Watson's Place trip write up
Larger than life characters from novels are usually confined to the pages in which they are born and the imaginations of the readers that set them free. Peter Matthiessen’s novel Shadow Country details the life of Edgar Watson. From his childhood living with a wildly abusive Civil War vet father to his death at the hands of his neighbors following the great hurricane of 1910, Matthiessen breathes reality into the life of E.J. Watson. The story told is a mix of factual events and details filled in with fiction where the facts didn’t fit or weren’t known. Much of what Matthiessen writes about can still be found documented in and around Chokoloskee or fading away back into the earth on Watson’s former property on the Chatham River, the aptly named Watson’s Place.
This isn’t a book review. In fact, the book itself, while it tells a great story, is incorrigibly slow at times. However, after finishing it up more than a year ago, I knew a trip to visit Watson’s old stomping grounds was inevitable, so I got to work planning (click to see the Watson's Place plan).
Watson’s choice to make his residence and start a plantation on the Chatham River Bend was no accident. First, it was a thousand miles away from anyone that might be looking for him. Second, it was positioned on a peninsula sticking out into the river so that he could see anyone coming for miles. Third, the mouth of the Chatham River is virtually invisible to passersby in the Gulf of Mexico. While this was all ideal for the secretive and shady Watson, it makes getting there—even 100 years later, a bit of a challenge.
After doing some research, I found a boat rental out of Everglades City from Mark Lamphere (http://www.everglades-wilderness-waterway.com/Contact.htm) who was happy to work with our plans to stay overnight in the Everglades National Park and give us a group rate. After pitching the idea to shark biologist and good guy Pat O’Donnell on a recent Shark Tagging with a Marine Biologist trip, he expressed interest in coming along and offered to bring his boat and backwater experience which made the logistics quite a bit easier.
We had the boats in the water and the gear loaded by 9am Saturday morning, and from there we rode over to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center to pick up our back country wilderness permit (required for any camping). While camping at Watson’s would have been great, there were some other campers already there and the weather conditions were not favorable to camping upriver. Our next choice was New Turkey Key, then Pavilion Key, then Turkey Key, all of which were already full. Next time, we get our permit the day before (they can only be pulled up to 24 hours ahead of time). We settled for Mormon Key, which in the grand scheme of things was far from “settling”.
We set out with our two boats from the gateway to the Glades headed south toward Sandfly Pass after checking the marine forecast one last time. The 18’ Key West would have no trouble handling a little chop, but the 2 man crew of the 14 foot flat bottom Carolina Skiff that I captained would definitely get a little wet (fully saturated). With 2 foot seas, we did our best to stay inside of the barrier islands, but a few long runs between islands left us soaked and the bilge pump working overtime.
With the boats loaded down with camping and cooking gear, it made sense to make camp before attempting any exploring or fishing, so that’s just what we did. We made the 17 mile run to Mormon Key in about an hour. The boats were unloaded and we took off for Watson’s.
As you head north up the Chatham River, depending on your familiarity with the Watson legend, your mind can start to play tricks on you. It’s easy to picture Watson in his 20 foot handmade skiff, or his schooner that he used to run his syrup to Key West cruising up the river. You start to look out for large floating objects—the remains of the many workers who “left” Watson’s plantation and were never seen again. These days, The Bend is hardly visible but for a dock with a blue porta-potty, but in its heyday Watson’s house would have towered above the surrounding flora. Looking at the satellite imagery available on Google Maps, you can see a different shade of green where plants left over from Watson’s plantation have grown up in the midst of an endless barrage of mangroves. Immediately, one admires the courage and vision of a man who looked at a small clearing on the Chatham River Bend and saw a potential sugar cane plantation.
Many maintain that Watson’s work was done on the backs of virtual slave labor, but many of his neighbors would agree that Watson was fair in his dealings, just so long as you held up your end of the bargain. By 1900, Watson had a sprawling estate including 2 cisterns, a large house, and even the first automobile that the 10,000 Islands ever saw which is still there, overgrown and difficult to find. One still has to question the sanity of a man who would make such a purchase knowing that the nearest road was at the time (and still is) nearly 20 miles away. Watson was clearly a very skilled farmer, however, and some speculate that the massive US Sugar Corporation, who has nearly 200,000 acres of sugar cane south of Okeechobee, uses a strain of sugar cane developed by Watson on his plantation more than 100 years ago.
After hanging around with the ghost of Watson for an hour or so, we decided we’d better get going and start fishing. We found some deep water down closer to the mouth of the Chatham River and managed to catch a good variety of smaller fish using live shrimp. As the sun started approaching the horizon, we headed back to camp to tend to any pressing issues before we ran out of daylight and were inundated by mosquitoes.
Around sunset, the 5 of us piled into the small 14’ skiff and ventured to the west side of our “home” island, Mormon Key, to search out bait fish and enjoy the more scenic of the two sides of the island. The west side had more exposed beach and sand and was riddled with massive pieces of driftwood and mangrove snags that made for good firewood and better pictures. Pat managed to catch himself some sizeable mullet to go on the smoker when he returned home, while the rest of us explored the island with cameras in hand looking for whatever might come along. Finding more than we could ask for, we ended up with some terrific video and stills from Mormon Key. So much for settling.
As the darkness and the mosquitoes engulfed the Everglades, we headed back to campsite on the windward side of the island and built a fire which did provide some protection from the mosquitoes. With the fire blaring, Cougar brought out his discada or “disco”, essentially a Southwest version of a mobile wok. Using the disco, we managed some pretty darn tasty tacos from a hunk of beef and some vegetables that we had brought. With full bellies and a fire slowly being overtaken by the tide, campfire stories were shared while we each tried to secure a liquid blanket as an additional layer of protection from the mosquitoes.
Morning comes slowly when dozens of mosquitoes find their way into your tent and it is too warm to hide in your sleeping bag, but it did eventually come with an unbelievable mosaic of color. The sun rising in the east revealed our boats still lashed together but high and dry by 15 yards, having misjudged the negative low tide by the slightest of margins. Not being in any hurry, it was no problem to watch and wait as the tide made its way up and under the boats toward highercground. Pat and I headed out to find bait for the day, as the shrimp in the bait bucket hanging over the side of the boat had trouble surviving without any water within a dozen yards or so. We came back empty handed but ready to chow down on more breakfast tacos courtesy of the disco.
After breakfast, we headed out toward New Turkey Key to find some deeper water to fish. Despite finding a promising channel and a new potential campsite for the future, fishing was slow at best. A mass of dark and ominous clouds in the distance put a damper on our plans, so we ran back to pack up our campsite and avoid the rain. After doing so, we promptly got back on the water and headed west to Pavilion Key, another prime camping spot that we were a bit late to sign up for. More deep channels lead to a mediocre bite before we were chased out by rain coming in off the gulf. We headed all the way back up Sandfly Pass to Everglades City where we fished just outside of the EGC airport with some success, but by then the day was nearly done and our boat rental deadline was fast approaching. The call was made to get in off the water and pack it up, but not before deciding to head to Cougar’s outpost in Big Cypress to catch our collective breathes after a phenomenal weekend adventure.
Following in the footsteps of historical figures is not hard to do in many places. All you have to do is show up to a building or a road and read some well placed signs. When the historical figures made it their goal to hide in one of the last great untamed wildernesses in the world, following in their footsteps becomes more cumbersome but a whole lot more exciting. While Ed Watson may not be a household name and the infamy surrounding his popularity casts a dark cloud, walking in the shoes of a true pioneer and one of history’s great gladesmen is simply unforgettable. It’s hard to imagine a better way to Do Florida Right.