Dear President Xi Jinping

Dear Comrade President Xi Jinping,

I’m writing to you today to inform you that there has never been a better time in the last fifty years than right now to mass our mighty forces and invade the island that has been in open rebellion for the last fifty years. The island that we know is part of our great nation, but which has the gall to call itself Taiwan.

During the Tokyo Olympics, many sports announcers and journalists, including some from the host nation of Japan, chose to ignore tradition and to infuse politics into athletics by referring to Chinese Taipei as if it were a sovereign country. This is unacceptable. We have been shamed by these traitorous journalists, and the world now thinks that Chinese Taipei should be recognized in the Olympic Games as a sovereign nation. This is a national embarrassment to our great country, and if we don’t take a stand soon, we will greatly lose face. The Taiwanese have become emboldened by this acknowledgement of their status, and we need to take action to quell it.

Sir, as you know, the only reason we have not invaded this rebellious nation to this point has been because of the great strength of their most important ally, the United States of America. Well, I’m here to tell you now, that the United States has never been weaker than they are right now, and therefore, this is the time to strike!

Last week, the United States of America, on the order of her president, Joe Biden, conducted what was probably the most illogical, ill-thought out, terribly planned and executed withdrawal from a conflict zone in the history of the country. It’s almost inexplicable how they completely turned their backs on friends and allies in some kind of misguided attempt to achieve a total withdrawal by the completely arbitrary date of September 11th so that President Biden could have his grandstanding moment and announce that he was the one to bring an end to the longest war the United States has ever fought.

Sir, the actions and decisions taken by this inept president of the second greatest nation on Earth (to the People’s Republic of China, of course) toward her friends and allies in Afghanistan, leaving them in shocking fashion to fend for themselves against the murderous Taliban barbarians is an action of such callous disregard that it is truly unfathomable. It is quite clear that only six short months into his presidency, Joe Biden is an absolute incompetent fool.

This withdrawal from Afghanistan will certainly become known as Biden’s Folly.

A few days ago, sir, a bomb exploded at the gates to the airport, killing scores of innocents including more than a dozen United States soldiers. I know that here in the PRC, this sort of thing would be shrugged off as collateral damage, but I’m here to tell you that in the United States, where, get this…they value human life (LOL) it was a big deal. The citizenry is up in arms, and moderates on both sides of the political aisle are now upset at this fool of a president. This decision has jolted would-be terrorists from their stupor and completely energized them. There is no doubt that the radicalization of otherwise mild insurgents will thrive, and that there will even be many Americans, both Muslims and Anarchists who will take this opportunity to travel, either in person or virtually through their computers, to a splurge of live and virtual terrorist training camps that are sure to thrive in this new frontier where radicalization is desired above all else.

Joe Biden has proven that he is unsuitable as a president. It’s actually quite difficult for me to come up with an event in recent history that was so poorly handled by a U.S. president. He’s incapable of leading a nation when faced with a crisis, that much is clear. If we invade the country calling themselves Taiwan, the stuttering, doddering old fool with his gee-golly folksy approach will simply stumble around the Oval Office trying to find a corner where he can hide from the press. Biden has succumbed to the worst of his party, the lunatics of the far left. His party doesn’t care one iota about geo-politics, and they already think that the United States should never be involved in any overseas campaigns. They absolutely, positively, will prevent their leader from taking any action whatsoever against our great nation. Biden will simply shirk all responsibility and crumble at the stress we will throw his way. This will inevitably lead to his mental breakdown, followed by his resignation in an attempt to avoid an invocation of the fourth article of their 25th amendment.

Enter President Harris.

Sir, it is my contention that Kamala Harris is a blowhard who will first posture and threaten us while wagging her finger toward us through the camera lens like the arrogant, haughty snob she is. She will be far too fearful though, to take any action against us, military or otherwise. She’ll eventually realize that the extremists who pull the strings of her own party don’t give a rat’s ass about anything that happens beyond its borders. They for sure couldn’t care less about a small island wannabe nation just so long as the eventual ruling party lists their preferred personal pronouns in their bios and admits that 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4. While America used to police the world, they now police only their celebrities, neighbors, and co-workers, making sure to denigrate and destroy anyone who tells a joke that they arbitrarily decide is insensitive or racist.

We’ve long done whatever we wanted in this country with zero sanction or accountability with regard to those loser Uighurs, and, if you agree with my assessment here, we’ll soon be able to do whatever we want with the rebellion leaders in the Republic of China. Just so long as we make sure to funnel a lot of money into their National Basketball Association, we’ll never have to worry about their influencers and celebrities throwing too much of a fuss.

It is patently obvious, Dear Comrade, that the next attack against the United States will be originating in the newly formed terrorist mecca of Afghanistan. The United States is so consumed by bitter infighting and virtue signaling, that they are incapable of seeing the great threat that is building against them. Even if they want to take action against us for our invasion to take what’s rightfully ours, they will not have the heart for it once bombs start exploding on their own soil thanks to the terrorist haven that will soon be thriving due to the actions of their inept president. Biden’s own party will doubtlessly blame white supremacy for the terrorism that’s coming, and many will actually praise the terrorists themselves! This once great nation will crumble to the ground, as so many of its citizens so deeply desire.

Comrade President, the writing is on the wall. Under the “leadership” of this senile clown of a president, the United States is facing dark and deadly times, and now is the time for us to take advantage. Invade Taiwan, sir, and bring the rebels back into the fold.


All of your advisors, analysts, and military leaders

Bringing Gavin’s Harley home to Vegas

“Debris! Bobo, we have debris!” I shouted.

He couldn’t hear my movie quote, of course. I was safely nestled in the luxurious comfort of Matt Russell’s brand-new BMW X6 SUV. The driving rain, large hail, gusty winds, and occasional chunks and bits of refuse that zipped hither and thither across the highway as if they were animatedly playing some real-life version of Frogger, were of no real concern to me. Bobo, on the other hand, was riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. The recently deceased Gavin Smith’s Harley Davidson motorcycle, to be more accurate.

And we were heading directly into tornado-spawning thunderclouds.

When our good friend Gavin had died unexpectedly three months earlier, his family made the decision to sell his belongings to support his two young children. It was decided that the best option for selling his Harley Davidson was to leverage his fame in the poker world by auctioning the bike at a charity event in Las Vegas that would be coinciding with the kick-off of the 50th annual World Series of Poker. The bike was being stored by Matt Russell in Houston, Texas, and we needed to get it up to Las Vegas, so Bobo and I jumped at the chance to make the ride. Matt, who wanted to get his SUV to Las Vegas for the WSOP anyway, volunteered to let us use the BMW as a support vehicle for the ride so that Bobo and I could switch back and forth between the two vehicles. We caught a Southwest Airlines flight into Houston on a Sunday evening, spent the night at Matt’s condo, and departed early the next morning for the planned two-day trip. Now, here we were seven hours out of Houston, just crossing into the Texas panhandle near the town of Memphis, and heading right into some serious storms.

And, gloriously, it was my turn to be in the SUV.

As rain followed by hail pelted the windshield of the X6 and the outside temperature gauge showed a plummet of twenty degrees in a matter of minutes, Bobo, dressed in only camouflage cargo shorts, a thin, olive-colored t-shirt that was plastered tightly to his Michelin Man body like one of OJ’s Isotoners, and a pair of red and white Vans low-tops that I’m guessing he stole from a teenage girl at a Venice Beach skateboarding park, finally whipped the Harley to the shoulder of the highway and sloshed his way through standing water back to the SUV.

In the previous ten miles, we had passed thirty to forty “storm chasers” jockeying about in jacked-up pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans adorned with flashing yellow strobe lights, twirling antennas and satellite dishes, and rapidly spinning wind gauges. This hodgepodge of amateur, semi-professional, and professional tornado enthusiasts had flooded the area we were traversing, presumably in anticipation of the tornados that would surely be spawning from the heavy, darkly brooding, funnel clouds that hung low over the flat purple-hewed landscape. The farmhouses and fields that dotted the terrain seemed ripe for victimization as the occupants no doubt kept one ear tuned to their emergency radios and prepared to evacuate to the ever-present storm shelters that are a necessity in this part of the country.

I have never seen a tornado. Part of me ecstacized at the ominous tone of the sky which was so reminiscent of the numerous movies I’ve seen where a twister comes screeching and roaring through a town’s trailer park. The part of me that was a loyal friend to the motorcycle-bound Bobo was less thrilled, particularly when we entered Memphis, Texas and the town’s tornado sirens suddenly began wailing in an ear-splittingly spooky, surreal warbling that sent chills down my arms. I scanned the sky with wide-eyes and took video to document the distinct possibility of a motorcycle becoming an airplane as Bobo, stoically undeterred and seemingly unimpressed, rode on, dodging the debris that littered the roadway, hunching his rotund body into the driving hail, and soldiering through conditions that would have made lessor men curl up into a ball in the back seat of the SUV.

When lightning and thunder began shaking the earth with sizzling smells of ozone and soul-rattling booms, and standing water on the road had reached the foot petals of the motorcycle, Bobo finally pulled into a gas station and parked under the portico. We took shelter inside the small convenience store and watched the raging storm as an early afternoon darkness brought on by the thick clouds descended over us and the store clerk listened to an emergency storm radio that would hopefully provide us with enough warning to cover our bodies in softly cushioning Hostess cupcakes before the tornados arrived.

After several cups of coffee, hot chocolate, and some hot-case gas station burritos, the storm subsided without even a single tornado ripping up the roof of our refuge. The sky lightened into a second dawn as the clouds began to break. The pelting rain slowed and then quit completely, and the weather warmed several degrees. I told Bobo that I figured it was now my turn on the bike. He gave me a wry look but handed over the still soggy helmet and climbed into the BMW to turn on the heater and finish drying his clothes. We left the storms behind us, never even having seen a tornado, much to my dismay.

Crossing into New Mexico, we hit Interstate 40 and headed due west into the setting sun toward Albuquerque. As it got dark for the second time that day, we stopped in Santa Rosa, New Mexico on historic Route 66 and checked into the Route 66 Inn. This was a simple but decent motel with a community firepit, and we grabbed some dinner-to-go and a few beers, enjoying the fire for a couple of hours before heading to bed.

The next morning, we toured the Route 66 auto museum which was probably the most interesting thing in Santa Rosa, but still definitely skippable unless you’re a real classic car buff. We got back on the road before 10 o’clock and made our way west to Albuquerque. By the time we arrived, the wind had stiffened from an annoying headwind that was blasting us around on the Interstate, into a truly treacherous gale that constantly threatened to upend us, regularly sending us careening across the lane divider or onto the shoulder of the highway in spite of our best efforts to stay safely in one lane. It was a clear, sunny, otherwise beautiful day that would have been perfect for riding had the wind speeds not topped fifty miles per hour. To make things worse, the winds were directly in our face and the Harley had no windshield, which meant that even at a modest 60 mile per hour speed—which was much slower than the posted limit of 70 and 75, and almost dangerously slower than the average speed of the normal vehicle which was 80 to 85—we were still experiencing a direct wind in our chest and face of 110 miles per hour, a thrashing wind that left us beaten and exhausted like we’d spent the day breaking a bull.

We stopped for gas in Albuquerque and then hit the highway again with me on the Harley. After fifteen minutes of riding, my neck was aching from the pure strain of holding it upright in the 110 to 120 mile per hour winds that blasted the heavy, full-face helmet I wore. I tried lying flat against the tank of the bike and tipping my head down to let the wind press on only the top of the helmet, and that helped some, but looking at the ground while riding a bike isn’t very conducive to safe operations, and I realized this wasn’t going to be a good permanent solution. To make matters worse, we had no leather chaps to protect our legs, and small rocks were ripping into us constantly from the driving wind and the semi-trucks that would get blown onto the shoulder of the road releasing a maelstrom of dust and debris from the dormant shoulder, each of those grains of sand feeling like shotgun pellets as they blasted our denim-clad legs. It was nightmarish, and Bobo and I started switching rides every twenty to thirty minutes from our previous switching times of every two hours. At one point early on, I tried to convince Bobo that the conditions were just too hideous and dangerous to continue, and that we should spend the night in Albuquerque and finish the ride the next day, but he was insistent that he wanted to be back in Vegas that night. Knowing my misery, and making me feel like a complete wuss, he powered through a 1.5-hour straight ride that had me shaking my head in awe. He could hardly speak when he stumbled off the bike at the next stop, his ghoulish face conveying his misery with nary a word as we switched spots. It had been a Herculean effort that pushed us through the worst of the hellish wind, and I was grateful for his selfless stamina.

Once we’d left the wind behind, the rest of the ride went smoothly. We made quick work of Arizona, flying along the macadam in perfect riding weather, and crossing the top of the state at speeds that must have averaged more than 90 miles per hour. As we approached the Nevada border, Bobo asked for the honor of taking the final stage of the ride, bringing Gavin’s Harley back home to Las Vegas, and I gladly ceded him that honor. We crossed the Pat Tillman bridge over the Colorado River as the sun was dropping toward the horizon, painting the sky in dazzling brush strokes of reds and golds shining through heavy clouds, our journey ending in a magnificent display that so well represented the end of the era of Gavin Smith. Twenty minutes later, we eased over Railroad Pass and the expansive desert valley spread out before us, the vividly blazing lights of Las Vegas welcoming us home.

The ride had been objectively one of the most hazardous and despairing motorcycle rides I’ve ever been on, and yet, it seemed that the very things that made it such a tough ride were the things that made it so worthwhile. We spent three days with the spirit of our good friend Gavin riding beside us, and the toils of the ride ensured that it would be one we would never forget. Two weeks later, I would ride Gavin’s motorcycle to the charity auction where it would sell for significantly more than its true value, and the money would go to the pool of donations contributed by the poker community to ensure that his children, now effectively orphans, would be well-taken care of. Although Bobo and I had lost a close friend, we will forever have the story of the incredible journey we made bringing Ol’ G Smith’s Harley Davidson home to Las Vegas.

The Memorial

The room is already busy when we walk through the door, the steady din that mutters ceaselessly just under the threshold of consciousness in every bar amplified by the murmuring of more voices than usual. The voices are muted and somber, the typical joy that underlies the normal conversations of friends meeting for drinks conspicuously missing. The occasional laugh rings out above the din, but the expression behind the laugh is rarely anything but hollow and pained. Memorials are like that. We give them names like “celebration of life” because we want them to be joyous events full of mirth and memories, but they so often don’t start out that way. The sadness is an undercurrent that’s present in every face, even the ones that are smiling. I nod at friends and acquaintances. Hands stretch out toward me as I pass tables. I stop to shake, fist bump, and hug, muttering “good to see you” to those who I haven’t seen in too long. So many of them are friends who float in and out of my life with varying amounts of time and importance. I know little about their current lives, and they know little about mine, and there’s a sadness in that as well. I’ve spent too little time nurturing and cultivating these relationships, and the recent deaths of so many mutual friends are a stark and stabbing reminder that I need to do better.

In addition to the normal melancholy of any wake, there’s also the underlying fear of the times in which we live, the knowledge that in any gathering as large as this, Covid is likely to be present, a stalking menace for those who are unvaccinated or have immune system issues, or those like myself who have international travel coming up and can’t test positive. The handshakes are quicker than normal, the hugs given with held breaths. Like so many of the things we do these days, the virus rules over our actions and our exuberance, to the great detriment of the purpose of our gathering.

The room is filled with personalities, poker players and industry personnel, many of whom are known mainly by their monikers. People with nicknames like Chip, Savage, Weez, World, JRB, JDN, Miami, and Erik123. We’ve gathered to mourn the passing of our friend, Layne Flack. Known as “Back-to-back” Flack, a moniker given to him when he won two poker tournaments in a row on two different occasions, Layne was a scion of the poker community. Quick to smile and slow to anger, he seemed ever-present, his huge white teeth gleaming as his laugh rang out over every gathering of players. It’s hard to fathom the death of someone who shined as brightly as Layne Flack. No matter the size of the event, you always knew when Layne was present.

We all know people who command attention every time they enter a room. Layne was one of those people. If you didn’t notice him before he noticed you, you were likely to be a victim of one of his sneak attacks or one of his jokes. His quick, sharp wit endeared him to so many, his infectious laugh and beaming personality quickly winning over those who were so often the target of that rapier-like wit.

Layne was a legend. He made a life out of reading people’s faces. If Kenny Rogers had known Layne prior to writing “The Gambler,” I have no doubt the lyrics would have been rewritten to incorporate Layne’s endearing quirks. As Matt Savage so astutely points out, Layne was the best no-limit hold’em player in the world around the turn of the century, and there wasn’t a close second.

Layne was not without fault, as none of us are. He had problems with drugs, alcohol, women, and gambling. He borrowed quickly, and too often paid back slowly. He gambled big with no ability to pay if he lost, and he left this world with some debts unpaid. There’s little doubt that he was one of those rainbow addicts who are susceptible to so many of life’s vices. Layne had an insatiable appetite for fun, and his captivating presence along with his vivacious and immutable personality led to so many of his friends unwittingly becoming his enablers. It was hard to say no to a guy like Layne. Nobody wanted to be the one to dim the bright bulb that accompanied his every appearance. There are only so many watts in a human lifetime though, and when a bulb shines as bright as Layne’s, it tends to use up its life too quickly.

The celebration of life starts with a slideshow set to music, as so many of them do. These shows are supposed to make us smile, and laugh, and remember the great times with a great friend, but so often they just make us cry. And that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s probably good. Tears allow us to feel more connected, to shed the bottled grief, and when we smile and laugh through the tears, we know we’ll all be okay. Maybe not today, but someday soon.

In my experience, people tend to be reticent to pick up the microphone and tell stories. Sometimes it’s because the stories aren’t appropriate to tell to a room full of strangers, although, that doesn’t seem to dissuade several of tonight’s orators. Other times it’s because the stories involve some level of embarrassment to the speaker. More often though, it’s because people just simply have a fear of public speaking. My speech is written with the goal not of telling my own stories about Layne, but rather to encourage others to come tell their stories, stories that would certainly be more interesting than the few unique times that I experienced with the legend. My speech is less about Layne and more about life and death in general. The poker world has lost a terrible number of people in the last couple of years. A painful number of deaths that have left a gaping hole in the community, and those losses have weighed on me. I recently read an article about death by a great writer named Sean Dietrich, and some of his words and thoughts have found their way into my speech. I’ve attached my speech below in the hopes that the words may give comfort, not just to the friends of Layne, but to friends of Gavin, Mike, Joy, Matt, and anybody else who has experienced loss.

My speech starts off rocky. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken publicly. I used to be comfortable with these things, but tonight I’m a little nervous and it shows. The microphone cuts out just after I get started and I have to shout over the rumbling of the bar at large, the majority of which is open to the public who have little interest in the wake being held behind the curtains. Karina Jett finds me a new microphone and I unintentionally skip several lines of my planned speech. It’s probably unnoticed by the crowd, even though it means that one of my points isn’t driven home. I make a call for those who are hesitant to tell their stories and then I hand the microphone back to Matt Savage. Layne’s sister reaches out as I pass her booth. She has never met me, but her eyes are glimmering as she nods at me and mouths, “Thank you.” I smile through my own glimmering eyes and nod warmly to her.

There are no breaks in the action as attendees tell their stories. Nobody uses notes, speaking from their hearts, and many of the stories are great, drying up the tears as the laughter gets louder and louder. And it’s here, in this moment, when the purpose of these gatherings shines through. Smiles and laughter pervade, and people forget their grief for the moment as they listen to the stories and remember that though he may be gone, Layne left us all with a lifetime of memories that will allow him to live forever in our hearts.

Layne Flack

I first met Layne in 2004 at a WPT event in Reno. I had just made the final table of the main event there and I won a little bit of money and I was hanging out having drinks with a few players when he walked up. He struck up a conversation and he found out I’d just won some money so he asked me if no-limit hold’em was my favorite game. I told him my favorite game was actually limit hold’em and he replied, “Step into my office, young man.” He just happened to know of a nice 75-150 limit hold’em game that was starting in the poker room. Somehow when we got there, there was a dealer sitting at an empty table with one plaque that said “75-150 limit hold’em” and another that said “reserved.” To this day I don’t know how he managed to set that up on the walk to the poker room, but we became friends right then and there. You wouldn’t be incorrect if you said that I bought my way into our friendship.

Many of you here knew Layne longer than I did, and no doubt many of you here knew him better than I did. I don’t want to take a lot of time up here to tell stories about Layne because I know that so many of you have such great stories, and I’d like to hear them. So, I just want to take a moment to talk about life and death.

As humans, it’s in our nature to try so hard to find deeper meaning in events which just simply have no meaning. We want to know why, and we want to know how, and we want answers, and those answers are just so often complicated and impure and unsatisfying. The truth is, that life is like embroidery. You know, when someone is stitching a piece of embroidery, when you watch them, it just looks like a completely tangled web of knots, an utter mess with no sense of organization. It’s only when they flip it over that you see the true beauty of their creation.

Layne Flack had a vibrancy about him, an energy and joie de vivre that were incomparable. But he showed only that beautiful side of his life to most of us. If you saw the complicated side of his life, the tangled web of knots that makes up all of our lives, then you know that you were a close friend of his, a true friend.

Most people wander through life with their eyes closed. Layne may have been the most open-eyed person I’ve ever known. He was a complete pragmatist. He was worldly. He never walked, he glided, or he strutted. He had more confidence—not false confidence but completely merited confidence—than anybody you’ve ever seen. Others, I’m sure, will come up here and tell you stories about how quick-witted he was, the quickest wit I’ve ever known. They’ll tell you stories about how fun it was to be around him. How good he was at making and nurturing friendships. Listen to those stories because they’re important. Layne made the world brighter, and we need to all strive to brighten our own lights to make up for the one that has dimmed.

Isaac Newton and Emilie du Chatelet taught us about the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy. This law says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, made nor unmade. It can only be transformed from one form to another. Water falls to Earth as rain and lands in rivers and lakes. We use that water in our swimming pools and in our showers and in our beers. The water is expelled and evaporates once more where it condenses into clouds and then falls to Earth again, in a cycle that has continued since the dawn of time.

Conservation of energy.

Life falls under these same laws. We say that Layne is dead. We gather tonight to celebrate his life and to mourn his passing, but he’s not dead. He lives here (heart) and here (head) and he lives in all of us gathered here. As long as you’re alive, Layne is alive. As long as you’re alive, he’s alive and Layne is alive. As long as I’m alive, you’re alive. We may not be able to pick up the phone and call Layne right now, but he’s here in this room with us, and he always will be. Because Layne, though he may have argued that he was above it, was indeed quite susceptible to the law of conservation of energy. He is not gone; he cannot be unmade. He can only be transformed, from one form to another. He will always live on, in our hearts, in our memories, and in our stories.

So come up here and tell your stories of Layne. Even if you think they’re stupid, because I promise you, there are no stories of Layne that don’t involve at least some level of stupidity. We all want to hear them. Come up here and tell your stories about Layne, and help him live on in all of us.

The Fire

The thick, noxious smoke hangs low and heavy over the Okanogan valley, an oppressive hand that is felt in the trepidation of the three weary travelers in the speeding truck and trailer. My dad, my brother, and I are racing to our cabin which lies in the path of a hungry fire that’s feeding voraciously on the hot, dry forest. The reports have been grim: The Fire had been growing slowly, 10,000 acres a few days ago, 12,000 acres today. The beast eagerly awaits what it seems to somehow know is arriving in a few short hours…a weather front carrying twenty mile-per-hour winds, winds forecast to blow from south to north, pushing The Fire directly to our family spread of vacation property and cabins just outside the town of Chesaw.

The news came the night before. Level Three evacuation for all residents in the area, including my aunts who live on the neighboring property. Get Out Now. They had been sitting on a level one alert and the jump to level three came suddenly, frighteningly. We got the news as we sat on the patio of my sister’s house on the west side of the Cascades. Hasty plans were made. I called a friend and borrowed a trailer. My dad, brother, and I would leave at 4 a.m. My brother-in-law would head out four hours later, grabbing another borrowed trailer on the way. We would rescue as much as we could from the cabin and bring it back to safety. We would hope that we were making a completely unnecessary trip. Hope for the best, plan for the worst as they say.

Our little familial enclave was raw land when we cumulatively acquired it forty years ago. Our cabins were all built by our own hands, the blood, sweat, and tears of all of us poured into their creation. We have saved and scrimped and added to our cabin as we could spare the money to do so. Their safety has been threatened many times over the years, but never so directly and direly as this. The last few years has seen a colossal increase in the fire danger of the northeast Washington forest. Many of us have put fire safety precautions into work across the property over the last few years, thinning the forest around our cabins, removing and burning dead trees and underbrush, making strides to hopefully eliminate the majority of the fuel that would nurture the dreaded fire. It has always seemed inevitable that The Fire will one day arrive, and now it seems that formidable day is here.

As we pass through the towns of Okanogan, Omak, and Tonasket, men clad in yellow shirts and green pants loiter in the parking lots and stores. Their vehicles are green and white, light bars of red adorn the cabs, water tanks and diamond-plate bins clutter the beds. A ragtag band of firefighters fueling their vehicles and their bodies, petrol in the former, donuts and hot-case gut bombs of gas station delights in the latter. They are in no hurry, laughing and slouching lazily against their trucks. “Get to the fire!” we shout at them. They can’t hear us through the glass of the speeding truck. Nor do we actually want them to hear our pleas. Unlike most urban firefighters, these wildland heroes work their asses off in a palpably demanding and dangerous job, willingly putting themselves into the path of peril and hazard to protect the property of strangers. We know they’re preparing themselves for the battle that will be coming later today or tomorrow. Right now, The Fire is still in the National Forest. It’s a lightning-strike fire, a natural calamity that must be allowed to burn. The health of the forest requires the cleansing effect of the burn, and these men, and presumably women, though we see none, know this. They’ll begin their assault when it spreads out of the boundaries of the forest and into the adjoining land. Our land.

As we crest the tops of the hills, we get our first view of the beast. Smoke rises and spreads across the sky from numerous hot spots. We watch as The Fire consumes tall trees, the swirling smoke and flame hungrily thrusting toward the sky like a beacon, The Fire letting all know that it is alive and on the move. We take a moment to watch, to marvel at the enemy and all the power that rumbles hungrily under the gray-brown clouds of its anger. We move on.

Arriving at the cabin, we load machines and tools. People tend to think that when a fire consumes a house or cabin, the owners will be made whole by insurance. I have no idea how often this is true, but I know that none of us have insurance against fire. We’ve tried, but no company will insure us. The danger of forest fire in this area is too great. It’s inevitable, and insurance companies don’t wager money on guaranteed losers. We’re on our own. Our insurance company is the group of men currently stuffing donuts down their throats twenty miles down the hill. It isn’t a comfortable feeling.

We load our most expensive equipment and tools into the trailer and the back of my truck. We gather irreplaceable mementos from inside the cabin. We take a moment to marvel at the hubris that caused us to pile a collection of fuel cans and propane tanks around the cabin. We’ve created a bomb in the forest, and we disarm it, laughing at ourselves. We place spare roofing—tin panels that represent our only passive defense against the raging flames around our beloved structure, hoping that if The Fire gets close, the tin will keep flying sparks from grasping a purchase on the wood siding.   

The rancher who runs the cattle on our land is loading his herd into trailers to be evacuated. They normally graze their cattle here from May to October. They’re pulling them two months early, and the reason is obvious. The rancher is nonchalant and relaxed as he works to gather the herd. The Fire stirs two miles away, but he has time. He lives in this area. He knows the enemy well, dealing with it in one form or another every year. He’ll move his cattle to safety, and next year, if The Fire has made our property unfit for grazing, he’ll find another place. He has no vested long-term interest here but he wishes us luck nonetheless. We’ll need it.

A National Forest fire truck drives down the dusty gravel road checking on residents, marking those who’ve ignored the order to evacuate. It stops just down the road from our property and we watch as the driver speaks to the isolated hermit who lives there. The man’s dog runs around the truck excitedly. The man’s donkey brays at the strangers who have interrupted its routine. They all seem completely oblivious to the looming danger. One could forgive the dog and the donkey. It’s harder to fathom the man who won’t leave, but it is a free country, and it is his decision, and the firefighters move on.

Finished loading the truck and trailer, we move out, my brother driving the side-by-side. It isn’t street-legal, but this is an evacuation—the normal rules don’t apply. We’ll meet my brother-in-law in Tonasket and readjust our load so we can get all the machines on trailers. We make another stop at the viewpoint to marvel at The Fire once more. It has moved, inching closer, and, as we watch it, the first bit of wind tickles at our clothes, the tickle becoming a push as it increases in strength. We mark its direction. Not due north as we most feared, but northeast. It’s only a few degrees on the compass, but it’s just enough to give us a vestige of hope. Of course, a benevolent course for us is a malevolent course for someone else. We hope that this year will not be the year that anybody has to suffer a loss to the grumbling beast in front of us, but we pray that the wind direction will remain unchanged.

We know that if The Fire doesn’t get its due today, it doesn’t care. It has all the time in the world, and its day will come. As long as the average summer temperature keeps increasing, the forest will keep drying and getting more perilous. One day, if not today, The Fire will arrive at our doorstep. We can only hope that our problems lie in the future. We say very little as we drive off without another look back.

Canoeing the Everglades (part six) Hell’s Bay to the end.

