Swamp Stomping With The Wife.

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Got my bag, and my gun. All I need now is morning, so I can get out and go.

We had the gear set aside the night before, in anticipation of a day adventuring.  Even with an early start in mind, we woke a little later than planned.  While the wife pondered the benefits of staying in bed, verses the pleasure of trudging through a swamp with her husband, I pleaded my case for getting up and hitting the road.  Oddly enough, the promise of mud, sweat, and mosquitos won her over.

The prior evening I set the alarm on my phone, and we went to sleep.  I woke up, in the middle of the night, anticipating that it was nearly time to leave.  I checked my phone, 11:00 pm.  What!?!?  I can never seem to sleep through the night when I have an adventure planned for the next day.  I broke out the laptop to the expected groans of complaint from the wife.  A little social media checking, and a review of the google maps of the area we’d be visiting should help me get back to sleep.  Fortunately, this worked like a charm, about an hour or two later.

I woke up a few more times, but luckily I was able to get right back to sleep each time.  Finally the alarm sounded, and I was up, out of bed and getting ready to don my camouflage clothing.  “Five more minutes” the Weazel demanded.  “It’s now or never” was my reply.  Her response was the sound of her snoring.  Very well, I had things to do.  I loaded the vehicle while she managed to drag herself awake.  Soon we were ready, and to the graying light of dawn, we were in the car and on our way.

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The most important meal of the day. And I choose a gas station hot dog for the job.

We didn’t bother to cook a meal, daylight was already encroaching, and I usually like to get on the trails while it’s still too dark to properly see.  I did take a moment to stop at the local gas station for that favorite food of mine, roller meal.  This time I took one of the cheddar cheese dogs, some coffee, and a hot chocolate for the Weazel.  Now that we had the morning’s nutrition secured, we could continue on our way.

I made a comment or two, about how odd it was to be driving this route without the need for headlights.  My attempts at pointing out our late start were being pointedly ignored.

Eventually we made it to the landing at Bruce Creek.  It was a beautiful, yet erie morning.  A thick fog had settled on the entire area and visibility was very limited.  It added a surreal feel to the already ominous swamp.  The heavy moisture in the air was a blessing in a way.  The wet leaves didn’t crinkle as much when you stepped on them, also the twigs don’t seem to have the same snap when you accidentally crack them underfoot.  Considering how much like a herd of mammoths (I had used the term elephants in an earlier draft, but the wife demanded I replaced it with mammoths) the wife can sound like as she “quietly” stalks through the woods, I was happy with every advantage I could get.

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Stomp, stomp, stomp goes the Weazel.

Today’s mission was two fold.  To try out the new rifle that someone bought, and to see if I could take down one of the many ducks that

try to find shelter in these swamp basin creeks.  Whenever I go marching along these creeks, and I’m not legal licensed or equipped to take the migratory water fowl, they’re abundant.  Bursting up from the water, scaring the heck out of you, and all but flying circles around your head, teasing you with several easy shots.  Shots that of course, you can’t legally take.  Or if you did, the round you had available would disintegrate whatever poor bird you were lucky enough to hit.  I figured that I’d have some revenge on these angry little birds, while also drawing out some larger game, since I had bird shot in my gun, instead of something more potent.

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Bends in the creek where the sadistic ducks could be hiding.

Once we had our packs on, and our guns ready, we followed the main trail out of the parking lot, and somewhat east and south along the edge of the creek.  The fog had lifted some, and the animal sounds were starting to fill the air.  As usual, since we weren’t hunting for squirrels, they were every where.  Dancing from branch to branch, and throwing acorns, and branches into the water.  The morning silence was gone, replaced with a busy chorus of animals happy that we were ill equipped to kill them.  I had started stalking quietly, carefully placing one foot on the ground, ready to remove the pressure in case I felt a branch ready to break under me.  Maybe it was because of this deep concentration, or the fact we had barely started the trail, that I was unprepared for the  explosive splash, and duck equivalent of laughter that nearly caused me to fall over backwards as a group of five ducks buzzed my head, weaving between the trees like race pilots through inflated pylons.  I am sure I heard a snicker, or even a giggle from the Weazel.  Yet when I asked, she denied it vehemently.

We continued like this for quite a ways.  I’d try to stalk ahead, hoping to sneak up on the hiding ducks that I expected to be on the other side of each bend in the creek.  Over and over, I’d check, and there would be no ducks.  At about the point that I would get sloppy, and a little too casually approach the creek, splash, a quack laugh, and I’d raise the gun, BLAM!  I missed of course.  The lazy almost circling flight the ducks would perform when they would flee any other day, was replaced with a straight line, altitude eating climb.  An accent so fast that more often than not it left me wondering had there actually been a duck there in front of me, or had the turtles begun to self detonate?

This became the cycle for the next couple hours.  Splash, quack, blam, and nothing.  The wife would casually say, “I heard the shot, where’s the duck” knowing full well that since I was not wading through the water trying to recover the carcass that we would later try to turn into dinner, that there was no fatal wounding of the flying fowl.

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Hogs rooting on the creeks edge, creates the possibility of problems with erosion.

The Weazel was carrying a rifle.  A nice new Remington 700 calibered in the .243 round.  A gun well suited to take either hogs or deer.  I had, just in case, several rounds of both buck shot, and slugs.  Both of these preparations ensured we would see no hogs or legal deer all day.  I emphasize legal deer, because on more than one occasion, we were within shooting range of does.  There was as usual, an abundance of hog sign.  Not the same amount as we have found at other locations, but enough, and just fresh enough, that we expected to see a hog at each rounding of a bend.

Had to borrow this image, since I was too awe struck to take one of my own.

Of course there were no hogs, just the taunting ducks.  Actually, there was one other thing.  At one point, while I was ahead of the wife, I peered across the creek and through the gloomy woods, and saw something ghosting between the trees.  At first I thought it was a deer, except it was too light in color.  It would appear and disappear, without a sound.  All of a sudden, it was at the opposite bank, a couple hundred feet up stream from where I was.  I got a great view of it.  I thought it was a coyote, but it wasn’t. It was huge.  Half again as large as any coyote I’ve ever seen.  The color was wrong too.  It was light, but with light and dark brown makings.  Some looking black.  The closest domestic dog I could compare it too is either a husky, or a malamute.  Except it was too lean.  It was a slick looking animal.  Unlike a normal dog, it was silent as it trotted through the brush.  Most dogs I’ve walked with, just stumble through the vegetation.  This animal glided amongst it.  I was a little nervous all of a sudden.  It was staring towards this side of the bank, not where I was, but where I thought Weazel would be standing.  I waved my arms, and the canine just melted back into the forrest.  I wish I had thought to get my camera out.  It felt like a once in a lifetime experience.

Eventually the ducks quit making themselves available to us.  We had just about made it to where the creek met up with the Choctawhatchee river, and we turned around.  I still stalked the creek edges, but not as diligently.  Finally I popped back out at the parking lot, with the wife somewhere behind me.  There, waiting for us to come out, was an officer from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  Or as some people might call him, the game warden.  Fortunately, I had all my licenses up to date, and ready.  Weazel had hers handy as well.  We were cleared, and I spoke with the officer for a while.  It seems he was waiting for the person who had the other vehicle in the parking area.  The warden thought the guy might be in a boat.  I said with confidence there was no boat where we had walked.  None passed us as we were hiking, and I didn’t see any on the return trip.  So, I thought he wouldn’t have much luck.  He walked on down the trail, and was back a few minutes later.  “There’s a guy in a canoe, just down the way.”  It seems the guy had pulled off to one side at one of the bends where the trail doesn’t follow the creek.  I’m guessing the guy went upstream initially, and must have floated down to where the warden had found him while we were further down stream.  It made me think again, about making sure to check behind where I intend to shoot, as well as what I’m shooting at.

