Officially speaking, it is still wintertime. Spring is not supposed to arrive for almost three more weeks. You wouldn't know that, however, if you were judging things by the number of mosquitoes buzzing around my head and the sweat-dampened shirt that I am wearing. The temperatures are in the mid-seventies and my winter sleeping bag is a classic case of overkill.
My canoe is nosing its way along a blackwater path sprinkled with pollen. I am in the middle of a north Florida bottomland swamp and the only signs of civilization are fighter planes from nearby Eglin Air Force Base cutting doughnuts in the sky far over my head. The planes disappear to the west and the solitude of the moment is restored. I paddle on, searching the watery wilderness for the perfect tree, the tree with the right stuff.
Mitch Driebe, a professor of history, is sharing my canoe with me. Each year, at about this time, we load up the canoe, pack our gear and head out into the swamps along the Apalachicola River in search of solitude, adventure, and trees to climb. This time, we are paddling along Owl Creek and, according to Mitch, we are about to find ourselves in the middle of some serious swamp. This is good. A serious swamp means limited access and limited access means that there is a possibility that old growth forest might exist here. Old growth forest, of course, means big trees, and big trees mean great climbing opportunities. So here we are and the swamp will be closing in around us shortly as we paddle on up the creek.
There is one problem with all of this. Neither of us has been to this particular place before and I have allowed Mitch the privilege of being the trip navigator. On most trips of this sort, I appoint myself to be the navigator, and it is I who usually has to take the blame for all the grief that results from questionable navigational decisions. We have been into these swamps before and I am fully aware of all the bad consequences that can happen as a result of putting too much faith in a map; therefore I have decided that Mitch should be the one to suffer the heat on this particular voyage into the unknown regions of backwoods Florida. That would be OK if it weren't for the fact that Mitch has not yet learned how to relate to wilderness maps. The ability to use a map to its fullest extent requires that the navigator be able to know when to ignore the map as well as know when to believe the map. The navigator must be able to keep in mind that the one who made the map may not have ever been to the area shown on the map, and may be lacking the personal one-on-one experience with that particular environment so necessary if one is to explore that environment. Mitch is a history professor and while a map showing the route of Lewis and Clark might have serious significance for him, a map of the Owl Creek Swamp in the panhandle of Florida will do nothing but get us into trouble. I know this already and I am smiling inwardly as I look forward to Mitch's upcoming dilemma.
We had originally planned to float the waters of the River Styx, north of our present location, and work our way downward to and through the Owl Creek Swamp, finishing at the place from which we had just begun.This plan went awry when the third member of our party dropped out on us and we were left with no second vehicle to accommodate our shuttle. So now we were traveling in the opposite direction, hoping to pass all the way through the swamp, arrive on the River Styx, then return along the same route. We would be camping along the way.
I knew right away that we were biting off a bit more than could be chewed. First off, even though the map was showing a blue ribbon of water leading from us to the River Styx, there were places along that blue line on the map where the line becomes dotted, rather than solid. Anyone familiar with topo maps will immediately understand that when a line becomes dotted, as opposed to being solid, you are dealing with a road, trail, or waterway that may, or may not, actually exist. Routes that can be trusted to exist will appear on a map as a double-wide solid line, whether it be blue as for water, or black, as for paved road. When the lines become double-wide but the area between the lines is not solid you know you have been downgrade one step; the road just became dirt, the river became a creek. When the route becomes a single black or blue line, the route should be considered questionable. When the line becomes dotted, consider yourself in trouble. The road, or waterway, may or may not have been there at one time. It probably won't be there now. Never trust a dotted line or lines on a map! We were on a double-wide solid blue line headed toward a single blue line headed toward a dotted blue line surrounded by an area defined as swamp. I wasn't particularly concerned. The River Styx was quite a few miles away and I didn't really want to paddle that far anyway. If we found ourselves dead-ended in the swamp I would be content to find a campsite and then find a tree to climb.
There was one other problem that needed to be overcome. Mitch is a history professor, therefore he is always looking for things of a historical nature. Our map showed the existence of a cemetery on a dry spot out in the middle of the swamp. As soon as he spotted the cemetery on the map, climbing trees became a secondary objective. He wanted that cemetery and he wasn't going to give up until he had found it. In order to get to the cemetery, however, it would be necessary to take a side journey on a side creek and while this side creek was showing on the map as a solid blue line it was awfully close to becoming a dotted blue line. To make a long story short, we invested several hours of our time fighting our way along a blue line that was full of trees growing out of the water and dead logs lying across the water, to a cemetery that was no longer visible. We never found it. This was Rowlett's creek, and if Mr. Rowlett didn't want his grave to be found that was OK with me. In the meanwhile I had spotted a wonderful looking yellow pine that looked to be the highest tree in the neighborhood. I was ready to climb.
After pointing out that we had already spent a good part of the day searching for a lost cemetery I was able to convince Mitch that we should camp right here on the dry land near the big pine tree. I could tell that he was still wanting both the cemetery and the River Styx, but I was able to prevail, and started unloading my climbing gear from the canoe. Half an hour later I was on the way up, the Owl Creek Swamp spread out before me. The only thing in sight that was higher than my perch was a dead pine several hundred yards away over on the other side of Rowlett's swampy creek.
I spent that night in my treeboat, not in the top of a tree, but rigged just a few feet off the ground between two large pines. The evening had been spent doing dinner, sitting around a campfire, and gazing at a three-quarter moon overhead. The night was strangely quiet for a down-south swamp; even the frogs and the owls were silent. Usually the frogs are singing in chorus, the 'gators are bellowing, and the owls are a'hootin'. Only the sound of an occasional airplane passing overhead broke the silence. Even the fire was crackling less than usual. I was in my hammock by nine-thirty and dead to the world shortly thereafter.
I was awakened in the morning by the rattling of a pot on the stove. This was no accidental rattling, this was Mitch's way of informing me that it was time to be up and about. I struggled out of my sleeping bag, negotiated the labyrinth created by my mosquito net, placed my feet on the cold damp ground, and waited for a cup of hot tea to materialize in my hand. After several minutes I got the hint and went over and made my own cup of tea. Mitch was still upset that we had not found his cemetery. Never deprive a history professor of his cemetery!
For lack of a cemetery we paddled back down through the obstacle course posing as Rowlett's Creek until we were back on the friendlier waters of Little Owl Creek. Mitch suggested that we continue upstream in the direction of the River Styx and since there was still plenty of clear channel I agreed that this would not be too bad an idea. Who knows? Maybe we would actually make it through the swamp, blue dotted lines notwithstanding. I did insist that I did not want to repeat the experience of the previous day and end up having to paddle my way through a maze of wooden obstacles, all bent on retarding my progress in the direction of the fabled river from Greek mythology.
An hour later we had progressed about a mile and a half up the creek and Mitch was beginning to comprehend the meaning of a dotted blue line. The only reason we did not get into as much trouble as we had the day before was because there was no cemetery up ahead of us to be found. That was when I played my trump card.
After suggesting that we should probably turn back and explore some of the swamp that we had passed the day before, I pointed out that Black Creek, another side creek, led toward the nearby town of Sumatra, and right there on the map was a cemetery, the Sumatra Cemetery, and it sat right next to the creek bank. Of course Mitch had already noted the presence of this cemetery on the map, but had kept quiet, not wanting to remind me of the trials of the previous day. A one-hundred-eighty-degree turn of the canoe and we were headed back downstream, enroute to Black Creek, Sumatra, and the Sumatra Cemetery. I was happy, Mitch was happy, and we were moving with the current. What more could I ask for?
Even though we were on the way to the Sumatra Cemetery I was looking hard for some good cypress trees to climb and a good dry place to camp. It isn't that there were no good trees or dry places to camp. These were quite plentiful. What I wanted, though, was to find some good trees that were at a good place that would suffice for camp. I wanted to find both things very close to each other. We passed quite a few large cypress trees, all of them worthy of out attention, but none of them were near dry ground. I was about to concede that we would have to climb without benefit of nearby dry ground when we rounded a bend in Black Creek presided over by a relatively large cypress, and just beyond the cypress I could see a spot of dry land coming down to the water's edge. This was it. This was the best thing I had seen so far and I was ready to climb.
Because of the remoteness and solitude to be found within places of this sort I have always liked swamps. Cypress trees grow in our southern swamps so it is no small coincidence that I happen to like climbing cypress trees. Most cypress trees will grow straight up, right out of the water, and this tree was no exception. In order to climb it would be necessary to either climb straight from the canoe or to wade out in chest-deep water to begin the climb. We elected for the canoe. An attack of common sense interrupted our preparations and we decided that it would be best to work our way over to the dry land, unload our camping gear, set up camp, and have a snack before taking on the tree. If we were going to take a chance on turning over the canoe and falling into the water there was no reason that our camping gear should go in with us.
