Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wakulla County Swamp Running – Mini Adventure #1


If you’d told me, even just a few short months ago, that I’d find myself out running in a Florida swamp, I might theoretically have threatened to feed you to an alligator. I also might have assumed that you were professing some dark form of clairvoyance and were alluding to my imminent demise. You see, before moving to Wakulla County, Florida—gators, swamps, snakes, sand gnats, yellow flies, cockroaches, and locusts were, to my mind, the stuff of horror movies—not creatures with which I ever expected to come into contact.

Of course, several years ago, when my partner, Brian, and I were still living in Seattle, he would sometimes travel back to this—his—part of Northern Florida to visit his mother and the rest of his kin, as he liked to say. During his visits, he’d call me daily to tell me about seeing fish jump and porpoises crest the water’s surface on the bay. He’d also call me to describe spectacular sunsets and the sounds of the frogs at night. He especially loved to call from his neighbor’s dock or from his mom’s deck, where he’d be hanging out either fully naked or in just a sarong. He’d typically call from the dock late at night to tell me about the stars, the solitude, the warm winds, and about listening to the whippoorwills. In these phone calls, I can now see that what he was trying to do was woo me with the wonders of Wakulla.

But, he also used to call to tell me about some of his other exploits in the area—and while his more adventurous tales were probably meant, on some level, to impress me—instead they left me feeling smugly safe and secure in my humble little home back in Seattle. His first memorable tale was of the time he went running along the dikes in the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge and nearly ran up on an alligator. The gator appeared to him as a pure inky-black smudge, and what Brian said initially just looked like mud eventually revealed itself to be the shoulder of an enormous alligator. By the time Brian realized that the tire rut he was approaching was more gator than mud, he also realized that there was likely no reasonable way around the beast. So, he turned tail and trotted back the way he’d come.

His second scary story was about a time when, while trying to outrun mosquitoes, gnats, and yellow flies in a swamp near his mother’s house, he ran up on a pack of wild boar, two of which boasted big tusks. Brian was full of amazement, excitement, and energy as he relayed this extraordinary encounter, and he explained recalling the notion that you’re supposed to make yourself look big and tall to scare certain wild animals away. The big, tall, scary-deep-voice act turned out to be a tactic that did, in fact, work for him, somehow convincing the family of wild boar to turn and amble back off into the brush. Warm and snug in my own bedroom in Seattle, I just kept wondering why the hell the boy couldn’t find someplace other than a swamp to go running.   

After we moved to Wakulla, Brian worked hard to introduce me to the whole kaleidoscope of weird and wondrous experiences that could be had here. The dolphins and porpoises on the bay were an easy first step, and they delighted almost daily. We could often step out onto the deck, sip our coffee, and watch the cetaceans slip by. On lazy afternoons, the mullet were perhaps even more entertaining, throwing themselves fully out of the water, headlong in the direction of some new patch of river a “fish-yard” or so towards what I imagined must be a fish goalpost somewhere up or down river. The pelicans also never failed to amuse and impress as they flew in bomber-style formations back and forth overhead. I also became and remained perpetually intrigued by the noisy Bonaparte gulls, the talented diving terns, the occasional migrating loons, and even the somewhat unsightly anhinga, and over the course of my first summer, I even saw sharks, manatees, and stingrays—all right outside Brian’s mom’s cottage, where we still live.

And as Wakulla migrated from merely warm when we arrived in February to generally steamy and then started heading straight towards stifling, Brian and his cousin, David, coerced me into going out on the Sopchoppy River at night to fish for catfish. After swearing that there was no way I would join them, I had to admit—after finally relenting—that it was a much lovelier experience than I could have imagined. The river at night wasn’t what a Yankee like me could describe as cool, but it had a soft, pleasant feel, and to the best of my knowledge, nothing actually bit me while we were out there tending the cat lines.

Later in the summer, I even surprised myself by remaining shockingly calm while watching a rat snake emerge from some shrubbery in the front yard. Brian and I stared for what seemed like an eternity until all six or eight or ten feet of the damn thing stretched across the grass and slipped off into the woods to the east of the house. Brian and I both spent some time reminding and reassuring me that the only things rat snakes really want to eat are rats, which, provided that the snake remained off in the shrubbery, actually seemed like a pretty fair deal to me.

As the furnace-like conditions of mid-summer finally arrived—Brian and I continued to explore Wakulla County, and we soon discovered even more fascinating facts about our surroundings. We learned that what Brian had always referred to as Whippoorwills were actually Chuck-wills-widows, which have a beautifully distinctive and repetitive call with a rhythm that matches their name.

We also grew accustomed to hearing the nightly commotion that was the frogs in the swamp. While Brian had tried to tell me about the sound of the frogs many times, until I heard it for myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. From the open door of the cottage at night, the frogs were loud, and many evenings, the frenetic frog performance would be the loudest thing we could hear. Brian would notice them starting in towards dusk, and then, as if encouraging me to attend a neighborhood concert or a block party, he’d enthusiastically say, “Come on, let’s walk down to the swamp and listen”? It took numerous requests before I’d go, and I only went then because he assured me that he didn’t actually mean wading around in a swamp but merely standing on the edge of a road next to the swamp. When we finally did wander down the mostly still road in the sultry summer air, the symphony of frog noise was shocking. How many were there? Hundreds? Thousands?

There were clearly different types of frogs in there—each one contributing their specific call to the composition and crescendo. Brian noted the bullfrogs, which hit the deepest notes, sounding like a cross between a bassoon and a didgeridoo. Then there were the crazy, alien-sounding frogs that may have been squirrel tree frogs or southern spring peepers or even ornate chorus frogs. I still don’t know, though I started looking them up as soon as we got home. One of the most interesting things was that the chirps and squawks being made by the the sopranos, tenors, and baritones would all start slowly—calling and responding, repeating and insisting until the whole thing became a roiling summer evening concerto, and then, as if cut off by the wave of a conductor’s baton, the voices would cease—simultaneously—and silence would take its turn. And then after several moments of calm, quiet, stillness—never knowing what it was that made them stop or start—we’d hear—perhaps one lone bullfrog call dark and low, and then the chorus of little space-alien frogs would start in—sounding something like an old spring bed repeatedly creaking up and down—and then the rest of the amphibious instruments would come in, the sound of a North Florida summer evening building again and again.

All of which brings me back to running in the swamp—something that, despite my ever-increasing affinity for the wonders and the wildlife of Wakulla, I thought I’d never do. But I’ve noticed that never is a long time, and whenever I say never, time usually makes a liar out of me, so my progression towards running in the swamp all started when, several weeks back, Brian told me that he was engaging in a get-back-into-shape-intelligently fitness program. I’d never taken such a common sense approach to getting in shape, but I decided his plan had merit.

Brian then explained that while I’d been away over the holidays, he’d started executing this new fitness regime by going out running and walking in the wildlife refuge on trails that ran between a series of little lakes and swamps. He assured me that here in the depths of winter, the bugs would be few to non-existent and that running along the refuge trails was in fact very pleasant. So, after all of my reluctance, I decided to give it a try. And—as with nearly everything else I’ve discovered here—I wasn’t just pleased, I very quickly became enchanted.

On our first excursion, we drove down Surf Road towards Sopchoppy and pulled off the road across from the newly paved bike path alongside a small wire gate, preventing cars from actually driving into the refuge. As part of our intelligent, get-back-into-shape fitness program, we had decided to alternate between walking and running, and so we started with a nice five-minute walking warm up. Just moments into our first walking segment on the sandy trail, which was littered with long brown pine needles and enormous pine cones, I noticed that the warm, low-angle winter light seemed to bath the whole landscape in deep reds and golds. I also noticed that the broad expanses of Long Leaf and Slash or Swamp Pines made me think of pictures I’d seen of the African savannah. These tall pines hold nearly all of their branches and leaves up high—allowing the eye long views and letting the sun light all of the wiregrass and palmettos below.

We ran along the trails between the small lakes and swamps on several occasions before actually seeing an alligator, and when we finally did see the gator, it was only because a Dad and his son, who’d been out biking, pointed it out to us. The gator was lounging, partially submerged, in a tiny, thick little swamp area just off the side of the road.

We didn’t have much trouble with bugs, and we didn’t see any wild boar. We saw no snakes and no buzzards and nothing else off of my critters-that-make-me-squeamish list. We did see formations of geese and ducks that flew so closely overhead that we could hear the beating of their wings moving the air, and we watched as the slowly setting sun turned all of the tree trunks to a rosy umber against the pale blue sky.

What have I learned from this little mini adventure? Running in the wilderness of the wildlife refuge past small lakes and swamps has not been the scary, horror movie experience I immediately conjured in my mind when Brian first mentioned it. Instead, it has been a magical little adventure that has sent me, full of curiosity, rushing to my computer to look up the names of trees, shrubs, and grasses. It has made me want to return to the refuge with a really good camera to take pictures that—were I a good enough photographer—could grace the pages of National Geographic. It has taught me that I should push myself harder to get past little fears—especially those that arise from simply being in an unfamiliar backyard. It has also taught me that mini adventures can be found anywhere, if we only take the time and make the effort to discover them.

Have you ever had an experience (a mini adventure or a true epic) that first required that you get past some sort of fear? 

6 comments:

  1. Beautiful descriptions of an environment I remember from childhood. I loved the description of the frogs too. I have looked out for reptiles as many people watch for birds.

    When I was a kid we used to play in the ocean off Cape Hatteras, NC. There were jellyfish in the water and we had to get past them to swim. One one day we got out to where we couldn't touch the bottom, which always made me nervous being as Jaws was one of my favorite movies as a kid.
    Along comes a large grey shape, sporting two fins!! When it shot below the water, it charged right past our legs, sending currents of water swirling around us. These were dolphins, but we didn't know that at the time. I still wish we had stayed out there longer and really swum with them, maybe we would have been able to touch their cold silvery skin. At the time though, being that close to any real life sea creature sent us shreaking for the shore.

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  2. I love your writing, keep up the blogging. We did a trip to the Galapagos Islands in December. I had great intentions of doing a blog but just got lost in all the excitement of the islands and swimming with turtles, seals and iguanas. You need to put that one on your bucket list and no you can’t take your private boat there.

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  3. Hey Sarah, I love that story of swimming (unknowingly) with the dolphins. Brave! Years ago, my sister and I were boogie boarding in Australia when someone came over a loud speaker and said that there had been a confirmed shark sighting. As you can imagine, we headed straight for shore.

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  4. Hi Capt. Bob! Great to hear from you! I'd been noticing that I hadn't read anything from the Surprise blog in a long time, but I'm one to talk. Thank you for your encouragement. (What I really need is a kick in the pants!) So glad you had a super trip to the Galapagos. It is definitely on my bucket list! Take care, and hope to hear from you again soon. I'll be checking your blog!!!

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  5. You paint an intriguing and inviting picture. Sounds beautiful, if you have the eyes to see it.

    The fear I learned to conquer is nowhere near as picturesque - I began donating blood, though I am horrifically squeamish about needles, so I can't actually watch as the needle slides in.

    I wasn't afraid to do it, but I recommend anyone explore the beauty of Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon, especially the less-visited North Rim. When you've seen a California condor soaring in the sky (less than 500 in existence, less than 300 in the wild) you know you are truly blessed.

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  6. Thanks, Beverly! Zion National Park and the Canyon (I can't believe I still haven't been.) sound fabulous. I am definitely trying to embark on a new chapter of exploration in the coming months and years, so I will add them to my ever-lengthening bucket list. I do find that we all tend to rush around so much that we can miss some of the wonder that is all around us, and seeing wildlife--actually out in the wild--is one of those things that can make you pause and just take in a special moment. Thanks, as always, for reading!

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