But could we?
Luckily, I still had my chart and compass. But I’d been following Gregg, so I didn’t know where on the chart we were. We had no choice but to backtrack, paddle back into the bay and find the one marker we’d seen on the way out. I could then locate that marker on the chart and get a compass heading for the pass.
Backtracking took us thankfully downwind. But once we found the marker, trying to read the compass with the waves washing over the boat and the wind spinning me broadside was a challenge. When I finally managed, the compass seemed to indicate an opening that looked no more promising than the one we’d just come from. But it was our only shot, so back we went into the ripping wind.
As we pulled past the point of another island, distinguished from the other 9,999 islands solely by my navigational theory, the wind stopped. The clouds parted. The sun emerged, backed by God’s own depth of blue. And there in front of us was a clear channel through the mangroves. The water lay flat as a reflecting pond as we cut straight furrows through it, slipping along at a gratifying pace. A brown shadow in the green water ahead grew larger as it closed on the point of my bow, then broke in a graceful gull wing of a flipper about two feet from tip to tip.
“A manatee!” Peter and Sam cried simultaneously.
A quarter-mile later, the water stirred in a flash of silver. The floppy dorsal fin of a five-foot tarpon cut alongside the kayak, then submerged beneath it. The breeze now was nothing but a steady rustle in the tips of the mangroves, which, judging by their height, were ancient here, rising 50 feet above our heads. Fifty feet above that, dapper black-winged, white-bottomed swallow-tailed kites glided in lazy circles. A bald eagle hunted in the distance.
Soon we sighted a rare spot of dry land, which like so much dry land in these mangroves is the result of castoff oyster shells, the after-dinner detritus of thousands of years of settlement by Calusa Indians. We pulled over for a much-needed stretch and found, just inshore, the foundation of a 19th-century settler’s homestead camouflaged by the dappled sunlight streaming through the high branches. We ate hastily assembled sandwiches, then headed on.
At the end of the pass, two miles of open Gulf of Mexico reared ahead of us, rimmed by a chain of barrier islands. On the chart, if I was reading it correctly, Jewel Key was due west. Half on faith, we set out toward the now-sinking sun. Soon we could see a wedge of white in the crook of the apostrophe-shaped island. We paddled on, our minds progressively emptied of all thought by the repetition of our labor, the virtuous ache in our arms and backs, the almost imperceptible progress toward our goal.
About halfway across, Sam yelled, “I think I see a kayak on the beach.” I squinted, and what first looked like a piece of driftwood began to resolve. Then I saw a thin, gangly figure lope across the beach. I’d recognize that saunter anywhere.
Jewel Key is aptly named, tiny and perfect, rimmed by sugary white sand and palisaded by the sinewy roots of mature mangroves, bleached and sculpted by sun and surf. We pitched camp on a northern spit of beach between bay and gulf. A nearly full moon rose over the dimming coastline to our right as the sun sank into the now tranquil ocean to our left, kicking up a glowing paint box of color that spread across the sky and lit the moon orange.
As the light ebbed, we built the fire high with driftwood and waited for the bug attack. It never came. Either the day’s wind had swept them all away, or they’d never been there to begin with. And my back: healed. For the first time in weeks it was limber and pain free, a revelation. After I returned home, I began regularly doing an exercise that mimicked the twisting thrust of the kayaking motion, and I’ve had no further trouble.
That night, as the campfire consumed leg after leg of sun-bleached wood, we feasted on Peter’s simplified paella. Then as the fire died and the stars grew bright, we talked about our past and Sam’s future until the words ran out. All that remained was the bottomless depth of an instant in time we all knew we’d never forget.