Day 3: Gators and Waves, Waves and Gators
We all woke up at Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp with grins still on our face from the night before. And they only got bigger as we congregated for breakfast. Somehow amidst the pool shenanigans and adult sodas at the bar, we gave April some cash and convinced her to cook up a breakfast spread in the morning. She knocked it out of the park and we were all beyond appreciative for the real meal and hospitality.
We were looking forward to getting back on the water and continuing our journey, except I was having a little trepidation. I’d had a nightmare about an alligator attacking me, and let’s just say when you’re on a trip through a narrow waterway in the middle-of-nowhere Florida that can be a little unnerving. Breakfast settled me down and the chance to ride some more put everything at ease, for the most part. The other challenge, aside from gator-filled-dreams, was that leaving Uncle Joe’s meant the toughest part of the journey: crossing Lake Okeechobee.
Before we headed into the Sunshine State’s largest lake (and tenth largest freshwater lake in the country) we decided to take advantage of a patch of glassy water and hit some double ups. It was so glassy though that I couldn’t help myself, so I went for a barefoot rip. Feet on Fire was just a few weeks away, so I had to get practice in whenever I could.
On our approach out into Okeechobee the mood was mellow, albeit a bit nervous. We were confident though, we’d all been in boats our entire life. The issue was that the winds were blowing at 20-plus across the lake and we were headed into it. As we gassed up at the dock the attendant told us we should expect four-foot high waves about four feet apart. We shrugged it off thinking that wouldn’t really be the case. Then we saw the lake. The waves were exactly four feet by four feet. We decided to go for it.
Okeechobee has two routes: straight across, which was obviously not in the cards, or along a path that hugs the southern shore and offers some protection (if the winds are right). In this case, the winds were not right. We were essentially hitting double up rollers from the side, and as you can imagine with every impact water was coming over the windshields and soaking down the boats. We were prepared and had everything battened down to stay as dry as possible, but the long slog through turbulent water in a wake boat can wear at you. Slowly but surely we made it to the halfway point where a marina sat protected behind a large barrier wall. The rebound effect of wind-swept waves coming off this wall created what I can only describe as a moving field of 5 to 6-foot spine transfers. And we had to cross them sideways. As we approached, a sailboat was leaving the marina and rocking so hard it seemed like its mast was going to touch the water.
A mile or so later the same sailboat was screaming for our attention. I thought they were just hyping up how mental the whole situation with the waves had become, so I let out my best, primal, “Yeaaahhhh!” back at them. They quickly screamed back, “Nooo!!” and pointed. That’s when we realized the wind had ripped Grubb’s foil out of the tower and it was floating toward the rocky shoreline. Adrenaline kicked in and we went to retrieve. With some skill and luck, it bobbed right up into my hands courtesy of one of the 4-foot waves, just before hitting the rocks. We strapped it back in, made sure it was extra secure, and got back to the mission at hand. Only seven miles left. The best part about being out in those kinds of conditions with that crew was that nobody ever panicked – there was no implied sense of danger. Eventually, we made it out of the lake and back into the canal on the eastern end.
After drying off and finding calmer water, I was ready to jump in for a wakeskate session. That’s when a man fishing from shore yelled over at us. “There’s a 10-footer in there!” Needless to say, after my dream the night before, we continued further down the river to look for a different spot. That lead us to a no wake zone with a small spillway. Parks had packed a 350-foot rope, so we figured we should see if we could make it happen. As I walked up into the top pond, I realized there were at least three alligators hanging out, the biggest of which looked to be about 8 foot. I looked over at Bear for some advice. “Smash that wakeskate on the water and scare em off!” exclaimed, “Let’s get this clip!” In a moment of pure hype I smashed my wakeskate so hard my ears rang. I looked up at the alligator expecting to see him rip out of the way. Instead, he looked over at me like we all look at the parents of a screaming baby on an airplane. Then he went underwater. The fear was back, but I did my best to push it aside, and after a few hits we got the clip. A bit further down the river we found more glassy water and Grubb was able to ride next to a massive barge for some really cool shots.
At that point it was time to find a camping spot and call it a day. Shortly after getting settled and cooking some dinner, two local patrol officers came up in their jeeps and started screaming at us. Apparently we were 20 feet out of the designated camping zone. Once cooler heads prevailed and some adjustments were made, we settled back in and enjoyed what would be our last night of our Florida crossing adventure.
Stay tuned for Day 4!