The last, dreamless night on the island was like a bad dream: Waking every hour from exhausted sleep to a frosty February dark, cannibalizing our shelter for branches to burn in a fire that smoldered like lazy charcoal when what we really wanted — needed, really — was something roaring, something Smokey the Bear would have wagged his preachy finger at before we pushed him in. Fur burns, doesn't it?
Kicking off my palm-frond blanket, I tried to awaken my opponent, Alan, to help move the canoe, employed as jerry-rigged lean-to. The night had yawned open from an overcast afternoon, the winds had kicked up, and it was getting very, very cold.
But Alan wouldn't budge. Maybe he was frozen.
Back on the warm, sunny first day on Shell Key, we'd propped the canoe on paddles and tiki torches, then laid branches over it to form a perfectly acceptable shelter — perfect except for the icy rainwater dripping in, and the fire ants feeding on our flesh.
Using the shelter this second night was futile because the wind had shifted from the west to southeast.
I swung one end of the boat around.
Alan didn't stir. Maybe he really was frozen.
Finally, he got up. We slid the boat by the fire, leaning one end on a paddle, the other on a traffic cone we'd found and named "Wilson" in honor of the volleyball Tom Hanks befriended in Cast Away.
I lay down. Immediately, my eyes began to burn. I couldn't breathe. I felt like I'd been hit with nerve gas.
"I think," Alan sleepily deadpanned, "we created a backdraft."
We were on Shell Key, a.k.a. Idiot Island, a.k.a. Poo Island, for just 48 hours.
We were there to survive, like Hanks in Cast Away and the dorks on Survivor. Instead of the rice Survivor contestants receive, we had a box of Froot Loops. Our only other supplies were four gallons of drinking water and Alan's two luxury items, a dive knife and a cast net. He also brought his cell phone in the event of an emergency. In case he couldn't start a fire, he brought along an emergency pack of matches. And, um, another pack of matches. While this could be construed as cheating, or pyromania, rest assured the matches got soaked early on.
Good thing Alan brought along a Bic lighter too.
My luxury item was toilet paper.
Not exactly the makings of a Club Med vacation. We had no tent, no sleeping bags, no clean clothes, no decent food, no flashlight.
Day One: The Sound of One God Mocking Stopping in Tierra Verde en route to Fort De Soto, we bought rubbery convenience store hotdogs and other junk food. I stashed a bag of peanuts, and Alan had some Nutter Butters on his person. But my wife, who was to drop us off at the Fort De Soto boat ramp, caught on. For some reason, she's very resistant to any kind of cheating.
Wives must want their men to suffer, a little. However, man's will to survive, or at least our urges to snack, ruled the day, and she was unable to dissuade us from cheating.
As I whined about raccoons and the coming potential to be wet, cold, tired, dead, Alan curtly told me, "Butch up."
A phrase my wife promptly adopted.
Once at the boat ramp, she allowed us just five minutes to unload the canoe, a 17-foot aluminum beast, and load up our meager supplies. It took about 15. That's the thing about our version Survivor; what few rules there were, we quickly broke.
My wife waved goodbye and our baby daughter flapped her arms excitedly as they watched Alan and me paddle into oblivion.
After a short, easy stroke through the sparkling waters of Tierra Verde, we reached the island. Birds flew overhead, or waded around the flats poking at this or that. This had the makings of a working vacation.
Following our survival instincts, we promptly ate our smuggled snacks. Walking around looking for a campsite, we discovered that what from a distance looks like a long stretch of Australian pines, upon closer view, is actually a bombed-out party crater. Empty bottles and broken glass were scattered among the remnants of past campfires, spaced about 20 feet apart as we walked through the swath of destruction. Every pile contained the remnants of bamboo tiki torches, which as we would soon learn burn well even without fuel. Bamboo burns better than Australian pine, the island's main nuisance other than us. The trees around campsites had exposed sockets where branches used to be.
Eruptions of marsh grass and sea oats resembled dry sparklers. We saw all kinds of birds, including roseate spoonbills, ibis, herons. And though I was relieved to see no raccoons, Alan noted their tracks in the sand.