Exploring Southern Georgia

It was our lucky day, the eastern entrance to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was open to visitors. Our plans to visit the northern entrance the week before had been disrupted by a huge wildfire. While the fire was still raging across southeastern Georgia, it wasn’t close enough to be a threat on the far side of the refuge (note: the entire Refuge was closed on May 08, just a little over a week after our visit).

The refuge was established in 1937 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to protect the Okefenokee Swamp, most of which was in Georgia but it also dips into Florida. In 1974 over 90% of the Refuge was given further protection when it was designated a Wilderness Area.

Technically, the area the Refuge protects is not a swamp but a bog and a watershed since it feeds two rivers, the Suwannee and the St. Marys. Okefenokee, a Choctaw word meaning “land of the trembling earth” was formed over 7,000 years ago when the ocean waters receded. The Swamp is shaped like a saucer and receives all its water from rainfall. At over 600 square miles, the Refuge is the largest east of the Mississippi River.

The watery world of Okefenokee includes over 70 islands, 60 lakes, many large, wet prairies, houses, hammocks and blow-ups. The first three terms we understood but the last three needed explaining. Blow-ups are sections of peat and plant detritus that settled to the bottom of the waterway and were floated to the surface by the accumulating methane and carbon dioxide gases. Hammocks are small islands and houses are small islands that trees have conquered.

While amazingly wild, the Swamp has seen its share of human activity. There are extensive remains of Indian cultures going back several thousand years. The Seminoles, the last Native Americans to live in the swamp, were forced out in 1842.

Settlers, called “swampers” moved in and eked out livings by utilizing the area’s rich resources. Not only did they plant small farms (mostly corn and sugar cane) but they hunted, fished, logged the timber, and harvested “naval supplies.” Turpentine, resin and timber were in high demand for ships, hence the name naval supplies. A Slash Pine would be “slashed” for its sap (source of resin and turpentine) and when the tree ran dry it was logged for its timber. Talk about resourceful!

In 1891 a company bought most of the swamp from the state of Georgia with the intention of draining it for farmland. The company begin digging the Suwannee Canal that same year and after eight years of hard work over 20 miles of canals had been dug. The Swamp had the last laugh when one of the canals uncovered a spring and water flowed back into the Swamp, not out. Bankrupt and defeated, the company sold the land to a logging company in 1909.

The Hebard Lumber Company was financially successful since it used a rail system to enter Okefenokee and cut down old growth cypress trees. When logging stopped in 1927 over 431 million board feet had been removed from the Swamp.

The land recovered well; on our guided boat trip we witnessed none of the devastation wrought by previous generations. Instead we glided smoothly on shallow, tea colored, slow flowing water. Water so pure that sailors used to take it with them on their long voyages since it would stay fresh longer. The water’s color and purity both come from the same source—tannins—from contact with tree parts. Wine drinkers are familiar with tannins in most big, red wines. I personally am not a fan of wine with lots of tannins.

The Suwannee River is considered a blackwater river because of its high concentration of organic matter. The famous river was popularized by two songs, first by Old Folks at Home, a Stephen Foster tune written in 1851 and made famous by Al Jolson. The second, Swanee, was written by George Gershwin in 1919. Locals have a saying, “up the Swanee” which is similar in meaning to up a creek without a paddle.

The Refuge has over 120 miles of boat trails, unlike the old days when swampers sight navigated using osprey nests, the trails are clearly marked with mileages and directions. While it would be amazing to spend days paddling through the wilderness, I would want to go with someone more experienced in swampy things than me. After all, the swamp is home to black bears, alligators, numerous venomous snakes and hungry flesh eating, blood sucking bugs. We saw more alligators than we could count on our boat trip and were even forced off a hiking trail by a sunning, seemingly docile ‘gator later in the day.

Not content with just a boat trip, we biked the nine mile Swamp Island Drive to learn more. Along the way we came across carnivorous plants, pitcher plants to be exact. The Swamp has 13 species of the insect eating fly catchers. We were also lucky to see small yearling alligators, they are adorable! They have yellow and green stripes and are only about a foot long. We saw a new bird, a Prothonotary Warbler and a new mammal, a Fox Squirrel. Until we saw one we didn’t even know they existed!

