Despite efforts to tame it and drain it, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge remains wild and beautiful.
The 680-square-mile swamp, about two hours south of Hinesville, beckons adventurers and nature lovers to spend a day hiking along its nature trails or gazing over wetland prairies (aka marshes) carpeted with wiregrass, palmettos and towering slash pines.
The slash pines were planted by lumber companies a century ago to replace the longleaf pines that once dominated the Southeast. However, the longleaf pines are making a comeback, according to Jay Bukalski, volunteer guide with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services.
“As the slash pines are harvested, many of those stands are being replaced with the longleaf, which are part of a habitat for a lot of threatened species, like the gopher tortoise, the Indigo snake and the red-cockaded woodpecker,” he said.
Bukalski said overharvesting of the longleaf pines was just one many abuses of this swamp that’s not really a swamp at all. A swamp is a low-lying area with still and stagnant waters. The Okefenokee, however, is 103-128 feet above sea level, making the great swamp higher than the surrounding land.
Bukalski said the Okefenokee receives nearly all its water through rainfall, and this watershed gives birth to the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. Due to recent drought conditions in South Georgia and the Okefenokee having one of the highest rates of lightning strikes in the country, the swamp has seen several forest fires in recent years. In years past, it survived such fires because native plants like the longleaf pine, cypress trees and palmettos are more fire resistant than other plant species.
In addition to overharvesting the longleaf pine, Bukalski said the lumber companies took out most of the 300-year-old cypress trees in the late 19th century, even building small towns on the larger islands in order to house their lumber operations.
“They’d clear-cut the trees in an area, laying temporary railroad lines through the swamp to get the timber out,” he explained. “When the trees were gone, they took up the tracks and moved on to another area until there were no more easy-to-get-to trees.”
In 1891, a company tried to drain the swamp, hoping to sell the “peat” swamp floor as fertilizer, then parcel up the area into farm land. The remnant of their failed canal is still there. Bukalski said they used man and mule power to dig the canal but soon gave up as the sandy soil kept filling back in where they dug. The company went bankrupt and nature reclaimed the swamp. About 91 percent of the Okefenokee became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1937.
Winter and early spring are the best times to visit the refuge, according to Bukalski, because the snakes and mosquitoes are not as active. Alligators — the refuge’s celebrity residents — are less active as well, but they still can be seen soaking up the sun and “grinning” at passersby.
Visitors can find directions to the refuge as soon as they enter the town of Folkston on U.S. 301. There is a $5 parking fee.
Begin by visiting the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center for information about the nature trails and scenic stops along the Swamp Island Drive. Watch a 30-minute movie about the refuge or listen to an animatronics storyteller recall his “swamper” experiences.
See the swamp up close by taking a guided boat tour deep into the swamp’s black waters with Okefenokee Adventures, located next to the visitor’s center. There is an additional charge for the boat tour.
As you drive along Swamp Island Drive, look for whitetails, wild turkeys, quail, sandhill cranes, blue herons, egrets and ibis, or take one of the hiking trails and look for wildflowers and carnivorous plants.
Be sure to see the Chesser Island Homestead, built by Tom Chesser in 1927. His grandfather, W.T. Chesser, settled in the swamp in 1858. Like other swampers such as Isaiah “Obediah Okfenok” Barber (aka “King of the Okefenokee”) and Lydia Smith Stone Crews (aka “Queen of the Okefenokee”), the Chessers survived by eating whatever they could shoot, trap or catch or grow in the sandy soil.
Native Americans called it “Okefenoka,” which means “land of the trembling earth.” Like the swampers, Bukalski said Native Americans lived off the swamp for thousands of years without attempting to subdue it.
Today, visitors can experience the great swamp and then return home with an appreciation of how nature can reclaim itself and restore its natural beauty.