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.
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!
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!
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 !
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!
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
“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.
I can't tell you what possessed me to go into the water with that alligator, but there I was standing in the middle of the Withlacoochee River.
The truck coasted into Nobleton on a sweltering summer morning. The air loomed heavy over the bridge offering glimpses of the enthusiastic canoers that stirred at the outpost. Scurrying like worker ants the paddlers prepared for the first shuttle trip to nearby Silver Lake. The filtered view of the river revealed no secrets as we passed over the silent flow.
What mystery lay ahead as we idled through the final turn onto the long narrow drive? Oh what excitement lives just beyond the headlights beam, in the fog that grew thicker near the river. The overhanging willows, oaks and cypress trees stood as proud guardians hanging over tin roof of the old log cabin. My dormant childhood excitement spiked… I was at home... in the swamp again!
John Morris, a retired big league ball player from New Jersey was my guest for the day. He'd heard my stories about the swamp and wanted to see for himself why I was so drawn. We moved quickly from the car to avoid the throng of mosquitoes that took fancy to his sweet smelling skin and hair.
I welcomed Johnny to the swamp and wondered what he was thinking. He didn’t need to say a word, he let me know instantly by swatting frantically at the buzzing pests.
I tried to make him as comfortable as possible by offering bug spray, but somehow I knew that “comfort” – in a swamp - might be impossible to a newcomer. It’s likely that my advice of “a few welting bug bites add to the outdoor experience” didn’t help matters!
After a nice breakfast cooked over the wood stove we unpacked our gear and moved to the porch. Daylight was approaching and the fog played hide-and-seek with the shadows and low laying areas of the yard. My ears were full of city noise pollution and for the first five minutes we heard nothing but ringing. We watched the river slip by and waited patiently for our eyes & ears to adjust to the outdoors.
The frogs were first to pierce the barrier followed harmoniously by the crickets ... then it all came together. The swamp critters formed a wooded orchestra that performed their songs in the shifting shadows of the Oaks. Bullfrogs as big as cream buckets belched out mating calls with billowing pops and cracks. Tree frogs provided the harmony and the gators threw in a few bass growls. The Chick-a-dee’s provided the lyrics with there Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee song.
The gray squirrels wasted no time. When they got a whiff of John's city boy smell they sent a warning cry through the canopy, Chuk,chuk,chuk, chukka -- squeeeek.
My memory flashed back a few years to the time my dad taught us kids how to build a squirrel call. He did it with an old peanut butter lid that he cupped it in his left hand. He fished around in his pocket and pulled a two-inch stove bolt and held it in his right hand. With quick, short strokes he'd drag the bolt along the edge of the lid. Dad's raspy call would lure 'em within range on a regular basis. I still use one today.
We moved off the porch and stepped quietly to the river. A light breeze carried the earthy smell into the air and it blended with a patch of wildflowers that massaged my nasal airways and stimulated relaxation. The river's high water marks stained the trees well above where we stood and told stories of record rainfall and recent floods -- nature’s way of eliminating the weaker entities that live in the swamps..
Startled by a wheezing cough I turned and caught a glimpse of something stirring down stream. I bobbed my head like an old barn owl and tried to get the visual advantage of what turned out to be Joe, the neighbor, standing inside the base of a granddaddy cypress.
His silhouette against the fog moved with an eerie quickness and before I could blink he was upon us. His raspy Marlboro voice returned my greeting as he grabbed my hand shaking it with the authority of a steel worker. He offered his hand to Johnny and commented on his nice smell. He knew the smell would attract the winged biters and he kindly offered a solution. "A nice dip in the river'd do ya good." He then spat a gob of Redman off to the side that trickled down his chew-stained beard.
Johnny’s comment on being a “wilderness rookie” got Joe’s attention and he took the opportunity to show the city-boy a few things.
He told a story of an alligator that he'd been 'baitin up' for the past few weeks and wanted to know if we wanted to see him. Johnny surprised me with his enthusiasm and spoke up, "Hell yes! Where's he at?"
Joe responded, " Well. The best place to see him is out on a shallow sand bar in the middle of the river." I shuddered when Johnny called the charge, "Let's go!"
Joe's face lit up with a toothless grin that showed the deep cracks his aged cheeks. "Now he's about a ten footer. We shouldn't have a problem with him as long as we keep a safe distance."
"What would that distance be Joe." I asked nervously.
"I'd think you'd be safe around twenty feet." He said confidently.
I wondered where he got his information. I had heard somewhere that gators were impossible to train -- always have been...always would be. That's why they've been around for tens-of- thousands of years.
Johnny was quick to shed his Polo shirt and $150.00 Nike's. He followed Joe (who remained fully clothed) toward the center of the river.
Not for one minute did Joe seem concerned about what we were doing. "Gets a little deeper here. May have to swim a bit out to the middle." he said.
The sun was just skimming the treetops and it pressed the fog down onto the river. The temperature of the water was… invigorating, especially when it reached my tender midsection. The three of us swam toward something I hadn't planned when I left St. Petersburg...a game of fear extraction!
"I spoke to Joe about it briefly a few weeks later and I came to the conclusion that he knew what he was doing all along -- giving us a chance to look primitive death in the face."
With every stroke I questioned what we were doing and why we needed to go to the middle of the river to see a gator. I've seen hundreds of gators and they were no big deal...from the shore. John on the other hand had never seen a gator and I wanted to be there with him for the experience of it all.
My toes scuffed the soft bottom sending a chill down my spine for the possibility of what else lurks below the surface that I couldn't see. The muck turned to hard sand and I dug my toes in and leaned heavily into the current to keep from being swept away toward the Gulf of Mexico.
We shivered uncontrollably in water up to our armpits. I noticed Joe had a beer with him and he sipped quietly and watched our expressions as we nervously looked about expecting a gator to appear any moment. Seconds later it did. Twenty yards down stream a large head appeared motionless in the surging current. The fog slid over his aerodynamic head in waving sheets of white. He was floating in an oily slick that appeared to come from John's body. Fancy body oils, shampoo & bug spray combined with Brut proved to be a great gator attractant!
"OK I'm out a here." Joe said as he dropped his beer and headed immediately toward the shore. John was close behind riding in his wake. I, on the other hand, couldn't move. Something was keeping me from moving. At first I was mesmerized by how much bigger they look at eye level. He slowly moved in for a closer look and I stood my ground.
John called from the shore, "Don't be stupid Kurt, get the hell out of there." Joe stood with his arms crossed not offering any suggestions.
I couldn't help but to wonder just how dangerous this situation was. Every fiber of my being wanted to believe that I was as safe as being with a Golden Retriever. I felt content as the gator moved in. His eyes looked compassionate and friendly as a pup. That's when I realized his approach -- he lulled me into a false sense of security with the trademark of a big gator -- swim silently and carry big teeth!
Now within ten feet Joe expressed concern. "Time to go Kurt...start movin' boy!"
I couldn't move. I waited too long and now I was afraid that he might attack. I watched the gator’s eyes quickly change from peaceful blue, to a demonic red leer of a prehistoric hunter. Then he submerged out of site.
There's a theory about gators. To measure up their prey they must move within visual distance below the surface. In this pitch water that meant moving within inches of me. Suddenly I cracked. As if being hit with a baseball bat loaded with common sense I kicked my muscles into gear and headed back. The moment I turned my back on him was the most frightening moment that I can ever remember. I felt my vocal cords squeal for help. I could feel him moving closer as I struggled to cover the short distance in the heavy current. Time stood still as I gulped water and splashed like wounded duck. My mind was very convincing in telling me that he was within biting range.
When I reached the shallows I tripped and fell facedown in the mossy mud. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a huge wake moving toward my feet. I lunged toward dry ground and grabbed a powerful hand that nervously pulled me to safety.
The gator slid into the shadows and turned sideways exposing his enormous ten-foot body. His armor was thick, glossy black and heavily plated with ridges and spikes. For a moment he just floated there. Then his eyes rolled back and he disappeared into the river.
Joe was smiling from ear to ear from the satisfaction that another “City boy” has been initiated into swamp school. Jersey John realized that the gator is a fearless predator that demands respect. I headed back to city-life a little wiser too - packing a new appreciation for Florida’s swamps and the creatures that patrol the murky depths of the Withlacoocheee River.
The wait is over and through the patience of vigilant parents the eggs have hatched!
Watching the baby Green Herons of Clam Bayou this week caused me to realize that they likely wouldn't be there (at least 8 chicks) if it weren't for the efforts of you who have volunteered time and efforts to protect and preserve this place of obvious importance. As an observer it's been fun to watch this stage of growth in the chicks. The adults are bringing back live minnows to the nest to show the young what food looks like. I actually saw one adult intentionally drop a minnow in a school that gathered below the nest. To my delight the more developed chick hopped down a few branches to see where it went and discovered...food! Although it didn't display the acrobatics of an adult (yet) it now knows where they are and perhaps we'll get a chance to see them fishing next week!
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals