The reason people take to the woods is to get away from normal life and go somewhere there’s nobody they know and no one know can bother them. This is even more true after working retail during the Christmas rush; my family was rather anti-social after working at Old Town Outfitters 7 days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas. After a particularly grueling season, it was time to go on a big trip to decompress so we could work retail again for the coming year without a homicide. Since it was January, we hoped it would be warm in Florida without the threat of being eaten alive by insects unlike the rest of the year. The plan was to drive down and stay at Oleta River State Park for 2 days to rest and for the next 5 days we would basically maroon ourselves 8 miles from shore on Elliot Key in Biscayne Bay National Park. We’d then head back to Oleta for 2 more days before heading back home. Nine days of camping, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and fun in the sun is enough to snap anybody out of retail rage.
3 kayaks, 5 watertight barrels full of food, 8 people, and 1 CD crammed into the truck and van and we all head south. Highlights of the drive included a manhunt for an escaped convict in Walterboro, several nervous breakdowns as a result of only having 1 CD for a 12 hour drive, and a person in the van remarking, “That summer camp looks like fun!” only to realize it was actually a Juvenile Detention Center. As anyone who has ever driven to Florida knows, most of the trip comes down to the passengers saying, “Oh look a field! And, another field! And another….”, until the driver snaps, so I’ll just skip that part.
Oleta River State Park is the most unusual state park I’ve ever been to. Its 1200 acres of biking, hiking and kayaking trails located in downtown Miami. From the park office you can see 60 story skyscrapers. Oleta is also dangerous because of the rampant crime. Not of the human variety; the park is run by a cartel of raccoons. If you do not give them respect and pay them tribute, they will do everything in their power to ruin your stay. From an early age, I was taught two things about how to treat raccoons while camping: 1-If they are out during the daytime, they most likely have rabies, and 2-Stay away from them and they’ll stay away from you. The raccoons at Oleta threw those rules out the window many years ago apparently. We pulled up to register at the park office at 4pm when a raccoon came waddling out of the woods (they were all rather portly little buggers) and began motioning for food and cigarettes and threatening us with a switchblade. We quickly paid the ranger for our cabin, jumped back in the car, locked the doors, and sped off.
Over the next 2 days, the harassment from the raccoons only got worse. They would stalk the cabins at night and try to scavenge any food they could from us. At one point, a gang of 3 raccoons swarmed the girl’s cabin by chewing through a screen door and began devouring our 5lb jar of peanut butter. The girls began panicking when they walked into the cabin and the raccoons motioned them over while making wolf-whistles. My father decided that this had gone on long enough and simply strode into the cabin and bellowed, “OUT…..NOW!” The weakest of the three just passed out right there, leaving his buddies to drag his unconscious body behind them.
After watching hairy Canadians play boccie ball and the passionate Cuban people at Oleta, we headed farther south to Biscayne Bay National Park. One of the only National Parks situated mostly in the water, Biscayne Bay has several keys (islands) in its boundaries and is a destination for scuba diving and snorkeling in the shipwrecks and coral reefs. What they don’t mention is that it is cruel and unusual to be snorkeling 5′ from shore and see a 6 lb lobster just crawling through the sand but you can’t catch him because you’re in a lobster sanctuary. Well, you can catch him, and they are delicious, but I can tell you from experience it’s not worth the weekly phone calls to your parole officer.
Driving south of Miami, we finally arrived to catch our shuttle boat to Elliot Key. This was the culmination of our entire trip; 5 days on an island 8 miles from shore with no resupply. We had three kayaks, eight backpacks full of gear and clothes, four 15 gallon barrels and one 40 gallon barrel full of food and provisions to load onto the shuttle along with 5 gallon water tanks to carry the islands clean, sweet tasting drinking water to the camp site. (The shower water, however, smelled so strongly of sulfur that we held our nostrils while showering).
