Thursday, May 12, 2016

Adventures Across the Border: Okefenokee Swamp from Kingfisher Landing

In honor of the fact that last Sunday was Mother's Day, this week's post is another one that skips just across the border into our neighboring state where my mother lives. Additionally, while the Okefenokee Swamp is located mainly in southeast Georgia, the southern edges of the swamp spill over the border into north Florida. The swamp is also the location of the headwaters of the Suwannee River, one of the largest - and arguably the most well known - river in the state of Florida. (You know, way down upon the Suwannee River.... There's your earworm for this post!) As such, I feel wholly justified in including it here on Desolation Florida.

The Okefenokee Swamp currently covers roughly 700 square miles (1127km), although it would have once been larger as development near its edges, logging, and attempts to drain it have caused it to shrink in size in the modern era. I learned as a child that okefenokee was a Seminole/Creek word meaning land of the trembling earth. In many ways this makes sense to speakers of English who have ever attempted to walk across or through a swampy area; however, it seems that explanation may actually be a folk etymology loosely based on the Creek words for water (oka) and shaking (fenoke). 

Both the swamp itself and the surrounding areas had once been thick with longleaf pines, slow-growing trees native to the area, which can take up to 150 years to reach maturity. In the 1880s, the swamp was essentially encircled on all sides by railway lines. This enabled loggers an easy way of transporting logs to market, and by the turn of the twentieth century the easily accessible (er, dry) lands bordering the swamp had been denuded of longleaf pine. Once the easy to access longleaf pines surrounding the swamp were gone, timber-profiteers looked for ways to access the cypress trees growing within the swamp. The first attempts were made by the Suwannee Canal Company in the 1890s, which tried first to drain the swamp and later tried to use steamboats to access and remove timber. Both attempts were unsuccessful.

In 1901, the bulk of the swampland itself was purchased by Charles Hebard and his sons, owners of the Hebard Lumber Company, and they approached cypress logging in the Okefenokee in a different way. They constructed a cypress mill on the northern edge of Waycross, GA (in an area which to this day is known as Hebardville), a rail line connecting the swamp to their mill, and a network of rails through the swamp. Rail lines would be constructed in order bring equipment in and lumber out, and would be removed/rerouted once an area of swampland had been logged. Logging continued in the swamp until the late 1920s, when the vast majority of the cypress had been culled. In 1937, the swampland owned by the Hebard Lumber Company was sold to the US Government in order to create what is now the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Loading cypress timber from the Okefenokee Swamp for the Hebard Cypress Company (source)

One of the four public access points to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is Kingfisher Landing, little more than a parking lot and a boat ramp located at the end of a dirt road heading west from US 1 from an area known as Racepond, GA. It's a convenient place to put in a canoe, kayak, or shallow-bottomed motor boat, and my mom and I decided to take our kayaks there on Mother's Day. In the woods just west of the parking lot, if you know where to look, you can see the remains of some rail-mounted logging equipment and some rails running westward into the swamp.

While the previous pictures were taken last Sunday, I took this shot of the tracks back in 2006. The tracks are still there, but the area is much more overgrown now, and I was unable to get a photograph on Sunday in which they were clearly visible.

Much of the park is accessible only by canoe or kayak, and there are some lovely canoe/kayak trails. Mom and I put in our kayaks at Kingfisher Landing and did three miles out and three miles back. Oddly enough, this was the first time I'd been to the Okefenokee without seeing a single alligator. Usually they are all over the place, but I didn't spy a single one. Every time I thought I saw one, it just turned out to be a branch or a log, floating in the water. (Usually it's the other way around; you think it's just a branch or a log until it moves!) We saw some birds (although surprisingly not many) and an uncountable quantity of dragonflies. The weather was absolutely glorious and perfect for kayaking... and in true desolation form, there was hardly a soul in sight.

My mom!

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  1. The old rail equipment there was used to harvest Spanish moss. For furniture and car seat stuffing.