The young and the reckless: alligator wrestling in Big Cypress

Big Cypress National Preserve is one of my favorite haunts over the winter. With the water levels up and the mosquito population as low it gets, this is a good time to visit. We’ve been many times and it never gets boring. We decided to do the Loop Road Scenic Drive off of the Tamiami Trail. This is not particularly close.to anything as you are about halfway between Miami and Naples. Scenic drives can be a relative term, so we proceeded with the knowledge we might be wasting our time.

This is a 25 mile dirt and gravel road that in wet weather would be a disaster. It is not easy on the suspensions either. We drove it weighted down with kayaks because we roll like that.  If you complain about the ride in a Lincoln on an interstate, you will freak out on this road so don’t drive. It will take a minimum of 2 hours to drive, so plan accordingly. 

The first few miles are boring. You will begin to despair. Finally, just as the road begins to curve, you will come to a low water bridge with open vistas into the cypress forest. Park your car and get out. Do not be a jack ass and drive by and miss out. The water is absolutely clear and loaded with fish. You will see lots of birds – egrets, ibis, anhinga, herons, etc. You will see lots of alligators.

This is your view:

Image

 

What you can’t see is just how clear the tannin-stained water is. If you peek over the edge of the bridge into the water, you will see alligators hanging out waiting to eat fish. 

While we were admiring this view, a beat up car drove up. Out came three guys with a DSL camera, an old man and a guy wearing a wet suit and a mask. Looking suitably self-important, they announced that they were filming a show they couldn’t talk about, but that they were going to film wet suit guy getting in the water with the alligators. Troy and I shook our heads as these people were clearly not rocket scientists. Then they said to us that we should not call the police or anything (side note: there’s not a phone signal to be had for love or money here, so whatevs) and that they were not going to “molest” the alligators. What he meant by that I think was that he did not plan to have sex with the alligators, because he sure as hell fucked with the alligators. This dumb ass jumped in the water and proceeded to chase a 7′ alligator all over the place, finally grabbing him and lifting him out of the water. It was somewhat hard to believe.

Image

Image

Image

 

Then one of them told him to say something for the camera. So he intoned, in what he felt was a voice of suitable gravitas, “The American Alligator. This animal is not dangerous. As you can see, he just wanted to get away from me.” Yes, as do we all. As do we all. 

I hope someone recognizes him and he gets nailed with the $5000 fine for fucking with wildlife. The days of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when Marlon Perkins would sit in his jeep and make Jim go out and fuck with hyenas with a turkey baster are long over. It’s not really cool to mess with an animal that just wants to hang out and eat some fish. Just take a picture for the love of God. 

 

 

Fisheating Creek in Florida: dragging the yaks

It’s December and the older and more arthritic I am getting, the less jazzed about cold weather I become. A trip to God’s Waiting Room, otherwise known as Florida, was in order. We arrived late in Naples to spend the night with Troy’s Mom. Naples is a ludicrously over-privileged enclave for trust fund larvae and retired old people. You can tell precisely how annoyingly pretentious the subdivision is by the size and number of fountains at the gatehouse. All subdivisions are gated. Troy’s Mom lives in Tiburon which is a Ritz Carlton resort and it is heinously pretentious. Once you get through the gates, you have to go through a second set of gates to get to the multi-million dollar homes on the golf course. I guess it’s important to keep the riff-raff at the Ritz our of your private street. I did enjoy parking in the garage with our kayaks. It went Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Ferrari, Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda. Guess which one was my car?

We decided that a run on Fisheating Creek might be called for. Creek is kind of misleading as a name for this waterway. This is the main flowing waterway that feeds Lake Okeechobee which in turn feeds the Everglades. It is a huge body of water moving through a swamp with one main channel. In high water, it actually runs fast which is a rarity in Florida. It’s certainly not whitewater, but it has a noticeable current. It consistently amazes me that given the sheer abundance of fantastic kayaking/canoeing locations in this state, there isn’t a single really awesome source of info for paddlers. We decided to do it based on the sole recommendation of a guy who drove us insane at the Turner River put in.

