At the last house on the right a moss-covered steer scull hangs in an oak just past the fence posts that are adorned with worn out cowboy boots. From the size of the boot Doyle didn't look like a big man, but Bob made it clear that his size wasn't an indication of his character or ability to throw a cow and hold is own at the local saloon.
The massive steel gate to the Flying Eagle Ranch scraped the gravel hump in the road and spun a white whirlwind of dust into the scrub oak forest…dry enough to choke even the most hardened cowboy. Just beyond the paddle locked gate a canopy of huge oak limbs shaded a greenway that once grazed a cattle herd and several wild horses that my host, Cowboy Bob, tended to for over 35 years.While riding in the air-conditioned confines of a modern vehicle I found it hard to imagine a cowboy’s lifestyle of horseback riding, herding cattle, and fence tending as part of a days work. Bob’s face always lit up when talking about his mentor Doyle Tyndal a.k.a. "Old Cowboy". He passed into greener pastures a few years back and now Cowboy Bob keeps his spirit alive with vivid story telling, like when he had to retrieve a big red bull from a neck-deep swamp out in the back forty. Using tried-and-true tactics of lassoing and bareback riding really worked for getting him to move, but getting the bull to willingly jump into the back of a pickup truck is where the real cowboy whisperer’s’ secrets remain!
The slow rolling ride down the lane and over the old wooden planks that bridge Moccasin Slough often skidded to a graveling halt out of respect for a passing snake or endangered tortoise. Stories of Seminole Indian skirmishes that took place here so long ago are clear in Bob’s imagination and his ability to translate the images are magical! Hell… my stampeding imagination saw them , the Seminole scouts that is, sitting in the giant cypress trees that still stand today...oh what the trees can reveal when the wind blows just right! Over the years Bob discovered some arrowheads, tools and artifacts and relishes the day when he'll discover some cave drawings in an old under ground river cave. This fascinating rock formation fed the Withlacoochee a century back and led early paddleboats down the flow. I think he’ll stumble onto the burial grounds of the great ones and find what he’s looking for someday...here in natural Florida!
Into the night and back to the modern trailer fully equipped with a/c, running water, and myriad of trinkets. The twang of country music played low in the background - fitting for this museum. Pictures of the Old Cowboy hung on the wall. Cowboy poetry books & novels stacked on the shelves. Hat racks made from deer antlers & steer horns. Guns of old and new in every corner and a fridge loaded to the hilt with cowboy food...meat! Turkey feathers were used to prop window dressings back made sense for this long time recycler of found items. Outside the cool confines of the trailer far, far, from civilization the stars drew my eyes deep into the Milky Way galaxy well beyond the full moon. I realized a man could get lost in this world, this civilization that most people will never see or hear about if not for cowboys like Bob.
Bob was certain for me to witness the sunrise in his wonderful wilderness. His early morning wake up call lassoed me from a night of sweet dreams about days of old. The bold smell of cowboy coffee, a really thick batch, was poured from a pot and pancake syrup was used for sweetener. (Honestly I’d have never thought of this one but it was quite good!) Hat in hand and boots untied he booted me out the door and into the darkness to an observation tower that resembled an old windmill, but in place of the wind vane was a box with windows. Inside was a nice leather office chair that swiveled 360 degrees. The plethora of green tree frogs and throngs of mosquitoes kept me busy till daylight!
The Cardinal birds were the first to welcome the day with their distinct sound. Pairs of them darted through the scrub cover and caught a glimpse of me several times, but didn't mind. Lots of squirrels, a fleeting pair of woodpeckers, then 20 turkey made their way past me in the half light of a harvest moon. The moo of a distant cow reminded me that I was in an old overgrown pasture - now forest. Hoot Owls called from distant roosts and squadrons of sand hill cranes cruised overhead. Do they fly and sound like prehistoric birds to you, or is it just me? I’ve always been a big fan of the whitetail deer and I’d try and communicate with whistles and small bleats at a doe and her fawn. A foot stomp here, a head bob there, a nasal snort and the white tail flash and they were gone.
When the scorching sun started wilting the newly planted feed grass I knew it was time to head back to camp. Bob was sitting comfortably in the a/c reading a novel. He had done the dishes, made more coffee and was taking inventory of the fridge's meat stash. "Want some bre-fas…you must be hungry?" he asked. Not being a breakfast eater I declined, as I was more interested in the collection of old trailers that sit in the camp yard. One in particular, perhaps a 1950 (or older) Airstream, had my attention. It turns out it belonged to Old Cowboy and has been here for decades. Bob’s family used it for weekend retreats for years until, as he says it, “we just flat-wore it out!” It was the first trailer to be moved here and will likely remain forever.
My favorite story was of a night Bob spent in camp alone. It went something like this:
It was along about mid-night when the TV signal on Letterman began to fizzle and fade. We put the TV in place of the old window shaker a/c when it died. Well the TV wiggled a bit and I thought it to be odd, then in one sudden sucking whoosh the TV went straight out the window!
Well…hell, we had stretched the sagging antennae wire up a nearby post for a signal. And a bull, with horns like you'd see on the hood of a Texans Cadillac wandered between the posts and got his horns tangled in the wire and jerked the TV straight out the window!!
Now I don't know about ya’ll, but a stampeding bull with a TV tangled in his horns isn’t something you’d see everyday here on the coast…hell, I’ve never even heard of anything like that, but Bob will be quick to tell you “That’s no bull!”
So if you find yourself wandering down Moccasin Slough Road just East of Inverness and see the cowboy boots on the fence and the steer skull on the tree… you’re almost there! And if you see a bull with a TV in tow… you’re beyond the last house on the right.
A 40 degree thermometer reading and the flow of the Withlacoochee make no sound!
The phone rang early and often with paddlers wondering if the paddle trip was a "go", but it was the call from Abby-the-camper at Hog Island that got my attention. "Kurt, it's 34 degrees here...are you coming...are we going?" My smile stretched the already chapped lips and I assured her we were on the way.
The bumpy road leading to Iron Bridge Recreational area was littered with deer tracks and scarce on traffic. My enthusiasm peaked when four deer crossed in front of the truck. Always something about a wildlife crossing that tugs at my heart-strings and renews my relationship with the outdoors.
Upon arrival the paddlers emerged from their cars like butterflies from a cocoon... a stretch, a yawn and a smile! The sun was already reflecting off the tannin tinged waters sending slivers of light through the swamp. The cypress knees always remind me of wizards...faces, hats and gowns galore here.
12 kayakers posed for a picture then lit up the river with vibrant colors of pink, orange, red and gold. Water dripping from the wing-like paddles rippled into the wake toward a shore lined with fist-sized snail shells. Fresh earth turned over by the feral hogs are a sign of intrusion & destruction but Bob, while picking trash from the tangled branch reminded me of something Paul Erlich once said - "The fluttering of a butterfly's wings can affect climate changes on the other side of the planet." Hmmmmm... it's the little efforts (ongoing) that make a difference... one wing beat at a time...
New-found friends in the back of the pack whispered quietly as the river grew thin. Ahead paddlers resorted to a walk/drag technique that made me smile. "When you follow the flow to the outside bend, things be deeper". The wizardly cypress knees kindly point the way, can you see them?
A limpkin, a hawk and a flock of white ibis was all we saw during the 3 mile journey downstream. Not a boat, a canoe or a person to be seen, we were all to ourselves as we approached Hog Island. Looking back down the channel the wing-like paddles of various colors shimmered in the sunlight until landing softly on the sandy shore where a variety of lunch snacks emerged.
Another stretch, another yawn, another smile and we took flight back into the flow. Colors stretched beyond the next corner, sunlight warming my face as we pressed on through the shallows and across the sand to the deeper, darker depths of the flow. Everything looks like a gator ya know...’til you see one!
Something about actually seeing the destination relaxes the soul and eases the mind. The colorful kayaks lazily drifting....’til next time.
“I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming, I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.” ~Chuang Tzu
Oct 4, 2016
Just a moment ago a lone eagle landed in the tallest tree in the neighborhood.
The report from the local bird colony rejected the apex skybibrd's return... Or so I thought.
The bald eagle is magnificent. And the male specimen that sits in this tree is attending the barrage of winged locals that visit his limb. He was standing stall with his head on a swivel, but not for fear of dive-bombing crow, the nagging osprey or the heckling J-bird, no... he was watching for his lovely lifelong bride that had dropped behind on their migration flight from 1000+ miles. Thirty minutes passed before she whooshed over the treetops of my yard sending a percussion of wake that reached the earth. They sat quietly together and rested well into darkness. I expect their young eagles from last year will be returning to the neighborhood as well. This family of 5 will be hungry after a long flight so please adjust your lifestyle accordingly.
