ON TARPON CREEK, FLA. — My biggest misconception prior to undertaking a nine-day canoe journey through Everglades National Park was that long sections of the trip would be relaxing, almost leisurely.
I mean, it's just a canoe trip, right?
For the moment, let's forget about the mud at Highland Beach, the crocodiles on Rodgers River, the mangroves blocking our way to the grassland. What's it really like to paddle 117 miles through the Everglades? In a word: hectic.
Consider Day Six and the early part of Day Seven: I burst out of the tent at 11 p.m. having just awakened to the unmistakable sound of water rushing into a canoe. Below me, in the river, I see $7,000 worth of camera equipment bobbing in the center of Monitor photographer Bob Harbison's swamped boat. Apparently the edge of the canoe caught on a piling and tipped far enough over until the rising tide poured in.
An hour and a half later, having rescued the camera gear and bailed out the canoe, we make a midnight run five miles up the Harney River, riding the tail of the incoming tide. It's either that or fight a strong outgoing tide all next morning.
By 3:42 a.m. we drop anchor in Tarpon Bay near the entrance to the Shark River. Now we have the option of either staying awake and watching a million mosquitoes try to eat us alive, or falling asleep in our fully loaded canoes while a million mosquitoes try to eat us alive. The human buffet closes at dawn when we ride the falling tide to our next campsite five miles away.
Sound relaxing, almost leisurely?
The fact is, most of the journey was hard, rugged work. And I wouldn't change a single moment of it. (Well, maybe finding a clear route through the mangroves to the saw grass - and taking less oatmeal.)
At one point during our endless night on Tarpon Bay, I write in my journal: "5:14 a.m. I slept some. It is getting cold. What I wouldn't give for a Dunkin' Donut."
Not much of a journal entry, I admit. I imagine recounting this experience to my son, a third grader, telling him how his dad survived a night in the darkest corner of the Everglades only to yearn for a cruller.
But there are other things I'll tell him as well - things he'll need to know and understand as we prepare to take this same journey together in a few years when he's older and a little bigger.
Among them, alligators and crocodiles should be respected rather than feared.
And when traveling in the wilderness, the journey is always more important than the destination.
To me this is a wondrous and sacred place. It is a place where it is possible to appreciate the full significance of what conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas meant when she wrote that the Everglades is "one vast, unified harmonious whole."
It is even more than that.
The Everglades is a test of mankind's resolve to be an effective caretaker of the planet. It is home to 14 endangered or threatened species, including crocodiles, sea turtles, and manatees. It is the most important breeding ground for wading birds in North America. It is a source of fresh water for south Florida. It is a tourist destination attracting more than a million visitors each year. It remains the last, great American wilderness east of the Mississippi.
And I think President Harry Truman got it right in his park dedication speech 50 years ago, when he spoke of the Everglades as a place for conservation of the human spirit and restoration of the soul.
Paddling with a psalm in mind
Many times during our journey the phrase Mr. Truman quoted from the 23rd Psalm came to mind: "He leadeth me beside the still waters."
Sometimes the thought was prompted by a desperate desire for still waters, sometimes by an appreciation of them. For a canoeist out here, still waters are about as close to heaven as you can get with a paddle still in your hands.
In contrast, the most unforgiving obstacle that imprisons many canoeists in this wilderness isn't the tide, or alligators, or overgrown mangroves. It is wind.
On the ninth day of our trip, we face a six-mile paddle across open water known for its dangerous whitecaps. The weather forecast calls for 20 mile-per-hour wind directly in our faces - setting the stage for extremely difficult paddling.
As we set up camp at South Joe River, it is already blowing hard. We rig a tarp as a wind block to prevent our gear from being swept away. Over dinner, we discuss our prospects for crossing the appropriately named Whitewater Bay.
A group of park rangers tried this same crossing last winter but had to turn back and wait for calmer weather. Strong winds in south Florida can last several days. I'm worried that if we swamp while trying to cross, we'll be swept into mangrove shoreline and pinned by the wind against barnacle-encrusted roots.
I toss and turn in my sleeping bag all night to the sound of the rigged tarp flapping. At 4 a.m. I am awake and listening. The wind begins to drop, slightly. I scan the surface of the bay. These aren't exactly the "still waters" promised in the 23rd Psalm, but I'm thinking they'll do just fine today.
A gusty paddle home
By 5 a.m. we are on the water under a canopy of glittering stars. A meteorite streaks across the sky. To our southeast a red beacon atop the radio tower at Flamingo comes into view through the mangroves.
"That's where we're going," I tell Bob.
By dawn we are well out in the bay. The wind rises with the sun. It lifts the water into heavy chop, and then whitecaps begin to appear. They slap and toss our canoes, sending spray into the air. The gusts roar in our ears, a sound like paper ripping.
But there is no stopping us.
At 9:30 a.m. we are safe behind the high mangrove trees that shelter Tarpon Creek from all but the gentlest breeze. The silence embraces us.
Although we are physically exhausted, in a deeper way our journey across the Everglades has left us refreshed, inspired, and filled with gratitude for this vast, wild place. We have several miles yet to paddle, but now the only sound we hear is the gurgle at our bows, as we glide home on waters perfectly still.
* Earlier parts ran Dec. 5, Dec. 9, Dec. 11, Dec. 16, and Dec. 18.