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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weazel 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.
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.
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.