoths, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed tigers and llamas that once roamed Florida during the ice ages. The fossils of many extinct mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are still being found in Florida today.
Two hours later we set up our tents at Lopez River our island campsite. I felt a surge of elation. Lopez River's broad, brown, shallow water sparkled in sunlight. To warm up we lazed on a crushed gray and white oyster shell beach along the bank.
Our camp was a small flat land clearing with two picnic tables, a chemical toilet, and clusters of sword-like green- leafed mother-in-law tongue plants. Tall black mangroves with thick green elliptical leaves and pencil-thin knees grew in the high tide zone.
Two ghost crabs with jointed legs, squarish shells and long stalk-like eyes with three hundred and sixty-degree vision sprinted across the mud on their toes. The bigger crab, a male, waved its large pincer that serves as a weapon and a mating signal. When a gray, white and black Ring-Billed Gull with yellow legs swooped towards us the crab disappeared into a hole.
A television program from the previous night had helped ease my apprehension about the trip. When things got desperate, a Borneo adventurer, who had walked through mud and befriended headhunters, taped a message to his daughter about not being crazy but a prisoner of his dreams. I, too, felt like a prisoner of my dreams; I needed adventure; I needed to take risks, to expand, and to learn.
A small long-beaked marsh wren with a whitish breast and dark brown wings sat on a mangrove branch a few feet from my head. Hopping nimbly among the leaves, it picked with its long curved beak at a seed that looked like a black-eyed pea. The rustle of leaves, the wind's roar on the bay water, and the call of gulls could not fill the great silence.
With the strong winds and freezing temperatures we doubted whether the three other canoeists scheduled to share the campsite that night would show. However, when the last of the sun's rays shifted through the mangrove branches like falling leaves, two men and a boy arrived in a couple of canoes. The solo canoeist staggered towards us. "We canoed thirteen miles into the wind. We're soaked and exhausted," he groaned.
When I went to bed I had a knot in my stomach, and I thought seriously about turning back.
Golden rays of sunshine and puffs of wind hallowed us on Christmas day, lifting my spirits.
"Crunch!" The canoe ran aground at the first channel intersection. I jumped reflexively, and yanked the charts out. Jay and I debated about routes. We went around the shallow area, and the next marker came into view. We sighed with relief.
Our rain-jackets rattled, and the water hissed in the freshening breeze. Aided by the blustering twenty-knot northwesterly tailwind, our boat seem to fly across the flat, gleaming waters of Sunday, Oyster and Last Huston Bays for ten miles. But the wind hurled its full fury on our boat's nose when we left the Wilderness Waterway and turned northeast the last two miles. It snatched at our heaving paddles until our arms ached.
We were relieved when we found Sweetwater Bay's two elevated ten by twelve-foot wooden platforms built for camping. The roofed platforms, also known as chickees, were separated by a chemical toilet housed in a small wooden building and stood in the water away from the mangroves behind a circular island.
I tied the canoe behind the platform and listened to the "lap ... lap" sound of water in the wind and an occasional "thud" as the canoe hit the chickee. Tree leaves rustled and nesting birds chattered nearby. A dark gray six-foot alligator floated in front of us then gently sank like a submarine.
Jay groaned and sighed when he put up his tent. He said he was forty but his stooped shoulders and his shuffled gait made him seem older.
Three large scaly alligators glided across the bay with only their heads visible. All was well; the wind had been behind us; my canoe partner was a good paddler, and I had the solitude I needed.
Two weary-looking blond-haired German women arrived as the amber sun slid below the horizon. They took the second chickee. "We canoed over sixteen miles from Chokoloskee and lost our way," the taller woman confided in a German accent. Relieved to be in before dark, they danced in a circle and sang in German. They were exchange students and had been in the States three months.
The wind died at dusk, and everything became still in the darkness. Looking up at the stars, I felt a strange power of being part of something much bigger than myself.
"Let's see what a good outdoors woman you are. Where's the north star?" Jay asked looking towards the northern horizon.
"I don't know. The stars are great lights of mystery," I said smiling.
"I never can find it!" he muttered peering towards the north.
The German women were still in their tent when we left the Sweetwater Bay Chickee at first light. Three grayish-colored five-foot-long bottle-nosed dolphins with prominent dorsal fins leapt and dove next to our canoe for a quarter mile in Chevelier Bay. They darted under the bow and rocked the boat when they swam around us. With a deep sighing sound they surfaced to exhale explosively through a small blow-hole then rapidly inhaled before diving again. The dolphins seemed to be smiling with their open beak-like toothy jaws.
