LAKE OKECHOBEE, formerly called Mayaco, or Macao, ever since the discovery of Florida by Europeans, and if we may trust the traditions of the aborigines, long before, has slept in a sort of poetical fog of mystery. No doubt the far-famed story of the Fountain of Youth hidden away in the wild tangles of the Land of Flowers, being once disproved, let fall something of its delightful romance upon the lake, which, though hemmed in with almost impassable swamps, marshes, and everglades, and jealously guarded by all the cunning of its wild owners, really did and does exist--a wonder to the scientist and an exhaustless field for the operations of the naturalist and sportsman.
This vast body of water lies on the Floridian peninsula, far towards its southern point, having a shape not unlike that of a great spider, from whose elliptical outline of body radiate short, crooked legs. All around it stretch the cypress. swamps and wet prairies, through which innumerable dark, sluggish streams crawl like indolent serpents. Its shores are in most places low, only a few inches above the water, and a great portion is unapproachable on account of the mass of lily-pads, stiff reeds, flags, and water-lettuce that forms a wide, impenetrable fringe thereto. Often this dense growth is spread across the mouths or friths of the streams, preventing their discovery, except with great labor and loss of time. The tribes of Indians formerly inhabiting Florida based all their poetry on fabulous hunting-grounds located on the islands and along the borders of Okechobee. They had a good foundation in fact for much of their dreamful story. In their light canoes, at certain seasons of the year, when the whole Okechobee region is mostly inundated, they could speed from island to island, from tussock to tussock, from hummock to hummock, finding everything their simple nature craved, namely, fish, birds, and wild animals upon which to practise with their bows and arrows and rude tackle, securing plenty to eat, and skins and feathers to clothe and decorate them-selves withal. Vegetation was variegated and luxuriant beyond compare; gorgeous flowers and gay foliage made the woods and brakes dazzlingly bright and beautiful. Here in the midst of gayly painted birds, vast reptiles, and glossy serpents, under a sky of perpetual and healthful summer, the swarthy hunter lived a life sweeter than Arcadian to him. The shores of the great lake, dimly defined and shaded with mystery, affected his imagination and aroused in him all the dreamful superstitions of his nature. And then, too, somewhere here were situate his pearl fisheries, whence his people drew their vast supplies of this ornament, loads of which passed into the possession of De Soto and his followers. No wonder the lake was jealously guarded by the Indian, and still less the wonder that his descriptions of it were touched with the coloring of romance, and bathed in an atmosphere of fascinating mystery.
White men, of course, were not slow to add such touches to the story as would render it most palatable to our own lovers of the new and wonderful, and very soon the region of the Okechobee was described as full of old ruins crumbling under the attacks of time, overrun with wild vines, and surrounded with moats and terraces, the works of some forgotten race. The islands in the lake, according to this enlarged account, were wild gardens of tropical fruit and parterres of fabulously beautiful flowers, among which all sorts of gaudy birds and butterflies floated and feasted the year round. Springs of health-giving water welled up through the snow-white sands, and perpetual breezes blew cool from the rippling lake. Here one could live to ripe old age, free from the yoke of labor, and subject to none of the aches and pains, the changes of temperature and the poisonous malarias of other countries. But who could find the lake? The Indians utterly refused to be persuaded or bribed to lead the way, or to furnish the least clew to the wild labyrinth that bounded it. No white man dared to brave by himself the dangers that beset the undertaking.
So it rested for many years.
The early Spanish authorities in Florida may have sent expeditions into the southern part of the peninsula, but no well-based account is left us of any exploration of Okechobee itself up to the date of tile Seminole war, when our government troops cut their way to its shores. It is probable, however, that De Soto penetrated to the lake without knowing it, and, standing by its reedy, boggy margin, gazed off through the cypress forests under the low hanging vines and air-plants that decked the trees, and wondered how far away the mysterious region still lay. But it is certain that to the geographers of the early part of the present century Okechobee was little better than a probable body of fresh water lying somewhere above, or rather below, the head-waters of the great St. John's River. During the stay of the United States troops in the Seminole country, the lake was crossed and recrossed by officers and men, but it so happened that no one connected with the army cared to publish any very satisfactory account of such surveys as the military operations demanded, nor of the discoveries consequent thereto. It is safe to say that no military expedition, covering a field so new and interesting, has been projected within the century with less results to science and general information than attended the Florida war. The fauna and flora of the ever-glades were almost wholly neglected in those particulars interesting to naturalists, and descriptive geography was scarcely thought of. No notes, no sketches, no collections worth naming were pre-served. "A fort was established here," "a camping-spot was there," " a trail was marked out, or a military road opened from this point to that," are phrases that contain the great part of all one can glean from the published accounts of the operations. When the Seminoles were conquered and most of them banished, and our army had retired from the peninsula, the everglades fell again into darkness and mystery, and after a few years Okechobee began again to be doubted by some and clothed in romantic drapery by others.
