SWAMP TRIPS CAN BE MORE EXCITING THAN YOU EXPECT

by Whit Gibbons


September 4, 2005


Charles Seabrook, a reporter who was also the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's environmental writer for the last 20 years or so, recently retired. For an office retirement party I was asked to write about an incident involving Charlie and a cypress tree. The request came because of a photo on his office wall in which he is smiling and holding a log chest high. Always preferring to write a retirement story rather than an obituary, I complied, sending the following recollection.

After Charlie Seabrook retires, I recommend that, when traveling through swamps in boats, he keep wearing his hat. My recommendation comes from an experience with Charlie during a visit by him to the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). He was interested in our research programs with alligators and snakes, so we took him in a boat to a large cypress-gum swamp bordering the Savannah River Site.

With us in the boat were Jane Sanders (SREL public relations person), Tony Mills (SREL environmental education program coordinator), and a couple of UGA grad students. I was operating the boat. I found that rather than steering in a conventional manner, navigating through one portion of the flooded swamp was most easily done by powering the boat down to its slowest speed and letting the V-shaped bow bounce off the trunks of trees. When a tree hit the left side, the boat would go to the right and vice versa. That way I could talk to Charlie with the others, as we pointed out basking turtles, snakes on branches, and other wildlife, and explained our research projects.

This soon-to-be-patented navigation technique was working in fine fashion, until the point of the boat's bow hit a dead cypress tree head-on, absolute dead center. Everyone bounced forward a bit, but we all recovered and did what most people would do upon hitting a big tree while in a boat. We looked up to see if a limb might be falling. That is, everyone looked up except Charlie. He kept looking down, writing something on his little notepad. Meanwhile, the rest of us watched, not a small falling limb, but instead, the broken-off top of the cypress tree, which was about 50 feet high. The 8- to 10-inch-diameter, five-foot-long section of log fell completely upright. We all prepared to dodge out of the way if necessary. That is, everyone but Charlie, who kept making notes.

The log landed straight up and down on top of Charlie's head. Some of us thought this fortunate because, if not for his head, the log would have gone through the bottom of the boat. We then watched in horror as wood splattered in all directions, Charlie's glasses skidded to the front of the boat, and Charlie himself fell to the deck, his baseball hat still intact on his head. Jane Sanders saw her career as a journalist vanishing before her eyes, as she had arranged for the famous AJC reporter to visit SREL. Tony was thinking that a future environmental education take-home message should be not to run into trees in a swamp, but to look up if you do. The students were wondering if this reporter lying on the boat's deck would accurately remember what they had told him about their research. And I was wondering if Charlie was still alive. Naturally, we were all speechless as Charlie got to his feet, brushed off leaves and bark, and took his glasses from one of the students and his little notebook from the other.

I finally managed to break the awkward silence by saying, "It's a good thing you were wearing that hat," the one now smashed flat on the top of his head.

Charlie was a remarkably good sport about the whole incident. He agreed to have his picture taken while holding the log, and even took the log back to Atlanta. Those of us there that day will always remember him for his good nature, plus he even wrote a nice story about SREL's research. But something tells me that if the log had been a little bigger, someone would have been writing an obituary instead. They probably would not have selected me.



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