June 16, 2008

The Swamp Walk

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.

21 comments:

Diane said...

never knew about this fascinating tradition. I'm afraid I would be a little squeamish around leeches, myself.

but, tradition is tradition, right!

kathy a. said...

anyone who wears white shorts and attempts to supervise from the dock deserves the mud. that is all.

Writer Chica said...

Yours is the only blog I regularly read by a someone I don't know IRL and it is posts like this that keep me reading. Great images and I love your humor. There is more to it than that, but the biggest thing is that your posts make me smile.

Have a fun Swamp Walk on the 4th!

Gawdess said...

I would be more than a little squeamish, my imagination would be galloping madly away with me about what could be touching me - my stomach is jumpy even now!
great picture and I am impressed with the bravery of so many members of your circle. I hope I could overcome my fears and be a part of the tradition if I were lucky enough to be a part of this - but I don't know...

Songbird said...

I'm sorry. You lost me at leeches. Eek!

BerryBird said...

I love your tales from camp, leeches and all. What a magical place!

Lomagirl said...

I wish I knew you IRL. If so, I would volunteer for the swamp walk, much as it makes my skin crawl, just for an invitation to camp.
We used to brave different swamps, for different reasons. I think I need to blog about that.

Anonymous said...

I've heard from an unnamed source that this "Drama Niece" you have previously written about is disappointed that she is no longer being included in the family emails.

She, too, has opinions about the swamp walk, but her voice is being stifled.

-X

jo(e) said...

Well, the source of the problem is Certain Old People who haven't grasped the concept of a family email list, and who try to type all the names in every time, thereby leaving off about half the family.

I would never have forgotten Drama Niece. She and I have the SAME LAST NAME!

Baby Lisa said...

I remember when we were kids you and your sisters would walk around the swamp while pulling me along in a boat. It never ceased to amaze me why you would want to do that. I was scared enough that something slimy and evil would jump into the boat and kill me.

Back then I was even afraid to jump into the water at our place in the Adirondacks. You'd look at me in wonder and ask, "Why wouldn't you want to swim in that perfectly clear water?" After being at your place, I asked myself the same question.

Cloudscome said...

Family at it's best! I love the addition of email chats to get the buzz going.

Anonymous said...

"Similarly, a person familiar with Urban Sophisticate Sister's thinking also would like to complain that Urban Sophisticate Sister hasn't been included in family emails (presumably because she won't actually be at camp over the Fourth) and likewise feels stifled. And for the record, the fears of leeches are unfounded. Water snakes, maybe, but not leeches."

jo(e) said...

I have to admit that I was appalled that a Certain Matriarch of the Family left Urban Sophisticate off the Swamp Walk Email. After all, Urban Sophisticate is one of the two founding members of the Camp Improvement Society With the Weird Acronym.

I agree that the leeches are pretty rare. I've only had one on me in all my years of Swamp Walking. But then again, I always wear socks.

jo(e) said...

Baby Lisa: Hey, I bet your kids would participate in a Swamp Walk. I think they are both more adventuresome than you are ....

Rev Dr Mom said...

Water snakes and leeches and mud, oh my!

I'd think I'd be on the dock, or maybe in a nice hammock somewhere with a good book :)

Sarah Sometimes said...

the picture makes we want to say, "Yuck!" and dive in at the same time.... Funny how mud has that effect.

Silver Creek Mom said...

I'm not sure I could do that. BUT have fun. I don't even understand why people put mud and muck on them in spa's ...I guess It's not me. ;)

Anonymous said...

I will volunteer but I don't know if I will be able to reach down that far for the weeds...And not go under water...But I will try anyway, I can't wait to go up to camp, I LOVE IT THERE!

YourFireAnt said...

Somehow this reminds me of your poem "Shoal Walk" . A good one.

FA

BlackenedBoy said...

This sounds very cool and very scary at the same time. I think I'd probably go in, but I'd definitely be very nervous.

Nadine said...

I'd do it! Sounds like fun!