Every third stroke I drop my paddle and frantically reach for the bilge pump. The gurgling of the suction is barely audible over the thunder and the spray. A few long pumps spew a gallon of water out of the Old Town canoe, but the waves put a gallon and change back. “Whitewater Bay” reads my nautical map of the Everglades, and it’s as true a name as I’ve ever heard. It tells but one lie: the location of the Oyster Bay Chickee, the crucial stilt platform campsite we’re searching for and the only dry land for miles. It’s not where it’s meant to be, like a boat in a lightning storm, or the empty meal bar packets floating around my ankles and rising.
“We’re going to capsize,” I shout to my friend up front, who is head down and powering forward. We’re not looking for the chickee now. We just want shore, or what passes for it here: the endless tangled fingers of mangrove roots stretching out of the water. We begin shouting gear assignments for when we’re in the drink. I’ll tow the canoe, and quickly; I haven’t forgotten about the alligators. We’ll tie up, perch on the mangroves and fight a bedraggled battle with crabs and mosquitos till daybreak.
Lower and slower, the canoe begins to list. I begin to wonder if I’m attempting to bail out the bay. We’re a few hundred yards from the mangroves now and just as we’re about to explore that important distinction between very wet and swimming, we hear some Jack Johnson and see a bright light. Being young, we head toward our little slice of heaven — the chickee — tucked into a small cove on the wrong side of the island.
“I can’t believe you were out in that,” says a very dry, jovial man in a Phish shirt. As I stand up to pull myself onto the deck, the canoe finally gives up under the pressure. What a way to sink. Just minutes later we’re eating fresh sea trout prepared by our saviors: two freshly-fired chefs who are feeling oddly celebratory. On the basis of this fish, it certainly wasn’t their cooking that got them fired.
The rain leaves as quickly as it came and the water is now a glassy calm. That’s a Florida front for you. Now a little collected, I thrust the map at my friend, pointing at the error. Really though, we know better. All of this was our fault; it was abysmal canoeing. If not the unforgiving restaurant industry and Jack Johnson, we’d have discovered how close we were after a sleepless night, and it wouldn’t have been quite so funny.
There wasn’t so much the lapping of water at night as I thought about all the errors we’d made. Just that morning we were loitering on miles of untouched sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico, following the unmistakable trails of tail-dragging alligators, watching dolphin and generally doing whatever we could to avoid heading inland. Oblivious to the incoming storm, we stopped to get a better look at a turtle while yachts battened down in the sheltered inlet. “We’re great,” we responded cheerfully when those aboard asked if we were OK.
The story has become the sort of thing I’ll ramble on about when I’m in a nursing home, and perhaps I’ve already started. Errors make for fun tales, as any freshman can attest on a Sunday morning. It’s hard to spin a yarn about tapping your watch and managing risk. Gather round children and listen to the time Grandpa responsibly checked all available resources for unofficial and official map errata. The trip went to plan!
No one wants to take an actuary camping, but you do have to find some romance in the planning. My adventures are now punctuated by the robotic voice of my hand-cranked weather radio, compulsory listening when storms are near. It’s the electronic Morgan Freeman who narrates my adventures, with “Winds West, Light chop!” We may like to watch humans stripped down to their wits and two opposable thumbs, but most of the outdoors is how we plan for it. As Midwesterners say, it’s never too cold; you’re just underdressed.
Whether it’s bringing every ingredient for s’mores, or having iodine tablets when your water filter fails, camping is 90% preparation. There will still be the curious dolphin investigating your boat and the snook you fought to land. There will be peaceful moments; the rainstick-like tapping of thousands of fiddler crabs emerging as the tide exposes vast stretches of sand. Perhaps it’s a stunning sunset , or shooting stars after all the RVs turn the lights off. Maybe it’s a crackling campfire that puts you in a trance, as the tide turns on the mosquitos and the moths burn up and float away. However you camp, let those be the stories. Plan, gear up, discover.