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Lost in the river of gra.., p.1
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       Lost in the River of Grass, p.1

           Ginny Rorby
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Lost in the River of Grass

  Text copyright © 2011 by Ginny Rorby

  Carolrhoda Lab™ is a trademark of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.

  All rights reserved. International copyright secured. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means— electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., except for the inclusion of brief quotations in an acknowledged review.

  Carolrhoda Lab™

  An imprint of Carolrhoda Books

  A division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.

  241 First Avenue North Minneapolis, MN 55401 U.S.A.

  Website address:

  Cover photograph © Nativestock Pictures/Photolibrary.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Rorby, Ginny.

  Lost in the river of grass / by Ginny Rorby.

  p. cm.

  Summary: When two Florida teenagers become stranded on a tiny island in the Everglades, they attempt to walk ten miles through swampland to reach civilization.

  ISBN: 978–0–7613–5685–1

  [1. Wilderness survival—Fiction. 2. Survival—Fiction. 3. Friendship—Fiction. 4. Animals—Florida—Everglades—Fiction. 5. Everglades (Fla.)—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.R69Lo 2011



  Manufactured in the United States of America

  2 – SB – 6/1/11

  eISBN: 978-0-7613-7161-8 (pdf)

  eISBN: 978-1-4677-3167-6 (ePub)

  eISBN: 978-1-4677-3166-9 (mobi)

  This is dedicated to my husband,

  Doug Oesterle,

  to whom this story belongs;

  to the memory of Bob Kelley,

  who defined friendship;

  and to Oscar “Bud” Owre,

  who taught me to love

  the Everglades.

  I miss you both.

  And to the real Mr. Vickers,

  my seventh-grade

  science teacher.

  “The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.”

  —Marjorie Stoneman Douglas,

  The Everglades: River of Grass


  “the world is mud-luscious. . .

  the world is puddle-wonderful”

  —e. e. cummings, “[in Just-]”


  “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

  —Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder


  Mr. Vickers takes the seat behind the bus driver. The other fourteen kids pile in behind him in pairs, like ark animals. Since I’m last on the bus, my choice is to sit next to him or sit alone. He’s left room for me, but is nice enough not to say anything when I drag my gear to the back row.

  The ride to where we’re going in the Everglades is long, and a hot, gritty, diesel-smelling wind swirls in through the open windows. I’ve been staring out at the same scenery for an hour: a long, straight, black water canal, a levee, and miles and miles of saw grass.

  My poor parents thought they’d died and gone to heaven when I got accepted into Glades Academy this year, but school started three weeks ago and I hate it more every day. I either feel invisible or like a sore thumb. No one talks to me, just about me.

  This weekend field trip wasn’t required, so it didn’t occur to me to sign up. First off, I couldn’t care less about seeing a swamp, and secondly, it cost more than my parents could really afford, but Mr. Vickers, my science teacher, talked me into it. “Divide and conquer, Sarah,” he said, as if being with fewer students will give me better odds of making a friend. There are ten boys on the trip and four other girls. The boys are okay, but the girls are clumped together like a tar ball on the beach.

  Mr. Vickers feels sorry for me. I can tell because, when he turns to point out something he wants us to notice, he includes me and smiles.

  I curl up on the back bench, put my head on my duffel bag, and pretend to sleep in spite of the chatter and laughter from the front.

  I guess I did doze off, because when Mr. Vickers calls, “Breakfast stop,” I jerk awake, sit up, and look out. We’re pulling into the parking lot of the Miccosukee Indian restaurant. I don’t feel hungry until I smell bacon frying. Then my stomach starts to growl.

  We’re expected at the restaurant; a single long table is set for us. I’m the last one in and have to take a seat at the end opposite from Mr. Vickers—teacher at one end and me, the token poor-but-promising student, at the other.

  There are two waitresses. When one gets to our end of the table, Adam—at least I think that’s his name— orders a hamburger.

