April 10, 2003

Okefenokee Journal IV

image copyright Fred First

The morning of the second day on the water we awoke to the amazingly resonant sounds of Sand Hill Cranes nearby. It made me happy we were meeting them in two and threes... not the thousands upon thousands in which they aggregate in their breeding grounds in Nebraska. The bird stands almost four feet tall and their silhouette in flight is unmistakable. The day was calm and cloudless when we put in the water, and before long, the sun would cease to be a comfort and become an adversary for three very winter-white paddlers.

We set out on the water-trail, north towards Floyds Island... one of the greatest wooded expanses of 'high-dry' land in the swamp. None of us had been there and frankly we did not know what to expect. The trail description said we would be paddling in 'swamp forest' and this became true for maybe the last two miles of the way. We entered a different world from the canal and open expanse of prairie we'd seen for the previous 15 miles.

Utterly still mirrored water threaded along the tunnel-like trail ahead of us, so narrow there was little room to get a paddle in beside the boat. Frequently, we would push off on cypress knees instead of pulling water with the paddle, and there were submerged tree trunks and debris under us, massive vines and Spanish Moss on arching branches overhead. The call of a monkey or tropical bird would not have seemed out of place in that jungle-seeming flooded forest. We noticed that there was a definite current flowing in the direction of our travel, just as we had seen in the Suwanee Canal.

All at once, the watertrail ended in a thirty-foot circle surrounded by sandy beach, with a leaning sign that said FLOYDS ISLAND. We had assumed the narrow canal went all the way through the island, but it suddenly stopped. And we never did discover how there could be current if the canal dead-ended... unless it flowed underground. We forgot to ask the next day when we got back to the park headquarters.

So, this was going to be our home for the afternoon and night. Not what I had expected, it was hot and dry, covered with large loblolly pines and spreading live oaks. There were signs of a winter burn-off to clear out some of the palmetto underbrush... to reduce the habitat that would hide rattlesnakes. The campsite was a couple of hundred yards inland, and we carried in an armload of gear and took a look around the old cabin. (The book cautions against sleeping inside because of cockroaches and mice. We took that advice and pitched tents under the huge live oaks.)

Image copyright Fred FirstAfter stretching our legs for a while, we went back to the canoes to get the rest of the gear. I was out a bit ahead of Darrel and Mark. Bent over our canoe, Mark was approaching his just as I looked up. All I could get out of my mouth in that instant was haba haba haba STOP! Mark stopped less than ten feet from a gator that was about that long. He had moved in to sun himself just beyond the canoe... during the ten minutes we were away (the canoe didn't make the picture here, it is just off-image in the foreground.) Mark had already reminded me that a gator has race-horse speed over short distances on land, so had the drowsy gator been provoked (by Mark's boot in his face, for instance) we could have had a nice little track-meet! We got our stuff and set up camp. Three hours later, Mr. Gator hadn't budged. We were beginning to think he was an island prop, a special effect. Nah. He just knew where he wanted to be and was too comfortable to bother with us.

I was sun-sick (not sunburned, just a little feverish and lethargic) so wasn't up to much hiking around. I stayed back at the camp and swatted mosquitoes, vegged out, and enjoyed not being hunkered over in the canoe. We had steaks, potato salad and green beans for dinner. Although there was not much firewood to be had, we did have a fire in the large stone fire-ring, complete with permanent benches all around. The smoke helped some with the skeeters; and you haven't officially camped out unless you go home smelling of woodsmoke.

Not long before bedtime, the raccoons swarmed the camp... they were up on the cabin porch not twenty feet behind us, into everything. We shooed them off. But they came back during the night many times and I could hear them just outside the tent, curiously handling what little I had left outside. Darrel caught one with my camping spoon in its mouth, about to run off with it. They reminded me of a street gang that would strip your car and leave an empty shell up on blocks in five minutes. That mask they wear... it's no accident of nature.

The second night in the swamp, we voted snoring Darrel off the island... well, at least far enough toward the edge of camp he didn't have any acoustic impact on anybody but the gators. We were up by six, on the water by eight and packed up by four that afternoon to drive 500 miles home. The day was a blur, punctuated by glaring sun, endless miles of swamp, followed by endless miles of interstate heading north. I don't think I've been as happy to sleep in my own bed for at least ten years. But I'll remember the swamp trip much longer than that. Who knows. I may go back someday... take the grand kids out into the great swamp myself. On the tour boats.

Posted by fred1st at April 10, 2003 05:55 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Is that a boot in the alligators mouth?

Posted by: Seth Williams at April 11, 2003 09:39 AM

Simply amazing. I love nature. Glad you do, too!

Posted by: Da Goddess at April 13, 2003 12:37 AM

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