Fools GoldRead Now
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
I took another step and felt the cobwebs on my face. The eerie feeling of spider webs on skin -- in the dark -- can drop a grown man to his knees!
The kayak slid ashore with a hissing whisper onto an island a few miles East of Brooksville. I was on my first self-guided wild boar excursion and no better place to start than a speck on the map called Hog Island!
A pungent belch of sulfur fouled the 35 degree air when my foot sank out of sight into the rich earth. I threw a light line around a tree and tied it off to avoid being stranded, left to swim the cold and spooky tannic-infused waters of the Withlacoochee River.
I grabbed a flashlight from my hunt belt where my Smith & Wesson snake pistol hangs reassuringly from a camouflage hip pack. It also carries a whistle, matches, ammo, a small tripod and camera and a useless snakebite kit that I have no intention of using after being advised by a doctor that it may cause more harm than good. The only reason I carry it is to remind me of the possible dangers that lurk in Florida swamps.
The flashlight beam played tricks with the casually rising fog. Anything beyond ten feet glimmered with bluish yellow streaks that fanned out in all directions. The distorted light stretched the cone-shaped cypress knees to immense proportions. They bobbed and weaved like dancing wizards in the moonlight until I shut the light off.
I sat for an eternity and waited for my eyes to adjust. My ears struggled to hear something... anything. A person can get out of shape living in the city. My vision was weak and my ears squealed with phantom sirens and noise. I shook my head like an old hound dog with ticks and tried to knock loose the noise pollution, then stood still.
The flowing water penetrated the sound barrier first. The river popped and gurgled over the fallen cypress and around the bend where it churned like boiling black soup. Then an orchestra of swamp life chimed in. In between the bullfrog belches and the crickets cracking the alligators growled their mating moans. Distant owls called “who cooks for you. Who cooks for you”. Ahhh . . . music that salves the soul!
Now, I consulted my compass for a Northeast heading.
I developed the habit of using a compass while on a canoe trip with my father when I was eight. We were preparing for a portage through some loosely scattered hardwoods when I learned...the hard way! I eagerly grabbed the bow and dad hefted the stern. He urged me to check the compass.
I had to laugh as we had done the same portage earlier in the day, I knew where we were. Yeah, right!
The first twenty yards slid by quickly. Soon after, my narrow shoulders and spindly neck erupted in fatigue. "Time out!" I huffed.
"What's the matter...lost?" Dad chuckled.
"No...my shoulders hurt." I defended.
His laughter grew anger as did my fatigue with every step. Suddenly I saw water where I didn't remember seeing water earlier in the day. My gut feeling was that we had discovered a secluded pond and a chance to observe some wood ducks.
When my father dropped his end of the canoe I was shocked. The aluminum “pung” of the hull echoed through the woods. I snapped my head around with a frown and wondered why he would blow such an opportunity to watch the colorful woodies.
Seconds later, in between a laughing jag and a gasp of air he broke the news, "You've walked in a circle, Kurt. This is exactly where we landed 20 minutes ago!"
It was then, during my dad's gut busting, wide-open belly laugh that I realized the importance of a compass. He knew I was circling all along, but wanted to drive the point home--as only a dad can do. The sound of his laughter still rings in my head before I take the first step into the unknown. "Always check your compass!"
Anyway, my plan was to stalk the entire length of Hog Island in hopes of seeing feral hogs for the first time. My boots sucked and slurped their way free from the tar-like mud. Another stinky pocket of swamp gas wafted upward before I reached hard ground. I slipped quietly up a steep bank that leads to a few old oaks which proudly displayed their bounty of Spanish Moss. It dripped and drooled off every branch. The mystical fog added a special dimension that visually defined my dreams of southern swamps -- cold, dark, damp, and dangerous to newcomers.
I eased my way through the darkness toward the center of the island and tried to find some promising sign. The scattered silhouettes from the palmetto palms teased and tested my attention with their raspy rustling. I overfilled my lungs with the heavy swamp air until I felt light-headed. My senses tingled from the sweet air that heals my "city" body. I stopped again and checked my direction. Earlier, and not to my awareness I had stopped just short of a gigantic spider web. It had just begun to get light and I hadn’t been able to see it. It stretched an impressive 15 feet across. Elegantly knitted to the branches of a small oak then over to a Palmetto and up to the top of a tall cabbage palm.