Jim, Dave, and I went on the first shuttle to the island with some of the gear. No sooner than arriving, our boat sputtered, coughed, and died. Leaving the rangers to figure out how to get the rest of our crew across, we hiked to the Atlantic side of the island to the site we had reserved. It was a ¾ mile hike on a dry sandy trail, and would have been beautiful except for the ravenous mosquitoes.
After our first walk through death, A.K.A. Mosquito Alley, we realized that even in January, Florida mosquitoes are of unusual size and strength. Ounce for ounce the most terrifying creature on God’s green earth, Florida mosquitoes could bite through almost any clothing. Only rain jackets stopped their biting, so even though it was in the high 80’s with clear sunny skies, I wore mine every day. Twice daily we applied 70% DEET bug lotion which was strong enough to eat away the plastic on our Nalgene bottles. We hated to leave our tents in the morning because we knew the mosquitoes were waiting like lions licking their lips at a gazelle with 3 legs. Thankfully on the Atlantic side of the island we at least had a breeze; campers on the lee side of the island had no defense. Near the end, we met a Cuban man whom the mosquitoes avoided and we begged him to tell us his secret. He said that he’d always eaten 2-3 bananas a day and that the potassium apparently kept the winged-evil away. Bananas were not on our shopping list for the trip but I’ve never failed to pack them since.
On the ride to the island, the rest of our crew met three college students who possessed a degree of intelligence only found in plant life or Congress. Celebrating New Years, these students came to the island with 2 coolers: one filled with steaks, the other with beer. Upon arriving on the island, they were shocked at the lack of a convenience store on the island for them to restock on ice. Knowing that they couldn’t let the meat go bad, they decided to cook it all that first night. And, since warm beer isn’t that good, they decided to drink all the beer too. At this point, the story they told us begins to get fuzzy, no doubt from the cases of beer they consumed. One of them decided that they couldn’t just leave the steak lying outside because of the raccoons that roamed the island. (These were the rough, uncultured, hillbilly raccoons that were kin to the gangster raccoons of Oleta State Park). So to keep the cooked steaks safe, they stashed them in the gear loft above where they slept in their tent. According to the evidence, these college students were so inebriated that raccoons chewed through the wall of the tent, stood on the students stomachs, and ate all the meat without waking anyone. All of this is assumed from the muddy paw prints that were on their bodies, so the true story may never be known.
Our crew, however, had a campsite right on the Atlantic with all the benefits of being ocean side: a constant breeze, beautiful sunrises, pallets to use as firewood, Japanese toys to play with, and French perfume (which we sprayed on would-be-campsite sharers and watched them carried away by a squadron of mosquitoes). Cargo that fell off passing ships would wash up on Elliot Key, and the flotsam was from all over the world. Our hikes weren’t so much to see the scenery but to look through all the goods that washed on shore. In the spirit of the movie “Cast Away”, we all made our own personal Wilsons out of lobster buoys and trash we found on shore; it was fun until mine started talking back to me. Moral of the story? Dehydration does funny things to your head.
One evening, three of us decided it would be fun to go on a sunset paddle in our kayaks. The weather was perfect and we were having a grand time in the dying light when I looked about 20 feet to the left of my kayak and thought, “Ooh! Look! Dolphins! But…the fin isn’t going up and down…. it’s just cruising along” and that’s when the music from “Jaws” kicked in. Instantly, I remembered that sharks feed in the hours when the sun is either setting or rising. Yelling to my friends with a voice they mistook for a 12 year old girls, I told them that it was time to go home because I just saw a shark. Suffice to say, you could have water-skied from the wake created by us getting back to shore on record time.
When it was time to leave the island, everyone was more than ready to go. 5 days in the heat fighting mosquitoes had taken its toll on morale. Our first stop when back on shore was Wendys because it was the first fast food chain we passed. When 8 grimy and desperate looking people kept on screaming something about cold drinks and how much they missed ice and that the Frosty in their hand must have been delivered by an angel, the employees called the police. That’s also why we can never go back to Elliot Key unless escorted by Florida State Police.