Wednesday, December 06, 2006

To Happier Endings...

I can't get the story of the Kim family in Oregon out of my mind. I'm really upset by this. James Kim sounds like he was a strong guy, and both parents really put themselves on the line to save their kids.

I guess in some ways, I could see it happening to our family. The Cap'n and I have not been shy about setting out on adventures of our own. The Kims were only on a simple road trip, when one mistake took them off the path. It could happen to us. We even visited friends in Eugene, OR, earlier this year and made a trip to the Oregon coast.

Did I tell you about the time the Cap'n and I got lost in the Everglades? We joke and laugh about it now, but we got lost on a canoe trip and ended up spending a night out sleeping in the bottom of the boat. From the vantage point of a canoe seat, all the mangroves lining the route look exactly the same and they are all about 8 feet high. You almost feel like you could stretch and see over them, to figure out where you're supposed to be going.

But you can't.

Both of us had just finished reading "In the Heart of the Sea" just before our Everglades trip. It's the true story of the whale ship sinking that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. Wonderful book. The descriptions of the stranded men had both of us thinking that one day our boat would float out of the swamp with nothing but bleached bones at the bottom of the canoe.

The first day went well. We put in on a marked trail, every twist and turn noted with a length of PVC pipe anchored in the mud and numbered. It was like connect the dots. Some of the openings between the mangrove trees were just barely wide enough for the canoe and tall enough for us. We joked about snakes dropping down from the vines into the boat, or onto us. The scenery was beautiful; the mosquitoes weren't that bad; and we were getting cocky.

We arrived at the chickee (a platform serviced by an outhouse where you set up camp -- there's no other option in the water-covered Everglades) in plenty of time to set up our tent, make a nice dinner and enjoy the company of Al the Alligator who was swimming around looking for handouts. That first night it was a double chickee, and two old canoeists were camped out on the next platform over. We should have had an inkling of suspicion -- when we told them our bold plan for the trip, they were surprised and said they wouldn't have the nerve to do it, despite their recent canoe outing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters.

Reporters -- we only recognize foreshadowing when it's written down for us.

So our chickee companions headed back to the visitors' center at Flamingo the next morning and we set out for the next chickee. This time with only our compass and map to guide us. The rest of the route was through larger bays and waterways, and none of it was marked.

Another hint we missed: We got a little disoriented not long after leaving the first chickee and backtracked so we could re-consult the map and compass. We ran into "Mr. Stinky" -- our nickname for the ranger and the actual christened name of his boat -- as he was cleaning the outhouse, and he gave us encouraging words for finding the next chickee, "Head into the wind."

We debate to this day whether he meant that literally or figuratively. I thought he was giving us general directions. (Let's save critiques of my general directional sense for another day, 'mkay?) The Cap'n argues that its only common sense from a man piloting a boatload of poo.

The second chickee was the same distance from the first chickee as we had crossed the first day. The first leg had only taken us a couple of hours, and we were getting warmed up, too. No problem, right? We paddled out a second time from the chickee happy as larks. As we went, we made sure to do as the ranger back at the visitors' center advised us before we set out: We looked behind us to note our surroundings, and we described the mangrove formations to each other as little landmarks. "That one looks like a man bending down." "That one looks like a dog jumping." Ha, ha.

Perhaps the Cap'n became a little concerned before I did, but it was nearing on mid-afternoon (we had set out from the first chickee around 8:30 in the morning) before I started getting an inkling that something was wrong. We were seeing the same blind bays. One had a white cloth tied to a tree branch at the entrance of it, as if someone else had been in our same predicament. Our landmark mangroves didn't look the same from the opposite direction. We tried going in the direction of some motorboats (airplanes?) we heard. We tried going back toward the first chickee again. We ate lunch in the canoe. We started seeing the sun set.

Around 5, the Cap'n said, "We're going to have to find a place to tie up for the night and try to make it in the morning." I think that's the only point at which there were tears. I don't swim well, I frankly don't like the water all that much, and I really don't care to lose any appendages to alligators. I did not want to hear about a night spent in an 18-foot canoe.

We found ourselves (again) in a large bay that we had already explored to find an exit -- no such luck. We tied off to a small island in the middle and the current pushed the canoe the rope's length away from the trees (snakes), underbrush (raccoons -- damn things swim), and greenery (mosquitoes). The sun started to set as the Cap'n made ramen noodles over the campstove in the middle of the canoe.

Our "romantic" dinner was aborted until about an hour of sunset, however, as the barrage of mosquitoes was too powerful even with the 100 percent DEET Everglades sauce we were marinating in. It kept them off for about 20 minutes, and then we retreated under a tarp as the little buggers beat against it, looking for any way to reach flesh.

After dark, we were able to finish dinner and contemplate life truly without illumination. Actually, I believe the halo on the eastern horizon was the lights of Miami, which only made where we were a little more scary. So close to civilization -- were those motorboats we kept hearing? -- and yet so far away. The moving pinpoints of jet airplane lights in the sky were always overhead. I could imagine being on one just then.

We stashed the backpacks and coolers at either end of the canoe and, lifejackets firmly on, managed to wrap ourselves around each other (head to toe, toe to head) and around the thwarts in the center of the canoe. The METAL canoe. The very HARD METAL canoe. We could only sleep for about an hour before our hips and shoulders would cry out for a shift. Then we would gingerly -- very gingerly! -- trade places in the floating, rocking canoe in the dead of night in a swamp full of alligators.

My dreams became half-waking hallucinations. Once I thought that I had set up and noticed a boat ramp on the other side of the bay that we had just missed before. My parents were there with the van that we had taken my childhood camping trips in, and we drove out of the swamp to a party where the mayor of the town I covered was dressed as an Elvis impersonator. It seemed very real at the time.

The fog rolled in as it come morning, and so did the clouds. It was starting to look like rain for the next day of our "adventure." And the Cap'n has this charming habit...when things aren't looking so good, he likes to say, "Well, if we weren't here, we wouldn't be seeing this (insert natural phenomenon, i.e. sunset, stars, sunrise, clouds rolling in, etc.) right now." Ha. Don't you just want to smack him?

An aside to note: If you desire tips on how to handle it when "nature calls" while you're stuck in the middle of a swamp in a canoe, please email me, and I'll be happy to share my experiences.

So we set out that drizzly morning with a new mission and a new plan. I silently decided that there was no freakin' way I was spending another night in rocking canoe surrounded by alligators. The Cap'n decreed that we were going to take a compass heading for the second chickee, based on the sunrise, and we would not deviate from that path. We would navigate through the mangrove trees, marking each turn along the way with a knot from the rope that tied us up the night before.

It must have been around 7am when we put our paddles back in the water, and as the sun burned off the clouds, fortune started smiling on us. We entered larger and larger bays -- none of the cramped coves of the afternoon before. We paddled through one final switchback of mangroves before we entered the largest bay since we had left the first chickee the day before. An island was ahead of us, and as I looked at the map, I told the Cap'n that it looked like there was an island in the bay where the second chickee was located.

Then...chickee ho!!

There it was at last, the closest thing to solid ground we had set foot on in two days. We made straight for it and arrived 26 hours after we had set out originally. Of course, it turns out it was only about an hour paddle from the first chickee.

I immediately passed out after declaring that no persuasion by the Cap'n could get me back into the canoe to fish for dinner. Obviously, I would never sleep well on a waterbed, but give me flat planks, and you wouldn't wake me for days. The Cap'n did go fishing (and almost got lost again), and we celebrated in style that night, with an honest-to-God tent to keep out the buggies, a full meal and plenty of room to stretch out in our sleeping bags.

The rest of the trip (a night on the third chickee and then a full day's paddle all the way back to the trailhead) was aborted since we spent the night in the canoe, so we set out the next day for dry land. We soon figured out where we had missed our turn the first time around, and passed the first chickee in about an hour. Then we entered the marked mangrove trail, and pulled out in time to load up the canoe and gear, get cleaned up back at the visitors center, and enjoy dinner and a sunset at the restaurant there.

Quite a difference from two nights' before. We laugh at pictures of me with one eye nearly swollen shut from a mosquito bite, hunched over in the canoe tearfully consulting the map. There's a celebratory photo of the Cap'n at the second chickee in the all-together, finally taking a bath.

We joke now about how tour companies should hire us to do trips at the same time they're taking groups out. We could get a cut everytime they passed us -- stuck or lost -- by pointing at us and telling their clients, "See, that's why you hire a guide!" We'd be stars if someone still made educational movies about What Not to Do in the Wilderness.

But it's only a joke if you survive.

The Cap'n and I talked last night about putting together a little survival kit for the car, and we weren't joking around this time. Being a parent has given me a new appreciation for preparation, for being responsible for other, smaller human beings who need protection.

I'm grateful for our happy ending (so far). But I will be thinking about Kati Kim and her daughters every time we head out for a trip. I hope they can find peace and a happy ending somewhere in front of them.


Rie said...


This is a great essay. And...I heartily endorse the packing of survival items. After reading about the Kims and hearing a similar story over Thanksgiving weekend, I'm struck by how fast small missteps are compounded into a giant life-threatening situation.

Love you!

Anonymous said...

Nicely told, but really, there's nothing to worry about. Survival gear or no, all you need is a little dog to keep you warm when it's cold, and feed you if things get really desparate.

No, really, sometimes you take a wrong turn and that's the end, but most of the time, you take a wrong turn and see something new and unexpected. Best to go, explore, be as prepared as you can be and be ready to think smart if something goes wrong. Just don't stay home.