After a compass check and correction I felt a strong intuitive sense that suggested I scrap the original plan and change course. “Nothin doing...you'll be ok” said the voice behind my right eyeball. In the predawn darkness, I took one giant step and experienced an “Arachni-phylatic Fit”…when I felt the cobwebs on my face, my head spun away in a spastic twist that knocked the hat off my head. The semi-thick silk stretched tightly across my entire body. I spun in circles with my arms flailing about trying to free myself from the web until I tripped over a log and ended up on my knees. I hunched over covering my face. I hoped I wouldn't detect the feeling of eight hairy legs making advances on my body . . . sorrowfully I was wrong.
At the base of my exposed neck, I could feel something sweeping back and forth like a low hanging pine bow brushed by the wind. I wrongly slapped the back of my neck and squished a greasy arachnid into the palm of my hand while sweeping another from my hair. A legion of goose bumps swept through my body and tingled my spine.
I spun like a pup for his tail trying to see myself all at once then tripped on a family of cypress knees and slid across a muddy slick of grass before I regained composure.
I was too busy to notice the pale white sun’s morning ascent into the foggy air, or the cobalt blue streak that tickled the treetops. When I looked back to where I had disturbed the family of arachnids, the first spear of light shone through the canopy of oaks and palms and caught the web just right. The thick morning dew exposed the hidden gold. The breeze massaged it gently and the light shimmered down the spider's silk strands. I could see the hole I carved and a few smaller spiders in the web. The gruesome displays of bug and beetle carcasses scattered throughout the web told the tale of an accomplished marksman -- a brilliant engineer with a high kill rate and a fancy for gold. Judging by the size of the web she was much bigger than the ones I'd already met.
And there by the web I saw my hat lying in the dirt. I was about to grab it when I discovered her. She had somehow eluded my frantic body search and had taken a stand on my forehead. She was as big as a mans hand and her right front leg was testing my crinkled forehead. My gasp for air startled her and she made her move -- one leg caught my nose, another hooked my mouth. When she jumped off my cheek a thick yellow strand of gold silk spewed out and stuck to the side of my head. I swiped and dodged like a madman in disbelief that she was on me for that long. I grabbed my hat and tried to shrug it off. The rest of the day I could feel her hairy little legs on my face.
I did a little research on the webslingers when I returned to the world of information. (Also called the web, haha) What I discovered was fascinating. Sometimes called Banana spiders, the Yellow Orb Spider has one of the most interesting weapons for protection. When confronted, the spider gathers a bunch of body hairs with her forelegs. These tiny black hairs shaped and designed as harpoons have very sharp serrated points and edges. When the adversary gets within the perimeter of her lair she flicks the hairs into the predator's eyes. Once in the eye the mini harpoons burrow their way directly into the eyeball. The weapons continue to irritate the eye until they've successfully worked their way all the way through the backside of the eyeball where they dissolve!
After I read this, I developed an irritating twitch in my left eye. I try to forget the invasion, but I'm confident that the Yellow Orb Spider that protects her gold with daggers of fear will always be there . . . spinning her tricks in the depths of the Florida swamps.
Of Mud and MenRead Now
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
What is it about mud & men that go together like peanut butter and jelly? Maybe it's the idea that we "think" we can do whatever we want and getting muddy is the most simplistic (safe) way of expressing that. Extreme low tide at the Clam Bayou launch site exposed some long-lost litter and the Boy Scouts of America were prepared to answer the call! Fifteen in all we set out to do what most people consider a chore - cleaning up Florida's water ways. Our senses of "good nature" endured as we fought off the disgust of cleaning up someone else's cans, bottles, bags, hangers, and another sign that read "We Buy Junk Cars". But in a primitive state of mud and men we became aware that this good deed is meant for the environment. Even as six men in mud up to their shins pried and pulled on an old barnacle-covered tire the "Green Thread" endured. Perhaps the bayou's gallery of spiders, snakes & spoonbills, fish & foul provide enough evidence that this place is worth saving. Also worth noting; Enough golf balls to fill a bucket. A hubcap to hang on a wall and a chimney swift's broom were taken home as keepsakes. And maybe for the first time ever... it's a cool thing to be carrying a spare tire! Our thanks goes out to Boy Scout Group 202 for overcoming the mud & muck and for doing what's right to our environment.
Eyes Of A StrangerRead Now
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
The Red-shouldered hawk pretended not to notice me standing below slash pine on the north knoll at Clam Bayou. From his perch he could see the entire park and across the slick-calm waters of Boca Ciega Bay. We scanned the sky together and watched the black vultures of the bayou glide the up drafting winds. Thanks to them, last month's fish-kill caused from cold weather is no longer evident. Oh to be fat-n-happy & flying high on a fantastic Florida morn!
