Mangrove Monsters: How Fear strikes in the Florida Keys- Part 1
The Suburban was packed to the brim as we pulled out of West Palm Beach- 5 guys, 4 sleeping bags (Brian was sleeping in a hammock), fishing poles, 40 lbs. of ice, enough groceries to feed a ship’s crew and more proffesional camera gear than was humanly possible to use (Scott was going to take a “few” pictures on the trip).
Our road/boat trip was officially underway. The course was set for the infamous Islamorada; nestled half-way down the keys and only 50 + miles from Key West. Known for it’s brilliant blue waters, coral reefs and the not so inviting finger-eating barracuda and stingray that would commandere a vessel by flying out of the water- or so we heard.
Brian was most familar with the Keys and their mythical creatures. We listened to his stories about lobstering with his family and the 100 lb. tarpon that lived at Robbies marina where we were picking up our Island Hopper house boat for the week. As we cruised down the narrow strip of land, Scott snapping memories along the way, we felt excitment countered by a bit of concern for Matt. He has just recieved a call that his Mom had fallen ill. She had been coping with COPD for several years but this Kentuky-born fighter would always snap back when things got bad- she wasn’t snapping back this time.
We all felt Matt’s heaviness for his Mom as we unloaded the Suburban at the dock. Trying to ease the tension we popped open a few beers and posed for some shots aboard our party barge. The boat manager emerged from the docks a few moments later, salty-hair and weatherd skin- “Call me Don,” he said in a thick Chesapeake accent (we secretly called him Captain Ron the whole week). Don explained to Brian and I the layout of the keys, sandbars, good fishing spots and the best mooring balls to shore up on for the night.
“Don’t want you’all drifftin off in the middle of the night. You hit a sandbar, the man gotta come and tow-yo -ass back in… that’s 500 dolla’,” Ron said emphaticaly. “Then you break a prop too… you out-a-pocket another 4- 500 dolla’- sheetz expensive.” I sat my beer down as a precautionary move to ensure that at least one of us was paying full attention.
Captain Ron towed us out through the mangrove canal and into the open waters of Lignumvitae Basin in the Florida Bay. Lignum Vitae, meaning “Tree of Life” was the place we stayed for the entire week after we realized that our boat only went 3 mph and used up 30 gallons of fuel per mile! But we didn’t mind it- it was beautiful and vast and as each day ended we bore witness to a masterpiece of pinks, oranges and reds- like they were painted just for us.
Don pulled us out to a mooring ball close to the Lignumvitae Botanical State Park. Brian, Scott and I hopped into the small whaler that Don was driving so that we could take him back to Robbies. As we cruised back through the bay, Scott asked if Don had ever heard of finger-eating barracuda or flying stingray. “Oh yeah, you leave a ring on or anything shiny-like, those barracuda will think it’s food. And stingray- there was just a report a month ago, just north of here of a boat driving at full speed and collided into a ray and knocked a women clean out! Out of the boat and lights out!” I was suddenly aware that I was far from home. Scott took a picture of Don. Don didn’t like to have his picture taken.
When we got back to the house boat it looked like things were status quo with Matt and David. David had a netted black tank top on and swim shorts he owned in elementary school. Matt was pitching wiffle balls to David from the top deck and then swimming out to retrive them. We all got geared up for a little snorkel outing and to find some golf balls that David had evidently fired off the top deck as well when a herd (or school- their not fish) of dolphins swam right through our group. It was amazing.
As the day came to an end, we started getting ready for dinner and that’s when I noticed that Matt was pretty quiet. I knew he was thinking about her and was torn between fully enjoying himself here with us and being by her bed. Could this be her final hours? How could Matt bear it if she died and he was in Islamorada swimming with dolphins. I know Matt- he was thinking about everything. I spoke up,”she’d want you to be loving life I think.””Yeah,” he quietly responded.
He clicked his phone to check for a message but the service was patchy at best in the Keys. “Brian has better service,” I said, “I’m sure someone will call with an update.” “Yeah,” was his only reply. We all felt the heaviness as we sat around the table that night. We felt stranded, but we also felt freedom. It would be too simple to say that our moments there on that boat were but a microcosm of life itself- but it was. Images of beauty and freedom and truth hung inside a diorama of great fear and darkness and danger. Even though Don said that these mangrove mosters were real, I had a feeling that a greater fear would be encountered on this trip.