In 1851, the American songwriter Stephen C. Foster sang of the Okefenokee’s Suwannee River as “home” in the song, Old Folks at Home. And over 150 years later, my daughter and I are calling the Stephen C. Foster State Park our home-away-from-home! After a full day in the hot sun, and after toiling across Billy’s Lake against the wind, we finally arrived back at the campground. Biased by our dry and parched lips, we ate “the best ice cream sandwiches we’ve ever tasted” at the registration office and headed back to our tent to shelter from an approaching evening thunderstorm.
When the rain ceased, we enjoyed a can of clam chowder (everything tastes better when you’re camping) and went for another walk to avoid the mosquitoes that inevitably attack when you sit still for even a moment. We braved the gnats on the boardwalk; sat with “Sophie” the resident alligator a few minutes, spotted a snake at the boat ramp, and smiled at the deer that casually fed around the cabins. We ended the night in our tent, continuing our battleship tournament before turning in on this slightly more warm and humid night. Like Stephen C Foster’s old folks, this is “home sweet home”!
Way down upon the Suwannee River,
Far, far away,
There’s where my heart is turning ever,
There’s where the old folks stay.
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for my childhood station,
And for the old folks at home.
The flooded prairies and hammocks of the Okefenokee Swamp hold acre after acre of standing, dead wood. An abundance of snags (dead trees) means abundant woodpeckers. There are eight species of woodpecker found in the Okefenokee, and one formerly occurring species – the Ivory Billed Woodpecker – that is now extinct.
The excavations of the Okefenokee woodpeckers creates suitable habitat and nest cavities for other birds and wildlife as well. Taylor Schoettle writes, “Without the Pileated’s carpentry, there would be few natural cavities large enough for wood ducks to rear their young. There is hardly a time when visiting the Okefenokee that this grand woodpecker is not encountered.” (A Naturalist’s Guide to the Okefenokee Swamp; Sea to Sea Printing and Publishing, 2002).
An excerpt from naturalist Bradford Torrey’s 1894 book, A Florida Sketch-Book:
“But as we were skirting along the shore I suddenly called ‘Hist! An alligator lay on the bank just before us. The boy turned his head, and instantly was all excitement. It was a big fellow, he said,—one of three big ones that inhabited the creek. He would get him this time. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked.
“‘Oh yes, I’ll blow the top of his head off.’ He was loaded for gallinules, and I, being no sportsman, and never having seen an alligator before, was some shades less confident. But it was his game, and I left him to his way.
“He pulled the boat noiselessly against the bank in the shelter of tall reeds, put down the oars, with which he could almost have touched the alligator, and took up his gun. At that moment the creature got wind of us, and slipped incontinently into the water, not a little to my relief. One live alligator is worth a dozen dead ones, to my thinking. He showed his back above the surface of the stream for a moment shortly afterward, and then disappeared for good.”
By definition, a swamp doesn’t have much high ground not inundated with water. Therefore, there aren’t too many dry hiking trails in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Canoeing and kayaking are the primary means of enjoying this wonderful habitat. There are a couple of islands – Floyds, Billy’s and a few others – where you can stretch your legs. But be prepared for a full day within your boat.
The Stephen C Foster State Park does have a couple of trails. Though not extensive, they are nice for enjoying morning or evening birding and botany walks. On my last visit, I concentrated my morning walks along the Upland Pine Trail which skirts the edge of the pine flatwoods. I had a few surprises jump out at me (a bobcat) and listened to the morning chorus of songbirds.
But bring some waterproof boots and lots of mosquito spray!
– Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, Part II, Chapter X
“THERE are several species of the lizard kind besides the alligator, which is by naturalist allowed to be a species of that genus. THE green lizard or little green chameleon is a pretty innocent creature; the largest I have seen were not more than seven inches in length; they appear commonly of a fine green colour, having a large red gill under their throat; they have the faculty of changing colour, which, notwithstanding the specious reasoning of physiologists, is a very surprising phenomenon.”
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.
Excerpt from the 1926 History of the Okefenokee Swamp by AS McQueen and Hamp Mizell:
“It is rather hard to determine how these so-called “prairies” of the Okefenokee came by this name. These prairies are better described as marshes, for they are covered by numerous water plants, such as the water lily, maiden cane, saw-grass, etc. One old resident, who has visited our great West, advanced the theory that these open spaces within the Swamp are called ‘prairies’ for the reason that, viewed from a distance, especially when the wind is blowing the saw-grass, they resemble very much the real prairies of the western country.”
