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Mystique of the Okefenokee Swamp

by John Pennington

Atlanta Journal Constitution Magazine

May 31, 1970

First of Two Articles

The Okefenokee is beautiful and Mysterious and wild, alluring and dangerous, captivating and hostile. And more. More than “land of the trembling earth,” the English translation of the Indian name by which it is now called. More than DeSoto saw in 1538, when he found “a great morass bordered by forests and lofty trees and a dense underwood of thorns and brambles and clinging vines.”

The Okefenokee is several environments, all of them peacefully beautiful, yet unfriendly. Swamp forest, lake, prairie, island. Land of the big gator and several other endangered species of wildlife; land of snake and frog and fish; mosquito and deer fly and wood tick; American egret and blue heron, barred owl and sandhill crane, osprey, wood duck and sandpiper; land of solitude and excitement, promise and challenge, as I found by listening to the swamp’s song, from deep within, for two nights and three days with a “swamper.” One who was born and raised on Billy’s Island, and who trapped and hunted the swamp for the first 27 years of his life.

There were four of us in the beginning of our swamp odyssey, two men each in two flat-bottomed swamp boats pushed by 10-horsepower engines with auxiliary poles and paddles. During the last half of the trip there were three of us. (We did not lose anybody, though many a man has ventured into the swamp never to return – and we did get thoroughly lost for several hours.)

The Okefenokee Swamp is a National Wildlife Refuge. It is not the habitat of man, and has not been for many years now. The first white man to homestead on Billy’s Island in the heart of the swamp, where once only renegade Indians lived, was Daniel Lee, who built a house on the island in 1884 and raised his family in that wilderness wonderland.

The second man to build a house on the island, in 1902, was Jackson Andrew Lee, who raised another family there. The last man to live there with his family was Henry Harrison Lee, son of Jackson, grandson of Daniel. The government went to the Lee home on Billy’s Island 39 years ago and told them they’d have to go. Harrison Lee left the same way he had brought his wife in two years earlier; Poling a boat across the swamp.

Henry Harrison Lee, now 65 and raising chickens at his rural home near Blackshear, went back into the swamp with us. For him it was a trip back to where he came from. For me it was the first opportunity to venture further than the tourist’s edge of the swamp.

This is not easily done. As a wildlife refuge, the swamp is managed by the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife of the U.S. Department of Interior. There are regulations and barriers. One regulation, rigidly enforced, is that everybody who goes in must be out by sundown. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the danger held by the hostile environment of the swamp. And the swamp is big – 412,000 acres in all. At some point from each of the three public entrances to the swamp, there are Department of Interior signs prohibiting further entry. Unless one is with a licensed guide, or has special dispensation, it is not possible to traverse the swamp entirely.

We had special arrangements: The head man in charge of enforcing regulations – Larry Calvert of Waycross, the Interior Department’s manager of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, led us through the first half of our trip and gave the remaining three of us special permission to complete it. (It was only after Calvert left us that we got lost). The fourth member of the group, who arranged the unusual swamp exploration, was Marion Hay, outdoor recreation specialist with the Slash Pine Area Planning and Development Commission at Waycross.

On a gray, overcast Monday morning we start out for a three-day study of the mystique of the big swamp.

On the way to the swamp entrance, Hay stops to pull a garden rake through a watery ditch, looking for crawdads. No luck. Lee smiles. “You know the fish is biting good when you can’t get no bait.”

Hay rakes out a small snake. Lee chuckles again. “You see a coon in the swamp looking for crawdads, his hand is down in the water feeling around. He finds one, his hand is just a working. But if he gets hold of a snake, he comes out of there in a hurry.”

Lee will tell us much about the swamp in the next three days. He knows it well, loves it, has a feeling for it that few men know.

We climb into the shallow boats at the Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross, sharing the limited space with sleeping bags, food and drink boxes, fishing gear, camera equipment for everybody, except Lee, who is more concerned with catching fish than with taking pictures. Calvert runs the first boat, puts me out front on the leading edge of the expedition; Hay runs the second boat with Lee in the front seat. We head south from Cowhouse Island on headwaters of the Suwannee River. Out of the heavy growth and onto Sapling Prairie. Through virgin cypress country. Into Big Water Lake, Minnie’s Lake, Billy’s Lake, Jones Island, Billy’s Island. And on toward the Suwannee Canal. We get lost on the third day; it takes 48 hours from the beginning to reach that point of intimacy within the Okefenokee.

