Frogs, Gators, and a Confederate Retreat

By Ben Smith:

As I turned down the dirt road, the most uneasy feeling came over me. This is a sketchy place. With one hand on the wheel, another on my pistol, and my head on a swivel, I made my way toward the river leaving a dust cloud thick enough to choke a camel behind me. The temperature at 8:00 in the evening is still well above 90 degrees and the humidity is high enough that my sweat is sweating. The dirt road slowly winds its way downhill, kudzu growing all along the sides. Trash from the locals is strewn all around, and not just the normal bottles and paper. There are entire rusty, old refrigerators tossed to the side. I’m torn between going down the road slow enough to keep from tearing my truck up or speeding up enough to avoid a meth head from jumping in the back. Thank goodness the sun is still up so I can see my surroundings.
I arrive at my destination, the Big Black River. Normally, I’d be at complete peace, but I’ve arrived before my friends and sitting here alone is a little nerve-wracking. I didn’t know this before the trip, but the body of a woman killed in Edwards back in March was found at this exact location. Had I known this ahead of the trip, I’m not sure that I would have agreed to this spot. Finally, Matt pulls up with the boat putting me at ease having another set of eyes looking around. You might wonder, especially given some previous incidents, “if this place is so rough, then what are you doing there?” I wondered that myself, but alligator season apparently causes me to do things that are otherwise foolish. Plus, these gators weren’t going to send me a scouting report on their whereabouts.
The other thing about this location is there’s no boat launch. We’ve gotta improvise. The river is much lower than usual, making the launch a pain in the butt. Matt backs the trailer down what’s essentially a sandbar/hill while hooking his winch cable to my truck at the top of the hill. Y’all, I drive a Toyota Tacoma. It’s an absolute beast that will go just about anywhere that I’d want to put it. But it’s light. Every time Matt would let out that cable to lower himself down the hill, my poor little truck would slide that way. I yelled at him to stop before he yanked both of us into the river. We were just going to have to man up and shove the boat down the hill the rest of the way.
Our other compadre arrived, and we were able to get the boat into the water just after dark. In all of the madness, I forgot about our surroundings and what could be lurking out there in the woods. Listening, watching, just waiting to steal a catalytic converter. I parked my truck in the tallest weeds around hoping to deter someone from climbing under there with a reciprocating saw, all the while hoping that when I got out of the truck that I wouldn’t get bit by a snake. Just before heading out, a train passed over the bridge above. I looked up to notice the graffiti painting of an old Confederate flag on the bridge. Given the location, it made sense.
This location of the Big Black River was the final stand of Lt. Gen John C. Pemberton on May 17, 1863, before retreating into Vicksburg for the final time. Pemberton’s men, recently suffering from defeats in Raymond and Champion Hill, attempted to fortify the east bank of the river. Upon the Union advance, panic and confusion forced the Confederate troops to retreat west across the river on the railroad bridge…essentially the same one where that flag is painted today. Union troops captured, wounded, or killed almost 1,800 of Pemberton’s troops during the battle. The remaining troops retreated into Vicksburg, where they would endure a siege of the city until its surrender on July 4, 1863.
We had two main goals for our excursion: look for an alligator that we deemed worthy of our return on August 25th and catch as many frogs as the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks would allow. The first hour, or so, was slow for both. Fortunately for me, this was a good thing. It was pushing ten o’clock and I hadn’t eaten since about 11:30. I popped the cooler lid open and pulled out a ham sandwich to get me through the night. The heat refused to relinquish, and we banged our way down the river sometimes beaching ourselves in shallow water. Given the degree of toughness launching the boat, and the late July weather I thought to myself, “this better be worth it.”
After a terribly slow start, we finally started catching some frogs. Not enough to write home about, but enough for an appetizer before a main course of fried fish in the near future. And here and there, we’d come up on an alligator, or two. Most of them were small, but it was fun to watch them react to the boat. We finally reached the end of the line. With the water being so low, we arrived at a spot that was completely impassable for our boat. Matt turned the boat around and we headed back upstream. It’s probably a good thing that we had to turn around when we did because it was just about daylight when we returned to our trucks.
I hopped into that dusty Tacoma and turned the key in the ignition. Much to my delight, it didn’t sound like I’d cranked up a Harley Davidson. My windows were all intact and my tires were still attached. I headed back towards Edwards, the sun beginning to pierce through the darkness. My body was tired, and I couldn’t stop yawning, but my mind was still racing with excitement. “Next time I do this” I thought, “I’ll have a giant alligator in the truck with me.”

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