Tuesday, November 3Annie and I leave Chattanooga about 4:00 p.m. and drive south for another uneventful trip down I-75. Some 300 miles south, we tune in King Frog Radio and monitor the adventures of the Frog, Mr. Wee-wee (the trucker's friend), and the factory outlet stores at Adele all the way into Waycross, Georgia. Sometime before midnight we pull into Laura S. Walker State Park where Terry Hamrick and Jerry McClanahan have already hit the sleeping bags. Posters in the bathhouse offer a reward for information about a recent triple murder. If this is civilization, I think, I'm not sorry to be headed for the swamp.
Wednesday, November 4
Terry and Jerry, having forgotten they are on vacation, get up early to go running. Annie and I are up early, too. We need to be at the park soon to catch our shuttle. Even after making a stop at Hardees, we reach the main gate of the Suwanee Canal entrance shortly before 8:00 a.m. The gate is locked.
Thursday, November 5We have a fairly leisurely start, getting on the water about 10:00 a.m. It's only natural to move a bit slower in the swamp, to adjust to its rhythms. At home we rush about like ants, able to see only the task in front of us. The swamp has its own rhythm of ebb and flow, of water moving slowly but constantly, of egrets soaring overhead and frogs croaking out melodies. When the sky is blue and the sun not too hot, when the insects are out of season and the breeze is fresh in your face, the desire to hurry towards your next destination tends to dissipate.
The terrain on this second day is generally more open, and as a consequence we spot many more birds, including groups of sandhill cranes. From a distance, they look like great blue herons flying in formation--but herons are solitary birds. The trilling call of the cranes give them away. About noon, Annie and I see our first gator of the day, a small one, snoozing in shallow water. Not long after, we come upon a larger gator which merits pictures. By the time we reach Dinner Pond, an elongated stretch of open water, alligators are no longer much of a thrill. Stopping for lunch, we find one of the few concessions to comfort this far north in the swamp, a rustic little shack with a tin roof and a decade of carved graffiti.
As we continue south on Dinner Pond, the lily pads grow ever thicker. We're in six inches of water, dragging across the lilies, sweat running down our foreheads. Here between mile markers 18 and 20, just as predicted, is the most difficult part of the trip. Often, I find it easiest to pole along with my paddle, pushing off the muddy bottom. Occasionally we hit stumps just below the water or have to slip past fallen trees. One log blocks the passage completely; Annie and I manage to get across dry by standing on the log, but Terry and Jerry end up almost knee deep in the black water, pushing their canoe. For one long, memorable stretch, we enter a dense forest of trees where the trail is overgrown and the markers scarce--a section which everyone later agrees is one of their favorites.
When we finally reach open water, clear of logs and lily pads, we breathe sighs of relief with what breath we have left. We have made it to the appropriately named Big Water Lake. As we have traveled south, the scrub trees have gradually changed into tall, majestic cypress. High on the limbs of the cypress, we count nearly twenty Anhingas drying their wings, spooking one by one as we approach and flying off ahead of us like some sort of advance guard.
A short side trail leads us to the camping platform at Big Water. Although the deck is nicer and newer than Maul Hammock, the platform doesn't have the view of the night before. While McClanahan goes fishing, I continue a short distance down the side trail, canoeing alone. Although I am only gone a few minutes and a distance measured in hundreds of yards, the experience of being alone in the swamp is one I savor long into the night.
Not everyone is as fortunate. The register at the Big Water platform tells of two women caught in the thunderstorms over the weekend. "Got stuck on a log between Dinner Pond and Big Water," the shaky handwriting reads. "Spent the night in the canoe, wind and rain constantly...miserable."
Their next night, we learned later, was not much better. Having survived what was no doubt a horrible and frightening experience, the women had decided to spend the following night at the Big Water shelter rather than paddling all the way out of the swamp as planned. In the meantime, the faithful shuttle driver was waiting at Stephen Foster State Park in a cloud of cigar smoke, not knowing whether to be annoyed or worried. As darkness fell, out went the Rangers with their motor boats and spotlights. The two women did not spend an extra night at Big Water, after all.
Friday, November 6Gators are now commonplace; huge cypress trees loom over us. A couple of miles from the platform, we hear inevitable the sound of a motorized engine. A rental boat comes tooling past, the couple on board waving. As the day continues, another boat and a few canoes pass us. Altogether, we encounter about a dozen people--which is a dozen more than we saw in the first two days of our trip.
When we reach an intersection with the main channel from the Suwanee Canal, barely a mile west of our final destination, we turn east instead and soon reach the boat docks at Billys Island. We eat lunch and then set off to explore on foot. We find the bed of an old railroad, a cemetery, the frame of a truck, and the remains of two gigantic boilers, but little else to suggest that this was once a thriving 1920's lumber town. For the most part, row after row of pine trees scattered with a few oaks that survived the saw are all that are left.
Back on course for our rendezvous with the shuttle truck, the waterway opens until it is a true lake. A tour boat with a Ranger standing in the front passes in the distance. My rear end is sore from three days of sitting in the boat, my back feels the strain of the day's paddle strokes, and I'm ready to taste a few of the comforts and conveniences of civilization again. Yet a part of me still hears the call, begs me to turn the boat around and disappear once more into the lush growth. Like the women at Big Water platform, I long for the solitude of one more day in the swamp.
I don't obey the urge, but I understand it. After all, what true refuges are left to us? What waterway can we travel that isn't kissed at regular intervals by civilization, be it bridges or cattle farms or dams or the occasional tire washed up on the bank? The canoe trails in the Okefenokee, following for the most part natural water courses, are artificially maintained and marked perhaps to excess, but it is nonetheless easy to believe you are seeing a complete and utter wilderness, a place left largely untouched and untraveled by man. This is an illusion, of course--the swamp has been logged, alternately drained and flooded, exploited and regulated for years--but even an illusion has value when the real thing has ceased to exist.
As we paddle towards Stephen Foster State Park, the skies finally open with a light drizzle. We arrive at 2:00 p.m. and take pictures of the four of us grinning at the camera in the rain.
Extra! Download a 4 minute video of the April 2002 Okefenokee Expedition, "Surviving the Swamp," featuring Michael "Alligator" Torres! (File is 6 MB, so it will take 20 minutes or more if you don't have a fast connection--go read a book or something. You may need to hold down SHIFT as you click the link to be sure you can save the video before playing it, since it doesn't always stream well depending on the state of your browser.)
Related LinksGORP: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
The Famous Okefenokee Joe