(Or how brave adventurers faced the mosquitoes of August…)
Sometimes nature adventures aren’t what you want them to be. Case in point is coming in the long and roundabout way.
Once while at my vet’s office, the glass doors swung wide open for what appeared to be a primordial beast.
Snorting, the creature stomped one paw at a time into the reception area while dragging behind it a smallish woman. She was wearing flip-flops and followed the giant dog as if on skis and coming down a freshly snowed upon slope.
I grabbed up whatever pet I had with me at the time and fled to the farthest corner of the reception room where all the clients had quickly clustered for protection.
“It’s Bruno!” the girl behind the desk cried (or maybe it wasn’t Bruno, but Hercules or Atlas or Godzilla, or something like that).
The receptionist rushed to the swinging door and opened it to let the brute march straight forward into the room reserved for dog examinations, where Bruno was going whether they wanted him to or not. Behind Bruno skied the woman.
You could hear my vet John Pilargcyzk saying firmly, “Now I told your husband that I can’t treat this dog without him here to restrain him.”
“Please, John,” I heard the woman say. “It’s just to cut his nails.”
Later I asked John, “What does he weight.”
John said he didn’t know what Bruno weighed because his dog scale didn’t go that high.
“How do you cut his nails?”
“Very carefully,” John said, although he had refused to cut the massive dog’s nail without the husband present.
I thought of this dog while looking out from Flamingo in August at the paddling path into the Everglades. I was wearing jeans, a long-sleeve Columbia shirt, mosquito-net gloves, and a bug hat (mosquito netting hanging off a hat to cover my face). The temperature was in the nineties, but it felt like more than 100 under all those clothes. Clouds of mosquitoes droned around my head looking for an opening in the netting.
Pete Carmichael stood beside me shaking his head at the millions of skeeters. His head was not inside a bug hat and his hands were busy killing the biters or driving them away. He looked down the canal.
“We’re going to travel through this?” Pete might have said.
We had been ordered by our publisher “to finish this book now.” The book was Florida’s Fabulous Canoe and Kayak Trail Guide. The expenses, the publisher said, were getting too high.
In order to complete the book, we had to visit a number of places to “get it over with” as ordered, and one was the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway out of Flamingo in Everglades National Park.
It is a gorgeous paddle winding through mangroves and open “lake” areas and into Florida Bay. Everyone who can should do it – in winter, not mosquito season.
“Well,” I said to Pete, “at least we’ll have the trail to ourselves,” but I was wrong about that, as four young people who looked to be Northern Europeans had checked into Flamingo Lodge about the same time, three young men and a young woman intending to paddle the trail.
Listening to the mosquitoes and sweating under too many clothes, I begin to quake at a week on the water under such conditions. I thought maybe I should have taken up another career.
I decided I would rather have groomed dogs for a living instead of being a writer, and I would have trimmed Bruno’s nails instead if I could suddenly have swapped jobs with John. As least with the dog, it would be over in a few minutes, but we were looking at days.
How did I get into this?
Climbing Over the Fence
Although I had spent every day of my life from 29 on either jogging or walking in the great outdoors of Florida, I was a woodsman. Rivers and streams got into the way or where I was going. They provided scenic relief but were obstacles to my ten-mile runs and twenty-mile hikes.
I never intended to write a book about paddling the state of Florida. Instead I wanted to hire one specific person to do it. I had met the right person at Big Shoals State Park.
At Big Shoals, Pete and I marveled at the rapids on the Suwannee River. It is not the only rapids on the river or in Florida, but it is a very pretty one. It is also a great deal of fun to go over the rapids in a play boat.
Pete and I weren’t supposed to be in the park. There was a sign that the park was closed. The gates were locked. There was a warning that trespassers would be prosecuted.
We climbed over the fence anyway.
“Surely they won’t object to two nature gurus like us who are doing a hiking book on Florida being here,” said Eagle Eye Pete, one of the most accomplished of Florida’s nature photographers and an eternal optimist.
After Pete had shot a couple of rolls of 35-mm film (it was in the days before digital cameras) and taken some large-format exposures, I was relieved when we could leave the park without being apprehended.
But we didn’t escape.
We walked right into a khaki-clad man accompanied by two women.
“What are you doing in the park?” the man asked.
“I’m Tim Ohr,” I said, “and I’m working on a hiking guide to Florida.” The book would be Florida’s Fabulous Trail Guide. I introduced Pete Carmichael.
“Well, I’m David Gluckman,” the man in khaki replied, “and I’m working on a hiking guide to Florida.”
He added that he had permission to be in the conservation area from the authorities. I admitted we did not and that we were trespassing.
“Well come along with us, then,” David said. “Us” consisted of David and two attractive women, one his wife and the other from the Florida Sierra Club.
“The David Gluckman who wrote Sea Kayaking in Florida?” I asked.
“The same one,” he said.
We shook hands. I told him I owned and had read his book.
For several days, no matter where Pete and I went, there was David, his wife, and Audrey.
We explored the rail-to-trail near Jacksonville and ran into David. He was bicycling the trail. Pete had talked management into giving us a truck ride down the paved rail-to-trail.
We went to Fort Clinch State Park and walked on the beach and found that David was camping nearby overnight. We stayed at a hotel on the water at Fernandina.
I wondered who was following who when we were bicycling in the same wildlife management area the next day, but as it turned out, it was just coincidence.
It was David Gluckman whom I wanted for the author of the paddling book. Only problem was that David didn’t have the time when I asked him.
I became the author of the book by default. Just like Pete became the photographer by default when the photographer he recommended for the book produced not one photograph after six months.
Turns out it was a lucky break, until we got to Flamingo in August.
Despite our reluctance, the making of the paddling book was a grand adventure for both Pete and I. It became an adventure I was glad to take and never regretted despite August conditions in the Everglades.
From 1998 to 2003, I traveled the state of Florida numerous times on tremendous adventures with Pete while making three books. Pete is a great friend, a good traveling companion, and mentored me in recognizing things like Jack in the Pulpit, Gumbo Limbo, Devil’s Walking Stick, Mahogany, Everglades Kites, and Coastal Plains Willow, all seen in Everglades National Park.
My father died shortly before I met Pete. I had never had an older brother (or a younger one for that matter). I got a sister when I was fifty-five, another story, for another time.
Pete is like my older brother. He filled a great gap in my lap. When I married Pamela, Pete came to Vegas and was my best man.
At times I paddled with Pete down streams so lovely they took your breath away. We made good and new friends. We had terrific adventures. Our friendship, already good and strong, was forged with the steel of adventures in the outdoors.
There were other friends in the project.
With photographer James Phillips, I dodged lightning on the Wekiva River and avoided alligators on the Loxahatchee. We waded through Cockroach Bay on the day I got the word my mother was in a terrible car accident. We trudged through clear shallow waters in Titi Creek.
My good friend, neighbor, and paddler supreme Ken Kramer soon joined us, often as Pete’s guide. Ken, an old hand, guided Pete through the Okefenokee Swamp. He took me through the almost impassable Seventeen Runs during low water on the Hillsborough River.
Ken looked like Rambo dragging the canoe around deadfalls and over logs. At one point during that bruising trip, I attempted to clear a log by rising from the canoe and stepping over it and fell – not into the water, but back into the canoe on my backside. It was so funny that I burst into laughter. Well, it seemed funny at the time.
I had never thought about guides for the photographer when I started the book. This is part of the reason the expenses went up. I only thought about guides when Pete and I spilled a canoe containing all his camera gear into the Blackwater River near Milton. Lost: one camera and one lens.
It was a refreshing swim, but it cost Pete more than a grand, I think.
Pete swore off on the book for a month. Then when I got him back, he took another spill.
If I had not had a guide when Pete spilled in the Withlacoochee River (North) at Melvin Shoals, I think Pete would have drowned.
I crossed Melvin Shoals several times while Pete photographed me from the cliffs. Behind me came a troop of inner-city scouts to pass over the shoals without a spill. But as soon as Pete boarded his canoe, his guide was forced to grab a branch to steady their canoe, and the canoe was swamped and tipped.
My image of Pete that day was Pete floating downriver from the rapids at Melvin Shoals while holding onto the Styrofoam cooler containing his camera gear.
Graham Schoerb, the guide, saved Pete’s life when the big man reached out and snagged James H. Carmichael, AKA “Pete.”
Florida also was a big state. Try traveling to all the rivers and coastal “blueways” and you could spend your life at it. No wonder Pete and I couldn’t seem to finish the book quickly enough for our publisher’s budget and had already taken two years. One river might require several days, and the Suwannee and St. Johns required more than a week.
We had also signed on to do the book at a time when the state was creating more recreational paddling trails called “blueways.” David Gluckman was one of the forces behind both blueway and greenway efforts.
Then there was the weather. Once I took three photographers and myself out to do the Perdido River west of Pensacola only to have the river flood. Not because of rain in our forecast, but because of flooding conditions in Alabama that rolled downstream. We diverted to wonderful streams on Eglin Air Force Base.
So the book had indeed become extraordinarily expensive. Rained-out trips, fees to guides, motel rooms, meals, and canoe and kayak rentals added up.
So that’s how I came to Flamingo in August, intent on traveling 99-miles of wilderness under the worst of conditions because my publisher insisted on completing the book quickly
I looked down the canal where I at first identified as a lingering fog what actually turned out to be swarming clouds of mosquitoes.
Skunk Apes and Other Humanoids
Johnny Carson in his golden days on The Tonight Show used to have this routine in which Johnny might say, “It was really bad out there today.”
Then Ed McMahon would answer loudly, “Just how bad was it?”
When we arrived at Flamingo, the southernmost point of the road into the Everglades, we ran from our cars into the lodge to check in. We were pursued and bitten by buzzing mosquitoes.
I had lived in Florida since 1951, and it was more mosquitoes than I had seen in my lifetime.
That’s how bad it was.
Florida has more than 20 species of mosquitoes. They are probably all at Everglades National Park in August having a convention for bloodsuckers.
We ran out of the lodge and got into our cars and found that the cars had filled with mosquitoes just from opening and closing the doors.
At our rooms, we popped open our trunks, grabbed our luggage, and ran with the bags into the rooms. The brief time the door to my room was open was sufficient time for it to fill with another cloud of mosquitoes.
Having brought my “Wall Street Journal” with me, I found a good use for it as soon as I was in my room. I pulled the drapes open so I see mosquitoes on the slider and swatted them with my journal.
In the bathroom, I turned on the lights and killed the mosquitoes drawn to the light while swatting them with the financial news. I then proceed to kill all the dark spots that were mosquitoes resting on the walls.
I never read the journal that day because the front page had turned red from all the blood.
Wondering how to avoid being bitten while I slept, I put on another long sleeve Columbia shirt. I put repellant on my arms, face, and neck, and tried to sleep under the covers. It might have worked.
After an hour of tossing and turning and killing mosquitoes, the four youthful Europeans arrived in the room adjoining mine and had a party. There was loud laughing and jovial exclamations in a Nordic language I didn’t speak. Or maybe it was South Afrikaner. Who knows? It was white people not from here. There was singing and toasting one another in the same language.
One woman and three men were drinking into the early hours of nightly oblivion. Having done it myself, I was tolerant, but tired.
It was sometime beyond 1 a.m. when the laughing European party stopped partying.
Thank, God, I thought. At last some peace; but I was wrong.
The headboard of the bed in the room next to mine started banging into the wall with the steady and increasingly frenzied beat of passionate love. This new distraction did not abate but continued afresh several times and was accompanied by different kinds of loud explanations, slurred in that same Nordic language.
Fortunately I had brought along some bourbon and Vermouth, for medicinal purposes only, of course – in case of snakebite in the wilderness. Not brave enough to run for ice, I made two hot Manhattans, neither shaken nor stirred, but poured. It took a long time to go to sleep, but I went to sleep before the energetic lovers.
I woke in the morning at dawn and found that the mosquitoes had eaten my face, swollen like a deflated basketball.
One of the reasons I don’t believe in the Skunk Ape is because no humanoid form could survive such an insect assault.
Only the Brave Voyage Forth
Pete and I met near sunrise in the small store in Flamingo. I was pondering purchased dozens of cans of insect repellant and 18 gallons of water – my publisher would probably complain about the expense, but there was no alternative. We needed food for the journey too.
Having slept only a few hours, I drank coffee and ate a Danish. So did Pete.
“Lot of mosquitoes out there,” I might have said to Pete.
“A bunch,” he must have agreed.
We drank more coffee.
The four Fins, or Danes, of Swedes (or a mixture thereof) arrived at the store. They were happy and cheerful and full of energy. The young woman was absolutely radiant, as well she should be, but I could barely keep my eyes open.
We drank our third cup of coffee.
I felt I was falling asleep.
The Europeans chattered happily. They were full of enthusiasm. They dressed from head to toe in plastic, something like bicycle racers or divers sometime wear. They were all blond and eager. They bought gallons of water and provisions. They looked like they had two-days sleep.
Pete and I drank our forth cup of coffee, even though Pete was swearing off coffee.
Raising their kayak paddles, the blond-haired Norsemen and woman toasted each other. They let out a small cheer and, I think, clapped loudly. Then they left, talking happily, and walked away into the mosquito fog and into history for their bravery in paddling the Everglades in August.
“Damn,” I might have said. “If we start soon, we could catch up and go with them.”
“I don’t know,” Pete said.
We drank more coffee. I lost track of how many cups. But it was doing no good. I could have laid my head on the table and gone to sleep.
“You know,” Pete said, “I think I’m going back to Sarasota.”
“You know,” I replied, “I think I’ll drive back to Fort Myers.”
“We’ll come back in the winter,” Pete said.
“That’s a great idea,” I said.
“Who is going to tell Winston?” Pete asked.
“I guess I will,” I said.
The mosquitoes pursued us into our rooms where we claimed our belongings. They bit us on our way to our cars. The mosquitoes rose out of our trunks, where they were closed in all night, like shotgun smoke. In the cabs of our cars, the mosquitoes hovered about us, a source of blood for the young of the female.
Leaving Flamingo, we rolled down our windows and drove three times the speed limit to drive the mosquitoes out. We passed hammocks and alligators and deer, and it was a long time before the last mosquito was out of our cars.