By Fred Mays
We glided silently through the salt marsh, the only sound the droplets of water as they dripped off the paddle. Ahead of us on the bank, a big bull gator lumbered into the water with a splash. Oh sh*t! Can I paddle faster than he can swim?…
Within seconds of putting the kayaks in the water, the current whipped one of the boats into a fallen tree, sending Joe, a database manager from Miami, into an unintentional Eskimo roll, splashing into the river, flailing, spewing, coughing, gagging and spitting water.
I started back paddling to avoid the same fate, and was pulled backward by an eddy into an overhanging tree. I looked up to find myself face-to-face with a large snake, wrapped around a branch right above my head, inches away.
Suddenly it was chaos, a flurry of paddling, pushing, swearing, glimpses of snake, sky, river, Joe coughing water, back to snake (whew!) still in the tree.
I back-paddled harder and faster, but the current shoved the kayak’s bow around, pushing it right under the tree branch. The snake was now hanging right over the bow. One move and he could drop into the sit-on-top, right between my legs!!! The only thing I knew for sure was both us were not going to share this kayak. If he got in, I was getting out…fast!
This was not starting out as the quiet little Saturday morning float trip I had bargained for.
It was cold, my hands were freezing. I had on a neoprene dive suit and a ski parka, but I was still cold. The water temperature was 54 degrees Fahrenheit. If the kayak tipped in the big swells and you went in, you had less than five minutes to get out of the water before hyperthermia paralyzed you and you drowned.
October, the St. Lawrence Seaway, northeast of Quebec. We were looking for whales. They come in here this time of year, following a deep water trench into a shallow shelf that pushes plankton and fish upward, right into the feeding maws of Humpbacks and Blue whales.
I heard a distinctive whooshing sound. With rhythmic regularity it drew closer. It’s a whale coming down the channel. Big whale. It drew closer, maybe two or three hundred feet, then disappeared beneath the surface.
Nice! I saw a whale. Trip worthwhile. There was silence for minutes then suddenly right beside my kayak a giant WHOOSH! It startled me. I jumped in my cockpit. There right beside me was the whale, a Humpback. Eyeball to eyeball, no more than ten feet away. Her fluke was actually under the kayak. We stared at each other, she was rolled slightly on her side, her eye out of the water, looking right at me. I got a little nervous that her tail would flip the boat, and started to back paddle. She stayed still on the surface for a moment, as if waiting for me to get out of the way, then raised her tail right in front of my bow, and dove silently back into the depths.
Our guide paddled over, said from the size of the tail she guessed it was a juvenile female. Just as curious about me as I was about her. I was trembling, now not from the cold, but from the encounter.
We set off from Pine Island Marina for a two-mile paddle across the sheltered back waters of Charlotte Harbor, bound for Cayo Costa State Park on the offshore barrier island. There was a light chop in the water as we quickly paddled across the boat channel of the Intra Coastal Waterway.
Just off my bow an Osprey splashed into the water and quickly emerged with a fish in its talons. It took off, gaining air beneath its wings, turning the fish to face forward in the direction of flight.
Ospreys aren’t known as being the brightest of the birds of prey, but they sure understand aerodynamics.
The shuttle driver dropped us and our gear off in the dirt parking lot of a ramshackle wooden cabin. A hand-lettered sign above the front porch…Glades Guides. The four of us were here for a weeklong paddle through the Everglades Wilderness Waterway.
A man, big man, lumbered out the front door. Tall, heavy, scraggy ZZ Top beard, grimy looking gimme cap pulled down on his forehead, bib overalls and a dirty t-shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed since Jimmy Carter was President. His lower front teeth were missing, and he was working on a chaw of tobacco. He spit as he walked up to us. A real mouth breather.
“I’m Darryl. I’m your guide.”
I didn’t have a good feeling about this.
The water was like glass as I paddled the shallow bay behind Caladesi Island. You could see the bottom, maybe waist deep. There was a ripple off to my left. A dorsal fin sliced the surface. I watched as it came toward me. A small hammerhead, maybe three feet long, curious about my yellow kayak. He nudged the hull, testing to see if it was something to eat.
Bays along the Gulf coast of Florida are nurseries to small sharks, seeking shelter and protection from the big sharks out in the open water. The hammerhead turned and swam away. I was thankful it was baby, and not big momma shark.
The Navasota River is a lazy paddle in Central Texas, slow moving water, maybe fifty yards wide at its widest. There was a group of us in kayaks and canoes. A Great Blue Heron lifted out of a tree on the bank in front of us. It flew a short distance downriver and landed on another tree branch.
As if waiting for us to catch up, as we got closer it flew off again. Downriver and onto another tree. This went on for the entire paddle trip. As we drew closer, the heron would fly. Again and again. The heron pacing ahead of our boats, as if to show us the way.
All of this is true. The names were changed in the Everglades story so I won’t get sued. As far as I know, that damn snake is still in the tree.
Fred Mays is a writer in McKinney, Texas. For many years prior to that he lived in Florida and paddled rivers, bays and coasts from the Keys to the Panhandle. See his writing and photo blogs at fredmays.com.