The lure of Lake Mary: A jigsaw puzzle of waters

Aubrey Rimes stands by the Sam Field Spillway at the north end of Lake Mary. At right, Dorothy Foster of Sonny’s Bait Shop carved this wooden map of Lake Mary.

Last in a series

“I think it an invaluable advantage to be born and brought up in the neighborhood of some grand and noble object in nature: a river, a lake, or a mountain.” —  William Least Heat-Moon, “River-Horse”

Lake Mary — The lines were run, the fish skint, lunch et, and the Mayor was ready for a nap. Thunder rumbled outside the Judge’s camp.

“Think we ought to go ahead before that rain gets here?” he said.

I sprang up, ready to go.

The Judge, aka Aubrey Rimes, was going to give me a tour of Lake Mary. The Mayor, aka Jamie Harrell, having helped run nine trotlines that morning, was ready to sit this one out.

The Judge and I traipsed down the wooden stairs of his camp to his boat. We cast off and motored down the Old Homochitto River to the lake.

Lake Mary is an oxbow, which means two things. One, it’s an old cutoff bend from the nearby Mississippi River. Two, it’s shaped like an old-timey oxbow, in this case a backward C.

If you stretched it out, it would be close to 10 miles long, and it’s probably half or three-quarters of a mile wide. It has a long list of features and adjacent waterways: the Old Homochitto, the Little Canal, the Spillway, the Narrows, the Chutes (one, two and three), the Island, Loch Leven, the Big Canal, Buffalo River, Percy Creek, the Pecan Grove, Foster Lake (formerly three lakes, Foster, Stump and Mud), the Rocks, Artonish and, farther removed, Jackson Point to the north and Fort Adams to the south. To name a few.

The Mississippi River lies a short distance to the west and curves around to the north as well.

A lot of water, and a lot of wild wetlands.

“It’s good to go with an old-timer at first,” Rimes said. “I scratched my head six or seven times before I learned to recognize the landmarks. Everything looks the same.”

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“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” — Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”

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The Old Homochitto River enters Lake Mary from the east about two-thirds of the way up. When we emerged onto the lake, the Judge hung a right and we headed north. The fields of Lake Mary Planting Co. to the right soon gave way to woods.

The 15-foot flat-bottomed aluminum boat, powered by a 60-horse outboard motor, skipped across the water speedily. The Judge stood at the center console, his white hair blown back, his suntanned face content.

The Judge was rightly proud of his boat. He’d had it custom-made, with a rib down the bottom, a high transom to prevent backwash, and extra reinforcements on the sides to withstand logs.

“I had it made just for Lake Mary. That’s the only place I fish,” he said.

It could get by with a 40-horse motor, but when you add in a couple hundred pounds of catfish from running lines and two to three people, 60 was better.

The lake gradually swung around to the west and southwest, though you could hardly tell it, until we came to an inlet, or rather an outlet: the Sam Field Spillway, a rubber-topped cement structure that keeps the lake level from getting too low.

From our perspective, the water seemed to pass smoothly out of the lake and across the spillway. But when we pulled up to the rocks and got out, you could see about a two-foot drop where water roiled over the spillway into a channel known as the Narrows.

Two weeks earlier when the level was five feet higher, the Judge and his wife Sharon motored right over the spillway all the way down to a big box culvert.

Beyond the box culvert, the Narrows snakes on out into the Mississippi River.

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“The sun, coming hard around the world: the island rises from the sea, sinks, rises, holds.” — Peter Matthiessen, “Far Tortuga”

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We got back into the boat and worked our way through flooded timber. The sky to our right was dark, but sunlight shone on a distant line of trees, turning them powdery green-gold. The air smelled clean and fresh. Lightning flashed in the gloom.

“I think it’s going around us,” the Judge said. Either he was looking at the weather satellite on his smart phone or he was mighty good at reading the sky.

An osprey soared overhead, a fish-eating bird bigger than a hawk and smaller than an eagle. Farther on I saw its nest, a massive clump of brush in a dead treetop.

The waves kicked up a bit in the growing wind.

“We might get wet,” the Judge said. “Do you want to go back to the camp or keep going?”

“I don’t mind getting wet,” I said. I was wearing a life vest, which would keep me warm, and my camera was stowed in a waterproof river bag.

Rain speckled our faces as we skirted to the right of an island. He was correct, though: the worst of the storm was going around us.

We rounded the island into one of three Chutes, which were actually pretty wide, An abandoned barge was hove up to the left.

We re-entered the main lake almost directly across from the mouth of the Old Homochitto, crossed over and turned south, motoring down the east shore.

“There’s the old Lake Mary Lodge,” the Judge said, referring to a bare lot on our left with a couple of storage tanks. The old store had finally succumbed to repeated flooding.

We passed a row of camps, most set back from the shore, some with ramshackle docks. Cypress trees with weirdly exposed roots stood out in the water like green-haired monsters on octopus legs.

We passed the public boat ramp. Then the camps disappeared as the road swung away from the lake.

Farther on, the Judge turned left into the Big Canal, which connected to the Buffalo River.

“I don’t know if we can get through now,” he said. “It may be too shallow.”

With the water dropping, the channel was getting shallow. We bumped a submerged log, then scraped a sandy bottom. I stuck my paddle in: 18 inches.

The Judge stopped, backed up and turned around.

Had we been able to get through, we would have joined the Buffalo River a short distance away. To the left lay Foster Lake. To the right, the Buffalo meandered a long way through swampy woods to Jackson Point Road near Fort Adams and then on out to the Mississippi River.

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“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver — not aloud, but to himself — that 10,000 River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream.” — Mark Twain, “Life on the Mississippi”

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We continued down the lake as it curved to the west, the bottom of the backward C. More camps appeared on our left in an area called the Pecan Grove.

“To get to those you’ve got to go to Fort Adams and cross the Buffalo,” the Judge said.

That was a long way around. These camps were more secluded and farther apart than ones up the lake.

The channel narrowed, and cypress trees crowded the water. In addition to the usual herons, egrets and other water birds, we noticed wood storks around the treetops. They had large white bodies and long curving beaks.

Our way forward ended in a thicket. A narrow channel snaked through, too tight for our boat, at least at this water level. It wasn’t far from here to Jackson Point Road and the Mississippi River.

We turned back and headed up the western shore of the lake. The bank rose to Loch Leven plantation, thousands of acres of farm fields.

Trees stood out in the water, many of them dead, probably from the recurrent floods. Others closer to shore were still green.

A big flock of white cattle egrets took flight like notes in a symphony. It was a lush symphony of land and trees, water and wildlife, fishing and friendly people.

It was, after all, the lure of Lake Mary.

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