Monday, January 21, 2008
Curucu, Beast Of The Oklawaha
I had breakfast under this bridge in 1975. I remember it distinctly.
We had Oscar Meyer Little Smokies sausages and grits.
It was delicious.
It was also the last decent food we would have for the next 24 hours or so.
My buddy Kevin (who is 50 now, ...have I mentioned that?) and I were canoeing the Oklawaha River from Silver Springs to the town of Welaka.
At least, that was our plan.
We were 17, which explains a lot of what follows.
My big brother and his buddy had made the trip some years before and now it was our turn.
Our goal was to spend a couple of days and nights traveling from Silver springs down the Oklawaha to the St. Johns River.
Once we hit the St. Johns, we would just paddle across to a fish camp restaurant in the town of Welaka.
From there, we could use a pay phone and call my folks to come get us.
It had worked like a charm for my brother a few years earlier.
The first day out was amazing. The Oklawaha is fed by crystalline water from Silver Springs, so the first stretch was very clear. There were huge catfish lazing on the bottom and I felt like my plan to mostly catch our food was going to work.
That's the thing about plans ... they often seem like they will work.
Our "planning" had consisted of noting the start and end points, tossing a few items in the canoe, and shoving off.
One of the things we failed to consider is that much of the riverbank is low and swampy with little or no dry ground. As evening fell, the first day, we tried to make camp in a less swampy spot with only a few hundred exposed cypress roots. We actually did get a fire going and cooked a few pieces of chicken for supper. We skewered them and propped them over the hot coals with a forked stick stuck in the swampy soil.
Just before they were done, the sticks burned through and the chicken fell into the fire. There was a mad scramble to find something to fish them out with and then frantic dinner dusting as we tried to remove the coating of ash.
After dining on chicken a la ash, the mosquitoes came out. The cypress knees and damp ground made setting up a tent impossible. It looked like a long night was ahead of us.
We sat around our little damp fire and discussed our options.
A very bright moon had risen above the trees lighting up the entire forest by this time. The silvery Oklawaha beckoned and we decided to canoe in the semidark seeking a better campsite.
We loaded up the canoe and for the next few hours paddled a moonlit river. There was no high ground anywhere, so we pushed on, alternately falling asleep, sitting up, paddles in hand.
Every so often a limpkin would do that scary call they do and that would jolt us awake.
Before leaving on this trip, we had both seen an old scifi movie called "Curucu, Beast Of The Amazon".
It was the kind of bad science fiction that MST 3000 (decades later) would ridicule for fun and profit.
The limpkin's eerie call immediately became the sound of "Curucu, Beast Of The Oklawaha", as we paddled on, goofy from exhaustion and the hallucinagenic effects of ash coated chicken.
Late that night, an open upward sloping bit of shoreline appeared and we beached the canoe. We slept in sleeping bags, not bothering with the tent at such a late hour. Besides, we were whipped.
At dawn the next morning, we awoke to realize that we were in someone's front yard. At the top of the sloping ground was a house. We quietly rolled up our bags and slipped the canoe back into the river. It wasn't long before we came to that bridge I mentioned and we had a good breakfast.
Things were looking up.
Later that day, just before the thunderstorms rolled in, we reached the huge reservoir known as Rodman Lake. It was formed when the Oklawaha River was dammed in the sixties to supply water for the ill fated Cross Florida Barge Canal. The lake had drowned about 10,000 acres of forest much of it still present as floating logs or standing dead trees. Those standing dead trees were pretty useful for us as they delineated the old river bed. That would be our "map" for crossing this enormous lake ... in an open loaded canoe ... with a thunderstorm at our backs.
If you've never been in the middle of a 10,000 acre lake, during a lightning storm, paddling between tall dead cypress trees ... it's invigorating, let me tell ya'. It was getting pretty hairy between the lightning and the wind whipped waves, but there was no going back, so we pushed on.
At some point the lightning illuminated a small marshy island through the gloom and we made a beeline for it. We beached the canoe, made a quick fire, and ate a big can of Dinty Moore Stew. It tasted amazing.
As we finished the stew, the heavens opened up and instantly everything we had was drenched. We had eaten first instead of setting up the pup tent, so our sleeping bags, dry goods, clothes ... everything was wet.
There were no real trees on this little island, just clumps of wax myrtle shrubs, so we each grabbed a poncho and scooched under our selected myrtle bushes. Nights can really stretch out when you are "sleeping" in a poncho, sitting up with your back against a bush, in a pouring rain.
The island mosquitoes however, were thrilled at this windfall and visited us constantly throughout the night.
The sun came out the next morning to reveal our gear floating in the canoe. We were now out of food and dry anything, so we made the tough decision to cut the trip short. Instead of canoeing to the dam and on to Welaka, we would stop at the dam.
We pushed off from our little island paradise and once again hit the wide open waters of Rodman Lake. When we reached the dam, we spread out our gear and looked at our options. This was before cellphones, and the folks were not expecting a call until the next day.
In my teenager mind, the town of Salt Springs (back then, the only civilization in the area) was only a few miles away, so I volunteered to walk out to a pay phone. Kevin would stay with the stuff.
It turned out that it was more like 16 miles away, but eventually I got there and made the call. I did NOT walk back to the dam.
The folks showed up about an hour after the phone call and we gathered up the gear and headed home.
We never did see Curucu, but I hope he's still out there.