HIGHLAND BEACH, FLA — Sometimes strange things happen in the wilderness.
For example, this morning we emerge from our tent on this remote, sunbathed beach and discover that during the night someone has stolen the Gulf of Mexico.
Not the entire Gulf of Mexico. We can still see some of it near the western horizon. The part that is gone is the part we need to launch our canoes and continue our journey through Everglades National Park.
Where gentle waves lapped at our beach the night before, there is only mud, acres and acres of it.
The tide is an essential and critical force within the Everglades. It is the rush of the sea that carries life-sustaining nutrients, plankton, small fish, shrimp, and crabs throughout the wetlands - from the gulf beaches to creeks of brackish water deep in the backcountry.
It has been this way for as long as there has been an Everglades. I just wish someone had mentioned these mudflats to us before we camped here.
Monitor photographer Bob Harbison grew up near some large tidal mudflats on coastal Oregon. He says he's seen this kind of thing before and has done his share of slogging across an exposed sea bottom. That explains why he leaves it to me to test the muckiness of the mud to see if we can carry our gear and canoes across the flats to find deep enough water to continue our trip.
All we need is about six inches of H2O to keep the canoes afloat. But this is serious muck. It is impossible to walk through it, let alone walk through it while carrying coolers weighed down with what feels like hundreds of pounds of instant oatmeal and Oreos.
Snowshoes might work. But preparing for the trip, it never occurred to me that Arctic gear would be essential equipment in the subtropical Everglades.
Since we are now stranded, Bob and I decide to make the most of our extended stay to explore the beach while waiting for the Gulf of Mexico to return.
It is a beautiful day. Sunny, mid-80s, not a cloud in the sky. And that's when we notice that something extraordinary is happening all around us. When mudflats are exposed, they make for lousy boating, but they provide prime feeding habitat for thousands of birds. It is as if somewhere a giant dinner bell is tolling. They fly in from all directions and begin probing, pecking, shuffling, and diving for brunch. We see herons, egrets, spoonbills, ibises, pelicans, and ospreys, among others. Bob photographs an ibis with reddish-pink plumage. We continue down the beach and notice two sets of fresh hoof marks in the sand. There are big marks and little marks, side by side.
Deer, I suggest. Perhaps a doe and a fawn. As we scan the meadow for signs of wildlife, Bob prepares to photograph Bambi of the Everglades.
Further down the beach we stop, having discovered the source of the tracks. Ahead of us, playing in the mud, is a full-grown wild boar with two sharp tusks that dominate her snout.
"Is that a boar," I ask, having never before seen one other than on television. "They are really dangerous."
Like a big-game hunter, Bob levels his giant 400 millimeter lens and fires off several frames. Wild boar have a well-earned reputation for attacking and killing people, particularly when they believe their young are in danger.
We never see the little one. But we know from the tracks on the beach that somewhere ahead of us is a baby boar.
"They'll rip your guts out," Bob explains, helpfully. Then he adds, "Maybe we should find a tree to climb."
I examine the slick trunk of a 20-foot coconut palm and wonder how fast I might climb if properly motivated.
The boar spots us and for a moment she is motionless in the puddle, her eyes stare directly into our eyes.
We back away, slowly. Bob continues to take photo-graphs. It is reassuring to know that if the worst happens at least there will be a photographic record of it.
But it becomes obvious that the boar is more interested in the mud than us, and for this we are grateful.
By the time we return to our canoes, the tide is rising. The plan for the day had been to launch our canoes at 8 a.m., paddle to the mouth of Broad Creek, and then ride the tide upriver through a mangrove jungle to our next campsite 11 miles away on the Harney River. It was to be one of our easiest days.
Now it looks as if it might be our most difficult. If we miss the tide it will guarantee an exhausting paddle against a strong current well into the night.
We push away from Highland Beach at about 11:30 a.m. and follow the Gulf coast south for several miles. The wind is light, the water calm. We paddle fast to make the most out of what little tide is left to propel us into the backcountry.
Amazingly, we catch up to the slack tide and pass it, enabling us to ride through several miles of dense overgrowth at a comfortable pace. And much to our delight, the tide carries us all the way to our next campsite, a wooden platform on the Harney River.
What we didn't know then was that by 11 p.m. we would once again encounter the tide, this time with potentially expensive consequences.
* Dec. 22: Bailing on the Harney River, and heading home against the wind. Earlier parts ran Dec. 5, Dec. 9, Dec. 11, and Dec. 16.