Updated: Sep 3
Unlike most boys today who are focused on their cell phones, when I was young, I would spend most of my time roaming around in the bayous near my house in Natchez, Mississippi, or peddling my bike to the many creeks and wooded areas around my hometown to explore them.
When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my mom would sometimes drive my best friend, Jason Cooke, and me to the Natchez Trace, a prehistoric buffalo/Indian trail that is now a National Park, about twenty-five miles from Natchez. She would drop us off around 9:00 in the morning at a small, deserted, picnic area along the banks of Cole’s Creek and return to pick us up after work around 5:30 in the evening.
We were in heaven — no parents, no rules, just two barefooted boys, clad in cut-off blue jeans and Camp Kickapoo t-shirts (with the obligatory sheath knife hanging from our belts). Carrying our canteens and a croaker sack of food, we were left to explore the creek and surrounding woods like the pioneers of old! Oh, the freedom and adventures we had!
I remember one July my mom took us to the Trace in the morning, right after swim team practice, and dropped us off at our usual spot. It had been at least three months since we had been there last, and now with our skin as brown as Orange Crush bottles, we felt protected from the sun and were looking forward to our adventures in the angry Mississippi heat.
Before my mom was out of sight, our t-shirts were off and hanging on a tree branch, and we were scrambling down the 120-foot bluff to the sandy bank below. We spent the morning making our way up the creek searching for snakes and other reptiles that we could take home and keep as pets, and spearing carp (an invasive fish from Asia) using pointed sticks we had carved. Whenever we stumbled onto a swimming hole, we pulled off our cut-offs and dived in.
During the hottest part of the day, we took a break, retrieved our croaker sack, took out our lunch, and sat down in the shade of a huge, sprawling sycamore tree that we named Goliath. When we first saw its mottled brown, gray, and white trunk towering over the other trees, we looked at each other, grinned, and sprinted to its base where the race to the top began. Old people say you shouldn't climb a sycamore tree because the bark is delicate, and you could damage or even kill the tree. But this tree had been around for a long time, maybe even a hundred years, and besides, we were barefooted, so how much damage could we do? Up we went! At the end of our seventy-five foot climb, we cleared out a section of leaves and were rewarded with an amazing view. Then making a promise to each other that we would return in the fall when the leaves were down, we made our way back down to the earth and had lunch.
After feasting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and two chocolate Moon Pies, our insatiable desire for adventure pushed us to continued our trek upstream. By mid-afternoon we stumbled across a clay bank. In no time our hands were filled with the smooth, slippery stuff, and we surrounded ourselves with all sorts of creations, including a clay snowman and snow woman, complete with moss hair, clay eyes and arms, and a grass hula skirt.
When the artistic muse deserted us, it didn't take long for us to splash water on the clay slope leading down to the creek to make it nice and slick. Then we abandoned our jeans and became young otters sliding down the natural slope splashing into the water below. When we tired of that, we rinsed off the clay and become "Indians" (albeit with Speedo tans) tracking wild imaginary animals to feed our imaginary families back in our imaginary village.
Eventually, we took a break and sat down in about a foot of turbid water at the edge of the sandy bank. With our legs stretched out following the slope of the sand beneath the water, we were savoring our remaining hours of freedom and solitude and trying to decide how long it would take us if we followed the creek all the way to the Mississippi River.
While Jason was telling me that he didn't think it was possible to reach the river and still make it back in time to meet my mom, I was idly pushing the sand around under the water next to my thigh when my right hand felt what seemed to be the bottom or side of a bottle buried under a few inches of sand.
Although we were at least two miles from the picnic area, I figured that either someone must have waded up the creek and thrown away a Coke bottle, or the spring floods carried it down the creek and deposited it there. Either way, I thought the bottle might be broken, and I should probably dig it up and take it out so no one would cut his foot. on it.
Gingerly, now focused on the bottle and not on what Jason was saying, I began to run my fingers down the smooth side of the bottle searching for an edge just in case it was broken. In a matter of seconds, I found what I was looking for and gingerly dug my fingers deeper into the sand and under the broken edge of the bottle. Then I began the slow process of trying to pry it from the grasp of the sand without cutting my fingers. That’s when the bottle came to life!
The sediment-filled water swirled, and the head of the meanest soft shell turtle I had ever seen whipped up out of the water! I can still see its hoglike snout and evil eyes glaring at me, as it stretched its long neck farther out of the water than I thought was possible and twisted its head toward me, preparing to punish me with a vicious bite for disturbing his sleep .
Before that could happen, however, instinctively knowing that we could probably outrun a turtle, Jason and I simultaneously jumped up and sprinted to the safety of the shore, while the aquatic reptile calmly swam off in the opposite direction.
As an adult, I often think back on those halcyon days of my youth that contained so many memorable moments in the woods. I want all Night Eagle campers to return to nature and be able to enjoy the types of activities that I enjoyed as a boy. I want them to know that when we truly become part of nature, we will understand what Joseph Wood Krutch meant when he said, “We have joined the greatest of all communities, which is not of man alone but of everything that shares with us the great adventure of being alive.”