It’s a summer afternoon in June 2007, and I had found myself crossing through the last half of a narrow bay swamp in the middle of a large Florida pastureland. My son and I were carrying on a conversation as we hauled our GPS gear down from a high brushy hill some 200 feet behind us.
Walking along, I became tired, so I let my son march on ahead. We gradually became separated, so a conversation was no longer possible. My daughter had already made it to the truck and was removing her hip boots. I had fallen behind the youthful generation.
There is no greater joy than having your children as your crewmembers because it creates a bond like none other, especially when danger could be lurking at every turn.
When a scream broke out, echoing through the bay swamp, they knew instantly something was wrong. Oh, they had heard “AAAGHH” plenty of times before, once when Dad had walked into a banana spider—it had wrapped around my face. However, this scream was different. This scream was cut off at “AAA—” followed by an eerie silence.
My daughter stopped with one boot off. “Dad?” she called out, but there was no reply.
My son stopped in his tracks and turned slowly around, expecting to see me, but I was gone. I had vanished into thin air and left behind only the tripod and a floating hat in a muddy puddle the size of a serving platter.
I first heard about the “hat-floater” way back in 1983 from a wise, old surveyor by the name of Squirrel. (Squirrel got his name from the way he could climb a tree.) He warned me, as I was about to enter a swamp, “Watch out for hat-floaters.”
“What’s a hat-floater?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ll know when you step in one,” he said, and that was the end of the conversation. During the 24 years that followed, I had managed to avoid them but still learned that a hat-floater is a cavernous void in a seemingly solid swamp bottom.
Thoroughly hidden by the crossing of roots of nearby trees and sometimes ferns, the hat-floater will lure you out above its void. When the ground you’re standing on begins to bounce like a trampoline, you’re over a hat-floater!
Every step you take until you are back on solid ground is critical. Test every step. Put only a portion of your weight forward onto the most solid-looking roots. Beware! Even the most solid of roots may be rotten on the inside, which could snap, plunging you into the dark, watery void.
Sometimes a hat-floater is a mere vertical shaft, left over from a fallen tree of years ago. In most cases, the fallen tree is still there, and the hat-floater is lurking at its base, cleverly disguised. In some cases the tree has long vanished; the hat-floater has shrunk in size (but not depth), and the vegetation is well established. The window of opportunity to fall through the forest floor is now the size of a serving platter.
I would have stepped right over the puddle that was in front of me, but I paused briefly to shift the empty tripod to my other shoulder, which caused me to stutter-step. After 24 years, the hat-floater got me. I instantly vanished into the muddy void.
It was dark and cold, but it lasted only a few, seemingly long seconds. I hung there with a solid grip on the tripod, which had breached the hole, thereby saving me from going any deeper than just over my head. I quickly pulled myself up and put an elbow onto the side of the hole.
“Help!” I cried. “Help…” Only this time, I laughed unbelievably because I knew I been had.
I was halfway out of the hole when my son came running over.
“Dad, you okay?” he said with a smirk on his face, lifting me to my feet. I told them both many times about hat-floaters, and here dear ol’ Dad was the first to drop his guard.
I was muddy from head to toe. My son tried not to laugh, but he just could not help it. I had to laugh myself.
As we headed back to the truck, he kept turning around to get another look at the brown muddy ghost that was following him out of the swamp, then turning back, shaking his head with laughter.
As we emerged from the swamp, my daughter’s jaw dropped.
The only real damage was to my new construction-grade phone that was attached to my belt. My wife had just purchased it for me because I was destroying standard-grade phones on a regular basis. This one never worked again.
Not every deep swamp can be classified as a hat-floater. (Not in my book, that is.) It has to have actually floated a hat to be classified as a hat-floater. In reality, this type of swamp is rare, indeed.
However, out here, just beyond the pasture, I want to tell you what a wise, old man once said to me: “Be careful you don’t step in a hat-floater.” You see this swamp has floated a hat. I just wish it had not been mine!
Thomas G. LaCorte, PLS,is a professional land surveyor and an author with more than 40 years of experience in surveying.