Rivers of my Youth, Pt. 2: The Okefenokee Swamp

I’m not sure what I was seeking back then, but somehow the “dense and haunting wilderness” of South Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp drew me in.

Growing up in north Jacksonville, Florida, the Okefenokee, a 400,000 acre swamp, was only about 90 miles north of my home. I mean, this fascinating, untamed wilderness populated by cypress trees, Spanish moss, cottonmouth moccasins and alligators was practically right in my backyard!

The Okefenokee is an almost imperceptibly slow-moving river that flows mostly southwest to the Suwanee River, so the Okefenokee is the second of the rivers of my youth. The Suwannee will be up next.

In high school, I wasn’t really into Friday night football or basketball games. I wasn’t a ‘band kid’ and I wasn’t into ROTC or the chess team or theatre or going to formals or proms or really anything high school at all.  I was into adventures in the Okefenokee Swamp.

The Okefenokee is known as the “land of the trembling earth” and in places, you could stomp on what looked like land but felt like the surface of a ‘full wave’ waterbed. Cypress trees, rooted only in the ‘trembling earth’ could be made to shake just by walking nearby.

Spreading “prairies”, occasional open water “lakes” and piney islands and hammocks dot the swamp. Permeated with carefully marked water trails, adventurous explorers could pass through the interior of this vast wildness, spending three or four nights camping out in the swamp.

For reasons I could hardly fathom, spending three or four nights camping out in the middle of a 400,000 acre steamy south Georgia swamp chock full of alligators and moccasins, with only the supplies you could haul in your canoe and with no possibility of contact with the outside world (it was 1979: phones didn’t exist without twisty cords, kids) didn’t seem all that appealing to most of the other high school kids.

But to Gary, Doug, Bill and I, it seemed like just the kind of adventure into wildness we were seeking!

On any one of our many excursions into the swamp’s interior, we’d set out fresh and strong, from one of only three access point into the swamp’s interior and leave civilization – and for the most part dry land – behind for a few days.

We were neither sophisticated nor especially efficient canoe campers, bringing ice chests full of canned soda, fresh meats, and eggs in addition to our heavy 5 gallon plastic jugs of water for washing, cooking, or say, tooth brushing.

Then we paddled these heavily laden craft for miles and miles along narrow water trails with current that could safely be classified as “none”. Along these trails, methane gases from rotting swamp stuff often forced up “peat blow-ups” choking the trails with muck-like peat for what seemed like miles, reducing us to a crawl, poling instead of paddling.

After those cleared, up the trail might become choked with seemingly endless tangles of lily pads, further impeding progress.

But if not for either of those, you could paddle along fairly effortlessly.

Oh yeah, and then smiling, prehistoric alligators would sometimes sun on the narrow water trail banks. But by mid-day, we were too tired to generate any fear.

Temperatures often rose to the 90’s (in February); humidity higher than that.

As the afternoon wore on, we were hot, tired, sweaty and smack dab in middle of a steamy swamp. The shelter, which we kept thinking would have to be just around the next bend ahead, never was.

I sat in the stern staring blankly forward, Doug in the bow, slumped in half, head hanging low, his listless arms reaching out, stroking the water in super-slo-mo. To stop paddling was to stop moving (why oh why did we bring these ice chests full of canned soda again??)

Then finally, after what could have been weeks (but was only that morning), we’d arrive at the camping shelter.

The evening’s destination was a 20 by 20 foot wooden platform a few feet above the swamp’s surface, open, with half a roof, and a port-a-potty.

No electricity, no running water, no campfire permitted, nor of course even remotely possible. A sleepy silence with only summer cicadas in the distance enveloped the late afternoon.

I tied up my thin rope hammock between posts of the shelter, stretched it, climbed in, lay back and stared off at the expansive prehistoric sub-tropical scene stretching across the swamp prairie beyond the shelter. The distant cry of a sandhill crane or the roar of an alligator might break the silence.

A cypress, far across the prairie, bent over and draped with Spanish moss became a dinosaur, perfectly at peace traversing this primeval landscape.

Doug also tied on his hammock, stretched it out, climbed in, laid back and his hammock proceeded to come untied and he landed in a tangle of rope hammock on the hard wooden deck shouting profanities. We died laughing. Swamp entertainment.

We ate fairly well out in the swamp, when slogging all that food in coolers would pay off. Dinner was beefsteaks with sauteed onions, Kraft mac and cheese and cool canned “Chek” Soda from the Winn-Dixie where we worked. For breakfast we could look forward to Gary’s thick-cut bacon, cheese grits (it was the South, after all) and a mess of scrambled eggs.

That night well after dark we paddled our canoes out to the swamp ‘lake’ that was just off the shelter and sat back under a planetarium sky. We shone our flashlight around the edge to see the reflecting orange eyes of alligators staring back at us from every direction. We were mesmerized, then paddled back to the shelter.

Some of our swamp excursions would have us staying at the remote interior cabin in the swamp on Floyd’s Island, which was a real treat after those small, cramped platforms.

For the evening’s entertainment on Floyd’s Island I remember once Gary, Doug and I sitting on the rockers on the front porch, swatting slow-moving yellowflies and laying out their dead carcasses in neat rows like kills painted on the front of a fighter aircraft. We stopped around 75. Swamp entertainment.

The Okefenokee was –and is – a beautiful, exotic, primitive, wild and challenging place. It was not always easy and often uncomfortable, but we returned again and again, eventually traversing nearly all of its various water trails. This prehistoric place intrigued us then and as I write this, it still does to this day.

I’m not sure what I seeking back then, but I’m pretty certain I found what I needed in the Okefenokee Swamp. Perhaps it was just a deep appreciation for primitive wildness.

Why does a young dude set out in an intractable swamp wilderness? Probably because it was there, only 90 miles away, which felt like my backyard.

And nowadays, it’s the Sangamon River that literally flows through my backyard. And the Sangamon provides me with all the canoeing and primitive wildness I need these days. With no peat blow-ups.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, November 19, 2015, by Scott Hays

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