"The first sail ever spread on the Okechobee!" I cried, leaning over the larboard rail to get my first clear vision of the vast stretch of bluish water lying south of us.
"The lust sail, but not the fust time by a long shot!" replied the man at the tiller, and this re-minded me of the "Deserter's" past record. Many a time before had this little pirate sailed this inland sea!
And now we cleared the grass points and tussocks of the bay of the Kissinee, and sailed out upon the body of the lake.
A feeling of disappointment took complete possession of me as we glided smoothly along over the gently swelling surface, scarcely making a ripple. This was Okechobee, the pearl fishery of the aborigines, the famous, the guarded lake of mystery! Where were the ruins-the carved stones-the turrets and moats? Where were the happy islands? This was a cheat and a delusion. But no, yonder is an island, and-how quickly the blood leaps to my temples!-yonder is a ruin. I was on the point of shouting for joy, when suddenly I became aware that it was great cypress knees I saw, instead of low rained battlements of stone!
"Yonder's our signal rag," said one of the men to another, as he pointed to where something red hung from a tall cypress stump. "It's been thar two years or more." We all looked.
It proved to be a tag of red cloth nailed there for the purpose of indicating the entrance to the Kissinee bay. The freebooters had put it there in the days when they refused to fight for the lost cause! Nor was this the last signal we found. The wing of an ibis similarly nailed marked the mouth of a stream coming in from the west, and numerous old loppings and blazes were pointed out to us.
We camped two days on an island, several of whose ash trees bore marks of the ax made by our guides three years before. While here we experienced a terrible gale, which fairly lifted the lake bodily up. We were deluged, and it was only by almost superhuman efforts that we saved our boat and cargo. It did not blow long, but the effect was awful beyond description. At one time the water fell in great (lashes through the tops of the trees blown over almost level. The lake swashed back and forth like water in a basin when the vessel is violently shaken, and the noise was terrific. But the dash and clash and turmoil ceased almost as suddenly as it had begun, and the voice of cardinal grossbeak announced the end.
The remote solitude and scenery of the lake seemed to make my men communicative. They told us many a fascinating story of their outlaw life-thrilling adventures with bears and panthers -stolen visits to the towns above, and little predatory raids-thee hundred and one dodges and strategies-the joys and hardships of their refugee life in the everglades and on the bosom of Okechobee. They were lank, sallow, long-legged, tough-looking fellows, and bore marks of having "roughed it" indeed.
The shores of Okechobee are for the most part marked by a line of trees flanked by marsh or floating islands of water-weeds. In sonic places the ugly cypress knees run far out, and pallid dead trees rise from the water like the bleached bones of giants.
Reed tussocks or islands abound in the lake, some of them mere tufts, and vast stretches of tall grass in some places seem to be bounded by the horizon. For a great distance the west shore is a Flat marsh, dreary in the extreme, while on the other side the lake is margined with forests running close down by and often into the water, which is choked with aquatic plants.
When the wind served our turn we had a most delightful time bowling slowly along over the bluish waves. Our boat was staunch and steady, but not fast, a good thing for our comfort, as in many places the lake was so shallow that we could not let down the centre-board, and we often struck on submerged logs, knees, and stumps. Vast floating islands of fallen cypress trees appeared here and there, rafts that swung to and fro and up and down with the impulse of wind and wave.
We had royal weather, the one gale excepted, during the whole of our voyage, and insects really bothered us very little, considering our exposed condition and the myriads of mosquitoes and biting gnats that breed in the swamps and marshes.
Once well out upon the open body of the lake, we found the water bright, even. sparkling, but when taken up in a cup it appeared clouded with vegetable fibres and other filth. We tried fishing in many places, but found that no game fish seemed to inhabit the open water. The little creek mouths and estuaries, where the lettuce and lily-pads are not too thick, are, however, surprisingly full of large black bass and beautiful bream the voracity of which I have nowhere else seen equalled. One evening, just below the mouth of a large stream, probably Fish-eating Creek, I drew out bream of a pound in weight as fast as I could cast,
We followed the western coast-line from the Kissinee to the first large bay, then, as the wind set east, sailed across the lake in a direction a little north of east, getting a good view of the shore-line north of us, and easily found the frith of a large creek, near which we camped for two days; then we dropped down three or four miles to where, by a crescent sweep, the timber-mostly maple, ash, and boxwood-runs far out into the lake, forming a good harbor, and we found a delightful camping-spot on a sort of shell mound at the mouth of a natural avenue, through which the wind flowed gently all night long, keeping away the swarms of mosquitoes. We discovered good water, too, and enjoyed it as much as if it had been the choicest brand of ancient wine. Huge alligators were disporting in the aquatic weeds and grass of a lagoon hard by, but we did not care to molest them. Two or three hundred yards out across a stretch of yellow lily-pads, hundreds of herons' nests loaded the scraggy cypress trees, and, as night drew on, the great white birds flitted round and round and in and out like ghosts in the dusky twilight It was Will who suggested that as soon as the herons had settled in their "rookery" we might steal up to them with the boat, and use our bows and arrows in the moonlight with great effect. The plan seemed good, and we tried to execute it, but an intervening wing of impassable marsh frustrated us. The next morning, however, with gun and bow, we secured the plumes of over twenty herons.
