A travel journal from our canoeing up The Sill Recreation Area in the Okefenokee Swamp on March 5, 2017:
Sunday, 12:45 PM – Compared to the challenging navigation through The Narrows (brown trail), the paddling through Mixon’s Hammock became much easier. The strong current caused by the low water levels carried us quickly into the area named “The Sill.”
The Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area is a man-made canal built in 1960 with dams to control the water levels. The purpose was to maintain water levels during drought and thereby reduce the chance of wildfires. However, the project failed in that goal, for it had no real effect on the water levels throughout the swamp. However, The Sill is a popular recreation area, primarily for fishing.
Because the man-made canal was wide and straight, cutting through a treeless prairie, it was also somewhat less interesting. However, on The Sill, we saw some of the largest alligators we had seen in the entire swamp.
All along the canal, the shores were occupied by “The Monsters of The Sill.” The boring Sill had redeemed itself by presenting us with the spectacle of some really big gators; a few of which made dramatic, tidal-wave producing dives into the water as we passed by.
An excerpt from my Okefenokee Journal dated March 11, 2015:
Wednesday, 11:50 AM Walking further down the swamp boardwalk, my eyes were constantly scanning left and right among the shallow waters and cypress knees. My daughter and I were constantly engaged in a silent competition to spot snakes. I don’t know how, but it seems that Amanda is always the one to find the snakes on our trips. She discovered the beautiful Canebrake Rattlesnake at Cloudland Canyon State Park by nearly putting her foot down upon the serpent stretched across the trail. But not this time! I was going to out-score her in the Okefenokee this year!
As we rounded a corner on the trail, Amanda’s eyes were caught by a slow slithering five feet below the boardwalk. “SNAKE!” she shouted! Laying there at the base of a Blackgum tree was a stout Plain-bellied Watersnake. Adult Nerodia erythrogaster typically have unpatterned backs and bright, plain bellies. This beauty was nearly pure red underneath.
An excerpt from naturalist Bradford Torrey’s 1895 book, A Florida Sketch-Book:
“At another time, on the same stake, sat some dark, strange-looking object. The opera-glass showed it at once to be a large bird sitting with its back toward me, and holding its wings uplifted in the familiar heraldic, e-pluribus-unum attitude of our American spread-eagle; but even then it was some seconds before I recognized it as an anhinga,—water turkey,—though it was a male in full nuptial garb. I drew nearer and nearer, and meanwhile it turned squarely about,—a slow and ticklish operation,—so that its back was presented to the sun; as if it had dried one side of its wings and tail,—for the latter, too, was fully spread,—and now would dry the other. There for some time it sat preening its feathers, with monstrous twistings and untwistings of its snaky neck. If the chat is a clown, the water turkey would make its fortune as a contortionist. Finally it rose, circled about till it got well aloft, and then, setting its wings, sailed away southward and vanished.”
– Torrey, Bradford. “Chapter 10: “Walks About Tallahassee”.” A Florida Sketch-Book.
A passage from my March 5, 2017 Okefenokee journal:
Sunday, 9:04 AM – Another bright, blue calm morning on Billy’s Lake as we slowly paddle westward for a day up the brown trail to The Sill. Passing on close to the edge of the lake, a funny acting Eastern Gray Squirrel has himself pressed tightly flat against a tree. Was he hiding from us? Was he sheltering from the chilled breeze? The question is quickly answered as the loud shriek of a Red-shouldered Hawk blares from high up in a neighboring tree. The Red-shouldered Hawks were quite prominent and vocal throughout this trip. Their calls heard from dawn to dusk, throughout all the varying habitats.
Between the open skies of Billy’s Lake and the prairie landscape of Mixon’s Hammock lies a twisting, constricted canoe trail called “The Narrows”. The sky overhead is darkened by Black Gum, Cypress, Bay, Red Maple and Dahoon Holly. The eye-level view left and right is overcrowded by Titi, Hurrah Bush and other shrubs. Unless the refuge cutter boats have recently passed through, sharp sticks and twigs stab toward the narrow channel hoping to impale the unskilled kayaker.
The current flows westward from Billy’s Lake toward the Sill. This seems like an advantage to the westbound paddler, but don’t be deceived. The current can carry you along so quickly that steering becomes difficult and pushes you into the scratchy shrubs lining the narrow channel. Many of these protruding limbs are tipped with spiders, and even snakes, to jump aboard the canoe.
Even though the current is against you heading back to Billy’s Lake, I have found it a much more enjoyable journey with time as the steering is much more manageable.
Thankfully, Hamp Mizell’s words in this passage from the 1926 book, History of the Okefenokee Swamp, were prophetic when he wrote of the restoration of the Okefenokee. The entire swamp was stripped of the timber in the early 1900’s but in 1937 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Okefenokee as “a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.” Mizell’s prophetic utterance reads:
“The timber has all about been cut from this great swamp, and within a few more months this busy island will again, no doubt, slip back to the primitive; the scream of the locomotive will again be supplanted by the scream of the panther and the bobcat; the wild deer will again roam over this spot as of yore; the alligators will again climb up on the sand banks to lay quietly and undisturbed in the warm sunlight; the turtle will come to deposit its eggs in the spring, and the ever watchful black bear will be on the trail of the turtle eggs, and all that will remain will be the wreck and ruin left in the slaughter of the primeval forest.”
An early start on a somewhat overcast morning. Grackles and Vultures greet us at the entrance to Billy’s Lake. The Lake is without wave. Although most is still and the stage has not awakened in a dawn-chorus of voices and activity, a cooperative white heron stands upon the floating spatterdock, the gentle breeze muffling his “hair”.
But this little white heron had me fooled… for it is a Little Blue Heron, but it is a lot of white! Egretta caerulea is normally adorned in deep blues and purples. At close range or in good light, the adults have a rich purple-maroon head and neck and dark slaty-blue body. But the juveniles that are entirely white. I had before mistaken one for a Snowy Egret. But the Little Blues, even when white, have yellow eyes, greenish legs, and a bill that is pale blue at the base, and black at the tip.
The little white Little Blue looked at me almost as if to say, “April Fools!”
“Sophie” is the resident alligator of Stephen C Foster State Park. She has been out there patrolling the waters on every one of our Okefenokee visits, and populates the boat launch with baby gators. My nature journal from March 10, 2015 describes our first meeting with Sophie:
Tuesday, 6:29 PM – We failed to see any gators out on the swamp boardwalk, so before heading back to camp we decided to check the boat dock and canoe launch up the canal. Amanda called out, “GATOR!” as a ripple splashed in the middle of the boat bay. “It went under right there.” We watched and waited for a minute. When it resurfaced, our gator turned out to be a rather large soft-shelled turtle.
A little bit further on, the water stirred and swelled just beyond the “Danger, Alligators Present” sign. Again we waited. After a minute we spotted a foot-long scaled creature just below the surface. But it wasn’t an alligator. We had been tricked again, this time by a Gar.
Twice tricked, but not giving up while there was still some light, we decided to walk further down the canal. Out towards the swamp we spotted a dark object in the lane between the lily pads. By the v-shaped ripples breaking in front, we could see it was travelling rather quickly in our direction. Finally, a gator, and heading our way! I began snapping photos even though it was low light. It swam all the way in and circled the boat bay; quite comfortable in close association with the visitor’s office. As the sky darkened, I tried some low-light manual camera settings. Using the flash brought out some beautiful red-eyed gator shots that turned out to be my favorite photos from the entire week.
We later learned from the park staff that this was Sophie, the “resident gator.” She frequented the boat bay and had babies along the bank opposite the rental canoes. Each morning and evening for the rest of our trip we stopped to say hello to Sophie. She calmly patrolled the boat bay in the evenings and occupied a small opening or harbor in the lily pads during the day. Just behind her daytime resting spot was a ramp of loose dirt up the bank; no doubt a convenient ascent to her nesting site. Our final morning of the trip, we were finally able to catch a glimpse of one of Sophie’s babies crawling out of the duck weed.
An excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida.
“I HAD now swamps and marshes on both sides of me, and evening coming on apace, I began to look out for high land to encamp on, but the extensive marshes seemed to have no bounds; and it was almost dark when I found a tolerable suitable place, and at last was constrained to take up on a narrow strip of high shelly bank, on the West side. Great numbers of crocodiles* were in sight on both shores: I ran my bark on shore at a perpendicular bank four or five feet above the water, just by the roots and under the spreading limbs of a great Live Oak: this appeared to have been an ancient camping place by Indians and strolling adventurers, from ash heaps and old rotten fire brands, and chunks, scattered about on the surface of the ground; but was now evidently the harbour and landing place of some sovereign alligator: there led up from it a deep beaten path or road, and was a convenient ascent.” – 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.
Before the industrialist loggers of the early 20th century arrived, the Longleaf Pine dominated the upland areas surrounding the Okefenokee Swamp. Because of its ability to survive wildfires in its fire resistant “grass stage”, the Longleaf is well suited to the fire prone South Georgia landscape. The thick, grassy clump of needles protects the bud as fire sweeps through and stimulates it to the next growth stage…
It can remain in the grass stage for years, but once the root base is established, it will rapidly take off into the “bottle brush” stage – a four-foot tall, branchless seedling that resembles a cobweb duster. It may stay in this stage for a period of time, but can adequately take in needed sunlight by staying above the lower scrub and vegetation.
After about 30 years from germination, the Longleaf Pine stands tall and nearly branchless up to the crown, resembling a green topped telephone pole. Mature stands of Longleaf Pine are essential habitat for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.