Half-way through the Wilderness Waterway
Unbeknownst to KneadingWater, we were dragging his slumbering body out of his pit at pre-sparrow fart – 0430 – he succumbed with remarkably good grace. Well on our way, around mid-morning, he decided to take a stretch at Rogers River Bay Chickee – where we’d actually meant to stay the night. Just leaving there was Tim – a chap in a single kayak in his late sixties, puttering around the ‘glades for a few days. He sounded British.
We agreed to all catch up again at the end of Cabbage Island Channel, a shortcut KneadingWater had recommended, meeting up with Broad River. If we missed each other, we’d call on channel 69 at 10:30.
We never saw him again, until the finish at Key Largo.
Sandybottom and I cruised down Cabbage Island Channel, which is only 10-15ft wide, with a few fallen trees here and there, but completely manageable. Here we saw ‘gators to match all ‘gators. A few small ones sunning themselves on the side of the bank, and then big-momma – all 18 or so feet of him or her.
At the T-junction of the Channel and Broad River we delighted at the speed the current was heading out – we’d be at the coast before we knew it. We waited for KneadingWater, and we waited some more. We called him on the VHF every five minutes – nothing. We finally decided that he’d fallen off the chickee, knocked himself out, his boat had blown away and he’d drowned. Personally I thought he’d gone the other way around to show us how fast he really was – men can pull tricks like that. So back we paddled the nearly three miles to Rogers River Bay Chickee. Got within a few feet and yelled ourselves hoarse – no boat, no body, no KneadingWater.
Anger was turning to fear by this time. SandyBottom was convinced that, if alive, he’d wait for us back at the intersection of the Channel and Broad River. So back we paddled another three miles down Cabbage Island Channel – this time the 18ft ‘gator slowly slid off the bank and idly cruised towards us...
Back at Broad River, no KneadingWater. And now the tide had turned and the current was 3-4mph against us. It took us four hours to make the coast. (We learned later that KneadingWater had taken another channel and had caught the tide out Broad River, making that leg in well under an hour.)
Just before we hit the coast, we met two chaps in a speedboat hunkering down for the evening at Broad River Chickee. No, they hadn’t seen a chap in an orange kayak, but shared our now growing concern. They also warned us that it was pretty rough outside and they wouldn’t be heading out there if they were us. We left them, and before hitting the coast, pulled over and clothed up. We should have waited until we’d actually got there. It was flat calm and still quite warm in the waning afternoon sun. We took everything off again.
Down the coast we paddled, marveling at the destruction the hurricanes had caused on the shorelined trees. We slipped into Broad Creek and continued east down the Wilderness Waterway (WW). (Later we learned that KneadingWater had come in at Harney River, thus another opportunity to catch up had been lost, and he’d gained even more hours on us by missing the upcoming tangle of Broad Creek.)
Night fell. Between markers 17 and 16, the WW truly became the WW. In pitch black, for almost a mile, we crept through fallen trees and mangroves, branches breaking off all over us. At one point, with two logs across our path, I saw the fortitude of SandyBottom that has got her three previous ECs and the Ultimate Florida Challenge – nothing was going to stop her – and it took some maneuvering to get her bigger Kruger under and around those fallen logs.
Every now and then we’d double check that we hadn’t taken some other non-existent route, but both chart and GPS can’t be wrong.
Our plan, and permit, was to camp at Oyster Bay Chickee for the night, but we’d lost hours waiting and searching for KneadingWater. We decided to stop for the night at Harney River Chickee. Surely KneadingWater would be waiting there for us. Tim, the chap we’d met earlier in the day, was already in his hammock as we arrived. But no KneadingWater.
“Are you British?” I asked Tim as he so wonderfully helped us shore up and unload, the tide being quite a way down and the ladder a good clamber out of an ocean cockpit. “No”, he replied. “It’s just an affected accent.”
We strung hammocks, gobbled down some food, and listened to Tim tell us that KneadingWater’s disappearance was bound to be a Federal case and that we should be calling the Coast Guard. Although very helpful otherwise, these comments were not. I could see me losing my Green Card application. I could see Chief spitting tacks. I was trying to figure out which was the worst scenario. The worry over this kayaker I’d only met a few days previously, but had taken a liking for, was killing us and ruining our trip.
An hour later SavannahDan and Paddlemaker cruised their way past. No, they hadn’t seen KneadingWater.
Another hour later, Frogy130 and CatLady arrived in their sit-on-top tandem, and joined Tim on his side of the chickee. They, too, hadn’t seen KneadingWater.
The snoring levels increased ten-fold.
Two hours later I heard the unmistakeable crunch of fiberglass – jumped out of my hammock to find the tandem slowly being crushed with the rising tide trapping it under the chickee. It took all of my 125lbs standing and then jumping on it to free it.
The snoring continued.
We got some sleep…