How I Survived the Miami Canals [Miami Herald & NPR]

The Canoe Project was a four-day paddling expedition to circumnavigate Miami-Dade county via its murky drainage canals in a canoe. The journey was live-tweeted and the resulting story was published in the Miami Herald (pdf) and broadcasted on WLRN (South Florida’s NPR radio station). It earned the WLRN team an Online News Association award nomination, a Sunshine State award, and a Green Eyeshade award.

The story is reprinted below (with photo links at the bottom)

*     *     *

Everyone said I would need a gun.

I already had the canoe. I bought it off a guy named Del in Hollywood for $150. His ad on Craigslist said he wanted $300. But when I went to his house, he dropped the price.

“Is it stable?” I asked.

Del shrugged, then offered to throw in a life vest.

I strapped the canoe to the roof of my car and named it Calypso, after the ship of explorer Jacques Cousteau, my childhood idol. But I couldn’t explore the world’s oceans like Jacques. I don’t have that kind of time or money.

Instead, I took a week off work to circumnavigate Miami-Dade County via its canals. It would take four days. I would sleep on the canal banks, under bridges, in parks, in vacant lots—wherever I could find.

I was warned about what I’d run into: corpses, alligators, toxic sludge, criminals, crazies and chupacabras.

But it sounded great. I wanted a bad journey and a good story. I wanted to come home sunburned, starving, exhausted and with some kind of infection.

I bought a waterproof backpack, a flashlight, mosquito repellent and a few other supplies.

The only thing missing, everyone agreed, was a gun.

I set out anyway, unarmed, and unaware that I’d run into a canal pirate.

Chilly night

I launched from Biscayne Bay near Northeast 70th Street and paddled west along the Little River. I went ashore just past Biscayne Boulevard and found a battered boat in a vacant lot guarded by giant iguanas.

At Manatee Bend Park, I waited under the coconut palms for sea cows that never appeared. I carried my canoe around a dam in Little Haiti, tied up in El Portal and rested at an Indian burial mound under oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

I’d read online that the site harbors an ancient Indian curse. I sat for a while, trying to absorb the energy, then paddled on.

In West Little River, the canal turned gritty. I passed crumbling bungalows and saw disheveled men curled up on mattresses under bridges. Three strangers waved me down from their yard and gave me beer. They said they never see anyone on these canals.

As night approached, I used my paddle as a rudder and let the wind push me westward into Hialeah. I pulled up behind a row of houses, laid down inside the canoe and stared at the stars. I didn’t bring a blanket. That would have required too much planning. So I spent the night shivering, but happy to be on this vagabond journey.

I’d been searching for a local adventure like this for years. But the hikes, bike rides, and snorkel trips never seemed very exciting. Without danger and unpredictability, where’s the adventure?

Lonely lady

On day two, I went ashore for Cuban coffee and guava pastries. The Little River canal ends at Okeechobee Road. I carried my canoe across 12 lanes of traffic, looking like a confused balsero, and slid into the Miami Canal on the other side.

I saw a small woman standing in her garden in the industrial town of Medley. She waved me over. I climbed a 10-foot stone wall to her trailer, and we drank stale coffee out of an old jar and chatted by the water.

Her name was Bessie. She said she was 82, alone and glad for the company. Her brother had lived next door but died a couple of years ago. She showed me paintings he made of Florida landscapes, gave me tomatoes and a papaya from her tree and made me promise to come back.

If Miami’s canals took human form, I decided, they would look and sound like Bessie: weathered, affable and lonely.

That night, I crawled through a thicket of mangroves in Miami Springs and fell asleep beside the water, thinking about her.

Pirate encounter

On day three, I crossed a dam into the Miami River and paddled past rusted freighters, tugboats and shipping containers stacked along the shore. I fought high winds on the Blue Lagoon under the Dolphin Expressway, then stopped to rest at an abandoned building. It was 10 stories, gutted and covered in graffiti.

A photographer for The Miami Herald named Mike called me on my cellphone. He wanted to come take pictures. When he arrived at the deserted building, he set his camera down on a concrete ledge. We talked by the water a short distance away. About 10 minutes later, we looked back and saw a young man creeping off with the $7,000 camera.

Mike shouted. The guy ran. Then Mike ran, too. I watched the thief dive through a hole in a chain-link fence, hop in a car and peel off. Mike jumped in his own car and squealed off after him.

It was a classic Miami moment: sunshine, water, palm trees, a thieving punk and a car chase.

Mike never caught the guy. I felt bad for him. But this journey had finally become an adventure.

I got back in the canoe and paddled south, a little on edge now. I stopped to eat grilled snapper at a waterside shack on Calle Ocho. The food was terrible, but there was beer, loud music, and pretty waitresses. A perfect spot, I thought, for a canal man fresh from a heist.

But the sun was setting and I didn’t want to run into another canal pirate after dark. So I moved on quickly and found a small wooded area just east of the Palmetto Expressway.

I pulled the canoe up a steep bank and settled down for the night. Fifteen minutes later, the raccoons found me. First there was one and then were three. I stomped my feet and shined a flashlight in their eyes, but they kept coming. One climbed a tree and screamed at me from above. I wondered if this was the ancient curse of the burial mound manifesting itself.

I moved to a clearing in the trees. I used my backpack to prop myself up in the canoe and spent the night hurling rocks at shadows.

Home stretch

On day four, my last day on the canals, I stopped to bandage my blisters near Bird Road, then navigated into the Coral Gables Waterway.

Miami’s ragged canals opened into wide, coral rock canyons lined with boats, bougainvillea and million-dollar homes. A man named J.B. gave me beer and sandwiches on a high ridge behind his house and joked that he wanted to be buried at this spot because he loved it so much.

Then I floated downstream, almost to the end of my 30-mile journey, and took a nap in the canoe under a tamarind tree at Cartagena Circle. When I woke up, I left the canals behind and paddled across Biscayne Bay. I made landfall in Coconut Grove an hour later, a little weary and a little depressed that my adventure was over. A crowd, alerted by radio coverage, had gathered at Scotty’s Landing to welcome me back.

They asked questions about the trip, but I didn’t have a lot to say. I’d basically spent four days paddling around Miami, drinking beer, not sleeping and searching for places to pee.

But I returned with a love of Miami’s forgotten canals. In a city that tries hard to project a glamorous image, the canals remain refreshingly unpolished. They aren’t pristine, but they’re not junk-filled cesspools either. They’re a surprisingly quiet world where time moves more slowly, a convenient escape in the heart of urban Miami.

To get there, all you need is a canoe, raccoon repellant and a blanket. You don’t need much money. You don’t need much time.

And you don’t need a gun.

Photos:   Day 1,   Day 2,   Day 3,   Day 4   (password: canoe)

Videos:   Getting around a dam,   Crossing Okeechobee Road,   View from the bow,   Canoe Project fan video

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