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Fisheating Creek Expedition Part II

Fisheating Creek Expedition
A Special Three-Part Series by Maggy Reno Hurchalla

Maggy Reno Hurchalla has been immersed in Florida water and wilderness all her life. She comes from a family notorious for getting stuck in the mud and lost in the swamp, since becoming an environmental hero recognized for her leadership in restoring the Everglades and Indian River Lagoon. Her numerous accolades include Audubon of Florida’s Environmentalist of the Year and the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award. Beyond Florida, she is the first grandmother to descend several class IV rapids and waterfalls in a kayak and at times she has been seen running whitewater on the Potomac with her sister, US Attorney General Janet Reno, while the FBI detail tried to keep up.

Part II – Through the Flooded Forest

Maggy and Jim Hurchalla
Maggy and Jim Hurchalla

The stretch of Fisheating Creek down from Ingram’s Crossing is one of the prettiest parts of the most beautiful cypress lined creek in Florida. It is narrow and winding and doubles back on itself in endless oxbows. Great live oak trees loom up through the tall straight cypress trees. There is no straightness in live oaks. Their limbs wind like rivers. If darkness is your friend and you don’t mind ghosts, then the darkness and night are magical as the shapes and shadows shift and change in the fading light.

It’s like the poem from Pogo set in moss draped trees in the Okeefenokee:

The gentle journey jars to stop,
The drifting dream is done.
The long gone goblins loom ahead.
The deadly, that we thought were dead,
Stand waiting everyone.

 

It did get pitch black before we got to Burnt Bridge. As we came around another corner, there was a great roaring in the treetops like the sound of distant breakers. We could barely see the huge flock of white ibis that took off all at once, that made Jurassic shadows against the starlight. We came around another corner, and they roared off again into the night sky.

Justin Riney and Mallory Dimmitt, lead, navigate Fisheating Creek by headlamp after sunset on the second day. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.
Justin Riney and Mallory Dimmitt, lead, navigate Fisheating Creek by headlamp after sunset on the second day. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

The paddleboarders had headlamps. We followed them in the canoe. Occasionally we lost them. Then we hollered ‘til we all got found again.

There was enough high ground at Burnt Bridge for the tents. Carlton and Joe hung their hammocks between cypress trees over a sea of cypress knees and dark water.

The mattress worked! The hammocks worked. The mosquitoes worked. All was right with the world. We all slept well and woke surrounded by light.

I opened the tent flap five feet away from the cypress knees and the reflections in tannin colored water.

It made me feel like the Sunday morning evangelist I once heard:

“And the Lord woke me to another day I’d never seen before.”

All we needed was coffee which was provided by Joe.

The 8 mile paddle down from Burnt Bridge to the campground just stayed beautiful. We admired the giant bees nest on a cypress stump that looked like a giant toadstool.

Joe and Carlton stopped to swing off the rope swing.

At the campground we sent Mallory and Jim to shuttle a car out to the boat ramp on S.R.78 where Fisheating Creek meets Lake Okeechobee. We sorted gear from all the boats and all the cars for another night out in the middle of nowhere. We ate lunch.

Word came from the campground store that a couple had tried to make it down through Cowbone Marsh and had gotten lost and had to be rescued. We hunted them down and listened to their story. They got lost in the cypress swamp where the high water runs everywhere and makes everything look the same. They were anxious to have us try it to see if it was possible. They said they would be watching the Expedition 500 Facebook page.

Then we conferred about Cowbone Marsh. The creek runs out into the sunshine and loses its cypress trees about 8 miles down from the campground. Nutrients hit sunlight, the water spreads out, and every kind of water weed grows like crazy. The filter marsh acts like a giant kidney so that the flow going into Lake Okeechobee is the cleanest water coming into the Lake. It appears to be a fire ecology where periodic burns in the dry season keep trees from taking root and keep the marsh grass low.

The Hurchallas were the only ones in the party who had been through Cowbone Marsh. We may be the only couple who have been through Cowbone Marsh.

The young hip people on the paddleboards had Google Earth on their I phones and GPS and all that stuff.  Joe had created and probable track on the GPS. The elderly paddlers in the canoe had simply blundered through in their previous adventure.

It was getting late again and we had 8 miles to paddle to get to the campsite before Cowbone Marsh. We conferred some more. Some of us found a picnic table and lay on our backs and smiled at the river running by. The more responsible members of the party conferred about alternatives.

We definitely did not want to have to be rescued. That would be embarrassing. We did not want to paddle back to the campground after a failed attempt at the marsh. The current was running strong. We did not want to abandon a joyful adventure.

Folks said the marsh was impenetrable. We explained, from painful experience, that it was not impassable, just miserable. We might have to crawl a lot instead of paddling, but we would come out the other side.

So we said “Let’s go!” and put all the remaining beer in the ice chest.

Justin posted what he thought was a reassuring message to his Facebook followers:

Day 276. Heading out early with an uncertain day ahead. Cowbone Marsh is supposedly impenetrable; we may be hiking through it with gear and boards soon. Not an easy trek from what I hear, but I’m anxious to find out. Carlton Ward, Mallory Dimmitt, Joe Guthrie, Jim Hurchalla, Maggy Hurchalla, and myself. We’ll check in as often as we can, and we’ll be safe. See y’all soon on the other side… – Justin Riney

Some of his followers noted later that they were not reassured.

We got to the campsite a little before dark: big oak tree, good dinner, good company, fine stories, few mosquitoes, and continuing beautiful weather.

Joe made coffee and we had the last of the pumpkin pie for breakfast. It was 16 miles to the car we had left at the boatramp on Fisheating Bay.

The first hour was wonderful. All rivers have their own signature. For Fisheating Creek it’s cypress trees, but sections vary. Sometimes it’s big live oaks mixed with the cypress. Sometimes it’s water oak or maple trees. We came to a section mixed with elegant cabbage palms, leaning out over the bank or straight and tall to compete with the cypress trees for skylight.

The wide river turned into capillaries. Little streamlets two canoes wide split off and rejoined. And rejoined each other. Then it turned into a flooded delta of cypress trees where we had to pick our way through knees and trees in spaces wide enough to get a canoe through. It wasn’t miserable at all, but it was tricky.

Expedition Florida 500
Expedition Florida 500

Joe played trail leader down his electronically marked path while Carlton played navigator behind him with the GPS. Since the world doesn’t seem to hold still and trees get in the way, it’s not as easy as ocean navigating.

We came to the end of the trees.