Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the “largest, intact, un-fragmented, freshwater and black water wilderness swamp in North America.”1
Native Americans refer to this place as the “The Land of the Trembling Earth”.
Once scheduled to be drained and exploited, the land is now protected to impressive sum of 402,000 acres (that’s nearly 700 square miles!) Within the refuge more than 400 different species reside, including the star attraction of the swamp – the American alligator. Formerly endangered, the largest of all members of the crocodile order in North America now thrives wildly amongst the peat-filled bogs and canals.
April and I arrived with the singular goal of spotting even just one of these awesome creatures. We weighed the chances given the many options offered within the refuge. You are free to explore major expanses by land, either by foot or on a bicycle. If your budget allows for it, there is a 90 minute guided tour on a covered boat ($18.50/person). Otherwise, you can brave the swamp all on your own by canoe, kayak or motorized boat.
We took to the paths, exploring the area around the Suwanee Canal first. Our search yielded no more than a thoroughly entertaining and extremely brave tree frog. We also acquainted ourselves with the vegetation of the area, predominantly the grasses and water lilies we are not accustomed to.
We followed up our adventure with a short drive around the Swamp Island Trail to the Chesser Island Boardwalk. The short 7 miles to the boardwalk revealed just how diversely the swamp area portrays itself, mainly due to the consistent cycle of fire and re-growth that occurs here. Once on the boardwalk though, the hunt was on. The slightly elevated boardwalk to the observatory tower cuts right through the wetland. Most of the swamp around us is peaking stumps of charcoal. In the murky waters bubbles rise. The occasional ‘glups’ and splashes tell us of the movements occurring in our presence. If you are lucky, a red-eared turtle will peak its’ head.
Thankfully we are very easily entertained and it’s amusing to me how simple things can still amaze me. The first surprise came not too far into the walk. Initially I caught a glimpse of something small, gray and furry. I stopped in my track and called out to April like a giddy little girl. Of course that was a big mistake. The animal, now identified as a raccoon and truthfully no different than the one that lives in my former attic home, leapt off the boardwalk and joined its’ adorable family of 5 baby raccoons. Together they scurried through the swamp under tree roots and grasses until we lost sight of them. I simply never imagined these critters surviving in this water-world. The raccoons I know live off of discarded Tim Horton’s (Canada’s most famous coffee joint) donuts and internet wires!
The next level of wildlife spotting at least managed to make itself a tiny bit more exotic. Though I cannot identify its specific kind, this palm sized 8 legged arachnid with bright yellow markings built a small but efficient web. Better yet, it was only beginning its’ feast on a recently ensnared, bright blue dragonfly of a similar size. Its’ delicate process was captivating and the sizable action delighted with detail.
Arriving at the four story observatory yields no further wildlife but the views are special. Towering oak trees draped with Spanish moss like snow on a Christmas tree marked the edge of a large lagoon. Lily pads and batteries (a mass of peat that is pushed to the surface of the swamp water by the buoyant force of trapped methane and carbon dioxide) covered the waters. We took rest from the heat.
The sound of rolling thunder crashing louder and closer alert us to an imminent departure. Ominous clouds move fast into the same sky-blue backdrop that accompanied us into the boardwalk. The darkness appears to saturate the flora. The smoked stems get blacker and the new life seems saturated with such vibrancy it feels like a filter was dropped over our eyes. We pick up the pace at the recent memories of Southern storm experiences: they come in fast, they come on strong and they come supercharged with bolts of lightning and deafening roars.
You’d think that with that knowledge and the ever-present growl approaching, that we would stop at nothing to reach the safety of our steal Tank a mile away. But with senses sharp to my current environment, my unnatural talent of wildlife spotting just woke up. I caught sight of my first wild, swamp alligator. He (or she) is just a little one. Floating there with absolutely no effort, eyes wide and alert, but unmoving nonetheless. Unable to contain ourselves, April and I raced to complete an entire photography and film shoot while he patiently indulged us.
Further ahead, the scene turned even more fantastical if not threatening. We caught a glimpse of a dark water snake against the tall fluorescent grasses. The first big drops of rain keep us on our toes until we reach the parking lot. There is an eerie feeling as we follow the swamp road between scenes of recent and fiery devastation and flourishing new life. The thick fog behind lines of tall, skinny pines could be curtains of the flashing rains we’ve experienced since crossing into Georgia, or the smokes of a burning forest.
Just as we debate our chances of getting out on the water when we reach the visitor center near the entrance gate, we simultaneously gasp as I apply the brakes recklessly. A much larger gator is nearly completely exposed in a small pond not even 5 feet from the road. Gear in hand, we approach the edge while the 4 foot dinosaur descendant does the same from within the water. April is as unflinching as I am. At least I should admit that the thought of getting back in truck did cross my mind. It isn’t just the alligator that has my foot glued to the ground. The horizon is now solid black and the lighting creates perfect mirror image conditions in the pond. The alligator appears suspended amongst the trees with such surreal truth that fear cannot arise. The alligator is similarly enthralled and curious about our presence. It paces back and forth between us at distances closer than I could have imagined.
We superseded all expectations. We had a close encounter with an American alligator in one of the United States’ most fascinating natural environments.
~An Extraordinary Story by Karina Noriega~
There are 5 entrances to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge spanning through 2 states, Georgia and Florida. We accessed via Folkston, Georgia.
There is a $5 entrance fee or use your Interagency Annual Pass (highly suggested if you are planning to visit multiple National Park in the USA).
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge schedule, including Swamp Island Drive, hiking/biking trails, Chesser Island Boardwalk, and Okefenokee Adventures are open as following:
OPEN: ½-hour before sunrise every day
CLOSE: 7:30pm – March 1 to October 31
5:30pm – November 1 to end of February
(Visitor Center has different schedules)
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