Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

BORN to Be WILD; the Vast Watery Wilderness of the Okefenokee Swamp Is a Great Place for Nature Lovers

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

BORN to Be WILD; the Vast Watery Wilderness of the Okefenokee Swamp Is a Great Place for Nature Lovers

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Bull, The Times-Union

OKEFENOKEE SWAMP -- First of all, it's a swamp. More than 600 square miles of swamp, in all its primordial blackwater best. It has not been dug and drained, and there are no swamp-view mansions built on every bit of high ground.

It's just a swamp.

And then there's the name: Okefenokee. Part exotic, part comical, but certainly more colorful than, say, Big Cypress. It's even the home of its very own cartoon strip, Pogo.

The Okefenokee is one of this nation's great swamps, a vast watery wilderness, federally owned, protected and guaranteed to remain a wilderness.

And it's just up the road an hour and a half or so from Jacksonville.

The swamp fills up a large chunk of Southeast Georgia -- and just a bit of Florida, too -- almost as big as Jacksonville

And it draws about 400,000 visitors a year, with business picking up about now. The weather is warming, the huckleberries are among the first blooms of spring. The yellowflies haven't shown up yet.

It was a place for ecotourism long before that became a trendy word. The towns around it, Folkston, Waycross and Fargo, all pride themselves for their proximity. There are guided boat rides for those who want others to steer. For the more adventurous, there are motorboats, canoes and kayaks to rent. There are even platforms for overnight camping out in the swamp. But they are booked up two months in advance this time of year.

There are some hiking trails, but not a lot. This is, after all, a swamp.

Think of the Okefenokee Swamp as a large shallow bowl, a saucer really. But it's not a depression. It's actually higher than much of the land around it. Sand ridges around it create the bowl and the swamp. The Suwannee and St. Marys rivers form there, taking swamp water southwest to the gulf and east to the ocean.

The swamp itself covers about 438,000 acres; 396,000 of that is the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Because it is a refuge and not a national park, there are few changes to make it more hospitable to people.

There have been attempts to change it, of course. In the 1890s, a few canals were dug to drain it. But they were digging with men and mules and didn't get far before running out of money. The early 1900s saw a logging operation that took most of the virgin cypress and pine that once stood there.

But in 1937, the federal government stepped and bought it. And there's been talk since then of a scenic highway cutting through it, or a canal from the St. Marys to the Suwannee that would give boats passage from the ocean to the gulf.

But those plans died a quiet death and the swamp survived intact. It is still a swamp. As boat guide Joey Griffin said on a recent trip through the Okefenokee: "This is not Disney. There's no cages. …

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