Swept Out to Sea

Relentless winds. Crashing waves. A canoe about to sink. How a Gulf Coast vacation turned into a nightmare.

I drank cool water from a clear plastic bottle and tried to get down some trail mix. It was probably 2:30 in the afternoon, and I hadn't had anything to eat all day, so I should have been hungry. But it's amazing how the stomach takes to itself at the worst times. It's not a team player, the stomach. I forced down the dried fruit and nuts anyway, knowing I'd need it for strength to paddle, and for sustenance if the canoe sank under the waves, which kept getting higher as we were pushed farther and farther out into the Gulf of Mexico.

I looked over at the distant islands. Just 30 minutes earlier, we'd been so close to Rabbit Key's white beach that I could see individual birds in its trees. Now it was fading from sight and impossible to reach.

The Gulf was often choppy and the winds were often strong, but not like this. Until now I'd never thought the sea was going to kill me.

Mark Lang

The only sounds for a few minutes were my gasps at the size of the waves and an occasional dry heave up front. My wife, Brittany, was seasick, and she wasn't going to get any better until we made land. Her stomach was in complete revolt. She couldn't paddle anymore. Still I felt lucky to be with her. Being with Brittany steadied me somehow, and helped me stay calm.

Thoughts of our four-year-old son did the opposite. If we didn't make it, then I'd failed him. It was just too sad to think about, our boy being told that he wouldn't be seeing us anymore. But I knew there were plenty of relatives to take care of him and love him as their own. And ... and I had to stop thinking like this. We are still in the canoe, I thought. We have plenty of rations, I told myself. My shoulder muscles ached as though they were bleeding inside against the bone and my hands were numb, but I knew that after my rest, I'd be ready to paddle again.

I grimaced at the thought of repeating that perilous cycle. Paddling the canoe into the waves, causing seawater to crash in the boat, forcing me to bail it out, which then gave the tide and harsh wind, both steadfastly against us, time to destroy whatever scant progress we'd made. I'd just have to try to keep us from drifting too far out into still larger waves, and then, at nightfall, when the tide changed and we hoped the wind would weaken, I'd take a run at the coast, using the glow of civilization on the eastern horizon as a beacon.

We have a chance, I thought, rescue or not. But we'd need some luck on what, to that point, had been the unluckiest day of our lives.

It was our fourth day in the Ten Thousand Islands area at the southwest edge of Everglades National Park. The islands lie scattered just outside a maze of inland mangrove forests and rivers and bays referred to as the backcountry, where the freshwater Glades run into the sea. The islands, which actually number in the hundreds, generally are found south of Marco Island and north of Cape Sable and consist mostly of mangrove trees tangled on sand and oyster deposits.

Tourists usually hire a guide equipped with a motorboat or take the park tour from Everglades City. A smaller number -- we fall into this category -- prefer canoeing from one marked campsite to another. Until roughly 50 years ago, the place was never considered a tourist destination. Full of mosquitoes, heat, and muck, it was regarded as uninhabitable by just about everyone but Native Americans and pirates until the late 1800s. And even then it was crawling with outlaws.

"Folks will tell you different today, but back then there wasn't too many in our section that wasn't kind of unpopular someplace else. With all of Florida to choose from, who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands with not enough high ground to build a outhouse, and so many skeeters plaguing you in the bad summers you thought you'd took a wrong turn to Hell," Peter Matthiessen writes in Killing Mister Watson.

Murderous myth abounds. E.J. Watson, the subject of Matthiessen's novel, was gunned down in 1910 in broad daylight by a vigilante group of town leaders who suspected Watson had killed workers at his farm. A game warden named Guy Bradley was shot dead by a plume hunter five years before that. And nearly every habitable island in the area has some pirate tale attached to it, usually involving extreme violence and a buried corpse. Outlaws are still to be found. At one time in the 1980s, half the population of Everglades City, including the mayor, was in jail for ferrying marijuana.

How can one resist a mysterious place like that? But that's not why I go. When I think of the Ten Thousand Islands and the backcountry, I don't think of Watson; I think of the birds. A snow-white egret, standing four feet tall, frozen in a thicket of mangroves before suddenly taking off in swooping flight. Or a great blue heron on the shoreline, with a wisp of feather shooting off the back of his neck, as if he'd styled it that way. Or waking up at first light to see an anhinga at the top of a rotting cypress, stretching its crooked wings to dry, dark feathers draping down like Dracula's cape. And I think of the huge manatees that could flip over your canoe in an instant but wouldn't in a million years. And dolphins, which might swim alongside your canoe and make you feel for just a moment like the most fortunate person in the world. And the fishing, which informs you that, no, you aren't fortunate at all.

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