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Lost in the Okefenokee

by John Pennington

Atlanta journal Constitution Magazine

June 7, 1970

Second of Two Articles

The swamp symphony fades with the coming of light in the Okefenokee. The yellow warblers call us with their morning song. The mosquitoes are gone and an air of tranquility lies on Big Water Lake.

We have been a day and a night in the wilderness. New experiences await us.

Larry Calvert puts the coffee on. Marion Hay cooks the ham and eggs and grits. Harrison Lee checks the fishing gear. Outside the cabin, the early light splashes random colors on the watery swamp floor and I spend some time seeking to capture abstractions with the Leica, and reflecting on our first 14 hours in the “land of the trembling earth.”

I had not realized that in the Okefenokee, unless you are on one of the sandbar islands, you are on the water. There is nowhere to walk. The swamper lives in his boat. It is a watery environment, and man is an intruder here.

The balance of nature seems practically perfect in the wilderness, if left alone by man. But the air of tranquility we see while passing through is deceptive. In this beautiful spot, a predator-prey relationship exists.

Without man in the picture only the big alligator and possibly the hawk and owl, are safe from predators. Until they survive for several years, gators are  vulnerable. Raccoons will rob the gator’s nest of eggs. Nearly everything in the swamp want to eat the baby alligator, except its mother, which will guard and protect her young from one to three years. The three-year-old alligator still is not safe. A 12-footer will kill and eat a six-footer. But once big, the alligator is king of the swamp.

The predator-prey relationship is nature’s way of preserving balance. Big fish and snakes eat smaller fish and frogs and birds eat insects. Insects prey on animals and fowl. Big birds eat small fish. So do raccoons. Big gators eat nearly everything in the swamp, including unwary deer. Big birds prey on small animal life.

That’s the peaceful, tranquil environment we’re passing through on a three-day exploration of the Okefenokee Swamp. Coon eat egg, gator eat coon. Everything preys on something.

Even after this explanation from Calvert, Big Water looks ultimately peaceful to me as we start another day, floating downstream with the motors silent while the fishermen try their luck. The water is calm; the sky is clear and everything above is reflected perfectly in the smooth water. It seems we are floating in space between two heavens.

Big Water yields finally to a winding “run” to Minnie’s Lake, which also is ultimately beautiful and which yields in turn to another “run” to Billy’s Lake.

Billy’s Lake is the biggest body of water in the Okefenokee; it lies slightly to the west of the swamp’s center.

At midday we stop at another ranger cabin on Jones Island a hundred yards or so from Stephen Foster State Park, one of the swamp’s three public entrance points. Larry Calvert, who manages the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, leaves us here and arranges to meet us the following day at Camp Cornelia, the third public entrance point, which is located all the way across the swamp on its eastern edge.

Now our party is down to three: Harrison Lee, the swamper going back home; Marion Hay, Waycross recreation specialist and me. We get in one of the boats and head for Billy’s Island, where Lee was born and raised in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. He has been back periodically to clean the family cemetery.

Hey and I had a mental image of Lee’s old home place. He had shown us an article published in  the National Geographic nearly 50 years ago. His home place had been pictured in the article and he had served as one of the writer’s guides in the swamp. We would be looking for the site of the old home place.

We step onto Billy’s Island after a day and a half in the water, into a virgin forest of towering oaks, sweet gums, pines and sycamores. The afternoon sun backlights the forest, creating an inspiring cathedral-like effect.

Lee looks around with a solemn, thoughtful expression. He was born on this island, grew up here, trapped coons and hunted gators for a living, took a wife and brought her here. He lived in isolated splendor in the wilderness, remote from civilization. He saw a boomtown flourish on Billy’s Island, when lumbermen came in to cut the big timber; he saw the settlement fade and die and become a ghost town, so that he and his family were alone again, until 1932, when he yielded Billy’s Island to the government and poled out of the swamp to stay. It had been 36 years……

We walk first to the cemetery, under a towering sycamore. Lee is quiet for a moment, contemplating the past. “This is where my father’s buried,” he says, pointing out a spot. “Right in here. Three of my brothers are buried beside him. Granddaddy’s buried right over here …”

We leave the cemetery and the island’s edge and walk inland, through pine trees, stepping over fallen logs, brushing past healthy palmettos. Lee walks ahead, peering first one way, then another, looking for evidence of his early days there. He shows us where the lumber town was built, beginning in 1912 when the Hebard Cypress Co. came to cut and carry out timber. The town boomed for 13 years, then died. It had a population of about 1,500.


Hebard Boarding House, Billy's Island, 1920s

Here’s where the commissary was at,” Lee says. “The theater set right over there. And this was the store. The barber shop and juke joint was farther along. Right up and down here they had a boarding house with 18 rooms. Right there’s where the back gate swung.” We walk further.

“There was a small building here. They called it the bullpen. Where they’d get to play poker and stuff.”

As Lee leads us through a thick undergrowth, he warns: “In these rough places, we want to watch for them snakes. There’s due to be plenty of them rattlers in here.”

The island has returned to wilderness, and there is little to remind the visitor of what once went on there. But the picture is in Harrison Lee’s mind and he conveys it to Marion Hay and to me.

In 1884 his grandfather, Daniel Lee, traded a brother two lots on the mainland for his claim to Billy’s Island. Daniel Lee, a hardy pioneer, moved to the island, cleared a home site, built a house with his own hands and raised his family. There were no neighbors – only Lee and his family.

One of Daniel’s sons, Jackson Andrew Lee, built the second house on Billy’s Island in 1902 – three years before Harrison Lee was born. Jackson and a brother, Farley, traded their father a horse for Billy’s Island and then divided it between them, setting up the property line with metal wagon axles driven into the ground. The axles are still in place.

Harrison Lee grew up, he tells us, learning to trap coons and hunt gators. This was the money crop, and gator-hunting was legal then. He poled the swamp from end to end; he knew it well. He saw the lumber town come and go and finally there was only Harrison Lee’s family left on the island.

Lee went out of the swamp in 1930, got married, took his wife through the swamp in a boat to Billy’s Island, where they lived for two years before finally giving up their wilderness home. The State Legislature had sold portions of the swamp, including Billy’s Island, apparently without knowledge of the Lee’s claim to it. Harrison Lee says his mother, then a widow, was paid $1,000 to sign some papers, after which the sheriff of Charlton County came and told him he would have to vacate the island.

“I just told them, well, just load up the furniture and go on with it. They loaded it and carried it out to Fargo.”

“What did you do?”

“Went back through the swamp, the way we come from.”

The memories race through Lee’s mind as we walk the island, looking. “The school set right back out there,” he says. “That was the first I went to school. Nowhere to go before then. All the schooling we got before then was how to catch a coon and kill a gator.”

“What was life like?”

“Good. We could catch all the fish we wanted. If we wanted a deer, we’d kill a deer. We had hogs and cows and a garden. We made our own cornmeal and grits. Didn’t particular need very much money.”

Lee explains how his wife would get supper, relying entirely on the island’s resources. “We could always get something to eat. My wife would go down to the water, catch a frog and cut him up for bait. Then she’d catch a fish and cut him up for more bait. Then she’d catch enough fish for supper.”

We find the old home place, nothing now but a pile of brick amid the palmettos. Lee looks it over; he sees more than we do. We also find the place where his grandfather’s house was. Lee shows us several Indian mounds, which have been defiled by diggers,

That night, sitting outside under a full moon on Jones Island, listening again to the swamp’s night son, Lee tells more stories about life in the Okefenokee. Of adventure, mystery, intrigue, violence. Of conflict between man and man, conflict between man and his environment, between man and animals. One story is about the time a gator attacked his boat.

“When the gator came at us, he had ahold of the side of the boat before I could do anything,” Lee says. “My brother, he had the gun in the front of the boat. It frightened him till he couldn’t shoot the gator, or something. I jogged him loose from the boat with a pole; he come back, I caught him in the mouth. He had his mouth open. I jogged him in his mouth. He bit the pole in two. While he was getting rid of that, why, I got up there in the front and got the gun from my brother. When the gator came back, just about the time he clamped down on the gun barrel I pulled the trigger. Shot him right in the mouth.”

In the background we hear the frogs. A barred owl hoots. A gator bellows ….

Third day in the swamp. Two boats, three men. Lee is in one boat alone. Hay and I are in the other. We start early, about seven o’clock, because it is to take us five hours for a leisurely trip across the swamp, from the west side of it to Camp Cornelia on the east.

We discuss this trip, which traverses a mean, winding, snake-infested, tree-strewn area four miles long leading to the open and safe Suwanee Canal. Lee has reminded Larry Calvert to be sure he meets us to “make sure I didn’t feed ‘em to the gators.” We have been warned that snakes might fall from close, overhanging limbs into the boat. Lee has some advice on this. “If he gets in the boat with you, don’t fight him. Leave him alone and he’ll get out.” I agree with this strategy. I’ll leave him alone if he’ll leave me alone.

We move out in a heavy, morning fog. We cruise past Billy’s Island into a narrowing channel of water. Suddenly it narrows more, and forks. Lee looks it over, chooses one direction. Shortly he stops, cuts off the boat motor. “I think I took the wrong turn,” he says.

We back up, take the other fork. Now Lee is poling; his motor is silent. He wants more time to contemplate the route.

Again he stops in a dead end. We back up, try again. We are negotiating narrow, hairpin turns with overhanging limbs low enough to brush against us constantly. We watch for snakes. There are logs in the water, mammoth ones and thick growths of lily pads. The going is rough, extremely so. But we had been warned it would be.

For the fifth time we make a false start, hit a dead end, back up for another try. We are getting ever deeper into the swamp.

Lee has been poling his boat through the obstacle-strewn waters for more than an hour. He looks worried, it seems to me. “It’s been 36, 38 years since I was in here,” he says. “It’s burned off since then, and we’ve got high water. It’s not easy to find the right run.” Lee drips with perspiration. So do Hay and I. He is poling, I am paddling. The motors have long since been useless in the overgrown waterway.

