The Water Way
By Tamia Nelson
July 22, 2008
A Note to the Reader
We’re paddlers. Water is vital to our sport. But water does more than float our boats. Water captivates us. It can be tranquil or terrifying, healing or destructive. It soothes us and frightens us by turns. But whatever its mood, water is always fascinating—and mysterious. It carries us along with it, and the destination isn’t always one of our own choosing. This is the Water Way. It’s a journey open to us all.
There’s something about a swamp that captures our imaginations. Maybe it’s the close, clinging, humid air. The constant drone of insect life. Or the heady perfume of rot and renewal. Or is it the green, shadowy, inviting labyrinths, the channels that wander everywhere but end up going nowhere? Or maybe—this is the likeliest explanation, I think—it’s all of these things. And of all the swamps I’ve known, one stands out above the rest. It’s nameless, at least on the maps, and it’s nothing much to look at, but the locals know it’s something special. To them, it’s always been The Swamp, and that’s what I call it, too.
I caught my first glimpse of The Swamp through the windshield of an aging Jeep, while I was driving to a new job, many years ago. The road I took that day cut across the Flats, a well-watered lowland that nestled in the perpetual half-light of a hollow between two ridges. My route to work was anything but direct. It ran along the first ridge, then plummeted headlong onto the Flats, only to claw its way back up to the crest of the second ridge. Looking down from the high road, I caught a glimpse of open water to the north. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just seen The Swamp. Once on the Flats, however, all I could see was an occasional drowned pine, the weathered ivory of its trunk towering over the low green wall of the dense roadside scrub. There was no concealing the smell, though. The musky perfume was unmistakable.
Few paddlers could resist such a challenge, and I was no exception. I’d just gotten my first canoe, and I longed to get a closer look at the secret waters visible only from the high road. But work came first, and for week after week I got no nearer than the ridge tops. The Flats kept its secrets, and as summer gave way to early autumn, and fog filled the hollow between the hills, I was denied even the occasional glint of sunlight on water. The dead pines, too, were lost in the ever-present mist. Only the lusty stink of decaying vegetation remained to remind me of what I’d seen.
The mornings were colder now, and the heater in my ancient Jeep had long since given up the ghost. (The holes in the floorboards let in plenty of fresh air, though.) So I often stopped in a diner a couple of miles down the road from the Flats to thaw out before driving on to work. The little eatery was always busy, and one day when the fog was especially dense and unusually chill I took the only free seat at the counter. I ordered a cup of coffee. A grizzled old man with a three-day growth of stubble on his chin perched uncertainly on the stool on my right, gnawing at a huge cinnamon roll that he held in both hands. My coffee arrived, and as I wrapped my fingers around the steaming mug, the old man put down the roll, turned to his left, and smiled at me. Bits of cinnamon roll protruded from the gap where his front teeth had once been. But his smile was friendly, nonetheless. I nodded at him. He nodded at me. “Cold day, ain’t it?” he said, his reedy voice somewhat muffled by its passage through so much half-chewed roll. I agreed. It was a cold day. I took a sip of coffee. But our conversation wasn’t over. “Come through the Flats?” the old man asked suddenly. “Yes,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. “Didn’t see much, did ya?” was his rejoinder. “’Cept fog, that is.” I acknowledged that I hadn’t.
The old man paused long enough to choke down his mouthful of sweet roll, a process that took him a good few minutes. Then he began to talk again, his weak, piping voice barely audible above the booming bass rumble of farmhands and truckers. I was a captive audience. I wasn’t happy about it, but I accepted the role with as much grace as I could muster, nodding occasionally between sips of coffee.
And it was there, in that busy diner, on a chill autumn morning, that I first heard the story of The Swamp. In broad outline it was more or less what I’d expected. The Swamp was fed by two small streams, one to the north and one to the south. It had no outlet. It was a living sponge, holding on to its water even in the driest years, an oasis of untamed life in a county that had been cleared, drained, and broken to the plow for two centuries or more. It was, the old man boasted, the last refuge of the big whitetails, the real trophy bucks. Yet all the local hunters stayed away. Maybe it was the fog, Or the smells. Or the seemingly solid ground that turned to water underfoot, instantly and without warning. Whatever it was, no local ventured into The Swamp.
“But what about you?” I interrupted, thinking I’d found the reason behind the old man’s monologue. “I’ll bet you’ve hunted The Swamp, right? Did you get your deer?” The old man didn’t speak right away, and when he did, his answer was brief and to the point: “I hunted it one time, but I didn’t kill nothin’. Not a blessed thing. I ain’t been back since, neither.” And that was all he said. But his eyes were eloquent. They told a tale of failure and disappointment—and they held a hint of fear, as well. I didn’t ask any more questions.
After a few minutes’ silence, during which time the old man made further tentative assaults on his cinnamon roll, he again picked up the thread of his story. Good land was scarce in these stony hills, he reminded me. Many a farmer had tried to drain The Swamp, going back at least a hundred years. But all those who’d tried had failed—and they hadn’t just failed in their attempts to dry out the land. Their farms had failed, as well. Derelict barns and abandoned houses could be found all along the margins of The Swamp, their roof timbers rotting, weathered doors and shutters creaking in the breeze. And more often than not, the farmers’ headstones tottered crazily in the brambles behind their one-time homes.
Now the old man had really hit his stride. He spoke quickly, as if he sensed my growing impatience. Much of what he said was the sort of thing I’d already come to expect from old men telling tales. My parents had run a restaurant in a cattle auction barn. I’d waitressed there, and I figured I’d heard just about everything. Now I heard it all again. Reports of ghostly lights—the fabled will-o’-the-wisp or ignis fatuus—seen by passers-by, lights which retreated or went dark when approached. Eerie cries, muffled drumbeats, and rhythmic chants. Silent lines of marching figures, caught by a solitary shaft of sunlight breaking through a cloudy sky. Troupes of wild dancers, silhouetted against bonfires that left no discoverable trace. Even a sasquatch-like beast, an elusive ape-man known only by his footprints, naked and huge. By this point, however, my attention had started to wander. I gulped down the dregs of my coffee, now as cold as the autumn air, and prepared to head out. Yep, I thought. I’ve heard all this before. It’s time for me to go. So I waited for the old man to pause for breath and thanked him for taking the time to tell me the story of The Swamp. Then I left him to finish his cinnamon roll, alone among the crowd of farmhands and truckers.
But the next day, as I once again crossed the Flats, I began to have some doubts. I was starting to wonder if the story I’d been told was indeed just another old man’s tale. And though I saw no mysterious lights, heard no chanting, and never once glimpsed an ape-man disappearing into the scrub, I had to admit that there was something about The Swamp that lifted it out of the ordinary. My doubts grew steadily thereafter. Day after day I drove across the Flats on my way to work, and day after day the dense autumn mists cloaked the sodden landscape in deeper mystery. Finally, I could take it no longer. I stole a day off from work to put the doubts to rest.
My journey of exploration didn’t begin auspiciously. I’d planned to rise early, but by the time I reached the ridge overlooking the Flats, a weak sun already hung low in the milky sky. It cast little warmth. The day was dead calm, and the white fog from each exhaled breath hung about my head for seconds on end. I grabbed my binoculars—a gift from my grandparents, these were never far away—and glassed The Swamp from my high vantage point. Nothing. But then I saw a sinuous disturbance weaving across my field of view, a ripple in the thin, low-lying mist. It was just the sort of track that a silent file of marching figures might make. I was suddenly conscious of my beating heart. It seemed very loud.
The mist thickened as I watched. Soon there was nothing to be seen. Except… In the very center of The Swamp, a swirling eddy in the fog revealed a low mound, surrounded by a picket ring of standing dead pines. Now I’m getting somewhere, I thought. The hollow between the hills that I surveyed was—or had been—Indian country. Nearly every farmhouse in the long valley had a box of flint arrowheads hidden away in a forgotten drawer, and all the local museums had larger collections, donated by some long-dead antiquarian, each chipped-stone point neatly labeled in a spidery hand and carefully mounted in a glass-fronted case. That mound below me… Could it be an Indian burial mound, I wondered? Of course! And I hurried back to my Jeep to begin the precipitous descent to the Flats.
It took me longer than I thought possible to breach The Swamp’s defenses. Now and then I could paddle, if only for a few yards. But mostly I waded, clinging to the gunwale of my canoe for support. And far more often than I liked, I dragged the heavy fiberglass boat behind me as I struggled through dense thickets of alder. The sun was much higher now, yet the mist showed no sign of clearing. If anything, it was thicker than it had been earlier in the day. I did what I could to keep to the bearing that would take me right to the mound at the heart of The Swamp, but I was making slow progress. From time to time some late-staying duck would explode into flight from a nearby swale, or an unseen deer would grunt loudly and then bolt, clattering through the scrub. Each time I thought my heart would leap into my throat. Nevertheless, I kept going.
And then I was there. The mound rose before me, guarded by the ring of dead pines I’d noticed from the ridge, their shattered crowns lost in the blanketing mist. It made an impressive tableau, though the mound really wasn’t much to look at: low, covered with leatherleaf and alder, it emerged—just—from a pool of black bog water. Still, I’d penetrated to the innermost sanctum of The Swamp, and I wasn’t going to leave without a trophy. The old man may have failed to get his deer, but I wouldn’t go away empty-handed. I was determined to get some pictures. So I dug my treasured SLR out of my pack and shot all 36 exposures on the roll, photographing the mound from every point of the compass.
Only then did I take time to climb up on the mound itself. That was when I wished I’d brought a second roll of film, for right on the apex of that little knoll was a square of slate, its surface etched with a multitude of whorls and tally-marks. To my eyes these looked like pictograms. They meant nothing to me, but I guessed that I was seeing what only one other living person had seen before me—and that I’d discovered why the old man never returned to The Swamp after his first trip. I thought about wrestling the slate tablet from the thin soil and freighting it out in my canoe, but when I touched it a jolt like an electric shock went through my whole body, leaving my hands powerless and trembling. Once was enough. When my strength returned, I squeezed a last “bonus” exposure from the roll of film in my camera. It was a trick I learned early in my photographic career, and I was glad I had. If I couldn’t bring the stone out, I figured I could at least take its image with me. Then I left The Swamp the same way I had come.
In the week that followed I waited for my slides to come back from the lab. Time hung heavy on my hands. But when the little paperboard box arrived at last, my elation quickly turned to crushing disappointment. Thirty-six of the slides revealed only a variegated gray wash. They could have been photos of the fog. And what of the thirty-seventh image, the one showing the enigmatic pictograms on the slate tablet? It was black. There was nothing at all to be seen.
Although I was miles from the Flats, and the day was clear and sunny, I felt a chill mist swirl around me. The Swamp had done its work.
I stopped at the diner many times afterward, and I looked for the old man each time I did. I wanted to tell him what I’d found, and to tell him, too, that he wasn’t the only hunter to return empty-handed from the heart of The Swamp. But our paths never crossed again. I wish they had. For a long while I was haunted by a nagging sense of failure. It was the same disappointment I thought I saw in the old man’s eyes. But now, looking back over 30 years, I realize that I was mistaken. I think things turned out exactly right. Whether we hunt with gun or camera or both, we all need nameless places on our maps. Places whose secrets are safe from every attempt to pry them free. The Swamp was such a place. It still is. And that’s just as it should be.
Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.