Let’s talk about the logistics of getting there. This is in southern Central Florida. This means that there isn’t a whole lot there. It runs roughly parallel with Ft. Meyers, but you are headed inland off I-75. The biggest town nearby is La Belle which has a whopping 4000 inhabitants. Plan accordingly. Once you are there, you have no choice but to go to the Fisheating Creek Outpost. This is the Fisheating Creek outpost:

fisheating creek outpost

As you can guess, this is a redneck paradise. Consider yourself warned. The people that man the outpost are not helpful, it’s packed and it’s mega-expensive. We called before we came to check water levels (always necessary) and were told it was runnable. It wasn’t really. They stated the water level was 1.5 and that below 2.0 feet, you have some low water levels where you will have to port your boat. We were told to expect it at the very end for maybe a couple of hundred feet. This seemed doable so we decided to go for it. However, what they thought we wanted was access to the river to put in. What we meant was we wanted portage to the top of the river 8 miles up. Part of the problem was a sheer lack of speaking the same language. When you want them to drive you to a start point and leave you to float back, the term they use is “livery”. You are duly advised to use this term. We called and asked for portage. They said no problem and $5. On arrival, after having waited in line in the shack for 30 minutes, we were handed a pass for $5 and told to drive through the gates. We asked who we needed to talk to for driving us to the put in and they looked at us like we were aliens. Once they realized what we wanted, then they said that there was no portage and we could just paddle upriver for $5 if we wanted. I did fear Troy was going to start the killin’. We finally managed to locate the very amiable owner of the campground who realized we had been lured by morons and he fixed it for us. He offered to take us to the put in and we took him up on it. We were charged $85 for the 6-mile drive. This is an all-time record for portage. The high cost may have something to do with the legal settlement between the State of Florida and the cattle ranching Lykes Brothers related to access, but it is very, very steep.

The creek itself is a ribbon of thick cypress forest in a sea of grass. Driving up on it looks like hills in the distance, but it’s just the tree tops. The put in requires a drive through several sets of padlocked gates so this is not something you can do on the sly. Also, there are cattle. The put in is very easy and you head straight into a waterway. We got in at Burnt Bridge which is an 8 mile paddle. You can also put in at Ingrams Crossing which is a 16 mile paddle. In high water, the 16 mile run would not be difficult. On arrival, it looked a lot like Okefenokee with clear, dark, tannin-stained waters and moss-draped cypress, but that’s only for a 1/4 mile or so. The grass carp were leaping out of the water everywhere which is very cool. There are signs marked with blue arrows that tell you which way to go and they can be confusing, so pay attention. The section near the beginning where the stream is only 6-8 feet wide and twists and turns was the best part. Sadly, I have no pics as I was busy trying not to run into alligators which are all over the place.

Unfortunately, the water levels turned out to be so low that we ended up slogging through the water on foot dragging the kayaks for hundreds of yards at a time. In several locations, it was completely impassable due to alligator flag (water plant) and we had to drag up the bank and through the woods. I was less than jazzed. The older I get, the harder it is to jump in and out of the kayaks and by the end, I was bitchy, sore and exhausted. Less than one-half mile from the end, the skies opened up and we had to get out once again and hide under a saw palmetto to wait it out. It rained hard enough that we had to dump the boats out. We got back soaked and cold.

Is it worth it? Absolutely, but only with water levels ideally above 2.5 feet. Less than that and you are going to hate your life in several places. The bugs are out and you will need serious bug spray and there are lots of really huge alligators for those that freak over that sort of thing. This is about as rural as it gets and you may very well have the entire run to yourself until the very end. It is the last remaining waterway feeding Lake Okeechobee and it is worth seeing for that reason alone. Also, not a strip mall in sight and Florida is overrun with them. Wildlife is plentiful and we even saw panther tracks when we stopped for lunch on a sand bar.

Since my pics suck, check out this video which shows what the run on Fisheating Creek looks like when the water is higher. Turn off the sound as it has a terrible soundtrack.

The magic of bears: Wekiwa Springs, Florida

Florida is one giant strip mall in many respects and you never have to go more than 2 miles in any direction to find a Panera Bread. It’s also oddly like God’s waiting room, full of old people on their last leg. Surprisingly, it also has some outstanding natural areas that are truly wild, even in urban areas. Exhibit A: Orlando. Nothing is worse than Orlando. Tons of tourists spending their last dollar to entertain their hopeful children whose fantasies will be crashed on the shores of reality. (Note: my parents never took me to Disney World, so I am still bitter about this). Endless shopping malls and outlets where you can buy crap you never knew existed or that anyone would ever want. Concrete, traffic, noise and people everywhere. It’s loud and there’s no headset in the world that can drown out the incessant hum of tourist noise. All this is to say I was shocked by Wekiwa Springs.

