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Dispatches from the Cypress Cities

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been looking for a canoe. The internet is a swamp of backorders, thousands of us waitlisted, pining for bikes and boats. Everyone says get a kayak if you want to go out alone, but those are sold out too, and besides: I want a canoe. I covet a thirteen-footer, something I can slide onto my truck by myself, tip over my head and carry like a mollusk, or set on wheels and roll down the launch. You can lay down in a canoe, turn it over for shelter, pack a sleeping bag and tent and victuals and a pillow. You can knock wild rice into the belly, cut tresses of seaweed and fling them in, bend a branch of elder and harvest panicles of purple blackberries over the baskets balanced between your knees.

So I call up Kaleb.

Why canoe alone, he says, that’s not the point.

It’s winter, I say, let’s go to Florida.

I’ll convince Havely, he says, it won’t take much.

For three nights we sleep along the western boundary of the Ocala National Forest, formed by the dark waters of the Ocklawaha, a Creek word meaning muddy, and then four nights more along the Withlacoochee, whose name refers to its great fluctuations, little big water. I dream opaque, troubling storylines that wake me before dawn, sticky. By headlamp, I extract a tick from my nipple and lay in my sleeping bag, pressing echinacea-soaked gauze to the bite. When I hear Havely rustling, I recruit her to the field with me, where we lunge and squat and throw jumping jacks. The morning light catches webs, tiny hammocks in the short grass sagging with the weight of dew. At camp, Kaleb is frying bacon. His truck is the kitchen table, the party zone, tricked-out with platform bed, shelving, bug netting, sky light. He has an old fruit box filled with bottled condiments and labeled spice jars, Japanese cooking knives, cast iron pan, wooden spoons, spatula, can opener, grater, wine cork. Over the little stove he set up on the tailgate, he cracks three eggs and asks if we heard the helicopters going all night, the beams of light passing over. People like to hide in the swamps, he says.

Smelling fatty meat, a dog rockets into camp like a bowling ball. Pitbull in the face, she stands eighteen inches tall and weighs at least forty pounds, dense like a pig wrapped in pearl gray velvet, white-splashed feet. She grins and wags her whole body with forceful glee, nearly decking me. She has escaped the next site over, where a family is crammed in along the river, a little boy, two teenagers, two parents, a grandma with long blonde hair. The boy comes over hollering with a lisp, Sorry! and Bad dog! and Xena you get here. He tries to catch the small tank running circles around us. The teen girl arrives, sullen, saying, She never behaves, and then the father, a Viking with legs like small trees, smiling down from the hood of his sweatshirt.

I tell them we don’t mind Xena and the dad says, Well I guess she can visit so long as she behaves, which, truthfully, Xena seems to understand. The little boy tells me that her ears used to stand straight up, that she had hematomas and that’s why they’re hardened into wrinkles like dried mushrooms. Viking dad says they are Floridians, on the road full-time now, camping on public and conservation lands, indefinitely. I imagine how ecstatic I would be to spend my school days like these kids, how fragile the arrangement might feel to their parents. I wonder how far $1,200 emergency assistance can stretch, if the pandemic swallowed their jobs, if the landlord evicted them. The mother arrives wearing the flowered skirt I’ve seen her in every day, long braid tossed over one shoulder. She looks like the planks and ribbing of her are cracked, splices dried out. She shakes her head at the dog and hands me a tiny cactus in a plastic pot. It was an impulse buy, she says, my husband says we can’t fit one more thing in this life.

Our first paddling day is on the Silver River. Mid-morning, Kaleb pulls the truck up along the old steamboat landing that serves as a launch. Kids swarm, mostly masked, while parents hold life jackets and half-attempt to corral their offspring. Havely brings the wheels and chair from the truck bed to Kaleb in the driver’s seat while I climb on top and release the ratchet straps holding the boat. Kaleb wheels his chair away from the truck and sights the truck roof while Havely and I take the bow in our hands. Arms stretched overhead, we tip and slide according to Kaleb’s feedback as to how close we come to smashing the roof window, like three people trying to parallel park. We’ve gotten it most of the way down, when suddenly I can’t reach anymore. The canoe floats out of my hands; I fall over a rock, trying to keep my hands on the gunnels. I wheel to encounter three unmasked, middle-aged white men. Without a word they have taken the canoe from us, setting it wrong side down in the grass.

Later, on the water, Havely and I fume. I ask Kaleb, Does this happen to you?

