Accompanied by our friend Steve Johnson (aka “SAJ”), we ventured to the remotest location on Florida’s mainland - a beach 17 miles from any road as the crow flies. We boated about 35 miles south from Everglades City and camped on boat and beach during our 3 day excursion.
Ryan’s account of the first half of the trip: Rebecca, 10-month old Skyla, and I along with our great friend and fellow scientist-adventurer Steven Johnson (aka “SAJ”) embarked on our memorable excursion to Florida’s remotest mainland location on the afternoon of December 29, 2009. Rebecca and I had always enjoyed spending the New Year holiday doing something unconventional. This time, we had our baby girl and our great friend SAJ along on an epic outdoor adventure for the maiden voyage of Project Remote.
The Florida Mainland Remote Spot is located along the Southwest Florida coastline within the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area of Everglades National Park. This area is famously remote and is referred to as the Ten Thousand Islands.
In our first round of Remote Spot calculations we decided to exclude islands from the definition of “remote” and just consider the mainland of coastal states. Months later, we would have a change of heart, but for now we were going remote on Mainland Florida.
After doing a little internet research on remoteness before our trip, I found a website that labeled the area we were headed to “the remotest location in Florida.” We were glad that another researcher’s calculation corroborated with ours with respect to the remotest area in Florida.
While doing more research using the remarkable mapping program, Google Maps, I zoomed in to the Florida Mainland Remote Spot, as if I were in orbit over Florida looking down through a massive telephoto lens. What I saw was a conspicuous white strip running roughly north to south sandwiched by blue ocean to the west and green mangrove to the east. Our red “X” depicting the Remote Spot landed right on the white strip, a secluded wide beach. I thought to myself…”What a fantastic boating and beach camping adventure this should be!”
Trip planning considerations immediately came to mind. Rebecca and I have always adhered to strict wilderness rules-such as traveling under the power of our own bodies without the aid of motorized vehicles while in the wild. But as I continued to study the landscape near the Remote Spot, I zoomed in further and noticed little specs with white stringy trails behind them in the water near the remote beach. The specs were motorboats.
Apparently boats were going by the Remote Spot on the day when a satellite had snapped the very photo of the earth that I was now looking at. I imagined that fishing and recreational boats might be a fairly common thing along this beautiful, pristine coastline.
I checked rules for travel within the Marjorie Stoneman Douglass Wilderness Area and learned that motorboats were allowed in the region, even though most federal Wilderness Areas, as per The Wilderness Act of 1964, excluded motorized vehicular travel.
We had a decision to make. Do we take our 18-foot motorized john boat or do we paddle kayaks or a canoe into the spot?
After long deliberation, Rebecca and I decided that it would be acceptable to use any of the travel methods we would have at our disposal while Remote Spotting as long as it was lawful and part of the local MO for travel. Plus, we imagined the irony and disappointment of doing a 10-day paddle voyage through the Ten Thousand Islands region only to reach the remote spot and find motorboats anchored to shore and people on the beach who spent hours instead of days getting there. Furthermore, we had challenging logistics to contend with of Remote Spotting in all 50 states on limited time and funding.
We decided to take the motorized aluminum john boat sitting in our yard that had been collecting acorns and leaves.
We launched our boat at a ramp near the Everglades National Park Visitor’s Center in Everglades City at about 4:30 pm, several hours later than desired. But what can you expect when having a 10-month old little girl in tow? We were still getting the hang of this “parent” thing, let alone taking a baby on a multi-day wilderness trip.
One of the things we most believed in was that parenthood should not deter one from continuing to suck the marrow from life. Rebecca and I had always lived on the go, adventuring outdoors and working long beloved days and weeks outside as wildlife biologists. We had always wanted a child, but we were growing less attached to the idea as time went by. We seemed to be getting more and more selfish with our time.
Luckily for us, we ”slipped up” on our honeymoon. Nine months later, we began the great lifelong expedition of parenthood. Speaking of expeditions, so far, we had discovered that wilderness traveling with a young child in tow was an interesting challenge only for parents. Skyla was game for anything! As for us parents, we had to learn how to tweak our existing wilderness travel methods to accommodate a toddler’s needs.
Tide was near low, and the weather was absolutely perfect for boating southward along the Ten Thousand Islands coastline. The temperature was near 60 degrees with a wind out of the NNE at 5-10 mph and 1 foot seas near shore. We navigated out Indian Key Channel to the open Gulf of Mexico. The late afternoon light was exceptional. A cool front had passed two days prior and now the deep blue sky behind the front had settled in. We all were suited up in heavy winter clothing to cut the stiff wind generated by being pushed to 35 mph by 90 horses.
After 20 minutes of heading south along the coast, we came off plane and approached a small, unnamed mangrove island and anchored for the evening. We decided to simply make camp in the floor of our boat. The sun hit the horizon rapidly and cast red-orange light across the sky. Steve and I cracked open tasty brews. Rebecca had a camp cup of water. Since Skyla still fed primarily by nursing, Rebecca could only imagine that her water was a nice glass of red wine. We toasted the setting sun. We were in phenomenal moods and took a few photos. We were all pumped at the prospect of documenting Florida’s remotest mainland location tomorrow, now within a day’s striking distance.
We ate freeze dried meals and watched the sun make its grand daily exit while talking about things remote and wild. Millions of stars revealed themselves gradually as the sun exited. After eating, there were the usual daily chores to tend to, but this time, they would be performed in the dark on a rocking john boat.
Rebecca instinctively tended to Skyla, changing her diaper, and feeding her some homemade baby food that probably was a lot tastier than our freeze-dried meal. Skyla crawled inquisitively around the floor of the boat for a few minutes while I shuffled gear and cleared areas for us to sleep. Rebecca bundled up the baby and stuck her into an adult sleeping bag, then she began the intimate nursing process that usually resulted in getting Skyla to sleep. Tonight was no different, even though the surroundings had changed drastically.
Steve and I cleaned up after dinner. I handled most of the after meal cleaning because I am the obsessively clean type - but just when it comes to dirt or food in my boat, truck, and camping gear, or food all over my baby’s mouth. Unfortunately, this made for plenty of jokes at my expense, typically issuing out of SAJ’s mouth.
But when SAJ spilled half of his soupy meal in the bottom of the boat right where we had to live for the next two days and laughed about it, I found it more difficult to smile. Eventually, I budged with some humor. But I became downright angry when, not five minutes later and laughing, he spilled an entire cup of hot chocolate all over the bow which seeped into the dry storage bin all over our clothes, etc. He was like a child testing the limits of its parent. The whole skit reminded me of Moe and Curly smacking each other around making funny noises. I guess I was Moe. He was definitely Curly.
Rebecca had worked her magic on Skyla, but the process had her too exhausted to hang out. So she simply climbed into the same sleeping bag with bundle baby atop a self- inflating air mattress. Steve and I followed suit. He laid crosswise in the stern in a sleeping bag on his self inflater, and I retired in my own bag/ mattress combo port side along the center console.
Biting insects were a non-issue tonight, which was a relief, knowing we were open air camping in one of the most mosquito-laden places on Earth. Temperatures dropped through the 50′s eventually reaching the 40′s, and a stiffer wind picked up after sunset from off the mainland. These temperatures are unusually chilly for extreme southwest Florida.
Not much time had passed before the waves had kicked up to two feet crests and the wind stiffened to around 15 mph. We were getting hammered by waves and soaked by salt spray. I jumped up, removed anchor, and motored to a more leeward position near the island.
That was the trick. Waves became less of an issue, and we bedded down for the rest of the night rocking in the boat under the big ocean sky.
The next morning we awoke at first light. Rebecca and Skyla were stirring all bundled up in a single sleeping bag. We packed up sleeping gear, then re-shuffled the rest of the gear in the most favorable positions to endure the 20 mile boat ride to the Remote Spot this morning. We had cold cereal and hot cocoa for breakfast. And yes, I did rib SAJ about the hot cocoa.
In this part of the Gulf of Mexico, weather can either cooperate with your good intentions or smack you right in the face. It cooperated…and then some. I have been on dozens of trips in my life where bad weather had all but spoiled a perfectly good adventure. Today, temps rebounded to near 60 degrees, and better yet, winds remained light, which meant that seas were relatively smooth.
We got our boat up on a plane and cruised southward along the Ten Thousand Islands coastline. We navigated using our GPS, aerial photos, and topographic maps. We had the exact coordinates for the Remote Spot logged into our GPS unit but mostly we just used the aerial photo. I just love a good map.
Several islands and exposed white beaches passed us by as we cruised. I checked the map often to be sure the beaches we passed weren’t the Remote Spot beach. We stopped once, to simply turn off the motor and take in the sound of remoteness.
In my life’s travels, I have been to places like the Outback of Australia, Amazon Basin, Big Ben region of Texas, Yukon Territory, and all over Alaska. These were some of Earth’s last remaining extremely remote and wild places. When you are truly remote, you know it, because the roaring sound of humanity is gone, and what you hear is complete silence. That is, unless the weather is inclement, or you are near moving water, or wild animals are vocalizing.
What we heard when we stopped was the sweet sound of silence. There are precious few areas left in Florida where you can still leave the drum of cities and the roar of roads behind. This appeared to be one of them.
We had lunch and studied our maps.
Winds remained light. We saw one boat in the distance farther out to sea. This was a bummer, but we knew it was going to happen. The sky was a deep blue with small puffy clouds. Even though the sun was at a low angle courtesy of the recently passed winter solstice, this was still south Florida, and all day exposure made sunscreen a necessity. Especially for the baby.
We cruised southward a while longer, then came off plane to idle speed. We had arrived at the north end of a two-mile long, uninhabited, undeveloped, white beach. It was the beach. Now our task was to use the maps to navigate to the exact location of the Remote Spot on the far south end of the beach.
We idled along the beach until the Remote Spot came into view. There was a large, conspicuous shrub growing on the duneline at the exact spot. As we approached, the motor propeller embedded into shallow carbonate sediments and we got stuck about 200 yards out from land. I lifted the motor to dislodge us from the sediment. SAJ jumped out and pulled the boat while wading us to shore.
Crashing beach waves were not a problem. I imagined how lucky we were to be able to anchor the boat directly on the beach and not get pounded by crashing surf. Obviously, the planets were in perfect alignment in favor of us having a smooth trip.
This is Rebecca now, taking over the story-telling. Only because its Ryan’s ‘baby time’ and my ‘work time’ and we are trying to get this story up on the website sooner rather than later. Ryan is not tired of telling you the story, I promise.
I won’t go back and throw the realistic wrench into Ryan’s nice descriptions of traveling with a 10-month old but suffice it to say that I was tired and a little cranky watching the guys pop open a good beer in celebration of our landing on the Remote Spot. They kicked back for a few minutes but I was still full on tending to Skyla — whats up with that?!
Seriously though, they were doing all the boat-related work and handling the cooking (and boiling water is tough folks) and cleaning. We all had jobs to do and I was able to pop open a beer in celebration eventually. But I digress…
We had arrived! The elation we felt is hard to describe. Ryan and I had been dreaming of this moment for months. It was the beginning of a grand adventure, the culmination of so much work, and the first step towards accomplishing our Remote Spot endeavor - one down, 49 more to go!
Skyla fell asleep before we even got off the boat. I guess she wasn’t as excited as we were about reaching the Florida Remote Spot. We frolicked on the beach and documented our arrival with pictures. I laid Skyla down on the bow of the boat to finish her nap amongst the dry bags and other gear. We soaked up the place, collected a little sand and a few shells.
The Remote Spot was not an ideal place for us to camp so we boated back towards the north end of the beach until we found a suitable spot.
Because the shallow water stretched a long way out, we knew the tide was going to be pretty dramatic. This posed a bit of a challenge for anchoring the boat. We needed the anchor to hold during higher tide and we didn’t want the boat to sit too high and dry during lower tide or we would be waiting a long time to leave tomorrow. After much discussion, Ryan and SAJ anchored the stern and tied the bow up to a snag on the beach.
We set about preparing camp. SAJ brought his hammock and strung it up between the only two trees on the beach. They were actually dead trees, snags, and he hoped they would hold. He guessed the hammock hung just high enough to not get wet by a rising tide. Ryan planned to sleep in the boat again and I set up a tent for Skyla and I.
The late afternoon and early evening light was again spectacular and perfect for taking more photos. Just as the last of the daylight faded, the notorious Everglades mosquitoes came out in force. The middle of winter in south Florida means nothing to mosquitoes.
Florida is endowed with more mosquito species than any other state in the U.S. The ferocity and density of the mosquito clouds around us rivaled any I have ever felt in Alaska. I think all 80 Florida species converged on us that night.
With Skyla on my lap, I tried to cover us with mosquito netting. It didn’t work. So while the guys toughed it out on the boat and beach, Skyla and I retreated to the tent. I read her books and nursed her to sleep. It wasn’t long before Ryan gave up on the idea of sleeping on the boat and crashed our tent party. SAJ wrapped himself up in his hammock with mosquito netting and settled in for the night.
Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to the sound of gently crashing waves, much closer than they were when I went to bed. I peeked out of the tent to see if SAJ and his sagging hammock were inundated. The bright moonlight showed he had about an inch to spare.
Okay, I’m not going to lie. I’d like to say I stood on the beach and just pondered the beauty, wrote in my journal, and soaked in the remoteness. Tending to a 10-month old however, makes for a different reality. Skyla is not into sitting around and philosophizing much these days.
Not to scare other parents but at one point during this trip I said to myself, “I will never do this again without another woman along.” I hope not to offend all you attentive, loving, and wonderful fathers out there (my husband definitely included), and SAJ was an awesome and conscientious companion, but there is a big difference in spending a weekend with two women and a baby versus two men and a baby. You ladies out there know what I’m talking about!
It was tough spending almost every minute tending to another human being while being in an environment where tending to myself was difficult enough. And Skyla is the kind of baby that wanted to be held, a lot. She wanted comfort (i.e. to nurse), a lot. She wanted me, a lot.
Intellectually, I knew it was going to be hard work creating the kind of environment in which Skyla felt safe, cared for, and happy. And this wasn’t our first adventure together. This past summer, I went on a road/camping trip to Maine with one of my dearest and longest friends (I said ‘one of’ Erin!). Gen, who designed our logo, her almost 4-year old daughter, 6-month old Skyla, and I packed into a car and drove up to Maine. We camped on her friends land by a beautiful creek and visited with Gen’s old college friends in Machias. That was a working vacation too.
Even still, I guess my expectations must have been a little unrealistic. So here is lesson number one parents - be realistic in your expectations. If you have a baby, you are going to be spending most of your energy caring for your child. You can still do whatever you want to do and even the things you used to do. You just have to do them differently. Slow down and take more breaks. For yourself more than for your babe.
I could go on and on, and I will in my blog (soon to come) but let’s get back to the beach in the Everglades!
One of the data points we collect at Remote Spots is cell phone coverage. Obviously coverage varies from provider to provider but we figured, contrary to what the companies want you to believe, coverage doesn’t vary that much. SAJ brought along his Crackberry and turned it on to test our variable. No cell phone coverage at the Florida Remote Spot.
We sat on our stranded boat with no cell phone coverage and talked about what a great experience this would be for many people. Especially folks who rarely leave their cell phones behind; who are always connected.
One of our goals at Remote Footprints is to help people “Get Disconnected.” In fact, we almost named our organization something along those lines because we feel so strongly about it. Being so connected is beneficial for sure. Unlimited information and contact is at our fingertips. But this connection comes at the expense of living in the here and now. Of really listening to the person you are talking to instead of answering your cell phone. Of being absorbed in the sounds and feelings of a concert instead of being on your phone to tell someone you are at a concert.
These days it seems that people are interacting through technology much more than face-to-face. Yes, I’ve heard the story of the two people sitting next to each other texting instead of talking. I was hoping that was an urban legend.
This obsession with digital communication is a bit scary to me. Talk about shifting baselines. With the advent of the telephone, most interactions still took place face-to-face with the occasional phone call. Then the norm became talking to each other on the phone instead of interacting in person. Along comes email and texting communication and we shift again and are rarely talking to each other on the phone and even less face-to-face (think about interactions at your office).
For today’s young people growing up in the ‘digital age’ communicating by typing is the norm. In 20 years from now, what kind of interactions will we have? What will these interactions mean for us as a culture? How will that effect the depth of our ability to communicate? Or, like many things, will the pendulum shift the other way and we realize that face-to-face interaction is important. Like growing your own food again and the return of 80′s fashions. Okay, that last one was a bad example…
But out here in the Everglades, waiting for the tide to rise with no ability to connect with the outside world, there is nothing to do BUT sit…and think…and soak up your surroundings. This kind of disconnected remoteness is exactly what we hope to help others experience.
With the rising of the tide our boat was floating on water instead of sand and barnacles. It was time to begin our journey home. Today was the last day of 2009 and we were proud to have spent it Remote Spotting.
SAJ and Ryan pulled our boat through the mud flats until we had enough water to lower the motor and head out. We sped home but not so fast that we didn’t stop for that hour or so to admire a flotilla of white pelicans beneath a striking, streaked cloud formation.
Back at the boat ramp in Everglades City, we reveled in our accomplishment and what it meant for Project Remote. And we of course talked about the next Remote Spot adventure…