Cypress Trees, Spanish Moss, and A Big Blue Poop Bucket

To canoe through a bayou is to float into another world.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bayou up close; only on screen in movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Waterboy — which incidentally might be the two most divergent films ever made.

I always assumed the bayou only existed in the LA/MS/AL/FL corridor. The Deep South. But was it known (*cough*) by you (*LOUDER COUGH*) that there’s bayou all the way up in North Carolina?

I can verify it exists. Because that’s the watery portal, the mystic river if you will, that my college buddies and I canoed into last weekend.

For our annual autumnal alumni adventure this year, the 5 of us camped for 3 nights and canoed for 2 days down Roanoke River in northeast NC, near the Albemarle Sound. The first day of sun-saturated, 75-degree (!) November canoeing felt fairly traditional, similar to the PA and WV and VA rivers we’ve canoed in the past.

But the second day of canoeing found us floating into uncharted bayou-esque waters. (Uncharted for us; I’m pretty confident that the cartographers who designed our map had fully charted it. Otherwise we might still be trying to find our way out of the cypress maze described below.)

What made this landscape — no, waterscape — a visual singularity was the preponderance of cypress trees along the river banks. Trees with knobby “knees” poking up out of the water like gnarled witches’ fingers. Trees with wispy shocks of Spanish moss hanging loosely from their branches like funereal shawls. Trees that, with their oddly structured trunks, appeared to be wearing bellbottoms.

If you unexpectedly teleported and ended up next to a cypress tree, not otherwise knowing where you were, you would immediately feel in your bones that you’re not in a Union state. The Southernness of the place drips (or dangles) from its tree branches like, well, the aforementioned moss of the Spaniards.

Especially on the 2nd day when we floated into a legit bayou. Dry land gradually disappeared. There was nothing but cypress trees surrounded by low-lying swamp water.

Nowhere to hike.

Nowhere to build a campfire.

Nowhere to set up a tent.

But thanks to human ingenuity, there are well-crafted wooden “platform campsites” you can rent for the night. So the 5 of us paddled up The Devil’s Gut — possibly the most nefarious river name ever — up into the guts of the bayou.

That night, the 5 of us chowed down on steak [or in my case, black-bean burger] fajitas. We listened to Chris strum his carbon fiber guitar while crooning Americana songs with George. We chatted about everything from our kids (14 between us, but almost half belong to Matt) to our jobs (5 between us, spread much more evenly) to our college memories to a little history, with only a dash of politics, to the narrative complexities of Game of Thrones.

And we fell asleep, half under a just-in-case tarp roof and half under gleaming stars, while the 10,000-watt moon was reflected in the swamp like a pearl, submerged right in plain sight. Being good citizens, we opted to leave the pearl there rather than diving for it, so that others could continue to enjoy its brightness.

I had taken a brisk, better-than-caffeine dip in the Roanoke River the night before, when the water was deeper and we weren’t yet in the bayou. But I opted not to huck myself off the camping platform into the shallow waters of the swamp. For multiple reasons, really, including that I’m pretty sure that hundreds of people this year have peed off the edge of the platform. (And the 11-inch water seemed slightly less than ideal for diving too.)

And speaking of relieving oneself, I should finally get around to that poop bucket I keep teasing.

Since the wooden platform where we slept had zero dry land surrounding it, plumbing becomes a bit, uh, tricky. There was a small wooden outhouse of sorts on the corner of the square platform, complete with a toilet seat sitting loosely atop a white bucket.

But (1) it’s just a bucket, with a regular bucket bottom, and no room for stuff to go down further below, and (2) that “stuff” has to be packed out. And not in the white bucket, which has to stay in place for the next campers.

So what must be done is that each group of campers must bring their own bucket (preferably one with a very tightly-sealing lid!) in order to leave no trace. So we brought a big blue bucket from Lowe’s. And in the morning, Rodney and Matt, God bless their brave souls, took care of transferring the aforementioned stuff from the white bucket to the blue bucket, sealing it with a lid, and packing it into their canoe to head home.

(How they disposed of it from that point? That’s between them and God.)

And with that anticlimax, which may have turned a few stomachs, we reach the end of our annual canoeing saga. Another weekend for the ages.

So thanks, fellas.

Thanks for the sterling conversation.

Thanks for the bayou adventure.

Thanks for yet another epic convergence.

And to Chris, who planned the trip, as well as Rodney and Matt, for the other reasons mentioned above:

Thanks for taking care of shit.

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