Mangroves – the name comes from the Arawak people who once thrived across the Caribbean. It means “mangle” in that indigenous tongue. Once you’ve paddled past a million of these mangroves, what the Seminoles called walking trees, sending their arms down into the salted water to take root, to multiply and create thousands of islands out here, you begin to appreciate the seemingly endless maze that is the Everglades.
Two nights out on the water, three days from setting foot on dry land, pitching your tent on platforms known as “chickees,” roofed docks, you begin to feel unmoored, unplugged, off the grid, fingers no longer itching to swipe a screen, to check the email, Facebook and Twitter for the latest tasty tidbit of useless information. You begin to settle into your life.
The charts before you, the mangroves reflected in the perfectly still water, a mirror image of the clouds puffing over the end of Florida.
Then we get lost. It starts with a wrong bearing off the Lane Bay chickee, heading southeast across the bay in search of the close channel that leads to Hell’s Bay. At least that was the plan we had with our friend and guide, Anne.
You get lost by degrees “I think that may be it,” you call from the bow. So Anne rudders the Mad River canoe into a narrow passageway, a few twists and turns and you’re heading steadily northeast, rather than any southeasterly bearing. The sun gets hotter, you keep paddling. You check your charts.
When you come out on a bay again, wondering if this is Hell’s Bay, then off to the north, you see the Lane Bay chickee, its portajohn visible on the dock, we all laugh hysterically, in dismay. We have spent all afternoon, wandering in a big circle
Then we lose sight of the chickee and paddle into another bay. The sun is setting.
Mangrove islands are no friends, their knees high in the water, with nothing but muck for men to step into. What Anne looks for is an island out here in this nameless bay with a mahogany, a tree that needs high ground to thrive. We paddle toward the island, aiming our bow into the overhanging underbrush, toward what looks like a gator slide, a shelf where one of the Everglades’ residents will sun himself, wait for dinner.
I step up onto dry land, and crash in-land, through the thickets of laurel, poisonwood, fern. There’s just barely enough space beneath the mahogany at the center of this small isle to pitch a small tent. My wife and I will spend the night here, while Anne sleeps in the canoe.
We do not sleep well. At night, you can hear a great munching sound outside the tent; we imagine a gator chewing over the remains of some large dinner, the cracking of bones. By daybreak, we can see the water only a few feet away from our perch, lapping at the little dry land here.
We are 24 hours lost, but Anne has sent out satellite transponder signals to her padding partner back in the world. Standing up in the stern of the canoe, Anne is able to get a few bars on her cellphone and call Holly. We have a location point from my Garmin watch, a point of reference, but unable to find our abstraction on any map. Holly is able to pinpoint us and chart us a way back on the map. We are not exactly found, but we are not lost now. We have directions. We are saved.
Getting off course is how discoveries are made, Getting lost is how you find things. Our knowledge, our maps are finite, we expand when we explore. We keep our heads, even when we lose our bearings.
Names are foreboding but important in a wilderness like the Everglades. Hell’s Bay doesn’t sound inviting. “It’s hell to get into and hell to get out of.” One early ranger said.
Figure it's a purgatory even getting to Hell’s Bay.
But there is a paradise in what others would see only as a watery wasteland.
There is now on the nautical charts that Anne paddles by, a new penciled name of a small island in a unnamed bay, west of Lane Bay and north of Hell’s Bay.
Welcome to Neal Key, where we were the first people to camp in the endless maze of mangroves, the labyrinth of bays and lakes and channels, that is the Everglades.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.