By David R. Osier
The temperature is about 55 degrees on a cloudless night in October. A mist rises from the warmer blackwater, as my three companions and I push our two canoes into the dark Suwannee Canal. A nearly full moon is quarter-high, rising with Venus, behind us, in the east. The banks are overhung with dense shrubs. Tall cypress, bearded in Spanish moss, stand like spooky sentinels to our approach.
We travel as if on a mirror. Only the ripples from our paddles remind us that we are on water and not, somehow, in space. You feel a longing to be absorbed by the secrets of this place, to be possessed by them. Perhaps it is primal memory surfacing, that we are of the Earth, not merely its inhabitants. The Okefenokee is young in geological terms 7,000 years but you find yourself imagining you are confronting a landscape much older, from the era of dinosaurs, before humans walked this way, then stalked and hunted and camped and lived for a time, and later attempted to alter it beyond recognition, only to be defeated by its mystery and its immensity.
Our guide, Carl E. Glenn Jr., warns us to beware of cypress knees and logs that could capsize our canoes. If we do tip, he tells us, head for the nearest bank. "Don't stay in the water. And don't flail around. Gators will jump at anything moving in the water." A soft-spoken South Georgia native of 57 with a full salt-and-pepper beard, Carl is sometimes given to exaggeration. This time he isn't. The water is only about four feet deep. "You can walk to shore, if you don't panic," he says.
The marsh beyond the banks of holly and titi is silent. Then, from behind us, we hear the sudden, grumbling hoot of a barred owl. Its voice is almost human, and so close, that for a moment I think Carl in the canoe beside me is having fun. He claims no such thing, but chuckles. A short while passes. We hear wings taking flight a few feet away on the bank. A heron, Carl says. The only other sounds are the dips of our paddles.
We round a bend. I shine my flashlight downstream, and a dozen pairs of orange-white pin-points emerge in the water, awaiting our arrival at 10-foot intervals. The sight is both frightening and exhilarating. This is Alligator Alley. In the faint distance another set of eyes appears on the bank. A deer, Carl suggests. Gators are drawn to the waterway for prey by a recent drought. The deer come for water and forage. As we approach, each pair of gator eyes disappears into the black water.
We are encountering the swamp as the alligator hunters knew it. Alligator hunting was a dangerous way to eke out a living. Hides brought 80 cents a foot back in the 1930s, the price rising to as much as $30 through the years. The result was that these reptiles, which survived 20,000 millennia, almost didn't survive this one. Alligators were once so plentiful that old swampers said it seemed as if "one could walk across an Okefenokee lake on gator backs," according to naturalist Francis Harper. By the time alligators were declared an endangered species by Congress in 1969, only around 5,000 were left in the Okefenokee. They have come back. The latest refuge census counted about 15,000.
Glenn, who was raised in nearby Folkston, explains how the old swampers hunted alligators. They poled across the marshes and streams standing up in 14-foot handmade cypress johnboats. Their weapon of choice was a .22 caliber rifle. "Big enough," Glenn says. "You give several grunts, and pretty soon the gator would surface. You shine your light into his eyes, and aim right between them." The gator's brain is walnut-sized. "If you didn't have a square aim, all you'd have is one riled-up gator."
Gators are notorious for swallowing all manner of debris along with their prey to provide gizzard grist. "The strangest thing I ever found in a gator's belly was a Charlton County license plate." Carl laughs. "I always wondered what happened to the rest of the car."
We paddle about two miles, then head down a trail into Chesser Prairie. My paddle hits the mushy bottom barely a foot from the tip. It is clear we cannot travel much farther. Under normal conditions, Chesser Prairie would be under 8 to 10 inches of water and sprinkled with lily pads. But on this night we have entered the Okefenokee during the worst drought in 35 years, and it has exposed the prairie's floor of sphagnum moss and peat.
Peat is everything to the Okefenokee. It is what gives the water its tea-stained hue, from the tannin yielded by the decomposing verdure, only apparently black on the surface, an illusion of perspective. And it is the peat bog prairies that give us the Okefenokee's legendary name, bestowed by the Creeks, who were here when surveyor Samuel Savery recorded it on a map in the 1760s. The word is a corruption of ikan-finoka, or yakni finoke, meaning "quivering earth."
