If you have been following the message board lately, you will be familiar with my recent search efforts to find stands of old-growth cypress trees around the Jacksonville, Florida area. I got two tips around the same time. One from a fellow at my local outdoor store led me into the swamp neighboring Durbin creek. It was there that I found several ancient trees, the Cookie Monster among them, and my reports of this finding stirred interest from some of the nations finest wilderness climbers. An attempt to return to those trees was aborted upon reaching the creek yesterday. After weeks of constant rain the Durbin Creek Swamp is at flood stage. I arrived to find the creek six to eight feet above what I had seen before. The water was flowing through the forest with quite a bit of force. Reluctantly, I decided to wait. I had come prepared to paddle to the trees, but I could tell that the current would make the return paddle one heck of a struggle.
The watery roadblock standing in the way of my return to the Cookie Monster inspired me to use Sunday to follow the other tip I had received. A few months ago a guy that I refer to as Quick Rick, (because of his speediness on a bicycle) told me about a single old tree. While telling him about the climbing and my recent forays, he said that a friend had taken him to see this tree in the Osceola National Forest. He said it was behind a rest area on I-10 as you traveled west through the national forest. So, last night I dug out my map of the Osceola and saw that a forest road led to an area right behind the rest stop.
Today, although scattered showers still swept across the area, I loaded my gear into the Jeep and headed west on I-10. Before long I was exiting on Highway 90 and shortly thereafter I turned north into the forest. I followed the forest roads though a seemingly endless expanse of pine plantation. Quick Rick had said that the tree looked like something you would expect to see in California. He had also explained that it was the only tree left standing by the loggers who had clear-cut much of these forests many years ago. As I turned onto another forest service road that appeared to stop behind the I-10 rest stop, I saw a sign that read Fanny Bay. The road ended at a small parking area. It was a traihead. Fanny Bay Trail, foot traffic only, was painted on a sign along with a dragonfly and a nice rendition of hooded pitcher plants. This had to be it. I put on my pack.
A double-track trail led directly from behind the rest area and after a quarter-mile walk through dripping wet, blooming golden rod I saw that a footpath came from an open gate at the rest area. More signs were here and they indicated that Fanny Bay lay just half a mile ahead. I walked on. The pole of my Rogue Sidewinder came in handy, as always. I used it to ply the wet overgrowth as I walked down the trail. Ahead I could see a boardwalk. As I stepped onto the well-constructed wooden footpath, I passed through an ecotone, from one world to another. The forest suddenly changed from pines to sweet bays, black gums and cypress. Nearing the end of the boardwalk I saw a huge tree. This must be the one Quick Rick spoke of. I approached its base. A beautiful old cypress stood before me, its trunk about four feet thick above the buttress. There was only one problem; the tree was as dead as a doornail. I hopped off of the boardwalk and started to bushwhack my way deeper into the woods.
I could see another large tree ahead so I continued onward. The ground was covered with a spongy matt of peat and leaf litter. Sometimes my foot would just go right through the surface and sink with a crunch into the hollow depths below. I made my way to the base of a tree that I decided was quite nice. I was looking at a tall emergent cypress with a three-foot DBH (diameter at breast height) and a completely healthy top.
The woods grew darker. I bushwhacked around the tree looking for a window that would allow a shot for a setting. There was only one small one and it was less than ideal. I set up my Rogue SideWinder, flaked out my ZingIt, and tied on an eight-ounce bullet weight. I thought to myself how important it would be to land a good setting on the first shot. I didnt. The woods got even darker. It took four shots to get a satisfactory setting. It started to rain, but I hoisted my rope anyway. I needed to know something. I needed to know what kind of forest I was in. I needed a view.
I climbed using the yo-yo method. It was important for me to be able to back out easily. After all I was off trail in a swamp and I was alone. I double checked everything and started my ascent in the rain. A black gum tree that grew along side the cypress I was climbing would occasionally sway in the breeze giving me the illusion that the stout trunk I was climbing was in fact swaying. I had to convince myself that the tree I was climbing wasnt falling down. Once above the sweet gum there was nothing left to play tricks on my equilibrium and, now relaxed, I took my eyes off of the trunk that supported my life and looked upon the landscape that was beginning to unfold before me.
The tree I was in was not alone. I climbed higher. My view expanded. There were dozens of emergent tops before me. Many of them belonged to trees taller and larger than my own. I found myself exhilarated. Quick Ricks tip had led me to a whole forest of old- growth cypress. I tried for a higher setting and found myself stumped. Just then a wind came howling across the forest and this time it did sway my tree. It grew darker still and the rain picked up.
The scene before me was timeless. I was experiencing a forest, as it must have been before the coming of man. The wind, the rain, the smell of the swamp gave the entire scene an atmosphere of primeval wildness. I bet that even in prehistoric Florida, if you could get yourself a view above the canopy, you would see what I was looking at. As far as I could see the tops of bald cypress were poking out of the dense understory and claiming their place as the royalty of the forest.
These trees are ancient, even if they arent that old as individuals. The trees that I found on this adventure are in the 100 to 300 year old range, I would guess. Cypress trees, as a genus, are amongst the oldest trees on earth. Before me was an expanse of ancient Florida.
If you havent understood yet, this means I will have some good stuff in store for those lucky enough to find themselves in Jacksonville on the last weekend of October.