Gunkholing with the Gators
Twisting through the mangrove forest
between the Broad and the Harney rivers deep in the Florida Everglades,
the narrow creek known as The Nightmare is the sort of place that only
an idiot (or two) would try to explore by sailboat. The name, I
imagine, was bestowed by the poor fellow who found it, mapped it, and
then fled to Montana, bug-bitten and stark raving mad.
Nightmare first caught my eye last February as an old friend and former
crewmate, Steve Cannon, and I leaned over three sweat-stained charts of
the Everglades National Park trying to muster a plan. We were at the
Keys Fisheries Marina, a backwater basin in Marathon, halfway down the
Florida Keys, where a stone-crab fleet docks and a waterfront fish
market serves up the world's freshest claws. Spread out on the dinette
table of Pagan Charm,
the 26-foot Balboa sloop we'd chartered for seven days, the charts
depicted one of the last great American wilderness areas accessible to
a shoal-draft cruiser, with seven navigable rivers slanting southwest
into the Gulf of Mexico, tear-drop shaped hardwood-covered hammocks
carved by the Shark River Slough, and thousands of mangrove islands
clustered at the river mouths. Fancying ourselves explorers, we tried
to make sense of the maze, but the stone crab, cold Budweiser, and
Florida sun soon brought out our true nature. By lunch hour, I'd
proposed that we never leave the slip.
Six-foot Steve kept
whacking his head on the Balboa's low coachroof, but with each new
lump, he seemed only to like the boat better. Designed by the late Lyle
Hess of Bristol Channel Cutter fame, the Balboa sails well, has ample
storage, and meets the most important prerequisite for Everglades
sailing: a pencil-thin draft, 22 inches with the centerboard up.
Recently restored by Pagan Yacht Charters owner Billy Cooper, Pagan Charm
still had its original dinette, which featured a six-color world map
from its year of construction, 1972, laminated into the tabletop. The
distraction proved too much for Steve.
"Look, here's Angola,"
he said. "And here's East Germany! Makes you kind of miss the Cold
War." He slid a chart out of his way for a better look.
Steve a subway map, much less one of the world, and his mind will
careen for hours, so I let him be. I didn't have much faith in our
charts anyway. The cartographers' notes implied only a fool (or two)
would trust the soundings. Large swaths of mangrove and sawgrass were
stamped as "unsurveyed." Among the many waterways that the mapmakers
left blank was a thin corkscrew creek that held my gaze.
The Nightmare," said Steve, looking over my shoulder. "Sounds
delightful. Brings to mind our holiday in Transylvania. Flat tires,
ankle-deep mud, and eating raw spaghetti because the stove fuel was
gone. One of your better meals, that was."
Georgia born and
bred, Steve has a Southerner's knack for storytelling, and he recalled
details of our bike trip 20 years earlier that I'd wholly forgotten.
Honest almost to a fault, he's a good person to fill in the blanks--no
sugar-coating, no holding back. And this makes him an ideal sailing
companion, for on a long night watch, he tells the most fascinating
tales about people I've met and the places I've been.
A light westerly finally pried us away from Marathon, and we set out for
the 19-mile run north across Florida Bay to Cape Sable's East Cape, an
expansive, pillow-soft strand that marks Florida's southern tip. As
green Florida Bay cast tiny rainbows with each slap of the hull, I had
a moment of déjà vu from 1989.
Sixteen years ago, Steve and I
bought an old 32-foot Atkin ketch together, and along with Theresa,
whom I later married, we cruised the West Indies for nearly three
years. But three's a crowd, the saying goes, and in Venezuela Steve
concluded that he'd be happier in a boat of his own. Soon enough, he
was headed across the Pacific in a 21-foot sloop, while Theresa and I
stayed behind to rebuild the cruising kitty. As much as I looked
forward to saner living arrangements, Steve's leaving was a reminder
that real life, alas, is nothing like a beer commercial. Some things do
come between best friends.
After a five-hour sail due north out
of Marathon across Florida Bay, we reached East Cape in glassy calm an
hour before sunset. A 20-mile-long stretch of dunes shaped by centuries
of great storms, Cape Sable is one of the few features on the
Everglades coast that you can distinguish from offshore. The broad
beach curves into three sandy points: East Cape, Middle Cape, and
Northwest Cape. The Shark River, the tip of a funnel that drains the
Everglades' sweet water, opens just to the north into Ponce de Leon Bay.