This is part six of a six-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here:

Two things had to meld together perfectly for our plans for the last day of our adventure to change so drastically. The first was that I had to spot that peculiar white pole sticking out of the mud and be bored and intrigued enough to check it out further. The second was that we had to have cell phone service from the Hell’s Bay Chickee, something that had been spotty and unreliable throughout our Everglades excursion.

Using binoculars, I tried to ascertain the purpose of the white pole that stuck jauntily from the bay at an angle like a flagpole that had drunkenly tipped over and lost its flag, but for the life of me, I was unable to figure it out. Not one to allow a mystery to go unsolved, I hopped into the canoe and paddled out to the pole. It turned out to be a PVC pipe with a couple of black-fading-to-brown lines painted around the top and the number 173 stenciled upon it like it was an escapee from a PVC prison. Curious. I paddled back to the chickee and decided to Google it since we had service. It turned out that this pole is the last of 173 marking poles that identifies the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail. I’d seen signs for the trail on the road into Flamingo five days earlier so I knew that the trail would end on that road, making it a possible exit point for us. The only question was, how would we get our copious amounts of gear, along with the canoe back to the visitor center? I mentioned the idea I had of altering our plan and taking the trail out instead, and Tracy was down with it. The fact that it was only a reported 5.5 miles of paddling to get out, that we’d be protected from the wind and not as susceptible to the tides in the deep backwaters, that we’d be able to avoid another excursion onto Whitewater Bay, and the fact that we’d yet to see a single alligator save the baby one during the first hour of the trip, and that a canoe trail winding through the heart of the mangrove-choked swamp seemed like our best chance of seeing one, all collaborated in our decision to go for it.

I called up the Flamingo Visitor Center and got connected to the canoe rental kiosk where they told me they would be happy to send a truck to pick us up at the launch point for the Hell’s Bay trail on the highway. We scheduled a pickup for noon, and, figuring that it probably wouldn’t take us more than 2 or 3 hours to work our way down the trail, we planned to take our time in the morning and make a leisurely half-day out of the trip.

We probably should have taken note that there was a reason they called this Hell’s Bay, and a reason that it was the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail. We probably should have Googled the origin of the name, which would have clued us to the fact that the name comes from the old-timers’ saying that the bay was, “Hell to get into, and hell to get out of.” Of course, I likely would have dismissed this as nothing but a fable or parable, but either way, we remained blissfully ignorant.

We enjoyed yet another spookily calm and quiet evening, the water of Hell’s Bay in glass-like perfection as the sun set behind us.

As we crawled into the tent that night, Tracy sat on her air-filled sleeping pad and prepared to crawl into her sleeping bag. Suddenly, with a loud popping noise, her pad deflated and she was sitting on the hard planks with a despondent look on her face. Glad that it had at least happened on our last night there, she took a sleeping pill, put our extra sleeping bag under her, and prepared for an even more uncomfortable night. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have much higher quality sleeping pads for multiple nights on the hard platforms of the chickees. These backpacking type pads might be fine for sleeping in the dirt or grass, but they were terrible here. Of course, they were better than nothing, which is what Tracy was looking forward to this last night. Thankfully, the sleeping pill would make her mostly oblivious to the misery, though she would wake up the next morning stiff and sore.

Late that night, or perhaps early the next morning, we were shocked to once again hear dolphins in the weed-choked bay, floundering in the shallow waters and breathing in a raucous cacophony of deep, guttural rasps and gasps as their tails thrashed the water, echoing through the silent gloom as they rutted through the weeds to herd and trap their dinner. It was amazing to us that no matter how far back into the Everglades we went, out of the deeper harbors and safer waters of the big bays, we never managed to escape the hunting grounds of the dolphins.

The next morning, the mosquitos were out in full force, the worst of our journey thanks to the warming weather and the calm conditions, and that caused us to rush out of there, something for which we would turn out to be grateful. We were off the chickee at seven o’clock on the nose, heading directly into the fiery sun as it cleared the horizon, towering clouds all around it appearing like ephemeral skyscrapers against the deep azure sky. We paddled to the first PVC pipe and then spotted the next one against the shoreline, positioned exactly as far away as you could see, the first couple of breadcrumbs that would guide us merrily and blithely along, a naïve Hansel and Gretel, skipping to our fate with joy and glee. As we paddled across the bay, through the still, clear water we could see the evidence of the dolphins’ excursions from that night in the form of newly-cut trails through the underwater weeds. The trails swerved and veered through and around the beds of underwater weeds, marking the passages of the hard-working dolphins. The only logical explanation for their presence in this dangerously shallow bay was that the weeds underneath us must have been choked with fish seeking refuge from the sun.

The start of the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail.

We paddled through a few narrow canals and into a huge, unnamed bay, strangely unnamed because it was larger than Pearl Bay for sure, and nearly as large as Hell’s Bay. I was able to get a great panoramic shot in this beautifully reflective water before we continued on to Pearl Bay.

Popping out onto Pearl Bay, the sun glinted off the blue water, beams of reflected light dancing in our eyes. In the distance we could see a structure, the Pearl Bay Chickee, vibrant colors flashing from its platforms indicating the presence of fellow travelers. Tracy had to use the bathroom, and so we deviated from the canoe trail and headed that way.

Hell’s Bay and vicinity. The large lake between Hell’s Bay and Pearl Bay is where I took the panorama shot.

Since this is part six of this lengthy blog, and since you’ve read this far into the story, I think it’s finally time to discuss something you’ve doubtlessly been on the edge of your seats to hear, and that is the status of the bathroom situation in the deep, wild Everglades. I’ll start by saying that the Everglades is an ancient and remote place, as I’ve mentioned before, but on top of that, though you’re surrounded by what is technically “land,” it’s not really anything like you’re probably thinking. The vast majority of the land in the Everglades is not terra firma, but rather a mucky mess of rotting shellfish mired in primordial sludge and covered in a thick layer of mangrove roots that stick up out of the sludge in a crisscross pattern that looks much like a bowl of spaghetti if that spaghetti was covered in spider webs, ants, bugs, blue and red crabs, and occasionally an alligator that might possibly be lying in wait under the top layer or a twenty-foot Burmese python hanging above your head. There is, quite simply, no easy place to just pull over and go to the bathroom. This applies to more than 99% of the terrain that makes up this part of the Everglades National Park.

The typical quagmire of a mangrove island

Now, for a guy, it’s pretty easy when you have to pee. You tell your girlfriend to hold still, you stand and wedge your feet into the gunwales of the canoe and then lean precariously over the edge and do your thing. For women, it takes a touch more creativity.

When you need to relieve yourself of the more solid version of your bodily rejections, things become a bit trickier. I’ll first note that if you’re clever, and if the strange food-in-a-pouch or yellowish-brown marina potable water hasn’t created havoc with the daily timing of your toilet necessities, then you simply make sure you know where the nearest chickee is located and when you think you’ll need to use it and then make those two things come together. Of course, the pure and near complete silence of the greatest river on Earth combined with the approximate two-foot drop between the toilet seat of the Porta-Potty and the blue liquid that sloshes in the tank means that the privacy you get when you need to do your daily deed is visual only. The audible spash of that two-foot drop leads to a prompt dissolution of any mystery you may have remaining in your relationship.

Now, if you time things poorly, or the edibles and drinkables are indeed throwing off your schedule, you’re left with no option but to ram your canoe into the mangrove roots, climb precariously out onto the limbs, work your way back stepping gingerly onto the trees as your eyes dart nervously for any sort of insect, dinosaur, or man-eating snake, and then hang over the edge with one fistful of bark and the other of toilet paper, and do your thing while your partner turns away. Again, if you aren’t quite comfortable with your partner knowing way too much about you, you aren’t going to do well on a multi-day Everglades excursion.

On this occasion, Tracy was quite non-specific when she said she needed to use the restroom, so with the Pearl Bay Chickee in close proximity, we paddled that way. There was no sign of movement on the sleepy platform so we approached quietly, not wanting to wake our fellow travelers. Unfortunately, the bumping and scraping of our boat against the structure, and the noise of Tracy climbing out of the boat and up onto the dock caused their tent to unzip and a guy to come stumbling out, blinking and stretching like a cartoon owl. We told him we were just stopping to use the restroom and he smiled and gave us a wave and dipped back into the tent.

Done with the restroom, we beat feet south, traversing the length of Pearl Bay and then through a very narrow, very shallow canal and into another large, unnamed bay, following our PVC breadcrumbs which were occasionally tricky to locate. As we came out of the canal and into the bay, rounding the corner we heard a great thrashing noise in the water and saw the surface of the formerly smooth lake churning and boiling. My heart raced as I thought I was about to see an alligator fighting with some other animal, but it turned out to be yet another pod of dolphins that had herded up some fish and gone into a feeding frenzy in the shallow waters, dorsal fins and tails slapping the water into a bubbling cauldron as their panicked breath loudly echoed through the still morning. I was able to get a short video of just the end of the fight before the dolphins headed out of that bay and into the canal we had just exited. It was amazing to think that if we’d been just five minutes later, we would have encountered those five dolphins in that narrow—probably only four to five feet wide and less than three feet deep through most of it—canal. That would have been rather exciting, and I was sorry our timing hadn’t been just slightly better. Tracy, however, thought our timing was perfect.

We paddled on and stopped at Lard Can, an aptly named ground camping site that occupies one of the very few patches of actual solid ground in the entire southern Everglades. During the planning stages, I’d considered this as one of our stopping points for the night, and I’m telling you right now that if we’d arrived at this campsite for the night, I would be a single man writing my breakup story to you. Dismal, murky, muddy, buggy, and depressing, with a pungent, musky aroma of earthen rot and mold, this site, while almost certainly a fantastic breeding ground for mosquitos, is not fit for human habitation. We did enjoy getting out of the canoe and stretching our legs a bit, me walking the trails behind the camp while Tracy nervously waited on the mossy old dock. Ten minutes there was more than enough, and we gladly put Lard Can in our rearview mirrors.

A bad pic of a bad, bad place called Lard Can

At this point, we veered south again and left the open water behind, entering the thick, narrow mangrove swamps and canals that is the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail proper. How do I describe this trail? First, if you’re in a single kayak or small canoe, this trail is probably great. When you’re in a 3-person behemoth, this trail is brutal. A constant stream of tight switchbacks, tumultuous turns, intersections where you can’t figure out which way to go until you are committed to what usually ends up being the wrong direction and then finally spot the hidden PVC pipe behind you, a narrow maze of channels with overhanging mangrove branches that require you to duck and weave all while trying to slow your progress to avoid crashing into the shore, or to back-blade feverishly to cut 180 degrees in the opposite direction while the sun beats down on your head and mosquitos and biting flies swarm your face…it was a truly miserable experience. We saw no animals in this hellscape, but what we did encounter were quite a few day paddlers, all headed in the opposite direction which forced us to grab onto mangrove roots and pull our canoe to the side to allow them to pass.

Any time we would find a straightaway and start to build up some momentum, the path would suddenly come to an end, a 150-180 degree turn forcing us to backpaddle furiously, usually slamming our canoe into the bank like a bumper car before bouncing off and making the turn as our bow scraped one side and our stern the opposite. In the front of the canoe, for at least the first few miles, Tracy was experiencing her own challenges in the myriad of spider webs that crisscrossed the canals right at head level, many of which, based on the screeching, sputtering, and scratching at her hair and face that I was forced to bear witness to, she was unable to spot in time to get her paddle up. The only good thing about finally beginning to encounter the day-paddlers was that the spider web fiasco came to a merciful close.

Squiggles may not be to scale, but they’re pretty representative of our path!

We paddled harder this day than we ever had, searching futilely for the veteran canoers’ special balance between speed and maneuverability, sweating copiously under the unrelenting sun with no breaks as branches scratched us and clawed us and we tried desperately to stay on the right path and not become lost in Hell’s abyss which awaited any wrong turn with alluringly clear and appealing canals that beckoned to the unvigilant rower. The PVC pipes became our beacons of hope, their descending numbers encouraging us as we marked the milestones of #50, then #40, then #20. We found ourselves getting copious feelings of elation when we would see three PVC poles in one visible stretch, the daffy joy of ticking thrice in a short distance toward our goal of PVC #1 undeniable.

At post #10, we passed a rather plump couple in a small canoe who were having an even more miserable time than us, quarreling loudly and bitterly without a care in the world for our presence in their little spat. When they’d passed, we both laughed and smiled at each other, completely unembarrassed at our blatant display of schadenfreude, gleeful that we were at least keeping our composure after a long and tough journey. This couple must have turned around shortly after we passed them, because they would show up at the launch point still arguing just five minutes after us, a nice Everglades excursion for them that lasted all of a half hour.

When we finally reached the end of the aptly named Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail it was just fifteen minutes before noon. It took us almost five hours to make the journey, much longer than the three to four hours I’d anticipated, though we had stopped a few times and been leisurely with the paddling at the start. We hauled the canoe out of the water, high-fived and hugged each other, and rejoiced in the end of an extremely challenging, extraordinarily rewarding journey. The guy from the canoe rental place showed up just a few minutes late and we loaded the canoe into the truck and helped him tie it down. I jumped in the cab for the ride back to our car, leaving Tracy to wait with our gear. On the drive back to the marina, he asked me how the trip had been.

“It was great until that very last part,” I said to him. “That trail was really tough in this big canoe. You guys probably shouldn’t even allow people to take that trail in your 3-person canoes.”

He gave me a sideways glance and a smirk. “We don’t,” he replied, simply. I guess when I’d made the call the night before and asked if we could be picked up at the canoe trail launch, the clerk hadn’t realized that the dockmaster from five days earlier had upgraded us to a 3-person canoe from our reserved 2-person one.

I dropped off the canoe and popped into the small convenience store to pick up a treat that I knew would be much appreciated. It had been a tough, challenging journey, but one that we’d thoroughly and Truly enjoyed!

A welcome treat after a tough, hot day

Canoeing the Everglades (part five) North River to Hell’s Bay.

This is part five of a multi-part travel blog. If you’d like to start at the beginning, check out part one here:

The Everglades are a vast and mostly inhospitable landscape of impenetrable mangroves, swamps, and lakes. It is a labyrinth of channels, rivers, inlets, and hidden bays, many of which are so remote and inaccessible that they’re rarely, if ever, seen by humans at surface level. On our third night, the rain came in sweeping sheets carried on the wind, a storm that, by the standards of a land used to tropical storms and hurricanes, was hardly a blip on its collective conscious, but to the two of us, really amplified the isolation and reality of where we were. There are no campers in the Everglades other than at the designated chickees and ground sites. There are no hikers, no wandering travelers. It is the one place in this country where you can be absolutely sure that there is no other human within miles of you, at least at night and in a storm that no boaters would brave. The North River Chickee is far from any of the main channels, and our isolation was palpable and primal. This might have been the worst night of sleep yet, but somehow at the same time, there’s something incredibly satisfying about being woken up by rain pounding on the roof of your shelter knowing that you’re safe and dry.

The rain held off until about 7:45pm the night before, by which time we were ready to close down our LED lanterns and go to sleep anyway. It rained through the night, hard enough at times to wake us from our slumber. At 3:00am, a different sound woke us…the sound of a pod of dolphins fishing in the river right in front of our chickee, breaching and blowing, the rain having diminished completely, allowing the dolphin trumpets to echo through the still night air. By five o’clock, I’d slept enough. I slipped from the tent and gazed out at a clear sky filled with stars. The river was smooth and calm, broken only by the breaching of the shadowy bodies of the frenetically fishing dolphins, their pale skin glistening in the starlight.

As the sky began to lighten, we made coffee and then took down our tent and heaved our canoe onto the chickee so we could dump several inches of accumulated rain water out of the bottom of it. We cast off at seven o’clock and paddled into the heart of the rising sun. The gleaming flat water gave rise to a light mist, shadowing the horizon and mirroring the sky so perfectly and almost unbelievably that I had to stop paddling for a couple of amazing pictures.

A dizzyingly perfect mirror

The paddling was smooth and easy for the first time the entire trip, and I told Tracy that it was about to get even easier. We were headed for The Cutoff, a section of river that joins together the North River and the Roberts River. The Cutoff flows southeast, and with the tide slack and the natural flow of the Everglades southerly, I told her The Cutoff should have a nice current that we could ride like emperors on the backs of our slaves, relaxing and letting the nature perform the heavy lifting for once. Boy was I wrong. Somehow, inexplicably, the current in The Cutoff flowed northwest, and not a nice, gentle flow, but rather fast enough to make strong ripples around each protruding stick from the bank. What in the actual hell?

We buckled down and dug in, with surprisingly little complaint from the front of the canoe, though I was certain I heard some mumbling and perhaps even a few curse words muttered on the calm air. It was tough to be certain. It didn’t take us too long to reach the Roberts River where we suddenly heard the puttering of a boat motor. We stopped paddling and listened, letting the current bring us to a stop and then gently push us backwards. The motor noise seemed to echo and come from every direction at once, and then we heard voices muttering faintly over the rumble of the motor. A boat suddenly appeared from the mist on the Roberts River, headed south and moving at a brisk walking pace. We were still on The Cutoff, and we held still as the boat passed. It was a sleek, newer-model, expensive, bass fishing boat with a smooth deck and no sidewalls, the large outboard propelling the occupants along at idle speed. Inside the boat were three rough-looking men, bearded and bulky, with tough expressions and palpably bad attitudes that could be felt from where we were, just about a hundred feet away. They spoke in hushed tones, their voices just carrying without the actual words. I was certain they were nothing but fishermen…of course, the lack of a single fishing line in the water gave some voice of doubt to that hypothesis. For the first time on the entire trip, we were glad to have the current working against us as we allowed it to drag our canoe silently backwards into the mist, widening the gap between us.

It was a real Deliverance moment, and neither of us had to say a word or share a glance to convey the message that we should make no movement or sound to draw their attention. They slid by the mouth of The Cutoff without a glance and continued southward on the Roberts River.

“That was weird,” Tracy commented with raised eyebrows when they’d disappeared from view.

“Not really, they were probably just dumping a body,” I replied with a shrug.

Neither of us laughed.

We resumed our paddling, turning right at the Roberts River and following the trail of the three banditos, carefully watching for any sign they had stopped, or any floating object that might have been a body, or possibly a bundle of cocaine. We never saw them again, and at 9:00am exactly, we reached the Roberts River Chickee, a newly rebuilt chickee of Trex and plastic that was secure, stable, and quite comfortable, and that I somehow neglected to take a picture of. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was the best chickee we’d seen thus far. We tied up and brought up our chairs, stretching out and enjoying a relaxing breakfast along with some more coffee. The sun was out in full and the day was perfect, with no bugs and only a light breeze.

At 11 o’clock, with the day warming up, we reluctantly cast off and resumed our paddle down the gently flowing Roberts River. As usual, the wind had picked up and was blowing right in our faces. It was bizarre how this seemed to happen every single day, regardless of which direction we were paddling. The first two days when we were traveling in a northerly direction, the wind was coming from the north, and now that we’d turned south, the wind had likewise shifted direction.

We were aiming for a tiny channel that seemed to cutoff a chunk of distance between the Roberts River and the Lane River, but somehow I missed it and we ended up having to paddle around a wide isthmus and hit the mouth of the Lane River, a wide, fast-flowing body of water with a stiff current that we had to dig in hard and paddle relentlessly to overcome. Luckily, it was only a short distance to a canal where we turned back north, out of the main body of the Lane and into a deep, complex labyrinth of backwaters, creeks, tight, twisting canals, and marshes. I kept a close eye on the map as we navigated the intricate entanglement of waterways, matching the unsteady shoreline with the dimples on the map, something at which I’d become significantly more adept in the preceding days. When we reached the channel that we were supposed to have taken from the Roberts River, it was wide and vacuous, and my bewilderment as to how I’d possibly missed it grew. We turned away from that waterway and wandered back into the maze, and the mystery would remain unsolved.

Arrow pointing to the channel that I somehow missed, adding a mile of tough paddling to our journey.

I somehow managed to navigate us through the expansive morass without error, and Tracy was lavish in her praise of my navigation skills, lovingly leaving out my failure to locate the space-shuttle-sized cutoff that had cost us a mile of very tough paddling. Re-entering the Lane at a narrower, much softer-flowing part, we continued up it, paddling once more against both the current, albeit slackened, and the wind, which was stiffening reciprocally, as if in a conspiracy with the river to assure that we earned every mile of this trip.

After a few miles, we reached the Lane Bay Chickee where we stopped once more to rest and have lunch. So far on this entire journey, through the course of five different chickees, we’d yet to have to share space with any other kayakers, something we attributed to the Pandemic, and for which we were very grateful. Lane Bay is an older chickee with just a single platform, so had there been other campers here, we wouldn’t have been able to stop. Hundreds of fish swarmed in the shallow water under the chickee, using the shadow of the wooden platform to protect themselves from the sun.

Lane Bay, day four and still smiling!

We relaxed on the Lane Bay Chickee for an hour and a half, eating lunch and snoozing occasionally in our camp chairs as we watched birds fly around and clouds begin to gather and build in the distance. At 1:30pm, we noticed that the clouds had stretched upwards into billowing towers blotting out the sun and stiffening the breeze. Fearing some impending rain, we scooted out of there, determined to pound out the final two-and-a-half miles and beat the rain to our destination for the night, the Hell’s Bay Chickee. We paddled south down the length of Lane Bay, found the canal we needed to cut through the mangroves into an unnamed bay, across that, through another tight and winding canal and into the large, smooth, and very shallow Hell’s Bay. It did rain on us for about fifteen minutes, but the cooling effect on the hot, humid day made it actually quite enjoyable.

Hell’s Bay is spacious, picturesque, and strangely shallow, the ground covered in thick beds of weeds that stick out of the water in numerous places, and grabbed at the bottom of our canoe quite a few times, forcing us to dig our paddles into the soft mud of the bottom of the bay to propel us forward. I was quite sure this would be the first night we wouldn’t be awakened by dolphins, as the water was clearly too shallow for them. I would turn out to be very wrong about this.

We arrived at Hell’s Bay Chickee, another of the platforms that isn’t quite where the map indicates. My best guess for this inconsistency is that the chickees sometimes get destroyed by hurricanes and the park service decides to rebuild them in a slightly different spot without notifying the cartographers. It only took us about ten additional minutes of paddling to find it, which wasn’t too bad, but it is slightly unnerving when seeds of doubt begin to grow and you think you might be in the wrong bay entirely, a scenario that would be a very real disaster in a maze like this if true.

Hell’s Bay, a very comfortable chickee, though not quite located where the map says it is!

It was not quite three o’clock, and this day had somehow felt relatively easy and relaxing, with plenty of stops and no sensation of needing to rush. In spite of our continued struggles with the winds, currents, and tides, we’d covered approximately 16.5 miles this day, and our muscles were definitely acclimating to the rigors of canoe life. We set up camp and then relaxed, enjoying the views of the expansive and beautiful bay that smoothed completely as evening approached. Birds fished in the distance, and the silence was deep and palpable in the Jurassic-like wilderness. The plan for tomorrow was to paddle due east, through the remainder of the labyrinth and back out to Whitewater Bay where we would turn south and retrace our path from day one, back through the Buttonwood canal to our starting point at the Flamingo Visitor Center.

This was the plan anyway, but that carefully laid plan for our last day would change drastically when, while enjoying the vistas through my binoculars, I spotted a peculiar white pole with black stripes and numbers at the top protruding from the mud of the bay on the far side of a small, thin copse of mangrove trees.

A well-earned dinner
Tired, but still smiling

Canoeing the Everglades (part four) Joe River to North River.

This is part four of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here:

On morning three, we were once again up before the dawn. A thin, waxing crescent moon was rising in the east with Venus trailing in its wake, both illuminated by the yet unseen sun and shining brightly against the backdrop of the morning stars that I rarely see. We’d both slept poorly, the hard wooden planks of the Everglades chickees rendering the thin single air pads that were so highly rated by backpackers utterly useless. Despite our lack of sleep, the brisk air of the Florida morning and the pot of coffee boiled on our propane stove cleared out the cobwebs, and we got an early start to the morning’s journey.

The moon and Venus
Heading off at daybreak

By 7:30am which was just after daybreak, we were on the water, pulling hard against the still, calm bay, a deep vee from the bow of our canoe creating the only disturbance on the water’s surface. We turned right onto the Joe River and followed it upstream, turning right again and heading due east through a (relatively) narrow channel that eventually spilled out into the vast and daunting Whitewater Bay. Setting a landmark of a mangrove island far away on the horizon, I told Tracy to row for the north side of it. Of course, as soon as we entered the bay itself, the wind kicked up, once more directly in our faces, and the tide started to pour in, creating a current from left to right that we had to angle into and pull against. I have no idea how we had managed to have both the wind and the tide going against us on every day of this trip thus far, but here we were again, battling both. The wide-open bay and the unblocked wind meant that we had waves…large enough waves that they were breaking on themselves, and it was hard to even tell if we were making any progress. Eventually, our landmark inched closer and loomed larger, and before too long we had pulled into the leeward side, happy to have a break from the wind.

Resting on a convenient mangrove tree.

After our break, we paddled hard across wide-open rough water, headed for a large group of mangrove islands that marked the halfway point of our journey across Whitewater Bay. When we finally reached them, more than an hour later, we took some time on the calm and smooth leeward side to watch about five dolphins chasing fish. I mentioned in the first blog that our drinking water supply hadn’t been the clean, crisp water a thirsty traveler might have hoped for, but rather a yellowish-brown sickly color that was not appealing in any way. The water tasted as bad as it looked, and we were saved by Tracy who had brought along a couple of small packets of powdered lemonade. Just adding a dash of the powder to a large bottle prior to pouring water from the bags eliminated the terrible taste and made it easy to convince ourselves that the yellow color was from the lemonade rather than some kind of contaminate. Either way, the heavy exertion and warm air had us drinking copious amounts of it and neither of us became ill, so I guess it was all good in the end.

Water bottles full and arms as rested as they were going to get, we pulled out of our leeward oasis and back into the tempest as it were. The tide had ceased creating a current for us to battle, but the wind, as if it were not ambivalent to our trials but rather a malevolent force set against us, had increased to compensate. Having come halfway across the gargantuan bay, we were refreshed by the idea of an impending finish line, and we pulled with renewed fervor for the now visible shoreline. The storm that was building on the horizon helped to incentive our extra energy expenditure.

An hour later we found ourselves in shallower water, protected once more from the most extreme facets of the wind by a steady wall of mangrove islands. The shallow water stymied the waves, and we rested once more, gathering our strength and our wills for the last several miles of paddling we still had to do. The section of the Wilderness Waterway we were now seeing was a thick maze of channels, rivers, islands of mangrove trees, and backwater bays large and small. Keeping one eye on the map and scouring the shoreline for identifiable landmarks, I navigated us through the tricky turns and twists of the cluttered landscape and we turned up what I hoped was the tributary of the North River where the map showed the chickee to be located. The unnamed tributary was narrow but slow moving, and despite the current moving against us, (of course) we pulled our way along it with ease. As the storm built behind us, we approached the end of the long day of paddling.

Happy to be out of the wind and waves, but annoyed that she was taking pictures instead of paddling away from the storm.

There was a moment of concern when the North River chickee did not appear where the map showed it to be, but we eventually located it just a few hundred yards away. Breathing a sigh of relief, our canoe bumped against the planks of the chickee at 4:30pm, a total journey of nine-hours, our longest paddle of the trip. Exhausted once more, we sprawled out on the wooden planks of the chickee and both fell promptly asleep.

Our day three paddle, 18.5 miles across Whitewater Bay and up to the North River chickee.
Navigating the narrow and identical-appearing canals and marshes of this mangrove area can get a little tricky.

Awakened a half-hour later by the rumble of thunder, we noticed the storm brewing on the horizon had reached us. Hurriedly, we strung our tarp across the posts of the platform as a windbreak and then piled our gear on the protected side of it. The North River chickee is a single platform, so we knew that we’d have no company for this night, which meant that we would be somewhat cramped once we’d pitched our rather large tent, so we held off on that until it was time to go to bed. Dinner was once again the just-add-water meals from REI which we’d found to be both delicious and filling. We’d splurged with space by bringing a box of red wine in our gear, and we both enjoyed our well-earned dinner and wine as rain began to fall, pattering against our tarp by the wind. We were glad to be ensconced in our shelter as we celebrated another tough but thoroughly enjoyable day. As darkness fell and the mosquitos began to swarm, we slapped up the tent and scurried inside with our lanterns, enjoying a pleasant evening protected from the rain and thunder that pounded the Everglades on the other side of the fabric.

Protected from the wind and rain.
The North River Chickee is a single, hidden on the north side of a mangrove island in the middle of the river.

Canoeing the Everglades (part three) South Joe River to Joe River.

This is part three of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here:

The guttural, echoing trumpet of air woke me from a troubled, freezing, uncomfortable sleep. I opened my eyes to darkness and shivered in the frigid air. I’d neglected to bring a sweatshirt or a wool hat, thinking that it couldn’t possibly get cold enough to need them. Our sleeping bags were the summer-weight type, and I’d shivered all night trying to stay warm. Beside me, Tracy slept soundly in her sweatshirt, knit cap, and gloves.

