Swamp Writer: A Camp Man and His Man Tools

Most sportsmen know about the “camp man.” This is the person who organizes activities, does most of the work, and usually enjoys the facility more than the other members. I was only a few months into building a retreat in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta when I realized I’d become the camp man. I was the one up every weekend, hauling boards and any old gear that might be useful. I’d replaced the floor and wired some outside lights. I built a lumber rack on the outside wall to store surplus boards.

And I was thoroughly obsessed with man tools.

“You’re not going to believe what I just got, ” I brag to my brother, Reid.


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“Nobody’s got one of these.”


“A portable, gas-powered winch.”


“Dead serious. It’s like a chainsaw without the blade. You mount a truck winch on the front and screw all this down to a steel plate that you can chain to a tree. Then fire it up.”

“Damn! Where’d you get it?”

“Found it on some website for fire department supplies. I’m telling you, man; nobody’s gonna have one of these.”

“What will you do with it?”

“Who cares? Just keep it in my truck. One day somebody will be stuck, and I’ll whip that thing out, and he’ll be like, ‘Where the hell’d you get that?’”

You can be a fan of man tools without being what I call an “equipment man.” These fellows favor lots of small gadgets and accessories. Man tools are typically bigger and more impressive. The rarer a man tool, the higher its rank in my book.

I am not an equipment man, but I’m unreasonable when it comes to large devices that pull, lift and destroy. I have at least five come-alongs, numerous jacks and many demolition instruments, such as chainsaws, oversized crowbars, grub hoes, bush axes and sledgehammers.

Chainsaw carpenters need all of these things. Growing up building seawalls, docks and other marine structures, I apprenticed under and eventually became a chainsaw carpenter myself. Some might say the size of wood used and the attention to the finishing details differentiate this type of carpentry from, say, finished carpentry. While that is true, I believe the size of the tools and the strength of the finished product are what separate the two skills.


The swamp camp requires yearly jacking and chocking to keep it level and from settling into the mud. I am most proud of my jack collection.

The one I use most is a hydraulic unit taken from a transmission lift. While not the strongest of my devices, it has the tallest stroke and can therefore lift quite high before repositioning. It is also easier to work a hydraulic jack when you are underneath the camp.

I have several other sizes, from 6- to 36-inches tall. I also use railroad and house jacks to good effect on the outsides of the camp.

My favorite, ultimate man tool of its breed, however, is the auto body repair jack. This, too, is powered by hydraulics. But, actually, what positions it at the top of my rankings is the detachable components — such as a wedge that is similar to a closed robot hand. It opens outward and is ideal for separating tight spots.

“Check it out.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a wedge jack. Stand on it.”

“Hell no.”

“Just stand on it, and try to keep it shut.”

“No way.”

“Well, look here. You’ll like this. You can stack these pipes on top of each other to extend the length of the ram.”

“How strong is it?”

“Not that strong, but you can make it as long as you want. And these are the different tips you can put on it. And it’s got a carrying case.”


“I know. Nobody has one of these.”

I’ve only used the auto body repair jack a couple of times, but I open the carrying case and stare at it often. Being practical does not always make a tool the winner.


Me, the swamp, the camp and my man tools — we are a four-way love affair.

Sometimes I find myself so engrossed in my work that by the time I look up, night is falling. This can be unsettling when I am alone and not prepared to travel back in darkness.

I hurry about the place, tidying up the scrap lumber and putting my tools away. I coil up extension cords and collect the trash. Last of all, no matter how late it is, I stand back and admire my latest improvements.

I have never traveled the river after dark without a knot in my stomach. There are many dangers that you won’t find in open water.

One of these is other boats. Many swamp people consider navigation lights a hindrance and don’t use them. You can run up on a boat as it pulls slowly across the river running a trotline. And I’ve also had them rocket past me full-bore, neither boater knowing the other was there.

Another peril is partially submerged logs, or deadheads. The only way to see these is with handheld spotlights, but by the time you recognize them, it’s usually too late. Boats flip, have their bottoms torn out, and their engines ripped off. I’ve been lucky the few times I’ve had encounters. The logs were small enough to stop short of disaster. But the motor kicked up and slammed my transom so violently that I cut it and floated for a while until my heartbeat slowed and I gave life its due respect again.

I’m more concerned with getting thrown from the boat. Assuming that I don’t hit my head on anything as I eject, I’ll be stranded in a place where nightmares can come true. I was told as a boy always to keep my bootlaces untied in the boat. I follow that advice to this day. In winter, there is only a short time to get out of the freezing river water. If heavy boots don’t drag you down, you may have a chance. That is, if the current doesn’t sweep you away.

I can feel the current in places you wouldn’t expect it. My skiff, fully underway, will suddenly twist and move through an invisible resistance like something out of alignment. Perhaps there is a deep hole or a submerged treetop causing an abnormality in the river’s passage. Being close to Mobile Bay, the rivers are affected by tides as well as upriver flooding. It’s hard to predict where and when eddies and whirlpools will appear.

In summer, I am often barefoot, and the water is cool and refreshing. There is no risk of hypothermia. But if you are thrown out of a boat and left stranded in the swamp, you must feel about in knee-deep mud and marsh grass that is over your head. And you know that it will be almost impossible not to come across an alligator or, worst of all, a cottonmouth. Alligators are generally fearful of men and will not harm you unless provoked. But cottonmouths are aggressive and extremely poisonous snakes. There are thousands around my camp and some have heads as big around as my fist.

At night on the river, I wear a life jacket, keep my boots unlaced and run the boat with my navigation lights on. I rarely use a spotlight. To me, moonlight and sky glow are easier to see by. And if the night is foggy or hazy, the spotlight is ineffective anyway.

Basically, I drive by memory. I think most swamp people would tell you the same thing. You learn to make a mental note during the day of all the hazards and call up this information later to steer a clear course. You also use the line of treetops along the river’s edge to gauge your distance from the bank. But you are mostly racing ahead and playing the odds. The river is constantly changing, and deadheads rarely stay in the same place for long.

The gamble is in the river’s favor. One of these days, you’ll hit something. You just hope that whatever it is doesn’t kill you.

Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in September, has already received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.

text by Watt Key • illustrations by Kelan Mercer

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