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.
Florida has never been my favorite place, where America seems to drain down, gator farms, and fake mermaids, citrus stands and Anita Bryant, hanging chads back when the 2000 election hung in the balance. The Sunshine State seems to have more than its share of shady business, huckster and con-men, get-rich-quick schemes, dreams of retirement, buying time, cashing in our Golden Years, where we go to wait out death in Amercia.
Down I-95, clogged with RVs and ancient men at the wheel, beyond Disney and its sanitized fairy tales, past the miasma of Miami, driving hard to Homestead, then further down the Florida Turnpike to Highway 1, past the Dade County Correctional Institute, beribboned with razor wire, the washed-up and incarcerated of America’s underclass, the irrigated fields of produce give way to wilderness, you enter the Everglades, the U.S. Largest wild region east of the Rockies. You are in another place - the limestone shelf as Florida’s peninsula turns into the million-acre sponge and land starts drowning.
It’s easy to say there’s nothing here but space and sky and the brown grasses stretching seemingly forever to either horizon. This is salt prairie and if Google Maps hasn’t gulled you completely into a false sense of security, you start thinking Kansas, the fat, flat midsection of America, even as you drive to the end of the East Coast.
The Everglades got its start as a national park in 1947, protected for its ecological importance rather than any striking view. No sublime Grand Canyon, no Old Faithful going off on the hour, no majestic Half-Dome in the distance. Here is water. Water everywhere, flowing a river of grass, always in motion instead of any stagnant swamp. Here is a harsh landscape teeming with life that has learned to take this place on its own terms. Amid the salt prairie, springs up the dwarf cypress forest. Trees that are century old, bonsai’ed, and silvered in the white sun, their roots barely clinging to the limestone shelf that undergirds all of the Everglades, keeping this in the realm of land rather than the Gulf of Mexico.
A roadside sign signals the Park’s 3-foot high mountain, more molehill than any serious peak compared to the Southern Appalachians we’ve driven from, or the younger, rugged peaks out west.
Here, the trees begin cluster into domes out on the prairie, engineered by the alligators. Caught out in the dry season, the reptiles will dig with their front legs and their powerful tails down to the water table to hunker down. Birds come in for a drink and turn into dinner. Trees begin to sprout and take root around the perimeter. An ecosystem takes shape. Trees grow taller around the doughnut while the gator sleeps at the center with dreams of her ancestors, the ancient dinosaurs who swam the shallow sea that once covered this land. Perhaps something deep in the small reptilian brain even remembers the vague age when Florida was a handle to Africa in the supercontinent Pangea, when the Earth was in its infancy.
Our guide Anne said she had started to weep, driving across this landscape for the first time. Perhaps reminded of the marsh land where she had grown up around Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, or the savannahs of Africa, a genetic memory that says you are home, even in a harsh environment where fresh water is at a premium, where hurricanes come to land, and thunderstorms are hatched on the horizon in summer. You are more likely to be eaten alive by mosquitoes at dusk than any alligator.
We have come down to paddle the Glades, four days into the waterways, the mangrove mazes, the bays named and unnamed, to be lost and to lose our civilized shells, to go off the grid. Pioneers had slogged their way here to hunt birds and gators, to fish the ten thousand islands. The Indians before them, Seminole who never signed any peace treaty with the duplicitous United States government, and before them, the midden shells of the Calusa, the fierce people here when the Spanish had washed ashore, sinking into the muck with diseases and epidemics, the ethnic cleansing that had wiped out whole villages, towns, populations and cultures before the white men even came claiming everything for God and greed.
We have come here to lose ourselves, but more of that tale in our next installment.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.