Oh, I have been to Ludlow Fair,
And left my necktie God knows where 
And carried halfway home or near, 
pints and quarts of Ludlow beer, 
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain, 
Happy ‘til I woke again. 
Then I saw the morning sky: 
Heighho, the tale was all a lie; 
The world it was the old world yet. 
I was I, my things were wet, 
And nothing more remained to do, 
But to begin the game anew. 
A.E. Houseman

It was an adventure. We paddled 51 miles. We spent a lot of time crawling through lovely muck in Cowbone Marsh, and, in the end, we all thought we were sterling. The next day we all ached, even the young and the strong. 

Our four day trip down Fisheating Creek started at the bridge on S.R. 70 somewhere near the headwaters. We were a wonderful motley crew: two of us in a canoe and four on stand up paddleboards.

Joe - the bear man.
Carlton - the nature photographer.
Mallory - the water expert. 
Maggy and Jim - a swamp enthusiast and an engineer. 
Justin Riney - who had just paddled 500 miles around the coast of Florida on his paddleboard. 

Joe and Mallory and Carlton are involved in the Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative. Justin is Expedition 500. The Hurchallas have no excuse.

See Facebook links below:
Florida Wildlife Corridor
Expedition500 Florida

We bonded because of our shared irrational joy in being where we were, even when were in the mud. It was part awe and wonder at the sheer beauty of the place and part playing in mud puddles. Seldom was heard a discouraging word. Nobody blamed anybody for anything. Nobody whined. We laughed a lot.

The upper headwaters of Fisheating Creek where we put in got channelized into a straight ditch many, many years ago. It was so long ago that the live oaks lining the levees appear to be over 60 years old. They are great gnarled giants hung with Spanish moss. They make friendly sentinels for a nine mile paddle.

We did not see the 14 foot gator Joe had spotted from a helicopter the week before. He probably saw us. 

In the middle of the paddle a happily berserk group of mad cows and calves galloped and splashed across the river in front of us.

Toward the end of the ditch, nature began to reclaim its own. Oxbows began to appear as the channel swayed back and forth and began to recreate a winding river.

Like Owen Glendower’s answer in Richard the IV when Hotspur threatened to straighten out the River Trent:

“Not wind? It shall, it must; you see it doth.”

Rivers belong where they can ramble and the creek is determined to wind again. It’s encouraging to know that in the furthest headwaters north of S.R. 70 on the Carlton Ranch a conservation easement is in effect with a project to change the existing ditches back to winding creeks.

We camped at Bluehead Ranch on dry ground under big oaks.

It should have been a lovely night. We had a beautiful river, lots of emptiness and endless stars. The coyotes howled and the wind blew free. There was not a mosquito in sight – a rare blessing in wet warm Florida. Carlton and Joe were in hammocks. They looked like Hobbits trussed up by spiders. The rest of us were in tents. The Hurchallas had invested in a brand new queen sized blow up mattress. The battery operated pump worked and the bed blew up and all was right with the world.

The bed waited ‘til we were asleep to go flat. It’s a long time since we slept on hard ground. It’s really hard. We didn’t think we could sleep, but in the morning we found we had.

We missed entirely the howling and the mooing that woke everyone else up when the coyotes got too close to the cows.

We read the directions on the new bed the morning after. Who knew you had to read directions on a blowup bed? It seems that they expand a lot when they are new. They expand so much that the heavy parts of you are lying on cold hard ground. You are supposed to get up in the middle of the night and pump them up again.

After eating breakfast, the responsible members of the party checked on legal places to camp that night and assessed conditions along the route. We decided to cop out and skip the next section through the Venus bridge. This involved shuttling cars down to the Palmdale Campground and shuttling 18 miles back to Ingraham’s Landing to put in. We had lunch at the campground and conferred a lot about what we were doing next. We took off late for Ingraham’s Landing. The water was high and the road was under water. The cheerful shuttle van driver explained that she was not allowed to drive through water. A lot of dragging and pushing of canoes and paddleboards ensued before we got ourselves down to the river. Our well-oiled, well planned expedition took off at 4:45pm.