In the prevailing southeasterlies, the waters off East Cape can be
bouncy, but that evening our cove was a tableau of reflected clouds.
"Looks like we're the only people on the planet," said Steve, already
in the dinghy, a spinning rod in tow.
Once ashore, with one
eye watching the water for rolling tarpon, we walked northwest as
ankle-high waves scalloped the shore. The beach was powdery gulf sand,
with coquina shells, sponges, and the occasional whelk strewn along the
high swash line. The air was so still we could hear the swoosh as a
line of pelicans pumped their wings and glided past.
The Shark and the Harney
Before dawn the next morning, a cool breeze blew off Cape Sable, and we
reached north around the corner to the Shark River, arriving just as a
more insistent northerly took hold. Sailing wing and wing, we threaded
the well-marked channel up the Little Shark River until it intersected
the Shark, where the wind receded over the tall mangroves. We furled
the genny and carried on upriver under outboard while I produced a box
of cassettes that I'd dug from my basement for the occasion. It was the
same battered collection that had accompanied us through the Caribbean.
After a lively debate, we finally settled on a Crosby, Stills, and Nash
mix that included "Southern Cross," a song that's launched a thousand
Pacific dreams, including our own.
"Eighty feet of waterline
and a downhill run," said Steve with a laugh, finding a spot in the sun
in the cockpit. "Man, I could have used that outside of Pitcairn."
Steve paused to let the thought sink in, then plunged into his story of
the Great Pacific Storm, one of my favorites. After 36 hours of surfing
before a gale on his way west out of Pitcairn Island to Tahiti, Steve
is finally driven below by exhaustion, where he collapses on the cabin
floor. Deciding that any attempt to heave to will be suicide, he leaves
his fate to a homemade windvane strapped to the stern of his tiny Elsie Rose.
For seven hours, she lurches and hums down Southern Ocean rollers until
Steve can take the helm again. But when he finally returns to the
cockpit, he realizes that the windvane is doing better than he ever
could, so he goes back below and calmly picks up a book.
is, I was lucky, just plain lucky," Steve said at the end of his story,
"and if someone gave me a choice between 80 feet of waterline and luck,
I'd take luck any day of the week." But from the look on Steve's face,
I could see the wheels were still turning. "Then again, if you're lucky
enough to own 80 feet of waterline, you're already pretty damn lucky,
so I guess I'd take the waterline." His logic--I had to admit--was
Just before sunset, the Shark River opened wide
beneath huge buttonwood trees, and we dropped the anchor in Tarpon Bay,
a mangrove-fringed lagoon where the Shark and the Harney converge.
According to local fishermen, the bay's tannin-rich water turns the
silver gamefish bright gold, a phenomenon that occurs in few other
places. In search of these fairy-tale fish, I trolled the bay in the
dinghy, then worked a surface plug along the prop roots. I'd made only
a couple of casts when the smell of frying onions drew me back to the
boat, where Steve chopped and stirred over the single-burner stove.
After crossing the Pacific in a Mini-Transat sloop, Steve is a master
of one-pot meals.
In an amber mist the next morning, we descended back to the Gulf of
Mexico with the falling tide on the fast-flowing Harney. We timed our
exit for slack low tide, as the channel from the river mouth to the
gulf was tricky and unmarked, with a sharp dogleg south along the
coast. Just when the open gulf loomed, something seemed not quite
Going aground in the Everglades is a strange
sensation, as the boat never really stops moving. The bottom is a deep,
slowly decaying layer of marl that has the consistency of pudding. (If
you're not careful, you can step out of your boat in two feet of water
and suddenly sink in up to your neck.) So if you're fiddling with the
tape deck (as I was), or lounging on the foredeck dreaming about Tahiti
(as Steve was), you can thump merrily along without even noticing your
keel is plowing through muck.
Eventually, the boat crept so
slowly that even an idiot (or two) could see we were stuck. Steve and I
both peered over the side. Though the water was less than three feet
deep, neither of us could see the bottom. Extrication was easy--we
pulled up our centerboard and were on our way--but all traces of
smugness vanished. From there, we studiously followed the weed slick
marking deep water and eventually reached open water.
for eyeball navigation," said Steve with a shrug. "Although it might
help if our bold skipper watched where he was going."
Yes, it was just like old times.
By midday, we were clear of the coast, and the wind clocked predictably to the northeast. Conditions were perfect for Pagan Charm,
and we reeled off a tremendous 22-mile reach to the northwest corner of
the park. As clouds gathered over the mainland, we slid past Pavilion
Key, hitting six knots with the help of tidal currents that parallel
That evening we anchored at Kingston Key, at the
southern edge of the Ten Thousand Islands, a constellation of mangrove
islets separated by oyster bars, grass flats, and deep, winding
channels. Their hummock-like appearance is no coincidence. At the end
of the last ice age, these were giant sand dunes, heaped by wind and
waves. Today the highest pieces of land are huge shell mounds left by
the Calusa Indians, an extinct tribe that controlled this stretch of
coast for nearly 2,000 years before the Spanish arrived. Some of the
mounds cover up to 150 acres and rise 20 feet above sea level.
Not wishing to break the wilderness spell, we resisted the urge to take
the boat into Everglades City, site of the park's northern
headquarters, or to the nearby island community of Chokoloskee. Now
famous for backcountry fly-fishing, Chokoloskee marked the edge of the
Florida frontier at the turn of the 20th century. Life then revolved
around Ted Smallwood's Store, an Indian trading post that catered to
the Miccosukee and the small population of outlaws, former slaves,
hermits, and homesteaders who retreated to the swamp after the Civil
Preserved as a living museum, the store still appears
much as it did that infamous day in 1910 when a hastily assembled posse
of men and boys gunned down local businessman Edgar J. Watson at the
boat landing. Watson, who was widely feared, was suspected of harboring
a fugitive wanted for murder. Both the suspected killer and the victim,
a woman known as Big Sal, worked on Watson's plantation on the nearby
Chatham River. (Watson was also rumored to have killed several other
people during the preceding years, among them Belle Starr, the Wild
West's outlaw "Bandit Queen" romanticized in gazettes of that time.)
Witnesses at Smallwood's that day said that Watson raised his shotgun
and pulled the trigger first, but his wet shells misfired. Watson's
life and its violent end is the subject of a semifictional trilogy by
author Peter Matthiessen, beginning with Killing Mister Watson. Most locals, descendants of the shooters among them, regard it as an embellished but fairly honest account of the times.
"It seems that any time Mr. Matthiessen had the chance to spice it up,
he did," said Ben Loudeman, an amateur historian and sailor who now
works at the store. "But he does a great job of recapturing what it was
like to live here in the early days, when it truly was a frontier town."
Watson was but one of a long line of fringe characters--mostly
bootleggers and drug smugglers--who found the Ten Thousand Islands a
handy place to operate outside the law, even into the mid-1980s. Today
in Smallwood's store you can buy a video of a third-generation
Everglades City native, the late Loren "Totch" Brown, fondly recalling
the good ol' days of moonshining, poaching, and hauling marijuana. (One
scene in Central America shows Totch, appearing to be near retirement
age, looking about and leading a mule train loaded with pot destined
for Florida.) In the eyes of many locals, the pesky Feds and their
catch limits, not a lack of morals, drove the fishermen to poaching and
smuggling. Civic pride, not to mention the local economy, suffered a
measurable setback in 1983, when the FBI rounded up 125 people--about
two-thirds of Everglades City's population--on drug-smuggling charges.
One of them was the chief of police.
"A lot of those people are
getting out of jail now, so we might expect things to get exciting
again," one local man told me later.
The Watson Place
Having reached the northern edge of the park, we turned around the next
day and headed south. (Getting north early, we'd reasoned, would insure
that a strong northerly wind, frequent in winter, wouldn't pin us
down.) By noon we reached the mouth of the Chatham River, within
striking distance of the old Watson Place. Pagan Charm's
almost-brand-new outboard picked that moment to go on strike, so we
found ourselves gamely tacking around Chatham Bend and into Storter
Bay. With our grounding episode a good 24 hours behind us, we were
feeling cocky again.
Once anchored, we piled fishing gear, an
ice chest, and spare fuel into our doll-sized seven-foot inflatable
dinghy and began the two-mile ride up to the Watson Place, a 40-acre
shell mound where some believe as many as six murdered victims of
"Bloody" Watson are buried. According to some accounts, Watson was able
to reduce his overhead after the harvest by killing his laborers
instead of paying them.
"And here I am complaining about lousy health-plan benefits," cracked Steve, when I told him the story.
We'd made it about halfway up the river when two escorts joined us. One
dolphin flanked the port side, the other took starboard. They
repeatedly surfaced within an arm's length of the dinghy, looking at us
eye to eye.
"If I'm not mistaken, they're laughing at us," said Steve, whose pants were already sopping.
"Just keep your weight in the center," I ordered as another wave washed
over my feet. It's hard to keep a sense of humor when you're bailing.
Our new friends followed us for about 15 minutes, finally peeling off
when we crossed a shallow bar near the Watson Place. A few minutes
later, we were tied at the dock, wringing out our clothes and swatting
mosquitoes, who'd clearly been expecting us.
The Watson Place
is one of the few dry-land campsites on the Wilderness Waterway, a
popular, 100-mile route between Everglades City and Flamingo that draws
paddlers, small powerboats, and, in their wake, stealthy, well-fed
mosquitoes. Beyond the dock lies a small clearing surrounded by a
buttonwood forest where sugarcane once grew. The foundations, along
with the iron cauldron used to boil the cane juice into syrup, are
about the only obvious signs of Watson's presence. The scene reminded
me of expatriate outposts I'd known in Central America and Southeast
Asia, remote if not lonely monuments to people who felt out of place
and out of time--or, like Watson, who were trying to escape their past.
The next day, we beam-reached south along the coast in a brisk easterly
from Chatham Bend to the mouth of the Lostmans River, where I repaired
the outboard (clogged carburetor) and we anchored for the night. We
just barely squeaked across First Bay at midtide the next morning.
Wilder, and tougher to follow than the Shark River, Lostmans took us
deep into Everglades cruising. We passed at least a dozen alligators,
most of them lurking at the edge of the mangrove. Osprey circled
overhead, and at a bend in the river two bald eagles took turns
guarding their nest. Three big bays--Second Bay, Third Bay, and Big
Lostmans Bay--opened up, and we were able to briskly reach across them
with the centerboard halfway down. Above us, billowing clouds hung
motionless in the sky, casting shadow islands on the water.
late afternoon, the Broad River opened wide, and our goal, The
Nightmare, lay just around the bend. The trees parted to reveal a
narrow gap, and throttling down, I nosed our bow in. At first, we could
see sky through The Nightmare's canopy, and we sailed through without a
scrape. But soon the branches began closing in, and I steered with one
eye on the masthead, weaving around the limbs. We were headed into the
current, which gave me enough control to avoid the worst snags.
At the narrowest point, a 12-foot gator, the biggest we'd seen,
slithered from a side creek and disappeared. Soon after that, things
began to go bad. My hand was no match for the maze. Leaves and shoots
and stems rained down on Steve, and the board briefly hung on a root.
We had to turn around. But where?
"Here's another fine mess
you've got me into," said Steve, as he hung over the side to push us
off the trees. I watched for the gator while he warped us around.
We'd gotten in, so we could get out--at least that was the theory. But
with the following tide, the game was different. I had to time each
dodge well in advance, and even then, it took several quick thrusts of
reverse to edge around a few turns. An hour later, we emerged sweaty,
bug-bitten, and with our nerve ends fried. Except for a few leaves on
the foredeck, the Balboa was no worse for wear.
anchored back on the Broad River, I watched as flocks of white ibis
returned to roost in the trees around us. Though not the great flocks
of warden Bradley's day, they streamed by for two hours in groups of 10
or more, cruciform silhouettes against the sky. As darkness came, the
full moon rose from the river, casting a silver glow over the
landscape. We fell asleep to the strange grunts of ibis as they carried
on a running commentary through the night.
After spending our
last night in the Everglades at East Cape, we sailed into Marathon on
the heels of a locomotive norther, breathing 20 knots of wind under our
collars and sending the Balboa surfing down sharp-edged waves. Sliding
through the breakwater at the fisheries marina, we bombed into our slip
under bare poles. Billy Cooper of Pagan Charters was there to take our
"Looks like you had an adventure," he said, brushing a
few twigs, remnants from The Nightmare, from the scuppers into the
Indeed we had. From Cape Sable to the Ten Thousand
Islands, the Everglades had been unusually kind. Thanks to a
drier-than-normal winter, one of my biggest fears--becoming the main
course of a weeklong mosquito feast--never came to pass. More than
anything, the experience reminded me of the magic of small-boat
cruising. Because of--not in spite of--our stout little Balboa, we had
one hell of a trip. And years from now, when my memory fades, I trust
Steve to tell me all about it. An able navigator and a steadfast
friend, he's a good man for filling in the blanks.
Darrell Nicholson, the former senior editor of Cruising World, has slid into the editor's chair at Offshore magazine.