"Hello ... I love you!" I called, and thought how for centuries sailors have considered their presence a good omen and how the ancient Greeks honored them as gods.
The larger dolphin lifted its snout to look at us. One of the dolphins flipped a fish in the air with its snout. Speeding away from us, the other caught the fish, and flicked it back. With tails moving in an undulating motion, not sideways like most fish, they dove and leapt cutting across the water.
The day broke clear, but a cold wind from the north soon blew in clouds and it began to drizzle. I put on a poncho and placed a tarp across the gear. "My rain gear is buried; I'll just have to get wet," Jay moaned. Because of the freezing temperatures, many of the fish were dying; some were already dead and had washed up on the banks while others wallowed on the surface, their bodies turning somersaults. I felt a dull, empty ache while I watched.
An osprey sat on a huge stick nest piled a foot high in a tree in Alligator Bay. Through the binoculars I could see its large brown neck and head. Another osprey hovered ahead of us and then plunged, feet first, into the water locking its talons into a large silver fish.
Alligator and Plate creeks were narrow and looked like lush tropical forests with palmettos, mangroves and air-plants. Tiny rainbows glistened in the beads of dew that clung to the leaves of the green leafy pineapple-like airplanes nestled among the mangrove branches. The mangroves' arched wet air-breathing roots formed little jungles of sparkling pipes. Water swilling through the mangroves' knee-like roots and spikes shimmered on the underside of their thick waxy leaves.
After an easy ten-and-a-half-mile paddle, we arrived at the Plate Creek Chickee. Golden shafts of sunlight broke through the gray clouds. The tide turned while we were sitting on the dock at Plate Creek. A loud squealing sound came from across the bay. We jumped up to look. Four tiny yellowish-brown piglets strutted across the far bank. I dove for my binoculars, but the piglets disappeared in a thicket.
A motor boat with two men and a boy sped towards us and stopped. "Mind if we use your toilet?" asked a man wearing an insulated army jacket.
"No, go ahead," I said nodding in the direction of the toilets.
"Feels good to stretch the ol' legs!" said the other man. They were from Lakeland, Florida and had been coming here for eighteen years to fish.
The man with the insulated army jacket joined us. "You bein out in this god-awful weather?"
"Yeah," Jay said proudly. They expressed sadness about the snook dying from the cold.
"Did ya know each other b'fore this trip?" the other man asked looking at me.
"No," I answered surprised by his question. "How could you tell?"
"Didn't think ya did!" he said smiling.
We left Plate Creek at daybreak. Three black vultures with wings outstretched in a shallow-V soared above us rocking from side to side. We ate lunch next to a small mangrove island. The smell of my canned fish steaks on bread mingled with the odor of fish half eaten by turkey vultures. The food became tasteless. A family of bushy raccoons with dark eye masks stopped to watch our boat from the shore.
It took us five hours to paddle thirteen miles to reach the Rogers River Chickee. After setting up our tents we "bathed" by pouring the icy brackish water over ourselves with a jug. The cold water felt invigorating. Sheltered from the wind by thick mangroves, we sat cross-legged in the sun, studying our charts. A blue-gray belted kingfisher with a shaggy crest on its head swooped by cackling. It lit on a mangrove branch. With a sharp twittering call it dove into the water, snatched a fish with its beak, and returned to its perch to gobble it.
Life felt good, and I thought about how I could take risks when I felt in harmony with the universe.
At sunset the wind hit the water with a soft peaceful rippling sound. When the wind died, the bay became smooth and soft like a baby's skin. The mangroves looked black against the pink watery horizon. Venus twinkled just above the place where the sun had set.
"Pooh," came the gentle sound of a dolphin expelling air from its blow hole while it foraged across the bay. The dolphin's presence felt like a good omen.
Jay and I sat at opposite ends of the chickee admiring the stars, then we turned in for the night. Suddenly, I was awakened by a loud "crunching" sound next to my ear. I shone my flashlight around the tent, but saw nothing. My heart beat faster. "Did you hear that?" I asked Jay.
"No," he replied sleepily. Just as I put my head on the pillow, the "crunching" sounded again. This time it was a lot louder. My mouth went dry. Sitting up, I focused my flashlight's beam on my pillow. A two-inch ghost crab lifted and waved its claw pincers. Giggling with relief, I used my shoe to scoop it up and put it out.
Awakening, I glanced out the tent door. Giant snow-covered mountains filled the crimson sky. The jagged white peaks were mirrored in a pink glass-like lake. Was I in Nepal? Blinking in disbelief and panic, I looked again. The dazzling white mountains changed into huge billowing clouds. The sun's red orb glowed above the horizon of the bay's dome-like cathedral, creating an explosion of shimmering reds. I gasped in delight. A great blue heron soared across the sky and squawked as if to greet the fiery sun-god. Transformed by the deity of things, I felt like a pilgrim on sacred waters.