With camp set for the evening, a lunch in our tummies, we returned to the base of the tree, tied off the canoe and I began preparations for an access via my bigshot. The first limb was only about thirty five feet above our heads, but if you have ever tried to stand in a canoe while looking skyward and tossing a throwbag, you will understand why I was using the bigshot. The bigshot can be fired while sitting down.
One shot and I had my throwline over a lower limb in the tree. A bit of careful hauling and I had a rope up and had even managed to keep it out of the water and dry. I elected to ascend via double rope technique, thinking it would be easier and safer to exit the canoe in this manner. As Mitch held on to two other tree trunks, keeping the canoe steady, I stood up, advanced my Blakes hitch, settled my weight on the harness, and swung away from the canoe, my bottom only inches above the water. Three cycles later and I was high enough to concentrate on the climbing rather than staying dry. This was indeed a nice tree and as I climbed the swamp around me took on a new look. Looking beneath me I could see the top of a dead snag and was surprised to see that the snag had a small miniature pond within the stub of trunk at its top. "What lives in there?" I wondered.
I reached the top of my entry pitch, re-rigged over the next higher limb, set a rope for Mitch, then continued up, enjoying the view of the swamp from on high. Two pitches later and I was at the top, the spreading limbs providing a very comfy place to sit and relax. The sun was warm on my face, a soft breeze ruffled my hair, and I felt a little drowsy. "I could almost take a nap up here", I thought to myself.
Minutes later I was awakened from my dozing by Mitch's arrival in the treetop. I broke out my camera, snapped the obligatory photos, passed the camera to Mitch, posed myself, packed the camera away, and returned to my enjoyment of the day and the swamp. I could do this forever.
The sun eventually passed behind clouds, the breeze grew cooler, and I figured it was time to descend. We still had the Sumatra Cemetery to find and explore and the map was showing it to be at least another couple of miles upstream from where we were.
Climbing into a tree from a canoe is not a big deal. Descending from a tree into a canoe is another matter entirely. Especially if the canoe happens to be tied in a spot that requires a bit of a pendulum swing to be reached. I let Mitch go first, so that I could study his strategy and see if it would actually work and if he would be able to get back to the canoe in a state of dryness. He did and I was shortly into the boat with him and we were on our way upstream in search of yet another cemetery.
As is usually the case, the trees appeared to get bigger as we proceeded up the creek. It's always that way. Once you have made a climb, you always find something better. As much as I wanted to stop and climb every tree along the way, I had to back off. We were now on a quest for a cemetery and tree climbing was merely secondary to locating the whereabouts of the deceased former residents of Sumatra, Florida.
Two miles up the creek and still no sign had been found indicating the presence of a cemetery. At least once every two minutes I was ordered to consult my GPS unit and report the coordinates of our current location. Mitch's head stayed buried within the folds of his national forest map. In addition to monitoring the GPS unit I was also doing most of the paddling. It was with relief that I finally spotted a picket fence on the right bank overlooking Black Creek, right where a cemetery needed to be. There was only one problem; there was no cemetery behind the picket fence. There was only a porcelain pelican and a deck with some lawn chairs. This was no cemetery, this was a private residence.
The sun was low on the horizon by now, my tummy was growling, and even Mitch was looking a bit discouraged. We pointed the canoe back downstream and headed back toward our campsite. I was just as disappointed as Mitch, because I knew he was feeling slightly frustrated. I wanted trees and had found my trees; he wanted cemeteries and had bombed out.
By the time night had fallen over the swamp we had dined on our beef stew, sipped our hot tea, and were enjoying another campfire. This time we could hear a few frogs out in the direction of the water and the sound of an owl carried across the swamp. I almost fell asleep just sitting there, watching the dancing flames. Bedtime.
The following morning we were on our way out only a short while after the appearance of the sun. It took us only a little over an hour to get ourselves back to Hickory Landing and thirty minutes after that we were loaded and on the way back up the road. As we approached the outskirts of Sumatra, I spotted a sign on our left directing us to the Sumatra Cemetery. I turned in and, lo and behold, there was the cemetery! A good look around and we realized that we had only been a few yards away when we had been searching for the place the day before. I was quite happy, however, because Mitch finally had himself a cemetery and I wasn't paddling to get there!