November 13, 2007

Florida's Hellscape

More than a century ago, an old cracker pioneer in North Florida grabbed his shotgun and called his dogs. He walked south into the swamp to find the panther that had killed his livestock more than once. For seven days and seven nights he waded through upland pines, sawgrass-and-cypress marsh, and mucky creek bottoms. His rattlesnake bite ached. Fire ants stung his legs. He gulped down gallons of swamp juice to cool his fever. When he smelled a salty wind off Apalachicola Bay, he hurtled toward it till he cleared the forest. "My name is Tate," he stammered before dying,"and I've just been through hell!"

Tate's Hell State Forest, Florida's harshest fen, belongs to folklore as much as Macbeth's Great Birnam Wood, Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest, and Westley's Fire Swamp. It is home to the endangered black bear, bald eagle, and gopher tortoise, but it's hell to the average hiker. Floridians have told and re-told Tate's journey for generations. It's fun to add your own adversaries and embellishments to keep the story going.

The forest, about 200,000 acres total, stretches from Liberty County in the middle of the Panhandle south to Apalachicola Bay.

I took pictures for an hour or so when I visited. A couple mosquito bites and some close encounters with the local ant population were worth it for twilight shots of the creeks and bogs in autumn. The boat landings were great for stopping and getting out to look around.

Graham Creek Bridge.

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