Growing Up Wild In Georgia

I loved growing up wild in Georgia. Most of my happy memories are of things I did outdoors. Thank goodness video games and TV either did not exist or were so unimportant that they took very little of my time.

Many of those memories also involve wild critters. I was in a church group, the RAs, that went on camping trips every summer. One very memorable one was to a mill pond about 20 miles from Dearing. There were about ten of us kids from about ten to 14 years old, and several adult supervisors.

We put up our pup tents the afternoon we go there and went exploring. I wandered off by myself, not unusual for me, and walked along the creek below the mill pond dam, trying to catch anything that would bite my earthworm on small hook under a cork. I was in the edge of the water, for some reason I always had to wade, and looked down near my feet then jumped back to shore. There was something on the bottom I had never seen and it scared me.

That ugly mottled brown lizard shaped critter was about a foot long, with a big, wide head, long vertical flat tail and four legs. It also had what looked like red downy feathers around its neck. The thing was lying or standing in shallow clear water and not moving.

I picked up a stick and hit it and killed it. At that age it was not unusual to kill anything new, often to get a better look at it. When I gingerly picked it up its body was smooth and slimy. Taking it back to camp everyone gathered around and even the adults said they had never seen anything like it although most of them had spent most of their lives outdoors.

When I got home I went to my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica and finally found it. It was a type of salamander called a “Hellbender” and its range included some of Georgia, although more common further north. It was rare and I was sad I had killed it.

It was interesting to me when I started bass fishing a lot with artificial baits in the early 1970’s one of the most popular plugs was a “hellbender.” Another was the “waterdog,” which is another name for the hellbender salamander. Those were two of the early crankbaits and I have often wondered if they were named after the salamander. They are still available and are great for trolling.

Saturday night on the mill pond camping trip most of us were fishing near our camp right on the edge of the water. A “water moccasin” swam up to investigate and someone killed it. I’m sure it was some kind of harmless water snake but back then every snake that was near water was a dangerous, poisonous, deadly, kill-you-if-it-could, water moccasin, so it was kill or be killed.

I had my trusty pocket knife in my pocket, as did every other boy there. We would just as soon leave home without our pants as without our knives. Since I was always curious I decided to “dissect” the snake. When I cut it from head to tail, I found two surprising things.

First was a fish head. That told us why the snake was so close to us. Earlier we had cleaned some bream and thrown the heads and guts into the water, and the snake was after an easy meal. Even more surprising were the 17 yellow, marble size eggs in it. We were happy we had actually killed 18 snakes rather than just one.

After cutting the snake open I made another discovery. I threw the body on the fire, and found out how terrible a burning snake smells! The men in camp almost ran me out of camp for doing that.

A few years later I made another fire discovery. By then we had plastic milk jugs and when an empty one is put on a fire with the cap on it, it will often take off like a rocket. The air inside heats up and as soon as a tiny hole melts in the plastic it acts like a jet engine nozzle.

I discovered a painful critter when camping with my family at Clarks Hill Lake when I was about 15 years old. Daddy smoked back then. One day an hour after eating lunch I went into our big tent to change into my bathing suit. I put my hand down on the floor going in to the door and thought daddy had left a burning cigarette there.

I probably screamed and daddy came running. We got a flashlight and looked closely, and found I had put my hand down on a small brown scorpion. Although only 20 miles from our farm, where I had spent hundreds of hours exploring everything outside, I had never seen one.

For some reason they were rare in that area. But not here in Griffin. I find them every time I turn over a piece of wood in my yard, and have had them drop from the ceiling into my bed at night. I solved that problem by sealing the crack around the overhead light fixture. I now have to clean a few out of the globe on it every few months, but at least when they come from the attic along the wires they are trapped up there before they can join me in bed!

I did learn some useful things when out in the woods back then. I learned how to build a fire, patch up cuts, cook several kinds of food on an open fire to make them at least barely edible, and the importance of clearing rocks and sticks from the area you planned on putting your sleeping bag.

If you have a kid take them outside and let them learn about the real world!