Home Sweet Houseboat
Published: May 2009
By George Howe Colt
No crowds, no lines. Just you, a slow-going boat—and a national park all to yourself. Welcome to the Everglades
Picture a 230,100-acre jigsaw puzzle with 14,022 pieces, some as small as a manhole cover, others as big as Central Park. Each is a mangrove island, a tangle of green floating above stiltlike roots. Winding among the islands are tea-colored bays, rivers, and creeks. At the end of one of those creeks there's a clover-shaped inlet. In a crook of that inlet, a houseboat is anchored. Inside that houseboat, my 12-year-old daughter sketches an anhinga drying its wings while her seven-year-old brother draws clouds. On the deck my wife and I bask in a stillness so rich that we hear the subtlest of sounds—the plash of water against the mangroves, the sssssh of the breeze in the leaves, the rustle of an ibis settling on a branch.
Fifteen years ago, when Anne and I were a new couple, we canoed 78 miles on a six-day camping trip through this very place. Like most Americans, we had been accustomed to taking our natural wonders in vertical form: the spine-chilling depths of the Grand Canyon, the neck-craning heights of the Grand Tetons. By contrast, Everglades National Park, a Delaware-sized hunk of wilderness at the bottom of Florida, is brazenly horizontal—at eight feet above sea level, its highest point barely tops Shaquille O'Neal's bald pate—and decidedly un-grand. Indeed, it is often described, accurately, as "primeval swampland."
Anne and I soon discovered, however, that in the Everglades things are seldom what they seem: a floating log could be an alligator; a gnarled branch may be the S-shaped neck of a tricolored heron. We learned that a pancake-flat landscape leaves room for a sky so vast it induces a sweetly pleasurable form of vertigo; that a swamp can encompass nine habitats, from mangrove forest to saw-grass prairie, each with its simple glories. If the other national parks are epics, the Everglades are an endless series of haiku.
We had vowed to return, but two children and one ailing back had intervened. And though we nibbled at the fringes of the park several times, we'd begun to despair of ever seeing the Everglades backcountry again. Then a friend told us that the park marina rents not only canoes but fully equipped houseboats. A mode of travel that we once would have scoffed at as cumbersome and bourgeois now sounded like a godsend.
Henry was gung ho over the prospect. He was thrilled to hear that the Everglades are home to alligators, crocodiles, and 26 species of snakes—four of them poisonous—and his disappointment at learning he wouldn't be allowed to swim in the swamp was more than compensated for by his delight at the reason why: all those hungry animals. For Susannah, who loves ice and snow and donates a dollar a week to a save-the-polar-bear foundation, the steamy Everglades was a harder sell. Our daughter is fond of luxury (she spent her ninth birthday at the Plaza Hotel in New York); the Everglades don't have any. Anne and I only hoped that her nature-loving side would prevail.
After flying into miami we head southwest on Florida's Turnpike, still not quite believing that such a wilderness can exist only 40 miles from the high-rises of Miami Beach. It's as if, driving out of Manhattan, one found oneself not in Scarsdale but the Sierras. At six o'clock we're stuck in airport traffic; at seven our headlights pick out a yellow PANTHER CROSSING sign.
Anne and I have planned a warm-up day in Flamingo, a raffish outpost with a lodge, a marina, and several cottages deep within Everglades National Park. Wanting our children to love what we love, we stack the deck by starting them off on the Anhinga Trail, a half-mile boardwalk just inside the park entrance, where the wildlife gets so close that visitors may catch themselves looking for telltale animatronic wires. Seconds after we arrive, Henry takes off. "Look!" he shouts, pointing at a red-bellied slider. "Look!" (an eight-foot alligator, its back pineappled like a grenade, swimming languidly toward us). "Look!" (Henry trying unsuccessfully to slice through the boardwalk with a blade of saw grass). Even Susannah seems impressed, and soon abandons her longtime campaign for a dachshund. "I want a marsh rabbit, a cormorant, and a baby alligator," she announces. We spend the afternoon bicycling along Florida Bay, shinnying up palm trees, swimming in the lodge's aged pool, and catching an anole lizard in an ice bucket.
The next day is Houseboat Day. After a quick run to Homestead for groceries, we're ready to board. Laden with shopping bags, fishing rods, and $46 worth of frozen bait shrimp, we arrive at the marina. Susannah, who for years has been pressing us to take her on a Caribbean cruise, has imagined a miniature version of the QE II. I've been thinking of those luxury barges that ply the canals of France. But when we spy our fair ship, the first vessel that comes to mind is . . . the African Queen. Our home for the next four days resembles a huge, battered, puce-colored fiberglass toaster balancing on two massive aluminum sausages. Its bow is raked with scrapes, its hull is shaggy with algae, its deck is sheathed in peeling vinyl. A sign over the helm reads SNAPPER. The interior—from Formica kitchen cabinets to warped venetian blinds to charmingly mismatched flatware—evokes my first apartment (Baltimore, circa 1977). But the bunks are snug, there's a shower, and we won't have to worry if the kids put their feet up on the cushions. When a last-minute cancellation gives us the option of upgrading to a newer, spiffier model with wood paneling, air-conditioning, and a sundeck, we act like puppy shoppers at the pound who choose the forlorn mutt over the pedigreed poodle—and unanimously vote to stick with the Snapper.
Although the brochure had assured us that boating experience was "helpful but not mandatory," Anne and I are surprised when the promised "in-depth operating orientation" turns out to be a 10-minute tour of our boat, with each item prefixed by its replacement cost: the $450 Delta anchor, the $200 marine radio, the $150 ice chest, the $60 life ring, the $30 distress flag. I scribble don'ts into my notebook: Don't let the oil gauge get too low. Don't anchor with less than six-foot clearance from the shore. Don't—for God's sake!—forget to make sure the toilet pedal comes back up, or we'll flush away our entire 120-gallon supply of fresh water. Although we later find that the nine-page manual tells us everything we need to know, we can't quite believe they're trusting us with this 40-foot craft. I'm hardly comforted when a dockhand confesses that every time a houseboat pulls away, he whistles the theme to Gilligan's Island.
Ten minutes later, engine gurgling, pulses racing, a canoe in tow, a double kayak laid across our stern, we wind our way down a narrow, alligator-lined, skiff-cluttered canal. And then, turning a corner, we find ourselves in a bay that stretches as far as we can see. We are entering the Ten Thousand Islands mangrove wilderness, one of the largest habitats within the Everglades. From a distance the mangroves seem to be a solid green wall, but as we approach, the wall breaks up into intricate shapes—hooks, keys, hourglasses—laced with creeks. Although houseboats can't navigate in waters less than four feet deep, we're still left with at least 1,000 mangrove islands to see. As we chug up Joe River, a serpentine channel wide enough for Henry to take the helm without dire consequences, it is nearly impossible not to feel a little like Marlow in Heart of Darkness.
Two hours later we pull into a small inlet for the night. It takes only three tries to set the anchor. While Anne and Susannah nose about in the kayak, Henry and I get out our rods. On the plane we'd ogled tarpon-sized snook and whale-sized tarpon in an Everglades fishing guide. On the water we run through a dozen shrimp and a variety of garish lures without so much as a nibble. As a last resort (and with apologies to Woody Guthrie), we sing "This Fish Is Your Fish," a strategy that last summer netted Henry a four-pound bluefish on Cape Cod. Sure enough, at "From the redwood for-fish, to the Gulfstream wa-fish," Henry stiffens. "Got one!" he shouts. After a three-minute tug of war, he reels in a small, white-bellied, bewhiskered specimen with the squashed, inscrutable face of the Neimoidian viceroy in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It is, I realize, the gaff-topsail catfish I'd been warned about; its spines can deliver a poisonous—and extremely painful—sting. In Henry's piscine hierarchy, of course, a fish's value is measured not by its edibility, but by its lethality, so he's ecstatic. "A poisonous catfish!" he yells while, as advised, I cut the line and the eight-inch leviathan swims away.
