International Travel in a Covid World (part two)

The first sign that something was amiss was when we pulled into the train station at the border crossing between Denmark and Germany. Danish soldiers dressed in urban camouflage and wearing snappy berets took positions on the platform at each of the doors and stopped travelers from either entering or exiting the train, their faces set in firm expressions of totalitarian authority. Other officers dressed in traditional police garb boarded the train, their faces serious and attentive, their hands staying close to their sidearms as they went seat-to-seat demanding papers, perusing the passports handed over by the wary passengers.

Wait. Firm expressions? Serious faces?

Yes, that’s right. I could see their faces. Those facial features were on full display. Because none of them, neither the soldiers guarding the doors, nor the police officers passing through the train were wearing masks. NO MASKS!

Viva la liberation de masks!

I waited until the officers had made their passport checks and left the train, and then asked an embarking passenger. “No mask requirements in Denmark?” “No,” he replied with a smile, his teeth flashing brilliantly in a display I’d missed over the last week. “No masks required on public transport, or anywhere really.”

What a magnificent sentence to hear.

Tracy and I stripped off our masks and wadded them into a ball, tossing them in the trash. We were free at last. Free of the scourge of idiocy that insisted mask wearing was useful in any way, shape, or form. Free of the performative regulation of clownish government leaders. Finally in a country that believed in science and followed logic in its laws and regulation. The passengers on this train ride were to be the last of the mask wearers that we would see for the next six days. All through our time in Copenhagen we saw next to zero masks. Everywhere we went we were greeted by smiling faces. Smiles. It’s hard to overstate how sucky it is to miss seeing smiles from people.

Far fewer than one in a hundred Danish citizens and visitors wear masks in public. Sure, you still see the occasional mask on someone in the hotel lobby, or in the subway station, or even walking down the street. But it is an anomaly. A curiosity really, something that draws your attention for the simple fact that it’s out of place, and the fact that it’s out of place and unusual is what makes it so divine. And that rare mask is in Copenhagen, the capitol city. I’m sure in smaller communities the number of masks is actually zero. After a couple of days, it actually becomes easy to forget that Covid is even a thing that the rest of the world is suffering. Everything in Copenhagen is just wide open, and the city is thriving.

This undoubtedly has to do with their vaccination status. A very strong 74.1% of the population is fully vaccinated, a number that puts them well into herd immunity status. As we were there, they were reporting only 7600 cases in the entire country, and only 30 people in serious condition in the hospital. The seven-day rolling average number of deaths was somewhere between one and two.

Between one and two deaths per day due to Covid. In the entire country of Denmark. Blissful.

There was some real concern that we wouldn’t be able to go to Sweden. Shortly before we arrived in Copenhagen, the Swedish government announced they were closing the country to all travelers from America. I was reasonably sure that though we were American, we were not considered “travelers from America” as we were certainly travelers from Denmark or possibly travelers from Germany by this point. There was nothing to fear though, as the announcement only applied to travelers arriving into Sweden by air. Our train from Copenhagen to Stockholm stopped for a brief moment at the border, and then continued on with nary an officer in sight checking documents or vaccination cards. Lovely.

We arrived in Stockholm and were once more welcomed by a country with no restrictions regarding masks, or vaccinations, or quarantines. Other than the air travel restrictions against Americans, which seems to be some sort of political gamesmanship as opposed to a serious health-related decision, Sweden was wide-open and welcoming. Sweden has a vaccination rate of 60%, far less than their neighbors to the southwest, but apparently still high enough that they aren’t worried about infections. They currently have 28,900 cases, of which 58 are serious enough to require hospitalization. Despite the higher numbers, their seven-day moving average number of deaths is just as low as Denmark, somewhere around two deaths per day. Again, a lovely number that allows the Swedish people to almost completely ignore the pandemic that is ravaging other parts of the world, the United States in particular.

With no restrictions on travel besides the ban on U.S. air travelers, there’s not much to talk about with regard to things to consider when traveling to the Nordic countries. There just isn’t anything to consider. It’s wide open.

Eventually, it was time to go, and we flew from Stockholm back to Berlin. There was a mask requirement at the airport in Stockholm, however, most travelers were completely ignoring the mandate, and nobody was enforcing it. When we boarded the plane, the flight attendants did request that everyone wear a mask, and they were handing them out to passengers who didn’t have one, a surprisingly high number of them.

For this flight to Berlin, we once again had to meet the entry requirements of Germany, which simply meant showing our proof of vaccination to the agent at the check-in counter. There was no border control, no official exit from Sweden, and no official entry into Germany upon landing at Berlin Brandenburg airport. We were, however, back in the land of masks, and our irritation at them had grown in the week of freedom we’d experienced.

The next day we were flying home, which meant another trip on British Airways through London, and all of the hassle of the UK’s travel restrictions, including proof of vaccination, a negative test, and the filling out of the Passenger Locator Form. We got Covid tested on our last day in Stockholm just to make sure we would have a negative result back in plenty of time for the flight to London, though we needn’t have worried. Our negative results were in our emails within an hour of testing, along with a signed travel certificate stating that we were safe to fly. Their program for providing these certificates was very easy and very smooth. It actually turned out that we didn’t even need to have gone through the very minor hassle of testing in Stockholm. At the Berlin airport, Covid testing was being conducted right in the check-in area, with results in fifteen minutes, a clear and simple path to the required testing for London.

The United States also requires a negative test for all returning travelers by air, so even if we hadn’t been transiting London on our return, we would still have needed the negative test to board any flight headed to the United States. Just prior to boarding our flight from Berlin, we also had to complete a U.S. declaration that stated that we “attest” that we’ve either had a negative Covid test within the preceding three calendar days, or that we’ve recovered from Covid after testing positive within the preceding three months, and that we have documentation to the above. The boarding agent in Berlin collected these attestations from us, so I have no idea of what use they are, or what happens to them. When we landed back in the United States, we both used Global Entry, which simply scans our faces and sends us through. No questions about anything, Covid related or otherwise.

I do so attest, random nonsense government paper creator person.

Covid has undoubtedly made travel tricky, but with a little effort, a lot of research, and a ton of patience, the regulations can be worked out and it is possible to once again enjoy a European vacation.

Now, where did I park my bike?

International Travel in a Covid World (part one)

That vagaries of international travel in a Covid world creates quite a few opportunities for either upside or downside. The upside is that fewer people are traveling, and with fewer travelers come the perks of lighter crowds, better seats, cheaper hotel rooms, and a more pleasant experience in every attraction, museum, restaurant, or historical site. The downside is that the stress and effort of travel has become much more arduous, the planning much more daunting. The real fear that you’ll be turned away at the airport before you even board your flight because your travel documents are not in order, or you’re missing some key piece of required paperwork adds an element of stress to a vacation that hasn’t really existed since the time of the Iron Curtain. Restrictions and requirements are changing constantly, and much of the literature and regulations are confusing and poorly written, very hard to understand and interpret.

For travelers from the United States, things are even more daunting. We aren’t exactly the role-model for the world when it comes to vaccination status, and coronavirus cases here are on the rise as the Delta variant flames its way through our population. This has caused the U.S. to be added to precisely zero “green lists” for international travel, and quite a few “red lists.” Luckily, most countries have U.S. travelers on a “yellow” or “amber list” currently, and the restrictions, while numerous, are manageable with a bit of time, effort, and patience in your planning.

Our trip involved flying to Berlin, Germany, on British Air, with a very quick layover in London. After a few days in Berlin, we would be taking a train to Copenhagen, Denmark, and staying there for a few days, before taking another train to Stockholm, Sweden and staying there a few days. We would then fly back to Berlin for a day or two, and then return to the United States with another layover in London. Save for the roundtrip flights in and out of Berlin, none of this was pre-booked and all subject to change based on our enjoyment of the various cities and the ever-changing regulations around Covid that could cause us to have to cancel or adjust certain legs. Luckily, this is how I prefer to travel anyway, so the uncertain nature of our trip was one I am well-accustomed to and enjoy immensely.

Because our entry-point to Europe was Berlin, I carefully navigated the often-confusing requirements for travel to Germany from the United States, and discovered, much to my delight, that we wouldn’t need a negative Covid test to enter Germany. The requirements for entry were:

1. Full vaccination for at least 14 days, or

2. A negative PCR or Antigen test taken within 72 and 48 hours respectively prior to arrival, or

3. Proof from a doctor of recovery from Covid within the preceding six months.

The “or” on these requirements was a welcome word, and since Tracy and I were both fully vaccinated, we didn’t need to do anything more than remember to bring our vaccination cards to the airport.

Or, so I thought.

It wasn’t until just a few days before our travel that I had a sudden thought that perhaps I should confirm that even though we were only stopping over in London, not leaving the airport or even clearing customs, which meant no official entry into the country, I should probably check to make sure there weren’t any odd rules to be aware of. It was a good thing I checked.

The rules for actually entering Great Britain are arduous and involve things like prescheduling Covid tests on day 2 and again on day 8, quarantines for many travelers, and other nonsense. It turned out, as I dug deeper, that even though we were only laying over, the Brits are quite protective of even their unofficial air, and we would be required to get a Covid test before we would be allowed access to the hallowed aisles of the British Airways 787-10.

The requirements for the specific nature of the test involved immersion rates and accuracy rates and a bunch of other numbers and percentages that nothing in the literature of the various testing sites allows you to confirm. I finally ended up just booking a rapid antigen test because it was the only one where the results would be available within 48 hours. All the testing sites around me were reporting results times of 72 hours or longer, and that wouldn’t work for the flight requirements, so I lied and said I was suffering Covid symptoms just so I could get a rapid test that I wasn’t even sure met the requirements for entry into a country that I wasn’t even officially entering. In addition to the proof of vaccination and negative Covid test, Britain also requires all travelers—even those just passing through—to complete a Passenger Locator Form. This form compiles every bit of information about you, your travel plans—right down to your seat number on all flights—your vaccination and test status, home address, telephone number, passport information, and shoe size.

What a complete pain in the ass.

Anyway, the results of my rapid Covid test came back in about fifteen minutes and were negative, and, shockingly, somehow when I got to the airport, the agent at the ticket counter wasn’t trained to know the difference between an antigen test with soluble rates of 98.7% at a diffusion of 300 grams per milliliter, a PCR test with sensitivity of 91.4% and specificity of 99.6%, and a picture of a cozy rabbit burrow stuffed with cute baby bunnies. It turned out that all she really cared about was the large, bold NEGATIVE stamped halfway down the results page, the vaccination dates on our cards, and that our U.S. passports were valid.

Whew.

On the flight, despite the fact that literally every person is fully vaccinated AND has tested negative within the previous couple of days, masks are still required, which, when you think about it even a little bit, is completely ludicrous. That little self-contained tube in the sky was probably the safest, most Covid-free piece of real estate in the entire world, and yet masks were required to be worn the entire flight. Luckily, we were flying in business class, which has private little cabins where you can’t even see another passenger, and so most of the flight attendants were quite lenient when it came to enforcing the mask mandate. I actually took mine off completely when I laid out my bed and went to sleep for a few hours, and nobody woke me to demand I put a completely useless piece of cloth over my mouth. When we arrived in Berlin, the customs agents wanted to see our passports and our vaccination cards, and that was it, a very simple entry into Germany, and our vacation was underway.

Germany does have some quite strict Covid protocols in place. It’s not just that masks are required everywhere indoors, but they specifically are required to be “medical masks,” which most people in Germany take to mean N95s. Nobody is wearing a bandanna, or a gator, or a scarf over their face like I see all over the U.S. The citizenry are religious maskers in Germany, and every person wears a medical mask, with at least 50% of them of the N95 variety. I rarely saw anybody (other than myself) openly flouting the law and not wearing their masks, and they do apparently levy fines of 50 Euros or more if you are caught willfully violating the mask mandate. It was quite clear that the Germans have received their marching orders from their leaders, and they have fallen in line to snap their heels together, salute, and obey. Hmmm.

I should say here, if my opinion isn’t already clear, mask mandates are stupid. They are performative in nature, designed to make people feel like they’re making a difference and taking steps to be safe while ignoring the science that says that masks, especially the non-N95 variety, are almost entirely useless. In particular, in areas where everybody is required to be vaccinated and test negative, as on the flights, requiring masks in addition to those rules is nothing more than willful disdain for common sense. That being said, N95 masks likely do actually provide some small amount of protection and help to stop the spread of Covid, and if you were going to require a mask mandate in your country the percentage of people wearing the N95 variety is at least encouraging even if it is still ridiculous.

Not only does Germany require and mandate mask wearing indoors, they also require proof of vaccination or a negative test everywhere. I mean everywhere. The hotel requires it at check-in. Many restaurants require it when you go to dinner. Museums, attractions, and tours, all require you to show proof that you are vaccinated or don’t currently have Covid. It’s absolutely nuts to have to show that proof to your maître d’, and then have him also demand you pull your mask up over your nose before he shows you to your table. It’s utter lunacy.

Luckily, all of this idiocy was going to soon come to an end as we boarded a high-speed train for Copenhagen, Denmark, and the start of the Nordic leg of our journey.

A Scourge of Scooters

They litter the sidewalks, trails, lawns, and streets like fallen soldiers after a horrendous battle. Graveyards of dark green, and lime green, and some shade of green in between. Purple, orange, silver, and pink, each color vibrantly bright, designed to draw the eye. They’re haphazardly discarded, uncaringly dropped wherever was convenient, their riders long gone, never to be seen again. They’ve been used and abused, ridden hard and fast, then dropped in random spots awaiting the next rider, or the agent of the rental company who will allegedly come by to collect them at some point.

