As we pushed our loaded canoe off the dock to begin a seven-day paddling trip through Florida’s Everglades National Park, a huge, fat, snaggle-toothed crocodile slid into the canal across from us … and disappeared under the black water.
“I think maybe I’m scared,” murmured Talon.
I knew I was scared. And of more than crocodiles. My body was buzzing with adrenaline as I kept an eye out for pythons, spiders, mosquitoes, alligators, and approaching storms, all while barking constant commands to our preschooler: “Sit on your bottom!” “Hands inside the boat!” “Stop hitting my paddle with yours!” “Don’t you dare take off that life jacket!”
Fear made me a miserable mother. As the wind picked up, creating choppy waves in the bay, I dug my paddle deeper, cursing both myself and Rob for deciding it would be “fun” to spend a week in the remote swamps of America’s largest sub-tropical wilderness — especially while five months pregnant.
After twelve tense miles of paddling, we arrived at our first chickee, a Seminole Indian word for an open-air structure over water. Ours was a tiny island comprised of two 10×12’ wooden platforms connected by a narrow dock with a Porta-Potty, its bright blue plastic incongruous with the infinite greens and browns of surrounding mangroves.
We tied the beat-up aluminum canoe to one side, while our friend Kevin and his five-year-old daughter docked their sea kayak on the other. The cooped-up kids started to happily play tag, running across the narrow planks while daring each other to touch the spiderwebs suspended between the wood and the water.
I groaned in exhaustion, no rest in sight — drowning was just as likely on the chickee as on the boat. Kevin and I chased the kids, coaxing them back into life jackets, grabbing them when they got close to the edge, cautioning against just about everything and generally being annoying adults.
Meanwhile, after a brief but sobering safety lesson for the kids (“See how dark that water is? If you fall in, it’ll be hard to see you. Don’t fall in.”) Rob kicked back with snacks, humming a song as he scanned for rising fish.
This was Rob’s fourth trip into the Everglades, and — unlike Kevin and me — he was comfortable in this foreign ecosystem. He also trusted the kids’ survival skills more than we did.
At sunset, the whine of mosquitoes descended faster than the dark. We all dived into one tent (ours was bigger than Kevin’s), frantically searching for bug spray and head nets. Rob braved the bugs to make dinner — canned chicken and vegetables over rice — and passed it through the narrow gap I opened in our tent door. Before eating, we had to kill several pesky intruders, smearing blood across the tent’s nylon as we smashed mosquitoes.
The kids, at least, thought it was fun.
I cried that night, sweating on my too-thin sleeping pad while the baby inside kicked my tired ribs. I couldn’t imagine mustering the energy to get through the six long days ahead.
The next morning, Rob asked if Kevin and I wanted to keep going. The loop we’d planned around Whitewater Bay was based on keeping the wind and tides in our favor. Turning back after another day would be tough if not impossible.
Giving up now would feel horrible. It had taken a lot of work to get to where we all sat that morning. Route finding, boat searching, permit gathering, food shopping, gear packing, traveling across much of the country. But was continuing the safest—or sanest—option?
I sipped my coffee and stayed quiet while I weighed the pros and cons.
The mosquitoes had disappeared at sunrise, and the air was warm. The rising sun spread gold across the bay. I watched a flock of white ibises fly across the cloudless blue sky. Talon chattered to Willow as they practiced casting fishing rods from the dock.
“Dolphins!” Rob shouted, pointing at a wake near shore. We all oooed and ahhed as the pair of bottlenose dolphins breached and breathed, circling the water just thirty yards from our feet.
It seemed like a sign. We decided to keep going.
And it was the right decision. It got easier. All of us adapted to the new water-world, finding our rhythm as we paddled between chickees. We learned how to keep the kids entertained on the boats (fruit snacks and fishing breaks), adjusted our routine to avoid the bugs (cook dinner once it got dark to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes), and set some ground rules to help the adults unwind (30 minutes of quiet time for everyone after we docked).
No one fell in the water, and I learned to trust the kids. They played naked with squirt guns and buckets, creating their own games with whatever was at hand. We took turns cooking meals and napping in the hammock.
It helped that we didn’t see any more snaggle-toothed monsters: we never saw another crocodile, noticed only one alligator, and didn’t spot a single snake all week.
But we saw dolphins every day. And beautiful birds, which Willow and Talon learned to name: tri-colored herons, roseate spoonbills, great egrets. The kids became impressive fishers, proudly reeling in mangrove snapper and ladyfish. We went days without seeing another boat.
By the middle of the week, I was falling asleep under the vast stars, tears forgotten as I sank into the rich, raw world of the Everglades. My whole world was simple, comprised only of four other people, two hand-powered boats, and our little wooden islands.
Sure, we still suffered some: we all ended up with dozens of mosquito bites, got cranky at the close quarters, and took a wrong turn once in a confusing maze of mangroves. But the challenges are integral to the adventure story, the climaxes that give the smooth sections texture.
By the end of the week, I realized why I usually choose “adventures” over “vacations:” when I’m busy surviving — completing the important tasks of finding shelter and food, noticing and responding to the natural elements that frame our days — I don’t have the mental space to fret about work, money, or global news.
This particular adventure made me a better mom, one who faced my fears head-on rather than retreating when the going got tough.
Like parenting, wilderness is uncomfortable. It’s not for the faint of heart. But the risks of going deeper make the rewards that much sweeter.