Out There: In the heart of a swamp

Many big snapping turtles paddle in the tea-colored water of the swamp. 

It is a humbling experience to stand in the heart of a blackwater swamp alone.

I'm not talking about one of those swamps where you can walk out on a boardwalk and keep your feet dry while you look at the pretty trees and interesting wildlife.

I'm talking about a real swamp, a wild swamp, one where you must wade through dank, hip-deep water to reach the sweltering interior, one inhabited by swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes and thousands of venomous snakes, one where all your perspectives of true wilderness will be forever changed.

I've been tromping around swamps since I was a teen. Until recently, however, I only tromped around the edges, and almost always in the company of friends.

I never had the guts to venture alone into the heart of one of these mysterious wetland realms. The reason?

I was afraid I'd get lost — not a hard thing to do in a vast expanse of look-alike bottomland.

That changed last Christmas when my wife gave me a new hand-held mapping GPS. With this little electronic wonder on my belt, I know where I am at all times.

I can look at a detailed map on the screen and see where I started my excursion and my present location. In between is a squiggly line showing the path I've taken to get where I am.

I can zoom in or out to examine a topo map of the area I'm visiting. If I punch a couple of buttons, the unit shows me the way I must travel to return to my vehicle.

I couldn't begin to tell you the science that allows this marvel of electronic wizardry to do what it does.

But after a little study, I learned to operate the GPS. As a result, I lost my fear of bailing off into the heart of a wild swamp.

And so, one morning last spring, I left the comfortable edges of a big cypress-tupelo swamp and headed into the interior.

I had visited this swamp before, standing on the dry edges encircling it and gazing into its interior with binoculars. I'd seen a few interesting animals, mostly birds, but nothing extraordinary.

As I soon learned, however, the best wildlife viewing was in the depths of the flooded woods.

I'd gone only 100 yards when a river otter surfaced a few yards away and regarded me suspiciously before quickly disappearing. Huge common snapping turtles were everywhere, including some of the largest of hundreds I've seen.

I set my camera on the tripod, punched the self-timer and shot a self-portrait with one giant that must have weighed more than 30 pounds.

With each step I took, hundreds of crayfish squirted off in every direction. The water was crawling with them. I spent an hour photographing some specimens with big pincers on the swamp's mud flats.

The bird life was spectacular, as well. I saw more than 30 species, including prothonotary warblers, pileated woodpeckers, several species of herons and egrets, vireos, a barred owl and a red-shouldered hawk

I got good looks at several large fish,
including a two-foot bowfin and several chain pickerels.

Frogs were abundant — bullfrogs, green frogs, leopard frogs, cricket frogs, chorus frogs and even tree frogs. Several deer splashed away when I spooked them in a thicket.

As you might expect in a swamp, there also were snakes. I expected to encounter several species of non-poisonous water snakes, but each and every one of the dozens of snakes I saw was a cottonmouth.

Small beaver dams wound through the swamp in many locations, and each had at least one cottonmouth basking on it. Despite their reputation for being vicious, I found these venomous reptiles quite docile.

I got superb photos of several individuals from a close, yet safe distance using a telephoto zoom. In one spot, I photographed six cottonmouths sunning side by side.

And though I wasn't quick enough to capture it on film, I witnessed two cottonmouths performing a combat dance — a reptilian mating ritual that is incredible to watch.

The highlight of the trip also happened without my camera at the ready. Exhausted after several hours of wading, I decided to sit near a beaver lodge and rest while watching for the lodge's residents. I left the camera standing on the tripod while I sat on a log.

I was barely seated when an inquisitive river otter popped up just inches from my face. We looked into each other's eyes for several seconds. Then the otter sank beneath the still waters and vanished.

Hundreds of swamps such as the one I visited await the adventuresome outdoor enthusiast.

Venturing alone into the heart of such a swamp is not a journey to be taken lightly.

But if you prepare yourself with knowledge of possible hazards, if you carry the proper equipment to avoid getting lost or injured, if you let others know where you are going and when you expect to return … you can travel through the depths of these flooded woodlands and experience things you will never forget.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.