With no mosquitoes present, I left the door of my tent open. The tops of the clouds gleamed with a yellow white light before the sky became a web of pink and purple wispy clouds. A breeze turned the sun's reflection into tiny red ripples.
A gray six-foot alligator, with a broad snout, was sunning on the bank when we left Rogers River Chickee. Three brown pelicans passed in tight formation. The first left the line, flapped and glided across the water, then dove with a splash and scooped up a fish in its mandible. While floating, it tilted its head back to swallow the fish as water drained from its bill. Two dolphins made me laugh when they sped under the canoe's bow and rocked the boat.
Breezing down the Broad River with a northwesterly wind pushing from behind, we quickly covered nine miles. The brilliant sunshine seemed part of an eternal sacred ceremony.
Broad River, our next camp, was a ground site rated for twelve people. Three motor boats sped towards us and stopped. Seven men disembarked. "We left Chokoloskee this morning and we're here for two nights," said a gray-haired man. They were from West Palm Beach.
The camp ground became a beehive of activity, jokes and laughter while we set up our tents, but became silent when the men left to fish. Jay read a book while I sat on the wooden dock under a mangrove tree with thick green leaves. Our silence made Jay and me an odd couple.
The arched mangrove roots looked like a tapestry of spider webs. Volcano-like gray barnacles clung to the mangrove roots. Small snails with rough-banded white-and- black-pointed shells studded their trunks.
The breeze's briny air felt good on my skin and hair. An appreciation of all that was free filled me: the sparkling mangrove wilderness, the ocean air, the brilliant sunshine and spectacular sunsets.
Long black snake-like necks of three anhingas surfaced in the water in front of me. One by one they disappeared and reappeared upstream. A small shore crab made its way down the trunk of a mangrove tree. It moved around the far side of the tree until only one stalk-like eye was visible.
The fishermen returned at dusk and started a fire to grill steaks. "Would you like to join us for a fish dinner tomorrow night?" the gray-haired fisherman asked, looking at me.
"We may not have enough fish!" said another.
"There'll be enough for me and her!" he replied smiling. He looked at Jay, "Don't know about your friend." We all laughed.
Much to our surprise, the fishermen turned in early. Before going to sleep I thought about the next day. We would be canoing the eight-and-a-half-mile Nightmare, a narrow creek that runs only at high tide. The name made me shudder. After Nightmare Creek, the trip would be halfway over.
Massive clouds clogged the sky obscuring the sun when we entered Nightmare Creek thirty minutes before low tide. The water looked to be four feet below the wet line on the mangrove trees. There was a strong smell of sulfur. The tree leaves on both banks met overhead forming a green tunnel. Small gray birds peeped while flittering among the leaves. "I like the little, biddy birds," Jay commented. "They're so small you can't get a good look to see what they are."
A white snowy egret with bright yellow feet and a black bill foraged among the tree roots ahead of us in search of fish. "I didn't think we would get this far," I said after we had paddled a couple of miles.
"Yeah," Jay agreed. Two fallen trees blocked our channel around the next bend. "I'm going to lie back in the canoe to wait for the tide," Jay mumbled stretching out.
"I think we can get out on the logs and lift the boat," I suggested.
"I don't like it," Jay said eyeing the dead trees and mud.
"It could be fun, like an obstacle course," I said brightly. I got out gingerly, stood on the log and lifted the canoe bow across. Jay got out quickly and slipped. His shoes sank deep into the mud.
"These are my only pair of sneakers," he snarled, and gave me a scorching look. After negotiating both logs we paddled with renewed vigor. We passed marker twenty-three at the Broad Creek intersection around noon. According to the chart, Broad Creek flows to the ocean and would provide a longer alternate route to our next camp. We continued on Nightmare, the shorter route.
A howling wind hit us with furious force, making our jackets' hoods flap rapidly against our backs. The gusts came from the south, the direction we were going. Thirty minutes later the boat lodged in a trickle of water less than an inch deep and narrower than the canoe's width. Mosquitoes zoomed in.
"Humf," Jay muttered while spraying himself with bug repellent. "We would not have left camp till eleven if the decision had been mine!" he said coldly, then scowled.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked surprised. He lay back on the canoe and looked at the tree tops. Irritated, I studied the chart again. "Jay, should we take the alternate route?"
"I don't care," he grumbled poking his lips out. "You got us into this, you get us out!"
