There’s just something so intoxicating about the fragrance of a nearby fire. The feel of a wave of heat that blows at you when you sit beside it. I find myself staring into the flames as my mind wanders to the deepest recesses of my brain. Oftentimes I think about nothing at all. Seeing light in the darkness makes me feel comfortable. Seeing darkness in the light is far more… disconcerting. But that simplicity of a fire is a whole other level of happiness for me. It is one of my highlights of camping. That’s why I do it so incessantly. One could say I’m addicted to it. But, I know for a fact that it’s not an addiction; it’s a way of life.
The hue of the pale green iridescent light lit the walls of the motel and the Spanish moss that hung from the oaks. I pulled my Jeep into the overgrown lot. Tonight was my last night before the big hike. I have dreamed of this trip since I was a kid, and I’m finally at the foot of my trek.
I’m about to hike the Everglades Trail. Starting at the southern point, through to the northernmost point. I’ve heard tales of this trail, and the perils that I could run into. Pythons, poisonwood, alligators, and even crocodiles are everywhere to be found. It’s all the danger that draws me to this hike. But, nothing could have prepared me for the trip I was about to experience.
The next morning, I grabbed my hiking bag from the dilapidated room, and tossed it back into the rear of the Jeep. I checked out of the motel, and got gas at the station down the street. Next stop: The southern tip of mainland Florida.
Starting at Trout Cove, I was still so stoked to start my trip 20 years since I’ve planned this trip. I’ve taken several hikes, including the Appalachian Trail, Angels Landing, the Grand Canyon, and the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu. I know my way around a hike, but this was the only one I was afraid to start. That’s why I’ve taken every hike before this one. Much like in Australia, everything in the Glades wants to kill you.
The fuel pump clicked when the tank was full. I jumped back into the Jeep. I had this thing modded out for swamp exploration. Snorkel, lifted, 35 inch tires, everything. I made this thing for some serious tripping. I hate passing other modded-out Jeeps that have clearly never seen a pothole. I drove through the marsh on the 4 by 4 trail. I finally reached Trout Cove. Only two other Jeeps seemed to have made it this far. But from here out… I’m hoofing it. After getting out, a wiping of my brow. Humidity was 98% and temperature at 89 degrees. The high that day got to 97. Combined with the humidity, it felt like I was gulping steam.
They say the Florida state bird is the mosquito. For good reason. The conditions in the area were perfect for harboring these insects. As a kid, living in Florida, I would watch the bug spray truck speed past our house to help deter the bugs. A distinct sound, and the cloud that followed the truck were undeniably carved into my mind.
I started day one of the Everglades Trail. One foot in front of the other. The bald cypress trees grow everywhere, straight from the water. The sweet and salty air felt thick in my nostrils. I scanned the area for any danger. Hour after hour, the backpack wore heavy. Another layer of bug spray. Another restroom break. The miserable heat and humidity is one of the drawing factors to me. I love the physical adversity. I love mentally challenging myself in physically demanding situations. I guess that’s why trails always called to me.
That first day was fairly uneventful in the best of ways, and I set up my hammock, hanging my gear from another nearby tree. I got settled, threw the mosquito net over me, and listened to the wildlife call as the darkness overcame the swamp. The frogs, the distant reptilian hissing, crickets chirping, and of course the buzzing of mosquitoes.
I woke up with a start. I scanned the area through the netting, and saw nothing of concern. It was already dawn. (surprised) It was already dawn. I never sleep all the way through a night. Not on a hike, in a strange area. I could already feel that I was starting to sweat in the morning heat. The night got no less than 82 degrees, or so the weather was last forecasted, when I still had cell reception. Nature called, and then I got myself ready for the day. I started that day off with both a protein bar and a granola bar. I was obviously hungry from the 13 miles I had hiked. Before you mock the distance of 13 miles- that’s 13 marsh miles. With boots getting flooded, or stuck in the mud, having to hug trees as you navigate your way around, or having to check your six for any lurking dangers. I saw at least 10 alligators and several snakes that day. I pride myself of the distance I can travel in a single day. I’ve traveled over 30 miles in a single day before, but this trail is no picnic. 13 miles in the Glades is an accomplishment I’m still proud of it to this day.
