Posted by: floridanature | May 31, 2010

An Early Morning Paddle: Upstream with the Comforting Grain

Early Sunday is the best time to drive anywhere in Florida, and today it is made even more so because we are driving to the river. Into the great preserve we go, beyond the sandy mountain of scrub, and then down into the tunnel of hardwoods that transport us across the old bridge.

At our put-in just upstream of the bridge, there are a good half dozen men, in lawn chairs and so on, all with fishing poles, monofilament trailing off from the tip of each like a tiny, sure strand of a web looping down into the dark creek. It’s still early, but they’re knocking back the brewskis, and jawing. They have local accents, but seem to know almost nothing about where they are; I figure they’re more interested in getting buzzed than anything else. The rods and reels are simply props.

Steve’s shoulder is still in the recup stage, so he graciously decides to drive a couple more miles upstream by land and put in at Moccasin Spring. That way, if it gave out on him and he has to return early, I’d at least have the advantage of being able to paddle from here to there and then back on the river.

He rambles off on the old dirt road under the thick canopy of cypress and oak and hickory, and I unload my single kayak from the roof rack. I carry it down to the edge of the water between a couple of the fishermen and set it there, half in and half out, sideways so it would be easy to mount. I return to the car for my backpack and gatorade and paddle. Even though last night was the full moon and the bream have started to bed, none of the fishermen seemed to know this.

As I push off, one asks me why I wasn’t fishing. I figured they weren’t fishing either, at least not in a meaningful sort of way. But, instead of insulting a bunch of half-buzzed rednecks,  I said something else that was also true: I hadn’t been on this stretch of the river in a couple years and wanted to scout it out to see how far we could get upstream.

It’s gratifying to paddle out of range, beyond the aura of cigarette smoke and idle chatter from people who had no idea where they were in the natural world, and didn’t much seem to care. I haven’t used this smaller kayak in a several years, and loaded it this morning since its size was perfect for the tight swamp meanders. It tracks okay, too, and soon I settle into a even rhythm in which the white blades seem to rise and fall by themselves on either side of the cockpit, moving the hull forward under their own power. I have paddled enough in my life so that the act itself becomes effortless, almost like walking, and that uncaps a deeper energy, freeing it to ignite the senses.

It had been almost three years since I’ve paddled from here, upstream or down; Tropical Storm Fay had done a thorough job in drowning the shore  and toppling a lot of trees, bringing some down across the river. I also notice a luminous quality deeper in the swamp, a glowing of sunlight where once it was gloomy.

After a mile or so, I realize there’s little about this stretch that I recognize.  The woods had been thinned naturally, and the shafts of sunlight function like spots, highlighting patches of sawgrass and pickerel weed and ancient cypress stumps far back from the shore. The patches glowe like tableaus, as if purposely illuminated for a special morning matinee. Along the river edges, exotic hyacinths and native spadderdock and button bushes all vie for space. The bushes are hung with golf ball-sized blossoms, each white and spiky and fragrant.

The green of the shore is sometimes robust enough to spread into the middle of the river, leaving only a yard or so to push on through. Still, it is easy going, so far. There are as yet no logs beneath the water,  hidden wooden shoals you have to use your body and your arms to hunch over—or else find a strong branch to pull yourself and your boat across.

Soon, I spot Steve up ahead, just launching at the old campsite where the spring outflow from Moccasin meets the tea-dark waters of this Southern creek. I have camped here before, once when shooting a nature film in the late spring with a small  crew. Then, a nearby bull gator proclaiming his territory bellowed so loudly he made the thick night air seem to vibrate. Another time, I was here for New Years Eve, cool enough for a fire, and a comfy tent with a woman I once knew. These were good memories for me.

Fay and other storms had inundated the little spring so that its turquoise waters had been pushed down inside the rock of the aquifer, and the weight of the tannic swamp sat atop it. When the swamp retreated, the turquoise stayed hidden, and I still wonder when it might return.

Steve joins me in mid river, and we scuttle around a deadfall of a full leafy tree canopy, and pass a lone fellow in a camo canoe by himself, with several rods. He looks intent, and very comfortable being alone. I ask if he had caught anything and he says yea, a few nice ones. He had the canoe smack in the middle of where the spring run swashs into the creek, and am figuring he knew what the brewski boys back at the bridge didn’t:  Spring waters are alkaline and will temper the acid of the tannins, making it more alluring to fish.  But then again, maybe he just knew it was a good place to fish.

The Native Americans knew things like this very well, without ever having to understand intellectual presumptions about the PH of the water or the taxonomy of the animals. Places where creeks and springs and rivers confluxed were always bountiful, so good they could  be considered sacred places, a dimension where humans and other animals could share information that was vital to both. The fish used grunt-like sounds to communicate; the people used myth and story and song.

We leave the camo fisherman after a few more turns, and happily find easy access through cuts in the deadfall, almost like aisle-ways  through the low jungle of aquatic plants and downed wood. It’s unusual to encounter anyone here on this river, especially so when headed upstream. Several more miles and the river will split, trailing either to Lake Norris or into the transparent Seminole Springs Creek. There is a great dread of alligators and snakes on tight, winding, vine-hung tropical runs like this for many, and that alone goes a long way towards “managing” the resource.

I’ve slowed down my breathing by now, and my senses have opened in proportion to that, not unlike the way the pupil of an eye dilates or constricts    —not out of conscious purpose but in response to darkness or light. My peripheral vision always seems to conveniently expand as well. Without a single focus to blur perception,  I begin to see scads of apple snail eggs on the low bark of trees, and on the stems of water plants on both shores of the river. It is far more than I’ve ever seen here before.

Steve sees them too and we think on it some. He figures the opening of the canopy over the swamp has made it somehow more attractive to the snails since the sub-aquatic plants and algae of their diets has flourished in the new light. That sounds reasonable to me. And just as I wonder if the limpkin—the rare solitary wading bird that loves apple snails—might also have been tipped off, I see  just such a bird in the tall sawgrass ashore, almost as if I have imagined it to life. He is skittish, more so than most limpkins, and he stalks off into the green after flashing his fawn-like plumage to us.  

The narrow, open portals in the middle or at the edges of the deadfall and weeds are becoming tighter, so now I have to duck low to get under branches or pull them back to enter. Usually after a pass like that, a spider or two ends up on the hull of my kayak, sometimes, they ride pieces of leaves that stick to my hair. I pull one large twig with several leaves out of my head and see a stunningly beautiful yellow spider with tiny orange eyes. I gently place the twig atop some floating hyacinths, hoping she will find her way back to her home, or maybe create a new one.

Although the woods here are still thick by upland standards, they are thin for the swamp. It allows me to look hundreds of yards back into the landscape, lets me see flocks of juvenile white ibis flittering about, mottled with feathers of chocolate and white. Walking by itself on its stilt legs is is a small green heron. And then a ways farther, a pair of pileated woodpeckers zig and zag their way across the open water, leaving behind their distinctive sharp calls as they go. In midstream, I bump into a small log, now colonized with tiny mushrooms, each as delicate as miniature parasols.

Giant yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail butterflies begin to appear with regularity, flipping about in mid air over the water or atop the puffy white flower balls that are growing along the way, like brilliantly-colored folds of Japanese paper brought to life in a morning dream.

Steve wonders if the butterflies are attracted inextricably to these plants, the way that gulf fritillaries are drawn to the passion vine, and I figure that they may likely be. Once, I stop and carefully move my kayak to a bush where a swallowtail is feeding on a blossom. The underside of its wings are turned towards me, and even though this position doesn’t display its best colors, I am still in awe of the aesthetic weave of the fringe on its “tail”.

We pause once to maneuver a particularly tricky passage, and as we do, we disturb a barred owl. She hoots three separate times from somewhere back in the woods, and is then silent. We have lost most of the knowledge  the Timucua learned from nature, but a few myths remain. Owls, great protectors in the nether world, speak in these ancient stories. And, I wonder what it is that they really say.

Watermarks on the larger trees along the shore are high above where the water level is today, and it’s clear that the dry weather has not only taken the flowing river down, but has also drained most of the swamp around us as well. It is only the rare, deeper sloughs that still have water in them. Many of the trees are growing out of mud, intricate root systems as labyrinthic as any chemistry equation. The strongest ones seems to splay out from the base with great flair, gripping the soft mud for all they’re worth. It is what always goes on here, except without the veil of water to hide it.

“A swamp with the lid off”,” I say to Steve, and he smiles.

I paddle up next to a log to take a photo of a spat of apple snails eggs, and when I do, I notice most of them have already hatched. Unlike other smaller snails, the apple snail emerges as a fully formed mollusk, a miniature that fits snugly into the tiny shell.

(Later, on shore, we will see newly laid turtle eggs that have been robbed from their nest by a raccoon or armadillo, the yolk forever gone. I think of the capriciousness of it all, wondering how a spat of snail eggs or a clutch of turtle eggs is destined to fare, depending on nothing more or less than how the sunlight falls on a cypress knee, or the way in which a landscape tilts for the slightest of moments, little miracles the intellect will never understand.)

I look again into the open swamp and see the carcass-like stumps of ancient bald cypress, logged here a hundred years ago. Once, we pass a large trunk, one that likely sunk before it was bled of its sap, and is now forever ashore, the intricate, raised grain of the durable wood on display, as if it were carved for the very best of museums. There is something about this particular wood that seems alive and comforting to me, human-like almost in its color and in its spirit.

And I realize now it draws on my earliest memories I have of my father, his strong arms and hands browned from the sun, at once resolute and infinitely kind, as if ready to defend me from the worst harm a little boy could ever imagine from the world.

We see no gators, not even a swirl or foamy bubble trail, but we have heard their low, throaty growls from back in the spadderdock, just a primal sort of hello to let us know they are here. I think of all the so-called comforts of civilization we surround ourselves with back in our artificial world. And I think there is no real comfort like seeing the smooth and weathered wood of a tree, fiber as strong as the hands of your father, a memory so deeply embedded that, even today in such a place, it allows me a great and lasting peace.

I tell Steve that this is such a different river I would not recognize it if I didn’t know where we were. And he quotes Hericlitus, repeating one of my favorite quotes: You can never step twice into the same river”….”Or,” Steve adds, “paddle it twice, either ”

And of course that is true, as true as any life parable about a river can be, as true as: “Everything flows” And so it does, and we go with it today, eventually feeling a light, welcome sprinkle from a single dark cloud, just enough to refresh us as we move upstream. We push our little boats through the water with deliberate strokes that seem to make the tannins swirl like great vats of syrup now, almost as if we are moving in slow motion.

I realize it is not the water that has slowed; it is my own perceptions, downshifted so they can absorb more, one grateful frame at a time.

And it is this way that we go for another couple hours, pushing against the current, dodging the low trees, once using all of my strength to pull myself and my boat over a sunken log by gripping a branch just above it.  I say a little prayer now, one that’s thankful for this day, and for having the strength to maneuver my way through it, and for a good friend, who appreciates the same.

Most of all, I am grateful for the way the green walls fall away, and the tiny avenue of black water opens up before me, effortlessly, and leads me onto the crest of instinct now.

It is a crest I ride with great pleasure, moving with the rarefied hope of a child towards a sort of wholeness of place. Flowing now with the calls of the gators and the owls, the white eggs of the snails and of the turtles, the comforting paternal grain of the richly textured wood. Moving always into the promise of the every-lasting light…

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Responses

  1. Bill, where were ya’ll at? It seems as magical as my trip down the Little Big Econ.

  2. We were on the Blackwater Creek, upstream from where the old concrete bridge crosses over it in the Seminole State Forest.

  3. If I wanted to take a splash in my yak here, is it pretty easy getting the combination code from the Division of Forestry?

  4. no problem, just give them a holler a few days before you want to go to get the permit with the combo. fall and spring also have limited hunting seasons–so it’s wise to avoid the hunt days…

  5. I spent the weekend at Suwannee valley in White Springs and thought about paddling down the quite river. Only if I can swim!

    Beautifully written. Thank you for the pictures for us who could not witness it first hand.

  6. Bill – nice job on this blog; love to read your stuff. Come paddle the North Withlacoochee with me sometime. It’s a Florida Greenways Trail, no (or little) development, fully spring-fed, and lots of shoals on the lower end. It dies at its confluence with the Suwannee in Suwannee River State Park. This is not the more popularly known Withlacoochee to the south; different river entirely.

  7. Bill – Great piece. I love this body of water. I am curious how far upstream you were able to travel. I am a regular on this creek in my yak and have tried several times to find my way further upstream with little luck.

  8. Hi Sid- Glad you enjoyed the piece. Originally, we could get all the way up to where the spring water from Seminole Springs met with the Blackwater coming down out of Lake Norrise. But haven’t been that far up since before the Charlie-era hurricanes. The river has changed considerably since then as much of the shore was inundated with flowing water, and many trees back in the woods also came down. So, banks have been erorded, both up and down stream. Only one portage downstream before meeting the Wekiva, but the upstream narrows considerably and it may be difficult to make it to the Seminole Springs Run-Creek these days. If you get close, the flow of transparent water coming into the river from a fork on the left will be a dead give-away. Good luck, and happy paddling ! – B


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