By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
The sign along the canal pointed “To Fargo and all points south (if you know how).” It was a wisecrack reminder that this place the Indians called “The Land of Trembling Earth” is an everchanging, confusing landscape. “It’s really easy to get disoriented out here… People disappear. You can get 100 feet away from a trail and get lost,” our guide Charlie warned as we motored down the Suwannee Canal in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This huge area, over 630 square miles, is actually a bog inside of a saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. A thick layer of peat, sometimes up to 30 feet deep, lies beneath the swamp covered by black reflective water. Sometimes lightening ignites the peat and the fires burn for weeks. Pieces of peat often break off and float, turning into little islands. Mother Nature at her wildest.
As Sandhill cranes honk overhead and alligators sunned along the bank, another tourist asked Charlie the ubiquitous question: “Have you ever been attacked by an alligator?” “No,” he said, “but I’ve been close and I’ve got the scars to prove it.” On cue, he pulled the boat beside a lolling gator that let out an unexpectedly loud hiss, causing us to bolt from our seats.
We were motoring down a canal that began construction in the late 1800s to harvest Cypress trees. It was a doomed venture. Poor engineering, mosquitoes, market conditions and convict labor caused the companies to go bankrupt after harvesting over one million cubic board feet of timber from old growth forests.
“All that mayhem and carnage was to produce chipped wood pellets to export to China for heating. Paraquat was spread on everything to promote tree growth and harvesting,” Charlie explained. He and another boat guide Melvin are fierce protectors of this unique environment. With an accent like molasses punctuated by spits of tobacco into the water, Melvin celebrated the many renegades, outlaws and hermits that built remote homesteads in the swamp after the Seminoles were driven out.
During Prohibition, most of the liquor in New York and Chicago was made in stills here and it was a hub for drug importation in the 1970s. In what Charlie called “A Second Trail of Tears”, these hardscrabble settlers were also driven out when harvesting began.
“Folks out here don’t like the government. We like privacy,” Charlie insisted. Melvin delights in going to classrooms with beakers of methane gas collected from peat and lighting it on fire to explain the area’s ecology. With a mischievous smile, he described the excitement, “It smells like an elephant just walked into the room.”
This primeval beauty can be visited in several ways. A main entrance near Folkston, GA is best for short visits.
A visitor center and boat tours are available there. Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo in the park’s west has boardwalks, boating and hiking trails, fishing, guided boat tours, motor boat and canoe rentals, camping and cabins. Laura Walker State Park is near Waycross, close to the park’s northern entrance. That park boasts an 18-hole golf course, modern cabins, camping, beach, boat ramps and fishing deck.
My husband and I have stayed in both state parks and enjoyed having our bicycles along. We pedaled back to our cabin at Stephen Foster one day to find a mother bear and cubs scavenging in our back yard. Our favorite bike ride was the Swamp Island Drive, a 7-mile loop (also open to cars) with numbered markers that pointed out historic and natural points of interest.
An interesting stop was Chesser Island Homestead built on a 592- acre island in the late 1800’s.
Family members lived there until 1958 in a largely self-sufficient lifestyle.
Remnants of their determination to carve a life from the harsh conditions include syrup shed, a smokehouse and the hand-built timber house. You can also totally retreat from civilization by camping in the swamp for 2 to 5 days by permit.
Shelters and camping islands are provided but no motorized boats are permitted.
The park website warns of many considerations including: “Paddling can be slow-going and strenuous on shallow and/or narrow trails. You may have to get out of your canoe and push across peat blowups or shallow water.”
Today, over one million visitors a year come to the Okefenokee, especially in the spring when thousands of blooming lily pads are intoxicating. It is the largest area in the Southeastern United States not intersected by roads, providing a rare opportunity for solitude and undisturbed recreation. Charlie calls it, “A very spooky, metaphysical place. That’s what makes it exciting: it’s not our world.”
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours’ drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see www.peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.