  “Breakfast only,” the waitress says. “No burgers ’til eleven-thirty.”

  “I don’t like eggs. How ’bout a grilled cheese sandwich?”

  “Only breakfast until eleven-thirty.” She pops her gum.

  Two of the girls are named Amanda; the third and fourth are Brittany and Courtney. The Amanda on my right orders a cheese omelet.

  “Okay,” Adam says. “I’ll have a cheese omelet, too, but hold the eggs. Just bring me the cheese, two pieces of wheat toast, and an order of fries.”

  Brittany, who’s sitting next to Adam, giggles.

  “Hash browns,” the waitress says.

  Adam rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”

  I only have ten dollars with me and can’t remember if breakfast is included in the price of the field trip. “I’m not very hungry,” I say, and see Mr. Vickers glance up.

  “This is all one check,” he tells the waitress at his end of the table.

  “Come on, dearie.” Our waitress drums the pad with her pencil.

  I don’t look at her. “Two eggs over easy . . .”

  “I can’t hear you,” she says.

  “Crisp bacon, pumpkin bread . . .” My stomach growls so loudly, Amanda laughs out loud. “And hash browns, too, please.”

  Where I live in Coconut Grove there are frequent gunshots, so when an engine backfires in the canal behind the restaurant, I instinctively duck my head and squeeze my eyes shut.

  There’s another backfire before the engine sputters to life. A moment later, an airboat skims past the rear wall of windows, its benches loaded with tourists. An Indian guide is perched on the seat mounted in front of the cage that covers what was once an airplane’s propeller.

  “I’d love to ride in one of those,” Adam says.

  “Me, too,” Amanda says.

  I don’t say anything until Mom’s advice pops into my head. Be friendly. Don’t expect them to come to you; you have to make the first move. “Me, too,” I say.

  “You, too, what?” Amanda says.

  “It would be fun to go for an airboat ride.”

  “We just said that.”

  “I know. I’m just agreeing that it would be fun.”

  She looks at me like I’m the underbelly of an earthworm, then says to Adam, “I’ve got my mother’s Visa, maybe we could talk Mr. Vickers into letting us pay extra and go for a ride. Then again,” she stares at me, “probably not, if we couldn’t all afford to go.”

  My mother’s one of the cooks in the school cafeteria, and I’m on a scholarship—not because she works there. I’m on the swimming team. I’d like to jump in that black water canal and swim out of here. Or better yet, drown Amanda in it, then swim home.

  When breakfast comes, my eggs are overcooked and crusty brown on both sides. The bacon
s nearly raw, and the hash browns are the shredded frozen kind I hate and still cold in the middle. I eat the center out of one egg, a crispy edge of a strip of bacon, and the pumpkin bread, which is greasy but good.


  The restaurant is almost directly across the highway from the entrance to Everglades National Park. In spite of the forty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit, traffic whizzes by at sixty and seventy. Mr. Vickers makes us all get back on the bus for the ride across the road.

  “We’re going to take a tram ride out to the observation tower,” he shouts when we get there, over the racket of everyone gathering their stuff. “Our driver will stay here, so you can leave your gear. If you have a camera, bring it.”

  I have an old maroon Wilderness Experience backpack with two separate zippered compartments. I put Dad’s camera in the bottom of the pack, my wallet in the top, and follow the others off the bus.

  Before the tram ride we have to listen to a park ranger’s canned speech about the damage the sugar industry is causing and how endangered the Everglades ecosystem is. I’m listening to his monotone and fanning away mosquitoes as I watch shiny black birds inspect car grills for freshly squashed insects. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flash of yellow, then hear a thud. I back away from the others and peek around the corner of the park’s office building. Lying on the ground beneath a window is the prettiest little bird I’ve ever seen outside of a pet store. It’s bright yellow, with a black bandit mask over its eyes. The window, which reflects the trees like a mirror, shows a dusty print and a few yellow feathers where the bird struck it. I walk over to look more closely. Its sides are still moving. I carefully pick it up and carry it back in cupped hands.

