Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Sweet Water Swamp
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Great Blue Heron (Refuge Reporter, from the Reporter's collection of national wildlife refuge photography along the eastern seaboard)
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They close the gates at 8: If you don't make it, you're stranded, miles away from any lodging or sanctioned place to camp. So we hurled up through north Florida and into Georgia, heavy on the gas till we made it to the Stephen J. Foster State Park at the western entrance of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge . We breezed through the gates at 7:15 pm. Sven, my travelling companion, and I pitched our tent, then went for a dusk stroll along a boardwalked nature trail noisy with birds. The sun went down and the fireflies came out, a softly sparkling layer of glitter in the forest.

I calmed down.

In the morning, we were at the park office when it opened at 7 a.m. to rent canoes. I had wanted to take an overnight wilderness trip , but this was April, the most popular time. All the reserved spots had been taken. So Sven and I were going out for a long day's paddle. The staff at the park office was efficient and informative, and renting a canoe was perfunctory. We headed out through the narrow canal that connected the park's marina to the swamp.

A few strokes, and the swamp began to encroach, aquatic plants obscuring the linear sides of the canal. Soon, the canal merged with a wide and shallow river the Suwanee. The thing that strikes everybody is the color of the water. "Ice tea water" stained by the peat and the decaying vegetation. And it sort of smells like tea, sweet tea. I was tempted to drink some, but didn't dare, even though I had read somewhere that the Okefenokee exceeds the purity standards of many U.S. cities. The old timers who lived in the swamp before it became a national wildlife refuge in the 1930s would drink straight from the swamp, making a whirlpool with their hands in order to get past the sun-warmed top layer to the cooler water below.

It wasn't long before we saw a great egret. Cool and reserved, the egret seemed unafraid and we were able to watch it fish from fairly close range. The egret reminded me of the fisherman ideal my father tried to instill in me: it stood perfectly still in a kind of meditation, but at exactly the right moment it struck, and struck fast. Its long neck snapped down, then extended up as it shook down a fish. Satiated, it flew off, and we moved on.

The black water reflected all: the sky, the clouds, the trees along the sides, the birds flying overhead, our bouyant mood. Up close, the aquatic plants emerged from the dark water like figures in a baroque painting, warm, golden green hues pushing out through brown shadows. Chiascuro.

Just ahead, an osprey flew back and forth across the channel.

Our first destination was Billy's Island. Billy's Island used to be the Okefenokee's largest human settlement, a bustling lumber camp of 600 people. A placard near the boat landing showed a map of the land, featuring separate white and black workers' quarters, black and white school, as well as the workshops. The map also showed some Indian mounds that I wanted to pay my respects to. But I couldn't find them; the clearly drawn map was made meaningless by the regrown forest, and that made me happy.

We did encounter rusty pieces of old machinery, but junk is junk, and living in an old northeastern city, I see a lot of it. I enjoyed the woodpeckers on Billy' Island much more. We took a rest. Sven layed down, head against a log, and used the binoculars to watch woodpeckers, then shifting his attention to the treetops Sven said:

"Look how windy it is up there. With the binoculars, you can see the pine needles going crazy, but down here it's perfectly still." There is something about the calm of being alone on an island, even an island in the middle of a swamp.

When we returned to our canoe, a older couple was trying to land their motorboat. These were the first people we had seen all day. They were having trouble, and Sven offered to help. The man obviously could use some, but he refused, in what I felt was a display of obstinate pride. I also had a feeling he was put off by Sven's pierced face (chin, nose, eyebrow). I, the cold-hearted New Yorker, was happy to let him wallow in stubborn distress. However, Sven, all southern courtesy, couldn't help but respond to the man's clumsiness and reluctance to get wet. He eagerly splashed over to the motorboat, but the man waved him away. What can you do? We pushed off.

We left the wide main channel, and turned into the narrow canoe trail leading to Minnie's Lake and eventually to Big Water. In the closer environment, we began encountering animals by surprise: A deer in the soggy brush. A huge submerged turtle suddenly swam away from a tree where we stopped to rest.

No alligators, though. We wanted to see alligators.

We turned off into a small opening off the trail. An Okefenokee prairie opened up in front of us. A prairie is a shallow expanse of water covered with aquatic plants. There was no perceptible current, and when we stopped at a cypress tree, the canoe floated still. Quiet, but not quiet. All around us we heard high bird sounds grounded by the rhythmic bass of bull frogs. This was a place to eat lunch, rest, listen.

We pulled out of our hidden prairie, back into the canoe trail. Soon we encountered the couple from Billy's Island. Their flustered annoyance had given way to awe. They were both clearly moved. The woman asked, "Isn't this beautiful?" "Yes, yes. It is beautiful," we responded. The man shook his head in a kind of worshipful agreement.

The haul to Minnie's Lake was long, and the shelter there was dank and buggy. It was 2we had been on the swamp for almost 7 hours. We decided to paddle on for one more hour, then turn back. We moved into a sunnier, hotter part of the swamp. Along the sides were mudflats. That's when we started seeing alligators. Sven cutsified them by calling them "amigators" and that annoyed me. My previous image of alligators came from visiting the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as a boy, which had a group living in a fountain in the lobby, where they sat, motionless, pennies gleaming on their backs despite signs warning not to throw coins. But these wild alligators were everything an alligator should be: cold-blooded, ruthless, and fierce. They made me afraid. And satisfied.

The sparkling day turned gray, and we could tell it was about to rain. We had only gone for half an hour, but decided to turn back. Then it did start to rain, hard. We ducked under a branch to wait it out. But after getting thoroughly wet, we decided we might as well just paddle on. Although we should have brought rain gear, and didn't, the rain was warm, and we weren't chilled. Something about the rain brought out the mystical quality in the swamp for me; all of the cypress knees and many of the shadows seemed to have a face, even a personality.

A great blue heron flew just ahead of us. Its wing span seemed to reach almost all of the way across the canoe trail.

When we reached the main channel, the skies were still cloudy. We heard thunder and saw flashes of lightning in the distance. Sven and I quarreled. I wanted to get under the branches. Sven wanted to stay out more towards the center"You saw those amigators plopping into the water back there!" Our clashing fears weren't at all assuaged by having to paddle against the current, against the wind, in the rain. The hardest paddling of the day and we were tired and cranky.

Momentarily, I saw myself looking at the bend ahead and mentally placing myself beyond it. But then I stopped myself, realizing I didn't come all this way to obliterate the next ten minutes of my life. I calmed down, meditating past the pain in my shoulders. I settled into a paddling rhythm; and the rhythm kept me going. Soon I was simply enjoying the swamp again: the agitated pricks of raindrops on the water's surface, the beautiful gray light, the warm rain. And the birds, always the birds.

Soon, too soon, the mouth to the canal back to the marina appeared. This was my last chance. I dipped my hand into the water, and brought a couple drops to my lips. Then, slyly, I licked my lips. I had tasted the water of the Okefenokee.

It was sweet.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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