GONE WITH GERTIE

Being the water-loving Corgi she is, Gertie (the Permapup, a.k.a. Double P) had no problem being enthusiastically intrigued when my wife Wendy and I announced we were going on a kayak outing at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, by far Missouri’s biggest area of swampy wetland.

“On our way there, let’s get in the mood by listening to some Leonard Skinner, Creamy Coldwater and Tim Smashford,” Gertie said.

“I’m guessing you’re referring to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Swamp Music,’ Credence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Born on the Bayou’ and Jim Stafford’s ‘Swamp Witch,’” I said. “Don’t worry; gotcha covered on the music little girl.”

The Mingo NWR occupies a 21,000-plus acre tract of amazing natural majesty, and is basically a huge area of wetlands leftover from when the Mississippi River decided to change course about 18,000 years ago. It’s named after the Native American Mingo tribe, and was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1945 to protect the area’s vast cypress swamps and bottomland forests, as well as provide a haven for waterfowl and migratory birds in the “Mississippi Flyway” that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to central Canada.

After we arrived and put our $3 entry fee into a designated envelope and slid it through the slot of one of those big metal collection boxes, we set out on a search for the right piece of water in which to put our kayaks. As we drove around on a portion of the system of gravel roads that dissect the refuge, we saw dozens of big water birds, including a virtual crane convention.

There were probably 10 of the lanky white avian creatures gathered in close proximity in a low grassy area covered by shallow water.

“Must be some good eats in there,” I said.

“Yeah,” Gertie said. “Probably lots of little chunks of sirloin and brisket sitting on the bottom.”

“Maybe not girl,” I said. “Maybe a few more dragonfly nymphs, minnows, or some other aquatic delicacies.”

“Eeewww,” Gertie said. “I’ll hold out for the beef.”

More than 250 species of birds have been identified at Mingo (including 95 migratory species), and the refuge is home to over 38 species of mammals, 23 species of amphibians, and 37 species of reptiles.

“How many dogs?” Gertie said.

“At least one,” I said.

“I am that animal,” Gertie said.

Eventually, we came to a small boat launch on the Mingo River, a wide, slow moving stream that emanates from the massive Monopoly Swamp on the west side of the refuge. We put our boats in, but not before the one dog tested the water, making a couple of passes back and forth past the spot where were to set out on our float.

As Wendy and I paddled our boats through the calm waters, Gertie took her position on the bow of mine.

“Ahoy captain,” she said. “Thar she blows! Spouts sighted on the port side!”

“I’m pretty sure there are no whales in here Miss G,” I said. “That was probably a river cooter plopping in off of a log. That’s an aquatic turtle common all over Missouri and there are probably lot of them in here.”

“Hard a-starboard!” Gertie said. “Load cannon and fire at will! By the way, I always wondered who Will is and why people have always wanted to shoot at him.”

“Um, not sure,” I said. “But he’s probably not that bad of a guy.”

After meandering in the same direction for quite some time, we turned back to where the truck was parked. The entire way we were captivated  by the Mingo River’s cypress-lined edges and marveled at the sheer enchanting ambiance of the whole scene.

“You know, the first settlers in the swamp came because of the large amount of cypress and tupelo trees,” Gertie said. “The lumber from them was widely used for making railroad ties and in construction of buildings.”

“I’ll tell you what Double P,” I said, “I’m always impressed by the depth of your knowledge of history.”

“You know, the swamp was abused badly by a lot of people during the first half of the 20th Century,” Gertie said, “and only a major commitment to restoring it made its current beauty possible.”

“Well, I for one am glad that commitment was made,” I said. “This place is unreal.”

After exiting the water and securing the boats in the bed of the F-150, we decided to check out the nearby Boardwalk Loop Trail, a 1.6-mile path much of which is made up of a wooden walkway that winds its way through a surreal setting of deep forest literally rising from a watery base carpeted with bright green duckweed.

Early in the stroll, Wendy photographed a nice-sized broadhead skink that was motionless on the boardwalk. The big green reptile was about seven inches long and packing the slick, green, wide body it would be expected to.

“Looks like a green sausage with legs,” Gertie said.

“It’s actually a forest-dwelling lizard that’s not at all uncommon in the whole southern part of Missouri,” I said.

“Looks more like a deli-dweller to me,” Gertie said. “Fiddlesticks – I forgot the mustard.”

Toward the end of the walk, we passed a family going the opposite direction, and Gertie got some hand time from a couple of young girls. She thanked one of them with her tongue.

“He licked my foot!” she said.

“It’s a she, and she sure did,” Wendy said.

As we separated from the passers-by, Gertie pondered something.

“Why do a lot of people think all dogs are boys?” she asked.

“Probably for the same reason they think all cats are girls,” I said. “It’s just one of those things.”

“One of what things?” Gertie said.

“It’s, well – oh never mind,” I said.

Our last stop at the refuge was an overlook high above Monopoly Swamp. From there it was easy to see most of the Mingo Basin and to imagine the mighty Mississippi flowing through it between the Ozark Mountains and Crowley’s Ridge.

There was a woman there with her daughter who said she had grown up in the area. We told her what we had been up to and she warned us against paddling in the expanse below us.

“There are millions of water moccasins in there,” she said.

“Hey, maybe they have my size,” Gertie said.

“Not that kind of moccasin,” I said. “The kind that slithers and can inject venom into your body.”

“Too bad,” Gertie said. “My paws are getting a bit sore.”

“And they’ll jump right into your boat,” the woman said.

“Arrr, not on my watch,” Gertie said. “I’ll keelhaul those scallywags and they’ll surely be shark bait!”

“Ye go, me bucko,” I said. “We can count on you next time a water moccasin jumps in our truck.”

“You know, there were several famous female pirates,” Gertie said. “One of the baddest was Cheng I Sao, a Chinese woman who married a powerful corsair named Cheng I in 1801. The couple formed one of China’s most formidable pirate armies, with hundreds of ships and about 50,000 men preying with abandon on the fishing vessels, supply boats and the coastal villages of Southern China.

When her husband died in 1807, she pretty much took over.”

“Of course you would know that,” I said.

“Just sayin,’” Gertie said.

On the way home Gertie joined in when Wendy began singing a version of the Bingo song using Mingo.

“And Mingo was its name-o,” she said. “Pretty cool.”

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Gertie is Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Email Gertie at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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