Crooked Creek Chickee, Everglades National Park – February 26, 2013
People told me a lot of things about the Mississippi River. They told me the barges would kill me. They said it would be ugly and boring. They asked why anyone would want to paddle it and said it wouldn’t be like Huck Finn.
John Buckley said I’d love it, to aim right at the whirlpools, and camp on sandbars every night.
Only one of those people had been there and only one was right.
He also said that getting to the Keys by November might be a bit ambitious. He was right about that too. But he never said I couldn’t do it and he never asked why I wanted to go. He didn’t need to. He knows because he’s done it.
I met John the first week of August on Isle Royale. Lake Superior was blue and almost warm then, looking like a northern ocean shining against the gray and green rocks and trees. We all laughed at winter, like an afterthought against the sunshine and warm summer.
I caught him staring at my boat on a rocky beach near the Edison Fishery. He asked where I was headed and never blinked when I said Key West. Then he handed me his card, told me to keep in touch, and said he’d see me in the Everglades. Told me to ask the rangers there for him, that they would know how to find him. But I never had to ask. Seven months later, he found me on an island just off the north end of Everglades National Park.
“Wake up sleepyhead,” he said, walking up to my tent. “It’s good to see you again.”
John has the grin of an adventurer, black and silver hair, trimmed gray beard. You’d never guess he’s just over seventy, but some people refuse to get old. I think he’d make a good movie pirate. I could see him swinging off the masts to board an enemy’s ship, a saber in one hand, a pistol in the other, not for loot or plunder, but just for the hell of it.
As I drifted down the Mississippi, an email appearedÂ when he thought I might be fading. Advice on cornbread in Natchez or a promise of a warm beer and a cold shower in the Everglades where he and his wife Donna have volunteered for more than thirty-five years. My favorite ended with “for cleaner water and dirtier women.”
“We’ll see Donna in a few days,” he told me this morning. “She’s waiting for us on the Swamp Lily.”
That’s their old houseboat parked somewhere deep in the twisting maze of mangroves on the southern end of the Everglades.
If you look at a map, Florida starts to break into pieces at the end. Crisscrossing rivers and streams–brackish and pumping with current and tide–cut the land into ten thousand islands and places with names like The Nightmare, Hell’s Bay, and The Labyrinth. It is a constantly shifting maze of twisted channels, mud flats, and mangroves. What was passable one day might be choked off the next. Currents run both ways. Landmarks are nothing but odd limbs and trees that all look the same until you’ve seen them a hundred times and memorized the curve of every bony limb.
I read somewhere that islanders and gladesmen had seven unwritten laws: 1. suspect every man; 2. ask no questions; 3. settle your own quarrels; 4. never steal from an Islander; 5. stick by him, even if you do not know him; 6. shoot quick, when your secret is in danger; and 7. cover your kill.
“Welcome to the Everglades,” I thought, as John and I disappeared up a river flowing backwards into the mangrove maze. “A hundred miles to Flamingo.”