I was in a wild mood. Not for rambunctious partying, but for wild Florida, where a leafy canopy over a winding waterway wraps you in a tight cocoon, allowing your spirit to expand.
And so I strapped a kayak on my car and headed southeast. I passed a number of choices closer to my home-the Gulf near the town of St. Marks, the middle section of the St. Marks River above Newport, the coastal bays and inlets around the St. Marks Lighthouse, and the lower Aucilla River. Instead, I kept going and turned north off Highway 98 onto Powell Hammock Road and headed into one of the most uninhabited regions of Florida. I wanted to paddle among giants, the ancient cypress near the Slave Canal entrance along the lower Wacissa River. The loggers of a century ago somehow missed a side stream where a half dozen massive trees still tower over a wild swamp. They didn't have satellite imagery then, and this place was hard to reach.
Most of the trees are not hollow or twisted, like so many remnant old-growth cypress seen along our rivers. These are hardy specimens worthy of a saw mill, only I'm glad they were spared when nearly everything else in the area was girdled and cut. Perhaps the loggers were wrapping up their work when they glimpsed the big trees through the foliage-"Damn, we've been in this swamp long enough. Let's get the hell out of here!"
A friend calls it the Avenue of the Giants, and it only runs a quarter mile or so, but it is worthy of almost two miles of one way paddling to get there.
After miles of driving on jarring limerock roads, a white cloud billowing out from my car like a fast-moving dust devil, I reached Goose Pasture at a wide spot on the lower Wacissa River. Apalachee Indians, and those before them, used this spot for millennia, and now it is a public campground. A couple of friendly families hung out at the landing, radio blasting. Toddlers in sagging diapers splashed in the water while older children dipped minnows with tiny nets. I extended my greeting as I unloaded, knowing I would not linger long because the wild was calling. I was soon floating atop swirling eelgrass, surrounded by singing birds. Schools of gar and mullet swam past. Turtles plopped off logs as I entered the first of many canopied braids. Ahh, the wild.
I like to go alone when I am in a wild mood, when I want to paddle among giants. When I am with others, it is usually just a cursory look at the trees as we are on the way to the Slave Canal or to Half Mile Rise-the largest of the lower Aucilla's sinks. But the trees themselves are a worthy destination. Who glances at a giant sequoia on the way to someplace else?
Small alligators, half the size of my kayak, slid by quietly. I passed a statue-like yellow-crowned night heron. There were more Suwannee cooters on logs than I could count, but no people. None. Motorized craft are rare in these shallow side channels where navigation can be confusing and snags are just below the surface. And most paddlers do this section on weekend mornings as part of longer trips. So, late afternoon-weekend or not-is perfect.
After one wrong turn and a correction, I reached the trees. I slowed my paddling, savoring. Vines of fox grape, poison ivy and Virginia creeper wrapped around gray trunks and branches. Buttresses and roots were like massive knuckles gripping the shoreline, holding on through hurricane and flood. Protruding cypress knees resembled weathered Tyrannosaurus teeth. Being alone, it felt like a hallowed place. Mute elders of another species emanating power and silence.
I lingered, glancing at the dipping sun over the horizon, gauging my time. On my return trip, I startled a couple of alligators. During warm weather, they become more active late in the day-dinner time-only I knew I wasn't on the menu even after a five-footer suddenly popped up just inches from my paddle before splashing away. Still, I was glad when the river opened up and I spotted Goose Pasture, the shoreline bathed in yellow light. The wild had filled me, but it was not a permanent home. I would need to work and play and socialize and do all those things humans do for a well-rounded life. Still, that occasional pull is hard to resist. Maybe one reason the giants still stand.