That night, after a cheeseburger dinner, we head off to bed—the first time Susannah and Henry have slept on a boat. In the upper bunk, which she has feathered with her journal, CD player, and copies of Seventeen and Cosmo Girl, Susannah reads a fantasy novel, pausing every so often to look out her porthole at a world as unlikely as anything in her book. In the lower bunk, I tell Henry stories about the runaway slaves, Civil War deserters, pirates, plume hunters, moonshiners, poachers, and hermits who have sought refuge in this rugged place—ending with an extempore tale about Henry Colt, the outlaw who went mano a dorsal fin with a poisonous catfish.
It doesn't take us long to settle into a rhythm. After leisurely mornings birding and fishing, we pick a distant mangrove isle and motor toward it. I'm a tense captain at first, worrying that the canoe line will foul or we'll get stuck in the mud. But the Snapper is hardly more difficult to operate than a bumper car, and I gradually relax, chatting with Anne over the light rattle of the engine. The children spend much of the day reading, drawing, or playing Go Fish on the cabin floor. They like just being on the houseboat, a trig, hobbity world in which everything is built-in, from the little drawers into which they sort their clothes to the couches that unfold into double beds. "It's just like a regular house," observes Henry, "except it's tilty every once in a while." On the second day, he announces that he'd like to live on the Snapper forever and be homeschooled.
Susannah is less transparent, but Anne and I can tell she likes paddling the kayak. And though she claims the mangroves "all look alike," she's outraged when I tell her that 75 years of diking and damming north of the park have cut off the flow of fresh water, bringing the Everglades to the brink of extinction; that fertilizer runoff from surrounding farms has contaminated what water is left; that the wading bird population has decreased 93 percent over the past century; that though the state and federal government recently kicked off an $8 billion "reverse plumbing job" in an attempt to restore the natural flow, it may be too little, too late.
Crammed together 24 hours a day into 400 square feet—without telephone, television, e-mail, or fax—this voyage could easily have been an existentialist nightmare. Instead, we revel in our minimalist lifestyle, finding time to do the things that at home get shoehorned between meals, chores, and homework. Not once does Henry utter his usual "What is there to do?"
Because creatures are less easily spotted here in the mangroves than in wildlife-saturated Flamingo, each sighting becomes proportionally more precious. We see only one alligator—a seven-footer snoozing on a mud bed—but we also spy a turkey vulture above a distant mangrove, a scruffy-headed kingfisher scooting low along the water, and a sentinel-still great blue heron in the shallows. One evening, when Henry and Anne are heading back to the mother ship in the kayak, a pewter-colored fin breaks the surface of the water not 10 yards from them. "It's a dolphin!" Henry yells with delight. "It's dolphins!" Spouting from their blowholes, the dolphins circle the inlet, then disappear. All is still again, save the pounding of our hearts.
On our last night, we anchor near Hell's Bay, the gnarliest-looking square inch on the entire map ("Hell to get into, hell to get out," grumbled early explorers). It's the same place where Anne and I spent our last night in the mangrove wilderness 15 years ago. After dinner, all four of us climb into the canoe. Susannah in the bow, Anne in the stern. We don't go far, and the children are a bit fractious, perhaps unsettled by thoughts of our impending departure. In four days, we've traveled 21 miles, caught three fish, been bitten by too many mosquitoes, and seen 18 species of wildlife. We have suffered no mutiny, and though we scraped bottom twice, we've had no real mishaps. It's been every bit as much of an adventure, in its way, as the trip Anne and I took here when our own relationship was still uncharted.
In the gathering darkness, three dots of light gliding toward us become white bills belonging to a trio of coots. A cloud of sandpipers wheels low over the water. As we head back to the houseboat, the first star is visible across the bay. There are so many things to wish for—among them, that another 15 years will not pass before we come back. Filled with gratitude at how much our lives have changed since we were last here, Anne and I watch as Henry lazily trails his hand in the water and Susannah, nearly a young woman, paddles hard toward the fading light. n
George Howe Colt, a former staff writer at Life, lives in western Massachusetts. His memoir, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, will be published by Scribner next June.