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Wilderness Awaits in the Okefenokee Swamp

  • Philip Graitcer

When you look at it on a map, the Okefenokee Swamp seems too close to the Atlantic Ocean’s white sandy beaches and Florida’s golf courses and theme parks to be a wilderness area.

That proximity led to an ill-conceived plan at the beginning of the 20th century to drain the 180-thousand hectare wilderness and reclaim it as farmland. Developers dug a 19-kilometer long canal, right into the center of the swamp, called the Suwanee Canal. But the project failed: it had engineering problems, and it ran short of money. The Okefenokee was sold to a timber company, and for thirty years, until the 1930s, millions of cypress trees were cut down and hauled out of the swamp.

Today, all that remains of human development is the canal, perhaps the most beautiful drainage ditch in the world. Its banks are green with vines, shrubs, trees, and Spanish moss. The canal is now superhighway for alligators.

Alligators, bears and hawks

There are thousands of alligators in the swamp. They sun themselves along the banks of the canal, or hide, just below the water surface so only the tops of their heads can be seen.

Their population is held in check, in part, by the hundreds of black bears that call the swamp home. When they find an alligator nest, they will dig it up and eat every egg in it.

Red shouldered hawks are the most common avian raptor in the Okefenokee. They prey on everything from wood ducks to snakes and frogs, rodents and squirrels to baby alligators and lizards.

The Okefenokee shelters more than 30 kinds of fish, 200 types of birds, dozens of different amphibians and reptiles, and 600 to 800 black bear. No humans live in the swamp; it is truly an American wilderness.

Blackwater

The Okeefenokee is a blackwater swamp, the largest in North America, and the water really looks black. If you dip some out in a glass, it looks like tea. But that’s not because of suspended mud or particles; the water is stained by the tannic acids leaching from the organic material in the swamp.

In the days of sailing ships, sailors took Okefenokee blackwater on ocean voyages; the low pH of the water suppresses bacteria, so the blackwater stayed fresh while clear water sources would tend to spoil.

The dominant habitat of the swamp is called prairie. It’s an open area where, as far as the eye can see, are water lilies, dotted with little mounds with trees and shrubs growing on them.

The prairies have sandy bottoms covered by peat, a natural composting of the swamp’s organic material, like leaves and grass. Sometimes the peat floats to the surface creating domes and little islands that are unstable, squishy to walk on. That’s probably how the Okefenokee got its name: from Native American Indian term for “land of trembling earth.”

Fire shapes the swamp

The Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago, protects the Okefenokee from humans; but not from nature.

There are frequent fires in the swamp, started by lightning. When it is dry, fire spreads. When it is very dry, fire spreads underground, burning down along tree roots. 2011 was a very dry year. Fire swept through the swamp, and when it finally died out, a year later, it had burned 85 percent of the Okeefenokee. What were lush areas of vegetation became open prairies. In some areas, there were only charred trees where there once were forests.

But, now, after the devastation comes rejuvenation.

Yellow flowers, called biddens, are coming out and shrubs and wild vines are starting to sprout. There are tangles of green briar that shelter migrating songbirds on their way to South America. Trees are sprouting new branches and leaves. There’s an abundance of insects and food sources, and that’s good for wildlife.

Fire has reshaped the swamp, but not destroyed it.

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