Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Appreciating The Okefenokee

I have a memory from planning our first trip to Jacksonville, Florida: I'm looking at Google Maps of the area, zoom out and realize that we're within driving distance of the Okefenokee swamp. From then on, 'Let's visit the Okefenokee!' was a recurring request whenever we visited Jax.

Fast forward a little over 8 years, and I finally got my trip to the Okefenokee. The stars had aligned: we had the time to spend exploring the area and the weather was chilly by Florida standards, perfect for avoiding the sun stroke and mosquitos I associated with a swamp in Georgia.

We opted to take a 90 minute guided tour through the swamp, and then followed it up with a relatively short hike.

As we pulled out of the dock, our tour guide explained her mission for the day (I'm paraphrasing here): humans are pretty much wired to see swamps as a waste land. It's not quite land and not quite water. We can't build houses or cities on them, we can't farm them, nor can we productively fish them. Her goal was to try to get us to see the Okefenokee the way she and the other guides did: as a beautiful, thriving ecosystem that doesn't need fixing.

You might imagine that because I'd wanted to visit the Okefenokee for years that I'd hear her explanation and pat myself on the back for being so enlightened. But in fact, the typical person she was describing was me to a T.

In short, after 90 minutes spent cruising the canals of the Okefenokee I was sold. This place wasn't the muddy, smelly, buggy place of my imagination. It was a remarkable, varied eco system that is one I look forward to continuing to explore.

As we made our way through the 'highways' (read: canals) of the Okefenokee, we saw a variety of turtles, gators and a couple of different birds. I came to appreciate how the water level naturally ebbed and flowed, and how like other forests the Okefenokee depended on fires to keep its timber healthy.

Our guide explained that while they did have some bugs in the summer, mosquitos weren't nearly as problematic as most assumed. Perhaps the largest myth our guide busted was how seemingly nasty the black tinged water of the swamp was. She explained that at least once a day, she likes to have a drink from the Okefenokee and casually dipped a cup over the side, filled it up with swamp water, and had a drink.

We were all impressed, and naturally J and I *had* to give this a try ourselves. Later in the cruise, when we finished one of our water bottles, I cut off the top to make a simple cup. With the guide's permission, we filled it up off the side and each took a small sip. As promised, it tasted vaguely like tea--which makes sense, as the water is soaking in vegetation that give off tannins, just like tea does. We didn't press our luck drinking more than a tiny sip, but it was totally worth it. Who knew how good the Okefenokee tasted?

At the midpoint of our cruise, our guide demonstrated how the swamp got its name. Okefenokee means 'trembling earth,' which is caused by the massive amount of peat, not soil, that sits below the surface. This peat has a bouncy, almost trampoline feel to it, when you press into it. When she pulled up a hunk of the "ground," she explained that this wasn't dirt or mud, but pure plant vegetation. So much for my assumption that the swamp would be all muddy.

As we finished up the cruise, I tried to imagine what it would be like taking a multi-day trip into the swamp. Throughout the Okefenokee are sleeping platforms that you can camp at. I tried to imagine what it would be like spending hours in a boat, with no option to simply step to the side of the trail and take a break. And what must the night sounds be like in a place teeming with so much life? I can't even imagine.

After our cruise, we explored a short trail through Chesser Island that ended at an observation tower. I certainly wished we had more time to spend in the area, but that will have to wait until another day.

We hit a Dairy Queen as we left the park and then made our way back to J's home to play a rousing game of Candy Land with his sister.

We had a really fun day and my refrain of 'Let's visit the Okefenokee!' will continue to be my suggestion next time we're in Jacksonville.

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