Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Legend of the Florida Skunk Ape

I was still smoking Camel regulars in 1973 even though they'd just wiped out the penny difference between regulars and kings. Paying 28 cents a pack wasn't a killer. I met a guy named Darrel Seideman and his friend Buzz, probably at the local fishing tackle shop, the House of Snook. They were looking for a photographer to go with them to Charlotte Harbor on the lower west coast of Florida. We'd put the boat it at Placida and then go across the shallow (mostly two feeet or less) bay to a large shell mound island where we'd camp for a week. They were hoping to get photographs of a skunk ape, the legendary big ape-like creature that supposedly inhabits the Everglades. They said that there had been some sightings over there.

Darrel had a 14 ft. Woodson tri-hull with a 35 H.P. Mercury and I had a 17 ft. Mohawk fiberglass canoe with a little electric motor. We only had to journey a bit over two miles from the marina to the island, no big deal. My friend John Patteson joined the expedition. We packed several coolers with supplies, took tents and sleeping bags and lots of mosquito repellant, and I took a couple of Leicas equipped with flash units as well as a couple of "baby" Graphics because they're easy to set off with trip wires across a path, yet used standard 120 roll film.

When we got to the mound, actually a midden about 100 yards long by 50 yards wide, and easily 20 feet high in many places, we set up camp. It was made up of thousands of years worth of shells, animal bone, broken pieces of pottery, and whatever else was left behind by the Native Amercans (we called them "Indians" back then) who'd occupied the site. It was covered mostly by fairly large trees, everything from live oak to key lime, with mangroves around the edges. There were a couple of clearings with knee high grass, some fairly recent excavations from people looking for "pirate gold", and a network of well worn paths criscrossing the island, far more worn than you'd expect from the occasional visitor.
The "soil" consisted mostly of broken shells mixed with a little rotted vegetation, hardly ideal for giving clean footprint impressions, but we did manage to make some plaster casts in a few places. Someplace packed away I still have a cast, along with a grainy cropped black and white flash photo of something staring back at the camera through the trees, one hand holding an overhead branch. For now I have this Kodachrome of a footprint. You can vaguely make out the toe indentations and edges of the foot. I had this sketch of the foot print tucked away with the slides

That area was once inhabited by the Calusa tribe, supposedly wiped out and enslaved by the Spanish who shipped the survivors to Cuba. The Seminoles and Miccosukees who live in Florida now are no relation, having come down here from north Florida and Georgia fairly recently. So how is it that a tribe who've only lived in the area a hundred years or so, starting long after the Calusas were gone, know about this creature? They even have a name for them, iwashakee, which means "man who is not a man" in the Creek dialect that they speak.


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6:03 AM  

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