All the time, he says. It’s not helpful if it’s not consensual.

Like a great number of humans throughout history, the main way Kaleb navigates the backcountry is by canoe, since he broke several thoracic vertebrae more than a decade ago. We met in our mid-twenties, and from the get-go we sparred over notions about which we each felt moral certitude. I figured he was just like everyone I was related to, family. He had a repertoire of gross teenage jokes, thought capitalism was a scam, knew how to skin a bear, was fluent in the night sky. In a canoe, it’s always easier to have at least two people, no matter your capacities. In a canoe, your legs aren’t the most important thing. You don’t have to stand or walk, particularly if you have companions who can help get the boat in and out of the water, or else one might devise clever methods with wheels or ropes or sleds.

Where the launch meets the water, Havely disappears into the pines for a costume change. I push the boat three-quarters into clear water, straddle the stern, and press my feet into the sandy bank on either side to stabilize. Kaleb grabs the gunnels, lifts himself from chair to steering, wiggling his rear at me in the moment of suspension. I snort, grab the cushion from the chair, slide it over the canoe seat before he settles in. With both hands I heft the chair and pass it to Kaleb, who sets the chair in the boat before him, folding the seat down and hooking it in with a carabiner. Then he takes the paddle he made out of white ash—same as a baseball bat— and turns the boat around, bow to the shore.

Havely and I load in camera, water jugs, notebook, carrots and apples and sardines and chocolate, button-down dress shirt for sunshade. I take first shift in the bow while Havely settles on a pile of life jackets in the belly. This nearly twenty-foot, wide-belly canoe is an ideal situation for the three of us. We are human “crustaceans with our rib-and-planking exoskeletons,” as John McPhee wrote of soft bodies in a canoe. Restless and athletic though the three of us are, collectively we are piles of soft bones, twisting vertebrae, spinal discs gnawed by autoimmunity. I’m aware of this always, in a car or holding a cast-iron pan, how fragile we are in these meat suits. Water is a kinder way to carry a campsite, and on this cushion of river, fingers curled around the T of the paddle, my body reverberates with diluvian knowledge, water hugging bones. “To this day,” McPhee confessed, “I do not feel complete or safe unless I am surrounded by the protective shape of a canoe.”

I grew up in an abundance of river drainages along the Carolina coast, but never have I seen such a river. Just east of Ocala in Marion County, north central Florida, more than five hundred million gallons of artesian water bubble daily from fissures in vast limestone aquifers—six basins with thirty springs within a mile span—to feed the Silver River. For 150 years tourists have been coming to the Silver Springs, the oldest commercial attraction in Florida, home of the first glass-bottom boats and the pine-board forts for the Tarzan films of the 1930s. Because of the long-standing human presence here, the wildlife is not shy, turtles and alligators and waterfowl perched and tucked and sunning on branches and surfaces, glinting like a thick crust of gemstone. I am struck all over again by the bizarre wonderland of Florida, the vibe of Wild West meets plastic trinkets meets white nationalism meets Seminole territory, the metropolis at its tip a doorway to and from Latin America. On this spit of a state, the long north-south axis offers ecosystems as diverse as the far-longer California, thick with orchids and bromeliads, bison and wild horses, all arising and converging in watersheds sliding inexorably into the Gulf and tropical seas.

We push off amidst throngs of double kayaks and transparent fiberglass duckies, through which paddlers can behold cormorants diving and yellow-striped cooters breast-stroking. There is little call for power paddling just yet, dumbstruck as we are at the light reflecting through the aquamarine spring-fed river. Kaleb is a consummate and unceremonious guide. Like a pied-billed grebe, he has dipped south for the past eleven winters to Florida stomping grounds, equipped with two sets of binoculars through which to identify waterfowl and giant lizards. He tells outrageous stories that make the rectangular glasses slide down his nose, and he likes to eye his listeners over the rim during gruesome detail. His hair is dirty blonde, short on the sides with a meringue peak on top and a wisp of mullet at the back, a few minimalist lines inked on the rim of an ear. His wheelchair is all-black, made for sports and off-roading. It’s gone with him hunting nutria in the Carolina piedmont, and once he lost most of a chair in the Chilkat River of southeast Alaska. He can turn out a banquet over a fire, pitch tarps, sharpen blades, carve spoons, and, most beloved to me, identify an astonishing variety of living things.

