The horseflies were biting, but then again, so were the lizards. It was the first afternoon of a six-day paddle around the northern end of Everglades National Park, and we were doing our best to set the tone for a leisurely, relaxing trip. We sat in our lounge chairs on the coarse sand beside the river, reading our books, but there were these distractions: a few bugs and... every time we looked up from reading, those lizards seemed to have moved closer. Definitely, the lizards were moving-in. And they were staring intently at my foot. Before I could blink, one lizard made its move. It darted and attacked. I felt nothing more than a thump against my foot, but the lizard, having retreated to a safe distance a few feet away, had a mouthful of horsefly. The lizard crunched the horsefly in its jaws and gulped it down. Then it cocked its head and looked at me, as if to say “got any more?”
This would be our last trip in the Everglades before heading home. We wanted to camp in a few places we hadn’t been, and get in some beach time before getting back to our usual life. Our route would take us on a loop starting with a few days on the inside, followed by a meander among the Ten Thousand Islands.
We paddled up the Lopez River, spent the first night there, and followed the familiar markers through inland bays for much of the second day’s paddle. We spent our second night at the Sweetwater Chickee. We’d been in Florida for nearly two months, and that afternoon experienced rain for the third time. As long as the thunder and lightning stay in the distance, a chickee is a nice place to be for a storm. You’ve got a roof over your head and a good vantage point to watch the dramatic clouds sweep past.
We headed down the Chatham River and then camped on beaches in the Ten Thousand Islands: New Turkey Key, Pavilion Key and Tiger Key. We were pretty relaxed about it, favoring quality time on the islands over mileage. The days were getting hotter- in the high eighties, and each afternoon a line of dramatic clouds swept in from the mainland, threatening thunderstorms, but never shedding more than a few drops of rain. We spent a lot of time walking around and looking at things: shells, trees, birds, the distant line of the horizon over the Gulf.
There were others camped at Pavilion Key, and we met some. They were there for a rendezvous of the Water Tribe- the group responsible for the Everglades Challenge race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo in sea kayaks and various other small, non-motorized craft. These were just about the first real sea kayaks we'd seen during our entire time in Florida. They even wear life jackets and sprayskirts.
On our last evening at Tiger Key, we sat on the beach, consciously savoring our last sunset over the Gulf. It was hard to leave, and really, we could have stayed longer. It cost very little to be there, but the meter kept ticking on our home in Maine, and we would be returning to a pile of bills and responsibilities. But we told ourselves we were returning to a good place, and we missed the solid granite of our islands. We would need to return home with an increased resolve to make the most of it, to enjoy it as if we were only visitors. Which, any way you look at it, is ultimately the case.
I awoke before sunrise to see the horizon blurred by fog. We haven’t seen much fog in Florida, so it felt like a sneak preview of Maine. The air and the sea were still and quiet. I went out for a photo and the no see-ums descended, my skin burning with their bites. I dove back into the tent and waited for sun and wind to drive the bugs away. It’s worth mentioning that the bugs were always a presence, but usually, as long as we got our cooking done before dusk, we could wait-out the worst swarms inside the tent. Our last morning there was the one exception. We needed to launch in time to avoid paddling against the current, so we packed quickly, skipping our oatmeal, enduring the bugs until we were on the water where a breeze kept them away.
After a few hours of paddling we were back in Everglades City. Two days later we were back in Stonington amid a heavy rainstorm, our tans beginning to fade, the itch of bug bites subsiding, all of it already feeling distant and dreamlike. But the next morning as the sun sparkled on the water between Stonington Harbor and Isle au Haut, those familiar islands- all granite and spruce- looked very solid.