The "Red" fluffed and ruffed his feathers in the morning breeze, then casually shifted his weight onto one leg and drew the other toward his chest. He didn't even mind the other hawk that cruised the mangroves looking for a fresh meal. "What could they be looking for to eat out here?" I asked myself trying to see through the underbrush. "Last year's marsh rabbit babes are too big to be taken now and the mice are too hard to see!" We both noticed the white wings soaring high above the bayou...circling, dropping, searching. Two white pelicans pasted against the blue sky were dropping in from high altitude. It took nearly thirty minutes for them to drop below 1000 ft then set sail South toward Ft Desoto where the flats provide deep pockets of mullet to dive for. The tell-tale screech of the wild parakeets raised his alertness to high attention. "Could this be what he's been waiting for, could this be what's for dinner?" Thirteen hooded parakeets zipped over and headed for the hallowed out palms for a game of hide-and seek. Our launch from the piney perch dropped us swiftly across the mangroves and over the lagoon! The whoosh of wings. The darting & dodging through the braches & the scattering of prey! A thump. A puff of bright green feathers. Dinner is served! My attention shifted to a attentive Blue heron standing in the shallows along the south pass. He protected his prized fishing spot from the 12 reddish egrets that worked the flat on an outgoing tide. Eight white ibis poked and probed their way through the muck for the more "icky" delicacies that the bayou provides. And there too, swimming in the distance, a lone pie-billed grebe worked the lagoon for snacks. Their appearance here in the bayou is short, but so sweet for the birders.
Twenty-two yellow-crowned night herons rested in the mangroves on this day. Last year's hatch is all grown up now, but not adorned with full-color plumage yet. A bumper crop of fiddler crabs have emerged on Fiddler's Island. This small island host's a spring mating ritual that rivals any migration seen on the Discovery Channel! Last year's bunch is coming along nicely and the pinchers are being "tuned up" for the springtime mating concert that all must attend! I soared high above the bayou heading toward the upper creeks. Drifting past the moss covered oaks and under the branch of the Australian pine to soft landing on the gator's dormant mud flat. Soon he'll immerge from the grassy swamp to this spot where he'll bellow out mating calls that will be heard for miles if you care to hear. The slam of my client's car door interrupted my trance-like state and I found myself still standing with the hawk in the slash pine... now staring right at me, unflustered, comfortable and safe. I stayed for just one more look... to see through the eyes of a stranger.
A SCREECH IN THE NIGHTRead Now
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
For more than a week now from the dark shadows cast by the streetlight into the crooked branches my live oak... a sound carries over my lawn. The first cry penetrated my bedroom window, left open to hear the rain, and I opened my eyes. I walked toward the front door only to find someone with a flashlight in my yard! Unusual as it was I watched patiently with the phone ready to dial 911. It was the neighbor lady donning a night gown, shining the treetops! She had been passing by on a dog walk and heard the same shreaking call, thinking a stray cat may have caught a squirrel or a rodent she was concerned. Just then, from behind us and right between us a winged creature swooped and grabbed a gecko lizard from the porch rail! We caught the bird in the flashlight beam on a big branch just in time to see an adult screech owl feeding the unlucky lizard to it's young! The young owl was no bigger than my hand and reminded me of my feeble grandpa with his big brown eyes and thin hair standing on end. He gobbled and gurgled the gecko down and continued screaming for more. The adult made frequent trips to the ground and snatched lovely cockroaches and bugs from the mulch...ahhh yes...dinner time at the Z's and a fine example of nature's solutions for pests!
VOICES IN TONGUERead Now
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. John Muir
Modern day flip-flops plopped and slapped down the brick street of the old town and with every step I could hear subtle voices. When I stopped to touch a rough, stone wall built by the elders I heard them there too. Porches of the older homes tilting sharply and lacking paint still hold space for a cat in an old cedar rocking chair, I could hear them there. But it wasn't until I saw their children's deer hide shoes as some of the only remnants recovered from the hurricane of 1852 did the voices become louder. I traversed the cemetery where the original warmth of cedar plank headstones have long been removed and replaced with cold marble. Woodsman, carvers & fisherman alike lay side by side on the hill overlooking an endless sea of grassy wilderness. Whitman “The Shell Man” is buried here too he must have heard them for he had one of the largest collections of artifacts ever seen, some arrowhead and spear tips were dated to be 20,000 years old....shhhhhh. Their spirits mingled about even as the clam shell coffins cover their faces and I hear them... through time and in the breeze they speak in native tongue. I followed their voice and passed through the shadows that pointed me down a path deeper into history of Cedar Key.
