Posted by: floridanature | August 1, 2008

Be Thankful for the Dragons

When I was a kid, maps were things that were stacked atop each other in great rolls on the classroom wall. The older the students, the more maps there were. Teachers pulled maps down for quick reference like pulling down a large window shade. Then, just as I was getting familiar with the lay of the land, zip, back up they went.

When our family took road trips, a map was that thing my dad kept in the glove compartment. All I knew then was the document had to be folded just right or it would bulge and look sloppy. These maps seem to hold real world information, and my dad relied on them to get our family to where we needed to go.

Although I had used road maps for a while as a young adult, I didn’t really trust my life to a map until I paddled through the Everglades. The trip took me and a photographer from Chokoloskee on the northwest trip of the Glades National Park down southeast to the tip of the Florida cape at the old fishing and pluming village of Flamingo. The paddle took us nine days, and zig zagged us across the Wilderness Waterway. It required three very detailed maps and, of course, a compass.

As most backcountry travelers know, a map isn’t much good unless you know where you are on it. So, having a map spread out on your lap while you paddle is only part of the required behavior. The other part is paying attention to each squiggle and point—matching your magnetic direction and what you see around you with how the topography looks on the soggy document on your lap.

I’ve returned to the Glades a number of times since, and have marveled at how fast the mangrove islands there grow. They grow so fast, in fact, that they often don’t always appear on the maps that mark prominent backcountry features, like the Chatham River, Lostman’s , Graveyard, Lopez, etc. So reading maps also requires a healthy dose of common sense.

I went to Russia once, traveling to St. Petersburg by air, and then from there, three days northward through the Taiga on a Russian train to the remote, freezer-burnt city of Archanglesh. A stoic Russian physicist was with our little group of scientists and he marveled at a map I brought along because it actually showed us where we were as we traveled. Russia, in the draconian way of a totalitarian state, did not want an informed populous. Maps were information, and thus, not encouraged. My National Geographic map, finely detailed, was the rage of our train car as it click-clacked it ways across the frozen landscape.

When I left Russia, I gave the map to the physicist, and when I did, his facade of seriousness dropped away, and he brightened up like a little kid at a surprise birthday party.

More recently, I rode an old riverboat upstream from Iquitos, Peru, searching for the pink freshwater river dolphin. I took another National Geographic map with me on this trip too, as it showed where a multitude of tributaries met upstream to create the Amazon: The Ucayali with the Maranon, the PIcaya with the Samaria, and so on. On day, we stopped at a small village by late afternoon. We had already seen a few of the pink dolphin, and were entering an isolated preserve where we were likely to see many more. The rainforest pressed in around us, lush, wild and intimate, so alive it seemed to be breathing.

One modest wooden building held the “school”, which had no electricity and shed like windows with no glass. All of the pupils were in one classroom and covered a range we would know as elementary and middle school. Students older than that simply went to work, fishing the Amazon, hunting, trading for jungle products with merchants downstream in Iquitos.

I used my broken Spanish to communicate with the teacher, who also seemed to be the headmaster. I pulled the National Geo map of Latin America out of my backpack and laid it out on a table. Florida jutted down into the top of the map, and I pointed to it, and showed the kids where I lived, tapping my finger on an empty place between Daytona and Orlando. Then, I moved my finger to where I thought we were on the map, showing them where they lived. The headmaster spoke to them very excitedly in rapid Spanish, and all I could understand was something about the flow of the river, and how far it stretched away from them. The kids all gathered around the map like it was a holy grail, and I stepped back to watch as the headmaster interpreted different features for them. All were animated and smiling, curious about this unexpected gringo with an unexpected treasure.

As I prepared to leave, I went to give my map to the headmaster. He shook his head and said in Spanish that he had no money. I told him it was not required, that this was for the school and the students, a gift. He seemed dumbfounded I would leave a document of such value with them.

When I try to understand this peculiar place that is Florida, I often go to maps that show how others have chronicled the landscape over the centuries. The University of South Florida has a superb online collection of antique Florida maps, and each allows you to view in detail the way in which the state has become known to people over time. (

In early Florida maps drawn by French cartographer Jacques LeMoyne (circa 1564) and others, the peninsula is truncated, with the bottom one-half missing, the southern edge of the map falling away to nothingness. Below the line is what we know today as the Glades. At the time, this “Lagoon of the Sacred Spirit” was unexplored, and so inpenenerable that its sacredness would remain intact for a long time. It was not unusual in this era of discovery for mapmakers to write in Latin at the edge of known geography: Hic Sunt Dracones. Here Be Dragons.

Michelle Thatcher, a good friend of mine, recently paddled the entire St. Johns River system. The channel was routinely marked from Sanford to Jacksonville, and paddling this stretch took determination.. But below Lake Monroe, it was not marked at all, and an intrepid spirit was also required. It was particularly required in Puzzle Lake south of Harney. Even today, with all the progress in global positioning satellites, Puzzle changes so often it’s nearly impossible to figure out.

In this way, it’s less a flowing lake than a mythological story told by pre-Industrialized people, organically weaving its way through time, embellished and illuminated with the verve of each new story teller. Even Florida maps as recent as the early 20th century don’t even recognize Puzzle as a real place.

I much enjoy Puzzle Lake for this reason. When humans go there, they have to pay attention, whether they’re driving an airboat, paddling a kayak, or more rarely, navigating a little kicker-powered craft. In fact, so few do go there that it’s not unusual to spend an entire day on that part of the St. Johns River without seeing another soul.

Puzzle, which naturalist Billy Bartram thought was the genesis of the St. Johns in 1764, and which befuddled author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in 1933, still has the capacity to confuse, to humble, and if you pay close attention, to inform. It is water seeping through a prairie, a splayed out river taking its time to go where it needs to go. An enigma that resists modern persuasion. It’s also a place that keeps wildness close to its soul, a place that could easily be today, or a thousand years before today. Hic Sunt Dracones.

So maybe maps can’t do everything. Unless, of course, you internalize them, and have the courage to allow the travels across the geography of your heart to settle in.

As with blind reckoning, it’s hard to tell where you’re going, until you know for sure where you’ve been.


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