Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Three Days in the Okefenokee

Sage, at the take-out point
You've been waiting for this! In late March, I led a group of eight other men into the Okefenokee.  Seven of us live on Skidaway.  We were joined by my father (he was proud to be the oldest in the group) and a friend of mine from St. Simon's Island.  It was a different experience from my two previous trips on the east side of the swamp.  On one of these trips, I went in just for the day with my dad.  The other was a two-night, three day solo.  I would have liked to have spent another night in the swamp, but they limit stays to two nights in March and April because they are the most popular months to explore the swamp.

Bob and Gary in the canoe, John in the kayak

I couldn't see them, but they were there, close by as we paddled through the narrow water trail that led from Floyd's Island back to the Suwanee River.  At times, their bellowing made what's left of my hair stand on end.  Other times, what seemed to be a soft purr rose from just inside the thick vegetation.  They were obviously enjoying themselves, and although I heard dozens, I only saw one alligator that morning.  It quickly submerged as I paddle closer.  But the others were there, hidden from view as they filled the swamp with the voices of their erotic spring mating rituals.  I paddled into several of the watery prairies in hope of catching a glimpse of a bull gator lifting its head and bellowing, but was not blessed to experience it.  Instead, I was left with the haunting memories of the sounds of gators courting. 

It was our second day in the Okefenokee.  The day before, a group of us had met at 5:30 AM.  We followed one another through the darkness, driving south down 95 in the rain: three vehicles and three kayaks and one canoe.  South of Brunswick, as the darkness waned, we left the interstate and drove on two-lane roads to Folkston and then following the edge of the swamp boundaries into Florida and back into Georgia.  At Fargo, we left the main highway and drove on 17 miles into the swamp to Stephen Foster State Park.  Although most of the swamp is a national wildlife refuge, this section, bordered on the north and east by the Suwanee River, is owned by the state of Georgia.  Although he wrote a song about it, I don't think Stephen Foster ever made it down here.  Soon, four others joined us.  Two had driven down the night before and were surprised, arriving in Fargo and staying in one of the towns two-four room motels, that there were no restaurants open on Sundays and that dinner the night before consisted of chips, junk food and beer purchased at the gas station.  Another had stayed in Waycross the evening before and a fourth, who lives on St Simons Island, drove over from there.  At ten oclock, after shuttling a vehicle to be close to where we planned to take out on Wednesday morning, leaving it at a private campground just outside the park, ran by a guy who has a wonderful collection of mounted snakes:  good-sized Caneback and Timber Rattlers with their fangs showing as well as the equally poisonous Cottonmouth, along with a Copperhead and a small but deadly Coral Snakes.  I asked the ranger as we were putting in the boats if we would likely see any snakes and he said he doubted wed see any in the water as we paddled as the gators tend to keep the population in check.  He was right, we didnt see any while paddling and only one while on land.    

At 10:30 AM, we paddled down a short canal by the visitors center and out into the Suwanee River where we then turned upstream, paddling against the current.  Thankfully, the rain had ended by the time we were loading boats, but the day remained overcast.  In a mile, we passed the Suwanee Canal.  Had we kept paddling east for ten miles, wed reached the last place I camped on my trip into the swamp last December.  Instead, we stayed with the river which headed north, through a narrow channel that snaked through cypress trees and lily pads.  The river alternated between a narrow channel through swamp bottom hardwoods and cypress and opening up as it paddled through prairies.  We stopped for lunch at a wooden platform at Minnies Lake.  A mile and a half after Minnies, we left the Suwanee and paddled a narrow canoe paddle that skirted the south side of Floyds Island Prairie. I only saw two gators this afternoon, the lack of sun keeping them at bay.  However, despite the grayness of the day, there were a number of butterflies flying around and enjoying the nectar of spring flowers.

taken on Floyd's Island
Floyd's Cabin
In about four miles, the trail ended at Floyd's Island, which was named for the army officer who led a group of soldiers through the swamp during the Seminole Wars in the early 19th Century.  It is a nice to have solid ground and at the campsite there is a cabin built in the 1920s by a Swamper.  Most of the guys decided to sleep inside the cabin, the exception being Brandon and me who had hammocks and thought our sleeping arrangements might be more comfortable than the wooden floors of the cabin which is known for the families of swamp rats who live there, feasting on food carelessly left by campers.  Besides, we wouldnt have to listen to a bunch of guys snore. 
My hammock (set up on Mixon's Hammock)
 After cocktails, we feasted on chili made by John's wife. Dave introduced us to his Irish Fisherman Stove, which uses just a few twigs to boil water and several of us had tea after dinner.  Someone built a fire.  Dave, who also has completed the Appalachian Trail, and I shared stories of our hike and Brandon told about his other trips into the swamp.  By 9;30, everyone was tired and in bed.  At 3 AM, I woke to the hooting of an owl that sounded as if it was right over my hammock.  A little later, the whip-o-wills started.  From this point on, I didn't sleep well, and had some weird dreams.  After finally staying asleep for an hour and a half, I got up a little before 7, with the sound of birds chirping and mosquitoes buzzing just outside the net of my hammock.  My first order of business was making coffee.  Everyone seemed to enjoy having perked coffee to go with our instant oatmeal.  After breakfast, we explored the island a bit then packed up our boats. 

For our second day of paddling, we headed back the way we came.  This time, the current was with us and we made good time, stopping again at Minnies for an early lunch.  Although we only heard gators in the morning, shortly after arriving where the river widens and joins the Suwanee Canal, we started seeing many of them.  The sun was out and so were the gators who seemed exhausted and not really interested in us as they allowed us to get close enough to get good photos (but not too close to disturb them!).  In addition to alligators, the dragon flies took to the air, providing some entertainment with their maneuvering and mating.  Brandon and Dave left the group when we passed Stephan Foster's State Park, as they had reasons to get back to home.

two large alligators
My father and his sit on top kayaks
Dad likes to fish from his and it's hard to fish in a regular kayak 

We camp on the second night at Mixon's Hammock...   When we arrived, Gary and Bob who were in a canoe and had paddled on ahead, was not there.  I decided to try to find them and took off down a section of the river known as the narrows.  I made good time going with the current, yelling out their names.  I was afraid theyd passed the campsite.  Finally, after paddling about a mile and a half, I stopped and turned on my cell phone and was able to get one bar of service, enough to get a text out to Gary.  I figured that sooner or later, hed turn on his phone and learn that hed missed the campsite.  Then I turned around and paddled back to Mixons Hammock, only to find that the two of them had gone into the State Park to dump trash and then helped Brandon and Dave load their boats.  They were all waiting for me at Mixons, having yelled their heads off for me to come back (sound must not carry too far in the swamp).  However, in my additional paddling, I was treated to seeing a rookery where dozens of white ibis nesting and probably the largest alligator Id seen (he was as long as my boat which is just shy of 15 feet). 
Sage (photo by John)
Again, we had cocktails at 5 PM, followed by a chicken and noodle dinner.  After exploring the hammock a bit (it wasn't that large) we sat around a fire, swatting bugs and telling stories.  John told us about his flying refueling jets out of Thailand during the Vietnam War and Gary about his travels in Europe at the same time.  My dad, who was along on the trip, and Jim talked about living and working in Japan.  Walt, a retired teacher, told about one of his students who had become a world famous videographer and had filmed several Everest expeditions.  The stories lasted as long as our wood supply which kept the smoke in the air and the bugs at bay.  At around 9:30, we had all retired to our tents or hammocks.  I tried to read a bit once I got in my hammock, but was tired and when the rains came a little later, I feel asleep.   It rained off and on all night, but it was hard to tell when it wasn't raining as you still had water dripping off the leaves.   Again, I had weird dreams including one in which I ran into a Roger, who was glad to see me since my lecture on Mark Twain in Nevada was scheduled to start in just a few minutes...  I had not prepared because I thought the lecture was a month out and so slipped into a bathroom to jot down a quick outline.  This was a dream grounded in reality since I had just committed to doing a series of lectures on Mark Twains western travels this summer. 

It was wet and cool the next morning, out last in the swamp.  We continued paddling down the Suwanee for a few miles, first through a beautiful section of cypress known as the narrows (which I had paddled the afternoon before).  As the river snaked back and forth, I was paddling at a slower rate and able to catch the scent of honeysuckle.   After the narrows, the river opened up.  It was here that Id seen so many ibis the evening before but they were gone this morning.  In one of the dead trees, I did see a pleated woodpecker and there were a few kingfishers flying around.  This water is impounded by a sill that runs along the southwest side of the swamp and controls river flow downstream.  

The outlet to the sill
(the Suwanee leaves here and flows to the Gulf)
We paddled up to the sill, where there were a few fisherman along the banks and in boats along the channel by the river.  We paddled to the boat ramp on the east end of the sill and got out of our boats.  Our time in the swamp was over.  From here, I had to walk a few miles to pick up the vehicle we left at the snake-mans campground, but thankfully after about a half mile, I was offered a ride in a truck by a couple of the fisherman who wed passed.  They didnt have much luck and were heading back to their home in Homersville.  With their assistance, we were able to soon have all the vehicles shuttled down to the sill (they dont allow overnight parking there).  We loaded our boats and gear and headed home, except for Bob and Gary who were spending two more days of paddling on the Suwanee.

Blog posts from my late-December solo trip:  Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
Paddling along the sill toward our takeout

Friday, April 17, 2015

40 Years ago today...

Cambodian countryside in 2011
I haven’t been a very good blogger over the last couple of weeks and am sure I have missed a lot of good posts!  Mostly, I have been busy, but I have had a number of good afternoons of sailing.  Sadly, in this hiatus, I learned of the death Ron, who blogged at Buddies in the Saddle.  Cancer, that horrible beast, finally beat him.  I enjoyed learning about the literature of the American West from him and his personal posts about his battles with cancer were examples of courage and some damn good writing.  Although I never met him in person, I will miss reading his blog and our interactions on Facebook.

Now, let me take you back 40 years …

Wilmington, North Carolina was tranquil the spring of 1975.  It had not been that way for most of the springs since 1968, following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.  That spring and the next half dozen saw rioting.  But by the spring of ’75, all seemed to be at peace, at least at home.  I was in love, having taken a date to the Azalea Festival Coronation and as the azaleas began to fade, we were getting more serious.  Graduation was approaching and I was trying to figure out what would be next after I left the halls of John T. Hoggard High School forever.   By the time azaleas were blooming, I’d finally gotten around to signing up for my draft card  (a few months late).  They were still issuing them, even though no one had been drafted in a couple of years.  The card, which was supposed to be on  you at all times, became a valuable commodity as friends who were not quite 18 years old begged to borrow it so that they could buy beer (at this time, in North Carolina, you could buy beer and wine at 18).  If the draft had resumed, I doubt my card would have been coveted. 

Cambodian Village in 2011
My last class of the day in my last semester of high school was Shakespeare, taught by Mrs. Cobb.  I sat in the back, near the window, with the only other guy in a high school of 3000 who was sure enough of his masculinity to be seen studying Shakespeare.  Actually, the class was a pleasant surprise with a dozen girls for each of us.  But as the spring began, we were more interested in what was happening in the world, especially Southeast Asia and to a lesser extent, Angola.  Over lunch, we’d read Newsweek or U. S. News and World Report or Times as well as the local newspaper.  Then, before class began, we’d discuss whether or not the United States would intervene to stop Cambodia and then South Vietnam from falling to the communists.  We were both 18, and both had our draft cards even though they hadn’t drafted anyone in a couple of years.  But at this point, when things seemed so chaotic and desperate, we wondered what might happen.  We wondered what life in Canada might be like… 

Phnom Penh in 2011
I especially remember the day Phnom Penh fell.  I didn’t know things had gotten so bad.  Cambodia had been a place I wanted to visit Cambodia ever since reading an article when I was in Junior High (I think the article was in QST, a magazine for Amateur Radio operators) about the country.  The jungle ruins and the idea that there were a few Hams (Amateur Radio Operators) in the country made me curious.  But I knew that I didn’t want to visit the country on a ticket issued by Uncle Sam.
After the Mayaguez Incident in May of ’75, I don’t remember hearing much about Cambodia and the autocracies being committed by the Khmer Rouge until a few years later when refugee camps in Thailand were being overrun with fleeing Cambodians.  In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and replaced the horrific government of Pol Pot who had killed over a million people—nearly ¼ of the small country’s population.  In 1984, The Killing Fields came out in the theater and we got to see first-hand the horrors of what happened.  In the early 90’s, I read Haing Ngor’s book, Cambodian Odyssey.  He’d starred in the movie and his book of his personal experiences showed that the movie was tame compared to what had happened inside the country.  It wasn’t until 2011, that I finally visited the country.  It’s a beautiful place with a rich history, but there is something haunting about it. 
work on restoration (a good metaphor for the country)
Today is 40 years since fall of Phnom Penh.  Click here is an article that talks to those who survived the horrors that followed:  Phnom Penh Post article.
temple near Ankor Wat
Next up (unless something else comes up) is my report on my latest three day trip into the Okefenokee Swamp.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Have a Blessed Easter

It is a lovely Easter here in Georgia.  This is the kind of Easter’s I’ve grew up enjoying.  The azaleas are in bloom and the dogwoods add color to pine forests.  New life is all around which is the message of Easter—God is stronger than the grave.  The day started with a glorious sunrise and a stiff breeze which kept the sand gnats at bay. The day was brilliant and without a cloud in the sky.
Dogwoods and Pines

Dogwoods and Azaleas in my front yard
I’ve always loved Easter and especially Easter Sunrise Services, but over the past thirty years, when I was living up north and in the high desert of the American West, I’ve not missed these kind of days.  On more than one of these Easter’s there was snow on the ground (once, in Michigan there was half a foot and my daughter, who was in early elementary school, did not think it was funny when I suggested we forgo dyeing the eggs in order to make them harder to hide.  Most sunrise services involved bundling up with wool coats, a hat and gloves and as for flowers one was lucky to find a few crocuses in bloom.  But not this year. 
Traditional colored azaleas from the edge of my drive
Sadly, the azaleas will only be in fully bloom for a week or so, then they'll just be another green bush.  But for a week or two in the spring, they are glorious.  Enjoy the photos and have a blessed Easter.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Waist Deep in Black Water

No, this post isn't about me falling out of my kayak in the Okefenokee...  It's a review of a book with a very cool title!  I've not yet gotten around to writing my recent adventures in the swamp, but I returned with all my fingers and toes intact.  The story of this feat will be out soon.

John Lane, Waist Deep in Black Water (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 187 pages.

 This collection of essays by John Lane, a professor at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, explores his relationship with the natural world as well as with his own family and his future.   Lane is surprisingly open about his life.  His mother and her family had been from the mountains, but had moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina to work in the mills.  His father, a World War II veteran, was the descendent of tobacco farmers in Eastern North Carolina.  The author was born in North Carolina in 1955.  His father owned a service station in Southern Pines.  In reading this, I couldn’t help to draw connections to my own life as I, too, am a descendent from tobacco farmers and was born in a neighboring town two years later.   In 1959, Lane’s life took a tragic turn as his father, who’d suffered from alcoholism and had repeatedly attempted suicide, finally succeeded.  His mother moved back to Spartanburg, leaving Lane with many questions.  As he is exploring the world in which we live, he ponders the meaning of his life and the future as he accepts that he’ll probably be the end of the line for his branch of the family as he has no children nor any prospect for having them.  He explores his strange inheritance (his father’s suicide and an aunt’s stay in a mental hospital) and what these events might mean for his own life.

Lane self-disclosure is honest especially when dealing with his own faith journey.  He graduated from high school and remained a virgin until he was in his junior year of college due to religious convictions.  He later, as he tried to make his way as a poet, he read Buddhists literature.  Although doesn’t say much about where he is today, it appears he is deeply spiritual even if he is not religious. 
Lane recalls his first dream he can remember, from the year of his father’s death, when he was running in a local drainage ditch only to be chased by a wall of water.    “Water is an aspect of my interior landscape to which I often return, and it remains central to my understanding of the world as a roaring river.  (131)  Water becomes the unifying theme in these essays.  He quotes the poet A. R. Ammons, “If anything will level with you water will.” (101)  Lane explores a swamp filled with alligators and cottonmouths in a search for old growth cypress.  He drags college students to study the headwaters of a river, where he and his co-instructor is more excited about the possibility of adventure than the students.  His last essay is of a paddle on a nearby river that that he’d overlooked in his younger days when he sought whitewater.  Some stories have humor such as having Montezuma’s revenge descend upon him while paddling a canoe with little solid ground as a group surveyed crocodiles in the shadow of Mayan temples in Mexico.  But that doesn’t compare to his telling of misadventures of three guys in that same canoe catching a six foot croc and realizing they’d forgotten the duct tape to secure its mouth.

Literature is another unifier in these essays as Lane draws from his readings.  After all, Lane is an English professor.  I was pleased to see that his readings of rivers were not limited to the usual (Mark Twain and Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It.)  He’d read John Graves, Goodbye a River, which I had read and reviewed in my blog.  I was excited to find that someone had paddled one of my favorite rivers from my younger years, the Waccamaw.  Franklin Burroughs, The River Home, which is about his exploration of the Waccamaw, has been placed toward the top of my reading list.

I look forward to reading more of Lane’s writings, especially My Paddle to the Sea, a travelogue of his eleven day, 300 mile paddle down the Broad and Santee Rivers of South Carolina.  He recently published his first novel, Fate Moreland’s Widow, which is set in the labor unrest within the southern textile mills of the 1930s.