Flamingo, Everglades National Park – March 2, 2013
“A hundred and fifty thousand miles,” John says near the entrance of Whitewater Bay.
Waves surge across the open water, pushing at our backs. Wind steals words and makes us shout to be heard. I think I heard one hundred and fifty thousand. I ask again and hear it again. One hundred and fifty thousand miles. Numbers move in my mind. Fifty years maybe, three thousand miles a year, just under ten miles a day. That could get you there.
I look at John in the waves. His one man canoe glides across the tops, hangs over their edges and splashes down. I think of how I barely keep up with him in the mangrove mazes even though he has forty years on me and I just paddled almost four-thousand miles to get here. I have to dig into the water and push hard to keep him in sight.
“You sure?” I say.
“I’ve been around a long time,” he says.
One hundred and fifty thousand miles. His parents wanted him to keep going with school. He was going for his PhD when he decided to open up a paddle shop and race canoes instead. They sent his sister down to convince him to keep studying and working to get his degree. After talking to John, she went back home and opened up a paddling shop of her own.
A hundred and fifty thousand miles sounds like something I’d say about an old car with a hundred dents in the fender and a good engine, one that made a few thousand runs to the grocery store and sits in a driveway with an old man next to it ready to say things like “dependable,” “reliable,” and “they don’t make them like they used to,” not a person in a boat with a paddle in their hand. But I believe him because John loves to paddle. It’s like breathing to him and he has breathed a long time.
“There are four big crossings,” John says as we leap out into the open of Whitewater Bay and the waves slip behind us and shove.
The bay earns its name from the wind rushing across the southern tip of Florida and conjures waves that build and tumble, turning the brown water into a sea of whitecaps. By the fourth crossing, broken and chopped water bends around islands and flows into itself from side channels. Waves punch themselves angry and have no rhythm.
John and I paddle together, silently agreeing to keep each other close as the waves jump high and the bay slides south with us. I think about my first day on Lake of the Woods and the tiny waves that almost flipped me over. I look at pictures and laugh at them now. I wonder how I ever thought they were big.
We slip into a quiet river and hide away on a long canal to the town of Flamingo. We grab a pair of pizzas at the restaurant. I’m ragged and tired, not from the miles, but the focus in the waves. They never let you rest. They hold you rigid and tight. They demand attention.
John looks at me over his beer.
“You’re a rock solid waterman,” he says.
And I try to hide my smile.