By: Kirk Howes
From where I stood the river and the land beyond seemed endless. The brown muddy waters winded their way through a mix of Oak and Giant Beech trees on the high ground. Nearer the banks, Cottonwoods bigger than any I’ve seen since stood stately half out of the fertile bank.
It didn’t take a boy long to explore the surrounding territory, it did take years too appreciate though. After crossing the river by the old logjam, you could head due north for 5 minutes and come to a place, that was as mysterious as it was seasonal. A solid one-acre of floodwater covered by spooky green algae come June.
I really don’t think we ever gave the place a name, maybe we just called it the swamp. Caught in the waters of the swamp and sentenced to death by the hot August sun, many species gave up their identity to me. Large gars with prehistoric jaws, red spotted newts, huge snapping turtles and more were easily caught and inspected in the shrinking swamp. Morning cloaks and wood nymphs fell to my butterfly net near the swamp. Countless other species were eagerly looked up in books. The swamp was a cornucopia of unknown animals.
The worst foe of the swamp was the endless amount of bottomless mud. I think that if we had ventured into the swamp too early in the year, there may have been a few less mouths to feed at our dinner table. The possibility of losing ones shoes in the swamp mud would surely end with a good old-fashioned butt whipping from our parents. "Shoes don’t grow on trees " I was told so many times that I once decided I would pursue a career in Botany and develop a tree that did in fact produce shoes. This thought faded fast; as somehow I got my hands on a trapping book.
One of the few books my school had, that a kid could use. I think it was a hard cover copy of Stanley S. Hawbaker’s " Trapping North American Furbearers." It was the outdoorsmens bible, a fact proved by the past names in the cardholder. Then I somehow got a copy of Fur Fish Game, from that magazine I found an ad for E.J. Dailys book on Trapping Fox.
Well after reading all I could find, I somehow saved enough for some #2 Victor jump traps. They cost $2.12 each in 1972, I was gonna be a Fox trapper for sure. I spent hours practicing setting the traps in the basement, I felt sure I would exterminate the local foxes in the coming season.
I guess it was September when I headed out to run my line of three traps. My first stop would be the swamp, long dried up, the banks now provided pockets and old tunnels that no self respecting fox would pass up. Right at the edge of the swamp on the high ground was a fresh fox den. I somehow managed to get the trap set and wired into place, man I’ll tell you I was walking eight feet tall on the way out.
Morning couldn’t come fast enough for this 14 year- old; I was half-walking and half running to see my fox in the sets. After crossing the river I realized the .22 was back home, so off I went to fetch the gun. After what seemed an hour of safety first talk from my dad, I was told to walk with the gun, I knew he would keep an eye on me with his binoculars so I walked.
Finally I was close enough to see that I had something in my traps. Oh my God! My first fox! And it’s a silver one at that! Then the picture became all to clear; my fox had no hair on his tail, My fox is a possum.
Not to be a bad sport I released the trap and carried the critter home, alive. I kept him in a cage that previously held some coons we raised for the DNR. The possum was fed dog food for a week while sitting on death row. Then one day I decided to free him, because I really didn’t want to skin the ugly thing. Besides I was a fox trapper. My first fox finally was trapped years later; I skinned him and sold him for top dollar.
The river still floods the swamp and to my adult eyes would be smaller now. The big trees still sway in the west, a few victims of lightning, but I guess that’s to be expected. I drive by the place now and then; I should stop in and ask the new owners if they would mind a trespasser. I wonder a lot lately, mostly I wonder if anyone else still hikes the cow trails or goes to the swamp anymore. Is the big beech still standing guard over the swamp? Will a Great Blue Heron fly up from the tall grass if I go?
It’s been Thirty plus years and yet I can remember the place so well. It seems funny that I am worried about the changes the swamp may have come to know. I guess I’m selfish to expect it to be the same, after all, I have changed. Yes, I have changed and …..the swamp played a big part in that change.