kayaking the Suwannee River

Somebody’s Watching Me: Kayaking in the Okefenokee Swamp

The moss-cloaked trees reflect on the glassy surface of the headwaters of the Suwannee River, the trees delineating the horizon and it feels like we’re paddling in a still image, floating on the blue sky colored water reflecting a parallel world. Our kayaks slice through the water and only our wake disturbs the stillness, the ripples long and undulating. We can hear a low, rumbling growl, best described like a deep and prolonged guttural belch coming from ahead of us. Barry and I look at each other, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and against my instinct to flee, curiosity cautiously propels me toward the source of the sound.

Kayaking Okefenokee Swamp

Early morning reflections in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia

Ahead of us I can see large alligators cutting through the water, crisscrossing our path like a classic arcade game of Pong. The low, primordial growling sound in the early hours on this spring morning is coming from them – it is the beginning of the mating season for these American Alligators.

kayaking with alligators

Kayaking with alligators in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp

This is our second kayaking foray into the Okefenokee Swamp (link to Please Don’t Feed the Alligators), this time we’ve put in at Stephen C. Foster State Park, named after the composer of the famed song Swanee River, and located a few miles from Fargo, GA. The park is part of the National Wildlife Refuge, home to an estimated 12,000 alligators, some of which can be spotted sunning themselves on the edge of the river, completely indifferent to our presence.

As we paddle further, our eyes become trained for spotting alligators. Some slowly submerge into the water as we approach, leaving only their eyes and nostrils visible above the water, others slowly swim to the river’s edge, their armored bodies swishing through the water in an unhurried manner, and others, maybe caught off guard, plunge into the water with a big splash, causing me to jerk my paddle up in the air, a natural reaction to the unlikely scenario of being snatched into the water.

Alligator watch

Why does it feel like somebody’s watching me? Photo: Barry Scully

We maneuver our pointy ocean kayaks around the large bases of submerged trees, the cypress knees tucked close to their trunks. The water is swift as we paddle up stream toward Big Water Lake in what the interpretive map aptly refers to as ‘Pinball Alley’. After several hours kayaking, we pull up to a rest shelter to stretch our legs. The shelter is a platform with a covered picnic area and an outhouse and is similar to the camping setups within the refuge’s extensive waterways. Presumably alligators can’t walk up steps? It is, however, with some comfort that we spot a water snake curled in the vegetation just below the platform. I’m still not brave enough to camp in this wilderness, give me a bear encounter any day over a cold-blooded snake slithering in my sleeping bag seeking warmth.

kayaking pinball alley

Navigating between the large buttressed tree trunks

The way back to the park headquarters was much quicker as we drift with the current – occasionally skewering the bow of our kayaks into the thick lily pads for a better view of the alligators and turtles sunning on the riverbank, or to watch the herons, egrets and ibises pick through the lush green foliage for snails, insects and frogs. I focus my lens on one alligator as it glides through the water. Looking up from my camera, I realize that the alligator has crossed my path much closer than I’m comfortable with – the wide-angle lens skews the perspective and objects are definitely much closer than they appear.

alligator with fishing lure

This formidable alligator is resting with a neon green fishing lure piercing. Photo: Barry Scully

The next morning we encounter a huge alligator along the edge of the river. Again, it is unperturbed by our presence. Other visitors refer to this alligator by name. Apparently that’s Sophie, distinguished by the bright green fishing lure pierced in her jaw – the lead weight is visible just below her teeth. The park interpreters have clearly done a good job of humanizing these predators in an effort to protect them and their threatened habitat. I had seen these women on the tour boat while paddling, even joked with them on who would win in a kayak/alligator encounter. To see them swoon over this alligator was a testament to the park rangers’ efforts to engage and educate people about conservation efforts.

Watch this short video of our paddle through the refuge. You can hear an alligator bellow in the first clip: 

These kayak trips are vastly different from our past trips through Ontario’s lakes and rivers. Paddling through a forest of cypress trees and encountering alligators is one of the most unique experiences living in the South. Weaving between a forest of trees and exploring this habitat reveals a rich and diverse world that is far beyond any stereotypical perceptions of a mosquito-infested backwater and I look forward to exploring more of these swamps while we’ve got access to these rich waterways.

