It's 8:40 am on Sunday August 19th and I'm sitting in the middle of the 80,000 acre Fakahatchee Strand State Park. The cell rings and the ID flashes RESTRICTED. I nervously pickup and the sheriff on the other end says in a low, gravely tone - "We found your friend".
I arrived at the Fakahatchee at 8:50 am on Saturday. My friend Mike from Vermont had planned to meet me for an excursion into the swamp to locate rare ferns. Mike is a well-conditioned hiker, a seasoned outdoorsman and knows more about ferns than anyone I know, but he asked me along because I'd be interested and because hiking in the swamp in August is best not done solo. Our meeting time was 9 am and by 9:15 I worried that there had been a change of plan. I left a message on his phone in Vermont since he is cell-less (no service in many places in Vermont...mountains you know) and waited another 30 minutes.
Disappointed, I headed to a near by state park to explore a bit and later headed to the old Calusa Indian shell mounds of Marco Island to poke around. The heat, insects and lightning finally forced me to call it a day around 5 pm and I headed home.
As I reentered my cell service area, several messages came in, one from Mike's wife, hoping he had found me as that was the plan. When I returned her call she was worried. He had not checked in which he always does. When he had not returned by 9 pm I joined in on the worrying and began the search for Mike.
The park staff was gone for the day, so I called the county sheriff's office where they asked "Fakahatchee? Never heard of it." It's the largest state park in Florida. My mom's voice in my head gave me direction so I did what she would do anytime one of her kids was missing for more than 8 hours. Several calls to Broward County Sheriff and Florida Highway Patrol turned up nothing. Calls to the local hospitals turned up nothing. "Maybe he is in jail?" one deputy suggested. I laughed and that too turned up nothing. I spoke to Mike's wife again. He had not returned, but I got the description of his car and license plate. By 10:30 pm I had decided I would have to make the drive back to the Fakahatchee which is an hour and 30 minutes from home. I know him well enough to know that if he had arrived after I left at 9:45 am, he would not want to miss the chance to find these ferns, but the 11 mile road in called Jane's Scenic Drive is a legitimate wreck of a road. As they continue to do Everglade's restoration in the park, they are letting the road go and there are not so much pot holes as there are craters filled with water.
By the time I arrived at 12:30 am, it's pitch black and an ominous sign leading down the lonely stretch of road reads "PARK CLOSED DUSK TO DAWN". I continue on and the first time my truck goes axle deep in the water I think there is no way Mike could have made it out here in a Toyota Corolla.
I start the odometer at the Ranger station and slowly make my way down the dirt road. Moon Vine covered trees weighs heavily on the canopy. I'm driving through a tunnel of green - my headlights illuminating each ephemeral flower. I can't say that I'm not nervous out here. I'm in an enormous area inhabited by random squatters. This is where people hide out. At 1:15 am, my lights bounce off a compact car pulled up in front of a rusted old gate. It's empty and my heart sinks. Mike is out there. It rained 3+ inches today and the temperature has dropped 25 degrees. I also recognize this spot as the place I photographed the bear 2 weeks ago.
Thankfully Verizon has good coverage and I'm able to call the sheriff's office. There must have been a shift change. The woman on the phone knows exactly where I am and within 45 minutes she has dispatched 2 patrol cars, a K-9 unit and a chopper. It's 2 am when thee patrolmen arrive, slowly dipping into and driving out of the water holes in the road. One officer tells me he spoke to Mike Saturday morning at 6 am. Mike had explained our plans and the officer told him there was a criminal in a white truck on the loose out here. His last words to Mike - "Don't get lost".
The swamp here is thick. They want to send the K9 unit in before they loose Mike's scent, but it's pitch black and there are water moccasins and gators here, not to mention an abundance of thorny plants. It's too dangerous so we wait for the chopper. They have infrared and night vision, but out here in the darkness, pilots can loose the horizon, not knowing which way is up or down. They spend 40 minutes doing an 8 mile search and find nothing. The jungle is too thick to penetrate to the ground and the spotlights turn up nothing. At 3:30 am Mike's wife in Vermont asked me "Is there still hope?" There was no choice but to hope. But at 4 am they called the search off until daybreak.
