Florida's Choc-taw-hatch-ee River made headlines a few years ago -- as possible home to the maybe-not-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Scientists and bird enthusiasts were flocking to the swamps in earnest. The search was inconclusive. But, that little story helps paint the picture for you of this wild, winding river with its vast floodplain and network of tributaries... mist rising from swirling waters, eerie bird calls, and mysterious sightings. Since 2008, I have explored parts of the Choctawhatchee and Holmes Creek (tributary), not in search of the elusive bird, but rather simply in search of Florida's remaining natural beauty... of which there is aplenty.
We had high water the first time I went there with John Moran, searching for a spring that is surrounded by very tall cypress knees. We found it, but the floodwaters dwarfed what was showing of the knees, and the spring water was too deep to be clear at the surface. Looking into its depths, I saw a photo in my own shadow and radiating sunbeams. And I fell in love with the wildness and hugeness of this swamp.
Perhaps in lower water, the knees looked something like this one from another spot on the Choctaw.
Hunters and fishermen are the most frequent human visitors. You never know when you might come around a bend to find a small camp along the shore, or perhaps a more permanent floating camp like this one. But mostly, we had the entire river, creeks, and swamp to ourselves.
In early spring, the winged maple seeds are showing off their eye-catching red, shouting "Look, over here, take a picture of me!"
One late winter, John and I had a great time on the river with our wives. John had his "Jonnypod" set up like a tower on his boat upon which one can feel like an osprey soaring down the river.
Over the side of the boat, trippy abstract tree and sky reflections followed in our wake. And trips ashore provided a bounty of photo ops in the wildflowers, knees, and sycamore bark compositions.
Here's a sunset from that wonderful late winter day on the Choctaw. It even inspired me to try a pastel sketch. (Guess I should stick with photography.)
There are homes along the river in a few places, and one of the most special of those places is the Choctaw Lodge. On a river that feels "far from civilization" (in a good way), hosts Ron and Kathryn Hardy have created a most warm, welcoming, and elegant B&B. Not only are guests treated like royalty, Ron knows some amazing nooks and crannies along the river where he can take you for one-of-a-kind adventures... or just for a sunset float with a glass of wine and hors d'oeuvres.
I will never forget being the first human to wriggle into a cavernous cypress tree in the swamp. This was one of Ron's special secret places. A couple months earlier, a burl had cracked off the side of the tree leaving a small opening at about chest height. Small, but just large enough for me to awkwardly squeeze through head first into a dimly-lit room amid a hallowed gathering of knees on the watery floor. The light shone in from the top of the forty foot "chimney" that the main trunk had become. The space felt eerie... no, sacred.
(John used flash, of course, to make the photo of me. As did I for the inside shots.)
Another evening (when we weren't sitting around the riverside fire with Ron, Kathryn, and friends, Ron took us to a small bayou for a night shoot. We had scouted "The Leaner" earlier in the day, but now was it's time to shine. John and I set up onshore while the group partied aboard the skiff. When dusk had sufficiently fallen, we opened our shutters and shouted the signal for Ron to paint the Leaner with a powerful Q-beam of light. A red-shouldered hawk flew in to watch the proceedings over our shoulders.
Venturing onto Holmes Creek in pitch darkness one cold November morning more recently, John and I were rewarded with rising mist and golden light.
We were in search of springs. The creeks and tributaries were more maze-like than our maps suggested, so it was a real exploration, not without its struggles. But the treasures we found made it all worthwhile.
(Below is the fish's eye view of the cypress in the photo above. )
Whether there are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still hiding out in this beautiful place we may never know... but we do know the Choctawhatchee is one of Florida's most magnificent remaining wildernesses.