The electric scooters of Berlin, Germany are a blemish on the very soul of this vibrant, clean, and happy city. The rental companies are many, all striving for a piece of the rental scooter market, and the winners of their consumer battles are evident in the quantity of the dead soldiers they’ve left neglected. Many of the scooters are unrideable, batteries dead or parts broken, and they sit forgotten all over the city. One would assume that the rental companies would come by every night to gather their apparatuses, charge them, repair them, and then deposit them in the spots where they’re most likely to be rented, but this doesn’t seem to happen, at least not often enough. Scooters that were dead one day are often in the same place the next day, still dead and unrentable.

The scooter companies are responsible for only a small slice of this rather large blame-pie, though. The renters of these scooters themselves are awful, often leaving their rental rides in the most obscene places, blocking sidewalks and even streets, leaning them against light poles instead of using their built-in stands so that a wind, or a brush from a passerby, or gravity itself knocks them to the ground. They take the scooters into the forbidden zones and drop them in the middle of squares, on steps, or on the grass of parks. I can’t help but feel these soulless miscreants who leave these scooters in such selfish fashion are the same people who smoke cigarettes in public places and drop their butts on the street. Egoistic, feral reprobates who are a stain on society. The riders also apparently think they’re invincible and operating in the confines of a controlled racetrack. They often ignore the bike lanes where the scooters are supposed to operate, and instead speed down sidewalks, zig-zagging around pedestrians, or zipping across streets forcing motorists to swerve or brake. It’s barely-controlled chaos, and the security of being a pedestrian on what should be a safe sidewalk is nullified by the multitude of near-misses that happen regularly.

The city itself shares some of the blame as well. They haven’t adopted enough rules and laws to force the scooter companies to compel good behavior from their users. As an example, Stockholm also has a large number of rental electric scooters, but they’ve implemented no-ride and no-park zones all over the city, areas where the scooters are GPS forbidden, where the top speed is capped at walking speed, and where you can’t end your ride. The scooter companies in Stockholm—many of the same ones that are in Berlin—make you take a picture of your scooter parked safely and correctly before you can end your ride, and until you do so, the rental fee clock ticks away. Berlin doesn’t require that. Berlin has a few of the zones where you aren’t able to end your ride, but they are too few, and that token effort seems to be the only one they’ve taken to control the lawless circus of the scooter market. Berlin is the wild west of the scooter frontier, and they’ve lost all control of order and allowed the city to descend into scooter chaos.

As bad as the scourge of scooters in Berlin is, I can’t be too mad. The scooters themselves are unquestionably fun and a blast to ride. With the wide array of market competition, prices are low and deals can be found, and the scooters are a very good way of getting around the sprawling city quickly and enjoyably, feeling the wind on your face and the exhilaration of the 20 KPH+ zip down the bike lane or the sidewalk. By implementing a few laws and fines for non-compliance, Berlin could easily clean up the scooter scourge while maintaining what is, without a doubt, the most enjoyable way to travel around the city.

Fürstenberg’s dirty little Secret.

The town sits at the confluence of three perfect little lakes, a charmingly idyllic town of old-world gothic-style huts mixed with more modern but still quaint stucco and tile. The streets are cobblestone, and the citizens amble about without rush, stopping to chat outside small stores, pushing carts laden with bags to their homes on quiet cul-de-sacs devoid of traffic. The church sits in the center of town, its steeple the tallest structure for miles, visible from every part of the surrounding countryside. A green park sits on the shore of the largest of the three lakes that ring the little town, old people sit on benches staring out at the water while small skiffs and sail boats zoom around the lake. Three children play soccer on an improvised pitch, laughing and shrieking as the ball splits the goalposts for a score. Across the lake, in full view of the park and the town sits a tall stone pillar, a statue of a woman atop the pillar holding another in her arms and gazing out over the lake toward the town. Behind the monolith is a towering stone wall, a few crumbling chimney stacks and peaked roofs jutting over the top.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp from a park in the town of Fürstenberg.

The town is called Fürstenberg, and it lies an hour north of Berlin, Germany, an easy train ride across lush green farmlands dotted with wooden hunting blinds, towering windmills spinning in the light breeze, and patches of dense forests, farmhouses and sleepy little hamlets with dirt roads crowded up against the train tracks. Fürstenberg is bucolic and whimsical, a relaxing vacation spot within easy reach of Germany’s bustling capital city. This quiet little town of relaxing frivolity hides a dirty little secret though, and this secret is the reason we’ve come to visit. That towering monolith with the statue of the woman overlooking the lake marks the site of the notorious Ravensbrück Concentration camp, Hitler’s brutal prison for women and children, where as many as 60,000 political prisoners were murdered during the war. For six years, Ravensbrück’s crematoriums belted out smoke and ash as bodies burned and the residents of the quaint little town of Fürstenberg looked on with indifference, ignoring, and in many cases, even enabling the murder and torture taking place across the picturesque little lake.

