I hit the road for south Georgia with little more than a couple of light changes of clothes, my climbing gear, and my camping gear. The weather had been warm and rainy up until that morning and I knew that down in the Florida panhandle, our ultimate destination, the weather would be warmer still with much higher humidity. Boy was that a mistake!
This past week turned out to be one of the coolest spells of May weather experienced there in several years. I got downright cool and almost uncomfortable once the sun went down and was glad that I had at least brought a warm sleeping bag.
The plan was that I was supposed to drive down to Ft. Gaines, Georgia where I would meet with fellow climber Mitch Driebe, and Birmingham videographer Randy Crow. From there we would together proceed southward and into the nether regions of the swamps and bogs along the Apalachicola River to scout out some good climbing along the western side of the Apalachicola National Forest.
Randy, along with his partner, Alisa Blackwood, has been working on a tree climbing documentary and I had sent out an invite for them to come along and find out what swamp climbing was all about. Alisa had been unable to come, but Randy was with us as we pulled away from Ft. Gaines headed south for the two and a half hour drive to Wright's Lake, just south of the Florida town of Sumatra.
There were still several hours of daylight left when we arrived at the Wright's Lake campground, so as soon as we had our camp set up we headed into the nearby woodline to find a tree to climb. There were several medium sized cypress trees along the edge of the lake, all of which would give us a good view of the setting sun, and they all had good "character" and would make for interesting climbs. We finally settled on the one that was nearest to the edge of the water, then spent the next half hour or so thrashing our way through the underbrush in an attempt to simply get to the base of the tree. The vegetation was so dense that the bigshot was needed to set a line because there is no way that any one could have made a throw into this tree. Even with the bigshot it took five shots to set the first line and that setting was only about forty feet up. This was seriously dense forest!
The climb was not really high, but from the topmost branches we were above all of the understory and had a great view out across Wright lake and the sun cooperated by setting right on schedule, bathing us in golden light as it did so. Then the cool air hit us and we knew it was time to head down, make the short walk back to our campsite, and gather around a warm campfire for dinner.
The following morning was very chilly, the temperature probably right around fifty. I know that's not very cold compared to what you folks up north experience on a regular basis, but this was Florida, it was May, and it wasn't supposed to be like this. At least I had my rain jacket. I was more than pleased when the sun finally got high enough to bathe us in its warm morning rays.
The day was spent exploring along the Larkin Slough and the Florida River, both of them small blackwater streams whose waters meandered through contortionate twists and turns before emptying into the Apalachicola only a mile or so away in a straight line, but many miles away along these small intimate waterways. The water level was down and the going was slow. Mitch was set on exploring some small islands designated on our maps as Coon Island and Pig Island. The water was so low that we never really were able to get to the interior of these islands and we ended up climbing a very nice tree that we found just off the Florida River in a low area covered in cypress knees and looking very other-worldly. Randy, with his video camera, was quickly positioned in a nearby water oak as Mitch and I made our way upward into a big cypress. As we climbed we heard the nearby screech of a pair of hawks and it was only a few minutes before the birds were wheeling above our tree. I suspect that they had a nearby nest and were a mating pair. They checked us out and then disappeared out of sight to the east. We continued our climb. The tree was not an emergent and our view from its top was of nothing more than the rest of the canopy surrounding us, but that was enough. These swamps are quite wild and it was quite easy to realize that we were in different world than experienced by most. It was with reluctance that I finally headed to the ground. This had been a very nice climb.
More waterway, more exploring, and another climb right from the boat into a smaller cypress that adorned the river bank, as Randy continued to video our adventure. We finally decided that it was time to end the day and we headed back upstream into Larkin Slough and our take-out. Two hours later we were sitting at a fine restaurant in Apalachicola, stuffing ourselves on oysters and other seafood, and sipping our beers. A fine way to end a day of climbing and exploring.
The following day we were back on the water, into the swamps, and exploring along Kennedy Creek. This was much nicer, and I was feeling good about the day before we even got the boat in the water. This waterway was deeper than either Larkin Slough or the Florida River. We would be able to go farther and explore deeper into the swamps. We headed upstream and were quickly enveloped by dense forest. Huge inviting tree trunks could be seen through the gloom but I was hoping to find one of those really big old- growth bald cypresses that sometime can be found in a place like this. We had gone upstream as far as we could go and were about to turn back when the tree presented itself to us. There it stood, no more than fifty feet from the edge of the water, a five foot diameter trunk rising from the mud to a height of forty feet, then dividing, in a U-turn, into two giant leaders that continued upward to more than ninety feet. In the base of the U-turn was a small colony of epiphytic growth, mostly resurrection fern, but some other stuff along with it. A tree with character, much better than anything we had seen the day before. No question, this would be our climb for this day.
The tree was surrounded by mushy ground. Growing up out of the mush were huge cypress knees, some as tall as six feet or higher. We understood that at normal water levels we would be underwater where we were standing. At normal water levels we would probably have been able to run the boat right up to the base of the tree. The area was quite dark, with very little sunlight penetrating the dense canopy over our heads. Randy described the atmosphere as primordial; Mitch used the term primeval. To me it was a beautiful swamp.
Using the bigshot, I set lines for the three of us. I was able to achieve DRT settings for Mitch and Randy, but mine would have to be an SRT climb. Once up and re-rigged, I would have Mitch untie me from my ground level tie-in point. While the other two messed around with equipment I was on my way, headed for an investigation of the epiphytic community ensconced in the bowl of the "U". Moving upward I was able to experience the feeling of leaving one world for another. As I approached the epiphytic community, at only forty feet above the ground, I had already entered the other world. I now wanted quiet; I found Mitch and Randy's voices irritating and I had to restrain myself from telling them to shut up and let the forest be itself.
I waited for Randy to join me. I wanted him to film the botanical garden resting in the bowl of the "U" because I knew that it would help to convey the atmosphere of a swampy, humid wilderness. He arrived, made his video shoot, and I was continuing upward toward a setting that I suddenly realized was more questionable than I had suspected. I stopped, tossed another setting, tied a DRT safety back-up to the new setting, clipped in, then continued upward on the original setting, advancing the DRT knot as I climbed, along with my ascenders. In minutes I was perched at the top, re-rigged with a mid-line daisy, de-rigged from my original SRT setting, and in the processing of changing over completely to DRT. Mitch had untied me from the ground level tie-in and was now on the way up to joining us, up the big leader on the opposite side of the tree. We were now all three in the other world and I think that for the first time, Randy was able to understand the affection that I have for such places. It was very beautiful and we were at one with the wilderness, a part of it rather apart from it.
The time flew by. I was quite shocked when I looked at my watch and realized we had already been off the ground for more than three hours. Mitch and I decided to trade places by way of a spider traverse, so for awhile we were busy tossing lines back and forth. Soon, I was on my way across to his leader, seventy feet above the forest floor. We traded out the ropes and then he was on the way to where I had been. Randy had the camera rolling for the whole thing. After having been off the ground for more than five hours we started down, back into the shadowy world of massive tree trunks and cypress knees rising from a mushy earth. It had been a wonderful climb in a wonderful tree.
The rest of the day was spent doing a late lunch, followed by a run down Kennedy Creek all the way to its mouth in the Apalachicola River. Along the way we spotted quite a few other potential climbs for future trips and I am convinced that I need to return here in the future to do more swamp climbs. I suspect that if we should return when the water is at normal levels, higher than during this trip, that both the exploring and the climbing will become more interesting.