In the winter of 1867 and 1868 I visited the upper St. John's region, and whilst there happened to get possession of some information and make some personal acquaintances which resulted in a visit to and a thorough exploration of Okechobee and some of its creeks and rivers.
I was told that two or three parties of native "cracker" hunters had reached the lake at different times by way of the Kissinee River, which runs into it, or rather unites with it, after many a sluggish turn in and out among the prairies and wild jungles of that semi-tropical wilderness.
Of course many stories more or less improbable, where not positively impossible, were told to me, and all the old traditions and fables of the Okechobee revived. One hunter had visited an old ruined dwelling built of carved stones which stood on a high bluff at the southern end of the lake; another had brought home strange fruits of most delicious flavor; another had caught huge fish and had seen enormous water-monsters; whilst still another had encountered tigers and leopards and panthers too numerous to note. What giant water-plants, what fragrant flowers, what perennial fruits were those of the mysterious Okechobee! Exciting descriptions gratuitously reached me from many sources.
By a simple means, which it would be improper for me to here disclose, I came into possession of knowledge which led to my forming the acquaintance of three men--genuine hunters, by the way-who, during the late Southern war, along with several others, to avoid being forced into the military service of the Confederacy, had "taken to the woods" and had lived the life of the Seminole for nearly four years. These men had transported materials and built on the Kissinee a sail-boat of considerable size, in which, through the years of the war, they had explored every nook, corner, and inlet of the Okechobee, living by means of fishing, hunting, and frequent raids on the stores and herds of the "settlements." In fact, these men had been freebooters to a certain degree, and out-laws to all intents and purposes, of the Confederate States of America.
But when I dropped in on these fellows they were good citizens of Florida and making a pre-carious living by lawful pursuits. I learned that their boat, "The Deserter," as they had named it, still lay hidden down on the marshy banks of the Kissinee, just below the old government military road-crossing.
I called the three together in secret conference, and put before them a proposition involving the purchase of their labor and the use of the "Deserter" for so long a time as I might need the same in exploring the Kissinee and the Okechobee. My offer was slender enough as wages usually go, but the men were needy, and it was better than they were getting, so it was quickly accepted. This arranged, I immediately dispatched a letter to my brother Will, who was at Calhoun, Georgia, to conic to me forthwith, fully armed and equipped for a bout by flood and field, which simply meant that he was to bring two or three English long-bows, a dozen cases of hunting arrows, plenty of fishing accoutrements, arsenic, etc., for preserving skins, a sketch-book and pencils, and a few other absolute necessities. As for me, I had come prepared.
By the time Will could join me I had procured everything needful and had dispatched two of the men with a wagon-load to the boat, keeping the third man for a guide. Procuring saddle-horses and a "cracker" and his two boys to bring them and the wagon back, we made our way to the river, nearly two hundred miles distant, in four days, after floundering through slush ponds and coffee-colored streams till we felt, as Will expressed it, "like tallow-dips on a hot shelf; " and found the men and boat awaiting us, all right and ready for the voyage.
A large shed covered with brush had been ex-temporized, and in the gathering twilight a pine-knot and fagot fire flamed cheerily, by the light of which we changed our clothing. A turkey had been killed, too, and hung, done brown, slow-roasted by the fire. We ate such a meal as half-famished hunters rarely get, enjoyed a pipe, and sought repose.
It was broad daylight when I awoke. The "cracker" and his sons had already been paid off by Will, and gone homeward with the wagon and horses and oxen. From the slight elevation on which the shed stood I had a good view of the sombre little river on which the "Deserter" lay at anchor. I went down and examined the boat. It was a monster, being about twenty-six feet long and six feet across, but it was shallow, and drew only a few inches of water. In many respects it was clumsily built and awkwardly arranged. It was rigged in a fashion not to be described. Not-withstanding its rudeness of finish, we soon discovered that its builders had well calculated the requirements the boat was intended to meet. In fact, the "Deserter" was staunch and steady, with broad bottom and long centre-board, drawing only a few inches of water, and perfectly tight. It looked like a minature pirate craft.
