Marvelous Tales of Misadventure! Disaster in the Swamp

Originally published March 25, 2014 as:

TO PORTAGE OR NOT TO PORTAGE:
The Desperate Account of a Failed Canoe Trip
Down Florida’s Shingle Creek

As told by
Vincent S. Hannam

Portage: Verb; To carry a boat or its cargo between navigable water.
As in: “They were incapable of portaging a canoe.”

              Always looking for the next adventure I came upon the location of Makinson Island: an island in Lake Tohopekaliga (Toho, for short) in Kissimmee, Florida that offers primitive camping to those willing to boat themselves there. The island itself is uninhabited but used to apparently host an exotic animal farm sometime in the past, and is now home to a population of marooned goats.

Upon reading this, I decided that this sort of thing was right up my alley and I conspired with my brother Max and good friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast, David Tillett, to spend the weekend camping on the island. The only catch, of course, was acquiring the boats necessary to make the trip but that was soon solved through some friends who were able to loan David a kayak and Max and I a canoe.

Now our cousin, Megan and her husband Nick (whose canoe we were borrowing), happen to live on a little river called Shingle Creek that flows south through central Florida and feeds into Lake Toho. In fact, Shingle Creek is the northernmost headwaters of the entire lake and river system that eventually finds its way to the Everglades.

As you can imagine, this added a whole new element to the plan, as I had the brilliant idea that instead of driving the canoe to the Kissimmee lakefront, we could just launch off of Shingle Creek and navigate our way to the lake that way. After looking at the maps I could tell the path was generally clear save for a stretch where the river seemed to disappear into a marsh-like environment. Brushing this off as an insignificant detail in the larger plan, Max and I made the plans that we would meet David (who would be setting off from the lakeshore) at Makinson sometime around nightfall.

At approximately 1:00 PM we loaded up the canoe and listened intently to Nick tell us off his own adventure on the creek where he had to eventually abandon the canoe after having to push the canoe through waist deep water. Again, I brushed this off as “no big deal” and set off from the creek bank more determined than ever to enjoy a truly unique and fun camping trip.

What happened over the next five hours was anything but fun. In fact, I have never experienced the kind of work that it takes to canoe a boat though unnavigable terrain; where the water would turn to muck and the path was blocked by enormous fallen trees determined to block our path.

Starting out, however, there was no way to tell just how bad it was to be. Where we launched the creek was wide and deep, and we had no trouble paddling our boat. We believed this was to be the case for most the journey until we came to a part in the stream where the water level dropped and we were halted by mud. To remedy the situation I would push the boat along with my oar as Max swung his grappling hook to the nearest tree and pull. This method did work but it was slow going and we quickly realized that we had come to the point where we would have to get wet.

Creek Narrows

Reluctantly I removed my socks and put my boots back on while Max just stripped down to his skivvies and together we took our first steps in the water where we sank into shin-deep mud. Knowing that there was nothing we could do, we pressed on and pushed the canoe until we finally broke from the mire and found ourselves back on a wider, deeper portion of Shingle Creek. After clamoring back into the boat, I took stock of just what exactly took place. The fact that we just waded through a swamp and how quickly our fears of alligators were abated in the face of “nothing else we can do.”

Rowing along, we soon ran into yet another obstacle in the form of a fallen tree in the water. Nothing too serious, it was practically a floating log, but we could not get around it and it was decided that we could put the grappling hook to yet another use by hooking it to one end of the log and pulling it away with our boat. At first we only succeeded in pulling ourselves closer to it, but after we stretched the rope to the other side of the creek and I clung to a tree, we managed to pull it away! Our path was clear once more and we reveled in our victory thinking that surely after such an engineering triumph we would be able to conquer anything Mother Nature could throw at us.

Continuing from here our travels were only occasionally hampered by mud, but nothing we had to get out for. When we happened upon a couple groves of water hyacinth (an invasive floating plant from the Amazon) we determinedly agreed to not wade through the water lest we risk a chance encounter with an alligator hiding in the weeds. Instead we took out the machete and simply cut our way through.

Water Hyacinth

It was at this point, however, that I first began to think about the time and the possibility that we may lose daylight. Carelessly we had forgotten to bring a watch and I would not waste my phone’s already low battery on simply checking the time. I knew we had maybe a couple of hours left before dark…

Pressing on, the creek became narrower until our travels became a pattern of paddling until we had to push and pushing until we could paddle. It was during this routine that the boat began to steadily take on water every time we jumped back in… It was also during that time when, in an interval of paddling, Max pointed out to our left, not two feet away, a good sized snake all coiled up in the rotten vegetation. Brown with black splotches, I knew it was not a copperhead (a species I am very familiar with from my travels in the Smoky Mountains) but that it was clearly a venomous snake of some kind. Passing this specimen, I spotted a baby one not long after. I worried that we might have been in some kind of territory of the serpents, that later were confirmed to be the very dangerous water moccasin.

