Saturday, January 11, 2014

Auld Lang Syne

Every Christmas that I anticipate having to spend alone, I have, throughout the last 15 years, made it a point to at least try to make it memorable. 
Stirling, Scotland in Winter

There was Christmas morning in Stirling, Scotland. Shortly after sunrise, I bundled myself up and made my way through the ancient cemetery at the top of the town, and walked the trail around Stirling Castle. A thin veil of freshly fallen snow blanketed the entire landscape, with mountains towering to the north, rolling hills to the south, and a valley that stretched 30 miles westward to Loch Lomond.  The sky was cloudless, the wind was calm, the sun was painfully bright, and the town was silent.  I felt utterly alone. And happy.

Ski pole Christmas Tree
Other years that I’ve spent in temporary hometowns or in transit, I have had the good fortune to be in the company of a friend or two.  From pina coladas on the beach with Katie in St Lucia, to sipping cappuccinos and savoring chocolate croissants with Justine in St Augustine, Florida, to opening presents with roommates beside a Christmas tree composed of ski poles in Squamish, B.C., to working the nightshift on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the forecasting office in desolate, treeless, windswept Newfoundland. 

Oops, backup. This just turned into a bad trip.

This Christmas was a far cry from the ice and snow of that bitterly-cold Newfoundland morning 4 years ago.  Now in south Florida, cheerfully divorced, I loaded up my Beetle with my tent, kayak, street dog, and 4 days worth of camping supplies, and aimed for Flamingo campground in Everglades National Park, about 40 miles from the entrance to the park, and from the edge of civilization. 

Shark River Slough
Upon arrival, the rangers recommended the wide-open area where the grass was shorter and the wind was less hindered, both attributes that would hopefully mean fewer mosquitos.  I had already become aware that driving at less than 20 mph resulted in a steady flow of mosquitos into the car. The mosquito level was listed as ‘Moderate’ at the entrance to the park.  If that was moderate, I wouldn’t want to be there when it was high. 

As I drove around trying to decide where I’d set up my tent, the first camper I met was Spence, a long-haired hippie who loved to talk. “Woah, dude! That’s one awesome car, dude! When I lived in California everyone had one of these cars. Merry Christmas! Look at that heron! How beautiful is this place! Oh your dog is cute what’s his name? My mom always loved Christmas…”

I knew if I set up camp here I would not be lonely for Christmas.  I turned the key, pulled the parking
Scotty guarding picnic table.
brake, and began to disassemble my carefully loaded cargo while listening to Spence’s life story.

I had arrived around noon and Spence was already well along on his ride aboard the Beer Express. He was as helpful as he was apologetic as he offered to help me carry my gear in to my camp spot, and to help lift my kayak off the roof of my car, all the while acknowledging that he had no doubt that I could do it myself, and was sorry for offering, and hoped I wasn’t insulted by his chivalry.

Paddling up to Coot Bay.
While I was moving my gear, a decent-sized squall had been developing and was now watching from the sidelines until it knew I was ready to pitch my tent. When I dropped my tent from it’s bag and the downpour began, a cowboy (a real-life cowboy, hat and everything!) named Brendon ran over to help me set it up, which we did in record time, completing just as the sun came out again.
Kayaking is exhausting.

 Turning my thoughts to kayaking, I took a stroll over to a nearby beach to assess the launching capabilities from the location. It was more mud than sand, but I decided it would be manageable, though messy.  I worried Scotty wouldn’t be too pleased being forced into the cockpit of such a tiny boat, but I was wrong about him yet again. For some reason, I always doubt him, and he keeps proving me wrong again and again.  He was a perfect companion the entire trip. Whether in the car, the kayak, the tent, he was content to just be wherever Mum was.  In the car, he enjoyed the breeze pumping through the dash (it’s an old car, breezes come from some unexpected places). In the kayak, he just slept with his head on my thigh.  In the tent, he slept like a rock, belly-up and occasionally snoring.  It’s been great to learn I can take him anywhere, and he doesn’t tie me down, as I previously, mistakenly, believed he would.

Day 2 of paddling, ready to go.
Crocodile near Flamingo Campground. Not intimidating at
all. Photo courtesy of someone braver than I am.
I paddled with him over to the marina, about a mile east of my campsite.  On the return trip, I was slightly unnerved when something knocked the bow of my kayak, lifting it 6 inches out of the water.  My first thought was that is was a salt water crocodile, possibly sensing I had a small dog (i.e. afternoon nosh) on board, and was trying to spill the contents of the snack box to chow down.  I still don’t know what it was; the water was too foggy in that area to distinguish anything even an inch below the surface. 

As I paddled back to the beach I launched from, I scanned the shore for the canoe I had intended to use as a landmark to find where I’d left my flip flops and dog leash. Yes, I know… aside from the stupidity of choosing a landmark that could move, I was soon more concerned for the owners of the canoe when I finally spotted it half way across the bay, drifting broadside to the 15-knot northeasterly wind, apparently unmanned.  I remember losing my dinghy on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk a few years ago, never to be seen again, and how inconvenient and costly that became for me.  Deciding this might ruin Christmas for whomever owned it, and knowing it’s easier to find a canoe when you can still see it, I began to paddle as fast as I could (which isn’t very fast) downwind.