Key to Kayaking in Florida

February 16, 2017 Florida Keys, Kayak, road trip 6 Comments

…it doesn’t always have to be epic

With a pair of incredibly dull telemark skis resurrected from a dump and a love of the mountains, I found myself ass over teakettle heading down a chute, my jacket filling with snow, coming to a most ungraceful stop at the bottom of the mountain to cheers from the patiently awaiting party. I was completely out of my league, but that was backwoods British Columbia, and I was younger then and yes, it was epic.

What does this have to do with kayaking? Year’s later, while I still don’t know any better, I have come to a realization that not everything has to be grand to be worthy of a great adventure.

mangroves

A tangle of mangroves in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys

This winter, Barry and I went on an abbreviated trip to Florida. Traveling along the overseas highway we reached our base at the not so touristy Big Pine Key where we had rented a very last minute apartment. Our first day included the compulsory sunburn (never said I was any wiser) during a leisurely walk on the beach at Bahia Honda State Park. Arriving back to the apartment we realized we were sharing it with some long-time residents – a sticky-footed and well-fed gecko that occupied the bedroom, and a family of roaches that lived under the kitchen sink. Who wants to cook anyway when you can easily get a cheeseburger in paradise?

palm tree

a bit of shelter under the palm tree

Without an agenda, we drove down to Summerland Key where we put-in at the end of a road. Being familiar with how tides can create challenges for kayakers, we were keen to get there at high tide. It didn’t seem to matter this time since there was only about a foot-high tide, besides, as is typical with our explorations, we edged closer and closer to the shallows, running aground on the soft sand and occasionally finding ourselves sitting on shelves of tangled grasses.

We quietly paddled towards the numerous shorebirds and hawks perched on the mangroves and watched them stab at skittish schools of fish. Our paddles scared up juvenile nurse sharks and stingrays, forcing them to dart off in the opposite direction. We meandered in the shallow and sheltered waters fringed by mangroves, as if floating over an aquarium stocked with tropical fish.

fishhawk photo bscully

A great catch of this fish hawk with a successful hunt. Photo Barry Scully

Most of the time we paddled in 6-inches of water – and if it wasn’t for all the jellyfish bobbing on the surface, we could have walked. Half way through the day, I realized I was wearing my lifejacket. It seemed kind of silly, but in the words of a wise friend, “not as silly as drowning in 6-inches of water.”– Where was that voice of reason 25 years ago?

key deer

A key deer standing at the edge of the road looks a lot like a miniature ornament.

On an early morning run, to moderate the effects of all those cheeseburgers, I was surprised at a nonplussed buck standing by the side of the road, which at 3-feet high looked more like a lawn ornament. Big Pine Key is home to the endangered key deer. These miniature herbivores are a subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer and are a highly protected species. With all the signs and warnings on the roads, hitting a deer with your car would have been as sacrilegious as running over a cow in India.

A walk through the Key Deer Refuge showed evidence of the effects of hurricane Wilma in 2005. The storm surge flooded the area with salt water and left behind the skeletal remains of slash pine trees. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the remaining pine rockland stands represent less than 3% of their original extent. The bare trees were perfect perches for the bald eagles, but a troubling reminder of the rising sea levels.

bald eagle perched on a tree branch

A bald eagle perched on a dead tree branch. Photo by Barry Scully

Down the road from our apartment was a large blue freshwater hole set in the pocked limestone. The resident American Alligators appeared to be patiently waiting for handouts at the edge of the observation platform – clearly accustomed to people feeding them.

Gators waiting for handouts

These alligators are clearly accustomed to getting handouts from visitors

While we only spent a couple of days kayaking in the keys, the last-minute nature meant that I didn’t have time to do infinite Internet searches for the best places to eat, sleep, walk or watch the sunset. I didn’t have time to read every disgruntled review that was sure to color my perceptions. This trip was wonderfully unplanned, and it allowed us to discover an area that subsides largely on tourism in an uncharted way. We sampled a few different restaurants and resisted buying the obligatory mile marker t-shirts (what’s with that?), drank cheap beer and didn’t worry about where to catch the best sunset. And in case you’re wondering? Sure, Key West was nice and most certainly a bit of a spectacle, but the sunset at Key Deer Refuge was epic!

Sunset in Key Deer Refuge

A sunset at Key Deer Refuge – arguably more spectacular than the one’s in Key West

abandoned old car

Daily Wander Photo Challenge

It seems fitting that the first photo of the year, and my first daily photo challenge, is of a hood ornament on an abandoned 1950s DeSoto. Named after the early Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, the car represents a time in the 50s when American’s criss-crossed their country in the family sedan, spurring countless roadside motels, drive-ins and a fascination with the Road Trip. While de Soto never did find a viable route to China, he did reportedly lead the first expedition into modern day United States, crossing the Mississippi River and exploring as far north and east as South Carolina – a state which I currently call home.

I have taken on this daily photo project as a way to challenge myself to find interesting perspectives, even in the most mundane. Here’s a list of photos taken on the daily challenge.

sign barn

Southern Pickin’

Shuffling from one table to another, it is difficult to keep focused on any one item. There are vendors selling expired vitamins, partially used perfume bottles, rusting rifles, old farm implements and a disproportionate number of books about the Third Reich. In another row of tables, a mess of shiny objects from keys to belt buckles grabs my attention and I begin to peck through the flotsam that was surely destined for the dump.

close up of junk

Flotsam destined for the dump.

I’ll take two dollars for that,” one vendor offers a hesitant shopper. That, along with the indignant “I’ve got twenty bucks in that,” are favorite refrains around the Pickens Flea Market.

I look up to find my friend Malia negotiating for an old metal lunchbox. Malia, who curates an online vintage store Maliasmark visits the market most Wednesday mornings. The no-frills market attracts vendors and buyers as varied as the assortment of goods available for sale – mostly kitsch and things found on the side of the road. Who knew there was a market for expired cans of pineapple juice?

shopping at market

Gemstones, costume jewelry and bolo ties are making a comeback!

With a trained eye for vintage, Malia picks through items that instantly have a nostalgic cachet: an assortment of wooden crates, trinket boxes and a familiar blue Holly Hobbie lunch box and thermos set – identical to the one I had as a kid. As we meander down the rows of tables, a disquieting realization hits me. When did my generation become vintage? And is it wrong to buy up all the things I tossed away when I moved away from home?

Ooooo, I love that!” Says Malia, betraying the cool, detached demeanor of a skilled buyer. It’s a music box, not the gilded, precious kind, but the cardboard and vinyl clad kind with a windup plastic twirling ballerina – Identical to the one I had as a kid! Shit.

shop the flea market

Negotiating for old aluminum trays and wooden crates sold by Les.

One of the sellers, in his mid 70s, is there to clear out his garage and share a few stories. He’s selling a collection of trays he’s fashioned into planters from aluminum used in a now defunct paper mill. Another woman shares her love of travel to Italy, selling some of her accumulated trinkets. Another vendor selling a retro wedding cake topper, boasts about her own garden wedding set in an idyllic 60s timeframe.

As the morning progresses, glimpses of personal stories, a peek into a private past, snippets from a school journal reveal themselves. After several trips to unload armfuls of stuff, we head back along the country roads and wind our way past rolling farmland and vestiges of old homesteads.

sign barn

Approaching the barn covered with old industrial signs.

We pull over to take a closer look at a barn covered with old industrial signs. As we walk along the edge of the property, keeping an eye for guard dogs, Wayne, the owner, happens to come out to check his empty mailbox and graciously offers to give us a tour of his property. He constructs fantastic stories of imagined past, building on the lore of the South, complete with practiced tales about using corn cobs as toilet paper and showing us the bedpan, complete with plastic poop prop, stowed under the bed of his little cabin in the woods [I’m still kicking myself for not taking a picture].

old dog

Release the hound…dawg. This guy came sniffing around when we pulled up to the barn.

Wayne sits of the rocking chair outside his fabricated cabin filled with historic memorabilia cobbled as a tribute to the past and offers us tea and cookies. He spends the next hour talking about the various visitors he’s had on his property, the curiosity seekers, photographers and occasional derelicts that show up on his doorstep – we fall into the first two categories, hopefully!

Wayne kept Malia and I entertained with his fantastic stories.

When I get home, I’m excited to play the 78 records on the newly purchased WWII US Army issued phonograph while I flip through advertisements for learning to play an accordion and the surprising number of promotions on how to ‘build yourself a “He-Man” body’ from a 1957 copy of Popular Mechanics. I have no personal history with that past, but enjoy listening to Glen Miller and his Orchestra perform American Patrol as the dull needle narrows in on the grooves of the heavy shellac records.

The phonograph will most likely collect dust and end up with someone else in the future. In the meantime, the novelty of the object puts a smile on my face.

