To an observant map viewer, you might notice that among the dense lights, roads, and metro areas, there is a mysteriously dark patch of the map at the southeastern edge of Georgia, running along the border with north Florida. To Atlanta area folk, the southern half of the state is often thought of as the less interesting portion – good for growing crops, driving in long straight lines, hunting deer, and passing through on the way to the beach. But what many residents and visitors both fail to realize is that of the handful of significant wildernesses that have been conserved in the east, Okefenokee Swamp is an extraordinary ecosystem, brimming with unusual plants and creatures, and ready to astonish visitors at nearly every bend in the water trail.
Okefenokee and the areas surrounding have been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. Native peoples settled the region, occupying the dry lands repeatedly that extended into the swamp and the scattered high ground areas within. They also took on projects to increase the dry land areas in the swamp by constructing sand mounds. Despite the fame of the Cherokee in north Georgia, most of middle and south Georgia was firmly inside the sprawling dominion of the Creek tribes who hunted and controlled the region of the Okefenokee and the Altamaha River.
With the arrival of Europeans, white settlements were established off and on through the early 1800s. Much like the rest of the area, the swamp was utilized as a site for agriculture and homesteading. Some swampers even today trace their bloodlines back to some of these early families who adapted to the swamp and carved their homes and lives from it.
Due to relative isolation, the inhabitants of the Okefenokee used Elizabethan phrases and syntax, preserved since the early colonial period when such speech was common in England, well into the 20th century. – Wikipedia
The signs of those settlers, native and European, are all over the place there, and perhaps because of the exotic nature of the swamp, the history of the people that lived there seems ancient but at the same time, alive.
Having first visited the swamp a couple of years ago now and getting an exceptional introduction to its wonder from Chip Campbell, I have been turning to the swamp as the location for my big adventure each year since. It so happens that canoeing also captured my attention around the same time as that first visit, so the combination was an instant affinity to the place and culture. I returned home after three days of paddling with a connection to a place like I’d never experienced before anywhere. That first trip, we toured by canoe the expanse of Chase Prairie and the canals and trails surrounding it. That trip was well worth the cost of the guide and outfitting, and I felt that I got a bargain from the nature, lore, and history that Chip shared all along those few days of pretty solid paddling.
Over the next year, I told everyone who cared to listen about the swamp. First, it was surprising to me how few of my Georgia friends had ever even been there, and those who had had mostly experienced it by motor boat. A few had canoed there though, and it was those friends that seemed to understand. Those who hadn’t been seemed unable to understand the appeal that a swamp would ever have to offer!
By the time spring rolled around again, there was not question in my mind that another trip to Okefenokee was in order. Almost like a reward for surviving winter, it dangles the hope that canoeing, fishing, and sleeping outside won’t be denied forever. This time around though, I was thrilled that my dad and two grown brothers from Texas were sufficiently interested to come along. We made plans to trek down to Stephen C. Foster and access the swamp from the west side – a direction I hadn’t explored from before.
We traveled down from the Atlanta area, and it was a good sign that virtually the moment we entered the preserve, wildlife was everywhere we turned. Alligators, turkeys, deer, lizards, frogs, woodpeckers, fish, possum, owl, turtle. We were pulling warmouth from the boat launch an hour after arriving, reeling quickly to beat the clearly educated and well fed alligator that cruised the square pond. For this trip, we did take advantage of the state park cabin instead of the chickees, and there were both deer and turkey right out back of the house the next morning.
We rented canoes from the park shop, and paddled down the narrow canal leading out to Billy’s Lake. Out in the lake, that sense of awe returned instantly. The black water, cypress trees, water grass, and clean blue sky all reminded me again why it’s a place like no other. Billy’s Lake is a surprisingly long body of water, and was different than any section of swamp I had encountered on my previous exploration on the east side. Lake-like, there was a current to note, but the water was a black as any and brimming with gators right from the start. My youngest brother was in the canoe with me, and it was a joy to see that his excitement at the beauty and wildness of the place matched my own.
We headed up toward Minnie’s Lake with the intention to explore there, but before we could get there, we were distracted by the first catch of an Okefenokee “mudfish.” A colloquial name for bowfin, it was a first of it’s kind to be caught among us. After a good fight and a few minutes of study there at the bottom of the canoe, we let him go but turned our attention to catching more of the interesting fish. It wasn’t long before we realized that fishing for them was much too easy – basically, dropping a white or yellow softbait at the edge of the water grass mat yielded a bite seemingly as often as not! I was underquipped for them with my bream pole, and I lost a bunch to broken lines before I landed my first on gear borrowed from my brother. We never did keep any to eat, and it seems opinions on the goodness to eat varies.
After a few hours paddling along and catching fish, the sky turned a deep grey and unloaded a cold spring rain on us. Paddling along with a canoe gliding through that black water beneath and with rain coming down from above, I felt as alive and content right then as I ever have.
Noteworthy in the history of Okefenokee, I really wanted to get a look at Billy’s Island, which isn’t a far paddle from Billy’s Lake and the launch at Stephen C. Foster. Chip had mentioned it frequently the year prior, and my dad and I both enjoy seeing places of old history firsthand. Incredibly, Billy’s Island was at one time an actual town – a logging settlement there at the edge of the swamp that was complete with quite a number of amenities.
Camps were built, displacing the Lee family homestead, even though 21 Lees remained, according to the 1920 Census of Clinch County. Until 1932, the Lee males worked for the lumber company, and the descendants lived in a boarding house on the island. The lumber company built 49 houses divided into white and black family quarters, as well as a theater, machine shop, doctor’s office and commissary on Billy’s Island. A primitive railroad provided access to construction materials. By 1929, the logging camps were abandoned because the valuable lumber was gone. – USAToday
As we wandered the abandoned island and pondered the old tombstones, it wasn’t hard to imagine it as the site of a native settlement, but it was quite a stretch of imagination to picture it as a bustling logging camp.
Second in a line of what I hope continue to be annual visits, the swamp disappointed my family by no means. In fact, they are swamp converts now, as interested in returning and exploring as I am. There are a lot of paddle miles out there I haven’t seen yet, and a whole southern side of the wilderness that appears on the map to be untracked. I don’t know what’s out there in that section of swamp, or even if the USFS lets paddlers out that way, but wildness, mystery, and that rare sense of belonging are what infected me out on those black waters and will keep me coming back again!