The Weazel has been uncharacteristically quiet of late. That has not been due to old age, illness, or a lack of fun things to do, but rather my reticence in dealing with all things technological. In short, I am a Luddite who would much rather fondle deadly reptiles than to deal with a self hosted blog.
So it was that over the unholy days I put my nose to the keyboard/grindstone, and hope that I have now successfully transitioned to a new hosting service. In short, I’m back in the saddle again!
I have tried to make the new format look and function exactly like the old, so if any of my faithful readers notice anything amiss in regard to the display of images, text, or anything else please let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
You may be pleased to learn that this inaugural post will be long on imagery and short on breathless prose, otherwise known as convoluted bullshit. Since publishing the Blackberry Winter series I have undertaken a number of trips to interesting places, both near and far, so here is a summary of a summer well spent.
In July of 2021 I was delighted to discover that an old friend, William Thacker, had emerged from oblivion. I had supposed him to be either dead or on the lam, but he was in fact living a quiet life in central Florida while busy writing memoirs of his many extraordinary adventures as a young man.
I first met Bill in the early 70s when the Hippie movement was in full swing, and Hogtown (AKA Gainesville) was a college community sequestered in the deep south. It was a veritable paradise for a young man such as myself, a small party town filled with pretty girls, magnificent oaks, swaying moss, famous scientists, and best of all an abundance of snakes! It was the snakes that brought us together, for the great naturalist Archie Carr had made Hogtown a Mecca for herpetologists from around the world.
At that time Bill was a celebrity. He had what amounted to a private zoo, and traveled the world collecting animals of all sorts, mostly herps, but his fame was primarily due to the fact that he was our town’s leading rock and roll disk jockey. His nom de radio was “Montana”. With good looks and a basso profundo voice he was a magnet for Hippie chicks who fluttered around him like moths to a flame. Quite frankly, I was jealous, especially since he lived in my attic and countless young women came there to visit him but not me.
It is good to have him back, but neither of us are as young as we once were.
We may be codgers, but Bill still has the spirit. We set out to look for bears along the Wekiva river; but finding none, Bill decided to “noodle” for alligators with his toes.
Bill’s early adventures were as wild, or even wilder, than mine! Anyone who enjoys my crazy stories will enjoy his. Toward that end I encourage my readers to visit his blog “The Chronicles of an Exotic Animal Cowboy“. Like mine, his stories are hard to believe but true!
As some of you may know, for many years I have undertaken a private conservation effort, the breeding and release into appropriate habitats of the nearly extinct Florida kingsnake. They are called kingsnakes because they are at the top of the ophidian food chain, they will eat almost anything, but prefer to eat other snakes. They were once common, especially on Paynes prairie, but now they are gone, presumably due to invasive exotic diseases introduced through the pet trade. It has been many years since I last heard a creditable report of one being found in the wild, so I am doing my part to bring them back.
This year, as every year, I had a bumper crop of babies, so in August I decided to release some of the adults. Here is an adult male that got lucky.
I wish him luck, especially in regard to finding a mate, but what is the chance? I have released hundreds of babies right here at Weazelworld, a great place for a snake if ever there was one, but not a single one has returned.
Summertime in Florida is all about getting wet, not just from the frequent toad strangling gully washers, but also by canoeing and kayaking in both fresh water and salt.
Dr. Ann owns a second home near the Ocala National Forest where there are numerous lakes, and strange little inholdings that are effectively off the grid and not accessible by paved roads. Some of these communities, such as Buckskin prairie, are so sequestered that they are almost impossible for an outsider to find, and those who do show up are immediately challenged, as in “Where you from Mister? What are you doing here?”
That was how I met “Doodle” Diggers, a flinty eyed old woman who was glad to have a visitor. She, like all of her neighbors, was born a back woods Yankee, but could not abide the cosmopolitan culture that infested the north, so she and her husband fled south into what was then a wilderness. They have scratched out a living by hunting, fishing, and logging ever since.
Doodle spoke proudly of her tiny community’s resistance to change, an attitude that made them susceptible to right wing propaganda. There was talk of secession and the “sovereign citizen” movement. When she mentioned a “free zone” in the middle of Lake Kerr my ears pricked up. I had heard rumors of wild redneck gatherings on the lake and had to go see for myself!
Dr. Ann and I launched our trusty Grumman canoe on the west side of Lake Kerr and went in search of the “free zone”. Our initial attempt to explore the ghost town of Kerr city failed, so we headed out to Kauffman island in the middle of the lake. Nothing there either, but then we noticed a lone flag flying far from shore.
I had expected to find an utterly trashed party zone with broken beer bottles and the rotting carcasses of poached alligators, but the place was immaculate. There was nothing but a small linear strip of dry land that had apparently been thrown up during an old dredging operation. The lawn was clipped, the aquatic vegetation had been removed, and there wasn’t a single bit of trash, not even a cigarette butt.
The only other visitor was a bass boat Bubba with a multicolored umbrella. I was tempted to ask if the rainbow umbrella meant he was gay, but instead asked him who owned the land.
He explained that no one owned the land. It was just lake bottom that had been dredged up by a would be developer who envisioned building an island nation free from the tyrannical grip of an oppressive government. (Damn those Commie environmentalists!) Needless to say it failed, but the strip of land remained. The titular President of the erstwhile island republic was said to be “Granny”, an otherwise nameless old woman who organized cleanups. It was a veritable Port Royal, and the pirate fleet was proud to keep it in good order!
How odd and interesting that this obscure place has somehow escaped the “tragedy of the commons“. If this tiny bit of dredge spoil had been owned by the government, and was therefore public property, the locals would have used it as a garbage dump, but their act of defiance in going there to be “free” had given them a sense of ownership, and as a consequence pride.
Over the summer I took numerous canoe and kayak trips through the beautiful creeks and islands along the Gulf coast just north of Yankeetown, a small community at the mouth of the Withlacoochee river.
As with the inhabitants of remote communities in the Ocala National Forest, the locals are almost all ex Yankees who are now more culturally southern than the Crackers they displaced.
Such folks constitute a second wave of inhabitants. Long before there were any roads in Florida there were thriving communities of fishermen, wreakers, and other such scoundrels who lived on islands where they were safe from Indians and alligators, but not from hurricanes.
Almost all were squatters, so when the government asserted authority over “submerged lands” they were run off and their homes abandoned. Only a few islands remain privately owned.
Don’t worry about the Weazel, there are no cameras and the police are not on call. It is just a miserable speck of rock, and the previous structures have been completely eradicated by storms.
The only thing the owner of such a place needed more than clear title to the land was a source of fresh water, so imagine my astonishment to discover a burbling artesian well, something I would not have thought possible on such a small island.
The well was created by driving an iron pipe into the solid rock to relieve the pressure beneath. Artesian wells normally occur in situations where a surficial aquifer is confined between two impermeable layers, and thus builds up pressure. In this case the bottom layer isn’t rock but rather saltwater, for freshwater floats on salt. There is no upper confining layer either, just exposed limestone, so how is it possible for pressure to build up? How could enough rain fall on one square acre of rock to create any sort of fresh water aquifer, much less one that flows continuously? How did the old Cracker know where to drive the iron pipe? Was he a water witcher? The little bit of sulfurous slime thus produced would have been enough to keep a hermit fisherman alive, but nothing more.
It is called “fishing”, not “catching”, and that is exactly what I do. The closest thing to any real luck that I had this summer was at a remote location in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge that is best accessed by mountain bike. It is too far from any landing to easily get there by canoe of kayak.
Noticed that I am fully clothed. That is because of incessant attacks by hordes of bloodthirsty little Ceratopogonid “Sand flies” of the genus Culicoides.
I was pleased to catch quite a few redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus), but all were too small.
By this time we all know that Granddad was telling the truth. Things really were better in the good old days. The fish were bigger, the women smaller, and the roads more open regardless of however many highways get built. Over the course of my long life, using the exact same lure seen above in the same sorts of places, I have caught fewer and smaller fish with every passing year. The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife refuge is effectively a wilderness, yet it is increasingly devoid of life. At least there are still billions of sand flies.
In August of 2021 I decided to beat the heat by heading back up to my secret camp in the Sumter National Forest not far from the Chattooga river where Deliverance was filmed.
Remember the banjos? I swear this has never happened to me!
Nor have I ever met this guy.
Not long after setting up camp I drove a few miles down the road to search for an old trace that the early settlers built back in the 1700s to access the Chattooga. (The word “trace” means an old road that follows a preexisting Indian trail.)
I had looked before and failed to find it, but this time I used a GPS. The trace was completely invisible from the dirt road, the bridge was gone, and vegetation had covered the trail. No one had been there in years. It was almost dark, but I decided to go for it. I only planned to be gone for a few minutes, so there was no need for a pack, headlamp, or even boots.
I’m like a bad hound dog, once I get on a trail I just keep going, even if there isn’t a trail. Eventually I found a cut going up the mountain, and from there on the trace was obvious.
I continued on for about a mile then turned back. By the time I got to the car it was dark. That was when I discovered I had a hole in my pocket and no keys. Everything I needed, spare keys, lights, food, and sleeping gear was locked in the car. There wasn’t even a handy rock with which to break the windshield.
What chance was there to find a single key on an unmarked trail in the dark? Nevertheless I had to try. I focused my attention and shuffled my feet to clear the vegetation as I attempted to retrace my path. About half a mile in I found the key underneath a fern. I have hardly ever been so proud of myself!
The following day I decided to explore the East fork of the Chattooga river starting at the old Walhalla fish hatchery. Along the way a young bear crossed my path. It was the first bear I had seen in the area. I later learned that on the same day a short distance away a trail camera captured this photo of an enormous bruin scratching its back against a tree!
The Walhalla fish hatchery is a beautiful place that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, back when the government thought it was a good idea to help people by giving them work rather than a handout. No CCC project was complete without a picnic shelter.
Trout hatcheries are good for fishermen but bad for fish. They are raised in crowded conditions which pollute the water and foster disease. When released en masse they devour all the benthic invertebrates. Worst of all, the hatchery fish interbreed with the native fish and thus pollute the gene pool. For that reason no trout are released into the pristine creek that runs by my camp, the only place in South Carolina where pure blooded native brook trout still exist. Sounds racist doesn’t it? Tough!
Despite the pollution from the fish hatchery the East fork of the Chattooga is extraordinarily beautiful.
The next day, in need of supplies, I drove into nearby North Carolina, and was horrified to discover that the roads were packed, and that resorts and vacation homes had sprung up like poisonous mushrooms. After buying food in the well named town of Cashiers I was about to flee, but checked the map in hope that there might be something interesting nearby. So it was that I discovered magnificent Whitewater falls.
These are the upper falls, which are 411 feet tall. There is a lower 400 foot tall falls that I didn’t visit. A combined height of 811 feet makes this the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky mountains. The photo above is deceptive due to a lack of scale. Let’s take a closer look at the uppermost drop near the top left of the photo. (Sorry for the fuzzy photo)
As you can see, there is someone standing at the top. People die here all the time, so the Forest service has placed a convenient sign warning, “Danger! Trail closed!” to help potential suicide victims find their way to the brink of the precipice.
Utterly dismayed by the level of development in North Carolina, I decided to buy all future supplies in the funky little town of Walhalla, South Carolina.
South Carolina is to North Carolina as Mexico is to the United States, a much more amenable place despite the random violence. Unfortunately, my favorite Mexican restaurant was closed, so I walked across the street to Pete’s Meat and Three Family Restaurant. It was open, but not busy. I was in for a treat!
I stepped into a time warp. The walls were completely covered with LP album covers from the 5os and 60s. The waitress, like me, had fled Florida to escape the Yankees. She sized me up, asked what I had for breakfast and what my plans were for the day; then, on the basis of her medical opinion, told me what I was having for lunch. She did not ask. She produced a bag of fresh figs to keep me busy while she cooked, then sat down at the table uninvited and began eating my lasagna lunch herself. The nice woman invited me to have some too. Pete’s is my new favorite place!
On the way back I decided to visit Yellow branch falls. A beautiful 1.5 mile rhododendron embowered trail leads to the falls.
When viewed from below the falls give the appearance of travertine, but it is actually granitic rock.
Not far from Yellow branch is the strange and interesting Stumphouse tunnel, a monument to folly. I have written about it before because of the presence of troglobitic salamanders and crayfish in a place far removed from the nearest karst where such cave adapted speciation normally takes place.
Work was started in 1856, and the purpose was to blast a railroad tunnel through the Blue ridge, then all the way to Cincinnati. The initial project required 1500 Irishmen and countless slaves, each one of whom was equivalent to 3/5ths of an Irishman. I don’t know how many Irishmen it took to equal one human being. Tunnel hill, the village where the Irishmen lived, was said to be a den of inequity due to excessive consumption of whiskey. Whodathunkit?
Granite is very hard, so after about 2000 feet they gave up. A wall now prevents the curious from continuing on to their doom.
But there is more to it than this. Unbeknownst to me other tunnels had been constructed prior to the granitic fiasco. Parts of them can be accessed by following the Blue ridge Railroad trail, so that is what I did.
The protoconfederates who proposed the tunnel started at the east end where, over many millions of years, the granite had decomposed into easily diggable dirt. (Insert the sound of cracking whips!) It was only when they got to solid granite that progress ground to a halt. A tunnel in solid granite will stand the test of time, but what sort of damned fool thinks that a tunnel made of dirt won’t eventually collapse?
Here is one of the entrances to the middle tunnel. It is said that in 1859 someone managed to ride a horse through it. I suppose he had to duck.
Now don’t get excited, these aren’t spiders on the wall, just countless cave crickets; but I must admit that it was a bit unnerving when they started jumping off the wall and into my fuzzy hair!
The Chattooga river forms the boundary between western South Carolina and adjacent northeastern Georgia. The Tallulah is a sister river to the Chattooga. It heads up in North Carolina, then cuts through the magnificent Tallulah gorge before joining the Chattooga which ultimately makes its way to the sea near Savannah Georgia.
As you might have guessed, the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead was named for the river. She was descended from wealthy southern politicians who were deeply conservative (There I go repeating myself again) so you can well imagine that they were appalled when their beautiful and talented daughter became a prominent proponent of liberal causes. By sheer force of will she rose from the backwaters of rural Alabama to become a world renowned bisexual intellectual drug abuser. She was desired by men throughout the world, had countless affairs, and said of herself , “I’m as pure as the driven slush”. What a gal! Here she is:
Tallulah gorge is one of the most outstanding geological features in the eastern United States. The 1000 foot deep gorge cuts directly through solid rock, and used to feature six magnificent waterfalls, but sadly most of the falls have been subsumed beneath the waters of a damnable dam. Needless to say the place has become a popular Georgia State Park. I discovered just how popular when I had trouble finding a place to park.
I had hoped to secure a permit to explore the bottom of the gorge, but by the time I got there the maximum of 100 permits per day had already been reached. More on that in a moment.
To accommodate the hordes of tourists the park service constructed a steep set of staircases leading to the bottom. There are said to be 1099 steps. Numerous signs warn the old and overweight not to try it. About 100 feet above the bottom a suspension bridge crosses to the opposite side of the gorge, then the steps continue down to the base of Hurricane falls.
I had wondered how the Park intended to enforce the gorge bottom permits. At the very bottom where I was standing to take the above photo a weird metal cage with a locked door opens on to nothing, just rocks and the river. The idea was that those with a permit could unlock the door, but then what? Take a flying leap? The river was deep and swift, and the rocks slippery. The permitted few were expected to rock hop across the river, then continue on as best they could. To me it looked like a recipe for disaster. I decided that with my old brittle bones the only way I could get across the river would be to swim, but getting back would have been a bitch! I am surprised that people are not killed or injured here every day. Here is a view looking the other way.
Back to those 1099 steps, and that doesn’t include the steps going back up the other side. Before leaving on the trip I had sustained a minor injury to my lower back from wrestling a trailer. (I lost!) It only troubled me after many miles of hiking, so I wasn’t very concerned, but the evening after climbing out of the gorge I was in agony. The next day I managed to break camp, then headed to Mt. Pisgah NC to visit my friend Buford who had recently completed building a cabin in the mountains.
The pain was so bad that I couldn’t even lace up my boots, but I nevertheless managed to hike for miles up a mountain in the Dupont State Forest to look for rattlesnakes. On the way back we stopped for a quick look at Looking glass falls.
By that time the pain was so bad I had no choice but to return home. When I did I discovered that I had sacroiliitis, a malady brought on by climbing too many steps. At least I earned it!
These were just a few of the many adventures I had in the Summer of Our Pandemic 2021.
Stay tuned for an autumn trip to West by Gawd Virginia where the Governor, who is a coal baron, owes $4.3 million in delinquent debt for mine safety violations. Here he is responding to a criticism from Bette Midler.