The sharp blast of air echoed through the night once again, a swishing of water as a body sliced expertly through the small, shallow bay. A dolphin hunting its breakfast, I realized. I got up and stretched my sore joints and muscles, and then quietly opened the tent, slipping out into the chilly pre-dawn morning. The dolphin continued its hunt in the otherwise still and supreme quiet of the pending sunrise. I sat in one of the chairs and listened, hoping the hunter might come close enough to see. He roamed the bay for ten more minutes, and then, as darkness slipped away and the sky began to slowly lighten, he slid quietly out of the backwater and out through the narrow canal to the deeper waters of the Joe River.

I set up the stove to make coffee and watched as the sun, an orange billiard ball of flame, quietly rose into view, fingerpainting the sky with streaks of gold and burnt amber. The water, now sans dolphin, was completely still, a near perfect mirror of the sky that was incredible to see.

A beautiful sunrise to start our time in the Everglades.

The water on the propane stove came to a boil, and I added coffee to a stainless-steel French press, pouring the water over it and stirring the grounds. A few birds flew over, and a fish jumped, briefly disturbing the perfect mirror with symmetrical rings as I sipped the brew and enjoyed an absolutely exquisite Everglades morning. After about an hour, I stepped into the canoe and untied it, quietly paddling out into the bay to take a few pictures of the South Joe River chickee. Designed for two parties, one on each of the platforms, it’s a tight fit, but with us as the sole occupants, with room to spread out with our tent on one side and our living room on the other, it was more than enough room. The chickees are built out over the water on purpose, providing relief from the mosquitos and no-see-ums that swarm closer to the mangrove shores. We were fully prepared for the insect hordes, but had been thoroughly blessed by an almost complete absence of them the night before and again so far this morning.

South Joe River is a great chickee, far enough from the mangrove forest to keep away the hordes of mosquitos.

Eventually, Tracy woke up and stumbled out of the tent blinking like an owl in the sunlight and looking for coffee.

Finally awake
Me in the bay, the entrance canal in the distance. The Joe River is on the other side of the mangroves behind me.

After a leisurely breakfast, the wind began to pick up and we loaded the canoe and pushed off, heading back through the canal and turning left at the Joe River. Here, the wind was gusting right in our face, and the tide, incoming for the last hour, caused the river to flow noticeably against us. We hunkered into the wind and began to paddle hard. We only had 5.5 miles to go today to reach the Joe River chickee, the destination we’d originally reserved for this night, with our original plan of leaving this morning. Our decision to leave the day before and knock out the bulk of the mileage was sure starting to feel like a good one. The wind and current made conditions so difficult for paddling that it was impossible to take even a quick break. Setting the paddle down for even ten seconds stopped all our forward momentum and pushed us backward. Even when just Tracy took a break and I kept paddling, I could barely keep us moving north. If I took a break, Tracy alone couldn’t even hold us still.

It was misery and agony. It took us four hours of non-stop paddling before the Joe River chickee finally came into sight. Our tired muscles groaned as we pulled the final half mile and turned right into an inlet, finally finding a lee from the wind. We stopped and rested our paddles on the sides of the canoe, breathing hard and stretching our sore backs, relieved to finally be done with what had been a torturous four hours of constant and strenuous exertion. We tied up to the chickee, unloaded a few things, and then collapse with exhaustion.

This is what exhaustion looks like.

Eventually we recovered and discussed setting up our camp. I had booked the Oyster Bay chickee as a backup in case we wanted to do more than 5.5 miles today, but we both agreed that paddling another 5 miles was not in the cards. It was officially settled when we saw another canoe approaching our chickee, our first sighting of another human since dusk the day before. Bill, a solo traveler stopped to use the porta-potty and told us he was heading up to Oyster Bay for the night. He’d crossed Whitewater Bay from the North River chickee, which was our destination tomorrow. With him headed to Oyster Bay and us not wanting to share our solitude with anyone, the decision was made. We saw Bill off and then set up camp.

The Joe River Chickee…adequate but not much more than that.

In the early afternoon, I talked Tracy into taking an excursion behind the chickee where a canoe trail led back into a swamp that appeared to open up into some small lakes. The mangroves were dense and the path was difficult in our large canoe. After about a quarter mile of bumping, ducking, and spider webs in Tracy’s face as we futilely looked for alligators or other wildlife, we gave up and backed our way out of there, returning to the chickee. We spent the rest of the evening just relaxing and watching a pod of dolphins fishing and breaching right where the Joe River and the small inlet we were camping on met. Toward dusk, a few mosquitos showed up, our proximity to land allowing them to sense us. We covered up with our head nets and sprayed ourselves down with Deet, and that was enough to keep them at bay. That night was another uncomfortable one where we both suffered on our thin, almost useless blow-up mats, and I stove off freezing by putting on all my clothes and stealing Tracy’s wool hat.

The next day we would be venturing across the vast Whitewater Bay, an endeavor about which we were both very apprehensive.

Before we knew the hellish paddle we were about to endure.
Our day two paddle up the Joe River.

Canoeing the Everglades (part two) Flamingo to South Joe River.

This is part two of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one, you can find it here:

“Would you like to purchase a SunPass for use on the toll roads?” the callously disinterested rental car clerk had asked the previous day when I’d picked up our car at Fort Lauderdale International.

“How much is that?”

“Eight dollars a day plus the cost of the tolls,” she droned.

Pffft. The car would be sitting in a parking lot for at least four days. Why would I pay for that when I could just avoid the toll roads or pay cash at a booth?

“No thanks,” I said, smugly sure that I’d avoided a rental car tourist trap. The rental agent one-eyed me with a knowing smirk.

“Okay. If you do use any toll road then, it will automatically bill your account along with an added convenience fee.”

“Fine,” I replied, not bothering to ask what the “convenience fee” would be.

I’ve spent a good amount of time in south Florida, but what I’d forgotten is that it is nearly impossible to drive around the Miami-Dade area without wandering intentionally or accidentally onto a toll road. And, the vast majority of these toll plazas that guard the coveted expressways are unmanned. Once you make that fateful turn onto the ramp, there’s no turning back. You’re going to pass through an automatic toll booth, and in a rental car without a SunPass, you’re screwed. And this is what happened on the way out to Homestead the next morning.

After sleeping in and then enjoying a casual late-morning breakfast at an outdoor café in the beautifully warm breeze of a perfect Miami Beach December morning, Tracy and I checked out of our hotel and hit the road for the town of Homestead, our staging point for the journey. Avoiding toll roads adds about an extra thirty minutes to the drive, which is an annoyance, but we were in no rush. Unfortunately, I made one wrong turn and we found ourselves whizzing through the toll plaza of a pay-for-play highway with the rest of the drivers who seemed not at all perturbed by the situation.

“Hmmm. I wonder how much that’s going to cost?” I mused to Tracy who just shook her head as the cameras winked and captured our license plates. This wouldn’t be the only time on the trip that we would zip through a toll plaza, and I wouldn’t find out the cost for several weeks. I’ll just say this…if you’re going to be driving around the south Florida area, get a SunPass. The rental company “convenience fee” may be convenient, but it sure ain’t cheap.

The small city of Homestead sits just outside the entrance to Everglades National Park, and we had a hotel reservation there, planning to gather a few last-minute items before getting a good night’s sleep and an early start the next morning. That was the initial plan.

“Hey, why don’t we get the last few things we need here, and then drive out to the Flamingo Visitor Center and see if we can just start our trip today instead of tomorrow?” I said to Tracy. Somehow, I managed to convince her that this would be a great idea, despite a small part of me that wanted her to talk me out of this lunacy. We stopped at Walmart to grab two folding camp chairs, swung into a Subway for some lunch to go, and drove an hour south to the Flamingo Visitor Center at the southernmost tip of mainland Florida. Knowing that if we were to get started on this journey at such a late hour—already approaching 3:00pm—an 18-plus mile paddle to the Joe River chickee would be a monumental undertaking, we swung in to the ranger station next to the marina and inquired about an opening for the night at South Joe River chickee, another of the wooden platforms that was only about 12 miles away.

The nice thing about Covid was that the vast majority of the Everglades was wide open, including the South Joe River chickee, and we booked it for the night and then scurried over to the marina to see if we could pick up our reserved canoe a day early. The dockmaster looked at us like we were idiots when we told him our plan, then flat-out told us that it was a bad idea, then warned us that the wind was getting bad and it would be in our faces, then told us that the open water ahead would be much worse than the protected and screened canal of the marina—“There’s a reason it’s called ‘Whitewater Bay,’” he said, with an ominous tone, then tried to give us alternative options, then finally relented and slid a two-person canoe into the water for us with a look on his face as if he was calculating his potential liability. When we unloaded the car and piled our gear onto the dock, he took one look at it and then upgraded us to a three-person canoe, something we were very thankful for later. I tipped him well, then found a water spigot to fill our four 2.5-gallon collapsible water bags. The water came out a sickly yellowish-brown color, but I was assured that it would be fine to drink by the “potable” sign next to the spigot. What could go wrong?

Our load of gear, including ten gallons of yellow-tinged drinking water.

Loading the canoe to the oar-wells, we slid into the Buttonwood Canal at 3:40pm and pushed off for the first stage of the journey, the three-mile paddle up the canal to Coot Bay.

The first stage of our journey, up the calm Buttonwood Canal and into the surprisingly large Coot Bay. The narrow canal at the north end of Coot Bay was our self-imposed point of no return.

The breeze, though in our face, was manageable and actually quite enjoyable. We got quickly into a rhythm with the paddling, Tracy in the front of the boat and me in the back, her switching from right side to left at her whim, and me switching as necessary to counter her strokes and keep us moving straight ahead. We passed numerous day-paddlers coming in from the bay with smiles and sunburns, saw turtles, numerous birds, and one baby alligator resting on a log as we paddled out. Along the way, we marked a few key spots on the shoreline where we could return to pitch a tent and camp should the bay be as rough as the dockmaster had feared.