The main pool of Wekiwa Springs.

Wekiwa Springs State Park is located smack in the middle of Apopka, Florida, a northern suburb of Orlando. On hot days, the spring fed pool is packed with screaming children splashing everywhere. We arrived on a Tuesday and stared at what seemed at first to be our worst nightmare come true. We hate crowds and we hate noise and there was a lot of both on display. I had heard of the fabled clear waters of Wekiwa Springs which hook up to St. John’s River and I had always wanted to kayak the area. On arrival, we parked in an asphalt parking lot and looked down on this pool which the State of Florida has thoughtfully rocked in around the sides. The manicured feel to the main attraction did not engender much hope in me that this was going to be something I wanted to do after all the hype. There is nothing natural about this pool. It’s nature that’s been made safe for the masses. It is of course, beautiful. The water is crystal clear and the scenery is drop dead gorgeous.

The water is really this clear.

As luck would have it, the launch for kayaking the river is at the bottom of about a 1/4 mile fairly steep trail. There is zero car access so this means kayaks and gear have to be carried down and what goes down, must come back up later.  The State of Florida has a park concession here that rents cheap kayaks, canoes and these ridiculous “exercise” boats you pedal and sit up in.  It didn’t seem to be very expensive for those so inclined, and I confess part of me wanted to just rent gear rather than haul it down and back up. This is because I am a whining sissy.

The majority of people who hit the river stick pretty close to the launch area. About a mile down the river is a commercial marina/bar just outside the park boundaries where drunk college students lay in the sun and occasionally, launch boats to go into the park to annoy older, more sober people. Once you get past this, it’s pretty quiet and you won’t see much except a lot of wildlife in the form of birds, fish, turtles, and the occasional alligator. The current is moderately strong going down the river which makes the paddle seem much easier than it will be on return. The water is very clear. You will see tons of dead trees in the water which I hope were left there to capsize drunken morons who high center their canoes on them. It pays to paddle in the middle of the river to avoid all the deadfall in the water, but you will have to work hard to avoid the incompetent masses paddling out of control.

Taking a left about 2/3 of mile down stream will take you to the Rock Springs Run, which is an 8-mile, narrow, winding and fast-flowing, spring-fed stream with amazing scenery. It is very frequently impassable after 2 -3  miles upriver as the water is very, very shallow. The current is strong and you will be fighting to go upstream against it. On the plus side, you will make record time on the return. Most of the crowds will disappear after a quarter-mile in and if you are quiet, you will see amazing amounts of wildlife.

Rock Springs Run in Wekiwa Springs State Park

This is the very best part of the park. Because I am lazy and wanted to turn around 1 1/2 miles in (paddling against the current is hard, kids), I sent Troy onward and told him I would meet him at the launch. Three minutes later, I got the absolute thrill of a lifetime. Because the current was strong, I was able to practically just rudder to get back without paddling and I was making no noise. With no one near and the only sound being the water and birds calling, I rounded a bend and came face to face with a beautiful cinnamon bear who was at the water’s edge. The moment was surreal and I paddled back to keep myself stationary in the water which was no more than 12 inches deep.  We sat there, the bear and I, five feet apart for five minutes or so, just watching each other. He was curious, but wary and I was mesmerized.  Finally, something startled him and he ambled off into the forest and I watched the sun sparkle on his wet fur. Naturally, the moment was rapidly ruined by drunken frat boys who saw him heading into the forest, but I got my golden moment with just me and the bear and it was fucking awesome. Suck it Disney World. You can’t compete with a bear.

Troy went on to this campsite on Rock Springs run about 2 miles upriver. Sadly, he had the camera when I had my magic bear moment. It's lovely, but it's no cinnamon bear picture.

Also, just because it amuses me, I snapped this quick shot of an actual douche canoe on the river. Seriously, the people in the canoe were BOTH on their cell phones.

Hang up your fucking cell phone. I did not come out here to say "Can you hear me, now? Good."

