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The Calm of the Swamp in Georgia

By C. J. Hughes
March 13, 2009
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THE alligator crouched on a bank in the Okefenokee Swamp and leered its tight-toothed grin — a sphinx daring travelers to pass.

My canoe measured 17 feet, and this refugee from the Jurassic Age looked about half that size. Even so, it seemed that a flick of its thick tail, as jagged as a buzz saw, could send the boat (and its unnerved cargo) reeling. Instead of a thump or a bump, though, the alligator slipped indifferently away, nosing beneath the dark water, until just a few bubbles marked its passing.

Coming face to face with an alligator is just one of the many pleasant chills to be discovered in the Okefenokee, whose striking landscape spills across 685 square miles in the southeastern corner of Georgia. Indeed, it shows that a swamp, no matter what time of year, can be a perfect spot for a flat-water-canoe camping trip. (Yes, this was a winter trip, but winters in Georgia are a bit different from winters, say, in Maine.)

And winter just might be the best time to visit the Okefenokee. Though nights spent in a tent can get cold — the 30s, low enough to keep a wool hat on in the sleeping bag — the days can warm up to a sun-drenched 70 degrees, as I found out on a trip two months ago.

Relative to May, when 90-degree days are often coupled with shirt-soaking humidity, the winter air is dry, which also deters biting insects. And those who despise snakes may be reassured that the corals, rattlesnakes and water moccasins — the swamp’s venomous serpents — are also laying low.

More profound, perhaps, is that in the cooler months, people are scarce, too. Once I put in at the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area in Folkston, near the Florida border, mile upon mile of embankments flush with lush plants slipped past without a glimpse of another person.

One of the few on the quiet water was Matthew Weand, a graduate student in forest ecology from Lexington, Ky., one of a group of six in three canoes. “I prefer the quiet,” he said, dipping a paddle beneath the surface.

Our chance meeting also reinforced the fact that visitors have to share the Okefenokee’s nearly 120 miles of canoe trails with some 15,000 alligators.

“We kept asking each other, ‘How do you behave around a gator?’ ” Mr. Weand said of his trip. “ ‘What if it smells a dog on a person?’ ”

At one point, he said, he spotted a floating 10-footer that had bulging, walnut-size eyes — a kind of Marty Feldman with sharp teeth and scales. It seemed to block the way.

“But then it sort of vanished,” he said, “and we went right over it.”

But obsessing over toothy reptiles can distract from more subtle pleasures, like the swamp’s pristine terrain, which can be amply savored on the type of three-day overnight trip I completed to Monkey Lake and Coffee Bay, following a triangular 21-mile course.

The Okefenokee is made up of three kinds of landscape: prairie, cypress forest and scrub-shrub. Prairie makes up the eastern section, and like its namesake out West, it’s flat, open and dotted with unkempt bushes. Reeds rustling in the soft breezes nuzzled small blossoms of a plant called marsh beggar’s-tick, whose eight yellow petals provided rare specks of color.

Unlike on the High Plains, though, water laps against all vegetation. In fact, Grand Prairie, which, at almost four square miles, has one of the swamp’s widest horizons, often looks like a yard where someone left a hose running too long.

The water trail through Grand Prairie is well marked, but the white-tipped posts are often beside the point. The way ahead was fairly obvious, as it was the one patch of water that’s not a riot of plants.

There are eight campsites in the Okefenokee. Most of them are 600-square-foot wooden platforms, often suspended above the water, with a tin-roof lean-to and an outhouse.

The Monkey Lake platform, where I slept the first night, actually sits on land. But the “squelch squinch” sponginess of the soil made it almost impossible to walk on. (Okefenokee means “trembling earth” in either Creek or Choctaw, depending on which scholar you ask.)

If days are hushed, the nights are eerily silent.

“Sundown is one of the most beautiful times, because the frogs start singing, then crescendo, then all at once, they stop,” said Don Berryhill, a longtime Okefenokee acolyte with whom I spoke after my trip.

“It’s part of what makes it so mysterious,” added Mr. Berryhill, a Waycross, Ga., resident who has also taught ecology classes in the swamp, “and why I go there every opportunity I get.”

The few noises I heard in the swamp often carried in odd ways. Coming around a bend on the second day, headed to Coffee Bay, my paddle nicked the hull and startled a clutch of sandhill cranes. As they took flight, their squawks sounded like squeegees on a dry windshield. Another time, three far-off deer darted and bounded across the wide watery plain with a frothy rush that seemed to echo endlessly.

The Okefenokee’s water is glassy for the most part. Despite being the headwaters for two significant rivers — the Suwannee and the St. Mary’s — there’s barely a current. That stillness makes the water, which is as shiny and black as buffed obsidian, a near-perfect mirror. Clouds drift in the sky, and below. My canoe sometimes seemed suspended in air.

On the afternoon of the second day, my trail connected with remnants of the Suwannee Canal, a well-defined 40-foot-wide passage that cuts deep into the swamp’s center, generally east to west, past cypress forest and lower-slung scrub and shrubs.

The canal is the most traveled part of the Okefenokee, and serves as a handy sampler of all three local topographies. As it cuts deeper into the swamp, though, it gives way to pines, cypress and that most evocative of Southern plants, Spanish moss, which clings spectrally to limbs and branches.

If all that sounds vaguely familiar, blame it on Pogo. The comic-strip possum, created in the mid-20th century, lived there, and the verdant forest settings drawn by Pogo’s creator, Walt Kelly, are spot on.

But for the canal itself, thank Henry Jackson, an Atlanta lawyer who, in 1891, with the help of hired convicts, tried to drain the swamp. He hoped to sell newly created farmland, as had happened a few years before in the Everglades.

“The thinking was, they were already getting rich in Florida,” said Chris Trowell, of Douglas, Ga., a former history professor who has written books about the swamp. “So, they wanted to get rich here as well.”

Though a 15-mile channel was eventually finished, Mr. Trowell added, a sandy ridge proved difficult to breach, even for Appalachian gold miners, and the project faltered. But Mr. Jackson had a backup plan: harvest the cypresses. That led to nearly 30 years of intensive logging of the rot-resistant trees, many of which dated from the 1600s. (A few stalwarts remain, in hard-to-reach groves in the northeast corner.)

Cypress, whose bell-bottom trunks feel as hard as concrete, was used for shingles, barrels and railroad ties. Though almost every cypress was cleared before the federal government took over the swamp in 1936, tens of thousands have since grown back, thriving on the Okefenokee’s 53 inches of rain a year.

“Despite the canal, the swamp is pretty much still in a wild state,” said Blaine Eckberg, a ranger with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the swamp. “And that’s what makes it unique. Ninety-five percent of the wetlands on the East Coast were drained or filled in, even the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.”

To preserve that keen sense of wildness, it’s better to avoid the whining flat-bottomed motorboats that ply the canal. A solution is to cut over to the Hurrah Trail, which doesn’t allow motorized craft and parallels the canal for two miles, starting near the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area’s put-in point.

On the third day, with the sun bearing down and a breeze riffling the water, this muted trail served as an emblematic backdrop for the last leg of my trip. Chunks of dark peat bobbed in the water. Pitcher plants swallowed bugs in their banana-shaped leaves. Turkey vultures turned circles overhead. The swamp, with its damp breath, pressed in intimately.

The primal ooze probably looked much the way it did in 1913, when J. C. Bradley, a Cornell University entomologist, led scientists wearing pith helmets into the still largely unexplored region.

A “swamp,” Mr. Bradley wrote later, “suggests mysterious and uncanny places, half lights, and weird creatures in noiseless activities, bent upon the fulfillment of their varied destinies. Here indeed is life in its fullest intensity, without the disturbing human element.”

Especially in winter.

IF YOU GO

There are three entrances to the swamp for overnight canoe trips, including Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, seven miles southwest of Folkston, Ga. Overnight permits cost $10 a person a night (912-496-3331; www.fws.gov/okefenokee). Sites must be reserved by telephone, Monday through Friday, from 7 to 10 a.m.

Okefenokee Adventures (Route 2, Folkston; 912-496-7156; www.okefenokeeadventures.com) sits canalside and rents out canoes and kayaks for $20 a day for overnight trips. Kayaks are easier to paddle but have less room for gear.

At the western entrance of the swamp, in Fargo, boats can be rented at Stephen Foster State Park (17515 Highway 177; 912-637-5274; www.gastateparks.org/info/scfoster). Canoes are $15 for four hours and $50 a night. But you still need the federal overnight permit.

At the swamp’s northern entrance, in Waycross, rentals are available at the private Okefenokee Swamp Park (5700 Okefenokee Swamp Road; 912-283-0583; www.okeswamp.com). Canoes are $18 a day; they cannot be rented overnight, or reserved. The park also has family attractions, like a miniature-train ride.

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