Exploring the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
by Candyce H. Stapen
As we paddle the headwaters of the Suwannee River, we pass thickets of cypress trees that float almost magically on dense beds of peat, called "houses." Walk on them, and the land "quivers," a phenomenon that led the Indians to call this place "Okefenokee," or "the land of the trembling earth."
The Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, covers 438,000 acres and within it the wildlife refuge consists of 402,000-acres of which 353, 981-acres are preserved as wilderness. The largest national wildlife refuge in the eastern United States, the Okefenokee is a slow moving river of water that comprises lakes, marsh-like prairies and islands.
On a canoe trip through the swamp, we enter a strange, new world, a habitat for water fowl, wading birds, as well as for alligators, and river otters. The drizzle and the thin fog enhance the mystery. Looming above us, gnarled, barren tree branches hook thick swaths of Spanish moss that move in the wind with a ghostly flutter.
When the sun comes out, it transforms the park. The alligators appear. Hard to find, we spot a bony four-foot stretch of crooked mouth and tail basking in the sudden warmth. Not only do the alligators appear, but so do the birds. We see hawks, herons and hear a wood-pecker. The sun's effect on the black water is magical as well, creating perfect, mirror-like reflections that shoot into the depths.
Just as we near Billy's Island, 15 miles into the heart of the swamp, and about two miles from our put-in site at Stephen C. Foster State Park, the sky grows gray again. In a soft drizzle we hike through the island's pine forest. Although the air hear once buzzed with loggers’ saws, we hear only the wind in the pines.
Next, we navigate Minnie's Lake Run. Even in the rain, this narrow, curvy trail becomes our favorite. The green patches of lichen add color to their fluted gray trunks of the cypress trees. We maneuver around knobby cypress stumps, called "knees.
Come May, the refuge waters will be carpeted with long stretches of white and yellow water lilies. With sun, hundreds of slider turtles will be living up to their names, splashing from the shore into the water, and thousands of alligators will be basking on logs along the 100-plus miles of canoe trails. In spring too, the swamp resounds with the bellowing of breeding gators, and the exuberant trilling of frogs.
Since it’s still winter, we are thankful that we’ve booked one of the nine cabins at Stephen C. Foster State Park, one of the park’s main entrances. A day of often wet canoeing is doable for us if we can come back to hot chocolate, hot showers, and hot food. Despite the cold, we are reluctant to leave the remarkable world of the Okefenokee.