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 !