A hairpin bend in the creek

A hairpin bend in the creek

After chatting with the officer for a while, we went back to the car, and decided what to do next.  It was too early to head home, and I had yet to bag a duck.  I had just purchased the additional licenses, I refused to let them go to waste.  The wife ended up leaving her rifle at the car, and I dropped off my full pack.  We weren’t going far so we left out with just her small fanny pack, and some water.  I had never followed the creek upstream from the parking lot and so we agreed to give that a try.  There’s no trail, you just have to make your way along the bank of the stream as quietly as you can.  For her credit, Weazel only sounded like a single drunken mammoth (Again, I wanted to use the word elephant, but was vetoed, so it says mammoth instead), not the whole herd she usually brings to mind.  This was quite the improvement.  Part of this might have been due to the change in footwear.  She left the hard soled boots at home, and was wearing a pair of neoprene scuba diving boots.  It was so effective, I think I might have to give them a try sometime.

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The closest we’ve come to bringing a hog home so far.

We weren’t too far along when I came across something interesting.  We’re constantly finding old turtle shells in the woods.  Occasionally I’ll find a deer antler, and even more rarely, a skull.  This time I found a skull that I didn’t recognize.  At first I thought it was a deer skull, but it was too large, and the teeth were wrong.  Then I thought it was a dog, but again, the teeth didn’t match.  A little bit of looking, and I decided it was a hog.  The wife caught up soon after, and she decided to bag it in one of the trash bags she had in her pack.  We came to a point where the creek was close to the road, and we set it behind a tree to return for it later.  A few ducks had taunted me, a few more shells were expended, yet I still failed to down one of the feathered menaces, so we marched on.

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I think there’s a Squatch in these woods.

This section of the creek proved to be quite interesting.  It would widen out and slow down.  Then it would take these sharp hair pin turns.  Another section and we were scrambling along a slip of land only a few feet wide, and five feet above the water.  Other things occurred that were interesting.  The Weazel decided to do some of her best Sasquatch imitations. We stumbled upon a box turtle.  There was a moment of excitement as we came to an area that was raucous to such a degree, we were sure we had blundered into a parcel of hogs.  There were branches rustling, things splashing in the water, chittering and other noises that were so varied and constant, that it peaked our interests.  I left the wife and I carefully stalked ahead.  No easy task as the area was filled with small shrubs and palmettos.  When I finally got far enough ahead that I could see through the thicket, I discovered what was making the noise.  There had to be at least two dozen squirrels, all fighting and playing.  They were knocking things from the trees, branches and acorns, that landed with ploops, and loud splashes.  They were charging over, under and through the palmetto
fronds.  I logged the location in my GPS.  I’d come back with the .22, and take vengeance on this horde of furry deceivers at a later date.

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Old bridge, but no road.

When we looked around behind us, there in the river was the pilings for a long rotted and washed away bridge.  What I found interesting was that there was no sign of a road in the area.  I didn’t look real hard, but often you’ll find old rutted tracks, a break between older growth trees, and newer growth filling in the space of the old road way.  None of this was immediately evident.  A short distance down stream, I had seen a squared piece of timber that was about 15 feet long.  After finding these pilings, I assumed it may have once been part of this bridge.  A check of the GPS, and I saw we were getting close to the main road.  We continued our way along the creek.  I paused at one moment, and looked across the water and up on the hill was a shooting house.  I tried to be discreet, glancing up at it through the slit windows to make sure there wasn’t a silhouette looking back down at me.  I’d hate to have accidentally run off any game that they might have had in their sights.  I was also concerned that I might have come across an illegally placed structure.  I called the wife over, pointed it out and referenced my map.  Upon review, I found that we were at the border of the WMA, and that the building was on private land.

381986_4664945055398_881516236_nWeazel had mentioned she was ready for lunch.  As close as we were to the paved road, we decided we had gone far enough.  Instead of trying to take the long way back along the winding creek, we chose to go cross country, and head right for the dirt road we drove to the landing on.  We could then follow it back to the car, and be on our way to somewhere to eat in about thirty minutes.  We crossed through some cypress swamp, and into some pines.  We found an abandoned road that made part of the northern boundary of the WMA section we were in.  This disappeared and reappeared in places where nature had erased the evidence of man’s intentions.  Sections had been washed out in floods, trees had filled in other locations.  Falling trees uprooted, and changed the topography leaving depressions, or creating rises that had once been leveled ground.  Finally we broke out into the full sunlight.  Weazel finished the route back along the dirt road, as I descended into the woods, to follow sections of the creek where it looped in close to the road.  She beat me back, but not by too much.  She had stopped and retrieved the skull in the trash bag, and was waiting for me in the car.  We had agreed to go to Red Bay Grocery for our lunch.  It’s a great little local place that serves excellent home style food.  Upon arriving we saw the parking area just about full.  Many folks having just left church had the same plans as we did, and had beat us there.  We opted to get our food to go, and made our way down the road to Dead River Landing for a picnic meal.

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A late lunch at Dead River.

Dead River Road is a long clay road that winds through private lands, conservation property, and sections of the WMA.  The landing used to be such a colorful place.  I remember visiting the area during previous hunting seasons.  Upon entering the clearing, you’d see the drifting wafts of smoke from camp fires.  Old dilapidated camper trailers and antique pick up trucks with slide in camper units filled the available parking spaces.  Hunters in camo and blaze orange would be tending the fires, or working with their sons at boats pulled up on the river bank.  For some it might have reminded of them of a scene out of the movie Deliverance.  For me it was a sight into the local culture.  A glimpse at a way of life that was dying out as construction and development built up on available lands and television and video games took over as forms of distraction from the day to day tedium.  I was expecting to see a similar scene when we drove down there to eat our food.  Instead the place was empty.  New gravel filled parking spaces, camp fire rings, and fences to divide up the county made camp sites filled the area.  New wood construction pavilions with picnic tables and a paved parking lot for boat trailers replaced the rolling root strewn space that once was there.  There was even a new dock along side a concrete boat ramp.  It looked great.  It was new, and clean, and well laid out.  I hated it.  I missed that there was no longer a spot for people to get away to, a rustic access to a wilderness experience that had remained unchanged for generations.  Sometimes progress isn’t a good thing.

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I was told not to post this picture, so don’t tell the Weazel I did it…

Even with this little bit of disappointment it was another great day with the wife.  We didn’t bring home any wild game for dinner, but we ate enough of a well cooked lunch to make up for it.  We explored a section of swamp we had never entered before, and revisited a section that we had become familiar with.  It was a day better spent that one lounging on a couch and watching tv.  If nothing else, at least I gave the ducks something to chuckle about.

Is it really hunting, if you never shoot anything? Or is it as I prefer to call it, “Hiking With a Gun.”

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Evidence of previous logging days. A saw cut log shows signs of having laid in this spot for quite some time.

It was well past time to get back outdoors.  All the usual excuses had been keeping me off the bike, or out from under my backpack.  Heat, work, money, time, etc.  It took an unusual set of circumstances to drive me back onto the woods.

I had been interested in purchasing an AR15 rifle for some time.  I had done the online research and handled them in various stores.  I was having trouble justifying the purchase, at the price range I was looking at.  It was easy to say I’ll buy it later.  Then the election results came in.  I knew, without a doubt, that the prices were about to jump.  So off to the local gun shop I went, with credit card in hand.  Soon I was a proud owner of a Smith and Wesson M&P 15.  What does this have to do with getting back into the woods?  I’m getting to that…

So I mentioned my recent purchase to a coworker.  She asked “what do you need that for?”  Need?  Why does anyone need anything?  I wanted it, so I bought it.  I didn’t think this would be enough justification for her though, so I mentioned that I would use it for hog hunting.  Her reply was, “since when do you hunt?”  I had to think.  Well…  I used to hunt.  Sort of.  I never killed a deer or a hog before, but I’ve gone into the woods, dressed in that odd combination of body concealing camouflage, and eye catching blaze orange while carrying a gun, and looking for something to shoot.

Well, I was committed.  I had declared I bought the gun to hunt with.  Now I had to figure out when I could act on my comments.  Hog hunting in Florida is without season, if hunting on private land.  In fact, there’s not too many regulations that apply to hogs, if hunting on private property.  You can use any legally owned firearm, you can hunt at night, with a light.  Some people have even taken to using night vision scopes that are priced more than my last three vehicles combined.  Hunting on public lands is a different story.  You have to abide by the rules of each hunting season.  Archery, muzzleloading, small game, general gun, each has it’s own time frame and restrictions.  Then there’s different date periods within each of those seasons, that are open to hunting, depending on the public land you intend to hunt.  Some are  open strictly on a “Quota” basis.  These are very limited time windows, open only to a select few who were lucky enough to have won a quota permit for that area, and a certain season.  This prevents over use of smaller public areas.

For me, the closest available lands, that aren’t restricted by quota regulations is the Choctawhatchee River Wildlife Management Area.

The “Choctawhatchee River WMA consists of over 57,000 acres along more than 30 miles of the river in Bay, Holmes, Walton, and 

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On an overcast day, it’s easy to get lost in the swamp. Every direction looks the same.

Washington counties.”   There’s several access points available to the public.  The ones I used most are along the stretch of county highway 81 that stretches between the community of Bruce, and ends in the town of Ponce De Leon Springs, Florida.  Two of these are Tilley Landing, and Bruce Creek Landing.  Unless well equipped, and well experienced, I wouldn’t recommend entering into the Tilley Landing area without someone who’s been there to act as a guide.  It’s a huge stretch of land, that is pocketed with deep mud holes, winding oxbow swamps, lost lakes, and only one road that ends in the center of it.  If you were to strike off into the swamp, and get turned around, you could wander for days, without finding your way out.  The Bruce Creek section on the other hand, is bordered by the creek to the south, the Choctawhatchee river to the east, McCaskill Road to the north, and County Highway 81 to the west.  While someone could get lost in there, it’s a much smaller area, and being able to mostly walk a straight line would get you to one of these major landmarks, which you could use to find your way back out.

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Hogs “root” in the ground, digging with their noses to find food below the surface.

The Tilley Landing area was filled with hog signs.  My dear sweet wife, the “Weazel” joined me on my first hunting hike of the season.  We were sure we’d see hogs everywhere, with as much evidence of their presence as we were finding.

The most common sign of hogs will be the torn up ground where they had used their snouts to dig up the topsoil in search of things to eat.  This could include roots, bugs, worms, buried acorns, frogs, snakes, lizards and even crayfish.  This is one of the reasons that they have just about no regulations against killing them.  When a parcel of hogs make their way into a farmer’s crops, they can do substantial financial damage in a single night.  Also, the damage done by hogs while searching for food along shore lines and river edges, can cause erosion and water contamination.  Because the hogs can be so efficient in their work, they can prevent new plant growth from establishing itself on the forrest floor.  In addition to all of this, because they eat many of the same foods that deer do, there is the possibility of out competing the deer for limited food resources.

Hog Wallow Weazel

Hogs cover themselves in mud to help regulate body temperature, and as a way to remove parasites and ward off insects.

Hog wallows are another sure sign that they’ve been in the area.  These muddy depressions are used for a variety of purposes.  Because pigs can’t sweat, they use the evaporative properties of the mud to help cool their bodies.  Also, the mud can act as a sunscreen to protect their skin.  Another possible reason for covering their bodies in mud is that they can use it to help capture and remove insects and parasites.  By rolling in the mud, then scraping the mud off onto trees, they’re able to pick off fleas, ticks, and other biting pests.

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Hogs will use small pine trees to remove mud from their bodies.

Hogs will often use small pine trees as their scraping posts.  These can be easily identified by the caked on mud part way up the trunk and the hoof dug ground at the base of the tree.  Hogs will also scrape the trees with their tusks.  These scraped trees are not to be confused with the rubs of a deer.  An easy way to be sure that it’s a tree that a hog has been using, instead of a deer is that deer do not like to get the pitch from pine trees on their antlers.  It would cause leaves and twigs to stick, something that the deer do not seem to enjoy.

There’s been very few places where I found all of these signs of hogs in one place.  Often I’ll find the rubs, but no wallow.  Or plenty of wallow sites, but the trees are all clean.  I might find hog poop in the area, but no other signs.  The rooting seems to be the one universal piece of evidence they leave behind though.

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Some of the contestants get ready to hear who would be the winner of this year’s blast off.

Not all of my hunting expeditions have been focused on killing hogs.  A guy has to eat, and to keep my shooting skills honed, I turned my attention to an animal that seemed to be rather abundant whenever I’m out searching for pigs, and that’s squirrels.  A funny thing about squirrels.  They’re every where.  When you’re hunting for deer, or hogs, turkey, or rabbits, you’re constantly being scolded by those fuzzy tailed little grey tree rats.  Leave the shotgun at home, and walk into the woods with a .22, and all of a sudden they all disappear.  I participated in a local event called the Boar Squirrel Blast Off.  It’s a simple contest.  You spend the morning hunting, you bring your kills in to be counted.  You can bring in up to ten entries.  The contestant with the largest number of squirrels wins.  Unless of course, more than one person brings in ten.  Then it comes down to who has the most head shots.  If that turns out to be a tie, then the ‘boar squirrel” part of the title comes into play.  The contestant with the most male squirrels would then win the top prize.  I and two friends entered.  Between the three of us, there was one squirrel to be tallied.  Not our proudest moment.  We did have a great time though.  Nicks’ Restaurant sponsored the event, and Redbay Grocery hosted it.  We had a great day outdoors, and we were able to enjoy a delicious lunch  of beef tips, gravy and rice prepared by the folks at the Redbay Grocery.

The idea of eating squirrels seems to be a little disturbing to some folks.  Let me assure you, with the right recipes, you’d quickly forget where the meat came from, and you’d be holding out your plate or bowl for more.

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Unexplained holes in cypress trees in the swamp.

There’s reasons to explore the river basin beyond the potential for killing dinner.  There are mysteries in the swamp.  One of the ones we discovered are some strange square cuts in dead trees in various locations.  I know that this area once was used for turpentining.  Which would involve scratching the bark off pine trees, causing the pitch to run, and be collected.  In some cases holes would be carved into the tree, where this pitch would collect.  The trouble with this possibility, is that the cypress trees weren’t used for this purpose.  I had several theories as to what they could be for.  It looked like it could have been used as a hunting blind, but the hole was too small.  Also the interior of the tree was still solid, solid enough at least that no one would be able to fit inside.  Maybe someone had carved the holes to hide items.  In hopes of becoming rich by finding treasure left inside the trees, I tried taking pictures of the interior, since they were too tall for me to look inside myself.  Needless to say, I didn’t get to quit my job.

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A closeup of the hole carved into the tree.

I posed the question to a few people.  Lori Ceier from WaltonOutdoors.com suggested that they could have been carved to house recording devices in search of another mystery, the long lost Ivory Billed Woodpecker.  Several groups have wandered these swamps in hopes of discovering a live example of this bird that is currently classified as extinct.

Almost as elusive as the IBW, the hogs of the area proved to be beyond my abilities to track down.  I decided to try some other locations and tactics.

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My friend, explores an abandoned bridge.

I enlisted the assistance of a friend.  He joined me on an expedition to the Bruce Creek area.  My friend, who I’ll call “Dave”, had his sights set on squirrels, but I was still after hogs.  General gun season was under way, and I was finally able to put away the shotgun, and  legal to carry my new AR15.

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Signs of hog rooting on the left bank.

Fortunately the scenery was great, since both of us were not having any luck in our pursuit of our prey.  We walked several miles, starting at the boat launch at the end of McCaskill Road, over to the Choctawhatchee river, then back along Bruce Creek until we found the Bruce Creek Landing parking area.  “Dave” had a time constraint, so we made our way cross country back to the boat launch.

We were prepared to call it a day, without anything to show for our efforts beyond a few pictures, and the memory of a enjoyable hike through the river bottoms.  As we neared the parking area, we spotted a squirrel.  “Dave” took aim, and shot.  And the squirrel climbed higher up the tree.  “Dave” aimed again, fired, and the squirrel fell.  It might not have been enough to feed his family, but “Dave” did have enough for a skillet of fried squirrel nuggets.

“Dave” and I left the landing, and we met up again at the Redbay Grocery, where we had a delicious lunch.  We parted ways.  “Dave” went home, and I drove on north to visit a place that the Weazel and I had explored years ago.  A little place called Gum Creek Landing.  Shortly after arriving at the property, I began to explore a boundary road, and came across two guys who had just harvested a large sow.  I asked to watch, hoping to learn a little about how to field dress a hog.  But that’s a story for another time.