Humorous account of a camping trip among alligators and vultures in the Okefenokee Swamp Park in Georgia.
“You want to go camping where?” I asked a hiking friend a friend over dinner one night. He handed me a map of the Okefenokee Swamp Park, nearly 700 square miles of marshes, mosquitos and dangerous reptiles. To me, swamps were fine to visit on day trips. Never had I imagined sleeping in one – and in January no less!
Reading up on the Okefenokee Swamp Park, I became fascinated with its eerie beauty and rich history. Both Native Americans and white settlers lived within its shadowy depths before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over. Tourist pamphlets showed a wide river cutting through the swamp, seemingly at a comfortable distance from any predatory creatures.
My interest piqued, I followed my friend into the sprawling swamp, prepared for whatever nature had to throw at me.
Where is the Okefenokee Swamp?
The Okefenokee Swamp is a sprawling, 438,000 acre wetland straddling the state line between southeast Georgia and Florida.
It is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, meaning its main water source is a slow moving “black” river. This black color comes from decaying vegetation, giving it the appearance of dark iced tea. Much of the swamp is protected by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
We put our canoes in at Kingfisher Landing on the eastern side. Our plan was to travel 31 miles west to Stephen Foster State Park, stopping at two campsites along the way. Since there was little dry land, camping was only allowed on small wooden platforms.
The first thing I noticed was the expected blackness of the water. I had read that Okefenokee water was not only safe to drink, but was rumored by early settlers to have curative powers.
Our shuttle driver urged caution, however. Seems a park ranger had recently dipped his hand into the river, only to have his fingertips bitten off by an alligator!
Journey Into the Okefenokee Swamp
Under greying skies, we paddled 12 miles down the water lily-choked river toward the first campsite, Maul Hammock. Skeletal cypress trees draped in Spanish moss stood amid soggy “prairies,” so-named because of their likeness to western U.S. grasslands. Bitterly cold winds kept away most of the wildlife. Only the occasional blue heron disturbed the stillness.
A small flock of vultures hovered over something in the distance. We joked that it was probably our campsite. “Guess somebody got mauled in their hammock,” I quipped.
We reached the 12-mile marker. A tiny, covered platform extended into the water. Over a hundred vultures sat in the surrounding trees, waiting patiently.
It was our campsite.
Unexpected Swamp Guests
That evening, I hastily rinsed our dishes in the black water, thinking about that poor, fingertip-less park ranger. The spooky strains of hooting owls filled the moonlit night. The vultures had fallen asleep, but it wasn’t long before we heard tiny paws splashing toward us. We shined our flashlights into the marsh. Hungry raccoon eyes twinkled back. We hastily tied up our supplies, knowing that the next few hours would be a war.
Later, I was awakened a sniffing sound. One by one, the raccoons crept onto our platform. They became bolder as the hours dragged on, rampaging through our canoes and trash. One even crawled under the platform, scratching beneath my sleeping bag. Exhausted and angry, we nevertheless stayed zipped in our tents, fearful that the scavengers might be rabid.
As dawn broke, we were relieved to find that the raccoons had left minimal damage, save a trail of muddy paw prints. Warm sunlight filled the swamp, setting the golden prairie grasses aglow. We eagerly set out for our next campsite.
But we weren’t the only ones attracted to the sun. Alligators emerged onto the warm bogs for afternoon siestas. We paddled closer to take pictures, at times within ten feet of their frightening maws. But the gators appeared uninterested, sliding back into the murky water.
The river suddenly narrowed into a tiny canal, twisting through a dense labyrinth of foliage. Cypress trees gave way to towering hardwoods and water oaks. The river was so still that we appeared to be floating on glass. One could almost imagine spotting the ghosts of early settlers wandering the shadowy banks, lost in this impenetrable wilderness.
After a blessedly uneventful second night, we paddled the remaining 10 miles toward Stephen Foster, stopping at Billy’s Island along the way. One of the few dry spots in the swamp, Billy’s Island was the site of a bustling logging town in the early 1900s.
At first, I saw no sign of civilization. Only the young slash pines attested to the heavy lumbering that once took place. We climbed up onto the branches of massive oak trees, gazing out over the terrain. It was then that I spotted what was left of the town.
In the center of the island lay a graveyard of rusty ironmongery – stoves, washtubs, truck frames, even boilers from railroad steam engines. Strangely enough, Native American burial mounds sat nearby. Tall grasses shot up everywhere, as if reclaiming the land from years of destruction.
And I couldn’t help but think that, in the end, we were all tourists here, in one of the few remaining natural strongholds on Earth.