When my friend Nancy Belcher told her son that, after visiting friends in Miami, we were going to sail the watery wilderness of Florida's Everglades National Park, he patted her on the shoulder and gave her an avuncular smile. "You want to take a boat into the Everglades alone? Two women who don't know port from starboard?"
Not one to be patronized, especially not by her own child, Nancy marched to the phone and made reservations. Sandy Asche, at that time the boat rental supervisor at the park's Flamingo Marina, had told her, "Anyone can learn to drive a houseboat." Didn't that mean us?
Nancy had whetted my appetite with photos, taken on a previous Everglades trip, of canny-eyed alligators and inky anhingas spreading their fringed black wings to dry in the sun. But she had seen her tropical wildlife at ponds and swamplands surrounded by park service boardwalks and manicured paths. To taste the mysteries and solitude of endless mangroves, swamps and saw grass plains--found nowhere else in the world--you need to get out on the water.
In the northern Everglades fed by Lake Okeechobee, the freshwater marshes are carpeted with waving saw grass. As saltwaters from the Gulf of Mexico invade the sloughs and shallow rivers farther south, where we were, the scenery grows more dramatic. Bushy salt-loving, leather-leaved mangrove trees move in, bunching together to create an ever-changing landscape of impenetrable islands. Map makers throw up their hands as hurricanes keep tearing islands apart or making a single island out of two by silting up the streamlets between them.
"Come and let me check you out," urged Sandy, as we stood watching a 5-foot alligator sunning itself near the dock. She led us to the ungainly Tarpon, bearing the name of Florida's fiercest fighting fish but looking like a 1950s trailer on pontoons--powered by an outboard motor, top speed 7 mph.
The Flamingo Marina has only eight houseboats for rent. Four of them are sleek 37-foot fiberglass Gibsons, fitted out like luxury yachts and sleeping six. They come with an upper sundeck and upper and lower helm stations and the luxury of air-conditioning. These are at a premium during the hot humid summers when the gargantuan mosquitoes are at their worst and the fishing is at its best. (The drier winter season that we enjoyed is prime time for birders.)
The rest of the fleet is like the cheaper, non-air-conditioned, 40-foot Tarpon, which sleeps eight. Our on-deck amenities were limited to two plastic chairs, an ice chest for the fishing clientele in front and a well-used barbecue grill on the stern.
We stashed our Lean Cuisines, English muffins and chardonnay in the fridge and followed Sandy to the helm. "One of you takes the wheel while the other navigates." She patted the compass and unfolded a big marine map. "Follow the printed red line between the numbered channel markers and don't go beyond these boundaries." She drew an ominously heavy line in Ponce de Leon Bay and cautioned us to stay in the areas shown on the map in deep blue. Lighter blue meant extremely shallow, and if we drifted into the palest areas next to the mangrove shores, the blades of our motor could easily get stuck in the shallow silt. She showed us which button to push to extricate the motor and went on to give us the rules of the road.
"Remember to keep the red markers on your right and the green ones on your left going out. Coming back it's the reverse, green on your right."
After a driving lesson and life-jacket inspection, we practiced our radio call: "Flamingo Marina, Flamingo Marina, Flamingo Marina, this is houseboat Tarpon."
"You also can sound your horn for help in case of disaster," Sandy said lightly. Chuckles all around.
Setting the anchor looked like what we used to call man's work, but I stifled the thought. One of us would have to put the boat in reverse while the other lowered the 35-pound monster single-handedly. To raise it, one drove forward, the other grappled with the chain. "It's all in the book," said our mentor, leaving a well-thumbed binder on our table. Then she started us up, untied the line and leaped back to the dock. "Turn wide," she called, as we entered the narrow canal, "and watch out for small boats."
The Flamingo Canal is the start of a singular 99-mile waterway that cuts through the park's southwest heel from the recreational center of Flamingo on Florida Bay to Everglades City on the Gulf of Mexico north of Ponce de Leon Bay. Canoeists can navigate the string of lakes, marshes and streams in eight days, sleeping along the route on Indian-style platforms called chickees, which the Seminoles devised to protect themselves from marine predators below. Houseboats, usually rented for short fishing trips, are restricted to the area around nearby Whitewater Bay. Landing on the mangrove islands is discouraged, as is swimming in the tea-colored snake- and shark-infested waters.
As we lumbered along the first few miles, canoeists and kayakers waved and darted to safety. By the time we entered the wide expanse of Whitewater Bay, there was only one other boat in sight.
"Red on the right, green on the left," we chanted, squinting to find the metal marine markers that seemed to blend into the water. Seasoned sailors know that each marker is set at an angle to show the general direction of the next one. But we just zigzagged across, enchanted whenever we found a marker, then scanned frantically for the next.
