Adventures of a novice naturalist at Natchez Trace

George Brown
By George Brown

Our trip to Natchez, Mississippi last week was as near perfect as a trip can be, with just the right mix of good food, tours of magnificent antebellum homes, and relaxation at our Natchez State Park campsite.

By Friday we were both pretty well toured-out so I asked Yvonne if she would like to explore a swamp with me. She said she would prefer a quiet day at the campsite with a good book, so I gave her a peck on the cheek and headed for Natchez Trace Cyprus Swamp.

The Natchez is not a large swamp as swamps go, but large enough to have a few good trails and an hour long flatboat tour for tourists to enjoy an alligator’s view of the swamp. When I arrived at the dock three gray-haired couples and two older ladies were waiting to board. I and the park naturalist would make ten, which was the capacity of the small flatboat.

There was just one problem. The naturalist told us his wife had just called from the hospital and he was headed there for the delivery of their first child, so unless one of us had some experience as a naturalist to take the boat out he would have to cancel the tour.

I could see disappointment in the faces of the other folks and was about to turn around myself and head for one of the trails when the naturalist said, “You sir, there in the back. You look to be experienced at this sort of thing, I wonder if you would take these folks out for me. I guess I did look like a naturalist. Of the four men in the group I was the only one wearing hiking boots and a broad brimmed Tilley hat instead of white tennis shoes and a ball cap. Plus I did happen to be wearing khaki shorts and had my backpack and Alaska diamond willow walking stick with me.

I started to speak up and explain that I was just a tourist myself, but the others were looking at me expectantly and I hated to disappoint them so I said, “Sure, I’ll be glad to do the tour for you,” which brought smiles to their faces and a soft round of applause. The naturalist quickly handed the pole to me for pushing and guiding the flatboat through the swamp, then made a dash for his pickup truck and tore out of there like a boy tuned loose on the last day of school.

Everyone stepped into the flatboat and took seats on the wooden benches that lined each side. I asked them to please stay seated throughout the tour so as not to unbalance the boat, then took my place standing at the rear of the boat and used the long pole to push off in the direction it looked like we should go.

One of the older fellows asked how long I’d been doing this sort of thing. “Well, long enough I reckon to know my way around a little swamp like this one.”

My answer seemed to satisfy him as well as the others because they all relaxed and began asking naturalist type questions like how deep is the water, will we see any alligators, did I think there were water moccasins in this swamp, and so on. I figured the best way to answer their questions would be to launch into a narration about the history and habitat of the Natchez Trace Swamp, which, luckily, I had read about in a brochure the night before.

“Folks, we couldn’t have picked a prettier day for a boat ride. You needn’t worry about how deep the water is. I can tell from my pole that it’s not more than four to five feet deep. If you were to fall in you’d be in more danger of being eaten by an alligator than drowning. There are some big ones in here so keep your eyes peeled for them. There are water moccasins too, or Cottonmouths as folks around here call them. It’s not likely you’ll get bit if you keep your hands out of the water, but keep an eye out for snakes hanging in the low lying branches because they have been known to drop out of a tree and land right in a boat.”

At this comment several of the ladies gasped so I added, “Not to worry, I have a snakebite kit in my backpack.” This seemed to offer little assurance.

Then one of the two single ladies – I’d say she was about 80 and looked strangely familiar – said to me, “Young man, have you ever been noodling?”

At this everybody commenced to talking about how they’d seen those swamp boys on TV noodling for giant catfish.

“Well, yes, as a matter of fact I did go noodling one time down in Louisiana. I didn’t have much luck at it, but the fellow I was with told me the story of how it came to be called noodling. Would you like to hear it?” There was a general nodding of heads so I took on a Southern drawl and began.

“One day three fellers were out fish’n when one of em hooked onto a big ol’ forty-somethin’ pound catfish. Well, it got away from him so he jumped in and rassled with it for a while then rammed his arm down its throat clear to his elbow, raised it plum up out of the water and threw it in the boat. One of the other fellers shouted, ‘Land sakes Clem, you’ve done lost yur noodles’, and the other added, “Dad-blamed if he ain’t a noodling fool’, and then that same feller jumped in the water and sure-nuff caught him an even bigger catfish the same way. When they got home their buddies asked how they’d caught such big catfish, and they just laughed and said they’d gone noodling. And that’s how it came to be called noodling.”

There was a bit of chuckling then one of the other ladies asked, “What are those knobby things sticking up out of the water around the Cyprus trees?”

“Those knobs are part of the root system of the tree and they’re called knees,” I explained. “Interesting you should ask because that same fellow down in Louisiana told me how those knobs came to be called knees.”

Again taking on a Sothern drawl I continued, “Noodlin’ with a catfish is one thing but rasslin’ an alligator is something else. One time a feller by the name of Cy took to rasslin’ a gator in some deep water by a Cyprus tree just about like where we’re sittin’ right now. Well that gator got the best of Cy and after ‘bout five minutes there warn’t nothin’ left of Cy cept his knees stick’n up out of the water, just like those Cyprus knobs. The fellers with Cy were too scared to pull his knees out of the water but from then on whenever they passed by that spot they’d say, ‘Look, there’s old Cy’s knees still stickin’ up out of the water.’ And that’s how Cyprus knobs come to be called knees.”

The morning had slipped by and it was time to turn the flatboat around and head back to the dock. As I did so we heard a thunderous pounding sound in a big Tupelo tree a little distance ahead, and the older lady, the one that looked familiar, said, “That sure sounds like the drilling of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker to me.” Of course this stirred some enormous excitement and several folks stood up for a look causing the boat to sway just a little. They sat down quickly and everyone started grabbing for their cameras and binoculars while I steadied the boat with the steering pole.

Cameras clicked furiously and someone exclaimed, “Look, I think that’s him,” but we weren’t close enough to confirm if it was truly an Ivory-Billed or just a large Pileated. After a minute or two the woodpecker flew off and we headed back to the dock.

As we disembarked, I said to the older lady that spotted the woodpecker, “Ma’am, you look awfully familiar. If you don’t mind my asking, what is your name?”

“I’m Jane Goodall,” she replied, and this is my friend, Charlene Darwin. We’re on sabbatical for a few months and thought it would be nice to spend a few weeks in this area.” Then she added, “I enjoyed your stories. You’re a fine naturalist.”

Now that’s a compliment I’ll always cherish.

George Brown is a freelance writer and novice naturalist. He lives in Jackson Township.