Kaleb points out creatures and we say the names back to him, quizzing ourselves when a familiar form emerges. All around us, it seems word has got out that it’s light-collecting time. Black cormorants hang their wings out to dry like sun-tolerant vampires, and we learn to differentiate them from the anhingas here in their northernmost reach, whose dorsal feathers are streaked with white. The anhingas hold creepily still in the sun, surrealist film stars accustomed to limelight. Unlike other diving waterfowl, these two species dive so deep that they can’t be bothered by the feather oils that ducks and geese depend upon for warmth and shedding water. Along trees fallen half in the water, ten or more yellow-eared sliders pile in the sun, dark, sleek shells squished alongside one another. Kaleb calls them the original solar panels for the way they rest on their bellies, necks extended long, reaching skyward with arms and legs, webbed feet spread wide, catching as much of the winter rays as they can. It’s unbearably adorable.

Do you see it? Kaleb asks as we paddle over another deep rift in the limestone. Shadowy and half disappeared into the muck is an old dugout canoe, motionless at least thirty feet below us. Here’s what you do when you find a sunken canoe: nothing. The State of Florida Division of Historical Resources is very specific about some things. Don’t Introduce Any Non-Native Species Unless They are Fathead Minnow, Variable Platy, Coturnix Quail, or Ring-necked Pheasant. Don’t Feed the Monkeys Bread, Peanuts, or Anything Else. And Don’t Think About Touching Fragile Prehistoric Dugout Canoes. Over 200 sites in Florida have recorded more than 400 dugout canoe artifacts. Although anaerobic muck has preserved such relics for the past 7,000-10,000 years across the globe, pre-colonial canoes are fragile in the extreme, and conservation processes for those that are removed from their anaerobic locations take years to stabilize the wood for preservation. Once the ancient remains are exposed to light and air, microbes and fungi decompose the waterlogged wood as if under time-lapse photography.

These days we paddle aluminum, Royalex, Kevlar, or fibers infused at high temperature with epoxy resin. While the primary craft in the Northeastern and upper Midwest waterways was the birch bark canoe—birch peel stretched over light ribbing, lashed with roots, sealed with pitch—here in the sub-tropics, the dugout canoe was the design of choice, crafted by fire, shell, stone, and bone. In warm, humid climates like the Gulf coast, dugout design is long-bodied, hewn from cypress or yellow pine whose heartwood grew off-center, closer to one side of the trunk than center. The tree trunk is hewn into rough shape with points at either end, bow upturned for better passage through sawgrass, before being buried in mud for up to two years, when the half-carved vessel is disentombed, wiped clean, and left to slow-dry for half a moon cycle. Then the boatwright tends fires in the bowl of the canoe, scraping away coal and ash to carve the belly. The high temperatures of the continuous fire causes sap to turn to resin, water-proofing the vessel and deterring insects. As the canoe maker carves and scrapes, a kid stands by with a sturdy stick, hitting the sides of the canoe at intervals while the builder listens for the vibrations. The vessel has reached the correct thickness when the vibrations ring a certain pitch.

Today one-fifth of the Florida geography is covered by water, but during warmer epochs, the Florida peninsula was an even narrower spit of land than what the highways stick to now. Into the early 20th century, the Florida Seminole could fit a family, their camp, and trade wares into a canoe as they moved seasonally among hammocks of land, sometimes with two dugouts lashed together. More than a few archaeologists have suggested that humans moved out of Africa by navigating the Pacific in hand-hewn dugouts, and that the first people of the Americas came in canoes and kayaks across the Bering strait and down the length of the Pacific coast of the Americas, pulling themselves across giant kelp forests.

On the quiet water, Havely and I trade places in the boat. We got into a lot of trouble once, she and I. That’s when the cracks in the world became crazed and clear to me, ten years ago. Sometimes I am stunned that we made it to our third decade. Here we are, salting hard-boiled eggs as the sun shatters the water along the cypress. Havely loves tragic novels and incongruent textures and tiny plants. She is leggy and fair and casually chic like a model for Scandinavian sweaters, always wearing rich tones, gold and bile and coral. She’s a never-boring combination of cautious, truthsome, rapt, and reckless.

The likenesses between the bowl of the human pelvis and the dish of a canoe are endlessly amusing to me, and I pester Havely for her expertise as a pelvic-floor physical therapist. Whereas I am wont to think of the human pelvis as a cauldron or a ten-way traffic jam, Havely spins poetics and cliffhangers out of sacra and obturators and iliopubic eminence. Shapely similaritie