The brilliant white plumes of the egret flash along the canopy covering the abandon railroad built by Faber in 1855. No longer can you hear his old locomotive...but you can hear them. Images of the Temucuan natives piling shells from oysters, chonk, muscle, & green turtle into a huge mound that towers 28ft above the mud flats took 6000 years to build! Standing atop the remains now covered in palm and cedar I wondered "Why here? Why this spot so far from anything and plagued by biting deer flies?" My questions, asked aloud into the cooling summer breeze were heard, but left unanswered until the Children running through the marsh grass flushed scores of egret, ibis and laughter in to the timeless sky....I heard them
Standing alone on the center-line of Hwy 24 I bonded with the swallow tail kite and we both heard them. I would have like to see this landscape through the native's eyes. John Muir on his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf in 1867 heard them. "The traces of war," he wrote, "are not only apparent on the broken fields, mills, and woods ruthlessly slaughtered, but also on the countenances of the people." Ancestors of the great cedar tree still twist in the breeze and drop scented blue seeds to the rich earth...maybe again someday, but for now "savaged" he said, unfinished vine and scrub for miles. A watery and vine-tied land!
The kayak trip the island and the Seahorse Key lighthouse from my condo is civilized, but civilization does not appear to be welcome here and I heard them. Not the electricity, nor the air boats, or the gulf carts, restaurants or tour boats. Remnants of history remain; Giant cast iron pots used to make salt and hulls of old clam boats litter the rugged landscape. I'd not regret the loss of the pier to the west or the famous "Guest House" that is disappearing with every tidal change just like modern-day locals.
“Atsena Otie” from the Muscogean language “acheno ota” or cedar island...the only Native American words that I can speak and understand. I'll likely not return to this place of cloudy water and clams, but will never forget what I heard. - Kurt Z
Rx for Good Living
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It's always our self we find in the sea.
Thankfully the Southwesterly winds weakened last week and allowed us/me a first-time kayak trip from St Pete Beach into the Gulf Of Mexico. Slow rollers created a cradle effect that gently swayed the kayak as we paddled through crystal-clear waters just beyond the swim zone. A tropical wave washes over me. Looking back at the beach from my offshore vantage point, it exemplifies Florida to me.
By the time we approach the rock jetty off Blind Pass, the hustle-bustle and hurry-scurry of city life begins to feel like a distant memory. Water is so clear that fifteen feet looks like 5. Colorful growth on the old rocks clamors for attention in the sunlight and the plantlife reaches the surface like fingers waving a gentle hello to us. The kids, whose eyes, smiles and laughter erupted with, “This is sooooo cool, OMG look at all the fish!” OMG is right! This jetty has been a source of habitat for marine life since the 60's. The inside lagoon is as tropical as any island habitat in Florida and perhaps beyond. The outside shelf is deeper, more mysterious and houses a Jewfish as big as a Volkswagon, but that's a different story. If it sounds like I'm exaggerating it's because my senses have been cleansed by sea, sand and water in my mouth, nose, ears and I feel....intoxicated!
Sometimes the first face dip of a snorkel trip can be intimidating. Trips into dark murky water with noisy grunts and large shadows darting away in your peripheral vision can be alarming. But that’s not the case here. As soon as the first flush of salt water floods the snorkel tube, the 4-foot lagoon becomes a riot of small fish! You feel instantly welcomed as millions of them dart around you.
Underwater communication is oddly understandable through a snorkel tube. For example: Everybody stuff a napkin in your mouth and beginning talking at the same time. Throw in a loud squeal of excitement and lots of questions like “What's that? Come over here. Holy cow!” and you'll get the practice you need for such a trip. The challenge is being conditioned and prepared well enough to having your goggles kicked off by the kids. So I didn’t see the “flailing” arm-punch in the gut or the backhand in the ribs coming. And then there are the little divers that come up too fast like a torpedo, slam into your hull and knock the wind out of you.
After the brief “cage-match” with the kids, I broke away and drifted into a school of darting fish. I floated lazily, quietly and watched the dizzying swirl of fish that surrounded me. They bumped into my goggles and acted much like my cat when a stranger comes into the house....confused, scared, dodging and spinning not knowing where to hide or turn next. Then I got a tickle from behind. Thinking it was one of the kids; I ignored it and remained still. It happened again, but when I turned to see who – or what – it was, nobody was there. It happened again and again. By now I'm spinning in circles to catch a glimpse of who or what was tickling my back. The sounds of laughter are the best universal language!
The kids were all lined up behind me laughing and choking on water! “Hey! The minnows are getting stuck in your back hair! Do it again, do it again!” For the fish I imagine it was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney – each daring the other to try the big ride with all the spooky growth. Oh well, I saw this ad on TV recently for a spa that offers a treatment that involves soaking your feet in a fish tank where the fish nibble on your toes! If that's the case, a kayak trip into the soothingly warm Gulf water, a touch of sun, and a whole bunch of feeling good is just what the doctor ordered!
