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2015-12-01 / Go Pink Boots

Magic in the Everglades

By Jill Gleeson

Canoeing never seemed particularly adventurous to me, unless you’re talking about the kind of trip undertaken by the characters of “Deliv­erance.” The sport – excepting paddles down Georgia backwaters filled with menacing hillbillies in sus­penders – appears a mostly medita­tive undertaking, slow and lyrical. I do love the throwback feel of it, the idea that the sturdy watercraft were what my grandfather used when fishing, and what his grandfather used before him. But in my limited experience, I’d found nothing chal­lenging about canoeing, nothing exciting or especially profound. It was…pleasant.

Pleasant. I tried to keep that word in mind as I stood before the canoe rental in Florida’s Loxahatchee Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. The rental woman was in the process of cau­tioning our tour group about over­grown vegetation on the water trail, how though it’d been cut back not too long ago it had returned thick and unruly as curly hair on a humid day. After all, she reminded us, with the gravitas of a horror movie doom­sayer warning teenagers to steer clear of the old, abandoned summer camp, this was the Everglades. Many of her customers had been turning back a quarter of the way into the trail’s 5.5 miles, unable to push through the dense colonies of water lilies.

What was I getting myself into? I’d explored the Everglades before, but that had been further south, on an airboat. I was glad I’d part­nered with Darcy, who was from Canada and therefore, I figured, un­doubtedly a master of the outdoors on par with Grizzly Adams. As we pushed off from shore, I glanced at the far side of the trail. A massive gator, sly, reptilian eyes peeping above the water, gazed back at me. I remembered what I’d read, that the refuge’s 221 square miles represent the last remnants of the northern Everglades in Palm Beach County. And that there were more alligators here than in the southern Ever­glades. Suppose the canoe tipped over?

Before I could reconsider we were off, paddling down the trail. I sat in front, Darcy in back. We were a good team, pushing through the water with sure, strong strokes and we’d soon left civilization behind. All that remained was the trail, 15 feet wide in some spots, narrower in others, and the flat, verdant marsh­land spreading out from either side of it, as endless as the sky above. All was quiet save for the low splash of our paddles hitting the water, and the ticking of the wind through the tall reeds. I realized I was grinning widely. I’d managed to forget how good submerging myself in nature felt.

We passed another alligator, small­er than the one we’d seen earlier, and then I spotted a passel of them, mere babies. There were about a half-doz­en, all no longer than my hand and oddly cute, lounging on lily pads. I yelped with surprised pleasure, pointing them out to Darcy as we passed. The farther down the trail we ventured the more birds we spotted, egrets and osprey, storks and ducks, even an endangered snail kite. There were so many, but they represented just a tiny sampling of the refuge’s 250 species. The lilies became in­creasingly thicker, growing in tight masses as if to guard against entry into this sacred space, and we had to work much harder to move the canoe forward. But touched by the majestic beauty of the refuge, I urged Darcy to continue.

I’d forgotten any trepidation, didn’t care that sweat was sliding down my back. I had been bewitched by the wild surrounding me. And then, as if on cue, a great blue heron rose gracefully from the cattails, silent and languid as a balloon escaping a child’s fist. Darcy and I sat stunned for a moment after it faded from view, finally resuming our paddling without a word. By the time our worried tour guide called my cell, wondering if we were ever coming back, we’d been gone for three hours. And I’d been reminded adventure comes in many guises. •SCM

Jill Gleeson dares to venture outside of her comfort zone and learns a lesson every time. Follow her adventures on Twitter @gopinkboots.

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