Another 30 minutes went by. I paddled out and screamed Gregg’s name, blew the whistle on my life jacket. Both attempts were swallowed immediately by the wind. At one point, I heard something that could have been a human shout, but there was no telling which direction it came from. Then, nothing.
“He’s gone,” I said when I paddled back. “He couldn’t find us again, and he’s probably gone on to Jewel Key on his own. He’s got food, water, a chart and a GPS, and he’s the most experienced kayaker of us all. He’ll get there.”
But could we?
Luckily, I still had my chart and compass. But I’d been following Gregg, so I didn’t know where on the chart we were. We had no choice but to backtrack, paddle back into the bay and find the one marker we’d seen on the way out. I could then locate that marker on the chart and get a compass heading for the pass.
Backtracking took us thankfully downwind. But once we found the marker, trying to read the compass with the waves washing over the boat and the wind spinning me broadside was a challenge. When I finally managed, the compass seemed to indicate an opening that looked no more promising than the one we’d just come from. But it was our only shot, so back we went into the ripping wind.
As we pulled past the point of another island, distinguished from the other 9,999 islands solely by my navigational theory, the wind stopped. The clouds parted. The sun emerged, backed by God’s own depth of blue. And there in front of us was a clear channel through the mangroves. The water lay flat as a reflecting pond as we cut straight furrows through it, slipping along at a gratifying pace. A brown shadow in the green water ahead grew larger as it closed on the point of my bow, then broke in a graceful gull wing of a flipper about two feet from tip to tip.
“A manatee!” Peter and Sam cried simultaneously.
A quarter-mile later, the water stirred in a flash of silver. The floppy dorsal fin of a five-foot tarpon cut alongside the kayak, then submerged beneath it. The breeze now was nothing but a steady rustle in the tips of the mangroves, which, judging by their height, were ancient here, rising 50 feet above our heads. Fifty feet above that, dapper black-winged, white-bottomed swallow-tailed kites glided in lazy circles. A bald eagle hunted in the distance.
Soon we sighted a rare spot of dry land, which like so much dry land in these mangroves is the result of castoff oyster shells, the after-dinner detritus of thousands of years of settlement by Calusa Indians. We pulled over for a much-needed stretch and found, just inshore, the foundation of a 19th-century settler’s homestead camouflaged by the dappled sunlight streaming through the high branches. The ruins of the house’s one-time cistern and a seeping spring where the settler had once dug his well spoke of a self-sufficiency almost impossible to imagine in this isolated outpost. We ate hastily assembled sandwiches, then headed on.