Hurricane Charley had its stage five eye on
on Friday the 13th,
August 2004 when it pounced on the community of 14000 people, blasting apart
the roofs of 80% of the homes in the tiny gulfside town and tearing every leaf
and branch from the trees. Punta
It was almost exactly a year later that my husband and I drove down to visit our friends whose whole condominium building had been ravaged irreparably. Another friend had found a temporary place for them, so they'd moved thirty-five miles north to
for six months to live in a
six-hundred-square-foot model condo that they’d shared with a construction
office crew of two during the daylight hours.
They purchased another condo back in Punta Gorda that had been under
construction and was finished six months after the storm passed. It had not yet been decided whether their old
building could be rebuilt. A year later
the situation remained the same. Sarasota,
Day one of our visit was a tour of their demolished town. The older buildings had simply been razed and the downtown resembled a tooth-challenged sad old man with piles of crinkled junk shoved up into heaps. Whole city blocks adorned with stark concrete pads remained treeless and lifeless. Newer buildings had chunks bitten out of them, as if an impossible monster had slashed at them from one side of the street to the other. Crews of laborers numbering from ten to fifteen brown bodies flocked to first one house’s roof, then to another, like so many ants building a nest. Many houses simply had stacks of barrel tiles perched on top of their homes, waiting for somebody to set them. Many sat sadly with their damage, just waiting.
Day two we traveled south to into the low country swamps of
, delineated by tangled,
twenty-foot high mangrove plants and placid slow moving water.. The Tamiami Trail turns from south to east
right at that point and amazingly, we found that low varies in its
lowness. Inches of altitude determine
which way the water runs. River channels
of brackish water snake in a twisting maze running down to the sea. We couldn’t see where it came from because
there was nowhere to stand high enough.
We couldn’t see where the ocean was either, for the same reason. Flat took on a new meaning for me. Everglade
Just a couple of turns off the Trail, we found airboat rides, right where they were supposed to be (ride cost: $30 per person.) Let me first say that an airboat is actually a smooth-bottomed boat about twenty feet long with a strut frame rising from its back end that supports a giant six foot tall upright fan. The captain sits in the center of the boat on a raised barstool in front of the fan. Two three-person seats face the front of the boat, and as we were seated, two adult pelicans flapped in and arrived on the bow edge by air mail. They were HUGE. The sun was hot, the air was sultry and the atmosphere was right out of a
bayou picture book. Wooden docks with
shrimp boats, fishing boats, pleasure boats, dinghies, dotted the beginning of
the fifty-foot wide channel where we began our journey. Further up into the mangroves, the docks and
their boats disappeared and it was just us and the wilderness ahead through
almost a green tunnel of shrubs. Louisiana
Airboat Captain, Dennis, suggested strongly that we use the earphones provided. It was an excellent suggestion when we ceased cruising and began charging up and down the channels. The ride had the feel of a motorcycle from my past life, without the use of a helmet. Speed seemed to be a priority and we jetted smoothly along into a lagoon until Captain Dennis stopped the boat right where two eyeballs appeared to be floating on the river. Those eyes surfaced an inch when they saw the captain and seemed to be attached to a black log, complete with dark bark. The log squirmed toward us and waited. Dennis launched into a story about Everglade alligators, there not really being a question of extinction after all, or else the little devils are extremely prolific. Whatever the cause, there are thousands of them today. They grow at the rate of one inch per year until they're eleven feet long, when the rate slows.
At two feet away, Captain Dennis tossed the log (alligator) a fish, then grabbed its head and turned it so we'd have a better view. He said he'd been bitten a couple of times. We agreed there was a high probability factor involved, and rolled our eyes.
We stopped along one bank to visit a gang of three wild pigs, that looked like they also knew about Captain Dennis, or at least Captain Dennis’ fish tank. Wild boars scarfing up dead fish is not a pretty sight.
After making our way further into the maze, greeting another alligator and speeding forward, we happened upon two manatees undulating away from us, doubtless dodging airboats. I’d often wondered how woman-starved lonesome seamen could have misinterpreted manatees as mermaids, those sirens whose voices sang out to lure sailors to a rocky grave. But, when I think about it, some of the Renaissance painters depicted women the same way Reuben did—round and firm and fully packed. If that was considered a beautiful interpretation, I suppose the sea cows weren’t really much different to a sailor forty days at sea.
It was an altogether remarkable ride and we were one hundred miles north again by nightfall.
Punta Gorda Isle is unique for its canals. Picture
only very tiny and
with houses instead of hundreds-of-year-old buildings. Essentially, every house has a canal in their
backyard where there is a dock for each owner’s boat. One motors out of his canal into another,
then another until he reaches Venice,
Italy , where he has access to the
open gulf, the Charlotte
Bay Atlantic Ocean and parts beyond. This
presumes he won’t get lost and wander aimlessly for years, skulking around the channels. Some people live as much as two hours by channel
to the bay.
The wind came up the following day and there just happened to be our friends’ thirty-two foot sailboat tied right in their backyard. The day went together like jam and peanut butter. We waited until to motor the necessary forty-five minutes of channel to pick up the sunset over the bay. Dinner had been stocked in the cuddy cab below decks, the bimini cover was overhead and we were stoked for a sail. After a quick lesson on sheets, lines, the tack and sails, Captain Terry headed us into the wind, raised the canvas and cut the motor. We took off in a skate on top of the water that leaned us to starboard in a silent glide. I hadn’t realized a sailboat travels at a list at all times. The only time we were upright is while we were under motor.
Very shortly, a group of dolphins bounded into arches next to us, evidently on their way to somewhere important. They didn’t stop to chat and passed us like our thirty knot speed was a standstill.
Because of the steady breeze, we didn’t have to tack back and forth to keep wind in our sails, but kept a steady heading for about fifteen miles across to
on the other side of Pine Island . How can I express the elation of being swept
along with the wind for six hours that day?
We witnessed a rusty-golden sunset over the harbor which ushered a full moon
up that night. If you’re going to have a magical day, you simply must have your
moon full. To be in the right place at the right time to
see creatures we have never seen, to feel feelings we have never felt adds a
dimension to life we would have missed in our ignorance. Charlotte Harbor