After a wonderfully long day exploring we were hungry. We drove back out to the coast and enjoyed a fresh seafood dinner by the bay in Brunswick. One more new thing, a new food for us: Brunswick Stew. It was delicious and quite filling too. Remember the Georgian poet, Sidney Lanier I mentioned a few days back? Well, his most famous poem, The Marshes of Glynn, was written about the marshes near Brunswick. Odd how it all seems to fit together sometimes, isn’t it?

The next morning we switched gears from natural history to colonial history. Ft. Frederica National Monument was created in 1936 to preserve an old fort, town, and battle site. The fort and town, named after British Prince Frederick, were established in 1736 by General James Oglethorpe to protect Savannah. Oglethorpe began the colony of Georgia when he founded the town of Savannah three years earlier. The overall goal of Georgia was to claim the “debatable land” south of the profitable Carolinas for the British; at that time the land between South Carolina and Florida was claimed by both Spain and Great Britain.

The fort was defensively positioned on the bay side of St. Simons Island on a strip of land jutting out into the water. The fort would be able to fire on any ship entering the water well before the ship could aim. The fort and town were protected from a land attack by double palisaded walls and even a moat. All these defenses were never needed since the two battles on the island occurred far south of the fort walls.

It was 1742 and things at Frederica were looking up, there were close to 800 residents farming and occupied in all manner of necessary trades (baker, blacksmith, butcher, tailor, tavern keeper, doctor, etc). The Spanish, a mere 75 miles away in St. Augustine, were displeased with the British presence so close to key shipping routes. Two thousand Spanish soldiers were shipped up to attack the “invaders.” On the morning of July 7th the alarm was sounded as the Spanish were sighted off the southern coast of St. Simons. Oglethorpe rounded up soldiers, Indian warriors, and Scottish highlanders from nearby areas, yet he only had about 900 men, less than half the fighting force of the Spanish.

Somehow, Oglethorpe’s men defeated the Spanish in two key battles, the Battle of Bloody Marsh and the Battle of Gully Hole. That ended Spanish attempts at claiming the debatable land. Unfortunately, the peace that came in 1748 between Spain and Great Britain destroyed Frederica. Since the troops were no longer needed they were removed and the town withered away. While little but foundations remain of the homes in the town, parts of the old fort and barracks are still standing and are open to the public. As we wandered the site we could see our home for the past week, Jekyll Island, to the south of us.

Frederica has another claim to fame, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, once held services in the fort. (Did you know the name “methodist” was originally used as a negative description of their methodical habits?) Although he wasn’t there for long he was upset by his inability to convert many. He’s rumored to have said, “the locals had more tortures from their environment than he could describe for hell.”

After a nice picnic lunch we capped off the day by returning to nature. Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge was on our way to Savannah so we paid it a visit. The 2,284 acre Refuge was originally a Scottish cotton plantation. The plantation was broken up by the Civil War but the land was brought back together by the U.S. Government for World War II. During the War the area served as an airfield for pilot training for P39 and P40 fighters. After the War the land lay vacant until the Refuge was created in 1962.

We biked the aptly named Wildlife Drive. For our efforts we were rewarded with our first sighting of a Painted Bunting, a Hooded Merganser, and an incredibly densely packed rookery.

As we finished our loop by Bluebill Pond the sun was going down and all the birds were on their nests. Or building their nests, or fighting over nests, or feeding their mates on their nests. Amazing, it was like a bird condo with nests stacked on branches one above the other. And talk about an integrated community—Coots, Common Moorhens, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Wood Storks, Reddish Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night Herons—all kinds of birds. Alligators waited patiently nearby in the water, in case anything might fall in.

A special way to end the day. Tired but happy we pulled into Savannah.

Photos: View our photographs from Southern Georgia.

Recipe: Make a yummy “everything-goes-in” Brunswick Stew (details posted on our site for you).

Notes: We visited Okefenokee NWR, Fort Frederica NM, and Harris Neck NWR on April 27th and 28th, 2007.