Submitted March 31, 2011

Canoe Misadventure in the Everglades

About sixteen years ago our family and another family vacationed together in south Florida for two weeks in July. One day in the middle of our vacation we decided to go canoeing in the Everglades. In one canoe was my wife and 4-year-old son and in two others the other Dad/daughter and in the third two boys from the other family. Everything began fine with no problems until the lead canoe decided to go off-trail and paddle to the ocean. We were caught between following them and sticking to the posted signs in the mangrove swamp. Before we knew it, we were lost. A map was provided but of course, it wasn't laminated and we hadn't thought to put it in a large zip-lock bag so it was soon unreadable. We hadn't thought to bring anything except a small styrofoam cooler and a few drinks with only a little ice. No food, either. I had a small multi-tool with me that never got a chance to be used. We canoed and canoed and canoed and canoed some more until we were hopelessly lost.

We had a little sunscreen, which we doled out to the kids. We had one bottle of insect repellent, which we went through rather too quickly as we often canoed through swarms of flying pests. These were the biggest swarms of mosquitoes I'd ever seen. My wife tans naturally and she was fine but I got fried very early on and baked lobster-red the entire day. At one point we were so deep in the mangrove forest we had to back out of it, the canopy literally smothering our progress. We endlessly circled the same route until the tide went out. Then we were stuck.

All during the morning we kept spotting alligators and even a few small sharks. When the tide went out in the middle of the day we were stuck in an immense empty smelly gross muddy tidal basin. Birds swooped down to feed on the fish trapped on top of the mud. Large turtles darted to and fro. Alligators were everywhere, snapping up fish. We tried paddling but our weight on top of the mud was bogging us down. The oldest boy from the other canoe and me, we had to get out and trudge through the smelliest mud ever created. I have not been scared like I was sliming through waist-high and sometimes chest-high mud. The moving was draining on every conceivable level and tortuously slow and more than once I got a mouthful of the most awful-tasting water in the world. I don't know how long we struggled but it is embedded in my memory, even after all these years.

Finally we hit some navigable water and resumed our misadventure. The natural currents through the waterway were very strong so it was difficult to navigate upstream. Birds filled the air with their cries and although dark and deep, the ocean water was filled with jumping, splashing life. Our two families were inadvertently stuck in a wildlife refuge only it was us that wanted to take refuge. We drank the melted ice water and the warm sodas. Our three-year-old was the calmest of them all, curling into a little ball in the middle of our canoe with my shirt draped over him as he slept. What a trooper he was on that day! Didn't cry or complain once.

After 8 hours of exhaustive paddling, with the sun setting and the prospect of insects and more active alligators and spending the night in canoes moored to trees, we ran into a tourist boat. I don't think I've ever been happy to see another group of people in my entire life. We were fried crispy and hot and thirsty and irritable and everyone piled onto the boat. To keep the deposit we needed to bring the canoe back and I was able to follow the boat to the signs. I'd never canoed solo before and it was like popping a wheely on a bicycle as a kid, riding it balanced, and I'd never been any good at that. If not for the signs directing me back to the dock, I don't know what I would have done. My tongue was swollen and even the late-afternoon sun burned. My eyelids were fried because somewhere in the confusion I'd lost my sunglasses. I don't know how many times I mentally kicked myself for not having made a plan and then outfitting us in case something like this happened.

When I finally made it back to the campground everyone stood and cheered. I'd never been so thirsty as that moment and after I handed the canoe over I climbed up the ladder of the dock, found a water faucet, and drank and drank and drank, practically taking a bath. My 4-year-old son was jumping up and down, raving about the adventure he mostly slept through. All the kids in both families were talking excitedly about what had happened. Everyone was back and safe and a little worse for the wear but okay. I was badly shaken up by the entire incident because my lack of planning could have had much, much worse consequences. My family was safe and I only suffered a bad sunburn and a little dehydration. Lesson well learned.

- Ted Scheck

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