This profitable sport held us till near ten o'clock A.M., after which, resorting to the oars, for want of a breath of air, we rounded the crescent and consumed four hours in reaching a long, low sand-bar, lying northeast by southwest, perfectly white and bare. We supposed this bar to be the work of the recent gale, as it looked clean and new, and our men declared they had never before seen it. It was a good place on which to rest, so we disembarked. I swept the whole field with my glass. Far south to the greenish blue horizon line, I could see nothing but a waste of water, over which came a slow, uneasy swell, accompanied by a swashing sound peculiarly dreamful and mysterious. Westward, and a little south, at a distance of perhaps fifteen miles, clumps of trees in fanciful shapes marked the line of a large island, far away beyond which, scarcely discernible with my glass, appeared a palmetto ridge with its fans and spikes gleaming in the sunlight. North of us what seemed to be a vast floating raft of grass and weeds crossed the line of vision.
After an hour for dinner and sketching, we took advantage of a stiff breeze blowing to the south-west and bowled along over about twenty-five miles of pretty high waves, to a large bay, on the north side of which we camped near some veritable ruins. But I am compelled to add that they were the ruins of a rude shanty reared by my men and their companions in the days of their outlawry. The poles and palmetto thatch of which this hut was made, they had transported in the boat from far up the lake. The frail thing was blown awry, and was fast sinking in the sand. My men examined it with a good deal of interest, apparently; conversing meanwhile among themselves in tones too low for me to distinguish the words.
We remained here for three days, waiting for a favorable wind, then set sail, and swept by a long curve, close to the grass marshes of the southern end of the lake, beyond which the everglades stretch away to the chain of little lakes whence a number of streams creep down to the coast. We slept in the boat one or two nights while examining this stretch of shore, and here was the only place where the mosquitoes were unmanageable.
Leaving the dreary region of marsh-grass and castard apple, we rowed hard in a northeasterly direction, making for the dark line of cypress trees that fringe the eastern shore of Okechobee. We encountered several rafts of floating grass and weeds and passed numerous low marsh islets lying south-east of our course. The body of the lake now lay west of us. We found good foothold on a little beach betwixt the water and a gloomy cypress swamp. We camped here, and were serenaded all night by raccoons squeaking and chattering in the trees hard by. This animal seemed abundant all along the east shore of the lake, and no doubt makes great havoc with the eggs of the wood-ducks that nest in the hollows of the big cypress trees. I killed a large old marsh-hare with my bow by moonlight the night we camped here, the only one seen during our voyage.
Our next stopping-place was twenty miles by the shore-line farther north, where we stayed two nights and a day. Here we were visited by two cadaverous-looking Indian men and a boy. They were from a hunting party of Okechobees, who, they said, were camped ten miles east on the prairie. They reported deer very scarce, and turkey more so. Their guns were rude flint-lock rifles. They examined our long-bows and arrows with much apparent interest, the boy seeming especially delighted.
With a favoring wind we next sailed in a north-westerly direction to a large island some twenty miles distant, where we shot many herons of both the white and blue kind. This island had a wildly tropical luxuriance of vegetation, and would be a pleasant place for a fortnight's sojourn in January, if one were seeking solitude and-mosquitoes! I ought not to complain of these merry insects, however, for they never annoy me as they do other persons, no matter how numerous and bloodthirsty their swarms may be. With a little oil of penny-royal properly prepared and rubbed on my face and hands, I defy them.
From this island, sailing some twenty degrees north of east, we skirted the shore where immense cypress trees shade a low sand-beach, and landed on the inner angle of a pointed bay, which seems to be about twenty miles in a southeasterly direction from the frith of the Kissinee. Here we remained three days, and, guided by one of my men, Will and I penetrated inland to the Okechobee prairie and beyond it to a vast stretch of pine lands, where we killed several turkeys and a deer. Parts of the prairie just mentioned are covered to the depth of six inches with water, which is completely hidden by the saw-grass that grows in it.
Our next sail was a tiresome tacking process, by which we zigzagged up the indented coast-line on the northeastern side of the lake, passing what seemed to be the mouths of two considerable creeks, across which the floating lettuce and lily-pads had flung an impassable barrier.
We camped about eighteen miles from the Kissinee and were again visited by Indians. It was not far from this spot that, several years later, while re-exploring Okechobee alone in a small skiff, I met a party of several gentlemen, who in a large boat were doing " the lake on " scientific" principles. They seemed to be a jolly, energetic set, bent on finding out all they could. They had come down the Kissinee, and had been on the lake for some weeks. They thought me unarmed, overlooking my two long-bows and bundle of arrows, which lay in the bottom of my rude skiff. In answer to some friendly questions I told them I was a Hoosier looking at the country. Being Yankees, they "guessed" I might get drowned if I trusted my self to Okechobee in that little skiff. Little did they dream that in that same frail box I had already paddled and poled my way over many miles of the lake with a view to the discovery of the old pearl-fisheries of the Indians! They gave me a box of matches and went their way. I have since learned that this party had been sent out by the proprietors of an Eastern journal to explore the lake and make a collection from the flora and fauna of the region.
When we again sailed, our course was west of north. After two miles of slow motion with a quartering wind, we had to resort to the oars. We entered the mouths of several small- creeks, apparently mere connecting-links between some large lagoons and the lake, and after a long day's work entered a large frith or bay and slept in our boat. Next morning, we made a careful examination, and found three creeks, we thought, emptying into this bay. There are several decaying huts on some points here to which the Indians from the lower lake regions come occasionally, to occupy them for a while during their hunting excursions. From the appearance of the old fruit-gardens surrounding these dilapidated shanties, I should judge that a small colony of "crackers" might be planted here and do well, as things go on the peninsula. While hunting there, Will killed, with his bow, a gayly-plumed paroquet. We saw several of these birds, and from certain signs we were led to believe they breed there. The one Will killed was swinging to a twig by its short curved bill and he knocked it off with a round-headed arrow.
The fishing was fine at the innermost point of the bay, where the creeks above mentioned come in. With a spinning-spoon mounted with scarlet feathers and white tail-hair of a deer, I took black bass and large perch till I was tired. Some of the bass scaled over six pounds each. When I hooked one he would spin round among the lily-pads, making a lively fight to foul my line, and I lost several fine ones before I learned how to land them. A bass broiled on coals is not a bad dish for a hungry voyager, especially when all the rest of his meat has spoiled, a "side" of bacon excepted. We ate the fish with great satisfaction.
Our next move was back into the mouth of the Kissinee, thence up the river and home, by way of the St. John's. The result of this voyage was by no means satisfactory to me. I was quite youthful and very visionary, and taking hope from some shells and a little further hint of pearls, concluded that the old Spanish stories might not be all untrue. So, some years later, I returned, and all alone, in a mere shell of a skiff, very narrow and shallow, and armed with nothing but a small Smith & Wesson pistol and an English long-bow and arrows, explored the lake in every direction. During this lonely voyage I made some Indian acquaintances. One fellow made a lasting impression on me. His name was Kakeegee, as nearly as I can spell it, and his friendship for me was something unexpected and touching He volunteered many kindnesses, hung about me for several days together, and finally ran away with one of my bows and a sheaf of arrows! Of course I cherish his memory!
Okechobee is a strange lake in many respects. Besides the Kissinee, many smaller streams flow into it, while its only outlet is south, through the mysterious everglades. The chief trouble encountered in settling its limits and the exit and even the entrance places of its waters, is the existence of immense floating or easily detachable masses of aquatic weeds and grass that with every great storm are drifted from one part of the lake to another. To-day the mouth of a stream may be open, and to-morrow it is choked with one of these great floats. A storm on Okechobee is simply a rearrangement of the lake, whose whole southern confine oscillates with every wind.
There are several islands, probably permanent, in the lake, other than those already described, but they are low marshes without timber. From north to south the water measures forty-seven miles. From east to west its greatest extent is nearly thirty.
The principal trees found on the lake are, in the order of their number, cypress, ash, maple, palmetto, oak, magnolia, and boxwood. Elderberry and willow bushes are abundant, and that strange, huge parasite, the rubber tree, is often found enclosing large trees in its folds, from loot to top. Gorgeous air-plants and luxuriant vines run among the branches of the forests, from tree to tree, blending their odd, gay foliage and fiery spikes with the fronds of the palm and the sprays of the cypress. In many places the scenery is fancifully picturesque, the water and aërial effects being especially fine. The air is generally fresh and cool, but quite fluctuating in strength and direction. The sun-shine is sometimes almost burning hot, but, for many days together, I suffered no inconvenience from this source. A sort of fog usually hung over the lake from three o'clock to ten o'clock A.M., after which a haze, not unlike that of a Western Indian summer, took its place, clothing the distant marshes and tree clumps in a peculiarly dreamful dimness.
In the lagoons and creeks bordering the lake, alligators are large and numerous.
The principal birds of the lake are the limpkin, the snake-bird, the herons, cormorants, ibis, gallinules, coots, spoonbills, kingfishers, fish-crow, teal, and wood-duck.
Fish-hawks and barred owls were numerous, and we found many of their nests.
I killed two fine specimens of the ivory-billed woodpecker and saw many more.
The red-winged blackbird was seen in swarms in all the swamps and marshes, and great flocks of them flew over the lake from side to side in the early part of our stay.
Swallows in abundance skimmed the water near the shores, and various song-birds enlivened the dusky depths of the woods.
Okechobee can never have the winter cottages of rich Northerners along its shores, and its islands will never be popular as picnic grounds. The deadly moccasin is everywhere. Myriads of in-sects infest the whole region, biting and stinging by night and day, and the water is bad.
I made many pencil sketches of the most striking features of the scenery, but neither pen nor pencil can give more than a rough idea of the solitude, the tropical mysteriousness, the wild, monotonous gloom of the vast waste.
If Okechobee has no venerable ruins, it at least has venerable trees. Some of its cypresses are of immense size and great age.Our voyage, a part of which I have not given in detail, consumed five weeks and two days. It was altogether a unique and charming experience.