I first sat in a kayak in the Chassahowitzka just after my eighteenth birthday, heady with the airy irresponsible freedom of adulthood and giddy with the discovery of a Florida beyond reverse-cycle air conditioning. I drifted down the spring and paddled back up again (in hindsight, not a well thought-out launch), finding primeval Florida, one with giant cypress trees and their knobby knees, decaying tree trunks, tea-colored water, and an eerie yet oddly soothing stillness as the sun streamed through the canopy. I remember scooching my kayak over fallen spidery branches and learning how to paddle just enough to get me to the summit of a cabbage palm reaching across the water, getting swallowed up by a watery world I had to trust would let me leave. I had never heard of William Bartram or Archie Carr or even Jeff Klinkenberg, but in the midst of this world I wondered where others had first gone, how far into the swamp they had dared, and whether they emerged enchanted or horrified. This Florida- this watery brown Florida, marked by trees with strange roots that sprung out of the water far away from the tree, this watery green Florida that clogged its waterways with duckweed, this achingly blue Florida that stretched overhead, vast, cloudless, and perfect- who else had seen this Florida? What had they thought of it?
My sepia river brightened with age, soft leaves sharpening as brown water faded to emerald in my mind’s heart. A decade of my life ebbed, spent in a suburban drought, on the edge of Chex Mix and soccer motherhood. When the rain finally fell, it carved rivers through my life, washing away minivans to reveal headwaters. I rediscovered the rivers of my youth but couldn’t stop there; I wanted to see what the river saw. Cinnamon rivers turn clear when a branch breaks the water’s run, but I could never pinpoint the moment when cedar-colored water fogged to clear. I coveted the mixing; I wanted water deeper and blacker and shallow and clearer and muddled together and swirling and running and still. A swamp is a river that cloaks itself in secrecy; the stillness belies the wild life seething within. The palpable tranquility, soothing the whispering fury threatening to burst through the river’s seams, binds its serenity to me, affixing itself as I seek out the path of the ancients.
I want to find the Everglades. I have no interest in a Douglas-meets-Disney “river of grass” or state-sanctioned canoe trails; instead I seek the foamy headwaters that birthed Aphrodite’s swamp, the raw water clothed solely in ignorance of its artlessness. I have only the memory of the Chassahowitzka’s serenity; I cannot find it on land. I need to have it forced upon me. I need to go to the river.
Did the ancient Calusa, Creek, and Osceola forget the serenity of the river or were they immutably tied to it by virtue of their technology? They belonged to a Florida rent by swamp; the everglades started at what is now Sea World, feeding a labyrinth that swept through most of the state: the Kissimmee River. For over 100 miles the maze of water twisted around itself and slowed the water as it tied itself into slippery knots reaching two miles across, whirling through the bends and curves, tightening and slackening through the Kissimmee’s braided confines. From central Florida the river sheeted over the land south to Lake Okeechobee, where it tangled over itself again and drained over the last bit of North America to perforate the surface.
Following the course of the Kissimmee’s history without sounding like an environmental renegade from a Carl Hiaasen novel proves almost impossible; the river’s story smacks of human arrogance. New arrivals to the state’s swampy interior protested the periodic flooding during the rainy season; a mid-twentieth century hurricane dumped enough water on central Florida to entice the state to develop a flood control plan that diverted water away from people. The Kissimmee redesign neatly straightened the river while almost halving its length and closing its banks to no more than 300 feet. The river born by gnarling its way through the chalky Florida crust now trickled into angular channels boasting draftsman-like precision. Locks along the river, coupled with the creation of reservoirs, ebbed water flowing into south Florida and helpfully reduced the amount of space the Everglades took up in South Florida, conveniently making room for subdivisions and shopping malls. It also drastically reduced the number of sandhill cranes, osprey, and bald eagles that lived by and because of the river.
Just over a decade ago, the federal government authorized the Water Resources Development Act, which included the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, a project intended to “fix” the river’s redesign. A bevy of governmental agencies have since started rechanneling the Kissimmee River so it will follow its original course. While work restoring the river will continue for several years and paddling the entirety of the Creek’s Kissimmee a practical impossibility, you can still put in along the river and at several rivers and creeks that feed the Kissimmee. In these watery corridors I sought my imposed serenity.
At the center of the state I made camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park. En route to the campsite I stopped several times for white-tailed deer, who alternately seemed indulgent and impatient at my efforts to take their photograph. My car didn’t scare them, and when I stepped out to get a closer look, I felt both humored and disdained. Humbled, I climbed back in the car.
The eclectic folk peopling the fishing villages drizzling the shores of inland Florida waterways remind me that every civilization initially develops around one body of water or another; in Lake Wales yesterday trapped these pockets in its mucky paw as the rest of the state zoomed past them to a drier, kinder future. These creeks and camps cannot possibly exist alongside Miami Beach’s cash-soaked art deco shores and Walt Disney World’s shimmering parades and thunderous laser shows, yet they do. Despite the lack of market studies or public relations plans – or perhaps because of it- men stream into the camps. Bass, sirens offering solitude and camaraderie, churl and swirl and quiet beneath the surface.
Instead of serenity I found stark wilderness at Lake Kissimmee; after an unremarkable half-mile paddle from the park’s launch, the canal banks fell away and revealed the lake. I inhaled, the thick watery muck arousing my nose. Few birds skimmed the sawgrass but I heard their warlike pleas in the distance. Clouds menaced and rumbled and threatened and something palpable yanked my heart towards the everglades; several hours north and many governmental agencies apart, this lake still strains to meet the surviving palustrine underworld.
A lone orange eye bubbled above black water, and we watched each other, certain ourselves of the harm the other could do. I glided in quiet, measured strokes, towards him; the eye blinked and waited. The water around the eye was a void of motion, a still witches brew awaiting its final ingredient. Ten feet away, I raised my camera. A snout swiveled towards me, then swiftly disappeared into a saurian cauldron, brewing a potion of predatory triumph.
As I pack up the next morning, a noise behind me alerted me to four sandhill cranes swinging their necks in my direction. Two teenagers stood about 30 inches high; two adults looked down to meet my gaze. The birds legged through my campsite, pausing at the picnic table and, well, craning their necks to get a better look at my camp supplies. I expected them to pull out breakfast ingredients at any moment, but after three humbling minutes the adults strolled off into the woods, family in tow.
I try to kayak part of the Kissimmee, but after two hours of C-38’s right angles the noise in my head thundered through my body, trembling my hands and numbing my feet, and I diverted to two rivers with allegiance to the St. Johns rather than the Everglades. The last time I paddled before prostrating myself before suburbia, I paddled the Wekiva, and the next day I find her again, her glassy headwaters peering up at me, remembering me. I turned my Dagger in endless circles over the spring, amusing myself with underwater limestone formations that make the water appear as glass of a Jurassic aquarium. When the deafening cacophony in my head and from other recreators threatened to overwhelm the moment, I paddled the narrow crossing into the Wekiva, and after a mile I shared the river with only two other kayakers who broke the silence just once.
“Did you see those gators back there?” the woman asked when we met south of a marina styled after a ramshackle fish camp. “There were three babies and a mother. I grew up in Florida, and this is the first time I’ve seen gators.” She seemed so pleased with herself, so overjoyed at finding a slice of something wild and real, that I forgave her breach of silence. I looked towards her gators and remembered my favorite gator advice, which I read on the national parks service web site: “Never get closer than 15 feet to an alligator. If it hisses or opens its mouth in defense, you should back away even further.”
In waters thick with yellow lotus and cypress, I spotted a juvenile gator on a log. He looked lean, but lazy. When I heard a splash behind me, I tensed up. I grew up with a dad who worked construction, and at night he’d regale us with tales of rattlesnake nests under his backhoe and the alligator tracks leading to freshly dug retention ponds. Over time the fear gave way to respect for this prehistoric thing that hadn’t needed to evolve in zillions of years, not even to exist sandwiched between swamps and suburbs. Alligators eat what they can. They like deer, but when white-tailed deer gave way to hogs, they decided that pork tasted pretty good, too. When the hogs gave way to poodles, the same thing happened. You don’t need to evolve if you can sense opportunity. Forget the 1950’s horror movies; if you want to scare someone, put them alone on a blackwater river and show them an alligator. Not a baby or a teenager or a malnourished retention pond resident feeding on Yorkies and Muscovies, but a true gator, a 12-foot reptilian symphony that sings of Darwin and Bartram and freedom and power with every sweep of his mighty tail.
Further down the river, I heard shrieking and rounded a curve to see two hawks involved in a debate so heated they didn’t notice me float by. Hopping amidst the cypress knees and the swamp lilies, they present and jump on one another, then back off and yell some more. Mating or fighting, I couldn’t tell, but I watched them for a long time, content in their discontent. When they finally forsook the fight for something unseen, I drifted along, stopping my kayak to get close to an orchid or look inside a hollow cypress stump, finding mostly spiders in the stumps, green stringy leaves by the orchids, and gambusia trailing my hand as it dragged through the dark water. I love this water; I love delicate beauty of the harsh banks that welcome anything but people. Unlike the Kissimmee, its beauty comes at eye level and blots out the cerulean sky that leads back home.
Encouraged by the Wekiva, I forestalled my quest for the headwaters of the swamp for another day and opted instead to paddle the Econlockhatchee. Because of low water, I put in at the Snow Hill Bridge and pushed off along what seemed a lazy river. After a few hundred yards, though, I had to squeeze between submerged trees and duck under both fallen trees and ones that had grown across the river, adding a bizarre real-life video game feel: turn here, avoid the oak, go through the palm tree tunnel, and come out the other side. Two strokes, then pivot, duck, and do it all again.
In parts, low water levels exposed so much sandy bank that the river trickled to little more than a misty leak, fallen trees and live ones blocking the water completely in some areas. I finally surrendered my scooch-over technique; as I stepped onto the sand to port my kayak, thousands of tiny spiders scurried into their sand burrows. Huge leather ferns rose from decaying palm trunks arched low over the river. The banks towered on either side of the river, and cypress knees met me at eye level. The clear muddy water waited only for the giant mosquitoes and dragonflies.
At different points along the river, pine trees, then oaks, dominated the forest above. At every juncture cabbage palms lined the riversides and stretched over the water. In several places I abandoned all hopes of paddling as I flattened myself against my boat, held my paddle alongside me, and fervently hoped to make it through the hole without stalling on a sunken tree trunk. At high water, these trees make fascinating underwater viewing and obstacles, but until the rains come they force the constant question: duck under or port?
Moving deeper into the forest I saw again my maiden waters, the Chassahowitzka, but this time I saw it clearly: the blues and greens and yellows faded to their proper colors of brown and tan and sand. My vibrant memories that called me back here could not hold me; the moment’s power claimed me instead. I began paddling a state river, but the similarities of this river to my pristine Chassahowitzka revealed a prehistoric swamp of secrets and truths and disappointments and triumphs. Memories washed over me as I paddled further, and even that night as I transcribed the day I couldn’t distinguish what I saw that day on the Econ and what I saw years ago on the Chassahowitzka.
I am ready to find the headwaters; the disgust of the narrow Kissimmee canals fell away and I saw the rivers and swamps I craved once more. I approach Shingle Creek with a light heart and high hopes.
I welcome the narrow blackwater creek that originates by Sea World and quietly curls south through the theme park and the 3-for-$10 t-shirt capital of the world: Kissimmee, Orlando’s tourist-swollen little sister. In delicious juxtaposition to the dinner and show explosion here, I find my path to the everglades’ genesis, sandwiched between Pirate’s Island mini-golf and Gator Alley gift shop. US 192 crosses Shingle Creek, although no sign marked the waterway. At an airboat rental stand touts the “Real Florida!”; I pay my dollar ramp fee and push off.
This tiny creek starkly contrasts with the Kissimmee floodplain and relatively flat banks. It flows south to Lake Tohopekaliga and drains to Cypress Lake, where it will rendezvous with other tiny blackwater creeks as it pushes south. Paddling Shingle Creek reveals Florida’s “scrub”, a desert with water, prickly pear cactus, and patches of sand beyond oversized muddy emerald leather ferns and reedy plump pine trees. Here lives an estimated 2000 scrub jays, birds resembling a blue jay that has spent a week in a central Florida fishing camp- a little scrubbier, a little wilder looking, and a lot calmer. Think of them as the blue jay’s redneck cousin, a blue jay with serenity thrust upon him. If for no other reason than I envy their quiet toughness and rumpled feathery dreads, I want to see a scrub jay.
For a half mile I contend with sunburned tourists powering tiny airboats, but at the half-mile mark the creek closes and shallows, and while markers warn power boaters away, I am free to paddle under, over, and into this world. I glide past a submerged tree, wiggling my boat around its wrinkled skin as a hawk lights on one of its arcing branches, a wriggling fish in his beak.
The creek closes in, trying to choke me out, and I grunt and pole my way around deadwood and cloying weeds, bumping over things and hitting my paddle on branches above. I can’t paddle; I have no room. Dry season. The downed trees and underwater obstacles test my agility and maneuvering skills and I surrender what I know to just keep going. I scooch and pole and sweat and breathe. Oak and pine and I don’t even notice what else scrape my head and the tops of my hands. Spider webs tangle in my hair and glistening blue bugs find my cockpit. I can’t push myself forward more than a foot or two at a time; I tuck my paddle under my arm and develop a plodding rhythm of lurching forward a couple of feet, then turning my boat by sticking one hand in the loam to curl it around an unseen log and using the other to pivot off the nearest upright branch, then reversing over the underwater obstruction for about a foot, catching my breath, and going forward again. Muck and bark coat my hands, mixing with blood and ragged ripped nails and scraped flaps of skin. I twist around branches and follow the water and almost despair and fight the squishy mud and detritus and huff and all at once it opens again. I find myself in a patch of water at least a foot deep and clear and moving just enough for me to know it moves. Little bits of pickerel move around the deadwood and caress my hull. I sit for a moment; ahead of me, deadfall blocks the way.
I stop paddling; the water here runs so shallow that it will not take me upstream or down. This is it; the end of the line, close to the beginning. In higher water I could reach the end of the beginning, roughly across the street from Discovery Cove, channelized in proper Florida fashion. It starts behind a Chevron and parallels a tidy apartment community. The end of the beginning looks no different than a drainage ditch lined with the verdigris of St. Augustine grass and ornamental assortments of ecology.
But I am not there; I am here. I see nothing I knew for so long and everything I wanted to remember while I didn’t know it. I close my eyes and feel the kiwi-skin water and ripe air and the green mossy decay of effervescent life. From this point springs everything that matters, closing in on me, pushing me down to the muck and raising me up with each breeze. Fullness and satiation and unsolicited happiness bubble up and push out the keening. I arch my back against the seat of my kayak and close my eyes, drawing in breath through my nose and letting my grip on the paddle go slack. The air swells in my lungs and I hold it there, finally releasing my old world. As the pressure builds in my chest, I feel it again, not imposed as before but found, as though it has been waiting for me to see and feel and touch and taste and smell and know it: serenity, rediscovered in this boggy enclave; forgotten and unattainable yet somehow omniscient in this closeted palustrine world. It whispers to me now, echoing its winding tale of waiting and joining, weaving its story around me as the wind caresses my elbows and tickles my arms. The air in my chest crescendos and I force it out over my teeth and between my moist, cracked lips. I open my eyes and look skyward.
The lush canopy blocks the translucent pearl blue reach that would lead me back. It doesn’t matter; I no longer need it. I can find my own way.