When I visit the Okefenokee Swamp, I expect to see alligators. So when I find alligators in a small, local park, it is a special treat…
I recently went on a short trip to attend a pioneer pastor’s conference in North Carolina. Even though we spent most of our weekend driving, my wife and I were able to connect with friends and fit in some wildlife photography in a small park in Wilmington. The pleasant experience got me thinking about the value of a local park.
Greenfield Lake Park in Wilmington, North Carolina is small compared to our National Parks, but good sized for a local park. There was some surprisingly nice scenery and wildlife in this 190-acre municipal park. Although surrounded by development and neighborhoods, we were immediately transported into a low-country cypress wetland. The yellows, reds and greens of fall were reflected in the dark waters. Curtains of Spanish Moss hung from the textured Cypress trees.
A break in the afternoon rain showers allowed us to rent the paddle boats for an hour. I was again surprised by the abundance of wildlife. Cormorants and Anhingas preened in the Cypress, White Ibis fed along the banks and small birds flitted about with joy. And it’s always a treat to see gators, especially in a very developed area. The value of this small lake is beyond measure for the wildlife that may have otherwise been pushed out or exterminated.
And how nice to have a quiet area to spend the afternoon with our friends. Local parks provide city residents a quick opportunity to recharge in nature without travelling great distances. Even our small parks give us a quiet place to de-stress, relax and bring down the blood pressure while enjoying the company of friends and loved ones.
“The evening was however, extremely pleasant, a brisk cool breeze sprang up, and the skies were perfectly serene, the stars twinkling with uncommon briliancy. I stretched myself along before my fire; having the river, my little harbour and the stern of my vessel in view, and now through fatigue and weariness I fell asleep, but this happy temporary release from cares and troubles I enjoyed but a few moments, when I was awakened and greatly surprised, by the terrifying screams of Owls in the deep swamps around me, and what encreased my extreme misery was the difficulty of geting quite awake, and yet hearing at the same time such screaming and shouting, which increased and spread every way for miles around, in dreadful peals vibrating through the dark extensive forests, meadows and lakes, I could not after this surprise recover the former peaceable state and tranquility of mind and repose, during the long night, and I believe it was happy for me that I was awakened, for at that moment the crocodile was dashing my canoe against roots roots of the tree, endeavouring to get into her for the fish, which I however prevented.”
– Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, 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 Christian creationist and 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.
Excerpt from the 1926 History of the Okefenokee Swamp by AS McQueen and Hamp Mizell:
“Years ago an adventurous pioneer by the name of Dan Lee settled on Billy’s Island, erected a rough log cabin and for years made his living by the primitive means of hunting, fishing and trapping. When Dan Lee and his bride entered the Swamp, the only thing to disturb them was the occasional scream of the panther, the only vicious animal in the Swamp, but both lived to hear the scream of the steam locomotive supplant the scream of the panther, and their little home was broken up.”
A spooky excerpt from A Florida Sketch-Book, by naturalist Bradford Torrey, written in 1895:
There—going one day farther than usual—I found myself in the borderland of a cypress swamp. On one side was the lake, but between me and it were cypress-trees; and on the other side was the swamp itself, a dense wood growing in stagnant black water covered here and there with duckweed or some similar growth: a frightful place it seemed, the very abode of snakes and everything evil. Stories of slaves hiding in cypress swamps came into my mind. It must have been cruel treatment that drove them to it!
Buzzards flew about my head, and looked at me. “He has come here to die,” I imagined them saying among themselves. “No one comes here for anything else. Wait a little, and we will pick his bones.” They perched nearby, and, not to lose time, employed the interval in drying their wings, for the night had been showery. Once in a while one of them shifted his perch with an ominous rustle. They were waiting for me, and were becoming impatient. “He is long about it,” one said to another; and I did not wonder.
The place seemed one from which none who entered it could ever go out; and there was no going farther in without plunging into that horrible mire. I stood still, and looked and listened. Some strange noise, “bird or devil,” came from the depths of the wood. A flock of grackles settled in a tall cypress, and for a time made the place loud. How still it was after they were gone!
I could hardly withdraw my gaze from the green water full of slimy black roots and branches, any one of which might suddenly lift its head and open its deadly white mouth! All about me gigantic cypresses, every one swollen enormously at the base, rose straight and branchless into the air. Dead trees, one might have said,—light-colored, apparently with no bark to cover them; but if I glanced up, I saw that each bore at the top a scanty head of branches just now putting forth fresh green leaves, while long funereal streamers of dark Spanish moss hung thickly from every bough.
The dismal swamp had me under its spell, and meanwhile the patient buzzards looked at me. “It is almost time,” they said; “the fever will do its work,”—and I began to believe it.