THE LEWIS ISLAND EXPEDITION (L.I.E.)
Miles of tree-filled swamp pass by as our little motorboat putt-putts its way down the brown muddy waters of the mighty Altamaha River. We pass by The Pocket, a water-filled, swamp-encircled bay along the north side of the river. We then come upon the mysteriously named Alligator Congress, another shallow expanse that backs away from the river into the dark infinity of swamp forest. We search the north bank now, looking for the mouth of Studhorse Creek, the waterway that we hope will take us to where we think we are going, into the densely forested swamp of Lewis Island.
My map says we are close; it should appear any moment now. There! An opening in the forest appears, a flow of water going away from the river. This looks right, I tell myself. I point toward the opening and Jody steers the boat in the proper direction. David is poring over his map, with many a glance at his GPS unit. An osprey watches from a limb above, a fish clutched in one tenacious claw.
A few minutes pass and then I ask David about our direction of travel. Things dont look right. I had been here several years before and my brain is telling me that maybe we arent where we were supposed to be. We are heading slightly northwest when we should be heading northeast. I admit that I dont think we are on the right creek. We return to the river, passing once again beneath the osprey, still dining on his capture, and head downstream, having convinced ourselves that what we are looking for must be a little way farther along.
No other creek appears and finally I tell myself that we must have been on the right creek all along. We do a U-turn in the river and return to the creek, the osprey beginning to look at us with suspicion. The creek is still going in the wrong direction, but What the hell! I say to myself. This has to be it!
Half an hour later, after having seen some awesomely beautiful swamp with a whole lot of big trees, we reach a dead end and all I can do is scratch my head and plead guilty of not having a clue where Lewis Island has gotten to. David, studying the maps and his GPS unit again, finally announces that he thinks that I am missing a whole section of map and that the creek we are searching for is still a couple of miles farther down the river. To support his theory he points to some numbers along the edge of the map and shows that there are some missing latitudinal numbers. I give in. I agree.
Once again we return to main river channel, and sure enough, a couple of miles farther along, there is the mouth of Studhorse Creek, looking exactly as I remembered it, and flowing to the northeast. We float into the creek and I am relieved to know that the monster trees that I had promised these people are getting closer. A mile or so along Studhorse Creek, we reach the turn into Big Buzzard Creek and begin the hunt for the trail that leads from the creekbank into the interior of the island where the big trees grow.
This trail is quite elusive and the first time I came here I couldnt find it. Nor did I find it on my second trip. It was my third attempt to find the place that was successful. Now, four years later, here I was looking for it again. We putter along, looking for any telltale sign. Before, the trail had been marked with a piece of flagging. I wasnt sure the flagging would still be there. Would there be any marking at all? We slowly float along, searching the bank for any sign of anything. It must be understood that this is very serious swamp, very densely forested, and there are very few signs of anything. This is a long way from anywhere else, and not many people come here. A patch of yellow on a tree trunk beckons, but we pass it by; I am looking for flagging. Another half mile along and I decide that maybe the patch of yellow on the tree trunk was the mark we were looking for. We turn around and head back; minutes later we nose into the bank and, sure enough, a lightly used trail wanders off into the gloom. It doesnt quite fit with my memory, but we take off hiking anyway. Ten minutes later we are standing at the base of a huge old-growth bald cypress and we can see other massive trunks in the dimly lit surrounding swamp. I am elated; I have returned. David and Jody are just as excited as I am and we are full of ourselves for having found something we werent sure we could find. Its time now to hurry back to Altamaha Park and await the arrival of Jeff and Bill. We will all have a good dinner, camp at the park, and return here tomorrow for the climbing.
Now it must be understood that although we were successful in having reached our goal, this adventure was in no way exemplary of superior wilderness exploratory competence. The boat was barely big enough for both us and our gear. The little motor was barely powerful enough to get us back upstream to the campground. My map had proved to be less than sufficient for the occasion and my memory was definitely shown to be suffering from an age-enhanced deficit. And I wont even address the competence of our boat driver, that individual who cut the motor every time a snag appeared or whenever he couldnt think of anything else to do; the same driver who would always turn the boat in any direction to which anyone pointed, regardless of whether it was merely to direct attention toward a roosting osprey or to actually indicate that we should go Thataway! It was long after dark before we finally crashed into the bank next to our campsite. The terms Good Ship Lollipop and Ship Of Fools could have been appropriately applied. But this trip wasnt about seamanship, it was about tree climbing; right? An excellent dinner followed by retirement into a cozy sleeping bag made everything right, and we were ready to do it again in the morning with our full crew on board.
