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.


threecollie said...

Interesting how what you learned way back in 1975 stuck with you in such vivid detail. That must have been some trip! (Reminded me of my brothers...the year it snowed two feet in October up here and they were camping in the Adirondacks...they were both a lot older than 17 too and REALLY should have known better {in fact their older and wiser sister told them they were nuts}. Word is they only survived because of the beer)

Cathy S. said...

Give me hope that my own two boys may survive until they are 50 if you and Kevin could. Sometimes I just shake my head and pray.

Suze said...

I can't find Lake Rodman on a map. I see Lake George, which is huge and near Salt Springs - did they rename the lake?

robin andrea said...

What an experience. Is it the kind of thing young people do these days? I wonder.

Danielle Blogging for Balance said...

the tales we hate to relay to our children...yet they make up the best of our memories ;)

kevin said...

I told this story a couple of days ago. The storm crossing the lake was amazing, I remember a wall of water overtaking us and almost swamping the canoe. Not being able to see land and paddling blindly until we ran into the shore.

I had a great nap while you went to make the phone call, by the way.

I also seem to remember you'll be 50 in a couple of days.

swamp4me said...

Ah, the joys of a well-planned trip! Aren't you kinda glad that was pre-cellphone days? I sort of miss those days...
And watch it with those "50" comments - I climbing that particular hill myself here in 30 days or so ;)

pablo said...

Are you sure you labeled this story correct?

Floridacracker said...

That trip is seared into my brain. The images are so clear.Glad your brothers survived their adventure!

Cathy S,
Our Mom's both have whiplash.

You are in the right neighborhood. Find Palatka, then come south on 19 to the Oklawaha River, barge canal, and Rodman Dam ... now named after Sen. Kirkpatrick.

I don't think they disconnect from the electronic network. We had no choice back then, but there was no way to call for help.

I use myself as a nonexample at times.

I rode home this way after I left St. Auggie on Sunday. The memories were pretty strong.
Good party by the way!

I do sometimes. I think my kids just can't imagine it.
The crest of that hill is looming over me.

Sometimes you are too subtle for me and I miss the point.

Hurricane Teen said...

I think I remember you mentioning this story a long while back. I tend to overplan things, so I would hope I would be a little more prepared :-D
Something similar did happen to me on Juniper Creek, though!
The experience is valuable.

Deb said...

What an adventure. It kind of reminds me of stories The Hermit tells me of when he was a kid. His parents let him explore the coast of Lake Erie, and inlet rivers, when he was maybe twelve years old, in a small boat with 2.5 horse Evinrude.

Calvin (age 10) wants to float Sand Creek down to his friend's house (less than 10 river miles) this summer. I want to take the family to the Boundary Waters before we get too old. :)

Scott aka Florida Native Musings said...

Wow what a walk u had FC. Reminds me of a time when I was a teenager 12-13 that some buddies and I were gonna paddle the Chipola from Marianna down to where it runs into the Dead Lakes at Wewa. Well we made it just passed Altha and hit the "Rapids" Look & Trimble, tipped the canoes got wet and went to a house and called the 'rents. But the journey is all the fun.

Yours in the Bond

Floridacracker said...

Miss Adventure is a great teacher.

Boundary Waters, wow! Go!
I was just thinking today that we may never vacation as a family again with the girls in college, work, and competing schedules.
Go while they are your captives.

Floridacracker said...

The journey is more important than the destination.
Your trip sounds fun ;)

kathy a. said...

i got nothing. oh, wait -- i did have an adventure at 17 -- some friends and i took a road trip! we met at a summer honors program at a state university, which is why our parents could see the halos over our heads, and planned this whole trip so we could "visit college campuses" and stay with friends from our honors program, various places.

ok, so a road trip is not the same. but we did end up camping at yosemite one night. and the campgrounds were full, so we ended up at some very high elevation with flimsy sleeping bags, no food, and a very large fear of bears, freezing our little urban butts off. we built a fire, spent a few hours shivering even with every item of clothing on, and voted unanimously to go find donuts before first light.

i'm pretty sure we impressed the hell out of the college campuses we visited. which were all on summer break at the time.

Anonymous said...

I just love this story. Sometimes stressful adventures turn into the best memories. Abby has a girlfriend she has backpacked with every year since they did an outward bound trip together in 10th grade- I'm sure there are lots of tales I have yet to hear.

It's also really cool that you and Kevin have continued the friendship over the years. So if you were both 17 and he is now 50 what does this mean? There must be a milestone coming up for you.

Floridacracker said...

Kathy A,
mmmmmmm, doughnuts!
Funny how those halos can be a pass into adventure.

Oh it's coming up all right ... you can't hear it?

Sharon said...

What an adventure! Sometimes the trips that don't work out like we planned make the greatest memories ;)

Alan said...

Sounds like quite the experience. Nothing like being in a canoe with lightning around to give you energy to paddle faster! Luckily in my experience with that situation the storm was slow and we made it to shore before it truly caught up to us. But we would have done well in the Olympics as fast as we were paddling. :)

Mrs Mecomber said...

Cuckoo in Curucu.

So, the moral of the story is "Do not go camping in Florida"?

Floridacracker said...

I find that to be very true!

Proximity to lightning is a great motivator.

Mrs. Mc,
Or at least plan a little bit if you do!

Julie Zickefoose said...

Oh. My. GOD.
Kids have changed. How they have changed.
And parents have changed. How we have changed.
Liam, doing something like this next year (he's 16 now)....unthinkable. He'd never risk it, much less know what he was doing in a canoe. My bad.
Me, letting him do something like this next year? Not without me!
You: "camping" under a poncho, propped against a wax myrtle shrub, slapping mossies...poor boys!!
So vividly told. So very foolhardy.
And yet you survived it.
I always say when stuff goes wrong, it makes a much better story. Three gals on the Costa Rica trip were in a cabin that was invaded by giant flying cockroaches. That's when they figured out why their cabin had mosquito netting around the beds. Nobody else's. By the next morning, after they'd raised the roof with the other group members' laughter in telling about it, I told them they never would have had a story to tell if things hadn't gone wrong. Viva la wrong!!

Thanks for this, FC.

Miz S said...

Fantastic story! How did I ever miss it? The lightning storm part,tho. Man. Nothing scares me more than being exposed during a thunderstorm. Also, I loved seeing the comments from people I know or remember. Those were the good ol'days of blogging.I miss it.