A little string of bead-like lakes marks the source of the Kissinee, whence, through a vast hunting-ground unequalled in any other land, it flows away southward in search of the Okechobee, its borders growing lower and marshier, until, from the point at which we struck it to its mouth, its edges arc uncertainly defined by lettuce and lily-pads tangled together in dense masses for most of the way.
The width of the river is variable, rarely less than one hundred and twenty feet, and often spreading out to an uncertain limit among water-plants and aquatic shrubs, and forming dark, still lagoons where snakes and alligators abound.
Here and there, however, beautiful bluffs over-hang the brownish current, often heavily wooded and gay with flowers, where birds as brilliant as sunlight flash back and forth, making the air quiver with their songs.
All the mystery of the traditions of the Okechobee took hold of me again as we weighed anchor, and with the men at the oars, quietly swept down the rather rapid tide of the Kissinee. A peculiar balm was on the air and a fragrance of spicy foliage, with now and then a resinous hint mingled with the odor of something like sweet-gum. We drew on at quite a good rate, and I lay in the stern of the boat taking pencil notes; but my thoughts flew ahead to the vast, mysterious lake toward which we were winding our way.
Will, however, seemed inclined to take any sport that might offer. Standing at the very prow with bow in hand, he soon let go a sharply singing arrow at a white ibis that took wing before us. In an instant old ruins and enchanted islands slipped from my mind and I was upright stringing my bow.
All day long we wound in and out with the flow of the stream, our men occasionally making the welkin ring with their songs.
At night we went ashore and spread our tent.-wing on a pretty sloping bit of ground, and the next morning I refused to go on till I had spent three hours shooting at gallinules, coots, and water-turkeys in a neighboring pond or lagoon. At ten A.M. we resumed our journey, finding the current tortuous in the extreme, and at one point getting a fine view of one of those grass prairies so common to the peninsula. I killed a deer with my rifle, just before night-fall, the only one we saw while on the river, and we were glad to add its venison to our supply of provisions.
The moon being near its full and affording a strong light, we did not accept the offer of several fine landing-places passed near nightfall, and the consequence was that it was near midnight before we found dry ground and wood. We camped on a live-oak point, and heard all night what our men said were wolves making a doleful noise far to the east of us.
With the first gray streak of dawn we were astir, and after a hasty breakfast we again took up the clew and wound away seeking the inner room of the labyrinth. The river began to narrow-the bluffs disappeared, and soon we were speeding between rank aquatic plants, under the arms of maples and ash. Then came clumps of palms and curious rubber parasites. Courlans and snake-birds were everywhere. The journey began to be strangely monotonous, and somehow the air began to feel as though we were in the vicinity of some great body of water. Herons flew high overhead, and occasionally a small flock of wood-duck whisked past us. On one of these latter Will used my shot-gun to good effect, but the birds, on being dressed, gave forth a decidedly fishy odor, and we threw them away.
I have been on the Suwanee, the Caloosahatchee, the Ocklawaha, the St. John's, and many of the smaller streams of Florida, but I have never seen anything to compare with the lower Kissinee for snake-birds, limpkins, bitterns, cormorants, and herons. The bushes and trees are full of clumsy nests, and the clamor and clang of voices is incessant. The birds wheel overhead, they flap their wings in the tree-tops, they wriggle and pipe and scream in the water among the cypress knees and lily-pads--they meet the eye everywhere, they almost deafen you. Snakes, too, are abundant. The spotted brown moccasin is the commonest kind, though I saw some slender green tree-serpents and an occasional adder, or viper, as they are called South.
At its mouth, the Kissinee is wide-a half-mile or more, I guessed it to be-and is literally choked with weeds, grass, lily-pads, water-vines, lettuce, and what looks like pale brown moss, though it may be the dead roots of aquatic plants. Pushing through this for a mile or more, the body of Okechobee is reached-still, dark, and lonely.
We raised our mast when we had cleared the obstructions. To do this our men had to take off their clothes and stand waist-deep in the water. Our oddly fashioned sail was soon shaken out, and we had the satisfaction of seeing it fill beautifully.