Our travels through the Carolinas and Georgia had been exclusively along the Atlantic coast, perhaps the time had come to see what treasures lay inland. We didn’t have to go far inland before we hit water again, or at least swamp, because a huge chunk of south central Georgia is covered by the Okefenokee Swamp.
The funny name comes from an even funnier spelling, okifanô:ki, meaning “land of the trembling earth” in the original Hitchiti. The language may be long extinct but the name for this six hundred square mile swath of black water bog endured. In 1937 the United States government bought up the mushy land and protected the area as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
We entered the Refuge from the east and proceeded to the main visitors center – walking inside without even noticing the twelve foot long alligator hanging out right beside the building.
Meet Kay! She & her husband volunteer at National Parks – check out how easy it is to help out AND see the USA!
The resident park volunteer host, a wonderful woman named Kay, greeted us and gave us a whole host of information before guiding us into a little theater for a short introductory film. After the movie we chatted Kay up some more and discovered that she and her husband had gone gypsy a few years ago, spending most of their time going from park to park as
volunteers. They usually stay for about three months at each place and love it because it’s a great way to really get to know some of America’s natural wonders. As a bonus, they receive free lodging in these beautiful places and meet people from all over the world.
On our way out Kay pointed out the giant man-eating reptile hanging out within a few feet of the building. Whoa, how’d we miss that! Not to worry she says, he’s just sunning himself, and gators are very lazy. We watched him for awhile, several minutes, even moving around him, and he didn’t budge. Other than his creepy eyes following our every move, we would have never known he was alive. Maybe Kay is right, he was crazy lazy – or just not hungry for human at the moment. Maybe he had people for breakfast.
As we drove out along Swamp Island Drive, it wasn’t long before we saw a gator in the water on the side of the road. Veronica bailed out of BAMF before I could even come to a full stop. Now we know alligators are dangerous, at least that’s what we were told in Louisiana, but here they assume that anyone with a modicum of common sense should be able to figure out that a future purse, pair of shoes or piece of luggage over ten feet long with teeth like a tiger should be left alone.
It wasn’t that Veronica didn’t want to leave him alone, she just wanted to leave him alone from much closer. As I pulled up beside Veronica, I heard a horrible hiss that sounded like it came from the bowels of the Earth, and she jumped back about thirty feet in one leap.
Two things struck me, first, someone should try using an alligator next time they want to set the long jump world’s record and, second, The Okefenokee’s most famous resident, Pogo, had it wrong. We have met the enemy and he sure ain’t us. He’s all teeth and tail.
Back in the safety of BAMF, we drove to the Chesser Island Homestead. Late in the 1800s W. T. Chesser and his family settled an island at the edge of the swamp. The family survived on what they could grow, hunt or fish and raised a little spendin’ cash growing sugar cane and making turpentine from the prevalent pine trees.
The Chessers lived here for generations, with grandson Tom building the present house in 1927. The yards of the house and surrounding outbuildings were cleared of vegetation, down to bare sand to help prevent fires and the ever present bugs from reaching them. Wicked smart.
After the Wildlife Refuge was created, Tom stayed on the homestead and worked for the park for seventeen years, to ensure that things were perfectly preserved as an accurate glimpse of what swamp life was like nearly a century ago.
At the end of the Swamp Island Drive we came to the Swamp Walk Boardwalk. This wooden walkway stretches about a mile out over the marsh to the Owl’s Roost Tower. Along the way there are numbered stops that point out interesting spots for viewing birds, wildlife and even carnivorous plants.
First stop, an alligator hole. The big boys stay in fighting shape by digging tunnels to connect their favorite hangouts by underground waterways. No one was home when we stopped by or, if he was we couldn’t spot him. As a precaution, we decided that taking a swim would be a colossally bad idea. We opted to obey all rules and stay safely on the boardwalk.
A spur off the main trail led to a bird viewing area, where we saw several hawks gliding overhead looking for lunch and wild turkeys foraging, possibly waiting to be lunch. All manner of unseen avian activity could be heard out in the jungle. The Refuge is home to dozens of species of birds that nest here or pass through on their migrations. Depending on the time of year, osprey, cranes, herons, egrets, Ibis, kingfishers, woodpeckers, warblers, nuthatches, coots, purple martins and even a chuck will’s widow or two might be spotted. No telling which ones of those were making all the racket around us.
The tower at the end of the trail overlooks Seagrove Lake. It gives a view that is worth every step up the fifty feet to the top. From that height we were above the Spanish mossed tree tops and could see for miles. Spectacular.
We sat in the tower for an hour, eating our lunch, basking in the afternoon sun and oohing and ahhing over our glorious surroundings. Not another human being showed up to break our commune with nature or overhear our refrains of the classic song from The Who… “I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.”
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com