Circular Tides


Okefenokee Blue-Moon

by Jerry Buckley

“You’re sure about this Gerald, we don’t wanna get all bassackwards in the swamp,” the red-head man in the rear seat said.

“We’re good, Kenny,” the driver of the Nissan Xterra said. “My friend McIntyre the backcountry coordinator worked this out. We’re going to put in just northwest of Kingfisher Landing where we usually put in for the Red Trail. The trail we’ll be using is an old surveyor’s route dating back to the late 1800s. It’s not for public use, but I explained to McIntyre about our yearly trips and that everybody is experienced. He pulled some strings and got us a special pass for people doing documentary work.”

“Sounds like it will be a nice change from the Red Trail. We’ve done it, what maybe 10 or 12 times over the years?” the man riding shotgun said.

“I think Al’s right, it will be a change, but we’ll still end up at Billy’s Island and then loop back to where we put in,” Gerald said.

“The Xterra, pulling a trailer with two canoes and supplies slowed and turned off the blacktop. Dawn was thirty minutes away; the high beams illuminated a hard-packed dirt road that stretched into the darkness beyond.

“This is one of the old Hebard Company roads they used to haul cypress trees back to the mill. The train brought them out of the swamp and the timber was loaded on trucks,” Gerald said.

“I remember your daddy talkin’ about that,” Franklin spoke up, “It was a small gauge track, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Gerald answered as he held up a coffee mug that said ‘Boondocks – Ramrod Key.’ “There’s some hot mud in that thermos, give me a jolt, and help yourselves if you want some.”

It was late October in southeast Georgia, but summer held on like a determined bull rider. The Xterra’s windows were down, the pre-dawn stillness broken only by a screech owl making one last sortie for careless field mice. The four men talked with the easy familiarity of long-time friends; skittering from one subject to another in a way an outsider would have found hard to follow.

They had been making this annual odyssey into the vast Okefenokee Swamp for twenty-five years. They’d grown up here, in the wire grass country just above the “Land of the Trembling Earth.” “Swamp” was a misleading word for a wildlife habitat that was as varied and complex as the Okefenokee. Its upland areas supported oak domes and hammocks called prairies as well as stands of long-leaf pine. Large floating deposits of peat, some fifteen feet thick, called houses, give rise to the trembling earth legend The wetland expanse of the Okefenokee is home to a variety of birds, amphibians, mammals, and a few ‘gators. The deep interior parts, where the remaining stands of older cypress trees grew have the look of a bayou, mysterious and isolated.

Dawn came with a faint stirring of breeze sweeping through the tangled underbrush and tall pines. The Xterra bounced along the barely visible ruts.

“Hey, y’all know what tomorrow night is, don’t you?” said the redhead.

“Well, it’s Halloween,” said Al.

“Yeah, but it’s also a Blue Moon. First time in all these years we’ve come into the swamp that it’s a Blue Moon,” Gerald said.

The redhead came back with, “So I bet you’re going to tell us that doesn’t happen very often, like once in a blue moon or so.”

“Oh, stop it,” from Al. “God, I’ve got him in the canoe with me for three days!”

“Blue Moon and Halloween, maybe we’ll see a ghost,” the driver mused.

The eastern sky was a glowing peach-colored radiance as the soft October light gave definite form to the transitional pines and shrubs that would soon give way to the perimeter wetlands of the mysterious Okefenokee. Ahead, a doe sensing no danger from the slow-moving Xterra, ushered her yearling across the rutted track and disappeared silently into the tall wheat-colored grass.

“So, is there a ramp?”

“No, apparently there’s a small dock next to an old trading post that hasn’t been used for years. At least that is what McIntyre told me,” Gerald answered.

“We gonna have to tote the canoes and gear very far?”

“No Kenny, we can get right up next to it, just a few yards.”

Wispy ground fog curled through the thinning pines as daylight took hold. Scrub oak, longleaf pines, and palmetto gave way to marsh grass, sedges, and swamp tupelo trees.

“Looks like we’re coming up on it,” Al spoke as he pointed toward a group of structures from his shotgun position.

A squadron of raccoons scurried furtively away from the largest of three buildings in the clearing ahead.

“That must be the old trading post, but it sure looks in a lot better shape than McIntyre described it.”

The rough-hewn cypress building seemed in good repair. A ramshackle, but sturdy porch formed around two sides of it. Gerald pulled the canoe trailer as close to the embankment next to the dock as possible. Shutting off the motor he said, “OK, we all know the drill.”

Soon, two canoes were snugged up to the dock. As the men worked to load the canoes a man appeared, apparently from inside the building, and walked toward them. He was large and robust, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt that seemed well worn, with scuffed-up work boots covering his feet, “Ezekiel Barber, at your service boys. Y’all headed into the Okefenok?”

Al took the role of spokesman, as the other three continued sorting gear and loading the canoes, “Yes sir, it’s something we do every year. First time putting in here though.”

“Where you boys from?” the big man asked.


“Good folks up there. I don’t get about too much these days.”

“We didn’t think the trading post was in operation these days.”

Well, it is not, really. It’s one of them State Historical Projects, a restoration thing. There aren’t any supplies. I think it is going to be a museum.”

“I see”, Al said, thinking to himself that it was an odd place for a museum. “Well, Mr. Barber, I reckon we better get going, not that much daylight to play with this time of year. We need to get to Maul Hammock this evening.”

“Ya’ll shouldn’t have no trouble getting there before dark. Water level is good. We had a lot of rain in September. Goin’ in on the Blue Moon, are you? Well, best of luck. I can see y’all have done this before, but this time might be interesting. I’ve lived ‘round here all my life, Barbers go back a long way, Obediah was my kinfolk. I can tell y’all that the Blue Moon over the Okefenokee makes for a memorable time.”

Ezekiel walked with Al toward the canoes. Gerald met them on the embankment and asked, “Is there any place, in particular, you’d like me to put the truck and trailer?”

“Any old place is good when ya’ll comin’ back?”

“Most likely, Sunday just depends. Could be Monday,” Gerald answered as he moved past them, got in the Xterra, and pulled it and the trailer over to a shady spot next to one of the small sheds well away from the water. When he returned the canoes were loaded and the friends were talking with Ezekiel. A mockingbird overhead gave a strident cry, swooping this way and that before darting off into the woods.

“What was that about?” Gerald asked.

“Dang mockingbirds, always causing a fuss,” Ezekiel said.

“Well, maybe we’ll see you when we come out,” Al said as he moved toward the canoes.

“Y’all take care and don’t get spooked about nuthin’. No tellin’ what y’all might see on a Blue Moon,” Ezekiel said with a slight grin on his face.

The four settled smoothly into their respective canoes; Al and Kenny in one, Franklin and Gerald in the other. Paddles dipped quietly into the dark tannic-stained water of the cut as the canoes slipped away from the world of monthly bills, fake news, twittering celebrities, and the heavy burden of information overload.

Two hours of languid but steady paddling brought them well out into the vast prairie. The blue October sky stretched tightly above them. This northern area of the Okefenokee was more like the Everglades, than the bayou country of the Atchafalaya in Louisiana. Peat islands called “houses” floated across the slow-moving waters. Some, large enough to provide grazing for cows in times past. Patches of floating grass swirled around the canoes. Clumps of detritus bubbled to the surface ripe with the fecund smell of decay. The unobscured brightness of the sun magnified the subtle shades of green, wheat, and gold that pervaded the prairie in late autumn.

“What was that?” Al cocked his head against the slight breeze as he listened.

Gerald shrugged, “I didn’t hear anything, what did it sound like?”

“Well, kind of a high-pitched shriek.”

“Franklin, Kenny, did ya’ll hear anything?

“Just my stomach grumbling,” Kenny said.

“Could have been a sandhill crane, they make some weird sounds,” Gerald said.

“I don’t think it was a crane, it sounded like a train whistle,” Al said quietly.

“Probably just the wind,” Franklin said, “but I could stand a bite to eat, let’s find a little bit of shade.”

They found some scraggly elderberry bushes clustered on both sides at a narrow point of the trail that offered some spackled shade. Tied off loosely to the spidery branches the canoes snuggled up to each other unaffected by the slow-moving current. Pop tarts, trail mix, and sunflower seeds were consumed. The lack of man-made noise was calming as a thin breeze scuffed through the prairie grass.

“There it is again,” Al said.

“Yeah, I heard that,” Kenny agreed.

Gerald was shaking his head, “Wonder what that is?”

“It does sound a little like a train whistle, but we’re way too far from the tracks to hear anything,” Franklin said.

“It didn’t sound like a modern train either, sounded like one of those old-timey steam whistles to me,” Al mused.

They listened for a while longer but heard nothing except two red-winged blackbirds flitting from one stalk to another. They ate slowly enjoying the brief break from paddling. Between bites, Franklin said, “It was kinda odd running into Ezekiel like that, your friend didn’t say anything about any restoration going on, did he?”

“No, he didn’t.” Gerald took a long drink from his canteen, shrugged, and said, “Well, guess we better get moving; we need to make the Maul Hammock platform by three-thirty or four.”

“Remember, Kenny said, “when we get to Ohio Lake, we’ll be coming in at a different angle than we’re used to, so the Red Trail should be to our left where it leaves the lake.”

“Duly noted,” Al spoke while putting away his lunch leftovers.

The next hour was uneventful as they made their way through the high grass and floating houses toward Ohio Lake. In the distance, the inverted V-shaped stands of pine, symmetrical from the centermost peak to the outlying saplings seemed designed by an ethereal architect.

“Better keep an eye on the weather,” Al said as he pointed to the west. “It would be better not to get caught in the middle of the lake during a squall.”

“I agree,” Gerald said. “But when I looked at the forecast this morning there was no rain for a couple more days. Then again, I think Mark Twain said, ‘What you expect is climate, what you get is weather.’”

“This time of year, things are dicey,” Franklin added.

“Well, Ohio Lake should be close so let’s pick up the pace and see if we can get across it before anything blows in,” Al said.

Suddenly the high grass gave way to the open expanse of Ohio Lake as the sky above began to mottle with scudding clouds. The lake was beginning to scallop as the breeze increased, cutting at an angle across the canoe’s path. Al pulled out his binoculars, scanning the far side of the lake for the Red Trail marker sign.

“Got it,” he said. Gerald and Franklin fell in behind letting Kenny and Al take the lead. The open water of Ohio Lake was always unsettling after the close confines of the narrow path through the high grass of the prairie. They had just made it to the far side of the lake and into the well-defined Red Trail when the squall hit like a banshee from hell. They tucked up into the leeward side of the trail sheltering under the scraggily climbing heath that bordered both sides of the waterway. Wet gear on, they hunkered down and waited. Ten minutes of turbulent fury was followed by calm that settled in thick and heavy.

“Man, that was a bad boy, glad we weren’t out on the lake,” Kenny said.

“Yeah,” Al said as he began to pull off his rain gear.

“How far to Maul Hammock?”

“About another hour or so, Gerald,” Franklin said.

“Let’s get going. If this cloud cover stays, daylight will be shorter than we expected.”

“Man, that was a quick change, from sunny blue skies to this,” Kenny said.

Well, it is late October, but it does seem kinda strange, this is almost like a coastal fog, something you expect in Darien or the Altamaha Sound,” Gerald said as he started to paddle.

“At least it isn’t raining now, Kenny said.

“There’s that sound again,” Al said.

“Sounds like a steam whistle to me and fairly close, that’s really odd,” Franklin said as he dug his paddle into the dark, opaque water.

“Probably just the wind,” Gerald answered.

The overcast sky and shrouding fog brought a somber feel to the men, but they made good time and reached the covered platform at Maul Hammock with plenty of daylight to spare.

“I wonder if Rocky and his pals will be around later,” Gerald said as he and Franklin edged up to the mooring planks. The platform at Maul Hammock was typical of those placed intermittently throughout the network of canoe trails. Open air, tin-roofed with sturdy planking, it was large enough to sleep ten campers. Tents were pitched under the roofed area and a modern chemical privy was separated from the platform by a narrow boardwalk.

The Maul Hammock platform was abutted to the rear by a thick copse of trees while sedges, pitcher plants, and water lilies dotted the water in front. A heavy-hanging quietness was broken only by the sound of canoes being unloaded, tents sprouting up and gear being neatly stacked for easy access. Soon they were sitting in camp chairs and enjoying a cold drink as they took in the serene beauty of the Okefenokee.

A pale circle of brightness slowly dipped toward the western horizon. A great blue heron stood motionless on spindly legs eyeing with bad intent the shallows.

“Here’s to the swamp,” Gerald raised his beer and the others followed.

“Man, you get in here and it just seems like nothing else exists,” Kenny said.

“Yeah, nobody tellin’ you what to do. Nobody in a hurry to get nowhere. You don’t realize how much crap there is to deal with until you come into the swamp,” Franklin noted.

“I think it’s why we always find a way to make this trip, in twenty-five years I think we’ve only missed two years.”

“Al’s right,” Gerald said. “This is our tradition. I guess it fits us.”

A shrill shrieking noise pierced the late-afternoon quiet causing all four men to jump. The heron with the flapping of wings glided into the sky moving east.

What the hell was that?” Kenny said.

“That was Al’s old-timey steam whistle,” Franklin said as he exhaled a stream of smoke from his cigarillo. “And damn close by the sound of it.”

“Well, that’s just weird,” Gerald said.

“Maybe weird but it is a Blue Moon Halloween tomorrow.”

“Oh, come on now don’t go all Stephen King on us, Kenny,” Gerald said.

“We’ve never heard anything like that before, not in twenty-five years,” Kenny stood his ground.

“He’s got a point,” Franklin said.

Al stood and moved to the edge of the platform gazing out into the opaque greyness. Cocking his head slightly, he turned back toward the others, “Can y’all hear that?”

They listened until Franklin said, “That’s a timber saw. I don’t mean some chain saw, that sounds like one of those old steam-driven, portable saws the Hebard Company used a hundred years ago.”

“OK Professor, how do you know what one sounds like?” Kenny jabbed.

“I saw a demonstration years ago when I was a boy. They had one out at the Swamp Park.”

“OK, well maybe they’ve got something similar now and they’re clearing some downed trees left from the fires.”

No one said anything as Al resumed his seat. Maul Hammock had been the site of some spectacular sunsets in years past but there seemed no hope of that tonight. The four men sat quietly lost in their thoughts until Gerald said, “We might as well start fixin’ something to eat.”

“Look out there,” Franklin said pointing into the thick greyness that hovered over the entirety of Maul Hammock. “There’s something there.”

“I don’t believe it,” in low tones from Kenny.

Gliding slowly through the enveloping miasma of mist and fog a flat-bottomed swamp boat was being poled by a young boy. In the bow an old man with a battered fedora stood leaning forward, looking for something. He raised his right arm and pointed to some unseen object in the swirling mist. The pole made no sound as the boy pulled it up and then pushed it back down propelling the wooden vessel forward.

The men were speechless as the boat and its occupants came closer to them. In the dimness of the fading light, they could see the boy was dressed in old-timey overalls with a long-sleeved shirt of hard-spun cotton. He stood barefoot on the poling platform that ran across the stern transom. The old man wore trousers with a rope belt and a tattered coat covering a long John top that had seen better days.

“I’ll be damned,” Gerald said.

Suddenly the greyness darkened to a deeper, obscuring curtain of hard slate. As quickly as they emerged, the boy and the old man were gone. The enveloping cloud of fog began to lift as if being sucked upward into the fast-approaching darkness of an October night. The fading burnt orange of the setting sun hung on the western horizon behind the thick stand of trees and the tangled vines of the wooded copse. To the east stars began to twinkle and the moon, huge and foreboding, hung low in the sky.

“I may have to have a drink before we eat,” Gerald said.

“Me too, make mine a double,” from Franklin.

Kenny shaking his head muttered, “What the hell was that?”

Al, the most sober member of the quartet, looked like he could use a drink. “Well, that was more than we bargained for; I’m not even going to say that there is probably a logical explanation for it because I don’t think there is.”

“No, there was nothing logical about that,” Gerald managed.

“Well, we need to eat, but I still want that drink,” Franklin said as he stepped over to the ice chest. “Anybody want a Crown on the rocks?” Three other cups were filled with ice and the four sat down and sipped the bracing refreshment.

“I’ll light the lanterns,” Al said as he got up.

The dissipation of the grey gloom and the clear night sky studded with brilliant starlight and the rising moon gave them a less morbid frame of mind. The four sat silently sipping until Kenny said, “Still no sign of Rocky and his gang.”

“It’s early, they may be waiting until we finish eating.”

“You’re probably right, Al.”

Long as they had made the Red Trail trip, a gaze of raccoons had always been living around the Maul Hammock platform. They had named the Alpha, Rocky. There had no doubt been several different alphas over the years, but they showed up to scavenge what they could. Very clever animals, with dexterity that rivaled humans, and always fun to watch.

Franklin stood, went to the ice chest, and pulled out several items wrapped in foil. He topped off his drink and moved toward the “kitchen” area of the platform. His wizardry with a camp stove was legendary; with minimal accessories and primitive conditions, he could whip up a feast. The first night on the trail was always steak night; this year it was thick cuts of sirloin with corn on the cob and home fries. Soon all four men were enjoying a hearty meal to cap off the long day’s paddling.

“You haven’t lost your touch, Franklin,” Gerald said.

The other two nodded in agreement as they continued to eat. The moon still low on the horizon, appeared large enough to be an encroaching planet, glowed with a ghostly pale luminescence. More and more stars appeared in the deep blackness of the autumn night.

“I’ll do the dishes,” Kenny offered.

“Well, we’ll just sit here and watch,” Gerald said.

“Clean those plates, don’t just dip’em in the water,” Al said.

“Thank you, Martha Stewart, for the advice.”

“We’ll be eatin’ off those tomorrow and if I get the one you had tonight, I want it clean,” Gerald added.

“Yeah, clean,” Franklin said.

“OK, OK,” Kenny said as he gathered up the assorted plates, knives and forks, and cooking pots and pans. The others continued a desultory conversation in low voices.

Kenny’s shout was eclipsed by the guttural roar of a bull gator breaking the water a few feet from the platform. Mouth wide open in the lantern light, gnarly teeth everywhere. Kenny fell backwards with a clatter of pots and pans as Al scrambled toward him, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him up on the platform of the risers that were flush with the water.

“What the hell…” Kenny managed as Al checked him over for any damage. The gator had slipped back into the black water leaving no visible sign of his presence.

“You OK?” Gerald said as he and Franklin circled around.

“I, I think so. Damn, that scared the shit out of me.”

“You need any toilet paper?” Franklin asked trying to ease the mood.

“You know, that’s just not funny. That thing came out of nowhere. We haven’t seen a gator since the squall line ran through. Man, that thing could’ve taken my arm off.”

“It was unusual,” Gerald said.

“Give me a shot of that Crown.”

“Comin’ up,” Franklin said as he walked to the ice chest.

“How many pots and pans did we lose?”

“Al you would ask that question,” Gerald said arching his eyebrows.

Kenny swallowed a sip of Crown and said, “I think just that one frying pan, I dropped it when that thing came out of the water.”

“We’ll get by, no worries,” Gerald said.

They secured all the gear, then resumed their places in the semi-circle of camp chairs. Franklin smoked, while Al brought out a harmonica and began to play softly. Gerald and Kenny sat quietly enjoying the moment. No conversation was required. Time passed as the moon illuminated the watery wilderness of the Okefenokee.

“I’ve had enough excitement for one day,” Al said.

“Me too, time for bed,” Franklin said.

“Yeah, more paddling tomorrow,” Kenny reminded.

“I think I’ll sit out here a while longer, not sleepy yet.”

“Having some insomnia, Gerald?

“No Franklin, just thinking ‘bout things.”

“Don’t think too long, Kenny’s right we’ve got another long day.”

The brightness of a full moon unfiltered by the ambient lighting of civilization was shocking. You could read a newspaper by the light of this moon with no problem. Gerald realized how little time he spent outside at night and thought about how much was missed by our addiction to the digital world. He was reminded of the old Yogi Berra quote “You can observe a lot by just watching.” They had observed a lot this evening, he wondered what tomorrow would bring them.

The night passed uneventfully with no train whistles, steam saws, or angry alligators to disturb the four men. The bleak greyness of the predawn gave way to a sunrise that seemed sad and sullen. The air was cool with an autumn dryness that coarsened the skin and split open fingertips. The sun was a pale brightness as the four men broke camp and loaded the canoes for another day’s travel.

“At least we’ll be going downhill today,” Kenny said.

“Well, it is almost due South from Maul Hammock down through Dinner Pond to Big Water and we’ll get some help from the current,” Franklin added.

“Everybody ready?” Al asked as he looked around the platform for any overlooked items.

“Let’s go,” Gerald said settling into the canoe with Franklin in the stern seat.

“No raccoons, that’s just not normal,” Kenny said as they slowly moved away from the platform. He was still shaking his head as they curved around some high grass and lost sight of Maul Hammock.

The open expanse of the prairie gave way to thicker stands of cypress growth. Moss, like witch hair, hung from spindly limbs. Lily pads floated like Alice’s teacups on black water. The morning slipped by with each paddle stroke through the dark tannic water of the Okefenokee.

“Where we wanna eat lunch?”

“Kenny, you hungry already? Al said. ‘It’s only 10 o’clock.”

“It was a light breakfast.”

“Anything short of the double everything at IHOP is a light breakfast for you,” Al said.

“What’s that?” Gerald said pointing to the eastern side of the trail.

“Get over there a little closer Kenny,” Al said from behind in the trailing canoe.

“It looks like the old, small gauge track they used to move cypress out of the swamp. But look at the pilings and wood framing, they’re in good shape. The original tracking we’ve seen on other trips was dilapidated and in remnants barely standing,” Franklin said.

“Well, that looks like it was built last week.”

“You’re right Gerald it looks brand new,” Al said.

“I’m beginning to think we shouldn’t have come on this trip,” Kenny said with a sigh.

“Well, strange or not, we’re here and so is that railroad track,” Gerald said.

A sudden shriek cut the morning calm like a chainsaw chewing into virgin timber. A flight of blue herons, awkwardly rising into the sky, flapped overhead. A few yards from the canoes a roiling water drew the attention of the friends. Sinuous bodies slithered in the water, in all directions. Dark, almost black with an oily film on their skins, cottonmouths swam away from their nest.

“Watch out, cottonmouths,” Franklin intoned.

“I think that was a bobcat, wonder what spooked him.?”

“Does it matter, Al?” Gerald said as he whacked at the broad head of a cottonmouth that was too close to the canoe.

“Just for the record, bobcats should be here, steam locomotives shouldn’t.”

“Point taken.”

“Let’s get the hell away from here. You know, this is supposed to be our time to just chill out and not have to worry about whatever we’re worrying about,” Kenny said as he took a big bite with his oar.

“Our friend, the philosopher,” Franklin said as he dug heavily into the water with his paddle.

“Well, I don’t think this trip is going to be a relaxing chill out any way you cut it. I mean we’ve already had enough happen to throw this whole thing into the Twilight Zone,” Gerald said.

“That’s a fact,” Al responded.

A brief lunch break at Dinner Pond gave them a chance to look at the topo map that McIntyre had provided to them. They observed the fork in the red trail where a narrow trail split off past Big Water and ran toward Billy’s Island on the east side of Minnie’s Lake.

“That’s where we leave the Red Trail,” Gerald said as he pointed at the spot on the map. “And here,” he indicated another spot closer to Billy’s Island, “is where the platform is that is normally reserved for maintenance crews and rangers. McIntyre worked something out so we could stay there, no questions asked. “

“So is the plan to make it to that platform this evening?” Franklin asked.

“Yes, I think we’ve got enough daylight. But we best get moving. We’ve got access to the platform for two nights if we decide to stay that long. Thought we might want to explore Billy’s Island. It’s been a while since I was out there,” Gerald said.

“You know, if the old photos of the island from the early 1900s weren’t there to document all that was on Billy’s Island, you’d never believe it now,” Al said.

“They had a train that ran to a little depot and there was a post office on the island also,” Franklin said.

“Wasn’t there a movie theatre too?” Gerald asked.

“Yes, there were stores and residences for workers,” Al responded.

An hour of easy paddling brought them to the junction with the alternate trail. They soon noticed the transition from the more open spaces of the prairie to the denser habitat of young cypress trees. Mud turtles perched stolidly on lichen-encrusted logs, as cypress knees rose from dark water like gnarly gnomes.

It was shadier here, sunlight broken into mottled patterns by the overhanging canopy of trees. Moss hung from limbs and circled trunks in tendrils of whitish gray.

“You know, aside from the gator that scared the hell out of Kenny last night, we haven’t seen any. I mean not one,” Gerald said as they paddled through lily pads that offered respite to flitting dragonflies.

“Well, we said going in that we wanted a different trip,” Al reminded.

“Definitely different,” Gerald said.

“I wonder what would spook several hundred alligators?” Kenny said aloud.

“Let’s not get weird, Kenny,” Franklin said.

“Yeah, there is no doubt, a logical explanation,” Gerald said, then continued, “It’s probably a lunar tidal thing or something up with circadian rhythm, it is a blue moon.”

The staccato hammering of a pileated woodpecker echoed over the dark water. Gossamer spider webs stretched between limbs waiting for inattentive flies or unwary insects. Pitcher plants lurked in colonies eagerly waiting to capture and kill. The canoes moved smoothly with the cadenced rhythm of experienced paddlers working together.

The trail proved to be a good paddle and they enjoyed the change of scenery from the much-traveled red trail. They paused in the late afternoon for a snack in the shadow of a stand of cathedral-like cypress trees. Gerald checked the topo map and then said, “We need to look for a jog off to the right in about thirty more minutes. We take that about a hundred yards to the platform that is not visible from the trail.”

They pushed on as the October light streaked through the canopy revealing motes of filamentous tendrils of moss and pollen wafting in the air. The entrance to the small cut running to the platform was almost obscured by an explosion of water lilies that ran along the edge of the trail.

The platform, almost identical to the one at Maul Hammock, hunkered in a sheltered lagoon. The place had more of a bayou feel to it in contrast to the more open expanse of the prairie. The mosaic texture of trees, leaves, vines, and shrubs formed an intricate tapestry. The swamp is primeval, a garden untended by the hand of man.

“Nice place,” Al said as they brought the canoes up against the mooring area.

“From here, Billy’s Island is less than a mile away,” Gerald said.

When canoes were secured, the camp set, and the sizzling sound of burgers on the grill permeated the air they noticed the deepening shadows and mist curling around the platform. A chorus of insects with bullfrogs on the bass end provided background music.

A great white heron gracefully alit, perching regally on the end of one canoe. Sensing no threat, it remained immobile scanning the dark water for a fish dinner.

Franklin tended the grill while the others sat and conversed on several time-worn subjects. As the discussion meandered along Gerald couldn’t help but think that in the wiregrass, the weather is a default topic one can always rely on in a tight spot. If you find yourself at a funeral, wedding, or family reunion, one of which will occur weekly in a small southern town. And if you find yourself stuck next to a venomous spinster, a self-proclaimed man of the cloth, or an alcoholic uncle, the weather is your go-to subject. Talking about the mind-numbing heat or the thick-as-a-brick humidity will buy some time while you formulate an escape plan.

The men did not take the weather lightly. Canoeing in a wilderness area like the Okefenokee requires a weather eye be kept. By mutual consent, they brought one smartphone to be used only in dire circumstances. If you could even get a signal.

“Almost ready here,” Franklin announced.

The men quietly went about the business of bringing the meal together. Mess kits were laid out, camping plates with sliced tomatoes and Vidalia onions were produced. They ate by the light of two Coleman lanterns as a faint glow of distant daylight to the west faded with the approaching darkness.

“Another fine dining experience, swamp style,” Kenny said.

“Those burgers were great, Franklin,” Gerald said.

They settled into their camp chairs savoring the meal and enjoying the fellowship that had existed for some forty years. The last remnants of daylight disappeared from the moonless sky.

“I wish y’all had brought the guitars,” Kenny said.

“The last time I brought my Washburn, I nearly lost it,” Gerald said.

“I brought my harmonica,” Al said.

The eastern sky began to glow, slowly brightening like a small town had turned on every light. Cresting the horizon, the rising moon was enormous. It seemed in reach of the four men; its reflected radiance cascaded down to illuminate the Okefenokee in an eerie tableau of spectral light.

“Would you look at that,” Kenny said in awe.

“That’s some serious moonlight,” Gerald said.

“It’s worth the price of admission,” Franklin added.

“Anybody want a cold one?” Kenny asked as he stood.

Suddenly the moonlit night was split by the high-pitched wail of a train whistle.

“That was close,” Al said, then added, “Whatever it is.”

“What the hell was that,” Kenny asked as he returned with beers and handed them out to the others.

“Happy Halloween,” Gerald said.

Again, the stillness of the night was eviscerated by three long bursts of a train whistle. The sound penetrated the wilderness as the final blast hung in the night until it dissipated leaving an eerie silence.

I’m just about a frog hair away from a bad case of the heebie-jeebies,” Kenny said as he took a healthy swig of his beer.

“Know what you mean,” Franklin said.

“Well, I’ll be …” Gerald started to say, as a new sound drifted through the night air to them. “Okay, now we’re officially in a Twilight Zone episode, ’cause that’s a freaking fiddle I hear.”

“You know, there is probably a logical explanation. Remember the Maple Street episode, turns out no big deal.”

“Al, you’ve been an administrator too long. Because there is nothing logical about a phantom train whistle and ghostly fiddle music in the middle of the night deep in the swamp under a blue moon on Halloween.”

“When you put it that way, it kinda knocks the wind out of ‘logical.’”

“I’m with Gerald on this one. It’s about as logical as a hooker at a Sunday school picnic.”

The shimmering moonlight turned the dark water to quicksilver. Wispy curls of ground fog drifted across the water and through sleek cypress trees.

“Only one thing to do,” Gerald said.

“And that would be what?” Al asked.

“Get to the bottom of this.”

“I was afraid you would say something like that,” Al responded.

“We ain’t gonna get any sleep until we either find out what’s going on or …” Kenny’s voice trailed off.

“Are you serious?” Franklin asked.

Gerald was up and collecting some gear as Kenny followed suit. They removed the tarp from one canoe and began to load it with a few items.

“Let’s get going before I talk myself out of it,” Gerald muttered.

“Well hell,” Franklin said as he began to ready the other canoe.”

At that moment more fiddle music could be heard drifting to them from the direction of Billy’s Island. Clouds scudded overhead, creating moonlit shadows that danced ominously in the October night.

“Well, I’m not staying here by myself,” Al sighed.

“Yeah, it’s always the one by himself that gets killed,” Kenny said with a wicked grin.

“Now there’s a cheerful thought,” Gerald said.

The banter continued as they manned the canoes. They pushed off and soon the distant glow of the lantern hanging from a roof beam was all they could see of the shelter. A melodic minor key tune played by the fiddler filled the night with a nostalgic melody. The men followed the sound through the moonlit brightness of All Hallows Eve toward Billy’s Island.

Suddenly a dark shape burst forth from a tangle of limbs, wings flapping, as a black-crowned night heron flew inches over their heads.

“Damn,” Franklin hissed through clinched teeth.

“Anybody need a medicinal shot of Crown? I brought the bottle,” Kenny said.

Everyone thought the need for medicinal relief was a damn good idea. The Irish remedy applied, and the four conferred briefly on what they now realized was a sketchy plan, at best. They decided to go forward and see what they could see. It wasn’t Seal Team Six strategy, but it was a plan.

“That damn bird scared the bejesus out of me,” Franklin said.

The fog swirled around them as they cautiously paddled toward Billy’s Island. The music was louder, a guitar and banjo could be heard along with the fiddle. The men paddled toward a densely vegetated headland of shrubs and saplings. They pulled adjacent to each other under the brilliant moonlight as the music momentarily died.

“When we clear this vegetation, we should be able to see Billy’s Island,” Gerald said.

They slowly moved along the shrub line next to them as they stayed in the shadow of the promontory. An eerie glow encompassed the landing on Billy’s Island. The canoes inched through the darkness until they emerged from the shadow and had a clear view of Billy’s Island.

“Holy sh…” the invective died on Kenny’s lips as Al signaled for quiet.

The four sat spellbound at what they could see a few hundred yards away. Beneath the blue moon of October, a crowd of men, women, and children. Some danced, while others talked. The musicians broke into a lively reel that caused feet to tap. The people were dressed in the attire of the early 20th century. An ethereal, phosphorescent glow enveloped the entire landing.

“They’re ghosts,” Franklin said as he choked out a whisper.

“Good lord,” Al said, “Look over to the right, past the musicians.

A small, steam locomotive stood, fire still burning, resting on a trestle of tracks that extended into the darkness out of their line of vision. A boardwalk connected a covered platform adjacent to the tracks with Billy’s Island. A corona of pale light shimmered around the train.

The men in the canoes sat quietly, trying to find some context of reality, some basis for understanding what they witnessed. The computer age has diluted and dampened the rich, multi-layered fabric known as Southern Gothic. This was a reminder that the tales of childhood, the legends, and the lore, have a dark kernel of truth at the core.

Whether it was their rural upbringing or their fascination with the natural world, they met the scene before them with a sense of wonder rather than mind-numbing fear.

“Look next to the two fiddlers,” Gerald said softly.

“It’s Ezekiel,” Al said.

As Kenny leaned forward to get a better look, the canoe shifted enough to throw him off balance and he sprawled forward toward Gerald. He yelled as he lost his grip on his paddle and it splashed loudly into the water.

Suddenly, the music stopped. Every spectral figure turned silently to stare straight at the four men and their canoes.

“Oh boy,” Kenny said.

“Al, do you have your harp?” Gerald asked quietly.


“Play something, now,” Gerald urged.

Al pulled his harmonica from a pocket in his fishing shirt. He slapped it against his palm then found his note. He looked at the others for suggestions.

“Something old, from their time,” Gerald said.

Al began to play a tune in waltz time, melodic and sweet. Time froze in the fierce, haunting moonlight as the fiddle answered the plaintive notes of the mouth harp. The mandolin was next picking the melody line to “Good Night, Irene.”

The other musicians picked up the song and slowly “folks” returned to their dancing and socializing. Al continued to play but softer now, fading out unobtrusively.

“Time to go,” Kenny said.

They slowly retreated behind the sheltering bulk of the grassy promontory. Gerald’s last view of the gathering was that of a large man in dungarees and a flannel shirt as he gave a languid wave in the direction of the canoes.

Back on their platform, Kenny asked, “How long were we gone?”

Al looked at his watch and said, “Almost three hours.”

“I had no sense of time out there,” Franklin said.

“Gerald, nice call on the music,” Al said. “How’d you know?”

“Didn’t for sure. But it seemed to me that they were just having a throwdown and we kinda crashed the festivities and spoiled their fun. Fun, which I’m guessing only occurs once every fifty years or so on a blue-moon Halloween. I could see being pissed off if somebody was screwing up your once-every-half-century party. Music is the universal language, and in this case maybe the multiverse language. When we disturbed them, I don’t think they were mad, rather they seemed sad. You could feel it, like a kid with an ice cream cone that melts before he realizes it’s gone. I thought music would restore the night for them.”

“Wouldn’t want to run into them when they are mad,” Franklin said as he lit a cigarette.

“If we hadn’t backed off, I think things would have been unpleasant,” Al said.

“I agree,” Gerald said, “This was like Joel Chandler Harris meets Stephen King.”

Al looked at his watch and said, “It’s officially November, and listen, the music has stopped.”

They sat for a while, each in his own thoughts. One by one, they drifted to their sleeping bags. Their deep, restful slumber was filled with dreams that slowly swirled in three-quarter time.

The morning brought cooler temperatures with overcast skies that hinted at rain. A breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, and grits helped revive the four men from their ghostly activities.

“We can take the Red Trail back to Maul Hammock, stay there tonight, then leave the next day,” Gerald said, “Or, we could stay here another night and go explore Billy’s Island today.”

“I’ve been looking at the weather, we’ve got a front coming in day after tomorrow late. So, it might be best to head on for Maul Hammock now.”

“Works for me,” Franklin said.

“We’ve pushed our luck enough,” Kenny concurred.

“Maul Hammock it is,” Gerald said.

“Hey, look over there,” Franklin said as he pointed out a ten-foot gator.

“I have a feeling we’ll find Rocky and his pals at Maul Hammock when we get there,” Kenny said.

Autumn had finally pried summer’s death grip from the wiregrass. Brisk, dry air felt good to the four canoers as they plied their way north. They emerged from the melancholy of deep shadows and moss-cloaked cypress trees into the open stretches of prairie.

They were greeted by a gaze of raccoons at Maul Hammock. Although inquisitive, the coons kept their distance as the men set up camp. When supper turned out to be MREs, there was a distinct look of disappointment on the masked faces.

The waning moon hid behind thickening clouds that moved furtively across the night sky. After securing their gear and food from the amazing dexterity of the raccoons, they turned in early anticipating a challenging day on the morrow.

They awoke in the pre-dawn to a distinct chill in the air. Pendulous clouds obscured a sullen sunrise that brought light but little warmth.

“We better get some strong coffee in us and get going,” Al said.

They rigged the canoes for a rainy day and donned their wet gear. They made good time, paddling through several light showers. To the west, towering cumulus clouds dominated the skyline. They pushed on, eating on the go. The occasional gator hunkered in mud flats or floated unmoving in the wind-blown water. The tall grasses and sedges on either side of the trail swished back and forth.

They spotted the entrance to the canal at about four o’clock. Here, they were sheltered from the wind. They paddled now for as much speed as possible. It was a straight shot to the dock where they had parked the SUV and trailer.

Ten minutes later they nudged up to the dock and tied off. They noticed immediately the difference in the place from when they departed three days ago.

“Would you look at that,” Franklin said as he stared at the dilapidated buildings in front of them. As they began to unload the canoes a young man approached them and said, “I’m Caleb Barber, glad to see y’all get in ahead of this weather. I work with MacIntyre, he asked me to come down and check on y’all. This is a doozy of a storm coming our way.”

“Are you kin to Ezekiel Barber,” Gerald asked.

“Yes sir, I am. How do you know Zeke?”

“We ran into him right here, three days ago,” Kenny answered.

“Well, ain’t that something,’” Caleb said with a grin.

“We’d like to see him if we could?” Gerald said, “After we get the canoes loaded up.”

“I can take you to where he is,” Caleb said, then added, “By the way, Zeke is my great, great granddaddy.”

“We won’t be long,” Gerald said.

“I’ll give you a hand.”

Thirty minutes later the canoes and gear were secured. The sky was ominous with spidering lightning flashing from cloud to cloud.

“We don’t have much time, but if y’all will follow me, I think we can get there and back before it busts loose.”

Caleb led the way through pines and palmetto along a footpath easily followed. They soon came to a clearing with a plot of land enclosed in a neatly kept white picket fence. On the gate, a carved wooden sign said “Barber family”

They walked between headstones until Caleb stopped in front of one that read Ezekiel Barber 1880 – 1918.

“1918,” Gerald noted, then said, “He died in World War I?”

“Yes, he was working for the Hebard Company, timber cruising, when we entered the war. He signed up, said it was something he needed to do. My grandfather told me that Zeke had a guilty conscience about helping them log those old-growth cypress trees out of the swamp. Thought he could balance the scales by enlisting. He died a hero, saved his squad from a German ambush.”

“What we saw out there,” Gerald said as he looked out toward the heart of the Okefenokee, “It was real?”

“I guess ‘real’ is a relative term deep in the swamp. This place casts a spell on some folks. I think Zeke and some of the others had such a strong love of the Okefenok’ that their essence will always be a part of it the same as pitcher plants, gators, and skeeters. I don’t know any other way to explain it,” Caleb said.

“So, you know about the,” Al faltered for a moment then said, “ghosts.”

“Oh yes, most of us that grew up in the swamp know, but we keep it to ourselves. Out of respect for the dead. Don’t need a bunch of reality TV shows pokin’ around.”

“Was that a unique gathering we witnessed?” Gerald asked.

“Well, the combo of a blue moon mixed with Halloween would have been a strong magnet for the restless souls. You should feel lucky, not many people have seen what you described to me.”

The sprinkles turned into a more persistent drizzle as they walked back to the landing. Caleb bid them goodbye and walked toward his truck. As they settled into the Xterra, a quietness pervaded the vehicle. Gerald made no move to start the motor as the rain turned into a steady downpour.

“We need to get to the blacktop before this rain gets much worse,” he said, then continued, “Might be best if we keep this to ourselves.”

“You’ll get no argument from me,” Al said.

“Yeah, I agree, I’m fresh out of ways to tell folks that I went in the swamp and saw a hundred ghosts and a ghost train,” Kenny added.

“Me too,” Franklin made it unanimous.

The Xterra rolled down the dirt road away from the vast, mysterious Okefenokee. Each man was lost in his thoughts, trying to grasp what they had seen. The dim daylight faded to rain-soaked night as the Xterra turned onto the blacktop for the return trip to Traintown. The melodic strains of ‘Good Night Irene’ filled the vehicle as Al softly played the harmonica while the rain fell forlornly in the Georgia night.

The End.