It was the boat ride that changed my life. Okay, maybe that's overselling it - but the forty five minutes I spent cruising through a newborn lake ten years ago finally convinced me it was time to start writing. Since then I've scribbled an encyclopedia's worth, but this rather overwrought tale remains one of my favorites. If you've read it before, forgive me. If you haven't, check it out and then watch this newly produced piece that brought the footage and the feelings flooding back.
I gripped my camera and leaned into the wind as the bass boat plowed through the murky water. Beside me a stoic wildlife officer in designer rain gear stared ahead and gripped the wheel, piloting the skiff through a gauntlet of half-submerged telephone poles. The bow of the small boat slapped the filthy water without mercy, and I tried to fall in sync with its rhythm. I pulled the rain-cover tight around my station’s camera, and squinted from the spray. In every direction ugly brown water swirled and fermented, courtesy of Hurricane Floyd.
Cradling my camera in my lap, I recorded a few low angles as we skimmed along, before pointing the lens at the craft’s third passenger, a stooped little man in ball cap and soaked overalls. He didn’t return my camera’s gaze; instead he stared into the distance and continued the silence he’d embraced since we left dry land thirty minutes earlier. I zoomed in on the old man’s weathered face, the shiny water strobing behind him. His eyes were dry, but they conveyed a quiet sadness I’d see a lot of over the coming days. He pulled a tattered rag from a pocket and dabbed his face, perhaps trying to wipe away the vision of the unnatural lake that eclipsed everything around us. The image in the viewfinder muttered something, but the roar of the boat’s engine drowned out the old farmer’s words.
After what seemed like forever, our square-jawed captain made a sharp starboard turn, and we rounded a stand of battered pine trees. As he eased up on the throttle, the high pitch of the outboard engine subsided to a low throaty rumble. I took the opportunity to dab water drops off my lens as the old man across from me uttered his first words of the trip.
“’Bout a half mile more, just past ’em trees,” he twanged. “There’s two hun-erd head if there’s a one of ‘em”
I thought about what he said as the Wildlife Officer goosed the accelerator and the small boat chortled forward. Up ahead, a box-like structure stood guard in the middle of the watery expanse. As we got closer, I saw it was a single-wide trailer, the water-line just below its curtain-less windows. Large, indistinct shapes bobbed all around the pathetic building. I shouldered my beta cam and pushed in with my lens to get a better look, but the pitching deck offered little purchase. Instead, I followed a glint of sunlight as it danced along the metal edges of a nearby road sign - the marker barely poking above the roiling water.
‘River Road’ it proclaimed. Without a thought I steadied up and rolled tape. I was still congratulating myself on bagging my first important image of the day when I heard the old man’s voice break…
The smell hit me before my eyes landed on the target. Just a few feet off the starboard bow, the bloated carcass of a full-grown steer stared back at us. The pungent odor of the rotting beast raced through my sinuses and I hid my face behind the viewfinder. Through it, I watched a delirious green fly pull a piece of flesh from the waterlogged animal’s swollen tongue. I looked away quickly, only to catch sight of another bovine corpse bobbing alongside, followed by another, and another. The Wildlife Officer pulled a state-issued bandanna over his emotionless face and piloted the craft through the swirling brown sea of long-dead cattle.
“Never had a chance”, the old farmer said. The worn creases around his eyes squeezed even tighter and he stared off into oblivion, addressing no one in particular. He seemed unaffected by the stench, his weather-beaten nostrils long since given up on unpleasant odors.
“People’s got boats, a damn head a cattle ain’t got a chance in hell --”. At that, the old man’s voice cracked and he turned even further away, taking in his loss and nursing his pride. I watched the short speech through the artificial blue haze of my viewfinder, punctuated by the steady red glow of the ‘RECORD’ light.
The twin-engine pushed the boat forward and the old mobile home came into sharper focus. As we closed in on the only man-made structure in sight, the number of dead cattle increased. In a desperate lunge for higher ground, the panicking herd had converged on this abandoned trailer, as the slowly passing storm had dumped more water on this old pasture than man, or cow, could have imagined. Many of the doomed beasts choked on their own tongues as dirty water filled their lungs. Others had been gored and stomped in the closing minutes of the frantic stampede, their rubbery entrails now exposed to the midday sun. A dozen more carcasses floated in the toxic sludge surrounding the trailer, their lifeless forms rubbing against the metal walls and making a scrubbing, haunting sound.
Our stoic pilot pushed in within feet of the mobile home and turned to circle it. At the far end of the front side, the trailer’s thin walls lay splayed open, itself a victim of the storm and ensuing onslaught of frightened cattle. One cow in particular, seemed to have perished during the fight to get inside, his whole left flank ripped open by the sharpened tin. Holding my breath, I rolled tape and tried to picture what it must have been like during those last few horrible moments. The great lumbering beasts thrashing and kicking at each other, fighting to the death in a frenzy of adrenaline and instinct, as the water rose and rose and rose.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” The farmer’s voice snapped me back to reality as the boat rounded the far side of the trailer and we came face to face with the lone survivor of the watery death march. Solid brown with a touch of tan on his muzzle, the cow snorted as he blinked at us through the empty window frame.
The look in his dark eyes was wild and knowing, unlike the look of bored vacancy usually found in the breed. As our boat made a slow arc around him, he stepped in accordance - tracking our every move. Around him, two more swollen carcasses bumped against his hind legs. I pulled out to a wide shot and wondered if this simple beast understood his perilous state. He had, after all, watched his companions died a horrible death all around him. Bracing myself against the low bulkhead, I zoomed in on his dilated pupils, catching for a second the real (or imagined) guttural pleading within.
On board, the old farmer took off his dirty ball cap and ran his leathery fingers through a shock of graying hair. “The good Lord may know what’s best, but I’ll be damned if I can figger it out.”
With that, the man seemed satisfied with the visit and he asked the silent Wildlife Officer to take him back to the command center. As we made our way back through the maze of drowned cattle, the old farmer slumped in a corner of the craft and pulled a plug of tobacco from a pouch hidden in his drenched overalls. No one spoke a word the whole way back, and as the motor droned on behind me, I realized I had a new answer the next time someone asked me what was the weirdest thing I ever saw with a camera on my shoulder.