I was skimming through the manuscript of Billy’s Camp tonight. It always elicits memories that I didn’t recall when first written. I’ve been thinking about a rewrite with some of the tall tales and adventures that went unrecalled. One of my best friends and first hand resource about Big Cypress camp life just moved back to Kentucky. If I revisit the book someday, it must be when we can get together again face to face for about a week over good food and drink.
It was a glorious day at Ballast Point today. I fired the grill and tossed in a couple of pieces of live oak wood that I’ve missed for so long during my travels in the Carolinas. White oak is good, as is black oak. Hickory is fine as well. None of them elicit any special memories for me. Throw a piece of live oak into the grill or on the fire and 40 years evaporate into the gentle wisps of gray smoke and the sizzle of whatever is cooking above it. Simply put, it makes most things taste better but on another level, it forces good conversations. Recalling times past both good and bad revives connections and grounds us, especially in the context that some events will never be repeated, not because of lack of will but rather because those times and places aren’t attainable any more.
I came reasonably close to dying from exposure to the elements a couple of times. One encounter was outside of Savannah Georgia far out in the Altamaha Swamp, way before Survivor Man filmed his episode there. The situation was cold made worse by being wet. The second incident happened while duck hunting in Okeechobee Florida. The scenario was similar, cold and wet. Hot weather always seemed a no brainer. You can usually cool off. In Florida, you are never too far from water and shade.
So, how hot is it? I lived in Columbia SC for a year. Columbia’s motto is ‘Famously Hot’. That’s a fair descriptor. You Tube videos have gone viral when locals decided to try and describe the summer heat there. We had 33 straight days of 100+ weather the summer I spent there. It is incredible. Life in an inferno due in part to geography. When I was in NC I salvaged a screen shot from a local weather forecast that showed 106 on the thermometer. In the Triangle area of North Carolina it is particularly stifling when combined with the exhaust from a half million automobiles. The effluent from cars combines with the humidity of vegetative inspiration to the point that air quality warnings go up like those in metro areas with 10 times the population of NC.
Tampa is hot, there is no question about that. But, as we love to remind our visitors from up north, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. For what it’s worth, 100F has never historically been recorded south of Kennedy Blvd in Tampa. Sweat doesn’t work here like it does in Scottsdale. There is no such thing as evaporative cooling. You sweat, it stays with you. You get soaking wet and remain hot.
Hot is difficult to quantify as a term. Everyone has their own perception. There is no real perspective or framework for what hot is. Old timers give good accounts. It’s hot as hell means it’s pretty hot and you had better get most of the hard work done by dinner time which is lunch for people not from the south. Hotter than 3 Hells means you should probably postpone most outdoor work until it cools off a little. Three Hells seems to occupy the 100F+ range of the thermometer hanging on the porch in the shade. Three hells will send the dogs under the house where they scrape down to moist earth and languish like seals in a heat wave. I’ve also heard the old timers talk about hot water coming from both taps, the fence pliers could stand in for a branding iron, asphalt can exist in a liquid state or it’s so hot the devil took the day off.
This time of year brings back fond memories. Hunting season is over, the dogs are getting fat and those that partake are looking forward to spring gobbler season. This time of year also brings a mixed weather bag to Big Cypress. Late season cold fronts can keep you in camp next to a fire if you left the warm clothes at home. Early heat and a merciless dry season is equally possible. I’ve seen the Big Cypress desolate in the spring. Bone dry with the bleached white exoskeletons of crawdads, claws reaching up to the sky pleading for rain, in the buggy ruts left from the fall. No signs of life anywhere except for circling buzzards, a scorpion, or maybe a passing snake. Spring in the swamp can be a mixed bag of early heat or late cold. The likelihood of encountering anything other than reptiles and arachnids corresponds to water and temperature. It’s much the same in the camp kitchen. Hot is quantified by whether banana pudding ‘sets’ or remains in a semi liquid albeit tasty state. Somewhere around 85F and 95+ humidity, camp banana pudding refuses to cooperate but instead results in sort of a loose stew. Ice melts, wildlife retreats. It’s too hot for puddin.