GREEN PHOBYRead Now
By Kurt Zuelsdorf
I tried to see what made such an odd chatter – unlike anything that I’d heard before. Then I realized! The cute little calls were not bugs, toads, or birds…they were baby alligators screaming for help!
The noisy leopard frogs and crickets stirred my sleep on a tepid October morn.
It was kayak season in the Green Swamp, one of Florida’s most important aquifers. It supplied Floridian’s with water and an abundance of wildlife. Over 50 thousand acres of unassuming swamp lay waiting, possibly fearing the hunters’ intrusion.
Sweet Gum and Oak campfires shrouded the canopy of century old trees and smoldered through the rustic and primitive camp. My brother Terry, a fine hunter, rolled out of the camper geared up and ready to hunt. He hoped I’d prepared his favorite hunt meal – who-hash, canned corn beef hash mixed with scrambled eggs, piled high on black toast. I never could stomach the smell so I insisted he do his own cowboy cooking. He fumbled for the flint that sparked the Coleman stove to life. The flame illuminated the heavy black stains around the burners, left from years of boiling traps in dye. The dents and dings alone tell more stories than I’ll ever be able to recall – a treasured item indeed. After breakfast Terry reminded me to bring the “G.A.L.S.” an old hunters gag for remembering the necessities; Guns. Ammo. License & Snacks.
The campground full of camouflaged hunters waited for daylight, while dragging deeply from cigarettes and chattering among themselves at a over-cafinated lick. Old pickup trucks with rifles in the rear window struggled to stay running. The gates to the management area were about to open.
The old cattle bridges that span the Little Withlacoochee River had no guide rails. Built narrowly of a dozen 2-inch pipes, the crossing left little room for error and barely enough space for off-road tires. The tannin grade water flowed quickly just below the rails, evidence that a 2-year draught was over and the swamps watershed was full.
Check station attendants are some of the most interesting characters in Florida’s management areas. Usually local volunteers, they check licenses and handout permits - never eager to pass local knowledge on to a passing city boy on his way into their swamp. But one would do well to slow himself or herself to the local’s speed – a step faster than a snail – and listen carefully through the tobacco chew and southern drawl.
The stations were set up with a small sheltered concrete slab and a wash down hose that hung just below a scale. Off to the side on a table was an old gallon pickle jar with natural lard and sugar water paste - a good-ol fashion flytrap – full to the rim with blow flies. Old skulls, antler sheds, turkey feathers or sometimes arrowheads and fossils were lying about, you never know what you’ll see scattered about. The station eliminated the 50-gallon barrels that held entrails used for research. Now brain samples test for chronic wasting disease and lower jaw samples are collected to determine age, along with sex, weight, and number of antlered points and date of harvest. The biggest attraction that drew hunters from miles around was the progress board – a big chalkboard that posted the number of deer, hog and squirrel kills for the season. Up to that day 23 deer, 65 hogs and a whopping 125 squirrels were recorded. Numbers that indicated room for a few more deer kills by seasons end.
The bone-jarring 8-mile journey came to a dusty halt at the end of Bull Barn Rd. From here facing east it’s nearly 45 miles to the next hard road. Nothing in between but real Florida wilderness. Many stories of lost hunters barely making it out alive lurked in the back of our mind, including a story of the warden who disappeared. Neither him nor his truck were ever seen or heard from again. Whether the true or yarns spun by locals to protect secret hunt spots was unknown, but one look across the vastness and you could believe it might happen.
The ½ mile walk to our favorite spot passed quickly with no conversation between Terry and me. Our pace slowed. Our steps grew cautious and we stopped to ponder our next move. The sun peaked through the backdrop of tall pines on the other side of the low growing palmettos just beyond our cypress head. Spanish moss hung heavy in the scattered old oaks. Small flocks of curlew passed overhead. Great herons were positioned in the shallows. Morning fog provided the final touches on a scene most Floridian’s or visitors will ever come to know or enjoy outside of Disney.
Last years controlled burn left black slashes across our shins and knees as we slowly traversed the new growth. Spiders, gecko’s, skinks and small snakes scurried out from under our feet. Startled, a large armadillo reared on its hind legs and hopped through the brush like a kangaroo. Certainly out of character for the armored dildo, when compared to the southern speed-bump-slump more common on roadways.
The palmetto growth escalated as we neared the fringes of the swamp. Its thick jacket consisted of thorny vines and scrub oak entangled with cabbage palm and slash pine. The moist black earth was freshly tilled revealing roots and fresh bulbs – a feral hogs favorite snack. We split up armed with a plan to slip into the core without spooking its inhabitants. On our hands and knees we crept like kids through the low tunnels used by all forms of wildlife. The first 10 yards were the toughest. Two-inch long thorns tore at my skin and cloths. Eventually it gave way to cypress knees and ankle deep water where the core of the hammock was revealed. I stayed on my knees in the soft muck for a moment and stretched my head high enough to get a peek at a pair of wood ducks spinning nervously about in the open pond. With an effortless thrust they whistled up through the shaded canopy. The glorious rays of the sun revealed the male’s countless colors and distinctive hood. Back on the small pond their only evidence of existence disappeared in the ripples that tickled the hyacinth and set the water lilies into a gentle dance.
My legs sank deeper into the muck. Air pockets from decaying vegetation released gases that hung heavy in the humid air. In no time the swamp returned to it’s unspoiled life. Cardinals chased each other through the underbrush. Small warblers nervously bobbed and flipped their wings nearby. A platoon of scrub jays chatted amongst themselves in the treetops before moving on to a place only they knew looking for the freshly fallen acorns – a favorite snack for wildlife in autumn.
My eyes became transfixed on the palms on the far side of the pond. Something big in the heavy cover was feeding. Terry detected the same movement. I knew he enjoyed these moments as much as me. He slowly worked around the outside of the pond staying low and using foliage for cover. I waded around the left side where a bottomless pit of muck tested my plan and patience. The water was getting deeper with every step and it was nearing my waistline. The lilies didn’t seem to mind and neither did I, but it was the muck that I feared. Cypress knees bumped my shins as I toed my way across. Submerged logs tested my balance and courage. Then and eerie presence stopped me in my tracks. The ripples on the pond and in the weeds all came to calm. The hair on the back of my neck came to full attention. I was several yards from dry land when a chirp from below grabbed my attention, but it wasn’t a bird. Another croaked from the other side and slightly behind me, but it wasn’t a frog. Something squeaked from the lilies at my knees, was it a bug? Then in unison they began to cry. Startled, I shifted my weight and almost fell. My hands groped the water and lilies for balance. I tried to see what made such an odd chatter – unlike anything that I’d heard before. Then I realized! The cute little calls were not bugs, or toads, or lizards…they were baby alligators screaming for help! My mouth went bone dry. My knees buckled and my stomach knotted up. My heart was pounding and my mind raced to find hope. I was afraid to call for help and my body wouldn’t move. When a submerged log that rested against my leg started moving the “phoby” reached force 5! The lily pads to my right heaved up and retreated, then again. I pictured an unsuspecting wildebeest in the outback sipping from the rivers edge and I expected a huge prehistoric head full of teeth to lunge from beneath the surface. I had to move. The cries continued. The lilies moved again. Closer, within arms reach. A low-pitched growl and a nasty hiss was the last draw. I don’t remember my first few steps, but imagine that I may have walked on water.
I heard myself cry. Birds scattered. Frogs and minnows on the pond scurried for cover as my legs churned the calm surface into a white lather. Mud boiled up around me as neared the shore – the scariest moment of the dash. Where was he? Was he behind me plotting his “death roll”? I turned to look back from the waters edge when the palmettos beside me exploded with movement. Palm fronds and branches were flying into the air as if trucks were plowing through the cover. Then the warning flag of a white tailed deer flashed his goodbye.
Terry had witnessed the ruckus and approached with a questioning frown. I suppose it could have been the lily pads on my head and shoulders, or maybe the mud that speckled my sheet white face or that I was shaking like a palm frond in a hurricane.
We saw then where a big alligator had crushed the grass where we stood, but we never saw the gator. Now more educated I’ve learned that during droughts, alligators excavate holes, which become ponds, which gather fish, which feed birds, which in turn become nourishment for alligators. Luckily I wasn’t the one providing the next meal!
“Phoby?” Terry asked. “Force 5 phoby!” I corrected him stoutly. I’ll try to explain; Phoby was a term that Terry and I invented to describe excitement or fear on our many outdoor adventures together. We needed a language, so we decided to use parts of the Saffir Simpson scale, the one used to measure the force of a hurricane as our model. There are five categories.
Cat 1; the equivalent of getting ready for the hunt. The excitement of seeing a deer cross in front of the car. The fear in watching a scary movie perhaps.
Cat 2; seeing a nice buck in the distance from a tree stand. Seeing movement in the underbrush. Having a cockroach on your toothbrush.
Cat 3; Prey is near and the possibility of a shot exists, but doesn’t occur. Walking into a spider web in the dark.
Cat 4; High phoby. Phoby that sucks the wind from your lungs. You can feel and see your heart pounding through clothes. Senses sharpen enough to hear things that only dogs can hear. Standing face to face with a white tail deer or perhaps a snake in your sleeping bag would take you to this level.
Cat 5; Force 5 intrudes and impairs rationality. It affects both physical and mental ability. Can be both catastrophic and hysticarical all at once. It burns everlasting spine-tingling memories into the memory banks. The special moments of euphoria while taking a trophy. I can tell you with no uncertainty; standing in a nest of baby alligators in the middle of a swamp will achieve Force 5!
Our hearts sank a minute later when the single report of a rifle followed by a hearty cheer announced some other hunter’s victory.
We both knew it was a big deer that we pushed to the standing hunter, but we didn’t realize just how big until we returned to the check station. Hunters were gathered around the scale and blocked our view from the hanging buck. We could see the excitement in the crowd as they milled about trying to get a peek. “Weee –doggy. We just got ourselves a possible state record here!” The warden announced. The gallery cheered. The tally on the harvest board revealed it was the only deer killed that day in the entire Green Swamp. We didn’t get out of the truck. We didn’t tell them what happened. We were tired, wet and disgruntled. When we approached the river, another hunter’s luck went south. He missed the old cattle bridge and dropped his truck into the river below. Several other men were standing hip deep in the river trying to budge the truck, but it was clearly not a task for bare hands. Darkness was upon us as more men joined in the. I stood on the bridge, maybe afraid to go into the water – knowing first hand how the gators of the Green Swamp spread their phoby !
KAYAK THE BIRDSRead Now
Was it George C Scott that said? “I love the smell of bird poo in the morning, it smells like… victory!”
Well, maybe not… but if he’d have kayaked in St. Petersburg with me the other day to a BIRDING island between St Pete and Treasure Island where the great Blue herons nest alongside pelicans, egrets, spoonbills & cormorants he might have!
Approaching the shallow, smelly, shelly, shoal (say it 3 times fast) from the downwind side ranks high on my list of “bad ideas”. I slammed into the invisible stinkwall nearly 100 yards from the island. The pungent smell of bird poo literally took my breath away! My lungs burned as the last breath of fresh air was replaced with ammonia vapors. My head spun and twisted as I gasped & thrashed for air. Then oddly enough, in a spastic moment of clarity, I found relief in my armpit!
Drifting quietly past the heavily painted & active nests I closed my eyes and it sounded remarkably like a recent picnic I attended. The chatty volume of several families huddled together rose to a dull roar. In the playground above, the older osprey boys were playing aerial tag with a mullet and the whining gulls tagging along screaming “fowl, fowl, fowl!” The ladies discussed the finer techniques of plumage protection, chick care, and where to get fresh fish. Mrs. Heron was very passionate on describing how Jr. over there nearly choked to death on a tailbone of a pinfish. “Little missy is one thing, but that boy over there is nothing but trouble!”
Oh sure, they talked about the fine weather we’re having and the fresh Spring breeze, but one topic was unanimous - “How a fresh rain could really benefit the Pelican boys who are in serious need of a bath!” Oh and don’t forget about the grand opening of the dead oak tree just over yonder ‘cause it’s all the rave for new nesting products – certainly the Ikea store of the bird world. Every rookery picnic has a proud parent that brags about their kids too – “How fast they’ve grown & how handsome they’ve become” and “Oh, my little Suzie spoonbill is just so talented with her new spoon and… OMG…just look at her new pink plumage!” And in the rookery they have friends that use wing-and-feather gestures to help to communicate, just like us right?(if you don’t have a friend like this…you are the friend) Here it’s the Snowy egret. They bounce through the canopy waving and feathering frantically to anyone who gets near and a loud squawk with a beak pinch is never too much to get the point across.
There are also the quiet cormorants in the corner sitting alone. I heard that they fling poo to protect their nest. No wonder they’re alone! I once had this friend….oh never mind that. The point is; if you come across a stinky neighbor in your life, be considerate and keep in mind that in the bird world it’s just the smell of success!
KAYAK CLAM BAYOURead Now
THE FROST AND THE FOG
The fog rollled through the bayou today in moving sheets of white like so many snow storms of recent months. the changing, dropping leaves of the oaks caught more than they Kayaking Natural Florida
could hold and it dripped in a melodic plud onto the sea grape leaves that had blow into the underbrush below. without the scissors of the sun to cut away the veil the fog will likely linger.
