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Adventure In The Swamp---The CSAC Trip

Author: Rob (RobS) Setili
Date: November 12, 2007
A Trip to The Florida Cypresses with David Obi

“Cookie Monster was more amazing than any tree I have ever imagined. It has six healthy mini-trunks growing out of the rim of its 100’ hollow top.”

One of my favorite things about Tree Climbing is the highly adventurous group of tree climbing friends I have made. They are always gearing up for the next adventure. I had built up a strong need for a nature adventure, so signing up for the swamp trip required no thinking on my part. And I could tell from listening to various conversations, there is typically just as much adventure on the ground and on the way, as there is up in the Tree. So, put Ol’ Joe, Bill, Jeff, and Florida Expert David together and stir them up, and they will cook up adventure no matter where they go. Whatever it is, I’m in. If I let my normally analytical mind think about it, WHY would I want to travel so far to sludge around in some goop with wet feet all day and probably get all my gear muddy? Plus the possibility of Crocs & Mosquitoes? Doesn’t matter, I knew I wanted to go and I do love lakes. Maybe swamps are sort of like lakes?

Jim, Joe & Jeff arrived at my house to beat the traffic out of Atlanta, and the trip South was fast and easy. As we arrive at the Obi’s house, and I meet David & Susie for the first time, everything seems to be going “just right”. Their hospitality and their home felt incredibly warm, and friendly.. I sat on the couch and felt like I was definitely in the right place. As I relaxed, there was an energetic spirit and sense of adventure all around. There were bins, maps and hints of various adventures. The Obi’s house is itself on a small creek with fascinating swamp-like trees all around, though in an otherwise normal neighborhood. Susie seemed just as excited about the visitors and impending adventure as David or anyone, and I wondered if maybe she shouldn’t join us. I couldn’t have felt more at home. With David’s friend Douglas joining us in the morning, there would be six in two canoes and a kayak.

Before I knew it, there was a loud knock at the door. Seemed like I’d just fallen asleep. Nope- 6:20 am or so and time for adventure. Playful talk and bantering started to heat up between Douglas and David. It reminded me of several pairs of friends I have known over the years that just IGNITE one another, and build on each other, and thrive on each other in a way that seems amazing. They quickly resolved a string of “what –ifs” and were preparing for our departure. Douglas was interested in doing his first climb on one of these massive cypress trees, supposedly over 100’. After knowing him for 30 minutes, I fully expected I would see him at the top of a Cypress before sundown. Oh yeah, should we take flashlights?

After a filling breakfast, we were off. I was looking forward to having my feet wet in 30 minutes, which turned out about right. No one seemed to have packed any lunch or have any concern about food or water for the next twelve hours. My tiny cooler was the only cooler- a few beers left in the truck in case we survived. I stuffed a couple of old-looking trail mix bars of questionable history in my backpack. A quick check of weather indicated a yellow to red band of thunderstorms a few miles to the Southeast, just over the coast. It was just barely inching toward us- slow enough to be tough to predict. It was sprinkling where we were, adding to the mystique.

As we launched the boats into the stream next to a bridge, Douglas performed a brief ritual that was meant to ensure our good luck. Within two minutes of leaving the launching area, we were truly in a different world. We could have been in South America, or anywhere. It was amazing to think we were near a city. The water was the highest David had seen, and we had to dodge numerous logs, branches, and snags. Fortunately, the current was still very manageable, so the snags presented no safety issues. Each straight stretch and curve we navigated took us deeper into our fantastic adventure. I had lots of thoughts, like why do people spend $5000 on an adventure to somewhere remote when you can truly have a fantastic adventure in so many places close by? (But you have to know some great folks like David to get there).

David thought we might be close to the trees a time or two, but a quick check on the GPS said it should be a bit further. Then, David said, “This is it. I’m sure” and he was right. I scanned all around for possible landmarks, and it all looked like pretty much the same swamp in all directions to me.

We pulled the boats off into the swamp, and waded less than 200’ to an amazing Cypress, The Cookie Monster, which David had climbed previously. And then, maybe another 150’, but hard to see as there are smaller Cypress trees everywhere, was our first target, dubbed “Smokestack”. At this point, I was experiencing some odd mixed feelings about the swamp. While canoeing down the narrow creek surrounded by swamp had been delightful and magical, this was something else. It was an odd sensation of Black Still Water everywhere, while at the same time some of the bright white light from above came through and caused constantly dancing very bright shimmers of light in my eyes. I guess I’m a little sensitive to lighting, and this was a bit disorienting and disconcerting. There was no land to walk on, just wading through 1-3’ deep black water, with Cypress knees everywhere. It was a very quiet and secluded feeling. The six of us started tying our packs to trees and it was like a serious crew of gold miners planning how to get started. I realized it might be a while before we’d all get a chance to climb, so I wondered if I should dash up the creek one-half mile to the Northwest with a canoe and GPS, to scout a tree that looked like a true Giant on Google Earth. But in the end I stayed with the group.

As I adjusted to the odd lighting of the swamp, I found it completely magical, calming and interesting. I didn’t mind wet boots and pants, although the swamp was persistently working on pulling the soles off my aging REI boots. The bugs were minimal, and no crocs were to be found on this day. I pondered the ever-present Cypress knees, apparently under some muddy muck the entire swamp floor must be interwoven with Cypress roots and knees, providing perfect stability for tall trees, even in this mooshy environment.

By the way, more pictures can be seen at: http://picasaweb.google.com/setilibell/Cypress02?authkey=diHyOxAU7sQ

Smokestack is a giant tree, with her giant trunk extending about 110’ upward with minimal loss in diameter. But then her smokestack top is broken off, and she has a few large branches growing out from the top with nice green leaves. As we walked round and around the amazing smokestack, I realize that there are clear sawmarks in the giant hole that goes right through her. It seems that some loggers, maybe 50 to 100 years ago(?) were working on cutting her down, but possibly were interrupted, or abandoned her because she was too hollow, so possibly there was not enough valuable wood in her to bother. The cut was all the way through, and affected maybe 20% of her total circumference, but she lived on. Her thick layer of outer bark has grown over a significant part of the old cut.

In the next hour, the Rogue Sidewinder had done it’s work (with skillful aim by Jeff), the branch was isolated as best we could from everything we could see, and the setting admirably held a big bounce test of three heavy climbers. Soon, Joe was up in the tree and gave the green light for two more climbers, David and I. All our first ascents this day were SRT, and both required that two 150’ ropes be attached to one another to get the SRT ground tie-off set up. I was amazed at how totally different the swamp looked from 15’ up, and then 25’, but then you are in the “leaf zone” and don’t see much until you emerge at about 90’ up. David and I ascended adjacent ropes together, and got up into the small canopy of this amazing tree. It was very exciting to be in the top, and with her large tubular design, she was stiff as can be in the 10-15 mph breeze we enjoyed. Smokestack’s top didn’t really have any higher settings to aspire to, or maybe only another ten feet up; but above the treetops, Cookie Monster stood elegant and complex. Her top is much more complex, allowing maybe 35’ or more and lots of transfers once a climber gets above her 100’ tube shaped bottom. Cookie Monster was about the only tree I could see that was as high and noticeably higher than Smokestack. The Google Earth tree to the Northwest was nowhere to be seen. I guess a top view of what looks like one canopy might be a large canopy near the ground, or several trees the same age, or maybe even it was taken down by a storm in the past couple years. I enjoyed Smokestack, and headed down fairly soon with Cookie Monster in mind.

After I descended and moved 200’ or so to Cookie Monster, David, Jeff, and then Bill all descended Smokestack from 110’ all the way down THROUGH the hollow center all the way to the swamp floor, and exited there. Joe descended last and like a true gentleman brought all the ropes neatly down with him already coiled and trying to keep them relatively clean & dry.

One picture above is Cookie's upper canopy (above 110’ or so) as seen from Smokestack. Cookie Monster is the most amazing tree I have seen. It has six healthy mini-trunks growing out of the rim of its 100’ hollow top. So these trunks start at 100’ or so, and emerge from the living, healthy, massively hollow “tube” and extend upward and outward beautifully another 30-40’ or so. In these pictures, the camera is10-15’ above the top of the 100’ Cookie Tube, and looking down at the base of these trunks, and into the hollow center of Cookie Monster. Cookie’s hollow trunk is plenty big enough for any of these large climbers to descend into, but unlike Smokestack, the hollow center doesn’t go to the ground.

Unfortunately, the day flew by so fast not all the climbers were able to ascend into Cookie. It is certainly a fascinating and complex tree to climb and enjoy. I stayed until I was told we were risking getting caught in the dark on the way home.

We reluctantly packed up, and got back in the canoes.

The paddle back was that of pleasant satisfaction, and overall fulfillment. A great day with friends, adventure, fantastic climbing, and exercise, wonderful weather, etc.!

We knew David’s wife Susie was having a Birthday party at their house that night. I felt a bit tired, but was so contented with the day I was sure I would enjoy the party. It turned out to be a wonderful extended family of relatives, friends, kids, grandparents, and tree climbers- some in impressive Halloween costumes. I was surprised that most guests were quite interested in our day of tree climbing. I think David’s enthusiasm had them quite curious. We might have recruited a couple new folks for a future introductory climb. I was really impressed with David and Susie’s ability to have such a fun and lively party seemingly effortlessly. Based on the skillful guitar work and impressive singing by David’s grandfather, I think Hunabku might be holding back from showing us all his musical talent, and might hopefully be enriching some of our after-climbing evenings in the future with his classical guitar.

What a great trip. THANKS!

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