I was leafing through some old papers a few days ago, and in among the notes from lost loves and forgotten friends, I came across the photo above. It took me back.
It was taken in the early 1990s. The guy in the picture is my first cousin Shannon. At the time, we were single, lean and hungry, and our free time was usually spent on the water in pursuit of game fish, often in each other’s company. In the wintertime, our regular trips were curtailed by cold weather that drove the snook inland and emptied the flats of redfish. We’d both get the shack-nasties, so when Shannon mentioned that a friend was joining a large group at Graveyard Creek, a small beach down south on the edge of the Everglades, I was game. The agenda called for a single day of fishing and camping, so we loaded his boat with food, ice, beer, tents and tackle and headed down to join them, reports of an approaching cold front be damned. We towed his boat to a ramp at Chokoloskee, a sleepy little fishing town, to avoid a long run in kicked-up water. From there we roared south in the early afternoon, weaving along in a backcountry river, following a local guide in a little skiff. About a mile into the trip, the guide’s boat skipped over a submerged oyster bar. We weren’t as lucky.
After grinding to a sudden stop, we sat within a cloud of fuel-tinted mist, the deck laden with oyster shell particles and chunks of fetid black mud. As second mate, I knew my role. I slipped on a pair of old tennis shoes, dropped into the icy water and gradually pushed us back into the channel, shells crunching underfoot. The motor chugged to life, and we were once again on our way, surprised but undaunted. Many winding creeks later, we were on the outside, eager to reach our destination.
The Gulf was rough and choppy, and the going was slow. About an hour into the trip – our slickers wet with the spray that floated across the gunnels with each slapping wave – an alarm sounded signaling that the motor was overheating. We cut the power and played mechanic, hanging precariously over the water to remove the cowling before running heavy monofilament through the pickup line. No dice. Each time we gathered some speed the alarm would shriek and the motor would shut off. We faced a decision. The wind was picking up, the sun was getting low and we had a good run ahead of us…and behind us. Making our way in the dark along a notoriously unforgiving coast was not an option, so we limped along quartering into the heavy chop, gliding to a stop at an outer island with an exposed beach. I began carrying the tents, cooler and other camping tools to shore while Shannon anchored and tied the skiff to a sturdy mangrove branch to keep its nose into the wind. I found a high, level spot within the trees and some dry wood, and within an hour or so we had the tent up, a fire going and beers in hand. We watched the sun fade from a bleak sky, and noted that it was pretty damn cold. The tide was rising, pushed high into the mangroves by the growing wind.
After sundown we cooked two pieces of chicken and a can of beans over the fire. We had no additional food since we only planned to stay overnight and Shannon’s friend had assured him that there was more than enough grub to go around. We did have a good supply of water and, of course, beer. So we ate, donned a second sweatshirt apiece, and then sat around the fire and proceeded to dent the beer supply. I could see the concern in Shannon’s eyes, and I’m sure he could see the same in mine.
About an hour later, we left the vague comfort of the small fire and made our way into the tent. The temperature had dropped 20 degrees or so, and it was deep-down cold. Two native Florida boys, we had no heavy parkas, mitts or gloves, so we rummaged through our knapsacks and put on every article of clothing we had – three sweatshirts, two pairs of jeans, three pairs of socks. Apiece. And we still suffered. I can still recall the sound of Shannon’s shuddering, and the way the howling wind bent the sides of the tent over our faces. We slept in stops and starts.
I awoke the next morning before the sun rose, stiff and hungry. An offshore wind was still blowing, though with far less intensity than it had during the night. I stretched and did some jumping jacks to warm up before walking toward the boat. I found it — high and dry on shelly ground. I stared, incredulous, and began to walk in the rough direction of the Gulf, expecting to find the waterline a few steps away. I kept walking. And walking. I finally found a thin sheet of water roughly 1/4 mile from the campsite, a rolling expanse of inches-deep shallows that stretched out as far as I could see. The wind had shifted during the night, and that – coupled with a strong outgoing tide – had pulled the plug, pushing the edge of the Gulf impossibly far away. I turned to see Shannon rubbing his eyes and doing a double take. It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere soon. We were well out of cell phone range, and with the rough weather, low tide and scarcity of wintertime boat traffic, we had no expectations that help would arrive any time soon. We were on our own in the Everglades. In the middle of a strong cold front. With no food save a stale bag of potato chips.
