by Slo Mo
Five minutes into our little night-time kayak expedition, I'd decided three things:
a) It sucks to paddle single file through the tricky, narrow mangrove inlets when everyone else is way more experienced and going at a much faster pace than you can manage.
b) It sucks even more when you've accidentally been given your friend's kayak instead of your own, which means the foot brace is set too far away and you keep sliding way down like a little old lady behind a steering wheel.
c) It sucks most of all when you've got industrial-strength bug repellent stinging your eyes and there's a stupid mosquito net hanging down from the stupid miner's lamp on your stupid head, which you're not allowed to use (the lamp, not your head) except in case of emergency, which is too bad because the combination of the stinging and the mosquito net and the dark night means you can't see a damn thing and you keep bumping into the kayak in front of you, which belongs to that Kyle guy you picked up at the bar in Florida City, who makes a prissy little tsk noise every time you bump him, as if you're doing it on purpose.
All of which led me to conclude that, should I ever make it back home alive, the first thing I'd do would be kill my friend Joolz for talking me into this fiasco in the first place. Matter of fact, I'd have killed her right there in mid-paddle and thrown her to the swamp critters, except she was three kayaks behind me and well beyond my reach.
And speaking of swamp critters, let me just tell you right now that the Everglades at night isn't nearly as calm and peaceful as you'd think. As a matter of fact, it's downright rowdy. Which made me extra annoyed at the way our intrepid leader, Bruce, had forbidden us to talk. Sure there was the steady rhythm of our paddles in the water and the occasional cough or whisper from our group, but we were still by far the most quiet animals out there - suspicious rustling and grunts and squeaks and small things splashing in and out of the mangroves and some weird bird that was stuck on the same note and... Ummm, at least I think that was a bird. Then again, it could have been a Giant Killer Bigfoot.
And okay, you northerners can laugh all you like at this next bit, but to top everything off the night temperature had dropped to about fifty-five degrees and I was starting to get a really bad chill. Which didn't at all help the pain in my back and shoulders from all that heavy paddling, or the fact that my hands had completely cramped up.
Plus, perhaps worst of all, those crappy watered-down margaritas I'd consumed earlier at the Swampy Bugger were now piling up in my bladder and screaming to get out.
To recap: I was fairly cold, somewhat tired, slightly scared, extremely sore, and in urgent need of a restroom.
So when we came to the edge of a vast sawgrass wetland, and Bruce ordered us to stop in a circle so he could give us instructions, I thought it was perfectly reasonable to speak up.
"Excuse me, Bruce?"
All six of my fellow kayakers, including that little rat-fink Joolz, turned and shushed me. Then Bruce started lecturing us in an annoying stage whisper. We are now in crocodile territory. If you spot something in the water or are in distress, signal by raising your paddle in the air.
Okay! I waved my paddle and cleared my throat.
Bruce kept right on whispering. Keep a close eye on the shoreline. If you think you spot a panther, or you are in distress and are unable to lift your paddle, signal by turning on your headlamp.
Fine. I reached up and flicked my miner's lamp on and off, like a kindergarten teacher trying to get the class's attention. I got the same chorus of "shush" that I'd received when I'd tried to speak, which didn't even make sense. How do you shush a light?
Then it happened: Something slammed the side of my kayak, spinning me forty-five degrees so I was facing the person beside me. I wasn't sure but I thought it was Karl, the other guy from the bar, the one who had helped me into the kayak. From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something long and dark slipping under the water and vanishing through the tall reeds.
Bruce's stage whisper shrieked up a notch. You, Mo! Remain in the circle and focus on me!
I tried to manoeuver myself back in place, but I was slammed again, this time hard enough to set the kayak rocking. As I regained my balance I saw two things very clearly. The first was a distinctly huge reptile tail knifing away from me. The other was a bright set of lights, just visible through the mangroves to my right.
And okay, this is the part where I plead temporary insanity, because that's about the only thing that can explain what I did next:
As Bruce forgot about whispering and started to yell at me about not following instructions, I said a silent sayonara to Bigfoot and the panthers and the crocodiles and my fellow kayakers, put my paddle in the water, and high-tailed it full speed into a small channel that appeared to lead toward the lights. Whoever said there's safety in numbers was obviously never out in the Everglades in the dead of night with a full bladder and a freak named Bruce. I didn't think about the sheer stupidity of what I was doing - I just paddled toward civilization as fast as my aching arms would go.
I could hear the group's shouts and calls trailing off behind me, growing more distant with each stroke. The mangroves are like a giant jungle maze, and I could tell from the apparent confusion in their voices that they weren't sure exactly which of the dozen or so channels I'd taken. It occurred to me that I had no idea whether or not this particular route would lead in a circle, or to a dead end, or worse. But I was too spooked to turn around. I just kept my eyes on those lights.
A few seconds later all I could hear was my own desperate breathing and the regular sound of my paddle, a soft splunk as one side dipped into the water, then a faint splash as it re-emerged and another splunk as the other side went down. Vines and dense brush drifted by on either side of me. There was still the sound of rustling, but at least that weird bird call had stopped. I thought of Dog and Star, safe asleep in their kennels at the vet hospital, while I was out here in the dark wilderness. The thought of them made me paddle harder. Left, right, forward, pull...
It wasn't until I slowed to negotiate a particularly narrow passage that I finally realized there was something behind me.
Something was definitely moving behind me in the water. I stopped and listened. Nothing. I began to inch the kayak forward, and there it was again. I remembered what Bruce had said about crocodiles being nocturnal hunters - what if that thing had followed me from the sawgrass? Isn't that what predators do? Isolate something from its pack and then go in for the kill?
Fuck! FUCK! Fuckity-fuck-fuck...
I tried to think what you're supposed to do with predators. They tell you to be still around sharks, and the same thing for bears and lions and pitbulls. Something about panic giving off an odor. Then again, I always sit still for bees and they always sting me anyways. I have three scars on my legs from sitting still for bees... Screw it! If a crocodile was going to eat me, it would have to catch me first.
I quickly scanned the mangroves to make sure I was still headed toward the lights, and just as I was about to push forward, I saw them - two large, yellow cat eyes glowing at me from the bushes. They disappeared once, then another quick flash, and then they were gone for good.
Holy big cats, Batman! I'd just seen a panther!
And then in the next instant I was flooded from behind with a blinding white light, and I heard a male voice whispering in amazement, "Did you see that?!?!? Did you see those eyes?"
Whoa! That was no crocodile behind me. That was-
"KARL! How the hell did you get here?"
He turned off his headlamp and eased his kayak up to mine. "I saw which way you went, but Bruce wouldn't listen to me so I decided to come after you myself."
"Bruce is an asshole!"
"I know. Where are you going?"
"It's a jungle out here, man. And this isn't even my kayak and the foot rest won't adjust and I've got blisters on my hands and this stupid moonlight trip wasn't my idea in the first place, this was supposed to be a relaxing weekend in Little Torch Key! A relaxing weekend with the dolphins and the sunshine, goddammit! And now I'm lost and there's bug repellent in my eyes, and Joolz shushed me, and I swear to god I was body-slammed by a hungry crocodile! So I'm heading for those lights and pray to god they're civilization, and if not then I'll paddle all the freakin' way to Miami if I have to-"
"I think those lights are the marina. Are you crying?"
"Yes, I'M CRYING. I'm crying because I'm so damn glad you're here! Also, I really-really have to pee. But, uh, Karl?"
"Why are you still whispering?"
And so it was that me and my new best bud, Karl, navigated our way through the wilderness to the Key Largo Marina, parked our dinky little kayaks between a pair of forty-foot catamarans, used the emergency ladders to haul ourselves up onto the dock, and waddled into the marina lounge still wearing our mosquito netting and miner's headlamps, so that when the night attendant saw us he thought it was a terrorist attack and spilled his hot toddy all over his lap.
None of which caused me any concern, hellbent as I was on finding the ladies' room.
When I came back out, smiling that special, blissful smile of the recently relieved, Karl had already arranged for someone to drive us back to the utility station in Florida City where this ill-fated journey had begun. Even if our group wasn't waiting for us there, Karl had the keys to Kyle's jeep. We figured Kyle could find his own way home. As far as I was concerned, Kyle and Joolz could both go shush themselves.
We'd just pulled out of the marina when the local guy who was driving us turned to me in the backseat and laughed. "Hell, girl, you didn't see no panther out there! That Bruce guy is nuts. Only things out there are coons and armadillos. And you didn't see no croc, neither. Probably just some driftwood. Sheesh."
I was about to tell him a thing or two about glowing eyes and deadly body-slams, but just then Karl glanced back and winked. I decided to let it rest. That wasn't a piece of driftwood that spun my kayak around, and those weren't raccoon eyes that stared out at me from the bushes. I may have lost out on my relaxing weekend in Little Torch Key, but two things are certain: I'm one of the few people on this planet who has ever seen a Florida panther, and I'm also one of the few people who will ever see an American crocodile.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a pair of dogs to rescue from the kennel. And a cute guy named Karl to rescue from my hot tub...