Just Another Day In Paradise
An essay by James A Graves, Jr.
Summertime at Morrison Spring in the 1960’s for me was a mix of bedlam, paradise and boredom.
On the weekends, when the Choctawhatchee River was low, the crystal-clear spring water brought scuba divers and fishermen to the spring for some of the best scuba diving and fishing found anywhere.
My parents leased Morrison Spring and operated the dive/bait/tackle shop, rented boats and refilled scuba tanks, so Friday, Saturday and Sunday could be busy nonstop from daylight until long after dark. That bedlam included me after I was old enough to be useful, because I was “the help”, and responsible for taking care of the boats, assisting fishermen launching and loading their boats, filling scuba tanks, being the grunt labor, and trying to keep poisonous snakes out of the swimming and camping areas.
If the river was up, causing the spring to be covered with muddy river water, fishing was bad and we rarely rented or launched a boat. And although the muddy water floated on top of the clear water, penetrating down to only four feet or so within the spring basin, the muddy water screened out sunlight, so it was like twilight in the clear water below the muddy layer. Most divers didn’t care for that, consequently muddy water weekends were typically slow, with four or five divers, if that. And for me, those high-water summer days were dead slow and boring.
On typical weekdays during the summer, even when the water was low and clear, business would often be slow, especially during the middle of the day because fishermen always seem to prefer to start fishing at the crack of dawn (I hated to get up that early to tend to the boats).
But after my chores were done, those lazy, warm summer days provided me with time to grab my snorkeling gear, or scuba gear, and have Morrison Spring all to myself. While I was snorkeling I would often look for fish. Fishing was always on my mind, and had it not been illegal, I might have carried one of my spear guns along. Although, I agreed with the law against using a spear gun in fresh water, especially in Morrison Spring, since that was like shooting fish in a barrel – now, had there been sharks and barracudas, it would’ve been different.
Summertime at Morrison Spring was the best of times for me. It truly seemed like my little slice of paradise. But, you’ll recall that paradise had serpents…
I have a very clear memory of an adventure when I was about fifteen years old. It was midmorning on another peaceful, beautiful summer day, just me, the crystal clear water and the fish. I snorkeled about here and there, diving down and peering underneath stumps and tree roots, looking for Warmouth, Mudcat/Buttercat (Yellow Bullhead), Speckled Cat (Brown Bullhead), and large Stumpknocker (Spotted Sunfish). All tend to hide in protected places during the day, but are usually willing to bite if you know how to temp them with the right bait. If I found one, I’d go get my favorite fishing pole and try to catch it.
I dove down and was looking beneath a giant cypress tree where I often found fish hiding. The water depth at the base of the tree was about ten feet and I was near the bottom, peering into the dark labyrinth of roots, trying to find a fish.
Suddenly, a snake came boiling out from the darkness, swimming directly at me.
I had apparently invaded the snake’s fishing hole and it wasn’t happy.
At that point I couldn’t determine what species of snake it was, but I had to assume that it was a moccasin – expect the worst and hope for the best.
A lot of my knowledge of snakes came from a snake catcher that hunted around Morrison Spring every summer. He collected snakes for museums, and collected venom for the manufacture of antivenin. Naturally, I can’t remember his name (thanks to my legendary lack of memory for names) but I spent a lot of time with him every summer, whether he wanted me to or not - I followed him around like a puppy. Imagine a snake catcher with a truck full of snakes in cages trying to get rid of an adolescent boy with a million questions.
Among the things he taught me was that cottonmouths are territorial and aggressive, and if one attacks it will bite you repeatedly until you escape. I accepted that as fact but never considered testing it. Only an idiot would intentionally screw with a cottonmouth. But throughout my years of swimming, fishing, hunting, and slogging around in the Choctawhatchee River swamp, I had encountered countless snakes, including moccasins, but I had never been attacked.
On this particular occasion I didn’t have much time to consider the snake’s motivation, however, its intent was very clear. And there is no possibility of fending off an attacking snake underwater. Also, the fable that snakes can’t bite underwater is just that, a fable. Snakes catch fish with their mouth, not a fishing pole. So, the choice is simple: be bitten by a pissed off snake or remove yourself from your present location… now!
Thankfully, my arms were bent as I held on to the roots, so I shoved backwards as hard as I could and began frantically swimming backwards at an angle toward the surface, keeping my eyes fixed on the snake.
The attack location and my escape route
As the snake swam out of the tree roots it revealed its size and identity and I said, “Oh, shit!”… It was a cottonmouth moccasin about four feet long, as thick as my wrist, and quickly gaining on me.
Within seconds the snake caught up with me. But as it tried to swim past my fins it would get caught in the turbulence created as my fins moved through the water, which, thankfully, slowed it down. The cottonmouth would pause momentarily, then surge forward again and again as it tried repeatedly to overcome the turbulence and get to me.
That scene – the cottonmouth moccasin’s large head bobbing between my fins and fighting the turbulence trying to catch me – is eternally etched in my brain as a full-color video loop that replays every time I think about it.
As the snake pursued me toward the surface I knew that my general direction was toward deep water over the crater, but I didn’t dare look behind me. I worried that I might plow into a snag protruding up from the large deadhead lying on the bottom just below me. I knew that the snag was near the surface at low water, but I could only hope that wouldn’t hit it.
It was at that point that I blasted to the surface and breathed a momentary sigh of relief – I had missed the snag and my escape route was now free of obstructions. The cottonmouth showed no signs of letting up as I frantically retreated across the surface while it doggedly continued dodging and darting, trying to get around my fins in a deadly race that I could not afford to lose.
Since my head was partially above the surface I now had a peripheral view of my surroundings, and a better estimate of my location. It was more difficult to see the snake clearly as I plowed through the water, but I could see it well enough to know it continued to press its attack.
I had made it to deep water, approaching the crater and caves, but the far shoreline was rapidly approaching. Since slowing down was not an option, I had to plan a turn that would take me toward open water down the spring run.
There was a small, lone cypress tree that stood in about twelve feet of water behind me and to my left. A rope stretched from a small bay tree at the landing to the cypress, marking the division between the diving/swimming area and the boat landing. I glanced at the rope leading to the cypress tree, planning to make a wide turn, swimming between the tree and the shoreline as I headed down stream.
As I reached the far side of the crater and prepared to begin my turn, I saw the snake suddenly break off its attack and turn back toward the deep water in the general direction of the big cypress tree where the chase had begun.
I quickly turned and followed the snake. I wasn’t about to let it out of my sight until I was certain that it wasn’t going to resume the attack. Thankfully it quickly disappeared in the distance, so I turned and headed for the landing.
For the first time since the attack began I had time to catch my breath and collect my thoughts. Fortunately, I was in excellent physical shape and had my snorkeling gear on. That snake had chased me for over 150 feet, forcing me to frantically swim the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool, backwards, fearing for my life in almost a blind panic. And before that serpent attacked me, I had been down eight feet or more, holding my breath as I searched for fish. If I had not been wearing my fins, this could have been my last adventure in Morrison Spring.
When I reached the landing, I removed my snorkeling gear and collapsed on the sand like a half-dead, shipwreck survivor who had just reached the beach after swimming through a storm-churned breakwater.
As I lay there, my heart pounding, still out of breath, a thought hit me like a bolt from the blue – revenge! I’m gonna kill that bastard!!
I sprang up, rinsed the sand off me and my snorkeling gear, then stowed it and headed for my trusty Winchester 20 gauge single barrel shotgun. I shoved a #6 high brass load in the breech, crammed several more shells in the pockets of my cutoff blue jeans, grabbed my custom made, Henry Ammons solid ash boat oar, and headed for my favorite cypress swamp boat, good ol’ #7. We’re goin’ snake huntin’.
I hunted that cottonmouth for the remainder of the day. I saw fish and more fish, birds and more birds, turtles and lizards, several squirrels, and one non-poisonous snake, but no sign of my attacker.
After sundown, as the crickets, frogs and cicadas began tuning up for their nightly concert, I fetched my 6-volt scuba diving light and continued my snake hunt. That night I saw more fish and turtles, frogs and more frogs, several owls, a mouse or two, and mosquitos, lots and lots of mosquitos. I dove in a few times trying to drown the mosquitos. And I continued hunting. I saw several more non-poisonous snakes, but no cottonmouths. Not even a copperhead.
I hunted that dang snake until well after midnight. Finally, I gave up and went to bed. And I fell asleep thinking about that snake. I continued my snake hunt the following day, and the day after that, and the day after that. No matter what I was doing, if I was near the landing or close to the water, I was looking for that snake.
For the remainder of the summer I continued my part-time job of watching for and killing poisonous snakes, always looking for that big, bold and ferocious cottonmouth. My trusty Winchester and I dispatched several rattlesnakes on the dirt road leading into the spring and in the campgrounds, as well as several small cottonmouths and one or two copperheads near, or on, the water. But that attacking serpent never showed. I admit that I truly, selfishly wanted to exact my revenge on that snake, but I also hoped that maybe one of our resident king snakes had gotten to it.
Years before, the snake catcher introduced me to a pair of king snakes, a male and female mated pair, which lived and hunted in the swamps around Morrison Spring. They were both big – at least six feet long or more. But, not like the red-black-yellow banded king snakes that never fail to send a panic into anyone that sees one, immediately thinking that they’ve discovered the largest coral snake in history, until the thoughtful ones remember that important rhyme, red-on-yellow, kill a fellow, red-on-black, poison lack, and hopefully spare the snake. Sadly, countless king snakes have been misidentified and killed, as well as other beneficial snakes, by mindless people who think that all snakes are dangerous.
The two king snakes were not only harmless, but also unique; shiny black, like black racers, only each had thin gold bands around their body, spaced two to three inches apart, from nose to tail. They were truly impressive and beautiful snakes. And, considering that Morrison Spring was surrounded by swampland and forest, both home to five types of poisonous snakes (Eastern Diamondback & Eastern Pygmy rattlesnakes, Cottonmouth & Copperhead moccasins, & Coral Snakes) and a lot of adults and kids visited and camped there, those king snakes were a beneficial and welcome addition to the mix.
When I was about ten years old I had the singular opportunity to witness one of those unique king snakes in a battle royal with a very large cottonmouth moccasin. The event could easily have been a segment on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom… I could just hear Marlin Perkins narrating, “As Jim watches nearby, the two powerful reptiles engage in a desperate struggle to the death.”
But I was watching this show happening live, in my back yard. After a long, pitched battle, hissing, twisting, rolling and thrashing around at the edge of the swamp behind our little store, the cottonmouth lost. And became the king snake’s dinner.
Time passed and life continued in my little slice of paradise. The desire to exact my revenge on my attacker never faded, but I was truly thankful to be alive. And I never encountered another cottonmouth at Morrison Spring big enough to qualify as the fierce serpent from that fateful day. I even jokingly entertained the idea that our encounter might have scared the snake enough that it decided to move on and find a place with a lot less humans, like up Reedy Creek or further down the spring run.
But that would suggest that I scared it more than it scared me, and, if I’m completely honest, I seriously doubt that’s even possible.
©2017 James A Graves, Jr.