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.

But if you believe I go on these trips just because of the natural beauty, I have some land there to sell you, too. I like all those things, sure, but I could see most of them from the deck of a tour boat. The reason I go is that it is the best place to get away from people for a while. Away from traffic and television and toilets. Computers and calls and cars. Give me another letter of the alphabet, and I'll name three more aspects of civilization to avoid.

It also gives me time alone with Brittany. When we first ventured into the Ten Thousand Islands, about five years ago, we went without map or plan. In other words we were clinically insane. We thought we'd explore in the canoe and camp on the first good island we came to. There were supposed to be 10,000 of them, after all. We immediately got trapped in the swirling currents of some bay. Being stronger swimmers than we were paddlers at the time, we had to jump into the darkish water among the dolphins, which were everywhere, and swim the canoe back to shore. After we finally got out among the islands, we quickly got lost. Everywhere we went, the mangrove islands around us looked the same. We kept thinking, "Weren't we just here?" We still hadn't found a suitable campsite when night fell, so we somehow rigged our tent up on a nameless little mangrove island. The mosquitoes were terrible, singing like Axl Rose in our ears even though we were using 100 percent DEET, an unbelievably potent chemical that mixed with our sweat and instantly numbed our lips. It dissolved the polish right off Brittany's fingernails. After fishing we went to sleep, and I dreamed of a calm rocking, rocking, rocking… and then the tent gave way and cold seawater flooded in, waking us sharply in the pitch black of the mangrove night.

After a largely blind and chaotic attempt to retrieve everything before it washed away, we wound up (not) sleeping crookedly in the canoe, a freezing, endlessly miserable night. The mosquitoes screeched in my ears and I shivered violently in the dark with my ass dipped in cold water. The worst nights of our lives never seem to end. Finally the first warming light came, and we made our way back to civilization. It was our first mean lesson in tides. The backcountry and islands are in a constant state of flux, with the moon's pull changing the landscape by the hour. On average there are two high tides and two low tides a day. At high tide the seas seem about four or five feet higher than at low. Open sea in the evening might become a mud flat by morning. Oyster beds and sandbars appear and disappear. The tide had washed in and simply flooded us out. In a few hours, our dry mangrove camp had been covered in two feet of salt water. Lots of people traveling in the area have lost canoes to the tide by failing to secure them. We kept ours but lost our campsite.

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

We had several good trips after that on Florida rivers, but they were largely unchallenging and far too pleasurable. So we went back to the islands and did it the right way, filing a trip plan at the ranger station, taking a waterproof map, and bringing a tide chart. After a successful overnight trip to Picnic Key, we decided we'd do a five-day trip and set off in March 1997. It went incredibly well, despite the mosquitoes and the difficulty of Gulf paddling. We made a rule on that trip: Never use the motor, except for pleasure. We stuck to it, and the journey was challenging but not life-threatening. Never did it seem even close to life-threatening.

There is, however, a lot of suffering and death in the Gulf. It's deceptive. Often it seems like a giant bathtub, harmless. But a simple mistake or a turn in the weather can be deadly. As a reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press, I covered many sad stories about the Gulf, like the two young sisters who jumped into the water off Gasparilla Island a few years ago and got swept out to sea by a rip tide. Days later, their little bodies were found floating. I also remember a story about four guys from Canada who went diving west of the Ten Thousand Islands and only one made it back after their boat sank. And I covered the funeral of two high-school boys who were killed when the shrimp boat they were in exploded. I also remember lots of routine drownings in the Gulf.

There were numerous rescue stories as well, of people drifting in frigid waters for a day or two before they were saved. Those stories were almost always splashed across the front page. I was moved by the high drama of the Gulf stories, but I also thought that the people involved, in the final analysis, were either lucky fools or dead ones.

In early 1998 we moved to Broward County, where we found far less opportunity for good canoeing than on Florida's west coast. It wasn't until last month, on November 1, that we finally set out on another long trip to the islands, not long after Hurricane Irene. Tropical Storm Katrina was blowing rainstorms through the area. Our first two days would again be largely spent in the backcountry, so we figured we'd be safe, if extremely wet at times. On the day we set out, there was a small-craft advisory in the Gulf -- choppy seas. But we wouldn't be out there in earnest for three days, so we figured it might change. We were thirsty for challenge and adventure, anyway.

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