April 07, 2003

Okefenokee Journal Part III

image copyright Fred First

It seemed like we had been pretzled into canoe posture for at least an hour when we finally came to the first mile marker in the Suwanee Canal. At times, this 100-yr old failed attempt to drain the swamp seemed unmercifully long and unending as it disappeared ahead of us into the distance. After the first mile, there would be eight more in the canal, then another 2.5 in Chesser Prairie before we would arrive at Roundtop Shelter platform, where we could actually stand erect again, and take at least a few steps, letting our legs work in place our arms. But arms and shoulders would have to work ceaselessly to get us to a resting place that first day.

The day offered both ecstacy and agony. Suffering amidst overwhelming beauty in pristine nature is always a bitter-sweet experience, and for seven hours I felt torn between a whine and a hallaleujah. But I would only pass this way once in my life, and the ache and fatigue I would soon forget. And, looking back, what I remember is the exhiliration and the joy of discovering what was around each bend in each long watery mile.

I also remember the "thing" that almost minced us into alligator-bite-sized pieces! I know it was a 'you had to be there' kind of experience, but will tell it briefly anyway.

We were paddling along peacefully (if all too slowly) around mile five on the canal. Mark, who paddled solo out front of us 30 yards, turned around occasionally to be sure Darrel and I hadn't pulled over into the bay bushes to snooze. This time, he turned around casually, as usual, but began to point frantically for us to look behind us. There, maybe a half mile down a straight part of the canal was what appeared to be a jetboat throwing up a huge roostertail of spray. Crap! It must be going 40 mph at least! Quick, Darrel, let's pull as far into the trees as we can get til this thing goes past! We pulled off and waited. Nothing. Paddled a little further to the next wide place, then off again, waiting for this thing to zoom past us, throwing us in its wake up onto the cypress stumps. Yep, it was still back there, I could see from time to time as it rounded yet another curve in the waterway.

This happened maybe a half dozen times. Finally we could hear the roar of its approach, but it was coming with astonishing slowness, considering the huge roostertail. It was close enough now we really had better pull as far off as we could get, and yet wanted to be sure it saw us before it zoomed past. From the bow of the canoe I held my paddle out into the canal at arms-length as a signal there were life-forms ahead, and moved it up and down from the vegetation that would have to do as our temporary harbor til the speeding machine had passed.

It slowed to a crawl as it came along side us. The sign on the side of the craft said something like "Aquatics Management". Two enormous thick multibladed wheels churned in the front of the thing, and at full throttle, threw up a heavy spray of fishy-smelling red-brown swamp water. Its purpose: keep the water weeds from closing up the canoe trails. We dubbed it "the Swamp Vegomatic from Hell". Of such stuff are nightmares made, and I won't soon forget it. How 'bout you boys...Darrel? Mark?

By five o'clock that afternoon, after 11 long slack-water miles fighting the wind, we reached the elevated wooded platform that would be our home for the first night. (I've already talked a bit about that, and put up a picture of the place.) About that first night: I was going to put in a few lines here about Darrel's snoring, how I laid there in the wee hours listening to the alligators growl and Sand Hill Cranes whoop, but mostly spent the time trying to create similies to describe those ungodly oro-nasal sounds... like a percolator full of thick soup; as if an aquarium pump had pulled up a guppy; the sound of a shop-vac sucking up wet gravel... but I decided not to say anything about Darrel's snoring.

The second day began with a cacophony of bird calls from the floating islands and the quiet drip of dew drops falling from the tin roof of the platform. It was chilly as the sun came up and we ate a quick breakfast. Thankfully, it was not windy. We would head north through Chesser Prairie, following the canoe trail-- the opening between lily pads you can see disappearing toward the top of the picture. With only about five miles to paddle on the second day, it would be an easy one. We would make our way to Floyds Island, where there would be dry land, a chance to walk around and a different face of the swamp to explore.

Posted by fred1st at April 7, 2003 06:31 AM | TrackBack

Amazing. Both the pictures and, your journey. Tough, demanding, both physically and mentally, but yes, to pass this way only once means the suffering is worth it. Not that I know if I could have done what you did. Still, reading about it made me feel as though I was there... the sights, the sounds, the smells... the pain!

Memories to last a long time, one hopes.

Posted by: Alexandra at April 7, 2003 01:45 PM

Hey Floyd are you sure what you heard? I hope someday that someone will record those sounds. Not using just any kind of recording device but a real digital recorder!
RolL that tape!
Take Care

Posted by: Darrel at April 9, 2003 12:42 PM

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