It’s a chilly spring day, with lots of wind, so I was startled when Okefenokee Adventures guide Joey Griffin commanded me to take off my shoes and climb out of his pontoon boat.
But you just don’t say no to a big, burly swamper. So here I am, standing on a soggy, boggy mound of peat rising out of the black water all around us.
“Now bounce up and down,” Griffin orders.
“Are you serious?” I ask.
“Jump!” he instructs, hiding a bemused smile.
Feeling a bit of trepidation, I start jumping straight up and down. Then something weirdly wonderful happens: The ground quivers, jellylike, beneath my freezing bare feet.
“Whoa!” I laugh. “This is fun!”
“There you have it.” Griffin nods knowingly. “The trembling earth.”
We’re in the Okefenokee Swamp, or the Land of the Trembling Earth, which is what it means in the Creek Indians’ tongue. And I’ve just reconfirmed a Georgia history lesson I learned as a child, about how the swamp got its name.
I’m kind of surprised that it’s taken me this long to actually experience it.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s nature. As a one-time tomboy, I grew up traipsing endless miles through the tall pine forests and red clay roads of South Georgia.
From a very young age, I learned to identify just about every wild critter that has ever slithered, crawled, hopped, pranced or winged across this still-wild landscape: whitetail deer, raccoons and possums, gopher tortoises, indigos and rattlers, turkeys and hawks, black bears – and squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels.
So when I last visited the Okefenokee Swamp, which is about as far south in Georgia as you can get without falling over into Florida, I felt very much at home. All these creatures and their cousins, plus more alligators – about 20,000 to 22,000 of them – than you can shake a squirrel at, live in this vast wetland of about 700 square miles.
The last time I visited, I wasn’t even old enough to know what an alligator was.
The Okefenokee blipped back onto my radar screen when it made national headlines because of Mother Nature’s fury. Much of the swamp burned, first in 2007 in a fire that gobbled a half-million acres across the Okefenokee region and all of South Georgia, and then again in 2011, when another lightning-induced blaze charred more than 300,000 acres within Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Suddenly, I wanted to see it anew for the first time since I was, in local vernacular, a young’un.
Camera in hand, I climb into Griffin’s small pontoon boat at the east entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Ga., close to the Florida line. “The Okefenokee is not Disney World,” warns Griffin, a longtime guide and eighth-generation swamper. “It’s not about the people. It’s all about the animals living free in their natural environment.”
As Griffin fires up the motor, he startles a great blue heron into flight, its lustrous more-gray-than-blue feathers and long spindly legs mirroring splendidly against the dark water. The bird hopscotches across the swamp before disappearing into a tangle of trees.
Mesmerized by its graceful flight, I still pay close enough attention to Griffin as he talks about the origins of the swamp’s name. The ground, mostly a peat bog with deposits up to about 15 feet thick, is soft and unstable and really does tremble, as he proves by sending me out of the boat. Experiment over, I bound back in with a real spring in my step, just in case an alligator or two may be lurking around.
After I’ve put my socks and shoes back on, I listen as Griffin explains why the Okefenokee’s water, as dark as a cast-iron kettle, is pristine and pure and shimmers and reflects like quicksilver. “The water is black because of the tannic acid released by decaying vegetation,” he says. “Some say it has healing powers.”
Just a few hundred feet away, sure enough, three, maybe four alligators watch the boat as we glide by. Unfazed by humans, they stare at us, their eyes glowing in the bright sun, until we round a bend in the canal head for the boat landing and then home.
I still hadn’t had enough of the Okefenokee. Returning in midwinter, I choose the Waycross entrance at Okefenokee Swamp Park.
Waycross, Ga., where Burt Reynolds, Ossie Davis and Pernell Roberts lived as children, is a quiet small town on the northernmost edge of the swamp.
On this brilliantly blue, cloudless day, Scott Tanner, a nature guide and seventh-generation swamper, expertly maneuvers a Carolina skiff through the dark water. My husband, Roy, and I are the sole passengers.
As Tanner’s boat slinks forward through a canal, a beat-up lean-to comes into our sights. “That was my uncle’s old moonshine still,” Tanner says, explaining that white lightning was still being made illegally in the swamp even after Okefenokee Swamp Park was established in 1946. “He would outsmart the law. He quit using firewood, which created smoke, and started using propane gas, which didn’t. He could brew 24 hours a day, making 20 gallons of whiskey a day at 190 proof.”
Eventually it became legal for liquor to be sold in these primarily Southern Baptist counties of South Georgia, and thus the delicate art of moonshining disappeared from the Okefenokee.
But what remains is an incredible primordial beauty, the kind that stirs the imagination. The swamp, very large and intimidating to those not used to nature, encompasses a wide swath of wetlands, uplands, islands and pine forests. The vast peat bog – it’s akin to a huge saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor – harbors hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, snakes, amphibians and lush plant life.
During my visit, I count four black bears, egrets, herons, pileated woodpeckers and plenty of squirrels.
Winter is still too chilly for snakes, and only a few alligators come ashore to sun. While it’s a bit early in the season for my favorite birds, the wood stork and the sandhill crane, Tanner promises that they’ll come in the spring, when “there are birds on just about every tree,” he says.
Elements of danger exist with so many critters around. Tanner points to the tangled vegetation and announces, “I can walk off out there, and in probably about five or six hours I can catch you all 34 different varieties of snakes out here. Diamondbacks can get up to 96 inches long out here.”
Revving up the boat engine, he guides us to a place called Green River, hauntingly photographed for National Geographic magazine in the early 1970s.
“Green River in the summertime is the most beautiful place in the Okefenokee,” he states matter-of-factly. “Lily pads sway from side to side with their beautiful white and yellow flowers, and everything is turning green. The bladderworts are floating, and so is the trembling earth. It’s just unbelievable out here.”
Not far up the creek, Tanner shows us several alligator nests, assuring us that Mama Gator won’t come out because the morning is cold. Maybe later, he says, when the sun warms the earth.
“When she lays her eggs, six or seven or eight times a day, she’ll touch the eggs with the tip of her nose to check the temperature on them,” he explains in his soft South Georgia drawl. “If she can’t get the den temperature down below 90 degrees, she’s not going to have nothing but boy gators. If she can get it down between 86 and 90, she’ll have boy and girl gators, and 86 and below will be nothing but girl gators. You think a gator is a dumb ol’ killin’, eatin’ machine, but nature has helped program a way in there to help balance out nature. The past two summers have been so hot and dry, we probably had close to 90 percent male gators.”
My favorite phenomenon of the swamp is its utter quietness – or what you think is quiet. Sitting on a small knoll near the visitors center, I listen as little by little, sound by sound, the Okefenokee comes alive.
Like a perfectly composed symphony of nature, myriad sounds rise with the wind: cardinals and brown thrashers trilling in the distance, busy squirrels excitedly chattering at some secret discovery, crickets chirping in the dense underbrush, bullfrogs croaking their strange songs, the soft fwip-fwipping of gators diving for some underwater treasure, and the powerful whisper of the wind sighing through the tallest of pines.
The only sounds missing are the beep-beeps and ding-dings of mobile phones and other electronic gizmos. The Okefenokee is pretty far removed from the technological world, and I’m perfectly delighted that cellphone service is sporadic at best.
After those devastating fires, the park is greening up again, thanks to recent rains that have brought the water level back up to near that of pre-drought. From the once-scorched earth, carpets of palmetto, brush and trees now rise like scepters to the sky. Blackened bones of dead trees rest where verdant, canopied forests once stood, but these, too, are surrounded by green.
Home is where the heart is, and although I’m long, long past my tomboy years, I’m glad to have come to know the prehistoric landscape of the Okefenokee once again. In the craziness of today’s world, I’m thrilled that nature and all its intriguing secrets still captivate my soul and bring my life to a welcome, slow, Southern crawl.