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Mucking About in Boats

Discovering the Joy of Swamps

By Tamia Nelson

November 8, 2005

I first saw the Everglades when I was in my teens. They made quite an impression: a limitless sea of grass dotted with small forested islands, an ocean of emerald green under a dome of cobalt blue. Of course I was just a joannie-come-lately to this magical waterscape. To the indigenous Seminole, the Everglades were always Pa Hay-Okee, "grassy waters." It would be hard to find a better name. A wilderness? Yes. But humans had long called this place home. Even the narrow channels that linked each island to its neighbors — I soon learned to call the islands "hammocks" — were canoe trails maintained by Park Service rangers. Away from these cleared trails, however, the Everglades were truly wild. Songbirds called and sang, their notes soaring above the background buzz and rasp of countless insects. Larger birds rose free of treetop roosts on huge, flapping wings, looking for all the world like Jurassic beasts who'd somehow taken a wrong turn in Time and ended up…well…here and now. I felt a sense of otherness, of nameless perils and unknown dangers. Towering cumulus clouds grew steadily taller and darker as I watched. The boardwalk on which I stood creaked and clattered in response to some unseen surge. Yet all this only served to whet my appetite. I yearned to paddle to one of the distant hammocks, to become a part of what I saw rather than remain a spectator. But my canoe was more than a thousand miles away. I was landlocked in a watery world.

I resolved to make the best of it. I strode resolutely on. Rounding a bend in the boardwalk, I caught sight of an anhinga, a bird I'd only seen before in books. He perched on a low-hanging limb of a dead, downed tree, his dripping wings spread wide. A bulge in the long snake-like neck told me all I needed to know. It was suppertime in the slough. I snapped a quick picture. Then, just as I dropped the camera from my eye, an alligator shot up out of the black water and closed his enormous jaws around the anhinga's body. In an instant, hunter and prey became one, and together they plummeted down into the murk. Both were immediately lost to view. Only the desperate tattoo of the anhinga's dying wingbeats remained behind. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. The close and humid air carried a sweet perfume of death and decay to my nostrils.

Suppertime, indeed! I thought, and I turned back. I'd had enough of the 'glades for one day. But my squeamishness didn't last very long. The next morning I joined an escorted tour. Soon I was in my element, paddling through the sea of grass that I'd heretofore only glimpsed from the boardwalk. It was an African Queen moment, both exotic and exhilarating. I'd always enjoyed exploring the marshes and swamps around my northern New York home, but this was another world altogether. I promised myself that I'd return. And I did.


Was I foolish to retreat after my first direct encounter with the harsh realities of life and death in the Everglades? Of course I was. But I was only a teenager, after all, and at least I lost no time in returning for a second look. It could so easily have gone the other way. As far as my parents were concerned, the Florida "swamps" were forbidding, disease-infested horrors, and anyone lucky enough to escape being eaten alive was doomed to die a slow death by suffocation in bottomless, fetid muck. And that wasn't all. From an aunt who dabbled in Florida real estate, I also learned that wetlands were wastelands, lost income opportunities and obstacles to progress, speed bumps on the road to the realization of the American Dream — a continent adorned by suburbs and strip malls from sea to shining sea, where grass grew only in neatly trimmed quarter-acre plots of chemically-dependent lawn. Apparently sensing that I might be about to disagree with her, my aunt then delivered the knockout blow. Swamps, she confided, were dead boring. There was simply nothing to do in one. My aunt couldn't think of anything more damning.

I could, however. Even as a teenager, I wasn't prepared to swallow all this whole. And as I spent more time exploring wetlands, I got to know something about the other side of the balance sheet. I soon came to understand that swamps and marshes — swamps are dominated by woody plants, marshes by grasses and other herbs; the Everglades are mostly marshland — were givers of life as well as places of death, starkly beautiful treasure troves of biological diversity. For a budding photographer, wetlands were the place to be. They still are. But not everyone feels the same way. My parents' fears and my aunt's gimlet-eyed appraisal still rank high in the common currency today. So let's take a closer look.

The Boredom! The Boredom!

Fear is a funny thing. Often, our greatest dread is the fear that we'll be bored to death. Well, mall mavens like my aunt may have good reason to run scared as the vegetation closes in around them and the waters open out toward the horizon, but most canoeists and kayakers can rest easy. Anyone with an eye for the natural world or an ear for bird song will find it all but impossible to be bored in a swamp. Whether you delight in following the flight of a skein of geese, warm to the sight of turtles basking in the sun, or simply marvel at the ingenious adaptations of meat-eating plants, there's no entertainment to compare with the free show that runs all day, every day, in a wetland near you. Every day? Certainly! As the myriad of tracks in new-fallen snow attest, not even a northern winter stills the beating heart of a marsh. And as for beauty.… It doesn't matter if you're a photographer, a painter, or just a casual scribbler, you'll find no end of subjects to engage your eye and challenge your art. Nature's always near wherever water meets the land. The bottom line? Only the boring are bored in a swamp.

OK. So far, so good. But aren't wetlands…

Scary Places?

Yes. They can be. Then again, so can the Interstate near your favorite mall. Fear is a rational response to potential danger anywhere, and dangers aplenty lurk in the dark waters of swamps and marshes. Of course there's also danger among the boils and eddies of whitewater rivers and the wind-whipped waves on big lakes. Yet experienced paddlers take all these (and more) in stride. Competence and local knowledge are the universal antidotes to fear, and they're just as effective on the sea of grass as on the highway. But there's a catch. Whether you're behind the wheel in rush-hour traffic or in your boat on the Great Dismal Swamp, competence comes only with experience, and experience doesn't arrive overnight. Happily, local knowledge helps you survive your apprenticeship. And where can you get this knowledge? Well, you probably won't find it on display in the mall. Guidebooks can help, to be sure, but the best teachers are expert friends. So see what any nearby paddling clubs have to offer. For all the tales penned by solitary adventurers, canoeing and kayaking remain social activities, and that's a good thing.

Still apprehensive? Then perhaps you're worried about…

Plagues and Pestilences

This makes sense. Wetlands team with life, and not all living creatures share we humans' high regard for our own place in the greater scheme of things. To many insects, for example, we're nothing more than handy blood banks. Useful, yes. Even necessary. But no more than that. And their lofty indifference to our well-being manifests itself in other ways. The bites and stings themselves are little more than nuisances, to be sure, but blood-sucking flies and ticks also play host to a disheartening variety of human pathogens. The list is long — and growing — and not even temperate wetlands are safe havens. What's the remedy? As before, safety lies in competent fieldcraft and local knowledge. Protective clothing and repellents are the first line of defense, with prophylactic medications coming in a distant second. The moral of this story? When you venture away from familiar waters, learn as much as you can about any endemic diseases, and take the precautions your doctor or other competent health authority recommends. Then relax. Whatever perils you may encounter on the water or in camp, you're probably running greater risks during the drive to the put-in.

Of course, even if there's no threat of disease, not all bites and stings can be dismissed as nuisances. What about the dangers from…

Fangs, Claws, and Teeth

These, too, are real enough. Swamps and marshes are often the haunts of poisonous snakes and large predators, and the risk of encountering them increases dramatically as you leave the temperate latitudes behind you. (But don't think you're completely safe anywhere. There's little to match the belligerent fury of an angry bull moose, and you can cross paths with one of these almost anywhere in the North. He may be a vegetarian, but if you meet him on a bad day, you'll soon realize that his diet has done nothing to gentle his disposition.) Once again, knowledge is power. Learn what you need to know before you go, or hire an expert to shepherd you safely through any dangers. And stay alert. Knowledge alone isn't enough. You have to act on it, as well. Fear is a goad. Heed it and live. Ignore it at your peril.

Boredom. Nameless fears. Dread diseases. And things that go Crunch! in the night. Maybe we'd all be better off if every last swamp was drained. Could it be that my aunt had stumbled into the truth? Are wetlands really…


No way! As the tragic events of the last few months have illustrated all too painfully along the US Gulf Coast, swamps and marshes serve many uses. Where wetlands survive, more or less intact, they protect coastal areas from the assaults of hurricane-force winds and storm surges. But where wetlands have been bulldozed away or simply allowed to die, coastal communities are left defenseless. No engineered barrier, no matter how costly, can equal the protection afforded by a natural barrier beach and coastal wetland complex. Nor can any system of levies and dikes nurture and support a productive commercial fishery. Wetlands do all these things, however. Better still, they don't charge a cent. There's more, too. Further inland, wetlands act as sponges, absorbing spring floods, only to release the impounded water later, during the hot, dry summer months. This sustains the flow of rivers, maintaining navigable depths in channels year-round while at the same time safeguarding the health of riparian ecosystems.

And these are just the services whose value can be computed in dollars and cents. What of all the others? What price a sky alive with gabbling geese, or a solitary bittern's booming call? What price a river of grass, stretching from one horizon to the next? What price a dying sea breeze whispering through the rushes in the half-light of a summer evening? These are values economists struggle in vain to quantify, but they are no less real for all that — and they are free gifts from our swamps and marshes. Some wastelands!

Wetlands are full of menace. Biting insects. Large, predatory animals. The complex stinks of birth and decay. Brooding expanses. Mists and obscure currents and sometimes tides. But wetlands are also joyous places, alive with bird song, home to ospreys and beavers, and illuminated by a whole palette of exotic hues and tints. Swamps and marshes quickly send fearful visitors scurrying back to the comfortingly familiar, but they encourage bolder souls to stay and learn. In short, they invite exploration and reward curiosity. And they enrich us all, stay-at-home and adventurer alike. That's the joy of swamps.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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