Words and images by Megan Massion
The glossy black water of the Okefenokee Swamp resembled oil – black and calm enough to create a mirror image of the Spanish-moss-draped cypress trees that surrounded the entire swamp. It is a place of subtle but breathtaking beauty and one that can only be fully explored by boat as a companion.
We commandeered a boat at Stephen C. Foster State Park, located in Fargo, Georgia — deep inside the forested swamp and completely away from civilization. The 80-acre park lies within the 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and is the primary entrance to one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders: the Okefenokee Swamp.
The Okefenokee is the largest freshwater and black-water swamp in North America, covering approximately 700-square miles. In fewer than 24 hours, my companion and I saw a variety of animals including deer, owls and raccoons. Also present are otters, bald and golden eagles, Florida black bear and an abundance of other creatures.
But the stars of the swamp are the alligators of all sizes. Officials estimate that 12,000 alligators live within the refuge.
We had decided that day to rent a motorized Jon boat, having arrived too late for the ranger-guided trip. It began as an easy tour, the black-water Suwannee River flaring wide and comfortably from bank to bank. But as we motored along, the swamp narrowed and a multitude of other tributaries ran off to the right and left.
Even the main river narrowed and the obstacles became more frequent, requiring us to carefully weave around trees and logs while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the many alligators along the way. Besides the frequent echo of hawks and birds in the distance, the sound of silence consumed this vast southern swamp.
Our first stop was the once-inhabited Billy’s Island, a five-by-one mile island supposedly named after a Creek Indian who was killed here. In the early 1900s, the island was home to a thriving lumbering town that boasted a church, movie theater, dormitories, a doctor’s office and nearly 50 homes.
Today, few traces exist. Unidentifiable artifacts were scattered throughout Billy’s Island, including tanks from old steam engines, outlines of building foundations and other metal artifacts. The park offers guided tours to the island where rangers can explain what visitors are seeing.
Throughout the swamp also once lived families of “swampers” who made their living off what the area provided. On Billy’s Island, the Lee family lived before loggers forced them to vacate. The only remnant of their existence is a small cemetery near the island’s boat dock.
Today the island is marked mainly by its absolute quietude and pristine environment.
But Okefenokee entices people for reasons beyond the beautiful scenery — the refuge is thousands of years old and profoundly rooted in history. The swamp was once part of the ocean floor before North America assumed its modern form. Century-old remnants still linger in certain parts of the park today.
From as early as 500 A.D., different groups of Native Americans have occupied the swamp throughout history, including Timucua and Creek Indians. In 1836, the Second Seminole War briefly extended into the area. During this time, roads and forts were built around the swamp and it was heavily patrolled by the Georgia militia and U.S army troops. White families and pioneers began to settle in the area around 1805 and in the late 1800s, industrial development started to emerge.
In the early 1900s, the property belonged to Hebard Lumber Company. Over the course of 15 years, the company built railroads across the swamp and began logging its enormous cypress trees. Still many cypress trees survived because in 1937, the property was purchased by the federal government and Roosevelt created the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. Facilities were developed throughout the park in the following years and Stephen C. Foster State Park was established in 1954.
The park is located in the middle of nowhere. According to the park’s website, the nearest grocery store is 50 miles from the park in Lake City – this empty 50-mile stretch was absent of cell phone service and any signs of civilization. The nearest town, Fargo, is 17 miles from the park. The small gas station in Fargo is the last opportunity to get anything you may need. After that, there is nothing but woodlands until you dead end into Stephen C. Foster.
There are 64 campsites and nine cottages available to rent. The cost to purchase a six-person campsite for a night is $35. Each site has its own water faucet, outlets, grill, fire-pit, picnic bench and cable. The cottages are $150 for a night and holds up to six people as well. The headquarters stocks a very Spartan store that has some staples but we advise people to bring everything they’ll need.
The experience, activities and events that Stephen C. Foster has to offer are unique to anything else is the area.
People who visit can enjoy all sorts of activities such as canoeing, camping, fishing, biking, birding and exploring the three trails including the 2.5-mile Trembling Earth Nature Trail. Visitors can rent canoes, kayaks and boats with small motors and there are no certifications required.
The park has daily guided pontoon boat tours for $10 t0 $15 and guided hikes at 8:30 a.m. for $2; however, there are an assortment of other guided tours available which gives visitors the unique opportunity to learn about the park’s environment and history.
Different workshops are also available such as swamp archery lessons, wilderness workshops, team building activities, and astronomy telescope stargazing.
“The astronomy viewing can’t be beat,” said Michael Ellis, an interpretive park ranger.
“The location and the educational and recreational opportunity is something you can’t find anywhere else in Georgia.”
Cartoonist Walt Kelly featured the swamp and its creatures in the comic strip “Pogo” beginning in 1948. Kelly’s depiction of Pogo the possum along with the various other animal characters allowed readers to explore human nature through the eyes of the swamp creatures who often satirically commented on social and political issues of the day.
The strip won the prestigious Reuben Award in 1951 for the year’s best comic. It’s still remembered today for a poster Kelly created for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It depicted Pogo the possum, sack in paw, preparing to gather up piles of litter, bottles, cans, paper and the like that had been discarded by careless humans in the possum’s swampland home.
The post said sadly: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” effectively underscoring Kelly’s contention that everyone must be responsible for caretaking of the Earth.
Over the years, different initiatives have been made to preserve the refuge’s sacred habitat which continues to be one of North America’s most pristine natural environments. Ellis explained that recently the park’s main focus is reducing light pollution in order to provide a better environment for the animals as well as star gazing.
Ellis referenced a quote by Francis Harper, a naturalist who researched animals in the Okefenokee during the 1940s, a quote that holds significant meaning to him: “There’s no other place in the world like the Okefenokee.”
“I found that to be truer the longer I worked here,” Ellis said.
“You never stop learning and even though I’ve worked here for six years, there’s always something new to see.”
We found it true as well. The Okefenokee is a land unto itself, one to be both appreciated and protected.