It’s a chilly spring day, with lots of wind, so I was pretty startled when Okefenokee Adventures guide Joey Griffin commanded me to take off my shoes and climb out of his pontoon boat.
But you just don’t say no to a big, burly swamper. So here I am, standing on a soggy, boggy mound of peat rising out of the black water all around us.
Feeling a bit of trepidation, I start jumping straight up and down, like a Masai warrior. Then something weirdly wonderful happens: The ground quivers, jellylike, beneath my freezing bare feet.
“Whoa!” I laughed. “This is fun!”
“There you have it.” Griffin nodded knowingly. “The trembling earth.”
We’re in the Okefenokee Swamp, or the Land of the Trembling Earth, which is what it means in the Creek Indians’ tongue.
I’m kind of surprised that it’s taken me this long to actually experience it.
I grew up traipsing endless miles through the tall pine forests and red clay roads of South Georgia. I learned to identify just about every wild critter that has ever slithered, crawled, hopped, pranced or winged across this still-wild landscape: whitetail deer, raccoons and possums, gopher tortoises, indigos and rattlers, turkeys and hawks, black bears – and squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels.
So when I last visited the Okefenokee Swamp, which is about as far south in Georgia as you can get without falling over into Florida, I felt very much at home. All these creatures and their cousins, plus more alligators – about 20,000 to 22,000 of them – than you can shake a squirrel at, live in this vast wetland of about 700 square miles.
I hadn’t visited it since I was only 5 or 6. The Okefenokee blipped back onto my radar screen a few years back when it made national headlines because of Mother Nature’s fury. Much of the swamp burned, first in 2007 in a fire that gobbled a half-million acres across the Okefenokee region and all of South Georgia, and then again in 2011, when another lightning-induced blaze charred more than 300,000 acres within Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
On dark waters
I climbed into Griffin’s small pontoon boat at the east entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Ga., close to the Florida line. As I settled in my seat, an elderly couple from Michigan gingerly climbed into the boat.
As Griffin fired up the motor, he startled a great blue heron into flight, its lustrous more-gray-than-blue feathers and long spindly legs mirroring splendidly against the dark water. The bird hop scotched across the swamp before disappearing into a tangle of trees.
The ground, mostly a peat bog with deposits up to about 15 feet thick, is soft and unstable and really does tremble, as Griffin proved by sending me out of the boat. Experiment over, I bounded back in with a real spring in my step, just in case an alligator or two may be lurking around.
Griffin explained why the Okefenokee’s water, as dark as a cast-iron kettle, is pristine and pure and shimmers and reflects like quicksilver.
“The water is black because of the tannic acid released by decaying vegetation,” he says. “Some say it has healing powers.”
Just a few hundred feet away, sure enough, three, maybe four alligators watched the boat as we glided by. They stared at us, their eyes glowing in the bright sun, until we rounded a bend in the canal, headed for the boat landing and then home.
Bears, gators, snakes
Returning in midwinter, I chose the Waycross, Ga., entrance at Okefenokee Swamp Park.
On this brilliantly blue, cloudless day, Scott Tanner, a nature guide and seventh-generation swamper, expertly maneuvered a Carolina skiff through the dark water.
Okefenokee Swamp Park was established in 1946, an incredible primordial beauty, the kind that stirs the imagination. The swamp, very large and intimidating to those not used to nature, encompasses a wide swath of wetlands, uplands, islands and pine forests. The vast bog harbors hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, snakes, amphibians and lush plant life.
I counted four black bears, egrets, herons, pileated woodpeckers and plenty of squirrels.
Winter is still too chilly for snakes, and only a few alligators came ashore to sun. While it’s a bit early in the season for my favorite birds, the wood stork and the sandhill crane, Tanner promised that they’d come in the spring, when “there are birds on just about every tree,” he said.
Tanner pointed to the tangled vegetation and announces, “I can walk off out there and in probably about five or six hours I can catch you all 34 different varieties of snakes out here. Diamondbacks can get up to 96 inches long out here.”
My favorite phenomenon of the swamp is its utter quietness – or what you think is quiet. Sitting on a small knoll near the visitors center, I listened as little by little, sound by sound, the Okefenokee came alive.
Like a perfectly composed symphony of nature, myriad sounds rise with the wind: cardinals and brown thrashers trilling in the distance, busy squirrels excitedly chattering at some secret discovery, crickets chirping in the dense underbrush, bullfrogs croaking their strange songs, the soft fwip-fwipping of gators diving for some underwater treasure, and the powerful whisper of the wind sighing through the tallest of pines.
The only sounds missing are the beep-beeps and ding-dings of mobile phones and other electronic gizmos. The Okefenokee is pretty far removed from the technological world, and I’m perfectly delighted.
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