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The story goes that slaves were made to dig a small canal connecting Alligator Lake to Otter Lake through a series of sinkholes and ponds in an attempt to drain Alligator Lake for planting cotton. Like the draining of the Everglades, the Alligator Lake scheme failed, but the remnants of the canal are still there, now traversing part of the Panacea unit of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Bob Thompson, knows these woods well and took me along on one of his favorite hikes - the canal - earlier this week.
Our first stop was a Live Oak Boneyard, an oddly-clear area in the woods, except for a standing trunk and old "bones" of the long-dead live oak tree. The place felt of ancient reverence. A quarter mile away, we stopped again to admire two old tree trunks, mysteriously aligned, with their root-butts facing each other. Too heavy to have been moved by hands, and no evidence of having grown in this spot, how and why did this pair come to lie here like this for so many decades?
More evidence of man's habitation in these woods, we found two catfaces along the canal-bed. "Catface" is the name given to the scarred base of a pine tree after turpentiners had been draining the tree's sap for years. One was a totem-like standing stump of hard resinous lighterwood. The other had fallen, but still had its metal funnels and sculpted face.
These are dry times, so we were hiking in swamps that could be more than 5 feet underwater in wet times. Beautiful cypress and black gums rose from the leaf-laden swamp floor. The black gums all seemed to be hollow with hobbit-like doorways. I marvelled at their eerie dancing legs.
We experienced snake camo first hand when Bob nearly grabbed a stick next to a neatly coiled diamondback. If you are not snake-phobic, be sure to click on the thumbnail here so you can better see the intricate beauty in the pattern of the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Later we spotted a gray rat snake stretched out along a gray log, invisible to the hawk or owl that might make a meal of it.
The canal itself was a marvel that stretched through miles of forest and swamp, sand and mud, roots and rocks. This was the results years of monumentally hard labor. Nature has largely reclaimed the canal, so that now it is just a monumental trail engraved in the forest floor, offering a beautiful walk through history and nature.