Watermarked (Chapter 2)

deep bayou

My first trip to the camp at Tupelo Brake, or “The Tupe” as it was known by the men who hunted it’s vast cypress and tupelo swamps and low, oak covered ridges, came as soon as the flood waters receded and the brutal heat of our southern summer, which starts in spring, finally baked the gumbo mud roads into a passable quagmire.

The route from our home took us down from the hills of Vicksburg and along the eastern edge of the delta. From Ballground Plantation the road hugged the Loess hills on my right while the flat, fertile, farms stretched out to the horizon through the window that silhouetted my father as he drove me along a road I would come to know by heart.

The trip was narrated by my father as he pointed out scenes of flood damage, old hunting spots and the homes and farms of men I would soon come to know. At Satartia we turned west, crossed the Yazoo River and left the high hills behind.

Farms lined the road on both sides, save for scattered sloughs and brakes and the occasional patch of woods. Farmers had been hard at work and dad remarked at the varying conditions of crops. Soybeans and cotton laid claim to almost every tillable acre as we closed the distance to the camp.

When the numbing flatness of the delta was broken by the rise of the levee where I knew we would turn to make the last leg of our journey I remember trying to picture what it had all looked like just those few months ago, covered in the brown swirling waters of the flood. It hardly seemed the same place.

Though the trees were lush and green, the understory was nearly devoid of vegetation. A heavy layer of silt and debris covered the forest floor. What had been giant lakes were once again fields and the only standing water was in the barrow pits, bayous and sloughs, all still murky brown and filled to the brim from the floodwaters.

When the woods along the levee gave way again to a large patch of farm ground I knew we were nearing the camp. It had been here we had sat watching the waters rise. What look like flood debris spanned the canal that ran along the levee, but its order told me it was man-made.

The bridge across the canal was low, even with the flat ground of the delta, made of broad planks only slightly wider than my father’s four wheel drive, and could best be described not so much as a bridge as perhaps termites holding hands. As we rattled across it I could see the slow-moving waters beneath us through the gaps and missing boards. I could hear the timbers groan and the loose boards rattle. Dad, sensing my unease, assured me the bridge was sound.

“Thomas and them use it to get their tractors in here to the fields.” He said as his way of easing my nerves. It had little effect in that cause. But we clattered across and turned back south, back toward the towering trees of The Tupe and the little tan trailer I knew waited for me on the banks of Deep Bayou.

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Watermarked

Something tells me I must have seen it before then. The small trailer was far from new. It had served its time on the banks of Steel Bayou and Paw Paw bend at two of the deer camps my father had run. I had visited the latter with him but have no recollection of staying in it there.
My first memory of it was looking at it through a pair of binoculars from the levee along side Deep Bayou. Dad and his friends had just moved it to there to serve as our duck camp. It was stationed next to Strickland Deer camp, set on cinder blocks and at the end of a road that was notoriously bad after even the slightest rain.

Spring rains and heavy snow melt up north had conspired to bring flood waters to its doorstep and in one of the strange social outings only a southerner may understand my father had rounded up some friends and their wives for a ride up through The Delta to see the flooding and check on the camp.

In a caravan of four-wheel drive trucks we had wound our way through the fertile, flooding farmland and from our perch atop the highest ground in the area, the levee, we glassed across the watery landscape to see if the trailer was still high and dry.

While the wives of the waterfowlers spread out a magnificent picnic on the tailgates the men took turns scanning the area with their field glasses and taking pot shots at snakes and other critters that had sought the safety of the levee’s high ground.

How long we lingered I can’t recall. The camp was still a foot or more above the water but with the river forecast to climb over the coming weeks dad and the men he hunted with agreed that the trailer wasn’t going to stay out of its murky path.

They spoke of past floods and pointed out the high water marks on the trunks of trees, each one telling those who knew the exact year of its birth. In The Delta time is measured in uneven increments starting from 1927, the year of The Great Flood. Scientists and the like call them 100 year events, and perhaps that is so when viewed through the long lens of geographical time. But even the floods that do not reach the catastrophic levels of 27 become benchmarks etched into memory by loss, destruction, change and the spirit of oneness displayed as the people of The Delta pull together to fight the inevitable and lend a hand to neighbors.

Floods destroy but they also renew. They renew the rich soil of the farmlands, restock old oxbows long abandoned by a river that we only pretend to control. The also renew our faith in our fellow-man. Rich and poor, black and white, the river on a rise makes no distinction.

So when the waters come it is all hands on deck. Banker, beggar or brother Delta folk stand shoulder to shoulder filling sand bag as the water rises, driving boats out to rescue those stranded and cleaning up and rebuilding once the waters recede. The wake of the flood brings brotherhood.

The waters of ’79 did not spare the camp, though mercifully the damage was mostly superficial. With my first season as a duck hunter approaching my father decided to take me along for the clean-up. To my young mind it was an honor and a rite of passage. I to would be “watermarked” by the recent flood. It marked my entrance into a world that has been the core of my being ever since.