In the heart of an Arkansas swamp

KEITH SUTTON Contributing Writer Published April 22, 2012 at 2:10 a.m.
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— It is humbling to stand alone in the heart of a swamp. I’m not talking about a swamp where you can walk out on a boardwalk while you look at the birds and other interesting wildlife. I’m talking about a wild swamp, where you must wade through dank, hip-deep water to reach the sweltering interior, one inhabited by mosquitoes and venomous snakes, one where all your perspectives of true wilderness will be forever changed.

I’ve been tromping around swamps since I was a teen. Until recently, however, I only tromped around the edges, and always in the company of friends. I never ventured alone into the heart of one of these mysterious wetland realms. The reason? I was afraid I’d get lost.

That changed when my wife gave me a new hand held GPS as a gift. With this little electronic wonder, I always know where I am. I can look at a map on the screen and see where I started and my present location. In between is a squiggly line showing the path I’ve taken to get where I am. I can zoom in or out to examine a topographical map of the area I’m visiting. If I punch a couple of buttons, the unit shows me the way to return to my vehicle.

After a little study, I learned to operate the GPS. As a result, I lost my fear of bailing off into the heart of a wild swamp. And so, one morning last spring, I left the comfortable edges of a big cypress-tupelo swamp just outside Little Rock, and headed into the interior. This particular swamp is part of the Lorance Creek Natural Area, a site purchased by The Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 1989. This nature preserve includes a diverse mosaic of bald cypress/ water tupelo swamp, beaver ponds and groves of swamp blackgum. These features are interconnected by a complex network of small streams and seeps that support more than 300 species of plants.

I arrived at dawn. In addition to the GPS, I had a walking staff, my camera, a tripod, binoculars, waders, a few snacks and a pocket survival kit.

I had visited here before, standing on the dry edges encircling the swamp and gazing into its interior with binoculars. I’d seen a few interesting birds, but nothing extraordinary. As I soon learned, however, the best wildlife viewing is in the depths of the flooded woods.

Huge snapping turtles were everywhere. I set my camera on the tripod, punched the self-timer and shot a self-portrait with one giant that must have weighed 30 pounds.

I got good looks at several large fish, including a 2-foot bowfin and several chain pickerels. Frogs were abundant - bullfrogs, green frogs, leopard frogs, cricket frogs, chorus frogs and bird voiced tree frogs. Several deer splashed away when I spooked them in a thicket.

As you might expect in a swamp, there were also snakes. I encountered several species of nonpoisonous water snakes and dozens of western cottonmouths.

Exhausted after several hours of wading, I decided to sit near a beaver lodge and rest while watching for the lodge’s residents. I was barely seated when an inquisitive river otter popped up just inches from my face. We looked into each other’s eyes for several seconds. Then the otter sank beneath the still waters and vanished.

The first bird I encountered was a drowsy, old barred owl gazing sleepily down from a big cypress tree. He seemed totally undisturbed, allowing me to examine every detail of his soft, brown feathers with my binoculars.

Prothonotary warblers flitted about like golden butterflies illuminated in sunbeams. I saw several enter nesting cavities in hollow stumps and was able to gaze inside some and see females incubating their eggs. The birds’ sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet call notes floated through the swamp throughout the day.

A beautiful red-shouldered hawk, a raptor of the swamplands, like the barred owl, also allowed a close approach. He was almost invisible in the dark canopy of the forest, but his shrill cry gave him away. His breast was as red as a robin’s, his tail banded with broad bars of ebony and ivory. He looked down on me from his treetop perch like a monarch on his throne gazing upon an intruding serf, then took to the air, gliding through the dense woods without rustling a single leaf.

Many wading birds inhabited the swamp as well, attracted by the bounty of avian delights.

Among the cypress trees, a troupe of snowy egrets waded back and forth like animated snowflakes, snatching up the little crawfish. The crowns of some were adorned with a misty veil of fragile plumes that looked as delicate as gossamer.

A great egret was fishing from the bank, and a patient fisherman she was. The bird moved like the hands of a clock. Then suddenly, her head would dart out like a striking rattlesnake, and she would pull out a pickerel or bullfrog. The hapless creature was flipped in the air until the egret could swallow it headfirst; then down the hatch it would go.

The most beautiful swamp birds are the drake wood ducks. One male that allowed me to approach quite near was a bird of such gorgeous coloring, it hardly seemed real. Its glistening green head was crowned with a short rakish crest; its back was a blend of magnificent blues and purples that shimmered and glinted like metal in the sun; its breast was rich chestnut; and its sides were the color of marigolds. The bird’s glossy bill was painted with broad brushstrokes of red, black and white, and the large crimson eyes bore a likeness to the glowing coals of a campfire. So brilliant were these colors, and so sharply contrasted, that the bird appeared to be painted. It was as if some skillful artist had spread upon its plumage the richest and most vivid pigments at his command.

Many birds were heard but not seen. A veery’s voice, a blend of alto and soprano notes, drifted through the swamp like the chime of vesper bells. Pileated woodpeckers often loosed their mad, exultant laughter, while smaller songless woodpeckers tapped out their music on dry, seasoned limbs. I heard the hollow, muffled love notes of the American bittern, or “thunder pumper,” and the merry, high-pitched witchery of a common yellowthroat.

It was a day like no other, and soon, I hope, I will wade the waters of this incredible landscape and be treated once again to close-up views of wild creatures that rarely see humans.

Dozens of swamps such as Lorance Creek await the adventuresome outdoors enthusiast in Arkansas. Venturing alone into the heart of such a place is not a journey to be taken lightly, however. Being active in the hot, humid air is physically strenuous. The bottom mud varies from ankle deep to knee-deep. One must contend with swarms of biting insects and be ever alert for poisonous snakes. Getting lost is a distinct possibility if you aren’t properly prepared to navigate these vast lookalike bottomlands.

Nevertheless, if you prepare yourself with knowledge of possible hazards, if you carry the proper equipment to avoid getting lost or injured, if you let others know where you are going and when you expect to return, you can travel through the depths of these flooded woodlands and experience things you will never forget. You’ll experience pleasures all too rare in today’s world as you gain new perspectives of lands still untouched by the hands of men.

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