Dog rescues buddies in a runaway
canoe. Way cooler than my story.
Forearms burning, I caught up with the rebel canoe 15 minutes later.  I wanted to make sure no one was aboard before getting too close (it could have been a Canadian canoe, and we all know what happens in Canadian canoes), so I called out, and there was no response. The canoe had a bow and stern line, but both were too short to be of any use, and I’d left my towrope in the car. My only option was to use the lanyard from my life vest.  As I tried to get my lanyard hooked onto the canoe, I failed to notice I’d dropped my paddle.  It was floating about 30 feet behind me, and the gap was quickly widening.  The sea grass was about 2 feet below the surface, so as shallow as I presumed the water to be, I thought I’d just step out and walk back to get it (could that really have been a crocodile earlier?).  The mud was deceiving though, and I was instantly knee-deep in it, and the water was over my waist.  So I swam back, boats in tow, grabbed my paddle, and managed to get back into the kayak somehow without it capsizing.  Once set, I rowed upwind to the beach and pulled the canoe well above the high water mark.  Next time, I’ll be responsible and make sure I have a spare paddle tucked into the bungee cords on the deck of the kayak.

I don't know about this boy's mama.
Shortly after reaching shore, I hit the showers to rid myself of gobs of sticky mud I had acquired at the beach. While in the shower, I got chatting with a lady in the next stall (is that weird?), and she told me of a gentleman in his 60’s who went missing in March of 2011.    He set out to collect firewood around Eco Pond and never returned.  The ensuing two-week search turned up not a single trace. I later asked a few different employees in the park what their take was, and the general consensus was that he’d decided to “disappear”, and arrangements had been made for a pick-up at Eco Pond. But in my mind, there was a lingering possibility that he was caught off-guard by an alligator or a python. The tale managed to spook me and shorten my nature walk with Scotty, when I wandered to the far end of the campground where the sites were all empty. It was excessively silent, and somehow felt like an abandoned fair grounds, like a place where you would expect so much life, but there was none.  Not knowing what abruptly ended that camper’s search for firewood, I wanted to hurry back to my cowboy and hippie.

As darkness fell, Brendon came over with an armload of what he called lighter wood, which he’d brought from his farm in Ocala. It ignited instantly, as if it’d just been pulled from a barrel of gasoline. Its smoke was fairly effective at keeping the mosquitos down, which I couldn’t have welcomed more in that moment.  I had very stooopidly packed a less-toxic bug spray, trying to be health-conscious. I think it was a mislabeled can of compressed air.  It was, and I’ll use this expression seeing as there was a cowboy in my midst at the time, as useless as tits on a bull.

Vulture waiting for campers to leave to collect his booty.
Brendon invited me to join him and his family around their fire for Christmas Eve dinner.  I was still a bit in self-protective city mode and not feeling terribly social, so I ended up just having my planned dinner of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.  I later wished I’d joined them, just for the company.  It would have been the next paragraph here, a story that now can never be written.

On Christmas morning, I rolled out of my tent into a cloud of mosquitos, just in time to watch the sun rise out of a low cloud bank over the bay.  The ear-ringing silence, the unadulterated air, the handful of black vultures standing guard by my picnic table with their none shall pass! glares… yet another Christmas morning I’ll never forget.

They were huge.
In addition to being swarmed by mosquitos, later Christmas morning I was additionally swarmed by a convoy of 35 Miamians, their fleet of Escalades arriving like a presidential motorcade.  Despite seventy-five empty campsites in the area, they felt it appropriate to set-up their day-camp of coolers, boom-boxes, shrieking children and squawking mothers ten feet from my tent.  So much for a quiet Christmas of reflection. I threw my kayak back on my car, told Scotty he was riding shotgun, and we drove to the nearby marina’s launching point to explore the everglades.

We took a 3-hour jaunt up to Coot Bay, with a solid north wind on the bow on the inbound journey. I hear I was rather lucky to have spotted a whole flock of roseatte spoonbills. 
Roseate Spoonbill
They have been declining in numbers recently due to water management issues in the Everglades, which has dramatically altered salinity levels and water depths, thereby affecting the spoonbill’s aquatic diet.  The only other signs of life along the canal, other than dozens of Asian tourists in rented red canoes, was, I think, a Great Egret (picture a stork-like bird that delivers babies) and a crocodile. That was only my second encounter ever with a crocodile, the other occasion being on my dinner plate once while sailing aboard a ship full of Australians.

My peanut butter.
A friend had warned me about the raccoons, and how closely you had to guard your camp, and that they could often be brazen enough to take the food right out of your hand.  Luckily for me, but unlucky for the raccoons, there’s an enormous overpopulation of Burmese pythons in the park.  Thought to have originally been introduced to the wild as abandoned pets, the invasive species’ population is currently estimated at 100,000.  Practically all the raccoons, as well as most other small mammals, birds, and reptiles that used to call the Park their home, have met their sorry end in the grips of the constrictor.  The pythons, in fact, are changing the entire ecosystem in Everglades National Park.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission headed the 2013 Python Challenge to raise awareness of the consequences if the snake’s population isn’t brought under control.

Instead of being hounded by raccoons, I instead learned what to expect when a couple of black vultures team-up and throw a tantrum.  On my final morning in the Park, they double-checked that my library books weren’t edible then threw them in the grass, they took my Stoneyfield yogurt cup (though I did recover it a little later, with foil lid surprisingly intact), and, as a final insult, spilled my freshly brewed Bodum of coffee. They knew how to push my buttons.

Everything considered though, it was a Christmas to remember. I just know now to wait for the next cold snap before attempting another Floridian camping excursion.