We both felt good when we rounded the final bend of the canal and entered Coot Bay, a small bay on the map but a surprisingly large body of water in real life. I was actually a bit dismayed at the real-life size of the bay…if this tiny, almost insignificant bay on the map was this large in person, Whitewater Bay—which we had to cross several times in the next few days—was going to look like an ocean. Nevertheless, with the wind quite a bit stronger here, we hunched our backs, dug the paddles into the water, and propelled our way across it, making for the far end where we would need to find the small canal that connects Coot Bay with its granddaddy, Whitewater Bay. Our heading was true, and the canal opened up, once more providing a windbreak for us. This was what I figured to be the point of no return, where if we pushed on we would be committed to making it all the way to South Joe regardless of the conditions on Whitewater Bay. Tracy agreed that we should continue, and we hurriedly paddled through the short connector with its sharp turns and overhanging mangroves, ever alert for wildlife as the sun marched its way to the horizon.

We entered Whitewater Bay as dusk neared. The bay was every bit as massive as I’d feared after seeing the size of Coot Bay, and we took a moment to marvel at the flat vistas of open water dotted with mangrove islands. There were very few people anywhere in sight, just a couple of faint dots toward the horizon, speedboats too far away even to hear their motors making their way across the bay or getting in some late-day fishing. I took a compass heading and pulled out flashlights and headlamps. Darkness was approaching and we were now certain to be paddling well after sundown. Tracy became somewhat apprehensive about our position, and we stopped for a moment to discuss the situation. At my urging, she let go of her fears and put her trust in me, something I wasn’t too sure was earned. Luckily, as the sun dipped lower, the wind suddenly ceased and the bay grew calm. We took a short rest, letting our canoe drift with the mild current, and then we dug in again, making our way up the vast Joe River.

The Joe River appears on this map to be small and manageable. It’s actually over a mile wide at the mouth, and in the darkness, the shores are indistinguishable from the water.

Darkness descended on us and the stars popped out, lighting up the sky in a brilliant show that was headlined by Jupiter and Saturn. As it grew full dark, we continued to paddle, the deep vee cut by the bow of our boat on the still water of the flat bay the only sign of our passage, the shores of the river too far off to mark our progress. Those shores faded out of sight with the passing of the last light, and I kept us straight by keeping Jupiter and Saturn at our 11:00 position, as well as occasionally turning to mark the bubble of light pollution from the far-away lights of Miami directly at our back.

As we grew more and more comfortable with the idea of paddling into the inky blackness of the Everglades, far from any other people, an island of human life in the midst of a vast area of wilderness and wild animals, we both relaxed, speaking softly and enjoying the solitude and the calmness of the isolation in which we found ourselves immersed. Several meteors streaked overhead, and the silence of the night was broken only by the sounds of our paddles digging into the water and the occasional fish jumping at an insect.

After about an hour, the river narrowed and turned north, and I marked our position on the map as we pulled for the western shore, prepared to search for the canal that led to the small, unnamed bay where the South Joe River chickee would be located. As our headlamps splayed over the mangroves, the river narrowed further, much more than I thought it should based on the map. We pushed on and discovered we’d paddled into a dead-end bay. Slightly unnerved, I scoured the map, searching for answers and trying to figure out our exact location. Tracy asked me where to go next, and I calmly told her to take a quick break as chills of dismay arched down my back and I realized I had no idea where we were.

There’s something deeply unsettling about being lost at night in the Everglades, but I told myself that the worst-case scenario would be that we’d have to find a way to spend the long winter night in the cramped canoe. We weren’t going to die, and we weren’t going to sink in the perfectly calm and smooth water, so I forced myself to relax and think through the problem. As my eyes searched for where we’d gone wrong, I realized what the problem was. I’d been looking for the river to make a turn to the north, and so when the opening appeared on the north bank, I assumed that was the actual turn, instead of the small bay that was clearly marked on the map. The scale of the map had fooled me again, the darkness and identicality of the shoreline of nothing but never-ending mangroves tricking me into thinking we’d reached our turn when we hadn’t. We paddled back out of the bay, staying close to the inhospitable shoreline in order to avoid being tricked again.

Inlet that, in the darkness, I mistook for the river turning north. It would take a good deal of time and paddling as my fear grew before I realized my mistake.

I soon realized that this map, as high-quality as it was, was going to be a problem for detailed navigation. Large inlets and bays in real-life appeared as nothing more than a squiggle on the map, and every one had to be explored before we could be confident we were not missing the turn of the Joe River to the north. A light mist began to rise eerily out of the mangrove forests, spreading across the calm water like groping fingers, diffusing the light from our headlamps, chilling the air, and giving a spooky, ethereal feel to the night that caused us both to shiver. This was beginning to feel like a scene in a horror movie where the audience wonders how the protagonists could have possibly ended up in such a terrible situation.

Eventually, we paddled all the way across the river, keeping the left shore close to us like lost children in a blind maze, who keep their left hands on the wall to find their way out. As it became quite clear that we had finally made the correct turn to the north, I began to breathe easier, and when the canal leading to the South Joe chickee bay eventually opened up out of the mist to our left, my heart began to settle down slightly. We navigated through the turns of the tight, stygian canal with the ghostly mangroves scratching the walls of our canoe. Finally, the small bay opened up before us and the mist cleared suddenly, as if obeying a heavenly command. Pointing the bow of the canoe to where I thought the chickee should be, I told Tracy to focus her flashlight across the small inlet to the far shore. As the beam of light hit the other side of the inlet, a reflective sign bounced the light back to us and we both breathed a sigh of relief at the first sign of civilization we’d seen in hours. We’d found the South Joe River chickee.

We pulled up to the empty chickee at just before 8:00pm. We’d only paddled for less than 4.5 hours, but we were relieved to be done. Tying up to the chickee, we quickly unloaded the canoe, set up our tent, and cooked dinner. We’d covered 13.5 miles, several of which had been hard miles hampered by wind, waves, and the incoming tide. We’d earned a hearty dinner and a good night’s sleep. We sat in our chairs enjoying the perfect stillness, the bright stars, and the calm, temperate evening before eventually climbing into the tent and falling fast asleep.

Canoeing the Everglades (part one)

Fifteen years ago, I spent four days solo kayaking the Everglades on the northwest portion of the Wilderness Waterway, and since that trip, I’ve often felt the siren-call of that vast river of grass beckoning me to return. In December, 2020, while the global Covid-19 pandemic raged, the empty and lonely wilderness of mangroves and prehistoric beasts seemed like a great place to escape the troubled world at large.

My experience during the solo kayak trip from a decade-and-a-half earlier had been amazing, but I really wanted to share this country with someone else, and luckily, I was able to cajole Tracy into coming with me. We spent a good amount of time planning the trip in the months prior to our departure. I’m not a planner by nature, preferring with nearly every trip to just get out there and wing things, dealing with changing circumstances by being adaptable and flexible, but the Everglades is not a place where you want to allow chance or misfortune a handhold. We would be taking a canoe for this journey and exploring the southeastern portion of the Wilderness Waterway, a one-hundred-mile path that skirts through the tidal rivers, lakes, and marshes of the southern coast of Florida. Mangrove forests permeate the land, their vast root systems choking every square inch of solid ground, making unscheduled stops along the way difficult to impossible. Camping is done on chickees—wooden platforms constructed on pilings over the water, usually in small bays or backwaters. Reservations are required, and each chickee can take only one or two small parties of travelers. There are no sources of fresh water in this portion of the Everglades backcountry, the tidal nature of the low-lying swamp making every bit of the vast wetlands brackish. With few unique or distinguishing characteristics of the land and terrain everything looks the same and it’s easy to get lost and difficult to describe your location to any would-be rescuer…if you can even find a cell signal to call for help. Other travelers, particularly during a pandemic when people tend to avoid leaving their homes, would be few and far between, another source of possible assistance that would be non-existent. With all of these factors, careful planning of this trip was imperative.

In the weeks prior to our departure, we ordered a ton of gear that would be necessary for a successful and stress-free trip. I got a large, foldable, waterproof map of the area, several compasses, an astrolabe, and a sextant for navigation. Okay, maybe not the last two, but the waterproof map I ordered would prove to be invaluable for navigating the difficult turns and small, hidden passages along our route. We bought a free-standing tent, a required item for the chickees where tie downs are unavailable. LED lanterns, flashlights, a propane stove, packaged just-add-water meals from REI, waterproof gear bags, collapsible water containers, hats, gloves, ponchos, mosquito nets, sleeping bags and pads for the hard wooden planks of the chickees we’d be sleeping on, first-aid kits, lighters, waterproof matches, chargers, stackable pots and pans, eating utensils, a French press, and numerous other items for safety and comfort all had to be ordered or acquired. By the time we were finished gathering and packing all the gear, it looked like we could have outfitted Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to find the missing Doctor Livingstone in the dark heart of Africa, but knowing we’d be well-prepared for anything that might go wrong was helpful to Tracy’s continued enthusiasm for this excursion.

Setting up and testing some of the equipment

On December 8th, I packed all our gear into a plastic bin and a large suitcase and flew from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale where I rented a car and then met Tracy’s flight in from Las Vegas. We drove down to South Beach where my perpetually single and devastatingly rakish buddy, Will Riedlinger had just recently moved. The three of us had a fantastic dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab, followed by drinks at a nearby hole-in-the-wall bar that just happened to have a small amount of fifteen-year Pappy Van Winkle gathering dust on the top shelf. Pappy makes Rick happy, so Will and I polished off the remainder of the bottle which garnered us the attention of the bar owner who generously gave us the last half-shot of the precious liquid gold for free. Feeling warmed and full, Tracy and I said goodnight to Will and walked back to our room at the Kimpton Hotel.

Our plan for the next day was to sleep in and then make the long drive out to Homestead where we would gather our last few necessities and spend another night, getting up early the following day to get started on our first day of paddling, an ambitious seventeen miles from the Flamingo Visitor Center up to the Joe River Chickee. Of course, even a well-planned trip doesn’t always work out the way you expect, and our trip would end up taking a much different turn that next day.

Covid can’t get through a Pappy barrier
Fueling up before the big trip