Canoeing the Okefenokee Swamp. (Photo courtesy Clint Hawkins)
Reflections | Night in a Georgia swamp
The Okefenokee Swamp lies in the middle of nowhere, southern Georgia. To get there you take quiet, desultory country roads, whiz past stands of pine trees, peer out at the few quaint towns. The hum of bugs competes with the car’s engine. A stoic looking egret lifts itself effortlessly into the humid air.
When you pull into the gravel lot outside the visitor nature center, you realize that this is the last point of contact with civilization for the next 36 hours. Suddenly, you’re pulling your canoe packed with all the basic survival necessities into the dark marshy waters and sending yourself off into the great unknown. The first waterway is underwhelming. It seems like many other small rivers in Georgia, lined with overgrown brush and grassy banks. But as you turn the bend, the greenery on either side opens up and you are met with a view, the likes of which you have never seen. The large river is perpendicular to your boat, extending on either side for as long as the eye can see. There is a clear view of the sky, which is overcast but coats the scene in a serene gray beauty.
A steady sort of quiet hangs in the air, a settled sense of stillness that does not exist in the day-to-day life of suburban America. The water smells fresh, not Dasani fresh, but rather the fresh scent that comes from the Earth. Your canoe paddle slices into water so dark that it acts as a mirror, reflecting the Cyprus knees, slash pine, loblolly, and other trees of this place.
Floating downstream, your stomach drops when you catch a glimpse of this land’s queen: the American alligator. The upper half of the intimidatingly enormous creature cuts through the water, her body elegantly moving forward. You row hard and try and keep up, and your shoulders burn as you watch her disappear into the scenery.
The sun begins arching downward, and you start to make your way toward your campsite after a long day of navigating narrow streams that wind through groves of bald cypress trees emerging out of the murky swamp. Your body feels exhausted in a way that is reminiscent of the days you spent as a child playing all day in the yard with your friends, and you feel a great sense of relief when you arrive at the campsite. You bring your canoe parallel to the dock floating among the shining lily pads and gleeful golden trumpet pitchers.
Once you finish setting up your tent and sleeping bag, you settle in for a snack as the day finally rests into night. The air shifts from hot and wet humidity to a misty coolness. Just as you feel your eyes start to close and you drift off to sleep, you are awoken by the sight of a sparkling night sky. Gazing upward, it seems as if the space is taken up more by stars than darkness. A paint splatter of stardust fills the vast dome and the water reflects it below you as well, creating an all-encompassing cocoon of magic. You wrap yourself tighter in your puffy sleeping bag to the sounds of bugs chirping and frogs humming. This melody peacefully lulls you to sleep.
There is something so wonderful and eye opening about traveling into an environment in which you are forced to immerse yourself into a different culture. In fact, I would argue that nature itself has a culture. One all but forgotten to people in overpopulated cities and even the suburbs.