Please be mindful of your small pets in open areas
Don't feed ducks or strays as you are gathering them for easy pickins
If you spot one take a moment to enjoy the majesty
I will be out this morning to scout their possible nesting site for the season
By Kurt Zuelsdorf
Just the other day I had a rare opportunity to visit the bayou on my own, not to pick up trash but to reacquaint myself with the nature that started it all. I paddled silently around the south pass and admired the clean habitat. I stopped momentarily to see the progress of a recycling project put on by the Little Green Heron's. They lost their eggs last year in a Tropical Storm you know, because they built their nest too close to the water. This year they took apart the nest and moved it up higher! Our construction industry could learn a thing or two from these geniuses.
The wintering pelicans and Willits fed calmly on pristine oyster bars and shimmering shallow grass flats. The mangrove's legs look better than ever these days and the herons are moving about under the clean canopy. I've been searching so hard for things to clean up lately so it was nice not to. At times I lost myself in the peacefulness of the bayou and wondered; What now? What to do without trash to pick? Have I been "trashing" so long that I've lost my place or have I found a new green thread to attend?
I found my answer when Wilford Woodruff Academy from Winter Park came to town to help restore our bayou. They sat intently at the Outpost with Carol on a cold morning and artistically worked on coconut doorstops. Alex Russell went to work immediately on his project like he had a purpose. A coat of red paint and a black overlay ala Spiderman. Another nut read "Peace". A few had colorful flowers, all showed extreme creativity! What goes on in a young person's mind these days? What inspires them to learn & grasp the importance of the environment? We shared ideas on recycled art that could help raise money for their school's cause and at the same time help the environment. The "treasure bottles" for restaurant tables is sure to be a winner! (Attn teachers; send me a note and I'll share more on this one)
After a chilly launch from the shelly shore the stiff northern breeze literally blasted us out the south channel of the bayou. A brown pelican dove in between the us and sifted mouthfuls of small minnows in front of a eleven-year old giggling girl. Before I could ask my usual question on the most common death of a pelican a youngster asked me..."is it true that most pelican's die from blindness? From diving into harsh elements that wear away their eyelids and expose their eyes to ultra-violet rays?" The #1 answer is always "fishing line" but this boy somehow knew the correct answer. When I asked how he knew he said, "Because I'm Robbie Pellicane!"
Greg McIntosh from Nature Matters Inc provided some great entertainment for the crew. He instinctively jumped out of his kayak in a popular trash-catching corner and thrashed around the heavily polluted mangroves tossing bottles, cans, bags, & balls out to the eager cleaners to pick from the water. I was standing knee-deep pulling bags when saw a red football come flying straight out the top of the canopy. A long arm from the back of a kayak stretched tall and with the talent of an NFL wide receiver snatched it one-handed! To my surprise (but somehow not really...) it was Alex Russell who grabbed the Spiderman ball from the air. It matched his already painted coconut perfectly!
Somehow, some way, and always, nature finds a way to educate!
Kayaking across Boca Ciega bay on a calm balmy morning stirred images of what the pioneers saw when they discovered Treasure Island Florida. Back then schools of mullet filled the bays, manatees floated and frolicked along side dancing dolphins. Sunsets that shimmered like gold medallions on the gulf and flocks birds donning their finest plumage lining the shorelines, and the endless tropical beaches loaded with a variety of shells...the "Real" treasures of the island!
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
It’s 9-14-2001. The sky is clearer than one hundred years before. All planes are grounded. No smog dilutes the air, no jet streams distort the cobalt blues. The sky’s un-natural rumbling is silent.
- Slung low in my beach chair my bum brushes the sand. The beach aches for my attention and my toes are happy - digging, scraping.
- Laughing gulls celebrate over every last kernel of a tourists’ popcorn. Skimmers glide in the soothing surf. A lone dolphin plays just offshore -a laugh then a squeek. Natures song celebrates the stillness that may not be heard again in this lifetime. All of life knows things are different now…somehow.
- The fiddler crabs time is now too for they are out marching the sand. My intrusion into their space accepted until the shadows of a heron passes above. A sprint toward home they drop into their holes, but only for a moment then back out to enjoy the day…not to be denied.
- A family of raccoons taking a bath in the shallow water along the mangroves. The curious little kits stay close to mother. The crabs move too quickly for tiny paws. Entertainment found in a pelican feather twisting in a low hanging branch - a brief tussle then a taste.
- The sun sets too quickly, quietly into the peaceful Gulf… perhaps for the last time… I hope, I pray. The sunset colors are most brilliant of all. Can you see them? Can you see the “green flash”?