Okefenokee Swamp: kayaking in the corporate woods

We decided to take off for a week to kayak as spring is here and we always get the itch to go somewhere.  For whatever reason,  Okefenokee Swamp in deep Southern Georgia popped to the forefront of the itinerary. I have a thing for swamps with still, dark water as it appeals to the goth in me. Also, I like to say the word Okefenokee because it makes me giggle. I had no real idea of what we would see which is how every single Harrison adventure starts: pack your stuff, get in the car and drive. There are zero hotels anywhere nearby which meant a tent would be involved. We made reservations in Stephen C. Foster State Park to camp in a campground.

Okefenokee is near nothing and getting to it takes some driving no matter which way you come in. Miles and miles of pine forest surround this national preserve. Logged pine forest. I have a thing for nature and I appreciate the fact that it has a beauty all its own that is arrived at without planning or forethought and which is based on nothing more than random luck and Darwinism. Sadly, the timber companies which logged the land think replanting trees in soldier rows makes a forest. Not so much. There’s nothing but rows of trees for miles on end spaced precisely six feet apart which has the depressing ability to make nature look like corporate America.  I had zero idea that you could log the forest in a national preserve, but a preserve is not a national park and apparently our national forests are totally for sale.  Even a morally-bankrupt lawyer like me finds this disturbing. I could not bring myself to take a picture of the corporate forest so I made this drawing instead.

This is the forest of my childish imagination. Except it would have squirrels. Sadly, I can't draw squirrels so you'll just have to picture it in your head.

The campgrounds of Stephen C. Foster State Park are weirdly inside the actual national preserve. Fortunately, Georgia has good campgrounds and this is a nice one as far as campgrounds go. Each campsite had running water and electricity which for one of Troy’s trips practically makes it a four-star hotel.  Also, there are showers with hot water. Heaven.  Mercifully, the campground was pretty empty but as luck would have it, we were placed in a nearly empty campground next to chatty lesbian kayakers. So much for listening to the wind in the pines.

Chez Harrison at Stephen C. Foster campground in Okefenokee. Note the presence of electricity adjacent to the tent.

We rolled in late Saturday night as the sun was setting. With the setting of the sun came a dropping of temperatures. I loathe freezing and the wind coming in off the ocean 40 miles away smelled of salt and portended a long night of shivering. Thankfully, I had the foresight to bring fuzzy socks and flannel sheets. I did freeze to some extent and staggering out to pee at 3 a.m. is bracing to say the least. (Note to non-natives: be careful in choosing an outdoor location to pee, as saw palmettos have painful points that can do damage to exposed butt cheeks in the dark). This is a great place to see stars as there is no light anywhere around to pollute the night sky and the stars were brilliant.  Of course, my communion with nature is limited in cold weather and as much as I enjoy the vastness of the universe in the middle of the night, I also really enjoy not freezing and 50 degrees with a 20 mile an hour wind is going to get your attention.

The sun always rises early and we lost an hour to daylight savings time on this trip, so it was time to hit the water. Okefenokee is divided into canoe trails labeled by color. Stephen C. Foster State Park is on the west side of the swamp and the main area to put in is just down the road from the campground.  Okefenokee is the headwater of the Suwanee River and you can kayak the canal to the river if you like, but we headed down the main canal and hooked a right to the red trail and then on to the orange trail. The main canal is a manmade structure dredged out eons ago. It is wide and deep and reasonably still, lined by stands of old growth cypress draped in Spanish moss:

Cypress in the early spring always look like dead grey ghosts to me, but this is pretty much what the water and trees look like.

The wind was reasonably stiff and paddling against a headwind is tiring. We decided to explore the red trail up to Minnie’s Lake and Big Water. This is the best kayaking we saw as the canal narrowed down to a beautiful  forest on both sides with lots of water lilies. Sadly, morons are allowed to run in this area in motor boats so you have to avoid the wakes from boats, but it was still very much worth it:

Heading up to Millie's Lake with still water, just before a boat of rednecks attempted to mow us down.

The scenery along the red trail is spectacular:

Cypress and lilies.

Heading back down, we paddled off for Billy’s Island and the Orange Trail. The scenery is much the same, but we saw a lot of wildlife, including river otters and lots of big alligators. We subsequently learned that those adorable otters are actually pretty amazing killers and they prey on young alligators in the four to five foot range. I have new respect for otters.

Say hello to our little friend.

For those who actually want to know about the kayaking in Okefenokee, our experience is that the western part of the preserve is far more scenic than the eastern side with the entrance off of Folkston, although the east entrance has a lot more amenities including a grill. There are no grocery stores within 3o miles of the park, and aside from candy bars and ice, there’s nothing to buy from the concessions in the park. Plan accordingly. The gates close at 10 p.m. and campers need to be in before then. If you arrive after 5 pm, you can get your reservation form from the trading post and pick your own spot in the campground, a decided advantage, and you just check in before 10 the next morning at the trading post.  There is a cell signal in the campground, albeit faint. You can rent canoes and kayaks to tour the waterways, but if you don’t plan to hit the water, this park is a complete waste for you. There is almost nothing to see that you don’t have to paddle to appreciate. There is a loop drive on the east side and some walking trails, but they are boring.  Water levels vary and many trails are closed due to low water at times so it pays to call and ask before you head out.

There are bears in the area and alligators are all over the park and common sense rules apply. Do not slather sardines on your naked body and sleep in the woods and don’t swim in the area unless you have always wanted to know what it’s like to drown in the jaws of a 1000 pound alligator. This is also a mosquito haven so expect to be drained of blood and slather yourself in deet in the vain hopes you won’t be eaten alive.  The bastards are actually less of a problem on the water as the water is too acidic to support the larvae.  At dusk and dawn, the mosquitoes are out in droves so be prepared. You can bring your pets, but why would you want to since they can’t go on the water and there are many creatures that would like to snack on them.

This is the resident campground alligator that lives in the storm culvert. We were not clear on what he ate there as the ditch has zero fish, but there are a lot of people who bring their dogs to the park.

Captain Nemo

I capsized today in the swamp. Mega embarrassing.  I got stuck on deadfall and tried to push out of it and went over. Jesus. I know they say reptiles never attack lawyers out of professional courtesy, but I was very motivated to get out of the water as there were alligators 20 feet back.  When you have only 5 feet of space available and you are standing in 5 feet of cold, smelly water, getting the water out of your kayak and you back into it is a challenge, particularly when your sandals are being sucked off your feet by swamp mud.

Pretty and evil.

I smelled like a wookie all day. My skin is stained brown from all the tannin in the water. Perhaps someone will mistake it for a tan. Tomorrow, no mangroves. All sawgrass and open water. Thank God. Pain rating for the day: 8 out of 10. Definitely time for drugs that end in the letters “-cet”.

Haiku of the day:

Brown, swampy water

Smells like ass and tastes much worse

Mangroves are evil

 

Wildlife on parade: things not to fuck with

Summertime is the time that hordes of tourists head to the national parks to enjoy wildlife. The key modifier in the term “wildlife’ is ‘wild’, meaning not tame. Mr. Badger does not want to be petted. Trust me. As you travel in late summer, here are some things you may see and some handy tips.

1. Elk.

Big elk hanging out in Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk are generally fine to be near. Except in the rut. “Rut” is defined as ‘an annually recurrent state of sexual excitement in the male mammal’. Think of it like going to a bar at 2 a.m. on drink and drown night and getting between two drunk guys fighting over a bleached blonde in a tube top. You want to be nowhere near an elk during the rut as they will hurt you. These are big animals and they are not Bambi. The rut gets ramped up by August.

2. Grizzly bears.

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone sitting on a log, contemplating dinner

Grizzly bears do not want to be bothered by you. They do not want to maul you. They will, however, take time out of their daily schedules to maul you if you fuck with them. The most dangerous place to be is between a Mama grizzly bear and her cubs. This is why the tourist died in Yellowstone this year – he inadvertently violated rule number 1: do not fuck with Mama Bear, even if by accident. Bear spray is a very good idea.

3. Polar Bears.

I have no pictures of polar bears taken by me. This is because I have never been close enough to a polar bear to take a picture. I do not want to be near a polar bear, and certainly not close enough to get a clear picture. The Coke ads aside, polar bears are hard-core predators. Polar bears will seek you out and try to eat you. It doesn’t help that their habitat is disappearing. Avoid the polar bears. Also, do not climb over the enclosure at the zoo to pet the polar bear. He doesn’t like you and he is not smiling at you.

4. Black bears.

Black bear Mom and cub minding their own business

Black bears are generally shy and will avoid you. They are not inherently deadly and they aren’t out to eat you. They can kill you if you mess with them. The same rule applies to all bears in the lower 48: do not mess with Mama and cubs. (See special rule for polar bears above which is basically stay the fuck away from them). I have seen morons in Great Smoky National Park throw things at Mom and cubs to get a better picture of the cubs. This is a spectacularly bad idea. Also, these people deserve to be mauled. Alas, they rarely are.

5. Bison

Where does a bison go? Answer: Anywhere it wants.

Bison are big. Really big. Bigger than the car waiting for it to cross the road. Do the math – that’s 2000 pounds plus. It would be a really good idea to not get in their way. Every year, someone in Yellowstone gets it because they think this is a big woolly cow in the field. Not so much. Bison do not want to be messed with. True story: a tourist in Yellowstone wanted to get a picture in front of a sleeping bison. It was laying down and she thought the picture would be better if the bison was standing. So she kicked it so it would stand up. The bison killed her. Bison 1, stupid tourist, 0. Bison also have a rut season and you would be well-advised to stay the hell out of their way then.

6. Snakes

A water moccasin on the trail

Snakes do not want to be fucked with. Most people get bitten because they are not paying attention. Do not stomp through the underbrush in a pair of flip-flops. If you come upon a snake, do not fuck with it. This means in very basic terms, do not get a stick and poke at it. If you lived in Africa and did this, you would die quickly because their snakes are lightning fast and mean business. Pay attention to where you are and don’t mess with them. Unless you are a herpotologist, odds are you couldn’t quickly identify any poisonous snake other than a rattle snake.

7. Badgers

I have never stuck around long enough to take good pictures of a badger. I don’t have a good enough lens to take them from far away either. Badgers are not friendly and they do not enjoy being disturbed. Think of them like you would your Great Uncle Elmer who hates everyone and would like to hit them with his cane. Badgers are small, but they have sharp teeth and they can haul ass when they want to. Badgers will stick up for themselves and size of the opponent has no bearing on what they will take on. If you happen to cross paths with a badger on your way through the back-country trail, get to steppin’. To get a sense of what I’m saying, check out the video of Mr. Badger versus the Bear.

8. Fire Ants.

I don’t have a picture of these either because every time I get close enough to a mound to take a photo, the bastards swarm out to sting me. Also, ant mounds are boring. Fire ants suck. They are aggressive and they will swarm out in defense of their colonies. For those north of the Mason/Dixon line, you have no idea how fortunate you are. Best line of defense when hiking is wear hiking boots and avoid their mounds. Wikipedia has some pretty pictures of what you will look like if you get swarmed.

9. Alligators.

This alligator is lazy, but he will bite morons

Alligators generally do not want to bother you. They are like middle-aged women in Vegas – they want to soak up the rays by the water during the day and at night, they’re out looking to get lucky. Alligators will not mess with you unless you mess with them or unless you are stupid enough to enter their world. If you’re on land, they are big enough to eat you if you venture too close, but they generally are only after your dog. Do not let your dog go to the water’s edge in alligator areas to play or drink. Don’t be stupid – do not swim where alligators are. Alligators will eat you if you are an idiot. The grim reaper report of fatal alligator attacks is here. Note how many deaths were attributed to people swimming where alligators lurk.

Other animals I would not want to fuck with: killer bees, sharks, wolverines, minks, seals, snapping turtles. If it falls in the animal kingdom and you are alone with it in nature, decide if you could take it bare-handed if you had to. If the answer is either ‘no’ or ‘not without a boat load of collateral damage’ then do not mess with it. Keep in mind that even the smallest animals can be quite vigorous in their defense of self. The Russians did not fare so well in their battle against kung-fu hamster. Size is not everything.

** All photos here were taken by Troy, many in the process of him trying to kill me.

Road Trip to Miami, Part Deux

Picking up where I left off, I arrived to rescue my sister from the hospital in Miami. Finding her proved problematic – who knew how many Jackson Memorial branches are in Miami? The GPS was not helpful as I ended up in a parking lot in Little Haiti which is, I assure you, not where I wanted to be. If you are in Little Haiti and driving a Honda CR-V with Tennessee plates and have red hair and pale skin, you will be noticed in an uncomfortable ‘I’m a suburban white girl from out of town and I am lost’ kind of way.

I finally found Susan who was ranting and raving about some Domenican nurse and a dead guy. I really did not ask questions as she was not wearing a bra (or probably underwear), looked like Medusa after a four-day bender and she was cursing in a language which might have been English, but I’m still not sure. I was not happy about having to drive to Miami, so I had already decided that if I was coming down to Miami, I was going back to the Everglades National Park to hike the Snake Bight trail which I did not get to do in December. That meant Susan was going to go with me.

