Of course, every thick brown snake spotted by visitors in the Okefenokee is a venomous Cottonmouth, or Water Moccasin (note the sarcasm!). I must admit, the Water Snakes (Genus Nerodia) do bear more similarities to the Cottonmouth than most snake species. The Water Snakes, like Cottonmouths, are a dark color, have thick bodies and roughly keeled scales. I can understand how those with just casual experience with snakes might be confused. So I cut them a break and try not to act too offended!
The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists four species of Water Snake within the refuge. Although they are not venomous, I wouldn’t call them totally “harmless.” They can really put up a good fight of striking, hissing and musking… but this only happens to the people that try to grab them! If you keep your distance, they generally lie perfectly still or make and escape.
The majority of the time, the only thing visitors see of the Okefenokee’s water snakes is a splash into the water as the snake drops from an overhanging branch, usually before your canoe is within 100 feet of them. So it is often difficult to know which species you may have encountered.
In 1875, The Atlanta Constitution published the dramatic headline: “We now announce to our readers, and the people of Georgia, that we are fitting up an expedition for a complete and thorough exploration of Okefinokee. The full details of the plan and expedition will be published soon – if they come out alive.” Over the next months, the paper released many exciting stories from the Okefenokee Swamp, like the following…
“We had not gone far before we discovered several alligators swimming ahead of us, and as we went their number increased. When we quit fishing we laid our poles away and paddled ahead for the lower end, driving these monsters in advance. Every turn of the lake we would notice that the number still increased, until the sight was truly wonderful. They kept just out of reach of our guns, until we neared the end of the lake, and then they became more familiar, and many attempted to pass us and turn back, without sinking beneath the surface of the waters, and large, rusty fellows, twelve feet in length, would swim up within fifteen feet of the boat. When we got a large number of them hemmed up in a place not over two acres in size I attempted to count them but there was no use. We had to content ourselves at guessing. The lowest estimate was put at three hundred, and Mr. Lee said ‘it was not a good day for gators, either.’”
- The Atlanta Constitution, October 7, 1875.
As with most wildlife photography, success can be hit-or-miss. After many forays into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a 400,000+ acre swamp located in south Georgia, there are days I fill SD cards to capacity, and days where I wish there was more to see than empty branches on tall trees. But never “write off” a particular area. Just because no wildlife was seen during one visit, doesn’t mean you won’t be surprised on another.
I have walked the short boardwalk within the Okefenokee’s Stephen C Foster campground dozens upon dozens of times. I can walk the distance to the dead end and find nothing. But upon turning around just a few minutes later find a colorful Green Heron that had been skulking down in some scrub on my first pass, only to be flushed out for a photography by the returning sound of my footsteps.
Take it slowly on your hikes and paddles. Even if you don’t photography many animals, landscape opportunities abound. Take in the sun and fresh air; feel the texture of the cypress bark and leaves; breathe in the aromas of wildflowers; search the shadows for fiddleheads and mushrooms. Never be reluctant to make a second trip. You may see something now, when before you didn’t!
A favorite passage from William Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791.
“I have seen an alligator take up out of the water several great fish at a time, and just squeeze them betwixt his jaws, while the tails of the great trout flapped about his eyes and lips, ere he had swallowed them. The horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish, and rising with their prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapour issuing from their wide nostrils, were truly frightful. This scene continued at intervals during the night, as the fish came to the pass.” – Part II, Chapter V
William Bartram was a botantist, artist, and nature writer that explored the southeastern United States around the time of the American Revolution (1773-1776). He was a scientist, creationist and Christian that gave glory to the Author for all the wonderful works he observed and documented in his book, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida.
When the Okefenokee’s time for preservation had finally come, varying governmental departments and environmental groups had diverse visions for the swamp’s future use. Some wanted a National Park, like Yellowstone or Yosemite, to “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Others wanted a National Wilderness Area where “human activities are restricted to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation.” Management philosphies rocked back-and-forth between an escape for the people, and a sanctuary for the wild.
But in the end, the Okefenokee was designated “for the birds”! Executive Order 7593 signed on March 30, 1937 declared the Okefenokee a National Wildlife Refuge to be “reserved and set apart… as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.”
While there are several miles of beautiful waterways that are maintained for ecotourism, the vast majority of the 400,000+ acres is uncrossed by canoe trails, and untouched by recreation and hunting, leaving thousands upon thousands of acres solely for the birds and wildlife. Truly, the Okefenokee is for the birds!
Thursday, March 12, 2015 – As the afternoon wore on and the cypress shadows lengthened, I realized we couldn’t paddle the full ten miles to Big Water and make it back before sunset. We paused to relax in the peaceful sanctity of the swamp stillness before turning around. In a small, sheltered pool on the Middle Fork between Minnies Lake and Big Water, a single large gator lay upon a downed cypress. His impressive girth filled the viewfinder of my camera.
The trip back southward on the Suwannee was surprisingly more pleasant as we paddled with the current. Other than a “spider” that fell into Amanda’s lap (which turned out to be a stick), nearly causing her to abandon ship into gator infested waters, the trip back was pretty much without incident. We stopped again at the GPS waypoint I had labeled “baby gators” to spent some more time with mom and her chirping brood. Then we lazily allowed the wind and current to push us down Billy’s Lake back toward “home.”
Back at camp for the evening, the overcast skies and strong gusts hinted at a storm that never came. Thinking ahead with a bit of sadness, our next morning would be waking early, breaking camp and heading home. To get one last moment of solitary enjoyment, Amanda and I walked the campground together. At one point she placed her hand in mine as we strolled. A great time together, and well worth it. We said goodbye to Sophie, the resident gator at the Stephen C Foster boat ramp, and hoped to come again next year. Until next time…
Excerpt from Francis Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp, published March 1927:
About a dozen years ago there were some exceptionally good bearhounds on Billy’s Island. One day two of them treed a Bear near the Lee’s home. None of the men happening to be at hand, two of the women went to the place and shot the Bear out of the tree. When it fell, they did not venture to go up close and give it a finishing shot, as one of the men would have done, and consequently the animal succeeded in mauling the dogs so that they died. Certainly there can be a few places in the country where such an episode has any likelihood of occurring.
An excerpt from my March 2017 Okefenokee nature journal…
Saturday, 8:41 PM – I’m sitting on a cot in our spacious tent. What a pleasant feeling after several hours out on the water of Billy’s Lake. Although just a half day, the first day was therapeutic. What a joy as I journaled the events of this first day.
We arrived in the Refuge just after 1:00 PM. Just like previous visits, a group of Wild Turkeys foraged along the road into the park. I’m sure they were different people, but like last year, the campground was fairly full of large RVs and plenty of retired couples walking the loop or sitting on the “patios” of their motor homes.
Being limited by a late start, our first excursion would remain on Billy’s Lake, travelling east to Billy’s Island, then turning back toward the western end, and circling back to the campground. Immediately upon entering the lake from the short canal up from the campground, it was like we never left! We were confronted by Cormorants, Anhingas, and basking turtles. A pair of Wood Ducks gave a quick, surprise flyby. All looked exactly as we had left it two years ago. Time moves much more slowly in the Okefenokee.
“For I long to see you, …to the end ye may be established.” Romans 1:11
As I sit roadside peering into a batch of white-blazed Long-Leaf Pines, my eyes watering and blurring from over a half-hour of anticipatory scanning, I am amazed to think that at one time, millions of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers drummed across the eastern United States. But as the forests fell, so did the numbers of Dryobates borealis. In 1973, it was listed as an endangered species. Given my difficulty in spotting one on multiple trips to their prime habitat, it is obvious that they are still in peril.
The USFWS has been making attempts to bring back this little black-and-white woodpecker here in the Okefenokee Swamp. Along the western entrance to the refuge (Highway 177), tall stands of Long-leaf Pine, the primary nesting tree of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, are managed through prescribed burns and advanced forestry techniques. And high in those trees are placed artificial nest cavities for the woodpeckers.
Bearing a white ring at the base, the pines with the artificial nest cavities are easy to spot as you drive through the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Another tell-tale sign of woodpecker activity is the oozing white sap, like melting candle wax, that drips down from woodpecker excavations in the Long-leaf pines. This sap provides a sticky defense against climbing predators, such as snakes.
I hope these efforts pay off and that one day, instead of squinting for hours just hoping to see one Red-cockaded Woodpecker, we can let an unexcited exclamation of “there goes another one. Man, these woodpeckers are everywhere!” Until then, look for the white blazed tree and hope to spot this endangered little woodpecker.
In 1875, The Atlanta Constitution published the dramatic headline: “We now announce to our readers, and the people of Georgia, that we are fitting up an expedition for a complete and thorough exploration of Okefinokee. The full details of the plan and expedition will be published soon – if they come out alive.” Over the next months, the paper released many exciting stories from the Okefenokee Swamp, like the one following…
“Two miles of this mammoth slough of despond brought us another change, and we were not less joyful of our deliverance than Bunyan’s pilgrim was, when he planted his feet again upon solid earth. Still, while we were far from being again upon terra firma, there were indications of the island all around us. More cheering than all was the welcome notes of the thrush and the red bird which began to greet us on either side. These birds are denizens of the outer rim of the swamp, but do not penetrate over a half a mile from dry land. By their assistance many a hunter has found his way to islands in the swamp, and to high land again on the outside.”
– The Atlanta Constitution, September 23, 1875.