An Okefenokee photography journal entry from March 6, 2017:
Monday, 9:25 AM – Frustrated by my pursuit of a quality Wood Duck photograph, we continued our travel along the edges of Billy’s Lake. We began a “leap frog” chase of a pretty Little Blue Heron. It was bold, but cautious. Standing on the Spatterdock, we’d pull in close and get a few shots. He then took to the sky, but landing again only about 75 feet away. We’d pull in close, get a few shots, and he’d move down again. The chase was fun and allowed some good shots on different backdrops.
Of course, the main spectacle of paddling the Okefenokee Swamp is the alligators. Huge beasts and kings of their domain. But the swamp also holds birds galore. From small passerines to large wading birds, if you keep your eyes open, there is plenty to see besides alligators!
In 2017 I added an electric trolling motor to our canoe, my daughter acting as captain of our vessel. Not only does the motor mean relaxed travels with little rowing, but it allows hands-free for photography. In addition, our patrols of the shores of Billy’s Lake to spot the large alligators basking are much quicker. Within minutes of hitting the swamp on our 2017 trip, by covering ground so quickly, we found one gloriously large bull gator poised for a photograph on Billy’s Lake, unmoved by our close approach. His portrait became one of my favorites of the 2017 trip. What luck to grab a great shot so quickly!
Excerpt from William Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791:
“On the West side it was bordered round with low marshes, and invested with a swamp of Cypress, the trees so lofty, as to preclude the sight of the high-land forests, beyond them; and these trees, having flat tops, and all of equal height, seemed to be a green plain, lifted up and supported upon columns in the air…” Part II, Chapter III
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.
Passing north beyond Minnie’s Lake along the Suwannee River Middle Fork trail, the kayak channel constricts through a more mature Cypress forest. Here the dense, towering trees cast their shadows and darken the swamp below. One gets a feel for what it was like throughout the entire Okefenokee before the saws and lumber mills of the 1920’s.
In a dark cove where the channel turns, groups of Cypress knees stand out from the dark soil on the banks of the water. I remembered this exact spot from our first trip up the red trail and had affectionately named it “Cypress Knee Bend.” This was true swamp: shadow, Spanish Moss, green hues of growth and algae among the browns of tree and stump. How I’d love to linger in this scene, perhaps camp overnight.
Much of my other photography outside the Okefenokee is in the animal shelter. Here’s a recent adoption…
“Abe” was picked up stray by an animal control officer on May 11, 2021. He sat in the shelter a week and no owner came to claim him. He was finally adopted into a new home on May 19, 2021 as a buddy for another Pitbull!
“Plume hunting” for sport and fashion was common in the years before laws were enacted to protect our birds. The following is an excerpt from A Florida Sketch-Book by naturalist Bradford Torrey in 1895, mocking those who engaged in such activity:
“Happily, the lawmakers of the State have done something of recent years for the protection of such defenseless beauties. Happily, too, shooting from the river boats is no longer permitted,—on the regular lines, that is. I myself saw a young gentleman stand on the deck of an excursion steamer, with a rifle, and do his worst to kill or maim every living thing that came in sight, from a spotted sandpiper to a turkey buzzard! I call him a ‘gentleman;’ he was in gentle company, and the fact that he chewed gum industriously would, I fear, hardly invalidate his claim to that title. The narrow river wound in and out between low, densely wooded banks, and the beauty of the shifting scene was enough almost to take one’s breath away; but the crack of the rifle was not the less frequent on that account. Perhaps the sportsman was a Southerner, to whom river scenery of that enchanting kind was an old story. More likely he was a Northerner, one of the men who thank Heaven they are ‘not sentimental’.”
Torrey, Bradford. “Chapter 4: “Along the Hillsborough”.” A Florida Sketch-Book. 1895.
An excerpt from my March 11, 2015 Okefenokee nature journal:
Our boat moved slowly up the canal until reaching a larger waterway: Billy’s Lake, which stretches about 1.5 miles to the left and right. On the corner of the canal at the entry to the lake sat two very large gators, as if gatekeepers to the swamp. These impressive guardians were quite formidable and made it clear whose domain was the swamp. As we glided along the edges of Billy’s Lake, at every bend and upon every prominent log lay basking an impressive sentinel. They ruled the edges of the water. Our guide pushed the pontoon boat into one cove where sat eight alligators, half out of the water upon floating vegetation.
An excerpt from Suwannee River, Strange Green Land by Cecile Hulse Matschat, 1938.
“In the evening, or after a warm rain, the frog orchestra turns out in full force. Each species has its own peculiar song and pitch; and much of the really primitive folk music of Okefenokee is borrowed from its frogs and toads. The swampers call the frog music the Song of the Okefenokee and imitate it in their signal calls, and in the songs without words that they sing in long hours of poling down the runs.”
Cecile Matschat’s work, published in 1938 by the Literary Guild of America, is full of colorful stories of the Swampers that lived in the Okefenokee, exciting folklore encounters with bear, boar and cannibal alligators, as well as scientific descriptions of the flora and fauna of the great swamp. It a worthwhile purchase if you come across a used copy of this collectible out-of-print treasure of Okefenokee literature.
By day three of our 2017 trip, several of the birds I had hoped to see were checked off the list… except the Wood Duck. The Wood Ducks eluded my camera in 2015, but I would get one this time! …or would I?
Monday, March 6, 2017. 10:33 AM. – Far in the distance I see a duck on the water. Could it be? It is! Once again, our chase of the elusive Wood Duck begins. And once again he blasts off into the sky with a mocking call before we could even get within a photograph’s distance. I was now obsessed with getting a close, sharp photo of a male Woodie. But time after time that shot would evade my capture. Often, the Wood Ducks would jettison from an unseen nook before we even knew they were there.
Being tricked and foiled so often, I began to hate the little buggers! Each time they blasted from the water, I’d let out an audible, “ARRGGGGG! Again!” Seeing just how skittish these elusive waterfowl are, it is no wonder they are such a prized trophy by duck hunters.
Missing the first shot, we pressed further north along the red trail up the Suwannee Middle Fork, missing, of course, another good photograph of a pair of Wood Ducks that swam behind a Cypress tree and quietly disappeared into the gloomy recesses of a small cove. But as I sat in frustration having missed another, the male popped back out from behind the spatterdock. Not the best photo, but I got him!
Huge, intimidating, armored beasts all decked out in bony spikes and dark leather – they are the rock stars of the reptile world! And I’m the paparazzi that follows them. What exhilarating photo subjects (sure beats baby photography!). Most of the time the gators lay there or slowly slide into the swamp water as you pass by. But occasionally they will make a dramatic, thrashing dive just to emphasize the super stars they really are.
The alligators in this video were found along the Middle Fork Suwannee River in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on May 5, 2021. My daughter is in the back of our canoe operating the trolling motor while I sit in the bow for a premium show as we glide through the tannin blackwater of this great Swamp.