by Kurt Zuelsdorf
I took another step and felt the cobwebs on my face. The eerie feeling of spider webs on skin -- in the dark -- can drop a grown man to his knees!
The kayak slid ashore with a hissing whisper onto an island a few miles East of Brooksville. I was on my first self-guided wild boar excursion and no better place to start than a speck on the map called Hog Island!
A pungent belch of sulfur fouled the 35 degree air when my foot sank out of sight into the rich earth. I threw a light line around a tree and tied it off to avoid being stranded, left to swim the cold and spooky tannic-infused waters of the Withlacoochee River.
I grabbed a flashlight from my hunt belt where my Smith & Wesson snake pistol hangs reassuringly from a camouflage hip pack. It also carries a whistle, matches, ammo, a small tripod and camera and a useless snakebite kit that I have no intention of using after being advised by a doctor that it may cause more harm than good. The only reason I carry it is to remind me of the possible dangers that lurk in Florida swamps.
The flashlight beam played tricks with the casually rising fog. Anything beyond ten feet glimmered with bluish yellow streaks that fanned out in all directions. The distorted light stretched the cone-shaped cypress knees to immense proportions. They bobbed and weaved like dancing wizards in the moonlight until I shut the light off.
I sat for an eternity and waited for my eyes to adjust. My ears struggled to hear something... anything. A person can get out of shape living in the city. My vision was weak and my ears squealed with phantom sirens and noise. I shook my head like an old hound dog with ticks and tried to knock loose the noise pollution, then stood still.
The flowing water penetrated the sound barrier first. The river popped and gurgled over the fallen cypress and around the bend where it churned like boiling black soup. Then an orchestra of swamp life chimed in. In between the bullfrog belches and the crickets cracking the alligators growled their mating moans. Distant owls called “who cooks for you. Who cooks for you”. Ahhh . . . music that salves the soul!
Now, I consulted my compass for a Northeast heading.
I developed the habit of using a compass while on a canoe trip with my father when I was eight. We were preparing for a portage through some loosely scattered hardwoods when I learned...the hard way! I eagerly grabbed the bow and dad hefted the stern. He urged me to check the compass.
I had to laugh as we had done the same portage earlier in the day, I knew where we were. Yeah, right!
The first twenty yards slid by quickly. Soon after, my narrow shoulders and spindly neck erupted in fatigue. "Time out!" I huffed.
"What's the matter...lost?" Dad chuckled.
"No...my shoulders hurt." I defended.
His laughter grew anger as did my fatigue with every step. Suddenly I saw water where I didn't remember seeing water earlier in the day. My gut feeling was that we had discovered a secluded pond and a chance to observe some wood ducks.
When my father dropped his end of the canoe I was shocked. The aluminum “pung” of the hull echoed through the woods. I snapped my head around with a frown and wondered why he would blow such an opportunity to watch the colorful woodies.
Seconds later, in between a laughing jag and a gasp of air he broke the news, "You've walked in a circle, Kurt. This is exactly where we landed 20 minutes ago!"
It was then, during my dad's gut busting, wide-open belly laugh that I realized the importance of a compass. He knew I was circling all along, but wanted to drive the point home--as only a dad can do. The sound of his laughter still rings in my head before I take the first step into the unknown. "Always check your compass!"
Anyway, my plan was to stalk the entire length of Hog Island in hopes of seeing feral hogs for the first time. My boots sucked and slurped their way free from the tar-like mud. Another stinky pocket of swamp gas wafted upward before I reached hard ground. I slipped quietly up a steep bank that leads to a few old oaks which proudly displayed their bounty of Spanish Moss. It dripped and drooled off every branch. The mystical fog added a special dimension that visually defined my dreams of southern swamps -- cold, dark, damp, and dangerous to newcomers.
I eased my way through the darkness toward the center of the island and tried to find some promising sign. The scattered silhouettes from the palmetto palms teased and tested my attention with their raspy rustling. I overfilled my lungs with the heavy swamp air until I felt light-headed. My senses tingled from the sweet air that heals my "city" body. I stopped again and checked my direction. Earlier, and not to my awareness I had stopped just short of a gigantic spider web. It had just begun to get light and I hadn’t been able to see it. It stretched an impressive 15 feet across. Elegantly knitted to the branches of a small oak then over to a Palmetto and up to the top of a tall cabbage palm.
After a compass check and correction I felt a strong intuitive sense that suggested I scrap the original plan and change course. “Nothin doing...you'll be ok” said the voice behind my right eyeball. In the predawn darkness, I took one giant step and experienced an “Arachni-phylatic Fit”…when I felt the cobwebs on my face, my head spun away in a spastic twist that knocked the hat off my head. The semi-thick silk stretched tightly across my entire body. I spun in circles with my arms flailing about trying to free myself from the web until I tripped over a log and ended up on my knees. I hunched over covering my face. I hoped I wouldn't detect the feeling of eight hairy legs making advances on my body . . . sorrowfully I was wrong.
At the base of my exposed neck, I could feel something sweeping back and forth like a low hanging pine bow brushed by the wind. I wrongly slapped the back of my neck and squished a greasy arachnid into the palm of my hand while sweeping another from my hair. A legion of goose bumps swept through my body and tingled my spine.
I spun like a pup for his tail trying to see myself all at once then tripped on a family of cypress knees and slid across a muddy slick of grass before I regained composure.
I was too busy to notice the pale white sun’s morning ascent into the foggy air, or the cobalt blue streak that tickled the treetops. When I looked back to where I had disturbed the family of arachnids, the first spear of light shone through the canopy of oaks and palms and caught the web just right. The thick morning dew exposed the hidden gold. The breeze massaged it gently and the light shimmered down the spider's silk strands. I could see the hole I carved and a few smaller spiders in the web. The gruesome displays of bug and beetle carcasses scattered throughout the web told the tale of an accomplished marksman -- a brilliant engineer with a high kill rate and a fancy for gold. Judging by the size of the web she was much bigger than the ones I'd already met.
And there by the web I saw my hat lying in the dirt. I was about to grab it when I discovered her. She had somehow eluded my frantic body search and had taken a stand on my forehead. She was as big as a mans hand and her right front leg was testing my crinkled forehead. My gasp for air startled her and she made her move -- one leg caught my nose, another hooked my mouth. When she jumped off my cheek a thick yellow strand of gold silk spewed out and stuck to the side of my head. I swiped and dodged like a madman in disbelief that she was on me for that long. I grabbed my hat and tried to shrug it off. The rest of the day I could feel her hairy little legs on my face.
I did a little research on the webslingers when I returned to the world of information. (Also called the web, haha) What I discovered was fascinating. Sometimes called Banana spiders, the Yellow Orb Spider has one of the most interesting weapons for protection. When confronted, the spider gathers a bunch of body hairs with her forelegs. These tiny black hairs shaped and designed as harpoons have very sharp serrated points and edges. When the adversary gets within the perimeter of her lair she flicks the hairs into the predator's eyes. Once in the eye the mini harpoons burrow their way directly into the eyeball. The weapons continue to irritate the eye until they've successfully worked their way all the way through the backside of the eyeball where they dissolve!
After I read this, I developed an irritating twitch in my left eye. I try to forget the invasion, but I'm confident that the Yellow Orb Spider that protects her gold with daggers of fear will always be there . . . spinning her tricks in the depths of the Florida swamps.
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals