Originally published May 7, 2014
Nevertheless, my mind began to fully take stock of the situation. Sure we could overcome the odds just as we had done that day, I did not doubt that, but I started to think that perhaps we had gotten lucky too. I mean, we had passed venomous snakes and literally waded and swam our way through a swamp. Although gators had not worried me, they had to have been there somewhere, and beyond that, what if one of us had simply taken a funny step off a log and broken an ankle? My phone was on life support as it was and if one of those things occurred we would be in real trouble. We did not have a first aid kit, let alone a GPS. We were completely cut off and our options were either press on and risk the aforementioned or just call for help.
I opened my eyes and asked Max if I should call 911 in the morning. With a tone to imply that he had been mulling over the same scenarios he nodded his head that it would be the common sense thing to do. But then I thought aloud should I call them now? Who knows if my phone would even work in the morning and that was a situation I wanted to avoid. Again he acquiesced and I did something I had never done before: I called 911 in an emergency situation.
In all actuality, it may not have been a real emergency situation. We had shelter with plenty of food and water. We just wanted to avoid a potential emergency situation. Also, we knew were not that removed from civilization (in central Florida you are never more than a few miles away at most) but that would have meant abandoning the canoe and all our gear and hiking for an unknown amount of time because, after all, we had no idea where we were at. Whatever the case, I decided to call for help and depend on those who know best to get us out.
I knew it sounded silly but I did not know how else to put it when the operator asked me to state my emergency. I said that my brother and I had gone canoeing down Shingle Creek and were now hopelessly lost. Which was completely true but I guess she did not believe because she then asked where we were… after reiterating the fact of the matter she was able to pinpoint our coordinates from my cell phone and only confirmed what I knew to be true. We were way off from where we had started. Upon finding out where we were she then transferred me to a county sheriff representative who proceeded to just ask me the same exact questions! Normally I would understand but I tried to stress that my phone was dying and then whenever I did try to tell him anything he would cut me off… also, he only laughed when I denied his request for a fire because our lighter had been a victim of the water… Nonetheless, he said that he would send a helicopter to come look for us.
A helicopter? Despite the situation I couldn’t help but think how awesome that was. Would we be airlifted out and given the ceremonial blanket and hot coffee? Our imaginations ran wild with excitement and we gathered up what valuable items we could carry in our pockets because for all we knew we would abandon the canoe and gear. Consequently, that also meant we had to get dressed again because once we had made camp we had quickly stripped off our drenched clothes. Now warm, the last thing we wanted to do was pull on freezing pants. Alas, it had to be done.
Meanwhile, David was on the island and I called him quickly for a debriefing. I said that we may get out to the island tomorrow but for now we were going home and that I was sorry for all the inconvenience. For all I knew the man did not even have a tent out there! Then after speaking with him I called my mother and told her to prepare herself and she took the news surprisingly very well. I had to squelch her questioning, however, because outside the tent I heard the unmistakable whirl of the chopper approaching our beacon of a tent. I met Max outside and like a scene from a movie we waved our arms madly in the blinding beam of the light. From then on the helicopter was always circling overheard.
Then I got a call from the same sheriff I had spoken to earlier and while he was somewhere on the ground, he was the liaison between us and the chopper. His plan of action, after speaking to the guys in the sky, was to have us follow the helicopter south to the Old Tampa Highway.
To make sure I was not hearing things, I asked, “You want me to hike through the woods in the dark?”
“No, get in your canoe and go downstream.”
I was shocked. Are you kidding me? Never mind the small hope of being airlifted, but how many times had I stressed that the creek was unnavigable? And when I once again told him that there were trees blocking our path he simply asked “Well, how’d you get over them before?” Two reasons, sir. It was DAYTIME and we CARRIED the canoe. “Well, the chopper doesn’t see any trees.” I had to hang my head at that. I thought they were supposed to help but at that point it seemed like he was trying anything but. The bottom line was that if we could boat ourselves out we would have. If not that night, then the next day but the creek simply was not passable, especially in the dark. Finally, I think we got the idea and told us to just hang tight.
From then it was a waiting game. I paced about our little sand hill, smacking mosquitoes, while Max sat inside the tent eating beef jerky and trying to get the most out of primitive camping that he could. As the chopper continued to circle overhead and illuminate the forest, I saw two new lights join the overhead beam. At first I was not sure if I had really seen them but eventually they were constant enough for me to recognize them as flashlights. I called for Max and together we watched as a small force of about five men, mostly police officers, appeared on the opposite end of the creek.
I yelled “hi!” and they yelled, “Get your stuff together, packed up the tent, and throw it into the canoe. Then paddle over here and we’ll attach it to the truck!”
Well so much for the airlift. I also quickly realized that we must not have been that mercilessly lost if they could hike here or even have a truck. A truck? What were we right by the road? Not exactly. After we haphazardly broke down the tent and carelessly tossed everything into the canoe, we still had to walk (with canoe in tow) quite a distance through the woods. One of the cops had a machete and was clearing a path just has I had done just a few hours before.
Don not get me wrong, I could not have more thankful for the police and search guides that night but I could not help but be amused at their country personas. Clad in cammo and with twang-laced accents, they were good ‘ole boys all right and as such I did not take their ribbing personally. Yes, we were young and yes, we should have had a map. We will not disappoint you next time, officers.
Subsequently, when we did get to the truck it was parked out in a cow field separated from the forest by barbed wire. Completely disoriented, it took me a little bit to figure that we were near the Kissimmee Municipal Airport. I total of about three miles down the road from where we had launched; an insignificant distance by car but by canoe through the swamp, quite impressive if I do say so myself. Anyways, from where the truck was located, it was a further distance then to the road itself. In fact, I would put it at least a mile trek from where we had been camped but at this point as I rode in the bed of the truck, all I could think about was how the journey was over. We were going home.
The time now was around 9:30 and it still took more than hour then to actually get home. Max had to stay behind with the canoe as an officer drove me to Megan and Nicks to retrieve my car. Fortunately, as we pulled into the front yard so did they (I didn’t know they were not home) and after I gave the real short version, I jumped in their car and together we drove back to Max and fixed the canoe to their roof. As we worked they could not believe our adventure and seemed quite proud of what we had accomplished. In a sense, I would agree. We may not have made it to Makinson Island, but we did travel further than anyone had possibly gone on Shingle Creek before, and for that we felt a little pride. Very haggard pride.
Also, I just have to note that before the police officers left for the night, one did mention to Nick that “Those whirlybirds ain’t cheap, ya know.” As of this writing, we are not sure if he was joking or not. We will soon find out I suppose. Regardless, our main worries were over and I enjoyed a nice warm shower upon reaching home. However, the mud under my fingernails did not fully dissipate for another three days after.
As for David, though, he was still camped out on an island by himself for the night and we could not wait for the next day to hear his side of things. Turns out he had fortuitously packed his own one-man tent and beyond that, had befriended a group of campers who shared with him their food. Of course, the story gets better from here- those campers happened to be an excursion sponsored by a radio personality named Rodney Rogers, who specializes in the outdoors. Once he heard of David’s friends who were lost up the creek, he said he wanted us on his radio show to recount our story! We all thought that was the best ending this otherwise disaster of a weekend could have! Unfortunately, Rodney has not gotten back to us… but still, of all the people for David to run into.
Aside from that, the tale has no other ending. Except that once we actually had a map we saw that we were just a short distance away from where the creek did indeed “open up.” If we had followed our mantra of pressing on, or if we had gotten a much earlier start that day, we might have made it to Lake Toho. We were that close. But we had no idea at the time and everyone agrees we did the right thing.
And in the days since, Max and I have retold the tale to just about everyone as it will no doubt go down in the grand history of us both. A true story of grit, determination, ridiculousness, and stupidity that will (I hope) became a favorite at bars, parties, and campfires for the rest of my life. Funny enough, no part of this has been exaggerated but if you do not believe it that is okay; I can scarcely believe it myself.