Lewis Island had first come to my attention a number of years before when, while poring over a map, I noticed the words Lewis Island Natural Area. The words sat in the middle of a big splotch of green that looked like swamp. There were no roads leading to the area and the only access appeared to be the river that created the island. I was excited right off, because I love remote and seldom-visited areas; particularly those areas defined as natural. A bit of research revealed that Lewis Island was supposed to have a grove of large old-growth bald cypress trees. Then I saw a magazine article that talked about trees that could be as old as thirteen hundred years. I located the gentleman who had written the magazine article and inquired as to the location of the trees. His directions were questionable as he said he had been taken there by someone else and had not paid a lot of attention to exactly where they had gone. With a canoe on top my vehicle and no clear idea of where I was going I took off in search of Lewis Island and the big trees. To no avail. I never found them. But that was only the first try!
Several weeks later I was back again with a few more directions that might or might not be helpful. This time I knew I was looking for Big Buzzard creek and a trail that led away from it, but I didnt really know exactly where to look for the trail. Once again, the trees evaded my attempt to find them. No one had bothered to tell me that all I had to do was look for the yellow flagging.
The third trip was the charm. This time I knew where to go and I knew what to look for. The trees were right where they were supposed to be and they were even bigger and better than I had imagined. I climbed two of them, spending the night in the second one, and knew that this was a very special place.
My next trip to Lewis Island was with several tree-climbing friends. I wanted to show the place off and these people wanted to see what I was talking about. Abe Winters, Genevieve Summers, Peter Jenkins, Merv Allman, and myself made up the expedition. These people were quite impressed although several of them showed no interest in going again. After a day of walking through mush, mud, muck, and swatting insects, they were ready to say Enough! Abe referred to the adventure as a Full-bodied workout.
Now, here I was, back again, this time with Jody Wildrice Rice, David Hunabku Obi, Jeff Jeff Newman, Bill Wild Bill Maher and myself. They wanted to go swamp climbing and I was ready to show them what it was all about.
Saturday morning dawned with a few clouds and a cold temperature. A hot breakfast at the campground store got us into better spirits and by eight in the morning we were loading the little boat and trying to figure out how to get five people and five backpacks into a boat that had hardly been sufficient for three of us the day before. A quick group photo and we were on the way, the boat low in the water and the little motor chugging for all it was worth. It was good that we were going with the current. I was seriously worrying about the return trip when we would be moving against that same current. We were like sardines in a tin with no room to even move our feet about, but there were trees out there and no one was questioning anything.
No problem. We went straight to Studhorse Creek, on to Big Buzzard Creek, and from there to the tree with the yellow blaze. The tide was in, the water high, and we nosed right on up and onto the bank. Another group photo at the trailhead and we were off and walking to the interior of the island. One quarter of a mile later we were at the base of a huge giant and looking into the forest at other giants whose trunks were barely visible in the gloom. The day was warming up, the heavy clothes had been discarded, and we were ready to select our trees. Bill shuffled his feet, looked about and declared his satisfaction with the tree immediately in front of us. David and I started sloshing toward some big tree trunks a hundred or so yards away and Jeff was walking a path parallel to ours.
Two really huge old-growth bald cypress trees towered over our heads with only a few yards separating themselves. I suggested that we climb these two so that we could take photos of each other from tree to tree. David and Jeff agreed and we started laying out the gear. Everything under our feet was sloshing wet and there were few places where we could set down the gear. A small groundcloth was spread and I began flaking out my Zingit. One shot with the bigshot and we had a setting in the first tree. I moved the gear over to the second tree, where Jody had already laid out his gear, and after two more shots we had a setting in the second tree. We didnt hear a word from Bill and could only assume that he was doing OK with his tree.
I started the lead climb into the first tree just as Jody started the lead into the second tree. As usual with a wild tree, I was moving up slowly and cautiously. Trees of this sort can have all sorts of things living in them and a wild tree is not the best place to be doing a speed climb, particularly when help is quite a few miles away.
Halfway up my entry pitch I come to a quick stop. I now have a very clear view of my setting and I am appalled to see that my rope is over a limb no bigger than a pencil that sits about four feet above the bigger limb below it. Not funny! If the little limb should break, Im going to take a four-foot drop. I have been climbing on the DaRoy system and I continue to ease my way upwards, climbing as gently as I know how. With relief I finally reach the big limb and settle onto it. I take a moment to breathe the cool fresh air, look around at the huge expanse of forest canopy surrounding us, then begin to re-set on a much better and more secure limb. Ten minutes later and I have secured myself, set a rope for Jeff and I am throwing to a bigger and higher limb way over my head. Jody, in his tree, is telling everyone about the big widowmaker hanging above him and has moved around the tree out of my sight to avoid the thing. A few minutes later and Jody has set a rope for David and both David and Jeff are on the way up.
After finishing my second pitch, I take a break and wait on Jeff. Hes coming up quickly and I make him stop for a moment as I take a photo. He takes a couple of photos of me then we both look across and take photos of Jody, whom we can now clearly see through the foliage. David is still out of sight beneath Jody and Jody is warning him about the widowmaker. Jeff and I continue upwards.
The tree we are in has a lot of character. Bald cypress are like that. Their limbs twist and turn in all directions and the texture of the wood shows patterns that echo the character of the limbs. There is lots of dead wood, but even the deadest-looking limbs will have green sprouting from them. I always stay close to the trunk in these trees even though I have never had a problem while climbing in them. Some of the ones that I have climbed have had completely hollow trunks, all the way to ground level, but with a very green and very much alive crown.
I finally reach the main limb divergence and settle myself for a break. Jody and David are now both clearly visible and both Jeff and I pause for the photo op. David is taking photos of us from across the canopy. The tree is an emergent and Jeff and I have a three hundred and sixty degree view over the swamp. There is no sign of civilization anywhere, save for a water tower on the horizon to our east and many miles away. Other trees are now visible, poking above the canopy and we realize that there are quite a few trees yet to be climbed in this forest. Jeff is excited and ready to descend and go find one of the other trees we see poking up around us. He starts down.
I am slower. I decide to take my time and go visit Jody in his tree after David comes down. David is now talking back and forth with Jeff and the two of them are ready for more trees and more climbs.
Jeff, once on the ground, gathers his gear and heads off through the water and mud toward another nice cypress slightly south of the one just climbed. David, now on the ground, joins my brother, who has finished his climb and gone exploring to the north of our position. Me? Im happy to descend slowly, studying the tree and the forest. Jody is hanging out in his tree, stretched out on a limb, apparently taking a nap.
My climb into the tree with Jody is done slowly. I take almost forty-five minutes to climb the ninety feet to my setting. This tree also has a lot of character and I spend a lot of time peering into knotholes and following the lines of wooden texture with my eyes. Once up, I can see Jeff over in his tree and hear David below as he rigs up to join Jeff. Jody and I both take a few photos, passing my camera back and forth, then I toss a new setting and head farther up, finally coming to a rest over a hundred feet above the ground and with a fantastic view of the forest. I can no longer see the water tower. Over my head, the very topmost branches are within reach.
Below, Wild Bill has wandered off once again, in search of the Tree Of Trees. It is going on three in the afternoon as we all start for the ground. The trees and the climbs have been great and we are already talking about next time. The gear packed, we start the slosh back to the trail. Thats when Wild Bill announces that he has found something we need to look at. We take off the packs and follow him along the forest path he has explored. Another hundred yards and there is a really huge cypress trunk, bigger than anything weve already climbed, standing alongside a low water-filled spot. A few yards farther on, we find the remains of a primitive logging operation with rusted cables on the ground and hanging from pulleys in the top of a tree. A large piece of rusting machinery, some kind of a winch, is bogged into the mud. We all agree that we are glad the loggers never got farther along or the big trees that we had just climbed would have been cut and carried away.
Back to the boat. Once again we pack ourselves into the little available space, jammed between our packs. The motor finally fires up and we are on our way. The boat, the motor, and the river current combine to make for a very slow return trip. Jeffs GPS unit indicates that our speed is slightly less than five miles per hour. Halfway along the engine sputters and dies. The gas tank is empty and the current is sweeping us back downstream. We pour gas from the reserve tank, then spend agonizing minutes wondering if the little engine will ever crank again. The thing finally comes to life and we are on the way again. Today we will at least be back before dark.
That night we have a fine seafood dinner at Captain Joes, down the highway toward Brunswick. All we can talk about is the island, the climbing, and when are we coming back again, and how can we make it better. Somehow, I think that this group has come to like the idea of swamp climbing. We will be back!