There was nothing left to do but wait for the tide — a tide that, for all we knew, might never rise high enough to free the boat. I decided to take a walk around the island to warm up. I headed south through the woods, and after a short walk I stepped through the last line of trees onto an open beach. It was a lovely sight, a long expanse of stark white marked here and there by a gnarled tree, a glowing sun just beginning to color the horizon. I sensed movement to my right, and as I turned a large herd of deer exploded away, startled at my sudden appearance. They seemed to float above the ground, big clods of wet sand the only evidence that they were earthbound. It was a surreal moment, the rising sun streaking the bleached mangrove trees and open shore with neon orange bands, the ethereal shapes of deer gliding away like dun-colored phantoms.
When I returned to our campsite, Shannon was busy packing up the tent. We moved everything back onto the skiff and walked to the waterline again, this time inserting a stick in the sand to mark the progress of the incoming tide. It was slow in coming, but by mid-morning it was within spitting distance. An hour later, the water was lapping against the hull. But it was not enough. The water began to recede from the last stick we’d placed. In a bit of a panic, we tried to rock the hull to break the seal of the wet mud, but it was useless. We watched the tide creep out again, the possibility that we were likely facing another brutally cold night — this one without the distraction of a hot dinner — an unspoken but shared thought.
We spent the balance of the morning trying unsuccessfully to pick up a cell phone signal. By early afternoon, we were both famished, so we split the remaining bag of potato chips, counting each morsel carefully to ensure equal portions. As the sun began its descent, we once again began tracking the progress of the tide. And once again it crept back in inch-by-inch, slowly trickling past our crude markers until it passed the boat. We set our shoulders against the poling platform and heaved, our energy reserves waning due to lack of nourishment and sleep, and the relentless presence of the chilly wind. We had pushed on and off for two hours, the boat sliding inches at a time until it moved no more. As the light faded, we began to concede defeat. It was time to lug the tent and gear back to shore and settle down for another cold night.
In a last desperate attempt, we threw our bodies against the boat again, and slowly, painfully, it crept forward. For another few minutes we heaved with all our might, falling breathlessly to our knees in the mud before bracing ourselves and pushing again. Days later we would compare the bruises and broken blood vessels lacing our arms and shoulders, but at the moment we simply gave our all, thoughts of concerned family members driving us on. And suddenly, after hours of effort, the boat slid forward in earnest, and finally began to glide in the shallows. Another few minutes of pushing and the water was at our knees, and then at our waists. Shannon clambered onto the deck and tried to fire up the motor, and I kept pushing until I couldn’t touch bottom. It was dark by then, the sky moonless and clear, and we were both soaked through and through. I was colder than I had ever thought possible. I swept a flashlight along the shore to help us keep our bearings, and Shannon did his best to keep the boat headed back north into the pounding waves. We were both nearing hyperthermia. At one point I asked him a question above the roar of the motor and my voice sounded foreign and hollow. He tried to respond, and I could hear his jaw locked with cold, the response unintelligible. I looked down at the white concrete boots he wore and noted that they were still filled with cold Gulf water. Ahead of us in the dark lay Rabbit Key Pass, a tricky inlet to navigate even in bright sunlight. Every few minutes the alarm would sound and the motor would die, and we’d slip sideways into the swells and take water over the gunnels.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, we saw the lights of a lone sailboat bobbing ahead of us and found our way into Rabbit Key Pass. We picked our way back inside marker-by-marker, bouncing off bars and scraping over sandy bottom. We did so more by feel than by sight, and when the boat finally rubbed the dock at Chokoloskee, we used the last of our reserves to run it onto the trailer and climb into the truck cab. The heater was set on “high” the entire trip home, the windows slick with condensation that seeped from our soaked clothes. We did not speak. Along the way, we learned that several family members were preparing a search party for us. We both slept for the better part of two days.
That was more than 15 years ago. Incredible. When I look at the snapshot of my cousin standing on his beached skiff framed by a blue-grey sky, I smile — a side effect of memories, even those related to trying moments. Maybe it’s partly a grimace at the reminder of our poor planning and the bitter cold. Maybe it’s a wistful nod to the strength and resilience of youth, both of which are fading commodities. Maybe it’s the still-clear image of deer bounding away down a lonely stretch of beach, their long tails flashing in the new light. Or maybe I’m reminded of a one-time freedom now misplaced and forgotten like, well, old photographs.
Either way, it makes me smile.