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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Okefenokee Swamp, Land of the Trembling Earth

Courtesy USF&WS
Our first night of camping deep in the bowels of the Okefenokee Swamp is a chaotic opera of splashing, grunting, croaking and shrieking. We are amazed at the boisterous racket that grows ever louder as the sunlight ebbs and the coal-black sky closes in. The sounds of alligators, birds, frogs, and who knows what other creatures living and dying all around us describe an endless tale of animals eating and being eaten. We hear the startled croaks of frogs being gobbled up, gators bellowing from the surrounding grass, and owls hooting from the shadows of the tall cypress overhead. This ain’t Disneyland. We are sitting atop a 20-by-25-foot wooden camping platform perched twelve inches above the water’s surface—just high enough to ensure that none of the hungry alligators patrolling the surrounding swamp can climb in our sleeping bags with us. Still, the frantic splashing and the cries and squawks of critters in the enveloping blackness of the swamp make for an eerie night.

Courtesy USF&WS

But then the Okefenokee is an eerie place. Encompassing more than 400,000 acres of tea-colored water, towering cypress trees, open wetlands, peat bogs, and wild swampland in the southeastern corner of Georgia, the Okefenokee is a land of water and marsh that has been only minimally touched by the hand of man. From the moment you enter the refuge, either from the east entrance at the historic Suwanee Canal off of Georgia Highway 121/23, or from the west entrance at the Stephen C. Foster State Park via Georgia Highway 177, you will feel that you have entered another world. An extended canoe trip through the swamp’s interior transports you from the hectic pace of modern day life to an isolated world that is unlike anywhere else, a place where even the earth under your feet is different from the rest of the world.

“Okefenokee” comes from an Indian word which loosely translates to “land of the trembling earth”, an apt way to describe the quaking peat bogs and spongy ground here. Foot travel through the swamp is impossible. The best way to experience this watery terrain is by canoe. There are more than 40 miles of canoe trails winding through the interior of the swamp, with raised wooden camping platforms strategically placed at intervals to allow for overnight stays. The narrow canoe trails are designated with trail markers and meander through the refuge’s maze of cypress groves, islands, and shallow lakes.

Courtesy USF&WS
Swamps invoke some rather stereotyped images, but the Okefenokee is actually a land of contrasts. Some areas typify what you expect to see in a swamp; crowded forests of thick-trunked cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss, wisps of mist threading through the thick air, and skillet-sized lilypads carpeting the black water. Paddling silently through these areas, with the deep guttural grunts of alligators echoing from the hidden depths of the swamp, you feel as if you have been magically transported back to the Jurassic Period. A Stegosaurus suddenly appearing out of the gloom would almost seem expected. Other areas--called prairies--are open sunlit expanses of low grass, wild orchids, water lilies, and wildflowers that cover hundred of acres.

These areas still exist thanks to the foresight of the federal government which protected most of the swamp as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in 1937. Before the refuge was established, the swamp provided hardwood for a busy lumber industry. Billy’s Island, named for Billy Bowlegs, a Seminole Indian chief who once lived on the island, was the center of a logging operation in the early part of this century. The island still contains remnants of an old lumber town that once existed here—rusting machinery, crumbling building foundations, and toppled chimneys—and for that reason it is a popular stop for canoeists. It is disconcerting to stumble over evidence of human habitation in a place so wild.

Courtesy USF&WS
Within this wild place deer, black bear, snakes, turtles, frogs, and 235 species of birds thrive. Ospreys, bald eagle, wood storks, sandhill cranes, egrets, herons, and numerous other wading birds are often seen. But the premier resident, the one everyone wants to see, is the American alligator. As we launched our canoe into the still water of the swamp, my primary concern was that I would spend a week in this huge refuge and not spy any of these impressive reptiles. I needn’t have worried. Within a half mile of our launch point, I saw the first gator of the trip, a six-footer sunning on an open bank along the edge of the canoe trail. As we paddled closer, he slid slowly below the smooth surface of the swamp and disappeared into the seemingly bottomless water. By the end of the week, gator sightings had become so common that we barely acknowledged their presence. The Okefenokee is home to perhaps 12,000 alligators and we joked that we had seen every one. Their presence is constantly on your mind. The canoe trails, although generally clear and passable, are sometimes blocked by “peat blow ups” which occur when gasses from decaying plants build up under a mat of submerged peat and cause a mass of vegetation to rise to the surface—kind of like a balloon. There it sits, a quivering island of mushy earth, too light to walk on but too thick to paddle through. If these blowups are very dense and large, practically the only way to get through is to get out of your canoe and push, pull, or coax it along. Stepping over the side of a canoe into waist deep, black water can be intimidating. Especially when you have to keep one eye on a nearby seven-foot alligator who is watching you with more than passing interest.

Courtesy USF&WS
But despite the large population of alligators, there has never been anyone bitten by one in the refuge. Generally they either sit impassively sunning themselves as you paddle by or else slip quietly into the water. Still, keeping a respectful distance and following common sense rules—such as not feeding them—are advisable.

A few other rules apply. A reservation is required for overnight trips. These reservations ensure that you will have a place to camp at night, usually one of the raised wooden platforms, although some campsites are located on islands. A favorite campsite is on Floyd’s Island where an old hunting cabin built in the 1920’s provides overnight shelter. Reservations can be hard to get—especially in the spring and fall. They are issued up to 60 days prior to the trip date—and they go fast. Requests for permits are accepted by telephone only at (912) 496-3331 beginning at 7:00 A.M. Monday through Friday. If you don’t get a reservation on the morning of the day 60 days prior to your departure, chances are you won’t get in on that date. The key is to be persistent and flexible. A visitor center at the Suwanee Canal entrance and a museum at Stephen C. Foster State Park offer exhibits and interpretive programs. Both locations have short boardwalks that give a feel for the swamp environment. Guided boat tours, canoe rentals, cabin rentals and campsites are available at the State Park. State Park information is available by dialing (912) 637-5274.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

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