We beach our canoes on the boggy bank of the canoe trail. Through the mist across the prairie, a cypress head casts long shadows in the moonlight. Then Carl says, "You can go your whole lifetime and never be able to do this." He removes his boat shoes and socks, rolls up his trousers, and tentatively puts his feet over the side of the canoe. He is going to walk on the bog. Glenn owns the outfitting concession at wildlife refuge headquarters. He has never done this, and few people have ever walked across the entire swamp. The drought has created a rare opportunity.
I expect Carl to sink. He does not. He walks, then jogs in the muck. He beckons me to follow. My companions prod and cajole. I wonder about alligators lurking in the black shadows. Perhaps water moccasins. But the bog awaits. I must know.
The earth does indeed quiver, I learn. I feel as if I am walking in a gigantic bowl of melting fruit gelatin. The black water glistens in the moonlight. Fine roots and mud ooze around my bare toes. My feet are cold, but I am elated. I tread lightly on the sphagnum moss and gain confidence. I attempt a little dance, prompting some light applause and catcalls from my companions. I laugh, too.
My night is complete. To walk the bog of legend in the moonlight is to understand the meaning of an ancient name.
WHEN TO GO
The best times to visit the Okefenokee are early spring and late fall, when the air is cool and insects are down. Mosquitoes are a problem at night, April through October. The heat and humidity of July and August verge on suffocating, and the noise of frogs and toads is deafening. In the spring you may hear the bellows of male alligators seeking mates. "The gator will arch his back let loose something that sounds two hundred times louder than a giant bullfrog," says Carl Glenn. "It's a real display. The water even trembles." In March, resident Florida sandhill cranes perform nesting dances. Osprey, heron and egret nests are active in April. Deer fawns appear in May; raccoons raid turtle eggs. In the fall, the prairies are usually ablaze with yellow tickseed flowers. In late November, migrating greater sandhill cranes stop at Gannet Lake, in the southern swamp. You're likely to see more otters at play because their nemeses, the gators, are sluggish. You may see an occasional bald eagle.
Overnight canoe/camping in the Okefenokee is restricted by permit this is a wildlife refuge, not a park and you can't always get a permit when you want to go. Permits are $10 per person per night. The refuge has designated 12 trips, most of them for two days/one night and three days/two nights. Groups are limited to 20 people. You should be in reasonably good shape; the paddling is mostly slow-going across flat prairies sometimes choked by peat blowups, lily pads and bladderworts, and through narrow, shallow passages surrounded by vegetation. Call the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service exactly 60 days before the date you plan to go and take your chances: (912) 496-3331.
Suwannee Canal Recreation Area The refuge headquarters, 8 miles south of Folkston off GA 121, starting point for most overnight wilderness canoe trips via the historic Suwannee Canal, with easy access to several day-use boat trails into Chesser and Grand prairies. The area offers a natural history museum, restored swamper cabin on Chesser Island, nature trails, boardwalk, observation tower, boat landing, canoe and boat rentals, canoe shuttles, guided tours, bicycles, camping and fishing supplies. Concessionaires Kay and Carl Glenn will customize your camping trip and provide guides. The Glenns also offer wilderness tours on the St. Mary's River and surrounding areas. (912) 496-7156.
Stephen Foster State Park The least visited entrance offers the only camping and cabin lodging adjacent to the swamp. About seven miles northeast of Fargo. Starting point for a limited number of overnight trips, plus several day trips. Popular with day fishermen. (912) 637-5274 or http://www.ganet.org/dnr/parks/
Okefenokee Swamp Park A private, non-profit theme park about 10 miles south of Waycross operated by lease with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It offers wildlife exhibits and guided boat tours but no access to the Okefenokee's interior. (912) 283-0583 or http://okeswamp.com/
Back to Nature Getaway:
The Inn at Folkston Innkeepers Roger and Genna Wangsness discovered Folkston on a side trip from their home in Virginia three years ago and fell in love with it. They bought this 12-room 1920s bungalow and converted it into a charming bed and breakfast with full amenities, the only one in town. The inn makes an ideal base for exploring the Okefenokee and canoeing the wild black-water St. Mary's, Suwannee and Satilla rivers. The couple helped establish the Georgia Nature Based Tourism Association and can recommend several guide services. (888) 509-6246 or www.innatfolkston.com
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Refuge Net / Okefenokee
Georgia Wildlife Federation / Okefenokee Flora
Georgia Wildlife Federation / Okefenokee Fauna
The Wilderness Society
Folkston / Okefenokee Gateway
Great Outdoors Recreation Pages
Sea Kayak Georgia
David R. Osier is writing a paddling guide to the Okefenokee. It should be ready for publication in 2001.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.