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Bear Creek

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Reprinted with author permission

Eunice Road turns off Highway 319 just east of the bridge over the Ochlockonee River. It's a soft dirt street, splashed with sun and shadow, and if you know the way, it will take you to the edge of the dark, mysterious river itself. We knew the way.

When we pulled onto the property of Karen Parsons, Buddy Lee came rushing out to greet us. The hair on his back stood up in a ridge, but Buddy Lee is a chocolate lab so we knew it was a bluff. Karen and her husband, along with Buddy Lee and a 15 year-old cat named Steve, live on the banks of the Ochlockonee. We had a deal with Karen to take us on a two-hour boat adventure. For $35 per person. No way we were going to fall for the $125 per person fee some boat captains in Apalach charge. Yes, we're "tourists" but not sheep for the fleecing.

Karen has just started her business - we were happy to encourage her decency.

Karen and another woman followed Buddy Lee out to greet us. Bonnie Jean was her name. Bonnie and Karen both have generations-deep roots in Apalachicola and Crawfordville, just up the road a piece. Both are also "Green Guides," graduates of a rigorous 90 hour course offered by Tallahassee Community College in Crawfordville. This certifies that they are well-versed in the flora, fauna, and history of the area. As if cutting their teeth on the very same stuff were not certification enough.

We all gathered our backpacks, towels, and snacks and headed down a wooden dock winding through the maritime forest. Below the elevated walkway, lush vegetation thrived in the watery mud. Here and there, tree roots were exposed, their nakedness a testament to the ebb, flow and flooding of the Ochlockonee.


We emerged onto a dock that hosted three boats. Our craft for the day, a spacious, square-bowed boat with a Bimini top, was tied up at the floating dock.

I have skittered down some steep ramps to floating docks in Savannah, where the tidal range is sometimes 11 feet. But this ramp rivaled them all. I wasn't expecting that on the Gulf Coast, never mind eight miles inland on a river.

Bill stood at the bottom to catch me if I went head over heels, but my flip-flops did not fail me.

A word about Karen and Bonnie: both are short women, no taller than 5' 2" I would guess. Karen bears the deep tan of a woman who spends a lot of time on the water. Her long blond hair, gray at the temples, was gathered into a cascading ponytail. Her black-skirted swimsuit revealed sturdy, muscular legs. A woman who could take care of herself.

Bonnie wore a green baseball cap with "Ochlockonee Advenures" embroide red in dark blue above the visor. How I coveted that cap, but I forgot to ask her where she got it. Her dark hair stuck out behind the cap in a stubby pony tail. Above the pocket of her log-sleeve green shirt perched a patch: "Tallahassee Community College Certified Green Guide," it read. She is the assistant manager of Wakulla Springs State Park, where "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" was filmed. (See Apalach Dispatches from last summer.)

As we motored down the river, Bonnie and Karen pointed out various birds, handing us the binoculars they had brought along. After 20 minutes or so, we curved into Bear Creek.

"That's Yellow Bluff," Karen said, pointing to a hunk of land rising above the marsh that edged the river. We nosed up into the shallows and stepped through the small door set into the bow.

Karen, Bill and I scrambled up the face of the bluff, sliding awkwardly in the deep golden sand. Bonnie stayed behind to make sure the boat didn't drift off. At the top, we looked out over a sweep of river, marsh, forest and sky. We stood for several moments, taking it in. Everything wild, untouched, pristine.

A trail led off in either direction, an invi tation neither Bill nor I can resist. Although Karen had left her shoes in the boat, and the sand was blistering hot in the afternoon sun, she took off with us.

"When I was growing up, my family would come to this place and camp," she said. The delicate sorrow for good times long past tinged her tone.

As we made our way along the path, I asked Karen the names of unusual plants. I carefully worked loose a patch of lumpy, spongy vegetation that appeared in expansive mats along the way. "Deer moss," she said.

"Blazing star," when I held up a slender stem bearing a burst of small purple flowers.

The air was heavy with heat and humidity. When we got back to the boat, Bill and Karen jumped in the creek. Bill waded out until the coffee-colored water lapped his shoulders, while I stood safely in the shallows. Did anyone see the recent video of scores of alligators in a "feeding frenzy" in the Okeefenokee? (Bonnie said that this time of year, it was a mating frenzy.)

Feeding or mating, I wasn't taking any chances. I waded in only as far as I could still see my feet.

"Bill, if an alligator grabs you, not a single one of us is going to help you," I said, hoping he would come to his senses. He stayed put, the inky water shrouding his body a few inches below his shoulders.

Thank goodness he is heavily insured.

As the boat puttered along, Bonnie and I fell into deep conversation. Here was a woman whose family had settled the Panhandle, bled the pines for resin, and introduced Charolais cattle to the area.

"My step-grandfather leased St. George Island for $1 a year to graze his Charolais," she said. "Back in the 1940s, the owners of the island offered it to him for $25,000.

But he didn't take it." She glanced at me with a rueful grin. "I could have been rich."

Her grandfather carried a pistol strapped to his side "until the day he died," she said. "He was a cowboy."

I remember seeing the multi-slitted "V" marks cut into the sides of the pines in south Georgia when I was growing up. Beneath the V, a flat tin cup was nailed to the tree to collect the sap. The turpentine business was booming.

"Yeah, those were called catfaces," she said. "My grandfather paid his black workers 25 cents for every 1000 slashes they made. He paid them with 'turpentine tokens,' which were good only for spending at the company store. You know that song, 'I owe my soul to the company store?'" She nodded knowingly.

"One of my grandfather's workers named, Shorty was another story. This man's name was Bill. He had a long scar from here to here." Bonnie drew her finger across her throat from ear to ear. "It was from where a white man tried to hang him."

"What happened?" I asked.

"My grandfather shot the white man," she said.

"Did your grandfather cut Bill down?" I asked, not be lieving I was hearing this story firsthand. "I mean, if he had a scar, the rope had to have...."

"I don't know," Bonnie said. "Maybe it was a rope burn or something."

"So did your grandfather get into trouble with the law?" I asked.

"You WERE the law," she said. "My grandfather hired a white man called the Woods Rider or the Woods Man to keep the black workers from getting into fights and killing each other. Their weapon of choice in the turpentine camps was an ice pick. Didn't leave much evidence."

Her words stirred a faint memory. Icepicks as weapons.

"My grandfather killed his first man when he was nine years old," she said, looking me in the eye.

I'm glad a bee wasn't flying past my face because I would have sucked it down.

"NINE YEARS OLD?" I said, my eyes goggling.

"Yep, he was in town with his father and a white man came up and shot his daddy while his daddy was taking a drink from a water fountain. My grandfather grabbed his own daddy's gun and ran after the man. Shot and killed him."

I stared at her, fascinated, and frankly glad that this gunslinger had been her step-grandfather. His blood wasn't rampaging in her veins. But I have to admit, it sounds like he killed only the men who needed it.

I wanted to hear more about her grandfather, but I thought it would be rude to ask exactly how many men he had killed.

The talk turned to less violent aspects of Panhandle history. She knew exactly why the turpentine industry died out, my indescribable astonishment....she knew exactly where Robb White's family's beach house was.

If you've been getting accounts of my adventures for the last few years, you know how much I enjoyed June Bailey White's books, how June is from Thomasville and how I was her "host" when she was a featured author at the Savannah Book Festival last year.

During her speech at the festival, she mentioned her late brother Robb's memoirs, collected in a book called, "How to Build a Tin Canoe."

Bill and I both read the book. Robb recounted Tom Sawyer summers spent at his family's beach house on the Gulf between Carrabelle and Apalachicola. The stories were so evocative that Bill and I felt drawn to visit the area. Six weeks later, we took our first trip to Apalach. On that first foray, we searched Highway 98, back and forth a dozen times looking for the house. Our only clues were that it featured a wide front porch and stone chimneys on each end. We had no luck.

"My mother knew Robb," Bonnie said. She told us exactly where the house was. We found it on the way back to Apalach, parking our car off Highway 98 and picking our way through an overgrown lane to the edge of the Gulf.

I could tell you about the weathered wood, the now-frail, second story porch from which the parents watched Robb and his sisters navigate the wide flats between the shore and distant islands. I could describe the oval window on the second floor, which frames a bright new bouquet of artificial flowers. There was something unsettlingly funereal about that window, the flowers carefully displayed amid the desertion and decay.

The house stared vacantly out to sea, bereft of the family that it once sheltered. But we looked at it and remembered the stories, the people who had lived so deeply and satisfyingly here. The scrapes those children got into, it's a wonder any of them lived to see 21.

As we walked back to the car, I sloshed along at the edge of the surf. At my approach, ghostly forms darted from the shallows for deeper water. Fish? No, couldn't be. Then I saw what they were. Plate-sized sting rays, shy creatures. But if you step on one, expect the lashing tale to set a long serrated barb into your calf. "Stingarees," the children called them. Fifty-odd years ago.

But I'm not going to tell you where the house is. You have to read and care and search on your own.

If you're lucky, a lady named Bonnie will be the one to tell you.


Last Updated ( Sunday, 12 September 2010 08:25 )