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Smoking out swamp things

Second of two parts

The blaze on the pine tree looked familiar, but the animals swimming around my hiking boots did not.

Fish on the Florida Trail?

Must be a joke. Or perhaps a trap.

It's an old trick. Lure the unwitting traveler down a dead end, spring the ambush, then divide the spoils. Not this time.

All those Tarzan movies had not been watched in vain.

Still, just to be safe pretend to stop and tie the boot. Let the other guy go first. What are friends for?

Fifty feet farther, another red mark on a tree. Hmm. Maybe, somewhere under all this water, there was a trail.

The brochure said parts of the trail were submerged during the rainy season, June through September. But this was March, the tail end of winter, the dry season.

But Big Cypress is a swamp. With 60 inches of rain a year and a southerly slope of only 2 inches per mile, it stays flooded most of the time.

Water is the region's life blood, moving slowly toward the Everglades, feeding all in its path. Like these critters dancing around my feet.

That's why the wading birds _ wood storks, herons and egrets _ like it here. Plenty to eat. The great flooded prairies of saw grass offer an endless buffet.

Humans, however, don't fare as well. With no webbing, our feet aren't suited for traversing the bog. They have a tendency to sink and stay sunk.

On most Florida trails, hikers easily can cover 2, maybe 3 mph. Here, you would be lucky to do half that.

That tends to keeps a lot of people away. So do the mosquitoes. But they leave you alone as long as you keep moving.

"Let's stop here," I said. "This looks as good a place as any to camp."

The designated camp site still lay miles ahead. But with all the mud, we never would make it with daylight to spare.

The small clearing among the pine trees offered little dry ground. Well, to be honest, no dry ground. More like pitching a tent on a giant sponge.

Sleep in a swamp. That's one way to avoid noisy neighbors. Just panther, pigs and black bear. And, of course, mosquitoes.

These swamp angels can be brutal. Their bite leaves a bump bigger than a jelly bean. Scratching only makes it worse.

Fortunately, my companion had taken to the trail with a seasoned swamp rat.

"You cannot rely solely on one method of defense," I explained.

Mosquitoes, you see, identify their prey by following a trail of carbon monoxide. "It pays to have bad breath," I said. "Bring plenty of cigars."

If the insects manage to find their prey amid the smokescreen, the host must appear so vile even the parasite is revolted.

"It helps not to bathe for a few days," I continued.

A chemical shield, properly applied, will ward off the stragglers.

"I prefer Avon Skin So Soft," I said. "Repels insects yet softens the skin."

Then, glistening with a thin layer of bug juice, stand in front of the camp fire.

"That way your skin really soaks up the stench."

When the sun dropped below the pine trees that night, the mosquitoes, and every other living thing, gave our cozy camp wide berth.

The next morning, the water had receded a few inches. Progress still was slow.

We stopped along the trail for a sip of water and handful of dried bananas. Another hiker appeared from the underbrush.

"Whoa," he said. "I thought I was the only person out here."

Before we could respond, he uttered the obvious.

"Man, I didn't think there would be this much mud," he said. "This really stinks."

I had to smile. Told you it worked.

WHAT TO BRING

Tent: Unless you like being tormented by blood-sucking insects. Be sure it has no-see-um netting, a waterproof floor (to keep the nasties from crawling into your sleeping bag) and a fly to keep out the rain.

Portable stove: Lightweight and easy to carry. Campfires look nice but are difficult to cook over. That's why cowboys never could wait to get to town.

Backpack with frame: Remember, you'll be carrying your kitchen and bedroom on your back.

Spare clothes: Something dry to put on at night. You can always wear your stinking, muddy clothes the second day. Nobody cares what you smell like in the woods.

Other essentials: Sunglasses, waterproof matches, compass, map, flashlight, first-aid kit and pocketknife. And if so inclined, a portable CD player, portable speakers and a few CDs. John Coltrane sounds sweet in the swamp.

_ For information write Big Cypress National Preserve, Star Route Box 110, Ochopee, FL 33943. Or call (813) 695-2000.

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