OKEFENOKEE - LAND OF ENCHANTMENT - by Sig Pilgrim
February - on the way to the airport for a business trip, I grabbed the SIERRA CLUB magazine to read on the plane. February - gray, cold, dreary, lifeless; business trips - airports, hotels, meetings and then I read about a service trip to the Okefenokee Swamp - to clear a canoe trail and to have plenty of time to explore the area too. SWAMP, Georgia - warmth, humidity, green, water lilies, alligators, canoe, and paddle - images about as opposite as could be possible from the place I was in!
After I returned from Europe, I mentioned to Alan that I thought this trip could be fun - a few days later he had us signed up for it! So on October 11 we drove to the Okefenokee in Southern Georgia, now a 500,000 acre National Wildlife Refuge, created in l937. In the l890's, the swamp was sold for 26.5 cents an acre to a private company who tried to drain it and use the land for growing crops. However, the nearly 20 miles of what is now the Suwannee Canal drained the water into the swamp rather than out of it, saving the swamp and its habitat for the millions of creatures calling it home. Loggers came and cut all the big cypress trees - many hundreds of years old, but eventually even that business venture proved not profitable enough.
Today, the Okefenokee is a refuge for alligators, tortoises, and more than 200 species of birds. It is also a refuge for humans seeking escape from the world of business and the like! Our trip started by meeting fellow Sierra Club members Sunday at the entrance to the Refuge - a motley group of people from all over the country and Canada - fifteen in all and two trip leaders. We shared a home cooked meal as I watched a tortoise slowly make its way through the campsite and under a trailer to its sandy burrow.
Monday morning we set off to our home for the next week - a campsite about l0 miles into the refuge along the Suwannee Canal. We arrived in time to start dinner. It did not take long for Hermann (as we called him) to arrive - an alligator, about 6 or 7 feet long, who had obviously been conditioned to associate people on the platform with food. We had been sternly warned not to feed any alligators - so they would retain their natural fear of humans. It is a misconception that alligators go after people - they slither away when we come to close, though they may fiercely defend themselves if they feel threatened, especially, if a female alligator is nesting. Alligator mothers have strong maternal feelings!
The next day we started to clear the brush along the canal, and to dislodge the floating grass jams in the narrower sections of the canoe trail. The Okefenokee is home to the Golden Silk Spider - with a golden body about l/2 inch long, and an overall size of about 2 inches. They spin webs several feet in diameter across the river, and the female hangs quietly upside down - a wonderful sight especially when dew or rain glistens in the net.
Most people come to the Okefenokee to see the wading birds, which inhabit the prairies. These are areas of low water - no more than two or three feet deep consisting of floating islands, swamp grasses and water lilies. Ouaquaphenogou is an Indian word meaning Land of the Trembling Earth. The swamp was a former sea basin, which, when the Atlantic retreated, eventually filled with vegetation to form a deep layer of peat. This peat rises to the surface and becomes home to plants: carnivorous pitcher plants fix nitrogen and phosphorus, essential nutrients lacking in a swamp environment. These plants have adapted to obtain these compounds from more mobile insect sources, eventually enriching the soil for other plants to flourish.
The floating islands - many with tall cypress trees covered with Spanish moss (actually an air plant) are perches for the Okefenokee's most famous residents: the large wading birds: in one area we saw about 20 wood storks - endangered species with three foot wingspans flying slowly and gracefully over the water. We also saw ibis, egrets, great herons, night herons, ducks, black faced vultures (one tree had about a dozen of them) and more.
The Okefenokee is best explored by canoe on a three or four-day trip paddling from platform to platform - these are structures built into the swamp with a roof, table, and chemical toilet. We took a day trip to one such platform - Round Top - I wished we could have stayed to watch the sun set and rise. Water lilies still bloomed - despite the late season - I could only imagine how spectacular their carpet of flowers must have been a few months earlier.
Duty called the next day to cut the brush again. We finished by about three in the afternoon, cleaned up and prepared dinner. Afterwards, I loved taking the canoe out in the evening - the first few days the moon was full - and it was easy to paddle in its light. Clouds later in the week made paddling after dusk a little "spooky". Bats flew overhead to the syncopated sounds of tree frogs, toads, and the myriad other critters that sing, chirp, trill, and croak in the Okefenokee after dark. It was one of the most wonderful experiences to just sit in the canoe and listen to the sounds - to try and determine the rhythm of each creature's song - no wonder that Jazz had it's origins in the south! Unfortunately, the concert was too often interrupted by planes flying overhead, which somehow sounded many times louder than at home!
The five days passed much too quickly - and we were headed back home. Retracing our paddle on the Suwannee canal, we took a few more detours into the meadows. Alligators - sentinels protecting the natural wonders on the other side of this man-made scar going through the refuge, guard their entries.
How much longer will Okefenokee be refuge to man and animal? The DuPont Company has purchased and leased the land along the whole eastern border of the refuge to mine the titanium ore, which is found in the sands making up Trail Ridge - the old Atlantic Coast line. This would involve clearing all vegetation, stripping/storing of top soil, and dredging the cleared area to a depth of l5 to 50 feet below the ground surface and letting the pond fill with groundwater to float a dredge holding the gravity separation equipment. The proposal calls for 350-400 truckloads per week of minerals to be removed. When finished, topsoil will be replaced and the area replanted with grasses and pine trees.
Many scientist believe that such mining would do irreparable harm to the swamp which receives nearly all its water from precipitation which would move out of the region if the natural dam created by Trail Ridge, is removed. The project appears to be on hold while studies continue.
Anyone interested in visiting the Okefenokee should plan to do so in mid-to-late October or February or take a good liking to mosquitoes. We were not bothered too much by them, and can also recommend the "ultimate bug shirt and pants" - a combination net and tightly woven fabric - I'll model it next spring at the Wolf!
Detailed trail descriptions and maps help you choose the best routes. A calendar of natural events shows the best times to see wildlife and wildflowers. This book also includes information on safety, weather, access points, facilities, a color map of the refuge, and two pages of color photos.
Submitted by: Sig Pilgrim