June 16, 2008
The Swamp Walk
It's a beloved family ritual that has been passed from generation to generation although certain family members do not seem to fully appreciate it. Some ungrateful family members have even been known to mock it. But it's a tradition that combines sound ecological practice with elements of family bonding, a noble tradition that involves family members overcoming their primal fears. We call it the Swamp Walk.
The dock at my parents' camp stands amongst the cattails in a shallow creek of muddy water that fills with weeds so thick that sometimes the boats have trouble getting in and out. A Swamp Walk means, quite simply, gathering family members and getting them to go into the marsh to pull the weeds up by hand. It's a low-impact solution compared to the one locals used in the 70s, which was to widen creeks with sticks of dynamite. I'm not kidding about that either: I can remember looking across the bay to watch about half an acre of cattails go flying maybe fifty feet into the air. Although a stick of dynamite sounds like the most exciting way to keep a creek clear, something tells me the other creatures we share the marsh with would not agree.
To participate in a Swamp Walk, each person puts on a bathing suit and an old pair of sneakers. My technique is to wear socks without shoes, relying on the heavy cotton to protect my feet and keep the any leeches off my ankles. Walking around in the mud can feel creepy at first, as you sink through several feet of muck, bumping up against cattail roots and weeds that rub against your skin and sometimes wiggling creatures. As soon as the first person starts moving, the water becomes thick with mud so you can't see below the surface, and somehow that makes everyone a little nervous. A Swamp Walk is almost always accompanied by squeals and false alarms: "Is that a snake over there?"
To get the weeds out, you have to reach as low as you can while somehow managing to keep your head above water, make a swirling motion to find the weeds, and grasp them as near the roots as you can before giving a strong yank. What works best is to fill a canoe with the weeds, floating it amongst us as we work, and then pulling the canoe out into the deeper area to dump it. After a few hours of work, everyone will be covered with mud. It's not unusual for family members to take out their frustrations by throwing fistfuls of mud and weeds at each other, so that even the person in the clean white shorts who annoys the group by shouting suggestions from the dock will end up dripping with mud.
Last weekend, after working on the dock, my brother pulled up a few weeds, doing an impromptu mini-version of a Swamp Walk. This gave my mother an idea. Combining the innovation of the internet with the decades-old tradition of the Swamp Walk, she sent out an email to the extended family, announcing that we'd be doing a Swamp Walk up at camp when we're all up for the week of Fourth of July, and that she was looking for volunteers.
Red-haired Sister has a tendency to scream when she sees a common water snake, but she emailed that she'd be happy to volunteer "so long as there are people around me so the snakes get them first." Blond Brother-in-law volunteered Crazy Golden Labrador as well as the rest of his family. It's true that Crazy Golden Lab's swimming does help keep the channel clear, but the presence of barking, clawing dogs in the muddy water is not, in my opinion, a positive addition to the Swamp Walk, although Red-haired Sister, owner of four crazy dogs herself, would argue that the dogs do help keep the snakes away.
Seventeen-year-old Blonde Niece shot back another email minutes after her Dad: "I hope that in volunteering the whole Blonde Family, my dad did not mean me. I will be tanning out in the field although that mud is tempting, lemme tell ya." Her Sister, Red-haired Niece, chimed in with an equal lack of enthusiasm for stepping into murky water that contains "I don't know what living creatures."
Red-haired Sister scoffed at Blonde Niece's reluctance: "Just think how much you would pay for a mud bath in a beauty salon! It also makes a wonderful hair treatment! You could wrap yourself in seaweed too! All for free!!"
Boy in Black pointed out that Older Neighbor Boy, not even a family member, had participated in a Swamp Walk free of charge, which meant that anyone in the family should be able to handle it. "It's really not that bad. Just wear some socks so the leeches don't get ya."
I'm not sure all the talk of water snakes and leeches is creating the proper enthusiasm for the tradition. But once we're at camp on a sunny day, and a few people start into the warmwater, laughing and splashing and tossing weeds and bragging about what great work they are doing, other family members will wander down to the dock just to watch, and next thing you know, they will be in that murky water with everyone else, having too much fun to worry about what creatures are hidden under the muck.
In the photo above, my brother demonstrates good Swamp Walk Technique: stand firmly in the mud and yank weeds out until you have a floating mass of them that you can pick up with two hands and throw.
Posted by jo(e)