I used to have a running argument with a friend over what would be most wonderful about heaven. She loved the mountains and was convinced that there would be beautiful mountains there. And I always replied, Nope! There's gonna' be a SWAMP!
I'm fairly certain that heaven will be big enough and glorious enough to accomodate all of us. Until I get there, the Okefenokee is the closest I can get on earth to a little foretaste of the celestial.
Hubby, Bill, and I have been married 46 years. 3-4 years into it he approached me one day with an outlandish idea ... let's go rent a cabin and go canoing in the swamp!
WHAT??!! I thought the man had lost his mind! "Swamp" conjured up visions in my mind of a dark, evil place where trees draped with snakes hung over stinky, black putrid water where alligators lay in wait to attack and drag you down to a watery grave ... NO THANKS!!!
It took quite a while to convince me ... but eventually I caved. Maybe I could survive just one trip. Had a private talk with God before I went ... Lord, please don't let me die! Let's just get it out of his system and never let him bug me again with such nonsense!
And so we went ...
First, I'll tell you what my brain knows ...
The Okefenokee Swamp is a 438,000 acre shallow wetland sitting in the farthest southeastern corner of Georgia. Go past it and you're into Florida, headed to Jacksonville.
The original inhabitants were native indians and the name "Okefenokee" comes from their word meaning "trembling earth", named for the peat that builds up on the surface of the water. It builds up over time, trees and plants estabilsh in it and begin to grow, and eventually it becomes solid enough to walk on. You can feel it move under your feet since it's actually floating and not attached to real ground. But tourist beware ... many times it looks solid enough to support you, especially when you see trees growing out of it. But if it hasn't built up enough, you can step out of your boat and find yourself in the water! (On the up side, it does keep the obnoxious tourists thinned out and the alligators happy ... I'm kidding!!)
Not a true swamp, it's the headwaters where two rivers begin – the St. Marys and the Suwannee Rivers – so there is a current running through that prevents any stagnation that you would associate with a swamp or a bog.
In the late 1800's some folks got the brilliant notion in their heads that they'd just drain the place and make some more farmland. When that failed, the loggers came in instead and harvested the cypress trees up until the 1930's. They built a railroad to transport the timber out of the swamp, and, when out canoing, you can still see the pilings left from the railway and a few lingering artifacts from the settlement on Billy's Island. Sometimes when out canoing you'll discover an exceptionally large cypress tree ... one that managed to escape the loggers' saws and is much older than the surrounding trees.
In the mid 1930's President Roosevelt had the Okefenokee declared a refuge for wildlife and a breeding ground for migratory birds. Today it is the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Okay, enough of that ... now I'll tell you what my heart knows ...
"Hauntingly beautiful" is how one author put it ... my favorite and most accurate description of this place. And, no, I didn't die! Never ran up on any snakes! Never got dragged down to a watery grave by a gator! But we went back many times and had lots of adventures ...
In the Okefenokee was the first time I ever saw birds taller than me ... sandhill cranes. And pitcher plants ... meat eaters! And many up-close encounters with racoons and opposums and bear and deer and the alligators, who, by the way, DO NOT come after you! Alligators aren't as aggressive as crocodiles. Just leave them be and they'll leave you be. They'll generally just move away if you get too close in a boat.
We always stayed in the cabins at Stephen C. Foster State Park. You can rent canoes and john boats with motors. And kayaks in later years. If you want to get somewhere fast, I suppose the john boats are okay, but we always went for the canoes ... slow and silent. We'd rent our boat as early as the office would open around 7-8 am. We'd load up the middle with lunch, snacks, drinks, cameras and a sketch book. Then it's Bill on the back, me in the front, and we wouldn't come back until dark!
When you get your boat it's a short quarter-mile paddle down a little channel that takes you out of the park and into Billy's Lake, which looks more like a river to me, because it's wide and long. If you turn to your right, you'll end up at Billy's Island where the logging settlement used to be. It's a good place to stretch your legs after a long time in the canoe. And you will see the most gorgeous, old oak trees there with wide and low spreading branches hung with spanish moss. There's an old cemetary there and you'll likely run up on an old car chassis or two.
If you come to Billy's Lake and turn to your left, you'll be headed to Minnie's Lake, and to get there you'll have to go through my favorite part of the swamp. It's a watery trail that weaves all through a forest of cypress trees. Even at mid-day it's cool and dark, still and magical ... and a bit other-worldly.
It's because the cypress trees are a bit strange. They always reminded me of the stark trees architects hand-drew in pen and ink on their building elevations and renderings in pre-computer days. We always went in the fall when the leaves were off and the trees looked like gray, dried up drift wood standing straight up, and yet you knew they were alive and real. They are the perfect compliment to the real beauty and magic of the Okefenokee ... and that is the tannic acid in the decaying vegetation that turns the water dark, like strong black tea. Perfectly safe to drink, it turns the water's surface into a mirror, reflecting the trees and world above. It's always a treat to get out there early before any other boats show up. But even if they do, just move aside and allow them to go on their way. It only takes minutes for the water to settle back down, still and glassy. And if you're patient, and sit there still and quiet for a little while, you will hear the swamp whispering to you ... "hauntingly beautiful" is exactly the right description!
The boat trail weaves all through this fairy land until the trees become fewer and fewer in number and eventually you will come to Minnie's Lake. It's wide open water, but unlike Billy's Lake, it is choked full of water lilies and plants. If the park staff didn't come through regularly and cut it back, the boat trail would disappear completely. These open areas are called prairies, and, while beautiful, they can be dangerous. If you go exploring through the water lillies, it's easy enough to paddle through them. But then they'll close up the path behind your boat and if you get too far away and the boat trail is no longer visible, you won't know how to get out. Don't even attempt it in a motor boat unless the motor is out of the water and you're on paddle-power! Use some sun block, too, because even on cloudy days you can get sunburned with the black water reflecting the light back up.
But if you get over heated, don't worry ... you'll cool off! Because the way back home is right back through that magical trail under the trees!
So, yeah ... I know there's most certainly an Okefenokee in heaven!
But you know, of course, that this website is all about storytelling. Bill and I have lived out many crazy stories in our visits to the swamp and I thought it'd be fun to tell you some of those ...
So while you're enduring a dangerous pandemic, a fiery election and all your holiday planning – Thanksgiving dinner via Zoom??!! Please, Lord, NO!!! – come by when you need a break during October and November. There'll be new Okefenokee tales every Wednesday. Perhaps you'll catch swamp-fever, too!
And we'll begin next week by introducing you to our favorite swamp storyteller, Ranger Pete ...