A Nazi prisoner train unloading at Furstenberg.

We disembark the train from Berlin and stand a moment on the platform, the same platform where the scared victims of the Nazi purges once huddled before being prodded on the march through town. We take the same walk, past shops and houses that weren’t here 80 years ago, but picturing in our minds the way it would have looked then. Residents of the town watching as SS overseers pushed and prodded the women and children being herded toward their doom. It would have seemed surreal to the prisoners, the beauty and tranquility of the charming town luring them into a sense that everything was going to be all right.

The walk is almost two miles, the road becoming a single lane of cobblestones that winds through the deciduous forest of mixed hardwoods, obscured views of the blue lake shimmering through the trees. It would have seemed impossible to the prisoners that doom and death waited for them in such a beautiful location.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp lies just around that corner to the left.

The first houses we see were once the houses where the prison guards—mostly women recruited and trained by the SS—would have lived. They still stand, used now as some sort of retreat where people sit on the balconies and watch us march past.

Former houses of the SS Commandant and guards of Ravensbrück.

We enter the Ravensbrück concentration camp and stand just inside the gate gazing out at the compound. The buildings that once housed the prisoners have mostly been razed, and black pumice stone covers the ground where they once stood. We are nearly alone in the camp, and we walk quietly back toward the few buildings that still stand, an audio guide that Tracy downloaded playing quietly from her phone, telling us what everything used to be when this camp held thousands of women and children prisoner. We walk into one of the buildings and see statues standing in the shadows of the hallway, eerie sentinels of blasted stone that are like something from a horror movie. They stand silently, and no placard tells us what they are for. We never do find out. There are no guides, no employees at all, and only a few other guests wandering in silence around the abandoned camp.

The camp is expansive, once holding tens of thousands of prisoners. The women and children who were interred here were mostly political prisoners, and they were not necessarily marked for death, though toward the end of the war, more than 80 a day were dying through disease, starvation, or execution. The women overseers of the camp, trained by the Nazi SS and recruited from both Fürstenberg and the surrounding area, were evil—brutal and uncaring. Whips rang out regularly for the slightest of infractions, and the gas chamber was always waiting for the death sentences that occasionally came down from the SS command.

And the town of Fürstenberg sat quietly across the lake and ignored it all.

With 80-plus deaths and murders each day, the crematorium was always busy, burning bodies into ash, smoke belching from its twin smoke stacks almost constantly. The smell of burning bodies and the particles that would have carried across the lake on the wind would have left no doubt as to what was happening in this “camp.”

But the town of Fürstenberg sat there quietly and paid no mind to the atrocities.

Two of Ravensbrück’s ovens.

The Ravensbrück Rabbits were a group of nearly 100 women imprisoned in the camp who became the test subjects of Nazi doctors studying various diseases and infections. In Hitler’s Hell for Women, the Rabbits were nothing but laboratory animals as the doctors used their limbs to study and recreate war wounds. They would bring women into their tents, cut open their bodies and intentionally infect those wounds with bacteria, wood chips, and glass, trying to cause gangrene so they could study it. They experimented with removing and damaging nerves, muscles, and bones in an effort to learn how to better operate on Nazi soldiers who were wounded in the war. The Rabbits suffered and died despite the other women in the camp protecting them and starving themselves to give the victims extra food, clothing, and blankets. Women risked their lives to smuggle out messages to the outside world in letters home with extra paragraphs written with urine as an invisible ink. They reported these doctors and their medical experiments in the hope that help would somehow arrive.

But the town of Fürstenberg sat silent, condoning the horror through silence.

The Pietá of Ravensbrück is the name given to the statue of the woman holding another in her arms, standing atop the stele and gazing over the lake toward Fürstenberg. She seems to cry for help from the residents, as the women and children of Ravensbrück once did. The church steeple, clearly visible from the concentration camp, the clanging of it’s bells which would have been audible across the small lake, seems to stare back with indifference to the suffering Pietá. The same indifference the town once showed to the victims of Nazi horrors taking place right next door to them.

Ravensbrück is Fürstenberg, Germany’s dirty little secret, and the shame of that secret casts an indelible shadow over the otherwise idyllic little town.

The Pietá of Ravensbrück stares across the lake at the town of Fürstenberg .

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.

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: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

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: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

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
Goodnight!

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: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

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: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

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: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

“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