All adventurers know that just because you plan well, it doesn’t mean everything will go well. And just because you plan badly, doesn’t mean everything will go wrong. It turns out that 4:45 in the afternoon is the perfect time to push off from Ingraham’s Landing for the 10 mile paddle down to Burnt Bridge.

Somewhere after the first few bends in the river we found Mallory composing herself after meeting a large alligator. Mallory is calm and fearless and doesn’t usually mind large alligators. We saw a fair number of them in four days and knew we were probably surrounded by them. She saw the tail through the trees at a sharp oxbow turn and thought “No good will come of this.” The problem was that the fat 9 foot alligator was frightened when she came around the corner. So he jumped off the beach just as Mallory came even with him. He probably had no taste for paddleboards and was just trying to get away, but when a large toothy monster jumps at you, it’s hard to think such reassuring thoughts. Mallory kept her balance. The gator dived under her board, and she decided she wasn’t going to die after all.

The stretch of Fisheating Creek down from Ingraham’s Landing is one of the prettiest parts of the most beautiful cypress lined creek in Florida. It is narrow and winding and doubles back on itself in endless oxbows. Great live oak trees loom up through the tall straight cypress trees. There is no straightness in live oaks. Their limbs wind like rivers. If darkness is your friend and you don’t mind ghosts, then the darkness and night are magical as the shapes and shadows shift and change in the fading light.
photo by Carlton Ward

It’s like the poem from Pogo set in moss draped trees in the Okeefenokee: 

The gentle journey jars to stop, 
The drifting dream is done. 
The long gone goblins loom ahead. 
The deadly, that we thought were dead, 
Stand waiting everyone.

It did get pitch black before we got to Burnt Bridge. As we came around another corner, there was a great roaring in the treetops like the sound of distant breakers. We could barely see the huge flock of white ibis that took off all at once, that made Jurassic shadows against the starlight. We came around another corner, and they roared off again into the night sky. 

The paddleboarders had headlamps. We followed them in the canoe. Occasionally we lost them. Then we hollered ‘til we all got found again.

There was enough high ground at Burnt Bridge for the tents. Carlton and Joe hung their hammocks between cypress trees over a sea of cypress knees and dark water.

The mattress worked! The hammocks worked. The mosquitoes worked. All was right with the world. We all slept well and woke surrounded by light.

I opened the tent flap five feet away from the cypress knees and the reflections in tannin colored water.

It made me feel like the Sunday morning evangelist I once heard:

“And the Lord woke me to another day I’d never seen before.”

All we needed was coffee which was provided by Joe. 

The 8 mile paddle down from Burnt Bridge to the campground just stayed beautiful. We admired the giant bees nest on a cypress stump that looked like a giant toadstool. 

Joe and Carlton stopped to swing off the rope swing. 

photo by Justin Riney

At the campground we sent Mallory and Jim to shuttle a car out to the boat ramp on S.R.78 where Fisheating Creek meets Lake Okeechobee. We sorted gear from all the boats and all the cars for another night out in the middle of nowhere. We ate lunch.

Word came from the campground store that a couple had tried to make it down through Cowbone Marsh and had gotten lost and had to be rescued. We hunted them down and listened to their story. They got lost in the cypress swamp where the high water runs everywhere and makes everything look the same. They were anxious to have us try it to see if it was possible. They said they would be watching the Expedition 500 Facebook page.

Then we conferred about Cowbone Marsh. The creek runs out into the sunshine and loses its cypress trees about 8 miles down from the campground. Nutrients hit sunlight, the water spreads out, and every kind of water weed grows like crazy. The filter marsh acts like a giant kidney so that the flow going into Lake Okeechobee is the cleanest water coming into the Lake. It appears to be a fire ecology where periodic burns in the dry season keep trees from taking root and keep the marsh grass low.

The Hurchallas were the only ones in the party who had been through Cowbone Marsh. We may be the only couple who have been through Cowbone Marsh.

The young hip people on the paddleboards had Google Earth on their I phones and GPS and all that stuff. Joe had created and probable track on the GPS. The elderly paddlers in the canoe had simply blundered through in their previous adventure.

It was getting late again and we had 8 miles to paddle to get to the campsite before Cowbone Marsh. We conferred some more. Some of us found a picnic table and lay on our backs and smiled at the river running by. The more responsible members of the party conferred about alternatives.

We definitely did not want to have to be rescued. That would be embarrassing. We did not want to paddle back to the campground after a failed attempt at the marsh. The current was running strong. We did not want to abandon a joyful adventure.

Folks said the marsh was impenetrable. We explained, from painful experience, that it was not impassable, just miserable. We might have to crawl a lot instead of paddling, but we would come out the other side.

So we said “Let’s go!” and put all the remaining beer in the ice chest.

Justin posted what he thought was a reassuring message to his Facebook followers:

Day 276. Heading out early with an uncertain day ahead. Cowbone Marsh is supposedly impenetrable; we may be hiking through it with gear and boards soon. Not an easy trek from what I hear, but I'm anxious to find out. Carlton Ward, Mallory Dimmitt, Joe Guthrie, Jim Hurchalla, Maggy Hurchalla, and myself. We'll check in as often as we can, and we'll be safe. See y'all soon on the other side... - Justin Riney

Some of his followers noted later that they were not reassured.

We got to the campsite a little before dark: big oak tree, good dinner, good company, fine stories, few mosquitoes, and continuing beautiful weather.

Joe made coffee and we had the last of the pumpkin pie for breakfast. It was 16 miles to the car we had left at the boatramp on Fisheating Bay. 

The first hour was wonderful. All rivers have their own signature. For Fisheating Creek it’s cypress trees, but sections vary. Sometimes it’s big live oaks mixed with the cypress. Sometimes it’s water oak or maple trees. We came to a section mixed with elegant cabbage palms, leaning out over the bank or straight and tall to compete with the cypress trees for skylight.

The wide river turned into capillaries. Little streamlets two canoes wide split off and rejoined. And rejoined each other. Then it turned into a flooded delta of cypress trees where we had to pick our way through knees and trees in spaces wide enough to get a canoe through. It wasn’t miserable at all, but it was tricky.

Joe played trail leader down his electronically marked path while Carlton played navigator behind him with the GPS. Since the world doesn’t seem to hold still and trees get in the way, it’s not as easy as ocean navigating.

We came to the end of the trees.

Cowbone Marsh deserves its own melodrama. It took five hours to get to open water. There is time here only for the highlights.


Go to the campground: They are lovely people who rent canoes and will shuttle you up to Burnt Bridge or Ingraham’s Crossing. There is 18 miles to play in where the river won’t hurt you.

The marsh had grown thicker and taller since it was last stumbled through by any of us. It evidently hasn’t burned in a long time. Exotic weeds like Primrose Willow are 8 to 10 ft. tall. Thick hyacinths fill in the niches. Woody willow trees with two inch trunks are in the way. Exotic water grass grows too thick to push a boat through. It wouldn’t have been so insulting to be beat up by native vegetation. The native Alligator Flag was quite decorative.

Joe and Justin took turns out front with machetes. Carlton kept us on course and filmed it all for posterity. The rest of us pushed the boats through the narrow opening in the impenetrable vegetation. That involves shoe eating mud and tangled roots and chopped off branches that make standing up difficult. Crawling was easier. 

Justin climbed a lone cypress tree but saw no open water. He did get bitten by bull ants. He is allergic to bull ants. Mallory found two benadryl for him and we hoped he wouldn’t go to sleep. We needed him.

We drank the last beer. 

We did not see a single snake in four days. We saw a fair number of alligators. We probably swam with them and around them and crawled through them. At that point, they didn’t worry us at all.They were not the enemy. The vegetation was.

We made it to the open prairie and a wide deep channel. We ate the last candy bars. The sign said only 9 miles to go.

It was a lovely evening with a fresh breeze and streaming clouds in a wide open Florida sky. Wading birds flew over. Green herons squawked. Alligators popped up and down. Carlton ran over one. It got caught on his paddleboard fin. They both survived.

It was a very long paddle. We were very tired. We were very happy.

We zigged and zagged across the prairie. We passed Fort Center where pre-Columbian Indians built earthwork mounds and middens from 450B.C. to 1700.

It got pitch black again. It is difficult to tell water from marsh grass in the dark.

Carlton led us in with his headlamp.

We made it back to the car at 8:45.

We were very glad to be back, but very glad we went.