This leg of the hike, I had planned to lodge at the “ritzy” Pine Swamp Shelter, 11 miles northwest of there. I heard tell that this was going to be the most treacherous leg, and to make matters worse: the Pine Swamp Shelter was supposedly haunted. Good thing I wasn’t much for the supernatural. It’s a huge factor into why so few hikers take this trail, since they’re superstitious to some degree or another. I did some reading- like I said: I had planned this trip for nearly 20 years now, since I was a kid. I did some reading on the folklore surrounding the Everglades, and come to find out, a lot of it was rooted in true stories.
Take for instance the drowning of Kim Spelling. This was only a few years back. On a tour of the Everglades on an air boat- some might refer to the boat as a fan boat- anyway… she and her fiancee Greg Chesterfield were touring the swamp. The boat got stuck in some thick reeds, and Greg jumped out to try to loosen the boat while Kim used the throttle. With a jerking of the boat and the throttle of the fan, the boat came loose, and Kim fell off the side. The boat got 20 feet and stopped since no one held the throttle. Greg waded through the marsh and returned to the boat, but Kim was nowhere to be found. Most of Kim’s body was found four days later, downstream a mile in a thicket. Greg was suspected of murdering his fiance, but rumor has it he took the airboat back out to the Everglades, and surrendered his body to the wildlife, never to be seen again. Local rangers say he pilots his boat in the afterlife, searching for his lost, future wife.
Another story takes us back a bit, to the war the states colonizers versus the Seminoles. As you may have heard, there’s a tribe referred to as the “Undefeated Tribe,” since they used the Everglades as their base, which made it impossible for the white men to effectively combat the indigenous peoples. When the white men fought the Seminoles, they had successfully captured a couple tribesmen, and held them hostage outside the ratty shack the Americans had made. In a move of retaliation, the natives took a gas lantern, and smashed it into the shack where the Americans were sleeping. Within minutes, the shack and the captors were ashes. Lore says when the wind blows at night, you can sometimes hear the screams of the perishing captors. More often than not, the stories say you can hear them yelling for their mothers.
But, those aren’t anything I encountered. Like I mentioned before: I’m not a superstitious person. Tragic about the Kim Spelling and Greg Chesterfield, but the unverifiable story of the Seminole prisoners seems kind of justified.
I made really good time that day, getting to Shark River Chickee by 3. I’m not a very sociable person, hence why I always hike alone, but I do enjoy the infrequent exchanges with other travelers. At Shark River, I asked some kayakers if they minded giving me a lift to the other side, so I wouldn’t have to swim. We swapped some food, me giving them a couple of my MRE’s and taking some freshly caught and cooked blue crab and tarpon in exchange. We shared a few stories of how we got here. They told me they travel by kayak, having started out in the Gulf of Mexico, traveling northeast by way of the shark river to Rookery Branch, where they’ll then turn back to the gulf. They gave me lift, and I proceeded to Pine Swamp Shelter. It’s touted as the driest part of the Everglades, being all of 10 feet above sea level. My weary self arrived just after the sun went down. A rickety stone building stood right where my GPS led me. My headlamp shone on the stonework that had clearly been constructed at least a hundred years ago, green and brown from the moss. I decided against sleeping on the dilapidated wood bench in the shelter. I once again hung my gear from one tree, and set up my hammock from two other trees nearby. I was still somehow quite restless, needing a cool-down. Sweat and swamp weighed me down. I gave myself a sanitizer sponge bath. I heard some hikers inbound, so I made myself more decent, putting on some fresh clothes, and deodorant. We exchanged some pleasantries, and again, swapping stories of our trek to this point. They had a couple close calls with some snakes and a gator. It was a couple, and another hiker they met along the way. They only met earlier that day, but they seemed to have known each other their entire lives. They already had inside jokes that they were more than happy to explain. But, like I said, I’m fairly introverted, and happy not needing to know every joke told. We did play cards around the fire we were able to conjure up from some dry branches around. It was an enjoyable night. They even shared some of their wine. The whole exchange being an exquisite change of pace from the marsh. The night wore on, all the wildlife calling, and we saw fireflies in the distance. At the time, I thought nothing could make this night anything less than perfect.
I had fallen asleep by the fire, and woke up to myself smacking my face of a mosquito. A quick look at my watch, I saw it was 2:48am. I heard a screech owl calmly calling in the distance. I checked my surroundings, and found myself in no danger of any of the local critters. I got to the hammock, and just as I was about to get comfortable, I felt a presence I had never felt before. I looked around, and saw nobody. I checked the tents, and all three of the other hikers were accounted for. But this presence didn’t feel quite… human. I clicked on the first flashlight I could find in my bag. Making sure I wouldn’t wake the other campers, I checked in all directions, not finding anyone. But I couldn’t shake the internal feeling that something was wrong. Another scan around the island, I stopped with an involuntary gasp. The flashlight lit up everything I shone the light on, but there was a shadow within the frame of the light. It was an indescribable shroud of darkness, with the light everywhere else around it. This void almost like a vacuum for light. The feeling of evil shot through my veins. About 50 feet away from me was a darkness to my front, and people I found myself liking, 20 feet to my right.
I heard the zipping of a tent that shopped short as the person realized what I was looking at. I took one step to my right, and dropped my right hand trying to caution whoever was trying to get out of the tent. The shadow stayed still. I took another step, and another. I wanted to stand between the unsuspecting campers and this… presence. My palm, sweaty from a fear I’ve never felt, dropped the light to the ground. I picked it back up, and as I was about to fix the light back to the shadow, I saw another one to the right of the other one I was already aware of. How many shadows were there? To this day, I will never know. My mind quickly sifted through every possible scenario, and potential weapons I could use. Nothing came to mind, aside from a branch we hadn’t set ablaze in our fire the night before. I crouched down, and held the 2 foot stick, light still fixed between the two shadows. It was a durable stick that would do nicely. But, against a shadow? How do I fight a shadow? I just knew I wanted to take the shadow on, if someone had to fight it. I would sooner sacrifice myself, than to allow the defenseless, sleeping campers. The distinct sound of another tent zipper could be heard. It might be a more fair fight, if all four of us were to battle these shadow figures. Zipper stopped. Everyone was frozen. No owl. No crickets. No movement. I think everyone was petrified, including the presences. Now standing between the shadows and the tents, I took a strong step forward. The shadows hadn’t moved once since I noticed them. Not until I took a step forward. They came a step closer too.
SFX: branch crack
I heard a branch crack to my left. I jolted, and shone my left to the sound: darkness. I now have at least three shadows on our campsite. The physical cracking of a branch meant they may be able to have a physical battle. The weapon in my hand might not be useless after all. Another flashlight from behind me clicked on. Shining towards the other two shadow figures. The silhouettes of all three shadows now illuminated. In the clothes they slept in and their boots, the other campers got out of their tents. The figures stood about 6 feet tall, with an outline like a human. (yelling) “Hey!” (narrating) I yelled. They seemed startled by my sudden call, but they stood in place. “We’re just staying the night. We’ll leave in the morning, and you can have your home back.” They didn’t move. Another strong step forward, and I could see the indecision they had, not moving forward or back, but still holding their position.
The others said nothing, too dumbstruck by the situation surrounding us. In all fairness, I haven’t said anything to them either. When I heard something behind me, I quickly glanced back as the lady threw up. I think she was a little hung over from the drinks earlier that night. I looked back, and the shadows had simply… vanished. I searched our campsite, and what had frightened me to my core was just… gone. I couldn’t explain the mixture of relief, and overwhelming dread that washed over me. Those shadows could be anywhere. At least when they were in the flashlight’s beams, I knew where they were.
I searched the campsite everywhere again. I had been around the perimeter countless times. Blood coursing through my veins at an impossible rate still. An hour passed, and my adrenaline still pumped.
SFX: WOMAN SCREAM
A scream. A horrifying scream. One of the other campers!
I can’t make excuses for the following actions on my part, except that in the heat of the moment. As Patton famously stated ‘A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.’ I might not have until next week. I held onto the stick like my very life depended on it- no. Like our very lives depended on it.
I ran to where I heard the scream come from. In panic, I swung the branch in every direction. My flashlight scanning frantically, and the blur of my stick. The other campers were just… gone. They weren’t taken. They didn’t leave. They just didn’t… exist. Their tents disappeared before my eyes. The wine bottle next to the fire they had brought disappeared too.
I stood still, branch limply hanging to my side in my hand. (profoundly) I wasn’t camping with anyone that night.
It’s easy to assume my imagination had been playing tricks on me. As I think back on that night, I remember distinctly our interactions. I never imagined any of it. It was real.
Once I returned to civilization, I tried to look up who I must have run into that night. I always came up empty-handed. But, I do warn you… don’t ever venture to Pine Swamp Shelter in the Everglades, unless you’re willing to have the best and most horrifying night of your camping life, with three perfect strangers.