  “This poor little bird hit the window,” I say to the ranger. “But it’s still alive.”

  Everyone crowds in for a look.

  “That’s a male Common Yellowthroat warbler,” he says. “Best to put it back where you found it. Few survive an impact with a window, so it will die, or come to and fly away.”

  I don’t like this guy. “Something might get it before it has a chance to wake up.”

  His smile is condescending. “Always best to let nature take its course.”

  “If the building wasn’t there, the bird wouldn’t have hit it.” I feel my cheeks heat up. I’m not good at speaking my mind. What I want to say is that the building is in the way of nature taking its course. As usual, it hasn’t come out right. I walk around the corner, like I’m going to put the bird back under the window, but instead I slide him into the pocket of my dad’s shirt, which is tied around my waist.


  The open-sided tram does a fifteen-mile loop to a concrete observation tower. I slouch in the seat behind the others, put my knees on the bench in front of me, and stare at the flat expanse of saw grass with my right hand cupped over the bird in my pocket. His warm body feels as soft as a wad of cotton against my palm.

  The road is just inches above the water level, and the tram moves slowly as Mr. Vickers points out the different birds we pass, turtles sunning on logs, and a couple of alligators.

  “What kind is that?” someone shouts and points at a tall white bird with a black, bald head.

  Mr. Vickers puts a finger to his lips. “That’s a wood stork—North America’s only stork.”

  The tram stops, and the stork lifts its crinkle-skinned head to stare at us. It has black legs and Pepto-Bismol– colored feet. It had been walking slowly and shaking its pink feet beneath the surface before we interrupted it, but it quickly loses interest in us and returns to sweeping its bill back and forth like a blind person’s cane through the water.

  The bird in my pocket moves slightly. He’s waking up. I smile to myself.

  I promised Dad to take lots of pictures, and the stork is really close. I unzip the bottom of my backpack quietly, so as not to disturb the bird in my pocket or the stork, and take out his camera—a 1952 Leica IIIf Red Dial range-finder he bought on eBay for a week’s salary. He treasures this camera, and when he said he wanted me to take it on the trip, I almost cried.

  “I’ll be really careful with it, Dad. I promise.”

  “I’m not worried about it. This baby’s the toughest camera in the world, and who knows, maybe this will launch your career as a National Geographic photographer.”

  Dad and I spent last evening together, with him showing me how put film in and take it out, blow dust off the lens, use a special, soft cloth to clean off any fingerprints, and how to focus the image. When I look through the lens, there are two wood storks. To get a sharp picture I have to turn the focus ring until the two images become one. He had me practice so that I’d know how to focus quickly. I bring the two images of the wood stork together, take its picture, then wind the film to be ready for the next shot. The other kids have cameras that click and beep and chirp, but the Leica is almost completely silent.

  “They don’t hunt what they see like herons and egrets,” Mr. Vickers is saying about the stork. “They catch what they feel as they run their bills through shallow water. That means they need a high concentration of fish in a confined area. When the Everglades was a natural system, the winter dry-down left shallow pools full of fish.”

  The stork shakes to fluff its feathers and pulls out a loose one, which seesaws in the air as it drifts down to float on the water.

  “Remember that wall of dirt and shells on the far side of the canal as we drove out? Those are levees built to hold the water inside so-called conservation areas. And all the pumping stations we passed. Those are there to supply our water needs. The storks usually nest in March when the water is low, so there is plenty of food for their young.”

  The bird shifts in my pocket. I feel his sharp toenails in my hand.

  “Another problem for all the species out here is that the nitrogen from the fertilizers the sugar industry uses makes the saw grass grow much denser, and in deeper water, impenetrable stands of cattails. That makes it hard for everything to find food.”

