The next day, our departure from
Northwest Cape, we are up at 5 a.m. to take advantage of the
early morning calm before the usual 5-10 knots headwind starts.
Today though, we’re out of luck. By the time we’re all
packed up in the pre-dawn light, the wind has already increased
considerably and launching the boat becomes more of a challenge.
As soon as we are in the water we realize we’re in for some
exciting paddling today. We’re butting into a strong NW, which
is increasing by the minute. The first whitecaps appear.
Paddling faster, we keep the bow pointed into wind and waves.
Although the boat tracks well in the swells, we’re barely
making progress. Spray hits my face, and it doesn’t feel warm
this early in the morning. Realizing the futility of what we are
doing, we head for the shore just before the open beach ends.
Among trees we build a fire and wait, watching for any signs of
a let up in the wind. Around noon, things start to calm down a
little and we launch the boat once more. The sky is clearing and
the sun is coming through. This is the toughest portion of the
so-called "Big Sable Route". There are no convenient
locations at which to stop and get out of the boat. The only
option is to tie up to some mangrove roots. And that’s what we
do, when, after two hours of paddling, the wind increases again.
We head into one of the small tributaries of Big Sable Creek.
All of a sudden, everything is calm. A dolphin blows a few
metres off our bow and we watch it glide through the murky
waters. Jake stretches his legs by walking on the mangrove
roots, but finds it rather challenging. "You have to use
your hands as much as your legs," he says afterwards.
As soon as the wind moderates, we are
off again. We’re now hugging the mangrove coast. Suddenly,
Jake stops paddling. "A manatee," he says. "You’ve
almost hit it with your paddle." But when I turn my head,
it’s already disappeared.
This was to be our only encounter with
these gentle giants, who live in warm, shallow coastal waters
and rivers and feed on aquatic plants. They have a rounded,
streamlined body wrapped in thick, rough and wrinkled skin and
propel themselves forwards with a circular, paddle-like tail.
Manatees — whose closest living relative is the elephant —
can grow up to 4.5 m in length and up to 600 kg in weight. In
the U.S., they are listed as an endangered species. High speed
boat collisions, pollution, weed control, and coastal
urbanization have all contributed to their decline.
After two more hours of paddling we
reach the mouth of Little Shark River, where several sailboats
and a motorboat lie at anchor. The wind has almost died down
now. After a break behind Shark River Island, we round the point
and, in the soft evening light, head across 6 km-wide Ponce De
Leon Bay to the campsite at Graveyard Creek.
It was Don Juan Ponce De Leon, a
Spanish conqueror and explorer, who, in his obstinate search for
the Fountain of Youth came to this land and named it La Florida,
meaning "land of flowers". On his first visit the
native inhabitants were friendly, but on his second visit in
1521, in which he intended to colonize the land, a battle ensued
near Sansibel Island. Ponce De Leon was shot with a poison arrow
and eventually died from his wounds.
We enter the mouth of Graveyard Creek—a
dark channel fringed by a black web of mangrove—in the fading
light. Only the splashes of jumping fish break the silence. As
we slowly paddle into the creek, we almost get stuck on some
shoals and have to turn and enter the creek from another angle.
Jake uses the GPS to verify the location of the campsite: a spit
of high ground with a small beach area, a few picnic tables and
a vault toilet, backed by mangroves and other tropical trees. In
the mosquito-filled darkness, we set up camp. But the night isn’t
peaceful. A bold raccoon keeps trying to get into our boat, even
after Jake spanks it with a paddle.
From Graveyard Creek we continue north
to Highland Beach, another long, shell-laden beach backed by a
grass prairie and dotted with palm trees. We’re looking
forward to having this beach to ourselves, but this time we’re
not alone. The tents of an Outward Bound group dot the shore in
regular distances. We briefly chat with two instructors and then
camp at the northern edge.
North of Highland Beach we’re back in
mangrove country. With the oncoming full moon, tides are more
noticeable and we pay more attention to river mouths, to
launches and landings. Luckily, the full moon seems to make the
fish more eager to bite. Two days later, when crossing First Bay
in a brief rainstorm (a freshwater shower!), Jake hooks a
Spotted Seatrout and two Permits, large enough to keep, and we
feast on fish in the evening at our campsite on Turkey Key.
We are now at the southern edge of the
Ten Thousand Islands, where the coast breaks into thousands of
mangrove islands, and where the kayaking becomes more
challenging — especially in a folding boat — because of
In the morning, our tent and gear are
covered with condensation and the temperature has risen. We feel
the increase in humidity. For the next week we experience midday
Highs of +28 C and at night we hardly use our sleeping bags.
From Turkey Key we continue north until
we reach the mouth of the Chatham River, where we head inland.
This river, with its numerous shifting sandbars and mud bars,
and its many channels, dotted with mangrove islands, becomes a
navigational challenge. Entering with the incoming tide, we’re
moving fast, frequently checking our chart and watching out for
shallows until there is nothing but wide-open river in front of
us. By noon we arrive at Watson’s Place, our next campsite.
Watson’s Place was once a thriving
cane and vegetable farm of 40 acres on an old Indian shell
mound. The farm, known as Chatham Bend, was operated by the
notorious Ed Watson who came to the Everglades in the 1890s with
a troubled past, and who is believed to have murdered several
people on the site. In 1910, after several bodies were found in
the river near the farm, with weights attached to them, men of
nearby Chokoloskee Island formed a posse and gunned Watson down.
After his death, the legends around his persona grew, especially
since Watson didn’t fit the stereotype of a notorious killer:
he was a family man, a generous neighbor, an expert and dedicated
farmer and a successful businessman. As Peter Matthiessen notes:
The most lurid view of Mr. Watson
is the one often perpetuated by the islanders themselves,
for as Dickens remarked after his visit to this country,
"These Americans do love a scoundrel." Over long
decades in lonely remote islands, where notable citizens
have been few, Mr. Watson’s venerable contemporaries and
their descendants have arrived at an "ornery" sort
of reverence for Mr. Watson, who has transcended his
original role as a notorious cold-blooded killer to become a
colorful folk-hero, the west coast counterpart of the bank
robber and killer John Ashley, whose gang terrorized eastern
Florida after World War I.
(Killing Mr. Watson, p.
179-180, Vintage Books, New York, 1991)
Today, all that is left of Watson’s Place is a less than an
acre of clearing in the jungle, with a few picnic tables in the
centre and some rusty farm implements at its periphery.
As we start unpacking, a canoe rounds
the corner. The two paddlers Tony and Peter—two Americans in
their fifties—are on a four-day loop trip out of Everglades
City, and they are intending to spend the night here. We swap
stories, and they offer us tidbits from their ample food supply:
a bottle of Gatorade, barbecued chicken pieces, potato chips,
and, in the morning, freshly fried bacon. Relating stories about
Mr. Watson, we joke that this place is haunted by the ghosts of
his victims. At sunset, as the mosquitoes descend on us with a
vengeance, we’re convinced they are the manifestations of
Watson’s ghosts. While Jake and I don our bug shirts and then
execute a mad dance before diving into the tent to discourage
the bugs from entering, Tony and Peter, in shorts and T-shirts,
stay up into the night, sitting at their picnic table and
sipping cappuccino. They have doused themselves from head to toe
with bug juice.
Even in the morning, the ghosts don’t
let go. Packing the boat, dressed in long pants, bug shirt,
woolen socks and gloves, I feel claustrophobic while the sweat
is running down my face and mosquitoes whine all around me.
Finally, as we push into the river, we’re free.
here to continue the journey...