The snowbirds; the swallow, willits, loons & bay ducks milled around like people in an airport awaiting the great migraton to the North. The White pelicans readied themselves for a long flight, perhaps back to the Horicon Marsh, looking like business travelers awaiting a flight, cool, calmm collected in their finest white outfits. Others looked more like I do in the airport..nervous, figity & jumpy. A marbled godwit reminded me of a foreign traveler with a long snouty bill; standing alone he keept to himself watched whirlwind of travelers.
The gulls of all things had the task of the dilligent gate attendants, willing to answer even the most annoying questions from a little blue heron that seemed to have lost his bags near the luggage conveyer belt made up of an endless school of baitfish that came out of a tunnel, rotated around the oyster bar then dissappeared back into the mangroves. "Many bags look alike..." Is that my bag? How can I tell? Occasisionally a childish noisy egret would run to belt, flap his wings and squak in frustration. He disrupted everyone in line til his prize was caught or until the gulls swooped in and shoood him away from the front of the line.
Right on schedule the black skimmers were called to the tarmak and cleared for takeoff. In perfect formation cutting through the fog a flock of at least 50 plotted a course toward Gulfport beach escorted by a dozen plovers, daily commuters you know.
I missed the early departure of our winter artists. The Brown Pelicans must have taken the red-eye to the flats and islands of the region. I'm sure their beaky luggage was tightly packed with fishy delights for the trip. They were kind enough to leave their artwork plastered on the south wall of mangroves, but like the frost of the North their white impressions will slowly drip into the swirrling outgoing tide.
A birder named charlie from D.C. moved with the migration pausing briefly in the bayou. He was on his way to the north too...moving with the frost line. I don't think he'd mind me relating him to this classy bunch of travelers? He dissappeared in the mist with bird book in hand followed closely behind by the Pie-billed Grebe parking attendant that kept things moving in order.
Today I heard the tropical winds from the South wispering to he birds - Time to go time to fly. Fly with me on the grace of my currents and together we'll free the frozen world. Time to go, time to fly to a place where the nests on treetops drip with thawing dew.
Let my currents carry you...time to go, time to fly and together we'll watch the fog chase the frost away. - Kurt Z
Disston PastRead Now
“Boarding a cruise boat from the Historic Gulfport Casino... I saw her!”
While walking through the historic waterfront district of Gulfport during the last ArtWalk I found myself drifting backward through time. Passing the Penninsula Inn I felt myself staring at the clock tower pretending to reach for and check my pocket watch tucked smartly in my wool vest under a highwayman's jacket of a fancier time. In just a few minutes I'll be departing from the now historic Gulfport Pier on a boat which has been successfully reviving the sunset cruises long dormant here.
In the late 1800's the rough dirt road leading to the candlelit Casino was bustling with people from everywhere! A clang from the trolley and a toot from the streetcar would echo over napping cats and dogs laying about in the shade. Vendors touted wares of both quality and not, selling them briskly to the visitors to help pay their price for living in a coastal paradise.
A visiting lady wearing fitted bodice and extravagantly puffy sleeves, the picture made complete by feathered hat perched on hair piled up high for the mob cap effect, commented on the charm of the town to her husband who sported a black bow tie and Capezio black Jazz oxfords. “Everybody is so friendly. They all say hello!” she said. He pulled a pipe from his bearded mouth and agreed.
I tend to agree to this day.
Shadows, viewed through thick cigar smoke, loomed in the alleys as fishermen tossed dice against the wall to wager their daily catch. Two rough-n-tumble boys in knickers and cap smacked a can with a stick.
High heels and laced boots clicked and clattered up the old planks of the dock which led to the
boat. A timeless summer breeze carried heavy smoke over the roof of the Casino and across the small restaurants and passersby. It wafted through the thick oaks and pines of the waterfront district and swirled upwards over the remains of the original steamboat, the Mary Disston. There she lay, mournfully, settled on the sandbar.
Fishermen, mostly shoeless and penniless in rowboats which carried the day’s catch tied up to the dock and showed off the modest fruits of their labor: clams, oysters, mullet and even citrus picked from a not too far away island. Their cries of “Cockles and mussels…fresh fish” echoed in the air of the darkening evening.
Down the beach, mothers with their children hiked up their skirts and removed their boots to walk in the sand. Girls dressed in high yoked dresses, boys dressed in knickers with white shirts, all eager to pick up shells and play. “How's the water?”
This night, Captain Dan welcomed the visitors and checked their name on the clipboard with care and dignity. Stepping onto the vessel was like a vacation moment. Fellow cruisers contemplated the demise of a sunken sailboat and imaginations soared! With lines tossed to the dock, a blender whirring in the background, there were smiles all around. And why not, we're cruising with the ghost of Mary.
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals