Canoeing with Crocodiles

By J.R. Switchgrass

Away from the city lights and party bars of Miami Beach, there is a deep, dark swamp in the heart of Florida. The Everglades National Park is a network of shallow waterways and bogs that stretch across the entire state. For those willing to navigate the only road that cuts through miles of wilderness, a variety of wildlife and otherworldly scenery awaits. While looking through a guide to the wildlife scenery, we found our main draw to the Everglades: the sharp-toothed, mean-looking American Crocodile that lives deep in the wilds of the swamplands.

The brackish water and mangrove forests of the southern tip of Florida is the only place in the United States where these fearsome and majestic creatures live. With no natural predators, they are kings of their muddy realm, reigning by boldly sunning themselves on mud banks for hours. They may appear docile and slow as they lounge, but the rows of long, sharp teeth on display when they smile certainly make anyone think twice about approaching.

Lured by the promise of a domestic jungle adventure with the chance to catch sight of an American Crocodile, my partner and I decided to take the long highway south to the swampland. We departed, knowing we would stay in Florida for as long as our adventure-seeking hearts desired.

You see, my partner Kit and I have been crisscrossing North America in our VW Bus for nine years now, but we had never visited the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula. We love our way of life because traveling by camper allows us the luxury of being anywhere, anytime, for as long as we like. What’s more, our van allows us access to remote edges, places where civilization dwindles and wildlife thrives. But there is a limit. There are some places vehicles cannot go—and that was what urged us to leave the bus behind for an epic canoe adventure in the Florida Wilds.

Vanlife—as our lifestyle has been named—has been gaining popularity on the Internet for the last decade. Some, like Kit and I, live in our vehicles full time and year-round, whereas others take to the open road for a seasonal sabbatical. The guiding principle remains the same: you don’t have to fly across the world and pay for luxury safaris to experience a wonderful escape. With the right mindset and an appreciation for simplicity, the simple joys of van travel are easy to achieve, opening up the possibility to explore the wild world in your own backyard. What drives me is the simple truth that I can’t have this view every day, but I can have every view for one day.

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A Miami local told us that if we borrowed his canoe and paddled five miles or so through the brackish water, while carefully following our map, we would find ourselves on a white sand beach only accessible to paddlers. There, we could camp and enjoy a private view. “You may even see crocodiles out there,” he said. “They’re known to sun themselves on those beaches because so few people go out there.” He had us at the word “crocodile.” We knew we had to give it a try. We loaded his canoe onto our van and headed out, lured by the intrigue of seeing a living dragon.

Through a labyrinth of mangrove canals, we paddled, moving slowly but surely. Sometimes the waterway got so narrow and the trees so thick that we couldn’t even see the sky. Signs of wildlife were all around us: birds flitted about through the canopy, crabs scuttled along overhanging branches, and pods of fish slipped silently under our canoe. As the swampy water got darker and the jungle plants tangled thicker, we wondered if we would indeed see the elusive crocodile.

It was sudden when we did catch sight of our first crocodile. Rounding a bend, Kit let out a frightened hiss. “It’s him,” she whispered. “Right there on the bank. It’s a crocodile.” I looked over, and no further than ten yards away was the modern-day dinosaur. Of course, I hadn’t really thought about what would happen if we did see one while in our canoe. If it chose to lunge after us, we certainly couldn’t out paddle it. Time stood still. The crocodile breathed in; I breathed out. The only thing moving was our canoe, silently slipping along slowly on the current, bringing us ever closer to broadsiding the swamp dragon. My mouth agape, I stared at the crocodile and he stared back. As our eyes locked, I glimpsed a piece of primordial history and felt a connection with that wild ancestor of the lizards, old as the dinosaurs.

Soon after our encounter, the swamp opened up to the promised white sand beach. Out on the edge of the world, we pitched a proper camp and set about enjoying our own private paradise, soaking up the sun, splashing in the waves, and studying the shells on the beach. The day melted into the ocean as we sat around our fire and watched the stars come out.

Later, when we arrived back at the van, I was thankful that this whole experience was waiting to be found right here in our backyard. Otherworldly creatures and blissful beachside moments are not just for far-flung safaris and vacations—wherever you live, there is something fascinating to be found. So, whether you load up your van or leave it, go out and explore.

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