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Stranded in the Everglades

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 8.32.42 AM“It’s not a big problem. It’s okay. The starter just went out,” said Johnny, the tour guide. Because the airboat’s starter went out, the tour boat I was on was stranded in the Everglades National Park on a cool January morning.

Johnny picked up his two-way radio. “I’ll call the office. They’ll send another boat to get you and bring a starter so I can fix this one. It’s a five-minute repair.” The other three paying passengers and I assured Johnny that we weren’t on tight schedules and in no hurry to get back to dock.

“Johnny to headquarters,” Johnny repeated over and over into his radio. We heard conversations between other employees, but obviously no one heard Johnny. Using my cell phone, I snapped pictures of the mangrove trees. “Looks like my radio is out, too, and my phone is charging at the office. Can I use yours?” our tour guide asked.

Johnny punched numbers. No answer. “Ah, gees. They aren’t answering. This is the employees’ line – not the public one. I bet they see your number and think it’s a wrong number. I don’t know any other numbers. I’ll keep trying. Surely, they’ll answer. ”

We passengers chuckled. “So do you have paddles?” I asked. Johnny shook his head. “How far are we from the office dock?” About three miles by water.

Finally, on the fifth call, someone answered. “They’re sending a new starter,” Johnny said. “I’ll switch it out and take you back.”

Johnny had guided the airboat slowly through the Everglades canals, and later he explained why he sped up and did a couple of 360s in pond-size water. “When I went faster, one of you gave a thumbs up and nobody grabbed the seat bars. When it’s too cold for wildlife, going fast makes this tour more interesting.” The airboat swerved quickly through narrow canals shaded by mangrove canopies, until we came into open water and Johnny turned off the motor.

“This is called the Honey Hole,” Johnny had said. “It’s a good place to stop and talk about the Everglades. You’re in the middle of a mangrove forest. Mangroves lose their leaves a few at a time. Those yellow leaves are called sacrificial leaves. You can see the bottom here – it’s only about six inches deep – the water is clear because not many leaves fall in the middle of the pond.” Acid from decomposed leaves turns the water dark.

Sacrificial mangrove leaves drop and decay in the swamp to provide food for insects that are part of the food chain leading to alligators. The leaves are thick and waxy, like those of mountain laurels in the Smokey Mountains, and only about two inches long and the branches are thin and crooked, like a huge shrub. Native Americans called a mangrove a walking tree. Like curved legs, the tangled roots, some above water, anchor the trees in the swampy peat soil.

Stranded in the Everglades when the sun is shining and the temperature is 60 – a great way to spend an hour on a winter morning. No mosquitoes or alligators. Too cold for both. No danger of drowning. Silence in the middle of a mangrove swamp. The smell of unspoiled nature and the rich aroma of peat. One lone white ibis egret flew overhead. A fish, probably a gar, splashed.

Johnny was right. He changed out the starter and drove back to dock. Speeding and swerving all the way. And, if anyone needs it, I have the employees’ number for Captain Jack’s Airboats in Everglade City, Florida.

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