Picture father and son on a houseboat somewhere in the Everglades. The mosquitos loved it.

If you’re looking to get away from civilization and experience the serenity that comes from being out in nature’s wilderness beauty and having the vast majority of the blood sucked out of your body, then you should rent a houseboat in the Everglades.

I did this recently with my son, Rob. We rented our houseboat at a place called Flamingo, in Everglades National Park, waaaaay down on the bottom of Florida. At that point, Florida has totally stopped pretending to be a normal United State such as Pennsylvania, the kind of state that has been constructed in compliance with the Official State Building Code on a solid foundation of dirt and rocks. Lower Florida looks like solid ground in places, but it’s actually a gigantic floating clotted mass of decaying vegetation and shed snakeskins, drifting on a sea of aromatic water and muck. You get the feeling that you need to keep moving, because if you stand still too long, you’ll sink into the clot until the only thing sticking up is your head, which a bird will come along and build a nest on.

There’s wildlife everywhere down there. Maybe too much of it. For example, when we arrived at the Flamingo marina, we drove into a parking lot, which sloped down gently to a boat-launching ramp into the water, and lying on this ramp, watching us, were three major alligators. They were lined up parallel to each other, halfway out of the water, as though a National Park Service employee had been in the middle of launching them, but then he stopped for some reason, such as they ate him.

I was frankly concerned about being in an alligator-infested parking lot, and it did not help that Rob kept reminding me how fast alligators can move over land. Reminding people how fast alligators can move is a long-standing Florida tradition. “Over short distances, an alligator can outrun a horse,” people will say. Or: “In 1983, the Air Force tracked an alligator going 387 miles per hour.”

Fortunately, alligators don’t corner well, so if one is chasing you – get ready for an Alligator Safety Tip – you’re supposed to run in circles. I’m serious. Schoolchildren are taught this in Florida, while children in other states are learning to read.

So anyway, by moving in precautionary circles, Rob and I managed to get safely aboard our rental houseboat, named the “Spoonbill.” I’m qualified to operate a houseboat because I have nautical experience, consisting of owning a boat for a couple of years. During this time, I learned the principles of navigation, because every week I had to navigate my car to the marine-supplies store to buy boat parts in a never-ending effort to get the boat fixed up to the point where the engine would start.

Altogether, I probably have close to 45 minutes of experience driving a boat on actual water, so you can imagine how competent I felt when I took the helm (or “forecastle”) of the Spoonbill, which is the size of a standard junior high school, only not as maneuverable. The way you drive a houseboat is, you turn the wheel to the right (or “mizzen”), then you go make a sandwich and take a nap. By the time you get back to the helm, the boat is just starting to turn right, which means it’s time for you to turn the wheel back to the left.

Using this procedure, we navigated through a canal out to Whitewater Bay, which gets its name from the fact that the water is brown. There we were able to really “open up” the throttle and get the Spoonbill moving at her top speed, which (I am estimating here) is zero. We didn’t care. We weren’t out there to get somewhere; we were out there to experience directly the natural beauty of the Everglades, which looks today very much as it did thousands of years ago to the first Native Americans to arrive here, except that the Native Americans didn’t have a generator, climate control, hot water, full kitchen, shower, flush toilet, refrigerator and enough groceries to feed the Green Bay Packers for a month.

That evening, we dropped anchor maybe 100 yards from a mangrove island, many miles from any sign of civilization. We stood on the deck, and, as the sun set, we experienced a sensation that I will never forget: the sensation of being landed on by every mosquito in the Western Hemisphere. There were so many of them that they needed Air Traffic Control mosquitoes to give directions (“OK, No. 86,742,038, you have clearance to land on his left elbow, but make it quick, because he’s almost out of blood”).

So we hustled inside the Spoonbill and spent the evening admiring the natural wonder and beauty of air conditioning. Meanwhile, just outside the window, the mosquitoes formed a huge swirling committee to discuss the feasibility of sending a search party back to the mainland for a glass-cutter. But we made it through the night OK, and we ended up having a fine weekend, which was diminished only slightly by the fact that when we got back to Flamingo, it had sunk without a trace.

No, it was still there. But if you’re planning to go, you should call ahead, just in case. And if an alligator answers, hang up.

This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Nov. 10, 1996.

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