Up to this moment I have been worried. I don’t know what has gone on in Lee’s mind, nor in Hay’s. But my persistent thought has been that we are lost, and that we may have to spend the night in the swamp’s hostile environment. Earlier Hay has wondered aloud if one could survive a night in the swamp with no protection from aggressive swarms of mosquitoes. Lee says yes. “Wrap yourself in Spanish moss,” he proposed. “The mosquitoes will have to do a lot of walking and crawling to get to you.”

For 48 hours in the swamp now I had felt like a stranger, a visitor passing through, an outsider perched comfortably on the end of a boat driven by somebody else. Then something happened that opened my eyes. We were in yet another dead end.

“It looks open that way,” I suggest, pointing to an apparent new route possibility.

“No,” Lee says. “That water’s not running. That’s backwater.”

Lee explains that we want to follow moving water, that the water flows from east to west and we want to go east, which is upstream. I begin to watch Lee more closely. He is looking for pertinent signs. The old swamper is back in an environment that he spent 27 years in. He isn’t worried, simply busy. He looks at the water, at the sun. He studies the path for previous boat signs – chopped lilies, scraped logs, skinned trees, broken limbs. He poles with authority. It occurs to me that he may not find the trail we are looking for, but he can find his way back out.

From not far away, a gator bellows. Then another. The sound accents our dilemma. But I am no longer worried, and no longer a stranger to the Okefenokee. I feel an intimacy with the swamp and I can see that Hay feels it, too.

Lee does not give up easily and we try again and again. After awhile Hay takes the solo boat to make it easier on Lee, who is working very hard for a 86-year-old man.

We stop for a rest and Lee sings us a song written by one of his cousins. “Come all you pretty girls and a’listen to my noise/But don’t you be courted by those Okefenokee boys…”

After about three hours of futile searching, we start back from where we came, thinking we might have missed the right turn much earlier. We diverge occasionally into what appears a promising path. Each promise lets us down and we continue back-tracking, poling and floating downstream, back toward Billy’s Lake. Finally we emerge into familiar territory and once again we see a promising turn, at right angles to the path originally chosen. In the distance there is further evidence of promise: an Interior Department sign forbidding further entry. We enter, and we are lost no more.

This is it. At 11:30 o’clock in the morning, four hours from the time we first went by that point, we are on the “difficult” run against which we had been warned, But it isn’t difficult. Compared to where we have been, it seems like an intracoastal waterway.

There are curves. And snakes. And the biggest alligators we had yet encountered. But the snakes stay out of the boat. They leave us alone and we leave them alone. We go around one sharp curve and meet a big gator, head-on, 10 feet away. I look at him dumbfounded, too startled to use the camera in my hands. The gator resolves the confrontation. He submerges and we pass over him.

Shortly afterwards, we startle the biggest alligator we have seen in the swamp. He is at least a 12-footer. He seems to panic at the sound of the boat, rises in the water, goes under with a great, churning splash, crosses under the boat sending up bubbles.

The swamp changes as one moves through it. From forest to prairie to lake to island. From lake to almost impenetrable growth, is a winding river. We see turtles, otter, other creatures of the water. A great blue heron retreats before us. Snakes bask in the sun. And finally the curving water trail opens into the Suwannee Canal, an 11-mile straight shot to Camp Cornelia. Lee drives the boat and I lie back, face in the sun, sleeping and dreaming wildly.

The Okefenokee is beautiful and mysterious and wild, alluring and dangerous, captivating and hostile. Fortunately the interested public has access to major parts of it, from three points. We touched all of them in our three-day trip through the swamp. They are:

The Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross, operated by a nonprofit organization on property leased from the Department of Interior. There is an observation tower and tours are available.

Stephen Foster State Park, 12 miles northeast of Fargo, offering cottages, camping sites, fishing boats and sight-seeing tours.

Camp Cornelia (Suwannee Canal Recreation Area), 11 miles from Folkston, operated by the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife of the Department of Interior. Fishing boats and tours are available. There is an air-conditioned museum and only recently a series of scenic drives and walking trails have been completed. Larry Calvert is particularly proud of a 4,000 foot boardwalk through swamp phenomena from Chesser Island  into Chesser Prairie, where one may view the prairie and Seagrove Lake from a newly constructed 40-foot observation tower.

Late in the evening Harrison Lee, Marion Hay and I, along with several companions, arrived back in Waycross tired and dirty from three days in the swamp. We sat down to dinner at a motel restaurant and, naturally, began discussing the adventure. Lee was talking when I realized that something from the swamp had not followed us back to civilization. Lee was only two chairs away, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

The night before we had sat outside on Jones Island, talking. Lee and Hay on the cottage steps, me six feet away leaning against a tree. Every word had been clearly audible along with the sounds of the night.

Now I couldn’t hear Lee, although he was much closer. Instead I heard the hissing of the air conditioner, the clank of other diners’ silverware against their plates, pots and pans clanging in the kitchen, music from speakers overhead, cars passing by outside, the cash register ringing up a sale, the television out in the lobby.

There was no doubt about it.

The trip was over.

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