Friday, March 6, 2009

Okefenokee Wildlefe Refuge - Searching for Pogo

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was formed in 1936 to protect the Okefenokee Swamp. In 1974 a large portion of it was also declared a National Wilderness Area to provide the swamp with further protection. The region, extending 38 miles from north to south and 25 from east to west and encompassing over 400,000 acres (about 628 square miles) is a gigantic wetlands area set in a bowl that captures rain water and serves as the source for the Suwannee River, heading into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Mary’s River, draining into the Atlantic Ocean and serving as the border between Florida and Georgia. Located entirely in Georgia, the Okefenokee offers a rich and varied environment, teeming with wildlife and representing an interesting, if sparse, human history. The only RV camping on the Refuge cab be found at Stephen Foster State Park, entered from the west side of the Refuge, deep in the park and quite isolated. The north side, near Waycross, is located across SR 121 from the Laura S. Walker State Park, a lovely campground which I wrote about below. The main entrance to the refuge is located about ten miles south of Folkston, GA and offers the most varied and interesting entry to the park interior. Wilderness canoeists can get wilderness camping permits on application.

Park Visitor Center

Visitors to Visitor Center
We spent parts of two days exploring the refuge from the East Entrance. In addition to the guided boat trips into the interior, a number of trails introduce visitors to the forests, wet lands, and watery prairies of the Okefenokee. We were somewhat put off at the north entrance by the commercial nature of the boat rides and decided not to take advantage of the settler’s village or walks there. We have not visited Stephen Foster State Park, but understand it’s also very nice, although quite isolated, with the nearest grocery store fifty miles away.

Okefenokee Adventures (Concession)

Joe - Our Swamper Guide

The boat trip, a concession run by Okefenokee Adventures, takes visitors out into the wilderness by traveling along the canal dug around the turn of the twentieth century by investors hoping to drain the swamp and create arable farm land. Fortunately, their effort went bankrupt. Our guide Joe, a seventh generation swamper (his wife is eighth), told amusing and interesting tales of swamp life, history, as well as pointing out natural features, identifying plants, and making sure we saw several alligators and recognized major bird species. Outboard motors are limited to 10hp, so the quiet of the swamp was only marginally disturbed. There are no air boats or bass boats to disturb the tranquility. As we motored on the canal, we encountered canoe campers returning from several days out in the wilderness as well as fishermen and a family in kayaks. Marked water trails branched off, and we could glimpse the watery prairies on both sides of us. Soon we turned left onto Grand Prairie, a vast expanse of water dotted with small island hammocks and filled with blooming water plants spread out before us. A couple of large turtles sunned themselves on a slightly risen bar of land. Joe moved our boat out into the middle of the prairie and cut the motor, allowing us to soak up the quiet of the moment while he pointed out natural features and gave us a taste from one of the water plants next to our boat. All too soon, he turned the boat around, re-started the motor, and headed back to base. The boat tour cost $16.00 per person and seemed to us to be well worth the expense.

Great Egret

The next day we returned to take a closer look at the park by driving the internal roads and walking a couple of the trails. Long leaf pine forests, with their thick undergrowth of palmetto and other scrub growths, benefit from timely fire and clearing. Since much of the Okefenokee has been spared from regular natural fires or extensive logging, forest managers prescribe controlled burns to achieve the desired re-growth and regeneration goals. During our visit there were several of these burns, leaving a not unpleasant, but noticeable pall of smoke over the area. Despite this, the air was clear and crisp providing a good day for walking and exploration. A nine mile snaking drive through a portion of the preserve takes visitors along a route giving access to trails and other accessible features of the region.

Prescribed Burn

We stopped along the way to visit the Chesser Homestead on Chesser Island. The Chesser family settled in the swamp in1858. The current restoration of the Chesser homestead was built in 1927 and lived in by the family into the 1950’s. This small clearing in the middle of the wilderness shows the difficult life lead by this family in times most of us would consider to be modern. They kept hogs, boiled cane syrup, and lived in a simple wilderness cabin without electricity or running water. The house is un-insulated, although the mild temperatures would have made extensive insulation unnecessary. A helpful volunteer interpreted the life lived at the homestead and gave us a tour of the buildings.

Swamp Walk Trail

Hooded Pitcher Plant (carnivorous)

Sand Hill Crane

A mile or so away, we walked along a ¾ of a mile boardwalk into the forest to the edge of Grand Prairie, where a 50 foot tall observation tower has been built. The raised boardwalk and the very helpful brochure describing features of the walk provided a penetrating view of the range of life and growth the Okefenokee Swamp encompasses. While raised above the ground, the boardwalk was still deep enough into the wilderness that droppings (scat) of a pretty large animal were found drying on the boards along the way. The walk is wheel chair accessible and there are plenty of benches along the way to allow people to rest as they look into the surrounding wilderness. The tower at the end of the walk is high and sturdy, looking out onto the prairie at tree-top height. Despite Irene’s fear of heights, she scaled the stairway and enjoyed the view. Along the way we saw relatively little wildlife, perhaps because both the boat trip and our walk were taken around noon time. It might be a good idea to schedule such events for early in the morning or later in the afternoon. A sunset boat ride, at a premium price, is offered. We looked hard, but saw no opossums, so our goal of finding Pogo was thwarted. Otherwise, we had a very enjoyable couple of days exploring the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. One day is probably too little time to stay there, and intrepid wilderness explorers or bird watchers might profitably spend several days in this lovely wilderness area without being able to take it all in.

Each year, millions of people drive within a short distance of the Okefenokee Swamp on their way to and from a crowded Florida where wilderness and the outdoors has, indeed, been mostly tamed. People interested in experiencing a wilder and, in many ways, more interesting picture of our southern forest and wilderness environments could benefit from a side trip to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.