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Into the Okefenokee

Story and photos by Carolyn Schwartz
Into the Suwannee Canal, wondering what adventures lie ahead.
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Five canoes slip ungracefully down the muddy bank into the eerie dark water. Ahead of us is the Suwannee Canal, one of our navigational routes through the Okefenokee Swamp during four overcast, but stunningly beautiful winter days.

There are 10 of us, two to a canoe. And even though our vessels are loaded to the gunwales with tents, sleeping bags, food-filled ice chests, drinking water, rain gear and emergency port-a-potties, all encased in plastic wrappings, miraculously, they ” and we ” continue to float.

We are tense for a few moments as we shift bodies and cargo to get our balance. No one speaks. We are still silent as we arrange ourselves in an orderly single file. But moving forward, actually making progress, my 22-year-old son speaks for all of us when he doubles his fists, beats on his chest, and lets loose with an exultant “call of the wild.”

My son did the same thing a few weeks back when my husband and I challenged him, his adult siblings and their significant others to join us for a self-propelled cruise through the swamp, a national wildlife refuge that presently encompasses some 400,000 acres of southeast Georgia and a corner of northern Florida. At first the group was skeptical about the trip. But later, beginning to fancy themselves as adventurers from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they reverted to acting like teenagers.

The Okefenokee is actually a huge, saucer-shaped depression formed by the receding Atlantic Ocean about a million years ago. It’s taken all those years of decaying vegetation to form the biological garden that now provides a home for countless plants, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Because it is one of the most well-preserved freshwater areas in America, the U.S. government designated the area a National Wildlife Refuge in 1936.

On that first day out, all of us wonder what primordial creatures we will personally encounter in that big deep lagoon. Alligators, lurking on banks? Snakes, dangling from branches above our heads? Even before we reach the first bend in the canal, we start spotting suspicious shapes below the water’s surface. Are they logs? Or roots? Or saw-toothed predators, waiting to pluck us, like dinner items, from their cafeteria conveyor belt?

For the first few hours, we put aside our reptilian concerns and concentrate on our canoe-paddling rhythms. Like members of a marching band, we have a cadence to maintain. Those with Boy or Girl Scout experience perform well in the 12- to 15-foot-wide canal. But until we get the hang of it, my husband and I careen clumsily into one bank or the other, plunging into obstacles along the shore.

There are other glitches too. Because rainfall has been light, the water is often shallow. Several times we go aground. Snarls of vegetation force us to reach into the dark mahogany-colored water and push off with our paddles. Some of the “Raiders” even have to hop overboard, sinking to their knees in oozy muck in order to pull us out and propel us forward again.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rangers who administer the refuge claim that water in the swamp is pure enough to drink but don’t recommend it. The color, they say, is caused by tannic acid, a byproduct of centuries of rotting vegetation. Still, nobody volunteers for any swamp-tasting.

With the first midday hint of sun to warm us, we angle the canoes in clumps of swamp grass and bring out the lunch fixings. We also compare notes. Some of us have imagined the swamp to be lush with verdant foliage and teeming with birds and wildlife. Those fantasies have already been tempered, however, with the realities of the landscape and the winter season. In fact, in the eastern portion of the swamp where we enter, the landscape consists of sparsely vegetated prairie, interrupted at intervals by wooded islands called “hammocks.” In the gray mist that veils the scene, we manage to spot egrets, herons, and ibis ” all of them probing for food in the shallow water. We also see marsh hawks and hundreds of turkey vultures. From overhead perches, the latter seem to be marking us as prey.

But alligator sightings? Still not a one.

Some three hours and three miles later (we stop for photo ops a lot!) we come upon our first destination ” a chunk of solid ground. Our Cedar Hammock campsite is a 20-by-28-foot platform, elevated about 3 feet over a marshy bog. At the end of a long first day, that composite decking looks more inviting than a suite at the Hilton. In minutes, we dock, stretch our legs, investigate the “facilities,” and unpack the cooler marked “Dinner-Day One.” Packed in dry ice, then thawed on a camp stove, my pasta primavera is a weary camper’s gourmet delight.

The rules for overnight camping in the refuge are these: You must register (no earlier than two months in advance) with the refuge headquarters and specify a route. You are only permitted to stop in the areas you have reserved in advance. You must remain at the designated overnight area between sunset and sunrise. You may camp only one night per rest stop. And as in all wilderness areas, you must carry out everything you carry in.

The next morning, we push off into heavy dew that appears as shiny filaments over the entire landscape. The scene looks like the handiwork of billions of busy spiders. Farther along, undulating bladderwort plants almost lift themselves out of the water as our canoes slide by. To me, their movements seem as snakelike as the real thing.

Hour by hour, the geography changes. From the main canal, we enter narrow waterways barely wider than the canoe. Often we have to bushwhack through underbrush, but then we enter wide lakes filled with water lilies. For the guys, it is a chance to drop fishing lines. For the ladies, it’s a time to lean back, catch a few rays and rest those screaming shoulder muscles.

At the end of Day Two, we pitch tents on Floyd’s Island. Near an old log cabin, we find rusted and rotted leftovers from earlier swamp settlers. One of them might have been Billy Bowlegs, a rogue whose history is popular local lore. Before the Civil War, Billy and his buddies roamed the islands throughout the swamplands. From these areas, thick with pine forests and palmetto underbrush, the marauders raided plantations and farms in the surrounding countryside. Today the Okefenokee’s largest island is named after Pirate Billy, as is its biggest freshwater lake.

People have tried to tame the Okefenokee for a century or more. One scheme involved draining the swamp to create farmland (still a common fate for many wetlands). Another scheme involved channeling the swamp’s water into the St. Mary’s River, which would have then carried it to the Atlantic. The latter project failed when the process reversed, sending more instead of less water into the area’s absorbent peat bogs.

In the western portion of the refuge, where we spend our last day, we skim through miles of moss-festooned cypress groves, where still pools act as mirrors and trees seem to grow down as far as they grow up. We still hope to spot an old, lethargic alligator asleep on a far bank. All cameras are ready to record the moment. After all, we have our reputations as “Raiders” to uphold back home.

Ironically, just as we enter our final destination, the more civilized Stephen C. Foster State Park, we spot a couple of old leathery creatures. They seem to be planted there “Disney World mock-ups ” for those tourists whose only experience in the swamp might be a half-hour guided tour in a motorboat.

Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be the worst way to experience the Okefenokee Swamp.

Much worse still would be to not experience it at all.


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