In my younger days, before my parts began to wear out, I spent a lot of time exploring the outdoors, hiking, wading in creeks and swamps, and engaging in another activity I enjoyed more than any other, swimming downstream in rivers. Canoeing was pleasurable, but critters such as as snakes, turtles, beavers, muskrats, otters, and wading birds are much less likely to be frightened by someone with only his head showing than by a human in a canoe.
I’ve swum in just about every swimmable river in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Georgia, except for the grossly polluted Calcasieu in Louisiana. Some of my swims were no more than a mile or two while others were up to ten miles in length. Between the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia and the Rio Grande in Texas, I would make mental notes of the critters I saw and the fascinating differences in the species composition of snake and turtle populations from one stream to the next.
Among the more memorable of my swimming expeditions are described as follows. In the middle of the Flint River a few miles below Albany, Ga., is an island. One hot summer day I was swimming down the Flint and passing the island I noticed a black gentleman fishing from the bank. I waved at him, and he remarked, “Fellow, I don’t know where in the world you’re heading for, but you sho did pick a cool way to travel.”
One day some of my students and I were swimming around in the Chattahoochee River where a bridge crosses it east of Shorterville. My late son, who was about twelve at the time, was with us, swimming to the middle of the river, climbing a ladder on a bridge piling nearly to the top, and jumping into the river from a height of about 30 feet. Some black fellows who had just finished a softball game were standing on the bank watching us. We had captured several water snakes and showed them to the men. One said to another, “See, James, I told you that you would enjoy being here. For only three dollars you got to play softball, eat a hot dog, drink a beer, and see a snake show. And you got to see a baby Evil Kneivel to boot.”
On another occasion I was swimming in the Chattahoochee by myself in Henry County and had captured an exceptionally large brown water snake, a species called water rattler by many of the locals, in the belief that it is a rattlesnake that has become aquatic and lost its rattles. I climbed out of the river dripping wet with the snake secured in a pillowcase. Two men were standing on the bank and saw me. One asked me what I was doing. I told him I was observing snakes and turtles. He said, “You’d better be careful. There’s water rattlers in that river and they are more poisonous than cottonmouths.”
I opened the pillowcase and retrieved the snake. The man exclaimed, “That’s a damn water rattler and you’d better drop it. A few seconds later the snake bit me on the arm. A few droplets of blood oozed out, and the man said, “Fellow, you’d better get to the hospital in a hurry, or you’re going to die.” I wiped off the blood and said, “Actually this is a non-poisonous brown water snake and it’s bite is about like a brier scratch. There’s no such thing as a water rattler.” The men gazed at me for a minute or two, and one remarked, “Fellow, you’re just a G…D… idiot,” whereupon they jumped into their pickup and sped off. I’m confident they related their experience about seeing the fool on the riverbank, but were wondering, in their heart of hearts, if he might have been telling the truth.
Ralph Jordan Jr. (aka PeeWee) and I were swimming down the Choctawhatchee River below Geneva and about three miles from the landing saw two men in an outboard motor boat approaching from downstream. We overheard one say, “What the hell are those things in the river?” “Danged if I know. Get the gun,” the other man replied. I began waving my pillowcase and hollering, “We’re humans, we’re humans.” They passed us, staring, but didn’t slow down or say a word. I’m sure they told their friends about seeing two men swimming down the river, miles away from the Geneva landing and miles away from the next access point, below the Florida line. They probably thought we were escaped convicts fleeing from the authorities.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.