A patrolman stayed at the scene and I headed back to the sheriff's sub-station in Everglades City. They want to ask me a few more questions. Seriously - I think I might be a suspect.
At 7 am I wake up in my truck outside the sub-station. My head is pounding, my body aches from sleeping in a bucket seat. There are 5 police units idling in the parking lot. I'll ignore my environmental voice. Inside they are planning the search. Police from Lee County, Collier County and Wildlife Conservation are ready to head out. The chopper is about to go back up.
I ask if I can help and they tell me to stay put. I now know I am a possible suspect in his disappearance. I stay put, but the crazy in me thinks it funny to imagine leaping in my truck and taking off, starting a high speed Everglades chase. You know you'd watch it. I need sleep.
At 8:30 am a police vehicle with a trailer of ATVs speeds down the road. I'm guessing they found him and these guys don't want to miss the chance to use their toys.
At 8:40 am on Sunday August 19th the cell rings and the ID flashes RESTRICTED. I nervously pickup and the sheriff on the other end says in a low, gravely tone - "We found your friend. And he's ok."
The chopper had begun a slow, methodical search and spotted him quite a distance from his car. (Map is a very rough estimate of location) They dropped an MRE (Military Meals Ready to Eat) to him and made the plan to extract him.
At 9:40 am on Sunday August 19th and officer stops by my truck and tells me the rescue team is lost. The trail they left behind had disappeared.
By 11:45 am, 27 hours after he became lost, Mike and rescuers emerged from North America's largest swamp. Thorn-scratched and Mosquito-bitten, a dehydrated and elated Mike arrives at our original meeting point. His wife said he never misses meetings and I couldn't be happier to see him make this one.
During the night, the officers asked me all about Mike. Would he be prepared for this? What was his health? Where were you going? Did he have a cell or GPS?
I told them that if anyone I know could survive this, Mike could. He's always prepared. He's fit. He knows what to do. And he did. He had arrived at 6 am on Saturday and decided to trek a bit before we were to meet. He went a bit off trail, left two markers, found a life-list fern, took a picture, looked around and was lost. This is easy to do and if you think it would not happen to you? Try it. Everything looks the same. The brush is thick and you can easily loose track of direction. (As I stood talking to the officers at 4 am, we argued about which direction we were facing. I was wrong. As was officer #2.) But at 8:30 am on Saturday, Mike, knowing he was lost, prepared to endure an unknown amount of time waiting for rescue.
He had planned to return to the vehicle and head back to meet me, so water, snacks and other survival gear were in the car. He would have to survive on what he had, but most importantly he stay put. Instead of wandering and getting more lost and excessively dehydrated, he found a gator hole full of water. This offered an opening in the canopy to see planes or helicopters above. It also provided water if necessary (and in 95 degree heat the murky water was). He made a bed of sawgrass (surprisingly soft?!?) and a shelter of palm fronds. Around 5 pm, a massive black thunderhead moved in and poured 3+ inches of rain down. As the sun dipped, the temperature did as well, needling down towards 70. Try telling someone that 70 degrees is not cold! Keeping an eye on the grunting gators across the hole and listening to the frogs and barred owls through the night, he waited. When the first chopper flew over and disappeared, he had no chance to signal them. He even considered the helicopter was looking for the criminal that was on the loose. Disappointed, he waited for sun up; sure they would be looking for him at first light. It wasn't until 8 am that the helicopter began the search, but soon enough, they found a thirsty, tired man waving his hat and filthy shirt at them.
I would have freaked out and wandered in this situation. So I'm in awe of Mike for enduring this experience. The wet, the cold, the wildlife, the uncertainty of rescue. It was a simple mistake. One lost trail, but Mike kept his wits about him, stayed put, had an excellent understanding of the environment and thankfully came out alive. Most people would fret about the animals but Bears, Alligators and Panthers were the least of his concerns. Considered - yes, but staying hydrated and preparing to be in a place where he could be found assured he survived his Everglades nightmare.
I think Mike's wife will be implanting a GPS chip on him when he returns to Vermont!