Susan smelled like a wookie and her hair was terrifying so I was deciding where I could dunk her as she looked like a homeless person. The swamp seemed possible, but having some experience being dunked in swamp water, I am reasonably confident she would have smelled worse afterwards. I knew that the Flamingo marina had $3 showers for campers and I could dump her off for a shower while I hiked the trail. It was a great plan. First, though, we had to fill her prescriptions. I headed for Homestead where I knew there would be a pharmacy on the way to Everglades National Park. I did not know the prescription was for Dilaudid, but I digress.

Troy and I went to the Everglades in December at the start of the dry season. The water was much higher then and three months later, the water levels were drying up. Before Christmas it looked like this:

Anhinga trail at Christmas 2010 with stacks o' alligators

At the end of the dry season, the same place looked like this:

Anhinga trail, same place, three months later into the dry season

I was pretty stoked as I thought the trail I wanted to do would be dry and bug-free. That was a mistake. First, I had to get Susan to take a shower. I told her she was scaring small children and I loaned her some underwear and a sports bra because I am kind like that. I paid the $3 shower fee and told her I’d be back in an hour.  I told her to stand on the side of the marina and watch for manatees because they hang out there. She never saw a manatee but I did once I left:

I saw manatees while Susan was in the shower

The Snake Bight trail leads from the main road to Flamingo to Florida Bay. It’s a little shy of a mile and three quarters one way. When I arrived, it was absolutely deserted and I was the only person on the trail.

Snake Bight trail, Everglades National Park

My theory that lack of water = no bugs was a major miscalculation. I have never seen so many flying bugs in my life. And they all wanted to bite me. Still, I persevered and walked very fast with the idea that I could somehow out pace them. Not possible. I walked this trail like it was the Bataan Death March because I drove to Miami in one shot dammit and I was going to do this trail. I could hear nothing but my breathing and the sounds of things rustling in the leaves off the trail. I did not investigate. I saw a giant water moccasin high tail it across the trail in front of me and I stepped up my speed. The longer I was alone on the trail the more I imagined some extra from Deliverance jumping out in front of me. I walked faster. About a quarter mile from the end I started to hear something odd. Like the squealing of piglets. I convinced myself my Deliverance fantasies were working overtime. I walked even faster until I was basically at a slow jog. The squealing got louder until it was clear I was not imagining the sound of pigs. There were pigs. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain, I recalled that the Everglades have lots of wild hogs and they are not friendly. The end of the trail was close – I could hear the ocean. I could also hear piglets. Somehow, despite years of stubborn determination to finish stupid quests in the face of overwhelming evidence that quitting was the best option, I decided to turn around. In short, I walked in a bug-infested swamp with lots of snakes in hot, humid weather at top speed only to stop short one-tenth of a mile from the end. Dammit.

I picked up a slightly cleaner and less smelly Susan who laughed maniacally when I told her I did not get to see the end of the trail because of wild hogs. We drove to Homestead to pick up her prescription of Dilaudid (note: Susan had been hospitalized for acute pancreatitis). We hit the southern end of Miami on a Friday night at 5 p.m. Genius. And to make my joy complete, the air conditioning in my car chose that particular moment in time to cease working.   Susan popped a Dilaudid for the road as we had a 470 mile drive to the beach house in Carillon.

Here’s a tip for someone who might be making a seriously long drive late in the day with someone taking Dilaudid: make them take enough so that they pass out. As the sun set, and I was able to roll up the windows and not broil in the car, Susan began to shout random things out to me in a truly-alarmed tone which caused me to automatically slam on the brakes. Some examples:

  • Look out for the basketball player sleeping on the road!
  • Oh my God, it’s a dead panther!
  • Don’t hit the dolphin!
Susan was hallucinating which is very unhelpful to someone trying to concentrate on seeing the road after two days of continuous driving. We rolled into Panama City about 2 a.m. and Susan shouted “Oh my God, don’t hit the people on the scooters!” I nearly paid no attention, but there was in fact, a horde of scooters loaded with drunk college students on the highway with no lights. Moral of the story: Sometimes, even stoned people have valid things to say. I did get 24 hours at my mother-in-law’s beach house which is not a bad thing. The view:

Carillon Beach, a martini and 9 hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep = relaxation