This past Saturday morning I was up before the dawn. The car was loaded with camera gear - 120mm, 35mm and 4x5 formats, plus a panorama back for those really cool wide views. Bags and tripods were packed, along with a satchel containing a few apples, energy bars and a jug of water. My destination was about 2.5 hours south...so off I went at 6:20am.
The warmth of the rising sun in the eastern sky became visible as I hit the small town of Midville, Georgia. Now that it was light, I kept seeing things I was tempted to stop and photograph; an old, weathered barn with a bamboo patch behind it, a line of old pecan trees silhouetted with the deep orange and red morning colors behind them, an old brick building that was once a storefront, now deserted and full of young saplings instead of shoppers. But, I kept driving...the prize was further down the road. I'd get my photographs there..."don't get distracted, you are going to the Altamaha!" I told myself.
When I arrived at my destination, Three Rivers Outdoors in Uvalda, Georgia, my friend and guide Scott, was waiting for me. The canoe was already on top of his SUV, he had plenty of water and had planned a number of very scenic and photograph-worthy spots. This was my second trip to the Altamaha in the past few months...on the first trip, the neighboring swamps and low country surrounding the river were dry. This time, after a very wet winter, the swamps were full of water, which meant we could sneak up into areas not easily accessible by foot, but doable by paddle.
While I photographed the trees and scenery, Scott patiently listened as I talked to myself "ok, according to the light meter, if I want to get great depth of field and shoot at f32, I'll need to slow down my shutter to a one second exposure." Or "lets see, I think I'll frame that group of cypress just to the left of center." Eventually, Scott went back down to the canoe and waited as I planned out my shots. But, then I heard a very strange sound coming from the water. It sounded almost like a bubbling noise...almost like the sound you would get when you run out of soda and are sucking air in the bottom of a glass full of ice. Slowly, I ventured down towards the shoreline. In my mind I kept thinking "is this some kind of lure a gator makes in order to get curious prey close to the water...then splash! It's all over?" I stood there for about 5 minutes trying to make sense of it. Whatever it was, it was loud and if it had been a duck or other critter, by now they would have seen the human standing at the shoreline-staring and scratching his head...by now they would have stopped for sure.
As we paddled back towards the SUV, I stopped and said "Listen!?! Hear it?" We paddled closer and the sound got louder and louder. But there were no ducks, no beaver or otters...nothing but trees. And that was the key...it was a tree. But trees don't make loud noises unless they are falling...right?
After much deducing, the conclusion, as best we could determine, was due to the tree pulling in water through a small opening in it's base. An hour earlier the opening would have been completely submerged and even though water was probably being sucked in, it was under the surface and not audible. Like I mentioned earlier with the straw example, the tree was running out of water coming in through the hole. The straw was at the bottom of the glass and the liquid was running dry so to speak. In another hour, the water level will have dropped even more and the noise will have stopped because the water will have receded below the opening.
I just finished reading a book called "The Hidden Life of Trees" that tells about actual scientific research pointing to communication by trees through their roots and a very, very slow pulse made up of liquid flowing from the roots upward into the limbs. Were we hearing the tree sucking the water? If this was indeed what we heard, it fascinates me. A normally silent being, this time sounding like a kid being annoying with his empty soda cup and straw. Like something that didn't just operate on cruise control, but through actual reasoning? I'd like to think so.
Towards the end of the trip, with a number of exposed rolls of film, muddy pants and empty water jugs, we found one more treasure. A very, very old cypress. It seemed to stretch into the blue sky like a beanstalk planted by Jack. And as we came along its trunk, I had to pat the old giant. This has become something I do when I am around trees...especially old trees. They are such stately, majestic beings...solidly rooted into the earth, silently watching the world change around them.
At another point in our paddle, Scott showed me a lake in the middle of the swamp. Surrounding it were large trees, barren of leaves but covered in Spanish Moss. The gray of the moss and the tree bark contrasted really nicely against the winter blue sky. Come spring, the moss will take on a more green tone and the trees will be full of leaves, but for now, they sleep.
As our day concluded we hiked a short patch to look at some feeder creeks which flowed into the Altamaha. These were small creeks, probably only about 4-5 feet wide and not more than 2-3 feet deep, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in color. They were rich in rust and orange tones from the tannin of the forest. Flowing rapidly over rocks and fallen trees and making their way to the main vessel...the Altamaha. I stopped for a minute to admire the color and then noticed the base of another Cypress. It had a small face peering back at me within it's bark and the bottom was a wash of greens with the photosynthesis of water and light occurring in this warm weather. Soon the entire forest will be green again.
Before we knew it, it was 4:30pm and time for me to head home. Throughout the day, I thanked my friend Scott. He told me there was no need for thanks...he enjoyed this just as much as I did. It had been a great day.