After recommending to you nine ways to get more books into your life in the coming year, yours truly is off to a poor start. In the first week of our new year I read not a paragraph with my eyes or my ears (six audiobooks are languishing on my iPod). Instead, from January 1st through 7th, I paddled the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway through Florida’s Everglades National Park, together with my 21-year-old son, Cal, my brother-in-law Bryan Granger, and my adventurer friend Robert Kennedy.
When does a well-read life call for fewer books but more action?
For a dozen years my buddy Rob and I had talked about paddling this waterway, which is renowned among paddle aficionados but unknown by almost everyone else, even by people living within 100 miles of it in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton. It’s almost funny trying to explain this to area people.
“The Wilderness Waterway?” they ask.
“Well, it starts in Flamingo…” Blank look.
“Flamingo is the southernmost town in Florida if you don’t count the Keys.”
“Oh…” followed by another blank look.
“Then you paddle northwest through this wilderness area, a National Park actually, also called the Ten Thousand Islands, until you get to Everglades City….”
“Everglades City is the southernmost town on the west coast of Florida—south of Naples and Marco Island.”
That the Ten Thousand Islands and Wilderness Waterway are terra incognito is perhaps one reason they're preserved. There may have been more visitors a hundred years ago. That’s when hunters shot unknown thousands of Everglades birds for their exotic feathers, destined to adorn the hats of fashionable ladies. (Chevelier Bay is named after one such hunter.)
While the desolate bays and rivers are quite close to millions of people, they are hard to get to. A few hours in a high-speed boat can get you there, as long as it’s the right kind of boat—like a 17-foot skiff with a special jack plate mount for the outboard that allows the prop to just brush the water, whose depth is often measured in inches.
Once there, you pretty much have to stay in the boat. Those thousands of islands are impenetrable mangroves. It would take you several minutes just to crawl onto the net of roots that serve as shoreline. I don’t know how you’d stand without risking a sprained ankle, or worse.
Anyhow, don’t feel left out if you’ve never heard of it. Few people other than avid paddlers and fishermen have. Plus a growing number of people in government who are being informed by a litany of environmental groups trying to repair its ecology.
I blame books for getting me into this mess…and my buddies
Like other strange areas of the world, the Ten Thousand Islands serve as the setting for some fine literature. Randy Wayne White’s enormously enjoyable novels in the Doc Ford series, such as Mangrove Coast and Shark River, exhibit a detail of the area earned the hard way from White’s early career as a fishing guide. And Peter Matthiessen’s Watson trilogy was set in these murky waters. His penultimate Shadow Country won the 2008 National Book Award.
Matthiessen’s Killing Mr. Watson was one of the tipping points that made me want to paddle this area. There’s even the Watson’s Place campsite where you can spend the night, if you don’t mind sleeping on a muddy beach once owned by a murderer.
What transformed a mere desire to paddle this area into the actual deed were my three partners. Cal, after six months of Mandarin immersion in Beijing, wanted the opposite of big-city pollution and people, and reminded me of the idea that had long been on my bucket list. Then there was my brother-in-law, Bryan, who is a genius at preparing for, and thriving in, the outdoors.
Finally, Rob Kennedy, mountain climber, triathlete and extreme sports enthusiast. Normally when Rob tells me his plans and asks me to go along I say, “That’s okay, you go ahead and I’ll stay here to dial 911.” On the trip, the four of us agreed we were the only four people we knew who would actually do this trip and—for the most part—enjoy it.
I also went to the Wilderness Waterway for the reason Thoreau went to the woods—to see what it had to teach. What did I learn?
I sure did learn to appreciate hot showers, and the comfortable mattress I sleep on (after six nights on a 1/2 –inch foam mat over wooden planks). I have a new appreciation just for being outside at nighttime without a constellation of mosquitoes orbiting my head and gators 18 inches below my feet.
And on the positive side, I also have memories of the three of us paddlers, tired and sore, facing yet another headwind and deciding to just power our way across Broad River Bay’s choppy waters with chants and whoops and hollering like crazed men. (Cal and I looked at each other through the spray, saying with our eyes: Remember this.)
Thoreau’s tonic of wilderness had some time to work on me: hour after hour of only the sound of water and wind and of mangroves, mangroves and more mangroves. I began to wonder whether wilderness, by definition, must be monotonous. Must you have mile after mile of something, like glaciers or desert or forest or mangroves, in order to qualify as wilderness?
I have this warm feeling that lingers now of just knowing this place exists. This place of distant green shores, of wide open water and unmolested sky—this place where you can go all day without seeing another human outside your party and not even a sign of humanity, save what you yourself brought. Could I be missing the place already?
I just downloaded Randy Wayne White’s Ten Thousand Islands onto my iPod. Now I can go back there at the hands of a master storyteller.
Sometimes we read, sometimes we do. Let me know what you think, dear reader, about your own reading and doing, and reading some more. I want to hear. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments).