Camp Serenity, re-written and improved photos
February 24, 2008
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There had been considerable discussion between my good friend Blake and
myself, concerning three days of snake hunting we were going to take in the
month of April. Blake spoke confidently that the middle of the month would be a
very rewarding time to hunt many of the species we wanted to see in the wild.
Our excitement was almost too great to contain. In the weeks leading up to our
trip, I purchased a canoe and was anxious to baptize her in the black waters of
South Georgia. Much of my gear and non-perishable food items I bought nearly
four weeks in advance; I lived every day as if I were leaving for the tin fields
of South Georgia the next.
But Mother Nature being in her perpetual, brooding and irritable mood
had other plans for us men. Now, she is indeed a woman of undeniable beauty, but
a dangerous and malicious one as well. Her warmth is to be embraced and her
fruits tasted ever so cautiously. An ever present doubt as to her fidelity
should be kept in your conscious mind and not in your loins. Two weeks before
departing, she would freeze Georgia’s soil with record low temperatures for the
month of April, killing the lovely flowers I had planted for my wife around our
mailbox. Then, one week before our ascension upon the southlands, she would
ignite South Georgia into a raging fire that would shroud our hunting grounds in
a haunting vale of haze; a conflagration that is still burning as I sit and
write this account nearly two weeks after the trip. And yet drunk with the lust
of a sailor, who has been deprived of female companionship for many months, we
still chose to go on our trip.
At the last moment I decided to bring along my younger brother, Justin.
On Friday, April 20th, we left my house at four in the morning and headed for
Blake’s. Nothing of much significance happened between his house and mine.
Indeed, nothing of any significance happened until we started snake hunting in
Wrightsville. Less you want to include me slipping and falling out of the bed of
Blake’s pickup while strapping in the canoe. (In any other company that might
have embarrassed me.) Blake had a couple of female canebrakes he collected last
year in order to see the young, so he packed them up in order to release them
back into their respective tin piles.
Our first stop was a tin pile in Wrightsville, Georgia at seven in the
morning, the air had a chill to it and a light fleece kept me warm. We took this
opportunity to photograph the canebrakes in their state of cold induced
lethargy, and then we released them into the sun soaked tin pile. It was truly
amazing to see these snakes basking under natural light once again. We lingered
for a while and found a giant eastern king snake; he was surprisingly clean of
any scaring. He obliged to a few photos, and then was left alone. When we
departed our first tin site of the day we couldn’t help but anticipate what
surprises lay ahead.
As the day progressively warmed, we started to see innumerable lizards
of various species, so naturally, we assumed our snake hunting would be
bountiful. The next few tin piles had some mice, race runners, coluber and toads
beneath them, but nothing much else. I was hoping for a good textbook
representation of a southern copperhead to add to my personal collection, I was
also intent on photographing as many native serpentine species as possible while
in the field. It seemed the closer we got to our destination (the Suwannee River
was to be our camp) the less snakes we were finding under tin. We had nearly 40
tin piles in different locations, all marked out on our map, and so we hoped to
break this trend quickly.
Snake hunting as kids we were never really broken hearted if we came up
short of our goals in the field. I am however, finding it much more difficult to
accept defeat in my adult years, primarily because I don’t have as much free
time as I did in my teens to spend snake hunting. Blake and I are now fathers
and both have a mortgage and jobs to go to; thus making the time we can spend
field herping minimal. Another thing that bothers me to no end is the constant
land development of our old stomping grounds. This, I am sure that every
generation of field herpers can relate to. We humans are such parasites. I am
also susceptible to a short bout of grumpiness in the field when we lack the
success of our yesteryears.
But our disdain quickly faded and our luck improved at the next stop. I
peeled back a sheet of briar-covered tin, to find hidden beneath another very
clean looking eastern kingsnake. I handed it to my brother, whom it promptly bit
on the hand. There was more tin to look through, so I followed Blake through the
woods, pushing brush aside, and along a collapsed chicken house to another pile
of tin. We began digging like greedy children beneath a Christmas tree full of
brightly wrapped gifts. I was still partially concentrating on pulling thorns
from my hand after plunging it through a briar bush for that last kingsnake.
The word, “canebrake” uttered in excitement from Blake caught my attention. I
glanced over to see a large coil of rattlesnake pouring from beneath a sheet of
tin. Upon closer inspection I noticed a second canebrake slide into view. “Don’t
you mean canebrakes,” I retorted. Once the sheet of tin was safely cleared we
found a very nice pair of canebrake rattlesnakes, covered in dried mud, sitting
motionless, not even rattling. We photographed the pair, then toasted our snake
hooks like the Three Musketeers after another glorious victory!
No more snakes would be found beneath tin on our first day. It wasn’t
until we got onto highway 94 that we could actually see for ourselves how bad
the fire burning in Ware County, Georgia actually was. One moment the sky was a
brilliant azure and the next, it took on the look of an alien planet. So thick
was the smoke that oncoming cars couldn’t be seen until they were nearly right
alongside you. Even with the windows closed our eyes smarted and stung slightly.
It was eerie and devoid of any sound other than the sudden “whoosh” of a passing
car. My spirits dipped as I began thinking about all of the problems Mother
Nature was throwing our way: freeze, drought, and fire. I stared silently out of
the through the window at the yellow murk.
Blake soon announced that he was heading west, thus putting us out of
the way of the fire. After nearly an hour of riding through the smog we were
finally basking in clear, radiant light again, it felt like taking off a pair of
sunglasses after having worn them for hours. A mutual decision was reached to
make for camp; it was now about five in the afternoon.
The Suwannee River was dreadfully low and slow moving. We used the canoe
to get to an isolated place to camp. However, due to the low level of water and
the heavy load in the boat, we could only get about a quarter of a mile down
river. We passed along many ancient looking cypress trees, one of which I named
orgy island because it looked like a tangled mass of naked people; one must only
use their imagination, so I will give no further descript. Once satisfied that
our camp was safely hidden from the view of potential vandals, we made for the
shore. With our ship moored upon sugary white sand, we piled out and took to the
chore of putting up camp.
My brother occupied himself by cleaning his .22 pistol, and left me with
the task of pitching the tent. Once camp was erected, we all went for a much
needed swim. Justin, four years my younger, constantly chimed about his fear of
alligators, a fear he would later learn to mold into respect and admiration. Now
thoroughly relaxed, I threw on some light cloths and started dinner. Noodles,
saltine crackers and water were the camps fare this fine evening. Blake and
Justin made a wonderful fire deep inside a sand hole. The sky burned crimson and
steel blue as the sun melted into the cypress. We were now in complete and utter
serenity, and by consequence that is the name I gave our camp: Serenity.
The night sky was alive with bats darting in erratic flight, and the
forest echoed with the haunting hoot of the wise old owl. A whippoorwill sang,
and our ears were blessed with an orchestral like performance from the birds. My
brothers eyes bounced around as each new sound resonated from the woods; he
looked concerned. The comfort I offered was my soundness and confidence; it was
his job to do the rest. We turned in at midnight.
Day two, April 21st, 2007 I was up with the sun. A cold condensation had
formed on the inside walls of the tent and every surface outside glittered with
dew. Our fire barely clung to life over night, and a thin column of smoke rose
in wisps from its center. Blake and Justin slept as I made a pot of oatmeal.
Once everyone was awake we breakfasted, and then piled into the canoe.
Phantasmal fog loomed over the Suwannee, and she took on the look of something
from Tolkien’s mystical worlds. We pulled the canoe into a dried creek bed where
it was best hidden from sight; at least, I hoped it was hidden well enough.
We didn’t find much in the early morning hours. Blake became hungry and
said that the oatmeal wasn’t enough to keep him going, so we stopped for second
breakfast at a Huddle House. We were a rough looking bunch that morning, but
even then we did not stand out amongst the locals. The smell of coffee, smoke
and fried ham hung thick in the air and everyone quietly conversed amongst one
another. I couldn’t help but overhear a gentleman talk about how he had fallen
on hard times, and even though his welding job paid well, he was unsure he would
have it long. I was immediately thankful for my job with the Gwinnett County
Government. I remembered how hard it was when I was a welder, and shuddered as
the thoughts came and went. Second breakfast was had and we set out once again.
Our next tin pile was one that Blake was very familiar with and had had
previous success at. We pulled up to an abandoned pig farm, the building was in
overall good condition, but over the ages vines and other invasive greenery had
consumed it nearly whole. My brother went immediately to the piles of pig skulls
and tried to remove for himself a tusk, while Blake and I went directly for the
tin. We flipped several sheets of metal and found nothing. Meanwhile my brother
was lost in his morbid task of removing pig teeth.
Back at the truck Blake made mention that he had never explored the back
part of the property, and so we agreed that we should do so today. Six hundred
yards deeper into the wood line we found more tin, and we attacked the pile with
much excitement. I began to pry on a piece of tin that was ensnared by vines,
and beneath it, found a snake. “Oh, it’s a nice corn snake,” I exclaimed. Upon
closer inspection, I found it to be just a beautiful young grey rat snake.
Blake, in an ever increasing desire to find rattlesnakes; decided to
wade into neck high grass which was dry, brittle and crackled like it was on
fire. As he trundled through, I could hear him cussing and whacking at the
vegetation with his snake hook. I was fiddling with my camera when I heard him
cry, “Canebrake!” I came to see if he needed help, but he had already made it
out of the grass and secured the snake. .
I now turned my eyes upward and began searching the rafters of the pig barn.
Justin followed my lead and Blake soon thereafter. I stopped abruptly and kicked
a dried pig carcass that lay at my feet. Familiar patterns caught my eyes, and
so I knelt, and took a closer look. A juvenile grey rat snake had been hiding in
the carcass! This is perhaps the strangest place I have ever found a snake. I
placed the snake back on the ground and we prepared to leave.
The sun burned our skins; we greedily guzzled water as we waited for the
air conditioner in Blake’s truck to blow cool. Much of the rest of the day was
spent searching tin piles, and along creek beds for cottonmouths. We decided to
road hunt our way back to camp.
The camp has always been one of my favorite parts about snake hunting.
The amount of pleasure I get from bathing in the brackish river, then throwing
on some light cloths and sitting by a fire is an incomparable feeling. It was
dark when we arrived, and I was eager to see if my canoe had eluded theft. Under
the stygian darkness we made our way along a trail, and then down into the creek
where I spotted the faint, reflective green glow of my canoe. We all climbed in,
and slid down the glassy river as graceful as an alligator.
Speaking of alligators, our headlamps caught numerous ruby red eye-shines
from gators of all sizes. They moved silently and stealthily from our path.
About a quarter of a mile down the river our tents came into view, now it was
time to inspect camp. The canoe hit the shore line hard and we piled out one by
one. Upon inspection everything seemed in its proper place. Justin went
immediately to collecting as much firewood as one can beneath the dark vale of
night, and I began to prepare a healthy meal of ramen noodles and crackers.
After dinner we all went for a much needed swim. Much of the river was
so shallow that the canoe frequently ran aground in spots, but we managed to
find a deep enough hole to swim in comfortably. The water was warm, much like a
tepid bath. Alas, Blake having an interest in crocodilians, decided that he
wanted to take the canoe for a closer look at the alligators. I declined his
offer to join him, but Justin accepted; thus they departed. I stood by the fire,
listening to the songs of the night, occasionally broken by, “shit, it’s stuck”
coming from down the river. I gazed upwards trying to identify familiar
constellations. I muttered to myself the ones that I knew.
I was quite alone, and except for the euphonic sounds of the river, it
was silent. I decided that I would take advantage of the isolation and freedom
and stripped myself of all clothing. You can’t get any freer than that and
Believe it or not, it was pleasant and refreshing. There were no bugs, and the
air was brisk upon my bare skin. I sat abreast the fire and pondered if this was
how primitive man would have felt out here, if this is how they found
relaxation, like we often find in a recliner with a beer in hand.
Not long after sitting by the fire I could hear the subtle approach of
paddles swoosh in the water, I could also here Justin shout, “Daniel, are you
naked?” to which I didn’t reply. I simply met them along the shore to help pull
them in. I spoke in pidgin, asking them, “what good do white man have trade?”
They looked on bemused and probably uncomfortable by my nudity, so I got out of
character and put clothing back on. It was midnight when we turned in.
April, 22. Morning comes quickly in the wilderness, and for some strange
reason it is the only place where I become a morning person. I was the first one
up, so I started breakfast of oatmeal and energy bars. Justin was soon up, and
since he is such an obnoxious person by nature, Blake was soon awakened. Once we
finished breakfast we broke camp as quickly as we could, and then played around
with my brothers .22 pistol. A can was placed on a stump and we commenced fire.
After a few rounds, we climbed in the canoe and prepared to leave this beautiful
place. Heavily laden with gear and our persons, it made it quite an ordeal to
shove her off the sand bar, but we managed. We would make two trips to collect
all of our trash and gear.
Today would be our last day to snake hunt, so we decided to check our
tin spots in Fargo, and then hunt our way home. Despite having numerous sheets
of tin to flip we came up empty handed; only finding the shed skin of a
canebrake rattlesnake. The smoke from the fire burning in the Okeefenokee was
considerably worse today; which made my eyes turn red and burn. Blake also came
down with a furious fit of violent sneezing, his eyes smarted profusely and snot
ran freely from his nose.
While hunting through familiar tin sites we discovered one that Blake
and I had yet to explore. I found a beautiful, cream-colored coachwhip beneath a
single sheet of tin, sitting in the shade. Surprisingly, she remained motionless
and I was able to snatch her up and examine her. Not a single scar or blemish
showed on her entire length. Despite her calm capture, she soon turned
defensive; holding her mouth agape and expelling the foul contents of her
cloaca. On that note, I released her back into the pile of rubbish.
We searched multiple tin piles on our way home in spite of the
sweltering heat; most of the sun exposed sheets of metal where obviously vacated
as soon as the sun became too harsh. Some of the roofing metal hidden deep in
the shaded woods still held signs of its previous occupants; flattened spots
resembling a coiled rattlesnake, shed skins, and even remnants of serpentine
vertebra were found. I felt that given the circumstances we hunted well, a good
time was had and a memorable one too.
by FSB on March 18, 2008
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I just want to say, in my own humble, subjective opinion, that these are some really beautiful, artistic photos -- especially the snake close-ups (and most especially the e. kingsnake). They aren't exactly b&w.... I'm not sure what they are, but they look great.
All the best-
by biff on March 29, 2008
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wow!!! this article is very well-written. Good job. I'm surprised that there aren't more comments?!?
by Voided37 on April 18, 2008
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Good clean fun....I liked the article.
Swamps are where life started["they" say], so their always a cool spot to go back to. I hope they don't ALL wind up subdivisions!
Camp Serenity, re-written and improved photos
by BigJT on March 21, 2012
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Yea I lived in south GA most of my life until now. Pine, marsh and palmetto bushes get very boring after a while but it is a good place to wrangle up some creatures.
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