Kayak on the Atlantic Ocean on the beautiful Florida Keys with the sea breeze at our backs or canoe in a mangrove swamp? The first involved a required kayaking lesson and $60 and the second involved grabbing a paddle and an orange life preserver from the park ranger’s shed and giving him a driver’s license so we would be sure to come back and pay the $5 fee. My husband and I don’t like being taught and we’re pretty cheap so we opted for the canoe.
Even without the price and hassle differential, it seemed like a cool idea to explore the mangroves in a canoe. We love birds. And birds love mangroves. Mangroves are low thick trees that grow out of the coral/rock that is the Florida Keys. Their roots are like tangled electrical wires, thick and tough. It’s amazing that Keys settlers had the pluck to hack back the mangroves so the resort developers could get down here and make it all nice.
Long Key State Park is in the Middle Keys. Like everything here, it’s on the water and in the water. It has camping, nature trails, and the lovely to contemplate canoe trail through the mangroves. I couldn’t wait.
The canoes were tethered to the end of a dock marked with a small sign that said Canoe Launch/Soft Mud. Ten big green, plastic canoes sitting in six inches of water. It’ll be ok, I thought, we’re at the shore, it’ll get deeper out there.
We set off, following a trail map that listed 18 sequentially numbered posts with something to observe at each. The posts, painted last in 1986, had numbers on them only decipherable if you came right up next to them, the light was right, and you could make out the shadow of where the actual numbers might have been pasted on a generation ago. It seemed odd to me to make a tourist attraction so difficult. They should raise their fee and go get some decent numbers from Home Depot to stick on these damn posts, I thought, as we meandered around the swamp trying to connect the dots.
“Where are all the birds?” I asked, over my shoulder at my husband who sitting at the back end of the canoe.
“It’s too hot for the birds.”
And was it ever. Paddling our $5 canoe was like trying to skim a cement block across the water. Hard paddling. Sun straight on us – of course, we canoe at noon in 90 degree heat. This is going to be instantaneous skin cancer for me. My dermatologist would smack me if she saw this. I put the orange life preserver across my legs. Nice and toasty.
I missed our beautiful Old Town canoe that we use in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It glides on the water with just the sweetest, slightest paddle strokes. Sometimes we leave a wake, it’s so fast. But this canoe was a barge, getting stuck every few minutes in the muck.
We turned a corner and happened on another couple in a $5 canoe. They were paddling frantically, first on one side, then another, water splashing, the guy shouting instructions to the woman, both channeling the Three Stooges. Hilarious. I love it when one incompetent tells another incompetent what to do. We asked them where #7 was, they pointed and then went back to their hysterical paddling. Crazy, in a circle canoeing. Obviously, neither had spent enough time at camp.
Luckily, our canoe was being steered by the Pine Forest Camp 1964 Color Wars General, a man who could maneuver a canoe like he was fine tuning a radio, tip the paddle a bit here, pull in a bit there. It was artistry going on behind me in that canoe. I just paddled.
“They learned to canoe in Manhattan,” my husband said, this man from Philadelphia, his nose slightly in the air. “They only know how to get around town. Didn’t you hear the New York accent?” Okay.
Just then we saw two beautiful, giant herons, so large they looked like ostriches that had escaped from the Miami Zoo. “This makes the trip worthwhile, don’t you think?”
It was only Post #8.
We paddled. We got stuck. Sometimes there was only a couple inches of water. We would pole for a while but get nowhere. I’d wait and yes, my husband would kick off his flip flops and get out to pull the canoe through the shallows. I’d sit, pleasantly, my paddle across my lap, the life preserver protecting my un-sun-screened legs. It’s so nice that, if I wait in silence long enough, he does the icky stuff without being asked. He’s a man who is a feminist who has an appropriate sense of men’s responsibilities anyway.
“I think you’re going to have to get out.” The dreaded words. I’d been watching the skittering sea critters, the floating and globbing things in the water, the sharp shards of shells, and the nearly invisible crabs. Disgusting. If it’s not hard packed sand or a tiled pool bottom, I’m not walking on it without boots. “It’s just nature,” he said waiting. I got out, walked next to him, trying to put each foot down in the least disgusting place, praying for deeper water.
We finally hit water deep enough to float in, got back in and paddled to the next posts – 10, 11, 13, and then finally, 16, and 17. Still shallow, still poling, but no more African Queen reenactments.
With the dock in sight, I decide that I’d get out and tie up the boat. Just to be nice, just to be gallant. It’s not just a guy thing, you know? Women can be gallant. So I hopped out.
I sank up to my knees in the mangrove muck. Soft mud the sign said, my eye. The muck came up to the bottom of my pants – my peddle pushers as my mom would call them. Unbelievably disgusting. Who knew what was under all that muck? The mucky, sucky sound when I tried to step out of it, tried to move toward the shore, was gross and awful. One step, then another, up to my pants. There was no firmer ground anywhere.
“Jesus Christ! Get me out of here. This is horrible!” I screamed. I hardly ever scream. The last time was when I happened upon a mouse doing the backstroke in the toilet in our downstairs bathroom.
The dock was shoulder level with no ladder. No alternate way to get to shore except sucking through the muck and then scraping through the mangroves. No choice but to get back into the canoe, step up on the bow and hoist myself on to the dock. I considered this for a few seconds, afraid that if I put my weight on the bow, the back end of the canoe would flip up and smash me against the dock. My whole life in a nutshell – a succession of imagined nightmare scenarios.
The Color Guard General stood calmly, with muck up to his knees, seeming to wait for me to decide what it was I was going to do. No comment, no instructions, just — ‘figure out what you’re going to do, Jan’. I took the bow option, panting, deep in my girlie girl, hand-waving, oh it’s so icky, get me out of here hysterics and then felt my husband’s two hands planted firmly on my rear end, pushing me up on to the dock.
Walking back with our paddles to the Ranger Station, we saw another couple and I wondered if they were going canoeing. Should I tell them it’s like an episode of Survivor out there?
Nah. Why spoil their fun.