Features

Alone, canoeing Florida's Oklawaha Swamp

... erie, quiet, alone, tired, sore .... but beautiful

from Don Norris



This is the Oklahawa River, clean, lazy, smooth, flowing northeast. I
regret not taking more photos that day, but then, I seldom take a thousand-
dollar camera for a canoe ride.


It all happened some dozen years ago. I remember that date because it was
the year we bought a new Buick, and planned a driving trip to Florida.

What happened was something else, but a little background will help. My
folks are natives of Florida, Mom was the ambitious farmer's daughter who
wanted to be an actress, and Dad, who followed in his father's footsteps,
rising from night cashier to corporate secretary of a significant American
company.

Actually, the story starts with my grandfather, who remains a mystery to all
of us in the clan. His name was William Napoleon Norris, he was educated
(we know not where), and when this story begins, he was superintendent of
Jacksonville Power and Light. He was the man who converted the J'ville trolley
system from horse-drawn to electric motors -- and put streetlights on the
poles. All this happened in the first and second decades of the 1900s.

So, you can see the connection I have with Florida. I lived there on and off
during my youth -- short spells such as school vacations, summer vacations,
and once for some better part of a six months when I quit college and went
to work as a mud-slinger in Coral Gables.

I really dig Florida, but mud slinging wasn't my cup of tea.

I returned to my studies at Tufts in 1950 -- and during the next four years,
some great things happened. One, I graduated with a degree in Government
and International Law, and (more important), I met and married a beautiful
young lass from Jersey -- a coupling that has lasted some 65 years.

During those delightful years, however, the Melrose Draft Board drafted me,
and was about to send this sophomore at Tufts to fight in North Korea.
Instead, I discovered the U.S. Marine Corps at Tufts -- and with the friendly
help of the recruiting officer, I ducked the draft, finished my college career,
and then spent two years as a Marine officer -- six months of which was as a
company executive officer with a company of Marines -- in a tropic Island
off the east end of Puerto Rico, called Vieques. Can you beat that!



This is Cedar Creek, which meanders without reason through endless
miles of swampy forest. The trip of some dozen miles took close to nine
hours. But it was beautiful, it was slowly exciting.


So, I had hundreds of cousins in Florida -- we were a prolific clan -- and a
natural desire to settle there. Well, that didn't happen, but Lorry and I, and
sometimes our kids, would fly down to say hi to some 200 cousins. I became
a journalist, starting with the Free Press and wrapping it up with Cycle Sport
and The New England Trail Rider magazines. A great life. Racing
motorcycles!

And so, in the spring of 2002, we bought our Buick Century, and decided to
drive down to Florida again. It was Spring, and Lorry had some obligations,
so I drove down by myself, putzing around in North Florida, waiting for Lor
to fly into Tampa.

One day, while waiting for her, I thought it would be good fun to rent a
canoe and paddle some river through the swamps of Northern Florida. I was
near J'ville, and I found a convenient rental place right in the heart of the
Oklawaha Forest.

I wasn't the only boating customer that morning. A family was renting a
couple of canoes, also -- all the boats were loaded on a carrier, and we
adventurists got in van. We were headed  south, up the Oklawaha River, to a
state park where we unloaded the canoes and put in at a spot perhaps 30
feet wide.

I had my choice, at this point, of taking the Oklawaha, which looked smooth,
peaceful and hardly flowing -- or deviating to an offshoot called Cedar
Creek. The Ranger said that the latter choice was more complicated,
narrower, just as flat -- but which takes a twisting, tortuous route back to
the origin. I guessed I had maybe eight miles as the crow flies, to get back to
the landing, so I choose the Cedar Creek route.



I was only one! The other party chose the river route, but when I got loaded, I
pointed my  canoe slightly east, and immediately I found myself in a lonely,
very quiet, very still, swamp. There was water everywhere, not deep, but the
Cedar Creek, in places, was a mere 15 yards wide. And its course had so
many twists and turns that I re-figured my route -- I had about 12 miles to
go before sunset.

It was quiet and still. I was the only thing moving. Then soon, I saw my first
wild gator, a youngster perhaps six feet long. He submerged, gone, out of
sight, out of danger. All in all, I must have seen two dozen gators along
Cedar Creek.

It was so quiet, no birdsongs, no grunting of alligators, hardly any fish. What
there was, was a very wet forest with water everywhere. There we no signs,
no arrows pointing the way -- just follow the obvious trail of Cedar Creek.

About two hours along, I spooked a huge buck deer, the largest I had ever
seen. He was startled by the quiet movement of canoe, but after a few
seconds, he leaped over the river and bounded thru the wet forest and was
soon out of sight. I saw no unique birdlife, but I did see hundreds of turtles,
and several snakes. The sunlight, bursting through the overhead cover, was
warm and comforting, but it seemed that small river was constantly turning,
switchback after switchback. For some ten hours I saw not another living
soul. I was along with all those forest creatures.

About three hours into my water journey, the way was blocked by tree that
had fallen across the creek. It allowed only a scant six inches of clearance; I
thought maybe I could drag the aluminum canoe over the tree, but then, I'd
have to be in the water. No, not me. Instead I put the bow against the tree
and climbed out -- by sitting on it I could, with my legs, push the bow down
low enough to get by. It was a struggle, but it worked. I shipped a bit of
water but that was of no concern. I was proud of the way I got past this
obstacle.

I might add that I had no weapon, no shotgun, no rifle or pistol, for I had no
idea of what I was getting into. My only tool was the sheath knife I always
had strapped to by belt. On the other hand, no monster, no slimy snakes, no
alligators came after me -- I was careful, however, not to go wading.

It was sundown before Cedar Creek rejoined the Oklawaha, and soon I
passed under the high highway bridge that announced my arrival back into
civilization. At last in very last throes of daylight I was able to drag my canoe
out of the water, find the new Buick and head for Ocala and civilization.

It was a memorable trip. I was young then -- age 72, and now, a dozen years
later, I remember that time as one of the highlights of my life.


January 2, 2015


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