While the trip is a homecoming for Harrison Lee, an introduction for me, a deeper plunge for Hay than he has known before, Calvert is at home in the swamp. He knows it from end to end. He knows the fowl and flora and animal life; his job as manager of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is to protect and preserve its wilderness state from man’s encroachments.

As we slide along the water trail, Calvert calls the names of birds and flowers and swamp phenomena we see. He points out the grassy nest of the round-tailed muskrat. He identifies flowers by their Latin names and by their popular names. A bird flees a few feet from our boat’s intrusion and fusses loudly. Calvert stops the boat. “Here, I’ll show you why that bird is fussing. She’s building a nest here.”

We stop for awhile, to make pictures, to talk and to listen. The creatures of the swamp are vocal, night and day. They never stop. Birds sing nearby. Frogs call and answer. Off in the distance there is a sound at once like and unlike a dog barking. “That’s a sandhill crane,” Calvert says. “They’re really talking this morning.”

Lee is excited by the swamp experience. “I’ll have to bring my wife back in here and show her how it’s changed,” he says. “We went through here on our honeymoon.”

There are blossoms everywhere. Sweet spire, the yellow spikes of “never wet,” swamp iris, water lilies. Something, apparently the sweet spire, smells sweet as honeysuckle.

Colors: The dominant color is gray because the sky is overcast. It is reflected in the water, along with the greens and reds  and golds of the plant life. The water itself looks dark and syrupy from the surface but scooped up in the hand it shows the reddish-brown color of good bourbon. Calvert explains that this is the effect of tannic acids from decaying vegetation, primarily cypress.

We have emerged onto Sapling Prairie, a shallowly flooded grassland decorated with acres of wild flowers. An American egret rises gracefully a hundred yards away. A red-wing blackbird feeds in a clump of bushes nearby, seemingly oblivious of our presence. But another cowbird, nesting at the edge of the trail, sets up a raucous protest. We’re too close for her comfort. An occasional alligator, with only the top of his head above water, disappears with hardly a ripple as we come near.

In the middle of Sapling Prairie we stop again to look and listen and talk. Calvert volunteers some information about the swamp.

“Five hundred thousand to a million years ago,” he says, “There was ocean floor where the swamp is now. The coast ran northeast from Homerville and what is now Florida was four small islands. Along the east side of the swamp, where Trail Ridge is now, a sand bar trapped water off from the sea and created a dead lake. That was salt water, but through the centuries of rain and drainage it became fresh water.

“The swamp is a shallow basin, an oblong saucer tilted to the southwest. It sits up on a ridge; the elevation drops in every direction. There is no drainage into the swamp, only rain, but water flows and all the time. We’re now on a little finger of the Suwannee River, which flows south and west to the Gulf of Mexico. St. Mary’s River flows into the Atlantic.”

Calvert explains that the Okefenokee has three basic environments; swamp forests, one of which we have traversed coming south from Cowhouse Island; prairies, like the one we were sitting on, and islands.

The swamp is a natural phenomenon which has developed through thousands of years of plant growth and decay, forming layers of a peat formation which Indians called “land of the trembling earth.” The peat floats to the top of the water and forms a nebulous surface, one on which new vegetation grows. Cypress trees become rooted and grow tall in the peat. “You can shake one of those trees back and forth,” Calvert says.

“There is almost no actual management of the swamp,” he continues. “We don’t even fight fires in the swamp. We don’t want to interfere with the balance of nature. The swamp has had a major fire every 20 years or so. The fires burn pockets in the peat and this causes the lakes and prairies to form. We feel that without fires, given enough time, the swamp would become high and dry and the prairies would disappear.”

While Calvert talks, we get what sounds like a loud horse laugh from somewhere in the distance. “King Rail,” he says.

More swamp facts: There are 60,000 acres of Prairie, 70 high sandbar islands (Billys, Floyds, Bugaboo, Blackjack, Honey, Chesser, etc.); 60 named lakes. Billy’s Island is the biggest island, Billy’s Lake the biggest lake.

More than 6,000 alligators live in the swamp, a figure steadily increasing since 1936, when gator hunters had reduced the population to a dangerous low.

Hunters have not been the only threat to the swamp’s balance. Just before the turn of the century an 11-mile canal was dug on the east side in an effort to drain the swamp, cut its timber and convert it to farmland. The enterprise fortunately failed. Beginning in 1906, lumbermen cut 425 million feet of timber from the swamp, much of it giant cypress hundreds of years old. In 1937 the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the Okefenokee a national wildlife refuge by executive order. It is protected and maintained by the U.S. Department of Interior.

Still in the water – water, water everywhere – we move south from Sapling Prairie into a forest of virgin cypress missed by the timbermen a half century ago. We emerge into a pond covered with water lilies. It has rained and the leaves are still wet. The sun burst forth from behind the clouds and the swamp sparkles.

“Dinner time,” Calvert announces.  “Dinner Pond.”

And there in the overgrowth, almost hidden from view, is a shelter. A covered platform on stilts in the water, with a table and a garbage can. It is a halfway point between Cowhouse and Billy’s Island, a dinner time stop for alligator hunters years ago. So they named it Dinner Pond.

We stretch our legs and have lunch from the boxes in the boat, noting that a previous visitor has left a Pepsi bottle bobbing in the water near the shelter.

“How many people come here?” I ask.

“Oh, not more than a dozen a year,” Calvert says.

“Any place that’s open to people,” Lee says, “They’ll mess it up.”

Resting, we see a pig frog nearby. Lee points in the water. “Look out there, there’s a fish shaking that lily pad. Trying to shake that frog off so he can catch him.”

A new sound echoes across the water, like a hammer striking a nail rapidly. “That’s a carpenter frog,” Calvert says. The pig frog croaks and the reason for his name is obvious. He sounds like a hog grunting.

We float quietly and fish for awhile and it’s Harrison Lee’s day. He pulls them in steadily, so there’s no worry where supper’s coming from.

Finally we start the motors and drive right on past a sign that says go back. It is Calvert’s prerogative because it is his sign. We move into a twisting channel, where the path is overgrown, tortuous and strewn with logs. Approaching a log, Calvert accelerates and the flat bottom boat skims up and over. Once or twice we get hung and have to use pole and paddle to disengage ourselves. From this run we emerge onto beautiful Big Water Lake and it is here, in the heart of the wilderness, that we will spend the night. Calvert rounds a turn and there, almost hidden from view, is a one-man cabin on stilts, a mid-swamp refuge for Calvert and his rangers when, chasing gator hunters or for other reasons, they need to stay overnight in the swamp.

More fishing and finally we sit on the porch and watch night fall on the Okefenokee. A pair of sweet-singing, tiny yellow birds flutter about. “We call them swamp canaries,” Lee says. Calvert calls the technical name: Prothonetary warbler.

As Hay and Calvert cook fresh fish and hushpuppies for supper, the mosquitoes rise in force and we listen for the swamp’s night song. It comes in low, at dusk, on the sweet song of the yellow bird. A woodpecker drums the side of a dead tree, stopping only when the light fades and the hooting call of a barred owl echoes across the water. Finally there is the steady sound of the cricket frog, accented by the grunt-grunt of the pig frog, the clacketyclackclack of the carpenter frog, the occasional call of the owl. The smaller birds are still at last and the mosquitoes hum.

We go to bed a little disappointed that the gators have not bellowed. I have tape recorded the night sounds and the mating call of the swamp king is missing.

That situation is remedied at 4 o’clock in the morning. Harrison Lee wakes us up. “Listen,” he says. “The gators.”

A deep rumble rolls across Big Water. What does it sound like? An angry lion? Distant thunder?

“If you were in the swamp by yourself,” Hay says, “and you heard that for the first time, it would scare you to death.”

We settle down again and wait for the day to come on Big Water, the four of us, alone in the swamp.

(To be continued next week)

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