I occasionally spin a few vinyl records of marching songs …

Calling All Bears – Smoky Mountain Discoveries

Under cover of a thin ribbon of mist, I could make out the outline of a buck, his antlers branching off the top of his head. In the foreground, a solitary photographer, respectfully watching from a safe distance. The quiet of this early morning was quickly disrupted when I heard several car doors slamming behind me. iPhone in hand, a group of women squeezed beneath the wire fence and marched directly up to the deer.

Snap

“I just love deer,” said one of the women as they tramped across the wet grass and back to the car. The deer, while mostly used to such intrusion, moved quickly across the field and high tailed it to the other side of the road, leaping effortlessly over the fence.

buck jumping fence

Effortlessly leaping over fence – photo: Barry Scully

This was to be one of many such encounters as Barry and I wandered through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Inching forward at 10 miles an hour along the 11-mile conveyor belt loop circumnavigating the broad valley, you are guaranteed to see wildlife if you peer beyond the bumper-to-bumper line of cars.

“Hey Bear, over here, check these guys out.” I say to Barry who I rarely call Barry.

“What? Bear? Where?” asks a stranger from across the street.

“Oh no, just a bunch of turkeys. I call my husband Bear!” That really cracks me up, but when the stakes are high, this is no laughing matter.

barn in cades cove

Approaching this barn on a well-worn path in the early morning is almost dreamy with the mist

Animal encounters in National Parks are what people come for – in this case, everyone wants to see a bear, and it’s obvious when there’s a sighting. At an already crawling pace, traffic comes to slow halt, each car edging forward to try to get a glimpse. It doesn’t help matters when people abandon their cars in the middle of the road – doors wide-open, engines running, to get a closer look at the animals.

Of course, not all encounters end amicably for either the people or the animals. At another part of the park, volunteers tell me about people getting close enough to pet the elk. In another incident at Yellowstone, a tourist put a bison calf in their back seat because they thought it was cold. Unfortunately, that bison was rejected by the heard and was euthanized.

boy and elk

Too close for comfort. A huge elk keeps his distance from a little boy eating grass (yes, the boy was eating grass).

With iPhones acting as a magical protective shield, people approach the wilderness through a rectangular screen, once removed from harm and inches away from the animals. The animals, for their part, either reluctantly move deeper into the bush or bolt across the road to escape. Some of them are clearly agitated, but being outnumbered, they cower away.

old man new tech

Trying out the panorama feature on his new iPhone for the first time!

I have slowly learned to abandon travel agendas and checklists of ‘Must Sees’ or ‘Top 10 Must Dos’, their authoritarian tone causing me an alarming level of anxiety. In a time where people are embracing so-called minimalist lifestyles and moving away from accumulating things in preference to acquiring experiences, there is the proliferation of bucket lists that turn these experiences into a commodity. The rush to tick off all the boxes leaves little time to linger, where is the pleasure in that?

Now, if everyone turns to go left, we turn right, and in spite of these traffic jams, we pull off the road several times and lose ourselves in the bush. Our favorite time is early in the morning, just before the sun burns off the dense mist, slowly, patiently peeling away the layers of fog revealing the distant hardwood forests and ancient mountains.

big_black_bear

Beautiful black bear foraging for acorns – Photo: Barry Scully

We hop back onto the conveyor belt and drive a mile before Barry spots a black bear. I let him out and park off the side of the road. By the time I join him the bear, a large male, has moved into the trees. A group had come up behind me, and in their excitement at seeing a bear, scared him off.

Later in the day, we decide to hike a trail that follows Abrams River to the falls. As we begin our hike, the mass exodus of people streaming out surprises us.

“You planning on camping overnight? It’ll be dark by the time you come out,” offers one hiker.

salwafarah

Me venturing upstream along Abrams creek – photo: Barry Scully

Undeterred, we enjoy the solitude as we walk deeper and higher up the valley, the river getting father away beneath us. We round the bend and start our decline toward the river, and eventually to the falls. We’re not the last ones in and a few fishermen follow behind us – it looks like a favorite place to catch trout. We do make it out before dark and just in time to join another line of cars leaving the park.

The next day we explore several homesteads scattered around the valley, their isolation a testament to the tenacity of the early settlers who carved out a living in this remote region that was once part of the Cherokee nation. A walk through some of the cemeteries reveals the story of nature’s indifference to people’s resolve. There are numerous children’s graves, some with pennies left atop gravestones as remembrance.

historic child's gravestone

In remembrance of a short-lived life

“Bear, bear,” I hear myself saying as I try to get Barry’s attention, trying to conceal the panic in my voice. Barry was walking deeper into the woods, but the bear that had previously disappeared into the bush had doubled back and was hunched on a branch behind me, looking even more nervous than me. The small yearling eventually crossed the road safely, appearing to pause for the numerous paparazzi before rambling into the bush.

bear_crossing_road

Why did the bear cross the road? Photo: Barry Scully

We were reluctant to leave the park, having become familiar with the trails, anticipating what is around the next bend and predicting where the bears are likely to be foraging. It is easy to understand why Smoky Mountain is the most visited National Park, averaging more than 10 million visitors annually. But if you do go, a few steps into the woods will uncover solitude readily found within the layers of mountains.

Link to the Smoky Mountain Portfolio for more images

fancy boots

Honky Tonk Confessions

It might have been the rousing vodka soaked night of dancing on the sticky floor, or it could have been the spirit of Hank Williams sitting in a dark corner in the back of the bar below faded autographed snapshots of county legends. Most likely it was the neon sign of a pinup girl straddling a guitar that lured me into the boot shop where I laid down a good sum of money for a pair of embroidered cowboy boots. I’ve only worn them once – and that was the day I bought them in Nashville.

Broadway, along Nashville’s famed Music Row, is crowded with lines of people teetering down the sidewalks. The wait is never long to get into the bars as the groups of tiara-crowned bachelorettes and trailing entourage of boys quickly do the rounds and move from one bar to the next, making their way through the succession of country music at the other end of town. A couple of the regulars at Robert’s Western World reminisce about the fact that no one seems to be dancing anymore– the bar hoppers preferring to yell over the musicians and slosh their PBRs on the dance floor in front of the stage.

Robert’s Western World along the Music Row strip in Nashville

As the night progresses, the crowds of people making the rounds settles on a bar, perhaps in spite of their best intentions, and the country swing dancers take over the floor one centrifugal spin at a time. I join an older gentleman who is clearly a great dancer and I try to call up variations of disco moves long relegated to the orange shag carpet of my childhood suburban basement. I lose my partner on the last spin to my friend who clearly has a better grasp of the moves.

Nashville is synonymous for all things country music; record studios, radio stations and numerous bars attract aspiring musicians from around the country where they bust their ass for their big break. The musicians at Robert’s pays tribute to honky tonk, and like most musicians on the strip, they play for tips.

Humor not lost to the crowd

I have to confess; in the past I have expressed great disdain for the genre. Living in the ‘South’ you can’t spin the radio dial without hitting a country music station of one sort or another spanning the gamut from bluegrass to Christian gospel and new country. I rarely linger for more than a few seconds, enough time to decipher the manufactured lyrics. Maybe it was the earnest live performance, or the kick-ass cowboy boots, but I found myself being drawn into the raw and jagged sound set to a syncopated beat that defines an American mythology.

Waiting for the dance floor to clear

“You sure this is the place?” Asks the cab driver as he pulls up to an unlit house. All signs indicate it’s closed.

“No, but we’ll get out anyway.”

We walk up the steps to what appears to be a law firm. The door is open and behind heavy velvet curtains is the well-stocked bar at The Patterson House, dimly lit with chandeliers reflecting off a stamped tinned ceiling. The menu reads like song titles – “Maisy Makes a Sling” and “Shanty Town Jewel”. These aren’t the same bar tenders wearing tank tops and straw hats, but Gatsby-esque mixologists complete with newsboy caps, satin ties tucked into vests, sleeves rolled up.

This tops our 48-hour extravaganza in Nashville. From the well-worn honky tonks to the boutique-crammed neighborhood of Hillsboro, there is no doubt that Nashville is more than a collection of boot shops and museums constructing an edifice of Americana.

The next morning, I pack my boots into the trunk of my car, the leather soles scuffed from a night of dancing. We eat lunch at Hattie B’s – famous, like everything else in the South, for exceptionally crisp fried chicken. We also stop at Antique Archeology of American Pickers fame to browse some unique and bizarre junk – but that’s a story for another time. As for the boots – they stand stiff at the back of my closet. Yes, its time to take them on another road trip.