- The night sky is so clear. Don’t want to leave now…can’t. A new life is beginning. Just Florida and me. The way it used to be… a hundred years ago. The airlines begin again tomorrow - a new era of sand and sky.
by Kurt Zuelsdorf
Then it appeared. Big, dark, and muddy...a sippie hole! A place not fit for man nor beast...carved deep by the unlucky drivers who dared cross her.
Tommy Taylor is a good-old Southern boy who loves the outdoors. He called when the hogs started tearing up his hunt-lease somewhere just south of Tallahassee. I paused momentarily, then reacted instinctively.
The next things I knew, there were five hunters packed into my Trooper. We sputtered into town on I-10 with a bad water pump and a shit-load of camping gear. During a parts delay at the local repair shop we agreed to make the best of a hotel. After check-in we called Tommy about the change of plans. Our hearts longed for camping in the Great Appalachacola Forest -- 750 thousand acres of slash pine, cypress heads, & gum swamps. Our excitement would have to wait until morning.
Tommy pulled into the parking lot at 4:05 am driving his wife's two-door blazer with a loaded 270 Remmington ready on the dashboard. I thought it was a bit peculiar, but he made sense. "In case a big old buck jumps the road...I'll be ready." How do you argue reasoning like that?
Once underway Jimmy, a rotund -- lifelong sportsman from St. Pete, began his antics. His choice for the day... fox urine. For anyone who hasn't gotten a whiff of this pungent piss, don't. It'll make you sick. As all good hunters do, he developed an immunity to smelly urine's and other stinky scents. But it's funny... have you ever noticed how the person in control of the biting scent is the only one immune. Anyway, he quietly detonated his scent bomb, all the while sporting a crafty grin. Tommy was the first to notice and wondered who brought the litter box with them.
The stench flooded the truck and circulated through the heating ducts -- it was a dizzying breeze. Five men strained their necks out the windows like dogs catching the wind. As discomforting as it was I admit to enjoying pranks like that with the boys, it's what ads character and humor to my hunts -- and somethimes the humor and comrodery is the only thing I take from the woods. Yes, Jimmy The Fox is truly a master of his own game when it comes to concocting blends that stagger the scences -- a true asset to any hunt group.
Circumstance had it, that we happened across a fresh road-killed Red Fox this morning. Jimmy nearly jumped out the window to get at the trophy tail -- explaining how lucky having one can be. Tommy took the suggestion to heart and pulled the truck around. With a quick flick of his pocket knife the tail was his, he didn't even mind the ticks and fleas that fell from it when he hung it from the rear view mirror.
Miles of dirt road passed as we shared tales from past hunting trips and harvests. Ronnie recapped an adventure that involved (as many of his stories do) doing his morning duty on a mound of red ants. "The dam things make it all the way up to my ass before they bit. Then it felt like I'd been shot with a hot load of double 00 buck!" When he offered his bare-ass as proof I got the point. One thing about Ronnie though, he could shoot a shotgun slug better then anyone. I once saw him pull a double on a deer hunt while balancing on a barb-wire fence. Two deer broke cover during a cattail drive and two deer went right back down again -- high-quality shooting that could only come from years of carrying a shotgun.
Terry relived a moment spent with a pack of wild hogs in the Green Swamp. "Oh those suckers were everywhere. I could smell em', and when they broke cover I just started shooting. There must have been 5...maybe 11 hogs held up in the palmetto's!" He discovered what happens when common sense fails and the natural urge for survival takes over...he called it a Phobie. "In a situation like that you don't want to be short on lead. I'm loaded to the teeth with ammo now and when my 45 gets rolling... boy you'd better be out of the way!"
Tommy talked about the time he cornered a 250lb sow in a water hole. They were about to give up when his partner noticed a snout and eyeballs sticking above the water.
"I knew I put a good hit on her," Tommy said, "but the arrow passed right through. Boy I tell ya', it's as if the skin sealed up around that wound and it didn't bleed a drop. So we put 'old Jake' on the scent...he's a Paskagoula Hog Dog and boy can he track! By the time we got to the hole, Jake had locked on to her snout and was being swung around like a raggdoll. But that old pup wasn't gonna let go cause he knew he'd get the barrel treatment." (A technique that I'd heard of for breaking a dog of chasing deer. They put the dog in an oil drum with an old deer hide inside and seal it up. Then push the barrel down the road with the front bumper of the truck. "Old Jake held on long enough so is I could snatch her hind legs...from there I just held her till she drowns."
Moments later we arrived at the hunt camp. It wasn't what I expected...a few old trailers tucked under the overhanging pine bows. The mess tent floor was a dozen wood palates nailed together. A bunch of old screen doors strapped together formed the walls, and a rip-stop tarp made the roof. Two picnic tables were in the center and a big bulletin board on the wall, on it was a map detailing all the tree stands on the property -- each one distinguished by a pushpin. If someone was in one of the stands, a simple washer-spacer was on the pin -- an ingenious layout.
Soon after marking off our stands the hunt was on. Our first steps away from camp were punishing. Brambles, Blackberries and palmetto thorns peeled the skin off our hands. We tried to keep pace with Tommy but he moved through the swamp like a snake. He slid over logs and through the thickest part of the swamp then disappeared. I could hear Terry behind me complaining about the terrain and his 'bad knee'. We lost Ronnie and Jimmy shortly after departure and they turned back. Terry and I pressed on to follow Tommy. By the time we found him he bagged a nice sow. I asked him where the fatal hole was he said, "What hole? What gun? I caught him bare handed and slit his throat with my knife!" He stuck his fingers through the fleshy neck meat and kindly pointed out the juggler. "Ya get em right in here and they shut down right-quick-like." Terry and I stood in disbelief that he did it so quickly. The next task at hand was getting the 'rooter' back to the truck.
During past hunts we discovered the best way to extract a pig from the swamp is by pole. We tied the legs together and slid a stiff branch between them then tossed her between a couple of big shoulders. Before I knew it we were back to the truck, strapping the hog up top. As the blood drooled down the windshield Tommy mentioned his wife's last request to keep the truck clean.
I didn't care, we had a hog on the truck and few beers in the cooler...it was time to head back to camp and celebrate.
I didn't remember passing any mud puddles on the way in, but on the way out we labored through few that made me a little nervous. We planned on the Trooper doing the mud work and I wished we had it now. Then it appeared. Big, dark, and muddy. A sippie hole! A place not fit for man nor beast and certainly not suitable for a street vehicle. It was thick with mud, carved deep by the unlucky drivers who took a chance to cross her. I could see how she lures the drivers in -- on the surface she looked shallow and serene. On the bottom she was soft and deep. I could tell by the convincing look in Tommy's eyes that he could take her. He eased his was in. The front wheels dropped off the edge and water crashed over the hood. He stood on the accelerator and dumped the rear. The front wheels slammed against the steep side of the hole and within seconds the tires spun free.
Mud and water flowed into the cockpit. It seeped in through every crack and crevasse and worked its way up my shins. The boys had a troubled expression on their face when a black water moccasin slid its way in the window. Terry panicked and scrambled over my shoulder and out the window. He clawed his way through the muck and made it to dry land. I tried to open the door but the steep sides of the hole pinned the doors shut.
The snake, startled by the hollering, turned inside-out and fled. I didn't want to leave the truck with a snake in the water, but something happened to change my mind. First the left front wheel dropped about a foot followed by the right. I've heard stories of park rangers disappearing with their vehicles in the Florida swamp never seen or heard from again. I didn't want to become a statistic, so I dove out the window.
When I reached dry land I saw Tommy still sitting behind the wheel. He was laughing. "My wife is gonna kill me boys!" He gunned the motor and tried over and over again to free the truck, but it was no use, the sippie hole was holding too tight.
Terry and Jimmy got lucky and flagged down a big mudder pickup. A huge man stepped from the cab and scolded us for being out there with a two-wheeled vehicle. He freed the fallen vehicle from the depths of the hole with a quick snap. Tommy angled his truck on a side hill and opened the doors. The water rushed from the cab but the mud was stubborn. We used our hands to scoop the mud from under the seats and dash...it was sloppy and it stunk like sulfur.
I admired Tommy's sense of humor when it came to returning the truck to his wife. He laughed all the way back to camp and entertained thoughts of claiming it stolen so he wouldn't have to face her. In the end he did the right thing and went home.
I haven't returned to the Appalachacola Forest since I wrote this, but I've tangled with a few off-road hazards -- I know that when I least expect it, I too could be singing The Sippie Hole Blues.
TUESDAY - Short-billed Dowichers and Willets lined the beach on the East end of Boca Ciega Bay today. Sitting...sleeping...sunning in the warmth and serenity of the bayou with a flock of wading birds is what Kayak Nature is all about. Come join us won't you?
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals