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The Joys of Camping in Florida

Paddle along as the author takes her family on an annual pilgrimage to the Ten Thousand Islands. Warning: All does not go smoothly.

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I am a person who wears a checkered sunglass cord. 

The intent is practical, the look lame, and to aggravate this fashion failing, my husband, Marc, is wearing a cord that matches mine. He bought them in a two-pack. This thought is flitting about in my head one Saturday as Marc steers toward the interstate from Estero en route to our annual camping pilgrimage to the Ten Thousand Islands.

8:41 a.m. An enormously awkward bird saunters into view. The vision is rare, we marvel, and point out the bird to our girls, 7 and 3, in the backseat. A turkey! They peer out from the ramparts of sleeping bags and mats, dry bags, a cooler, three cameras, a banana peel (circa 2006) and a neighbor kid. Then the turkey faces the swooshing cars, and surely its instincts will kick in because how can a turkey be so stupid, and yet—Thwack! Feathers scatter like the crescendo of a pillow fight. We are reminded that domesticated turkeys can’t fly as it hobbles to the median and presumably dies.

“A-hole!” I curse, inadvertently.

“Jerk!” the 7-year-old cries.

“The driver probably couldn’t see it,” Marc defends. “If the driver slowed down, that could have caused an accident.”

“Don’t mansplain the hitting of the turkey,” I grumble.

Our daughter’s wails grow as we turn toward my parents’ condo. “It says ‘Chicken Grill!’” she cries of the sight of her favorite restaurant. “Chicken is like turkey!”

To restore some balance, and because I don’t know how to describe random death in a way that will not ignite early onset existential dread, I suggest she could choose today not to eat chicken, precisely what my mother will later try to feed her. We drop off the kids to find balance of our own as I wonder if the macabre beginning to this trip could be some sort of omen in the form of fowl. 

9:14 a.m. The Honda Element drifts toward oncoming traffic on U.S. 41 on the way to the Port of the Islands boat launch as my husband scans gullies for alligators. Distracting myself from nagging him about this, I read The New York Times book review of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir by John Banville. Reviewer Roger Rosenblatt talks of one of Banville’s preoccupations.  “Childhood fascinates Banville because it’s ‘a state of constantly recurring astonishment.’ ... ‘The process of growing up,’ he writes, ‘is, sadly, a process of turning the mysterious into the mundane.’”

This makes me almost as sad as the turkey that didn’t know to turn back.

9:57 a.m. “Is that a coyote? Or a panther?” My husband’s tone brightens as he spots a chestnut-colored creature roaming the roadside.

“Is it?” I look. “No. It’s a German shepherd.”

This interaction sums up why we are well-matched. He sees panthers in the mundane whereas I expect stray dogs. Often, in reality, it is the dogs we cross. I steel him for disappointment but believe one day it will be panther. Also, we are both practical enough to wear dorky sunglass cords when boating.

10:30 a.m. At the Port of the Islands marina, it costs $10 to park overnight, $4 a day to launch. Our destination: White Horse Key, a green blob on the map among other green blobs, with a sandy tip that looks like a pelican head. It sits beyond Dismal Key, where I’m grateful not to be staying. White settlers largely named these keys, where they lived and fished from larger islands in the late 1880s. Before them resided prehistoric indigenous populations, who were decimated by the diseases Spanish explorers brought with them. Only a few inhabitants remained by the 1940s as families decamped for Marco Island, Naples and Everglades City. These facts come courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, keeper of the Ten Thousand Islands, a National Wildlife Refuge.   

The canoe motor jolts to life and we zoom into the mangrove forests. I am reminded of one of my favorite sounds in the world: the dull chime of waves sloshing over shells clinging to mangrove roots. Though not a natural when writing about the outdoors, I rummage for creative magic to express what I see while studying the red mangroves, one of three mangrove species in the 35,000 acres of mangrove forests in the Ten Thousands Islands and part of the largest expanse of mangrove forest in North America. My thought process went something like this: Roots shellacked with shells. Shellacked and shells? Too much. What’s the word—Scalloped!! Scalloped shells. Ugh. Scalloped ruffles? Shells settle on mangrove roots like ruffled bloomers, I settle on and then discard. I have never known mangroves to wear bloomers.

12:38 p.m. We eat a lunch of prosciutto and Swiss sandwiches on the southern shore of White Horse Key as we scout for a camping spot. We traipse around gumbo limbo trees, limbs outstretched in devotion to a cloudless blue sky.

I consider the strawberries. “We should have brought cookies.”

“Oh, you didn’t bring cookies?” Marc is disappointed.

In a decade of doing these trips, we’ve seen the pall of poor food and drink planning. Early on, Marc selected a single box of raisins and nuts for provisions. We didn’t speak for hours. Other important lessons: More than one adult beverage is preferred, and always leave with several hours of daylight—seemingly obvious, but not immediately to us. Turns out, it’s not romantic paddling in the dark in a desolate wilderness as one of us (me) contemplates if we’d be able to locate the body of the other if something happened and one of us drowned or if we both would be lost to the sea.

The gumbo-limbo spot is nixed due to excess foliage, bait for mosquitoes and raccoons, camper enemies one and two. We paddle west around the island. Marco is in the distance, so I pull down the sides of my hat to block hints of civilization from my peripheral vision and focus on the birds: royal terns and blue heron perched on driftwood that sticks out of the water like a sea monster. The birds turn away from Marco, too.

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