When we reached the other end of Whitewater Bay, we steered into a baffling labyrinth of mangrove islands and found the mysterious world we'd come for. With their uniform fringes of roots like giant bronzed turkey claws sticking out of the soft mucky bottom, the dark green mangrove clusters all look alike. Bird life is sheltered in their interior thickets and shrimp nurseries thrive at their feet. Even with our map, we cruised slowly for hours, circling in our own wake like children in an Elizabethan maze. Only a red-shouldered hawk gliding above knew where we were. Finally, we decided to follow the sunset and found our way back to the bay.
That night we set our anchor in the narrow Little Shark River, which empties into Ponce de Leon Bay at the entrance to the Gulf. On deck with our wine, we watched the wilderness turn silvery, then black. "Like being in an ink bottle," Nancy said. Glittering Venus poked over the mangroves, and a matching diamond appeared in the river below. Cawing, hooting, cackling and peeping from behind the wall of trees gladdened the night.
The next day under glowering skies, we found a colony of pelicans in the trees, so close that we could have reached out and pulled one on board. We were motoring back and forth in front of them when our outboard suddenly stopped without a splutter and we couldn't steer. A rising wind had blown a line off the deck and tangled it in the propeller blades. We ripped out the rope, ran to the helm and frantically worked the ignition key. But every turn, every push was answered by clicks and whines. "Maybe we broke the motor," I blurted out, "or is it just wet? Should we raise it out of the water to dry?"
I ran to the radio for advice, but our calls brought only static or silence. The radio was dead. A strong gust was carrying us across the river and big raindrops started to fall. The wind slammed us into the opposite bank, where a mangrove branch snagged our railing and pulled us to the shore.
"If a storm should suddenly arise," Nancy was now reading from the manual, "go immediately to the lee side of any mangrove island." But which was the lee side and how could we get there without a motor? All our hopes were now pinned on the branch of a tree. If it let loose, when the tide turned we'd be bobbing out to sea on our way to Mexico.
Wildly I thought of making a jump for shore. We could balance on a row of mangrove claws until a boat came by. "Not me," Nancy said. "Why do you think they call this the Little Shark River?"
People have different ways of dealing with panic. My thoughts raced to a valuable heirloom ring hidden in the toe of a shoe at home. When she went through my closet, would my daughter unwittingly donate her legacy to Goodwill? Nancy focused on the immediate. She went to the sink and picked up the sponge. "You don't have to wash the dishes before you die," I told her. Dutifully, I dried. Then the wind gathered speed and the branch let go and sent our floundering tub around a bend.
Suddenly it popped into our heads that our heavy anchor might hold us even if we had no motor to set it according to Hoyle (rules and regulations). We had just wrestled it off the deck when we looked up and saw a heavenly sight. There was a sailboat at anchor upstream in the distance. We leaned on the horn and frantically waved our orange life jackets. No signs of life. We signaled and tooted for a full two hours.
Below in the 30-foot Remedios, veteran sailors Bob and Barbara Gould from North Carolina had been working on a picture puzzle while riding out the squall when Barbara glanced out a porthole. Minutes later a dinghy was putting toward us.
"Looks like a man," Nancy said. "We're saved." And 30 years of women's liberation went into the drink.
"Radios don't work this far out," Bob Gould explained, when we unloaded our tale.
As for Mexico, no free ride. "The Coast Guard loves to rescue people in the Gulf." Then our hero turned the key in the ignition and the motor purred. It was only flooded. Later we heard that if we had drifted back into the mangroves, the marina's high-speed search boats--or, worst case, a park service helicopter--would have found us.
The next morning, houseboat Tarpon sailed smartly back to Flamingo. As a flock of black skimmers led the way to the dock, two old salts composed a message to Sandy:
Anyone can learn to drive a houseboat, even landlubbers like us.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
GUIDEBOOK: Gliding in the 'Glades
Getting there: There is nonstop service on American and United, connecting service on Delta (through Atlanta) and Continental (Houston). Fares begin at about $325 round trip. From Miami, take U.S. 1 for 45 miles southwest to Florida city and follow the signs to Everglades National Park.
When to go: Houseboats are available all year, but go in dry season, November through April, to avoid heat and mosquitoes.
What to bring: Food for entire trip (mini-mart at the Flamingo Marina for last-minute items), high-powered binoculars, insect repellent, books, cards, games, portable radio and table lantern (lights are dim).
Houseboat rentals: Flamingo Lodge Marina & Outpost Resort, 1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Flamingo, FL 33034-6798; telephone (941) 695-3101 or (800) 600-3813. Rates for 40-foot pontoon boat (sleeps eight): three nights, November to May, $635, May to November, $455. Sleek Gibsons slightly higher. (You pay for fuel used.)
For more information: For park information, contact Everglades National Park, P.O. Box 279, Homestead, FL 33034-6733; tel. (305) 242-7700. Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corp., Direct Mail, P.O. Box 1100, Tallahassee, FL 32302-1100; tel. (888) 735-2872.