INTO THE OKEFENOKEE
Author's Note: This article was published in Weekly Planet/Creative Loafing.
Into the Okefenokee Swamp On a spring night, we encamped on a wooden platform in the heart of the vast Okefenokee Swamp. We kept time by the moon and the stars, fell asleep to the songs of frogs, and woke when a snacking alligator beneathus, with a tremendous splash, sent an amphibian to his maker. That night, a group of eight human beings was alone in Chase Prairie, huddledin tents on Round Top Platform in the Okefenokee Swamp.
The reaction from friends on learning that I was camping in the great Okefenokee Swamp was universal and came in a series of four questions, usually said in one phrase. Did I have insurance? What about the mosquitoes? Was I out of my mind? And why? It should also be admitted that in the past five years, I had earned a reputation for camping in the Holiday Inn, complete with MTV and iced drinks, and a thing we take for granted, called air-conditioning, the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World.
Still, to me, the question was not why someone would want to camp in the Okefenokee in southern Georgia just across the Florida border, but why wouldn't they? It would be the experience of a lifetime, a wilderness journey never to be forgotten, and likely to the first of many treasured trips back.
In previous explorations through the swamp, I had used motor boats and day long canoe trips to various reaches. There were areas, like The Narrows, where the natural splendor was so startling none of my companions spoke when passing through it. In the eastern marshes of the swamp, called "prairies" locally, there were vast expanses of clouds reflected on waters dark from peat, a reverse sky, beauty stretching in all directions. On the western edge, twisty waterways led through giant gnarled cypress of fantastic shapes. There were islands in the swamp, too, wild places where bears lived on slightly elevated former dunes.
There was also everywhere a feeling of the swamp's wild character which seeped in and captivated. The swamp seemed more than the sum of its various parts, each wondrous in itself. There was an essence to the Okefenokee, a wild spirit so tangible at times it felt like you could reach out and touch it. It was not just the teeming alligators, many of them behemoths, nor was it the rarely seen black bears. It was the little things too, a plant called "never wet," with yellow flowers dominating the prairies in season, and insect carnivorous pitcher plants, bladderworts, and tiny wild orchids. At times, when all was silent, and you closed your eyes, it as if you could feel the cypress growing and look through the eyes of the countless little and big creatures in the waters and flying above it.
We planned a three day trip, starting west on the Suwannee Canal, built with the intention of draining the swamp, then used for lumbering it. We would turn west into Chase Prairie, camp on Round Top Platform the first night, and proceed the second day to Floyds Island where we would camp in an old hunting cabin. The third day we would paddle through Middle Fork Run and Minnies Lake into Billys Lake, areas of tall cypress, exiting out at Stephen Foster State Park, just across the Florida linein Georgia north of Lake City. Anxiety Not that I was without neurosis.
The night before our journey, we dined in St. Marys, Georgia, and joked that the condemned had a hearty meal. There were eight: Gerry Bishop (former editor of Ranger Rick's) and Pam Bartlett from Virginia, Lisa Dupar and Jonathan Zimmer from Seattle, photographer Pete Carmichael from Sarasota, guide Ken Kramer from Tampa, Chip Campbell from Okefenokee Adventures, and myself.
Lisa and I were probably the least experienced campers, perhaps neither of us spending a night before in a great wilderness. Later Lisa told me she had never canoed any distance, much less departed on what might seem to the novice a three-day death march. Possibly Lisa, the founder and owner of a successful catering business, felt as much apprehension the night before departure as I did.
I'd like to think there was someone as apprehensive as I was.
The last time I had camped was in Europe beneath the Alps. I had an Apache with me then, a skilled outdoors man named Pacheo, who anchored our tent with such finesse that in the morning, after a great storm was trapped below the snowy mountain tops in the valley where we slept, our tent was the only one of five still standing. Our wet companions had taken refuge in the dugout of a baseball diamond at a nearby German rod and gun club. I vowed never to go camping again without an Apache companion, and since there were few if any Apaches easily found in Florida or Georgia, I had escaped sleeping on anything but a mattress for a long time.
Other members of our party were much more experienced at camping. As a defender of the outdoors and then an editor of Ranger Rick Magazine, Gerry Bishop had camped frequently in wilderness, as had Pam Bartlett. I had met both in 2000 when we hiked the Florida Trail at St. Marks. Pam was full of wonder at the natural marvels around us on the hike and saw her first wild turkey then. Jonathan Zimmer, Lisa's husband, was in fantastic shape, looking about ready to hike up the side of a mountain, whereas I looked like I had already tried that and failed (a long time ago). Both Jonathan and Pete Carmichael, Lisa's father, had reputations as masters of the wilds, Pete more in Costa Rica than elsewhere, and Jonathan out west, where there are mountains and deserts. Two of our group were experienced Okefenokee hands. Ken Kramer had camped there the first time more than twenty years ago. Both as a guideand for love of it, Ken paddles canoes many miles per week, and camps regularly. Chip Campbell, the leader of our expedition, owns Okefenokee Adventures along with his wife Joy. Their company partners with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide visitor services at the east entrance to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and Chip takes visitors out into the swamp almost daily.
What were Lisa and I doing among this crowd?
Being a writer is a blessing and curse. It means your imagination works overtime about everything that could go wrong. Most of the night before the journey, I tossed and turned, thinking maybe I should invent some pretext in the morning to stay on dry land. I remembered that a European tourist, lost on Marco Island some years back, had wandered about the wilds - and died. I imagined my brain cells short-circuiting. I had visions of Tim freaking out, leaping from the canoe, running off madly into the swamp.
Other fears? Yes, there were a few, some more reasonable, like sun-stroke and heat exhaustion. Even though Okefenokee black bears, liket heir Florida cousins, are incredibly shy, I had come up with a new far-fetched fear. I asked my veterinarian if bears got rabies. "They're mammals, right?" he reassured me. Other potential bites came from insects, particularly mosquitoes and yellow flies. Not to mention gators.
Just the week before, Pete Carmichael and I had canoed the trail to Mizell Prairie and had an adrenaline moment. Approaching Mizell Platform, I was startled when an enormous gator head, jaws open, exploded out of the water near where I had just stroked the paddle. This gator then banged around on the bottom of our canoe for a few heart-racing seconds, rocking the boat in the process. We paddled to the platform, climbed out onto it, and what did we see? but the gator swimming slowly toward the platform, apparently pursuing. This was not as ominous as it seemed. We had merely startled the alligator, and it was curious, and somewhat habituated to humans from living around a platform Homo sapiens visited regularly.
Despite rational thought, on the morning of our trek, my worries were cranked up and fueled by caffeine. That I showed up at Okefenokee Adventures may have had more to do with not losing face in front of comrades I admired so highly than any conquest over irrational fears.
Before we left, we joked this was the last time the eight of us would want to be so close together for three days. Gator World As we canoed out the Suwannee Canal on a 24.5-mile paddle lasting three days, there was an amusing diversion. A dragonfly hooked onto Pete Carmichael's nose and hung on to the proboscis for about twelve minutes by my watch. Other than that, the way to Chase Prairie was dominated by alligators mating and fighting.
Within the first mile of the Suwannee Canal, we had a mystery. A gator had something dead pushed up under vegetation in an opening through the canal banks. What was it? At first we thought it was a deer or a hog.
Chip Campbell paddled our canoe closer to get a look. The gator, which submerged at our approach, was consuming a fellow alligator, how it died undetermined, maybe from old age.
Other gators lay along our path, usually submerging when we approached.
Then at midday, when we stopped to have lunch at Coffee Bay Shelter, a halfway point on that day's journey, we watched One-eyed Jack who bobbed in the water and watched us back. It is an experience to consume your midday meal while being watched by a creature able to consume you.
One-eyed Jack looked to be a 12 foot long gator. The blind eye may have been inflicted by a panicky fisherman or tourist when One-eyed Jack came too close for comfort. Chip Campbell believes One-eyed Jack eats raccoons attracted to the shelter by human food scraps. If Chip is right, it must be quite a sight, One-eyed Jack erupting from the water to latch his jaws shut about a raccoon who strayed to close to the edge.
Three times while we had lunch, a smaller gator came to take One-eyed Jack's spot. Smaller meant about seven feet in length. Each time, One-eyed Jack turned his stare from us and raced like a torpedo in the direction of the intruder, sending the smaller, weaker animal into flight.
Despite the prolific numbers of alligators in the refuge, and the habituation to humans by those near the platforms and shelters, there have been no fatal alligator attacks in the history of the refuge. In part this safety record is because wild gators in the Okefenokee have learned to fear humans. Swamp-dwelling Crackers (called swampers), who arrived in the 1800s, killed alligators in legendary quantities into the middle of the 20th Century. In the early days of the refuge, poaching of gators was frequent.
Managers at the refuge also keep a close eye on the gators by platforms. If a gator becomes too aggressive, wildlife officers transport it a distance away, and if the gator returns, sometimes they shoot it. One-eyed Jack was on a watch list, but thus far he was not a busted gator.
By mid-afternoon, we turned north into Chase Prairie. Two generationsago, swampers camped on nearby Round Top, a soggy island of peat and pines the swampers termed a "house." From there, they hunted, chasing bear and deer (and anything else that would run) out into the open waters of the prairie where they shot the fleeing creatures down from poled boats. From the chase of the hunt, comes the name Chase Prairie, in which Round Top Platform stands.
Chase Prairie provided an astounding visual experience, with vistas of tree islands and gator holes, brilliant sunrises and sunsets, and morning fogs. The prairie was an incredible auditory experience too, with sandhill cranes and other birds calling by day. When night came, I laughed myself to sleep at the incessant babble of the mating frogs. Howcould anyone sleep in this din? I kept thinking of trying to sleep to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony's Ode to Joy.
There was a frog orchestra and chorus made up of thousands of individuals of at least three species. First the pig frogs honked with their deep base grunts, followed by the milder songs of the cricket frogs. They were joined by green tree frogs, whose chorus seemed to wake me each time it re-started. The frogs were all saying, "Here I am, find me," to other mating frogs, but they were at times found by the feeding gators.
Before sunset, the alligators fought and mated in front of our platform, and in the morning, from unseen locations, they bellowed. It was like the choir from Jurassic Park.
The gators around the platform were waiting for us to drop something perhaps food. One gator came rushing to the surface when one of our party, Pete Carmichael, washed his hands. One of us spit, and an alligator rushed toward the splat on the water. Water from washing out dishes accidentally seeped off the platform, and here came the gators again. Spooky Jonathan and Lisa turned back on the morning of the second day, reducing our party to six. Sleeping on the platform had hurt Lisa's back. I was now the least experience camper of the lot. I can understand how her back, suffering from previous injuries, might feel. Despite an air mattress and a sleeping bag, it felt like sleeping on a rock inside my tent.
That day we traveled less than five miles to Floyds Island. At first, we were in open prairie, but then we moved into tight confines, passing old lumbering trams on a path which had been blasted by dynamite.
Floyd was an Indian hunter who led several hundred men into the swamp in search of Native Americans who feuded with settlers on its edges before the Civil War. There is one report he killed an old invalid Indian, but no others. He burned down their abandoned village on Floyds Island, and for this pyromania, he has been rewarded in history by having this island named in his honor.
Saner people travel the swamp in colder months, not when things are warming up. Some of Floyds' soldiers had abandoned the chase during warmer months. The primary reasons were evident as we paddled up onto Floyds Island, across which we had to portage. Mosquitoes and yellow flies descended upon us, and those of us who had them, put on bug hats, hats with mosquito netting. In addition, I wore a ventilated long-sleeve outdoor shirt, blue jeans, and mosquito gloves. All that clothing made things unbearably hot at times, but bite free.
Since the heat from all these clothes had cooked me, on Floyds Island, behind the cabin, I did the unthinkable. I stripped down and offended the wilderness. I also poured over myself half a gallon of shocking cold water. I washed with soap, and then I dumped a whole gallon jug over me.
I was cool, at least for the moment. The night before in the tent on the platform it was like roasting in your own juices.
Into the cabin, the bugs would not come. We pondered why, concluding it was the smoky smell within the cabin from years of log fires made by winter campers.
That night, two very weird things happened on Floyds Island. While Chip Campbell was warming up jumbalaya over the portable stove, he said, "Do you hear that?" and I did hear it. It was the tinny sound of a bell.
"What is it?" I asked Chip.
"Well, it's just kind of a ghost story, and I don't remember it, but it has something to do with a bell. There it goes again. Do you hear it?"
I did hear it, and I also saw some deer wandering by and fire flies, which I pointed out to my companions.
"I think it's just some kind of insect or bird," Chip added.
Great, I thought, now I have to worry about ghosts besides the bugs, gators, heat stroke, and potentially rabid bears. No camping trip, of course, would be complete without ghost stories, I thought, and we had found ours.
Then, when we turned in, there was another weird event. It looked as if a tall person with a flashlight was walking in the woods about fifty feet outside the window of my room in the cabin. I looked out the side window to where Gerry and Pam Bishop had decided to stay in a tent, and I could see their outlines inside, lights off. Chip Campbell was in the room behind mine, moving around, readying himself for bed. Ken Kramer was sleeping in his dark tent, also electing for the ground - his feet were touching his tent walls. It must be Pete Carmichael, I thought, wandering around with a light like a coal miner uses to search for spiders and insects to photograph. Only later did we find out that Pete was in his room sound asleep. Six of us accounted for, who was carrying the light miles from anywhere in the center of the swamp?
A mystery had passed by us, and we had not known it had until it was gone. Reflections Past Midnight In the city, I almost never see the stars, three trimesters of astronomy wasted. I do watch CNN ticker-tape news, where they have reduced me to a news reader, and PBS, then grab a book and a drink, and sleep until morning, when the work cycle begins again, and I am chained to the computer after jogging.
During my normal day, I am flooded with information, harassed by phone solicitors, salesmen knocking on my door, and spam.
Only when I jog, do I realize it is hot or cold outside, rainy or sunny, and when my life is risked, it is usually on the city's crammed streets were cars are after me like great mechanical cheetahs operated by people in a great hurry.
Not so in the Okefenokee, where the wilderness is vast, and the only intrusion may be other randomly encountered human beings. Despite fears, it was probably safer than at home with its burglar alarm.
Here I was slipping back in tune with the rhythm of the moon, stars, and sun, and I heard natural things again, the voice of the owl, the call of bobwhite, the frogs. I no longer cared whether the stock market had moved up or down, and I no longer had to listen to the latest spiel on weapons of mass destruction. Cellular phones (and stupid me, I had brought mine) would not work here. There was no air-conditioning to abate the midnight connection to the heat of the season.
Chip Campbell, who brought me here, had given me a great gift. I was momentarily reconnected to the real world, not the human one, but the wilderness which used to exist and still does in special saved places, like the almost 700 square miles of the Okefenokee. It occurred to me that this was the finest gift anyone had given me in many years, and Chip had bestowed it without realizing it fully. It is his greatest passion, the Okefenokee Swamp, a place where he spent his honeymoon and where he wants his ashes scattered.
In fact, in some way or other, I owed this gift to all my companions.
Past midnight, I woke because I could hear little feet in my room. I flicked on my flashlight and looked at very cute mice, which scurried away frightened by the light. Then I heard the raccoons on the porch, looking for food, three of them at least, all very fat, one as big as a large dog, and they did not care if I shinned my light on them or not, he-coons like Lawton Chiles. Armadillo rummaged beneath my room, raccoons ran over the roof, mice chattered outside my door. Now I was awake, telling the time again by the moonset, 2 AM.
I was becoming confident I would live to finish the journey. We Survive The next day we pushed off Floyds Island, after removing dozens of daddy long legs from the canoes and going through a narrow tunnel of vegetation hewn from the wilderness. We argued over whether daddy long legs would bite or not. Gerry Bishop and Pam Barlettt said no. Pete Carmichael said they sure had the fangs. I relayed the story of a paddling friend from Milton, Florida, who said one had wounded her on the leg, and it took months for the wound to recover. Meanwhile, we wore bug hats out the twisting canoe path to keep off the yellow flies and mosquitoes, and daddy longs legs climbed outside my netting and scurried over my face.
We traveled 8.5 miles that day, out onto an enormous area of pond cypress known as Middle Fork Run. At many turns, Chip Campbell slowed down the canoe we shared so we could hear the awed expressions at the beauty before us from paddlers following behind.
We passed through an open stream-like area, known as Minnies Lake, where cypress stood in all manners of their gnarled and twisted potential shapes.
Then it was through an area known as Pinball Alley, a confined twisty path where the cypress showed signs of being struck by boats.
Twice we pulled to the side and let boats pass us.
Just before we burst into Billys Lake, we were greeted by Joy Campbell, who paddled out to meet us with cold Gatorade, Saint Joy of the Cold Drink, since we had nothing even lukewarm for the past two days after the ice in our coolers melted.
The marvels were not over. Soaring overhead to greet us were swallow-tail kites. Not two or three, but seven. It is a fortunate thing to see a single swallow-tail kite. Three is an amazing event. We all paused, for what we were witnessing was almost unheard of.
What did I have when I left the swamp at Stephen Foster?
First, the memory of a trip, including some mysteries and incredible experiences, and the songs of frogs going about in my head. Second, a three day growth of beard, the need for water and soap, and a sunburned forehead.
Most importantly, however, was what I had felt and seen as an experience of swamp gestalt. It was a wilderness, and I didn't live in it. It tolerated me, and let me pass through, as it tolerated us all. We were not of it, although Chip and Ken came close to being a part of it. We were alien invaders, and strangely, we needed the swamp, but it did not need us.
Despite attempts to drain the swamp, lumber it empty, mine peat out of it, build railroads and highways over and through it, and most recently to mine titanium oxide alongside it, the Okefenokee prevails. The Okefenokee is tough and speaks to the ability of nature to spring back from human assaults. There are places within it which are impenetrable, and this too is important. A world without wilderness or places man can not go would be a poorer world. It is possible to leave our cities and reach the various portals to the Okefenokee within 3.25 hours from I-75 and Fletcher Avenue in Tampa or 4.25 hours from I-75 and Bee Ridge in Sarasota.
Stephen Foster State Park (912-637-5274) is a 17-mile drive from US-441 north of Lake City in Georgia. Cabins can be rented and primitive campsites are available. There are canoe and boat rentals, as well as a tour boat.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (912-496-7836) and OkefenokeeAdventures (912-496-7156) are located on SR-121 north of McClenny, Florida. This is where the Suwannee Canal is located and Chip and JoyCampbell have their business. Tours are led into the swamp daily, canoes and boats can be rented, and overnight primitive camping trips organized.
Okefenokee Swamp Park (912-263-0583) is located in Waycross, Georgia,on US-1. It is a terrific place for explorations, particularly for kids, with its tram rides, petting zoo, and Oscar, a giant alligator.
Author's Note: Oscar, the giant alligator is sadly no more, but another behemoth has been brought in to take his place.