  I slide the bird out of my pocket and cup a hand over his back. His tiny heart flutters against my palm. I glance at the backs of the other kids’ heads. I’m tempted to say “watch this,” but decide I don’t want to share with them.

  Mr. Vickers glances at me. I hesitate, then decide that he won’t be mad that I disobeyed the ranger. I un-cup my hands and hold the bird up for him to see. He nods. The bird doesn’t move. For a full twenty seconds, he sits there looking at freedom. I wonder if he thinks it’s another illusion, like the reflection of a tree in the window. I even touch the top of his head, where the feathers he left on the window came from. He still doesn’t move. Maybe something’s broken so he can’t fly.

  “Oh my God!” Courtney cries and grabs the arm of the boy sitting next to her. “There’s a snake.”

  I look where they are pointing and feel the bird leave my hand.

  “Is it a cottonmouth?” Adam says.

  My warbler lands on the ground a few feet away at the side of the road and just sits there. I look from it to the fat black snake and feel myself shudder. I don’t like snakes, and this one is creeping me out by zigzagging right toward us—and my bird.

  “Looks like it,” Mr. Vickers answers. He’s seen where the warbler landed and is watching too.

  Adam’s hand is waving. Mr. Vickers points to him. “Yes, Philip?”

  Philip, not Adam.

  “Is its bite always fatal?” he asks.

  The snake slows, then stops. Its forked black tongue slides out.

  “No,” Mr. Vickers says, “but it’s a good question.”

  “Oh,” one of the girls says. “There’s another one of those little yellow birds.”

  The snake is maybe two yards away. Its head turns toward the warbler, and its tongue slides in and out twice before it moves again. It’s seen the warbler and is headed right for him.

  I clap my hands together, and the bird bolts into the air.

  “Bummer.” One of the boys gives me a dirty look.
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  Mr. Vickers smiles, then turns and nods for the driver to move on. I like him best of all my teachers. He has red hair, a gazillion freckles, and lots of wrinkles. His smile crinkles his face.

  “So?” Philip says. “Is its bite always fatal?”

  “It depends on the size of the person bitten, how much venom is injected, and whether there is treatment nearby,” Mr. Vickers says. “I don’t want you to be freaked out by snakes. Most are not poisonous. I just want to scare you enough to make you think about where you’re walking. This field trip is not a stroll through the shops at Dadeland. In the water, there are cottonmouth moccasins and alligators. Coral snakes and scorpions hide under logs, pygmy rattlesnakes enjoy sunning themselves on the levees, and diamondbacks prefer the pinelands. No place is completely safe.”

  The backs of my knees tingle. What—I wonder yet again—am I doing in this hot, hideous place, and nearly ground-level with things that want to kill and eat you? Why would anyone ever want to come here?


  The observation tower is a concrete spiral that curls up and around a central core. The map the ranger gave us says it’s sixty-five feet tall. The boys push and shove as they race each other up the ramp to the top. The four other girls trudge after them, and I bring up the rear.

  From the top, the view is 360 degrees and the same scene at every degree: saw grass puncturing the surface of a continuous sheet of water as far as I can see in any direction. The only break in the monotony is an occasional clump of trees. Even in the ninety-eight-degree heat, I feel a sudden chill prickle my skin. The sameness is frightening—a wasteland covered by a shallow layer of scummy water. I wonder how the animals find their way around without anything, anywhere, that looks even a little different from any other thing.

  The tower is on an island with a canal nearly all the way around the building. The deep water, edged by cattails, is full of fish. A great blue heron stands ankle-deep in the water, staring down as if in a trance. Mr. Vickers points out a green-backed heron, looking hump-shouldered with its head drawn in tightly between its wings, but I can’t take my eyes off the alligators. They are enormous things, basking in the sun like lumpy, gray logs. There are five of them, one of which is sleeping with its mouth wide open, exposing a pale pink throat and lots of big, round teeth.

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