As I stated before, the creek was steadily growing narrower and more overgrown until it became impossible to either paddle or push the canoe and because of the overgrowth and fallen trees, the water was making that distinguished rushing sound that only rivers make. It was also the clearest I had seen it; shallow with a white sandy bottom. This was our halfway point and we took this time to take a lunch break and I discovered that whatever paper products I had in my backpack were now water logged (but fortunately my most prized possession, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, had surprisingly minor damage). Subsequently, despite the natural beauty, I was now in a fight against the elements and I realized just how exhausted I was… the both of us felt stuck for the first time, but we knew we couldn’t turn back. We had come too far and gone through too much and after all, we wondered, the creek had to open up soon. It was this faith that led us to summon our strength and press on, yet despite this, doubt began to creep into my mind if we could actually clear the debris and make it to the open waterway before dark…

The river, however, was quite impassible and before we moved we had to assess the best route to take; either overland or over the logs. I struck out on foot wielding the machete and blazing a trail. I was also looking ahead to see if the creek would clear out soon. To my dismay, the brush seemed to choke the water even more as I progressed but I did notice that because of the natural ravine the trees that had fallen were laying over the water rather than in it. I returned to the checkpoint and decided that we would have to portage a little ways but then we could push the canoe under the logs, using the now fast flowing water to our advantage. With our second wind we did just that and began to make some real progress again.

Of course when I say we had to push the canoe I sincerely mean it. The fallen logs were still too low hanging for us to sit in the boat and as we pushed and pulled in chest deep water, all the rotten plant matter that was clinging to the undersides of these logs was being broken up and emptied onto our boat and gear. Huge amounts of dirt, leaves, vines, and sticks were just strewn about and with them spiders. Like, a lot of spiders. And not just the harmless spindly-legged ones, but I was seeing some bigger, stouter fellows who looked like they meant business. But what could we do? We just pressed on and hoped one of those moccasins would not be a part of the hodgepodge collecting in the vessel.

brown snake

This went on for a while actually and every time we yelled “1…2…3!” I could feel my energy depleting. A couple of times the boat was just too heavy with all our gear that we would have to unload everything just to be able to carry the boat over a log and then go back and fetch it all. That was so demoralizing because I did not have the strength anymore to haul a certain bag that contained our firewood (because foraging for wood on Makinson Island is not allowed, of course). Every time I just wanted to abandon that damn bag… just for the sake of my sanity. As this continued, the creek actually began to clear out and while there were still obstacles to overcome, it was by no means as bad as it had been. We could now begin to paddle again and the water began to meander around large white beachheads on the riverbanks. Silently I took note of these as possible campsites because as the sky began to grow pink I realized that we probably not going to make it to Lake Toho by nightfall.

Indeed we were losing light so I turned on my cellphone, which was thankfully safe inside a ziplock bag, and called David. Having just arrived at Makinson Island himself, he could not believe that after five hours we had not even gotten to the lake yet. “I know” I told him, “but we’re going to have to camp here tonight and join you tomorrow.” He understood, but I did feel bad because of course we had the tent and now he had his own situation to contend with… nonetheless, we had to make do and rowed to one of those beaches that formed a nice big hill overlooking the water. We tied the canoe up and set about to making the fire until Max discovered that his lighter was wet and would not start. In fact, everything was wet. I had not realized that how wet everything was; our clothes from swimming and our gear from the water in the canoe. Soaked. Drenched. Damp. Awful. And now we were on a beach so everything became sandy. It was the worst. So with no fire we turned on our LED lamps and with the help of the full moon began to assemble the tent, battling mosquitos. Typically in December I never deal with them, but leave it to being stranded in a swamp to bring the bloodsuckers out. We also took our clothes off and set them out on our camping chairs to “dry”. After that we gathered what food and supplies we would need and entered the tent for the night, resigned to the fact that we were indeed primitive camping. But with no fire.

As we sat inside in our underwear, we ate our cans of chili and beans and discussed our options for the next day. We knew that the river was getting easier but there was no telling if it would just descend into chaotic overgrowth again. We also knew that the forecast had called for some rain and if the trip had been hazardous before, that would make it down right stupid. Nonetheless, when we shut our eyes we had left it at yes, we would press on because surely we were over the worst of it, right?

TO BE CONTINUED…

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