Photo essay: Okefenokee draws a wilderness rambler

Earlier explorer called this northern Florida refuge ‘enchanted’

On the way, I stopped at a landfill. This luna moth, which lives only a week, was a handsome reward. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, the most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum.”  Henry David Thoreau

Northern counties in Florida are slightly known and little appreciated. They are woodsy and delightful, especially in winter.

On this particular day, I was driving north when I passed a sign that read, “Georgia 55 miles.” I knew that an entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was just across the border. To me, a seasoned rambler, it seemed like a 5-minute foray, so I pressed on.

The Visitor’s Center offers exhibits and a movie about the park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Okefenokee has a fabled place in Native American tradition. Just the name is captivating. I had read about it in the papers of naturalist Francis Harper. A researcher with Cornell University, he explored the place for many years and even lived there for a time with his family. He collected specimens, documented the folklore — including anecdotes from residents — and recorded his findings about these 400,000 acres of wetland, lakes, swamps and prairies.

The forest primeval: Pines and deciduous trees are budding out. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Francis Harper had a great interest in the explorations of John and William Bartram and knew that although he never set foot in the place, William Bartram had mentioned Okefenokee in Travels when writing about the St. Mary’s River and surrounds.

William heard tales of this “enchanted” place in his encounters with Creeks he met on his travels. They told him about “a most blissful sort of the earth: the way it is inhabited by a peculiar race of Indians, whose women are incomparably beautiful.” Hunters lost in this place were helped by these women, “whom they call daughters of the sun, who kindly gave them such provisions they had with them” but were warned to flee for their lives from their “fierce” husbands.

Water + insects = carnivorous plants such as these sundews. They can be found in parks around here, too. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Okefenokee has had many names — Bartram uses the Creek name, Ouaquaphenogaw. It still is known as the “Land of the Trembling Earth” because of the instability of the swampy peat, which moves when stamped upon.

You can take a guided boat tour. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Once, it was an easy place to get lost in. It has always been a refuge for the oppressed. The Georgia Historical Society writes ”[T]hroughout its history, the mysterious nature of the Okefenokee furthered its use as a refuge. This was especially true throughout the 1800’s leading up to and during the Seminole wars, when Native Americans sheltered there, melting away into the swamp or hiding undetected when pursued. Escaped slaves also hid there and during the Civil War, deserters banded together on the swamp’s islands.”

You can canoe or kayak some of the 120 miles of canoe trails. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In On Harper’s Trail, Elizabeth Shores writes that Francis’s brother, Roland Harper, a renowned botanist, regarded the swamp as a “bright” place and did not believe it bred disease. He pointed out that healthy people lived in the Okefenokee.

Nature’s endless cycle of life and death is on display at this beautiful park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I was hugely expectant, but at first the place disappointed me. The park had recently experienced a major wildfire, and there were many charred stumps with new growth just starting at the base. I was anticipating dark, dense swamp. I was there some years ago. Most likely, regrowth has galloped along as it does after a fire.

Violets are another harbinger of spring. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Fran Palmeri is the author of Florida Lost and Found. This essay is from her new book, A Bouquet of Days, to be published this spring.

No dragonflies today, but later in the season they will be plentiful. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Birders will not be disappointed. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Yes they are here, too! Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
This is a view of Okefenokee from the observation tower. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri