Swept Out to Sea

The waves, winds, and tides conspired to send the canoe miles into the Gulf of Mexico. A writer deals with his own mortality during a life-and-death struggle.

I drank cool water from a clear plastic bottle and tried to get down some trail mix. It was probably 2:30 in the afternoon and I hadn't had anything to eat all day, so I should have been hungry. But it's amazing how the stomach takes to itself at the worst times. It's not a team player, the stomach. I forced the dried fruit and nuts down anyway, knowing I'd need it for strength to paddle and for sustenance if the canoe sank under the waves, which kept getting higher as we got pushed further and further out into the Gulf of Mexico.

I looked over at the now distant islands. Just 30 minutes earlier, we'd been so close to Rabbit Key's white beach that I could see individual birds in its trees. Now it was fading from sight and impossible to reach.

The Gulf was often choppy and the winds were often strong, but not like this. Until now I'd never thought that the sea was going to kill me.

Taking it easy on the Lopez River after making camp on the first day
Taking it easy on the Lopez River after making camp on the first day
Mark Lang

The only sounds for a few minutes were my gasps at the size of the waves and an occasional dry heave up front. My wife, Brittany, was seasick, and she wasn't going to get any better until we made land. Her stomach was in complete revolt. She couldn't paddle anymore. Still, I felt lucky to be with her. Being with Brittany seemed to steady me somehow, and helped me stay calm.

Thoughts of our four-year-old son did the opposite. If we didn't make it, then I'd failed him. It was just too sad to think about, our boy being told that he wouldn't be seeing us anymore. But I knew there were plenty of relatives to take care of him and love him as their own. And… and I had to stop thinking like this. We are still in the canoe, I thought. We have plenty of rations, I told myself. My shoulder muscles ached like they were bleeding inside against the bone and my hands were still numb, but I knew that after my rest, I'd be ready to paddle again.

I grimaced at the thought of starting that perilous cycle again. Paddling the canoe into the waves, causing seawater to crash in the boat, forcing me to bail it out, which then gave the tide and harsh wind, both steadfastly against us, time to destroy whatever scant progress we'd made. I'd just have to try to keep us from drifting too far out into still larger waves, and then, at nightfall, when the tide changed and we hoped the wind would weaken, I'd try a run at the coast, using the glow of civilization on the eastern horizon as a beacon.

We have a chance, I thought, rescue or not. But we'd need some luck on what, to that point, had been the unluckiest day of our lives.

It was our fourth straight day in the Ten Thousand Islands area at the southwest edge of Everglades National Park. The islands lie scattered just outside a maze of inland mangrove forest and rivers and bays referred to as the "backcountry," where the freshwater Glades run into the sea. The green islands, which actually number in the hundreds, are generally found south of Marco Island and north of Cape Sable and consist mostly of mangrove trees tangled on sand and oyster deposits.

Tourists usually hire a guide equipped with a motorboat or take the park tour. A smaller number -- we fall into this category -- prefer canoeing from one marked campsite to another. Until roughly 50 years ago, the place was never considered a tourist destination. Full of mosquitoes, heat, and muck, it was regarded as uninhabitable by just about everybody but Native Americans and pirates until the late 1800s. And even then it was crawling with outlaws.

"Folks will tell you different today, but back then there wasn't too many in our section that wasn't kind of unpopular someplace else. With all of Florida to choose from, who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands with not enough high ground to build a outhouse, and so many skeeters plaguing you in the bad summers you thought you'd took a wrong turn to Hell," Peter Matthiessen writes in Killing Mister Watson.

Murderous myth abounds there. E.J. Watson, the subject of Matthiessen's book, was gunned down in 1910 in broad daylight by a vigilante group of town leaders who suspected Watson had murdered workers at his farm. A game warden named Guy Bradley was shot dead by a plume hunter five years before that. And nearly every habitable island has some pirate tale attached to it, usually involving extreme violence and a buried corpse. Outlaws are still out there. At one time in the 1980s, half of the population of Everglades City, including the mayor, was in jail for ferrying marijuana.

How can one resist a mysterious place like that? But that's not why I go. When I think of the Ten Thousand Islands and the backcountry, I don't think of Watson, I think of the birds. A snow-white egret, standing four feet tall, perched frozen like a statue in a thick tangle of mangroves before suddenly taking off in swooping flight. Or a great blue heron on the shoreline, with a wisp of feather shooting off the back of his neck, as if he'd styled it that way. Or waking up at first light to see a huge anhinga at the top of a rotting cypress, stretching its crooked wings to dry in the sun, with dark feathers draping down like Dracula's cape. And I think of the huge manatees that could flip your canoe over in an instant but wouldn't in a million years. And dolphins, which might swim alongside your canoe and make you feel for just a moment like the most fortunate person in the world. And finally the fishing, which informs you that, no, you aren't fortunate at all.

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