I sat a moment in awkward silence. "Let's have lunch," I suggested, starting to look for my food.
"I suppose so!" Jay murmured, reaching for an apple. He sat in the canoe covered with frowns. High tide would not be for another two hours. The wind streamed through our hair and clothes. Suddenly, I wanted to pee even though my liquid intake hadn't been much.
The water began to rise. The canoe floated forward a few feet then stopped. We sat a couple of minutes. The boat moved forward again. Poling three feet farther, we broke free into deep water. We passed marker twelve without problems.
"Hurrah! We made it through Nightmare," I yelled slapping my paddle on the water. Jay smiled. Risk and fear seem to awaken my sleeping senses, strip me of pride and rip apart my habitual blinders.
We arrived at the Harney River Chickee two hours later and I made a mad dash for the toilet. Our camp was behind an island at the intersection of Nightmare Creek and Harney River. The wind blew sharply, roaring in our ears and creating foot-high waves and white caps on the water. Harney River's current was so swift, I decided to tie the canoe lines in four places.
My weather radio reported that twenty to twenty-five knot southeast winds were forecast for the next three days. This was bad news, for it meant canoeing into the raging wind. I was grateful that the winds were behind us the first half of the trip when we were inexperienced.
Jay leaned against a chickee post reading a book about birds. The wind hummed in my ears as I sat across from him. A small yellow bird landed on the canoe in front of Jay and gave a tiny "peep." "Jay, look at the bird!" I whispered, but it flew off.
"Come back, bird, so I can identify you!" Jay snorted.
Gray and white puffy clouds floated north while the wind danced across the water and shook the mangrove leaves. The tops of the tall mangrove trees on the opposite bank had turned red. We found out later that they were dying from the cold spell.
At dusk we heard the soft "pooh, pooh" sounds and light splashes of a dolphin foraging nearby. Time and space seemed to go warp as my sense of self expanded.
At sunrise we started our ten mile paddle to the Sharks River Chickee. The howling, demanding southeasterly wind was blowing with full fury. Increasing steadily from the wrong direction, the wind walloped our faces and made every inch of the five-and-a-half miles to Tarpon Bay a challenge. The gusts gushed up the river and snatched at our paddles and clothes. We rowed hour upon hour, against the buffeting wind. Making the trip a meditation - stroke-in, stroke-out - helped. My hands had become stiff and swollen from tendinitis and my arms and fingers ached.
We stopped to have lunch in the canoe at Tarpon Bay. A great blue heron stood in a "freeze" pose while fishing among the reeds. With a lightning strike it caught a fish and swallowed it head first. Honking sharply, the heron pulled in its neck and soared off with slow heavy wing beats.
With the tide, wind and the current finally with us, we made good time on the Shark River. Two motor boats roared past our canoe, ignoring the "No Wake, Manatee" signs. "Don't speeding boats injure the manatee?" I asked one of the boat owners who had stopped to fish.
"Yes," the man said curtly, as if to say, "So what!"
Five houseboats roared by; the sound of their motors replaced the bird calls and the gentle lapping of waves. The smell of fuel overpowered the salty odor of the water. None of the boats slowed down for the canoe.
We unloaded our gear at the Shark River Chickee and had our second shower. The water was too cold to enjoy, but we were clean again. The wind felt warm as I leaned against the chickee pillars in the sun. Small gray clouds streamed north. Except for an occasional "peep, peep" from a nearby osprey, the place was silent.
The mangroves on the opposite bank swayed in the breeze, moving in unison like cabaret dancers. I turned in at sunset for large salt water mosquitoes had bitten through my thick army pants in spite of a generous application of insect repellent. A continuous "hum" from clouds of hovering salt water mosquitoes made the place sound eerie.
A rhythmic, dripping sound woke me up at daybreak. Although it was light in my tent, the world outside was obscured by a gloomy white fog. We were nervous about getting lost when we left Shark River camp to navigate in the swirling ground fog. The veil of mist lifted an hour later to reveal a tranquil, shimmering Oyster Bay. The searing hot sun beat down from a cloudless sky while its fiery, blinding echo in the water burned my face.
Leaving the Wilderness Waterway, we paddled west and took a break at the Oyster Bay Chickee. A young couple from Pennsylvania were packing up. "We rented a canoe at Flamingo Ranger station and got stuck in a mud flat at Lake Ingram for three hours," murmured the man. "We were exhausted when we got to Big Sable Creek," the woman groaned.
The twenty-five-knot southeasterly wind whipped the water and the leaves of the trees into a frenzy. The violent gusts came from the direction we were going, making paddling difficult. With the wind and the current against us, we struggled to gain inches. About two miles from Joe River Chickee, our destination, a couple in a green canoe greeted us in German accents. They pulled ahead in Mud Bay, but we found them having lunch at our new camp. The man introduced himself as Hans and his wife's name was Marie.
"Where're you heading?" I asked, getting out my food.
"We're spending the night at South Joe Chickee and leaving the Everglades tomorrow," Hans explained in a German accent. He was from Germany and Marie was from Holland, but both had been in the States a long time. They too, had put in at Everglades City, but a day ahead of us, on December 23, when there were gale force winds and below freezing temperatures. "It was so cold at Sweetwater Chickee that twenty minutes after our water had boiled it turned to ice," Hans said gravely.
When I commented on their empty-looking canoe, Marie showed us their dinner for the night. "We carefully measure and package our freeze dried and dehydrated food." Her tiny package held pizza and cheesecake. Impressed, we pointed to our large quantity of canned food. Like us, they went to bed at seven and slept twelve hours. When they left to complete their six-mile paddle to South Joe Chickee they gave us a bag of spaghetti, sauce, and herbs.
We set up our tents on the cove platform. I washed my hair in the choppy shallows. Soft white clouds lined the horizon. For dinner we made the European couple's spaghetti. We were in our tents at dusk on New Year's Eve. Despite insect repellent we had been bitten by the mosquitoes and gnats. I gazed through my tent's screen door. Reds and pinks from the sunset lit up the sky and water.
Gray mist swirled and eddied, clogging the air on the first day of 1990. A brilliantly-colored rainbow stretched across the fog-filled southern sky when we started the six-mile paddle on Joe River to the South Joe Chickee. The rainbow arch mirrored itself in the still water, creating a giant mystical eye. The sun burned off the fog and the heat and humidity drained our energy. After a two-hour paddle we arrived at our double chickee that stood in an open bay. We were relieved.
A plate of cheesecake wrapped in plastic was left near the toilet seat. The label read: "To the Georgia crew from Holland and Germany. Happy New Year!"
We set up our tents and then lazed in the sun. A couple in a motorized canoe stopped to stretch. "Using a motor is cheating," I said with a smile.
"We canoed the Everglades last year and got lost," the man exclaimed. "We spent the night on a chickee without food and sleeping gear," the woman lamented. Although another cold front with rain was predicted they planned to motor to Oyster Bay Chickee for the night.
A green Mohawk canoe appeared after lunch. "We're your neighbors for tonight," declared John and Cindy, a young couple from Wisconsin.
"This is our third night," John said while unloading their canoe. "We stayed at North Cape Sable and got caught in the mud at low tide on the first day. It was tough dragging the canoe to deeper water."
The water slapped the chickee with a rhythmic "splash, splash," and the wind, our constant companion, hummed in our ears, making the mangrove leaves chatter. The morning fatigue had gone, leaving wonderful warm waves of calm. Three black vultures rode the thermals while circling in the distance.
After dinner Jay got in the canoe to clean his plate. Leaning too far forward, he fell overboard. John left his dinner and ran over to help. Grabbing the water-logged Jay under his arms the two of us hauled him onto the platform.
"I've washed my dishes from the canoe so many times, I got careless," he said apologetically.
At sunset the wind rushed with new life whipping the bay into a frothy fury. With the mosquitoes absent, we sat outside to watch the stars. The chickee shuddered when the wind hit, while unseen hands seemingly lifted the platform off its pole supports.
When I went to bed, large swirling waves pounded the groaning chickee. Each time a violent gust of wind struck, my dome tent bent double, and my body stiffened. I was sure my shelter would be scooped up and dumped in the water with each blast. Recoiling in horror, I felt a constant need to pee and my swollen fingers ached. Finally, I fell into a fitful sleep.
The icy wind had become a scouring roar, forming three-foot waves and white caps at first light. Wearing sweaters, jackets and hats, we started our final eleven-and-a-half-mile paddle to Flamingo Ranger Station. Nervous about canoeing into the shrieking wind and tide, we left early.
It took every ounce of will to paddle six miles east across Whitewater Bay's gigantic, frothy bay into the wall of wind. Turning south with the wind for the last five miles, we seem to fly across Coot Bay Pond and down Buttonwood Canal to the Flamingo Ranger Station. We arrived before lunch, set foot on land, and hugged for the first time.
Back in Georgia, my spirit remained in the vast breezy bays of the Everglades, where the light is brushed with brightness and with the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. Feeling the gentle caress of a breeze against my face and hair, I realized that my relationship with the wind, water and sun had deepened. They had become dear friends, even beloveds. No, more than that, the wind had become the breath of God.