Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Okefenokee National Wildlife Reserve

Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Reserve, Georgia

Day 1 -- October 21, 2006

Drove from Atlanta to Folkston, GA. I passed through some really interesting small Georgia towns on the way south. There are definitely some photo opportunities along the way. It would require a leisurely sojourn with no timetables, no deadlines, and no expectations. Just plain and simple exploring and visiting.

Got in to Okefenokee Pastimes ( at about 9:30pm. Just enough time to check in to my cabin and hit the hay.

Day 2 -- October 22, 2006

Have the whole day to myself to sleep in, explore, and get a feel for the area. Because I arrived so late the night before, I slept until 9am. Unfortunately, I tossed and turned all night, so I didn't get much rest.

I drove into Waycross to get a few items that I needed but didn't have room for in my pack gear and stopped off at a few spots along the way to scout photo locations.

The first stop was Kingfisher Landing. It's a great entry point into the channels of the Swamp -- if you have a boat. Otherwise, there are no trails and no means to get around.

Afterward, I drove to Trader Hill. It's a recreation area with a boat dock on the banks of the St. Mary's River. It's a great spot to put in. It doesn't take you into the Swamp, but since the river is part of the same ecosystem, it shares some of the same characteristics. Steve and I will try this area later in order to get to some of the sloughs (pronounced "slews") that meander like fingers off of the river proper.

After my scouting expedition, I meandered back to the Refuge entrance, right across from my campsite at Okefenokee Pastimes. I drove the island road onto Chesser Island and parked at the trailhead (actually a 1 mile boardwalk) leading to Owl's Roost Tower. The mile hike to the tower is pleasant, unless, like me, you have a 75lb pack full of camera gear strapped to your back. Let me tell you, it was a tough walk.

I arrived at the tower about an hour before sundown. I shot in black and white and in color with my Hasselblad, my Nikon F5 and my Nikon F3 (loaded with infrared film). I even snapped a few with my 1936 Zeiss Super Ikonta. I was in the perfect place overlooking the prairies of the swamp and the tiny, but beautiful, Seagrove Lake while the sun cast it's colors across the cloud formations and the blue backdrop of the sky. There was only one problem... the park locked their gates at 7:30. It would take me 15 minutes to hike the mile back to the car, then another 10 minutes to reach the park gate before they locked me in. And the most vivid colors in the sky wouldn't come until about 7:15. So, in order to get out in time, I had to cut the sunset short and hoof it back to the car (remember, I'm carrying a 75lb pack) and book out of there as quickly as I could. The whole time I'm looking back over my shoulder at that gorgeous sunset wishing I'd waited to take my trip until after Eastern Standard Time kicked in.

And, to my great disappointment, I wouldn't see another sunset like that for the rest of my trip. Next time, I'll make sure to go after the time change so that I can be guaranteed to still be allowed in the park after the sun goes down.

Day 3 -- October 23, 2006

Today is my first guided tour into the swamp. I got up at 6am (about an hour before sunrise) so that we could be on the water by 7:30. It was quite chilly, but very peaceful.

Rather than take a canoe, we took a flatbottom boat with a small outboard and a trolling motor so that we would have enough room for my camera gear and a place to set up a tripod. We were the only ones on the water, silently motoring through the channels that carved into the prairie, watching the sun rise over the cypress in the east. Even though the water was still, my exposures were long enough that we had to stabilize the boat by edging it up onto a peat bog.

I got some fair shots of the prairie with the sun peeking through the trees, but I had to fight a little bit with a cool breeze that was coming up and with the sun playing peek-a-boo through the clouds.

We circled the center of the prairie then worked our way further into the swamp via the canals searching for overhangs of cypress and spanish moss. The backlit moss and the pollen on the surface of the water allowed for some good shots in one of the channels looking straight into the sun. I actually had to settle my tripod into the water, sinking the legs several inches into the mud, just to get a steady shot. (I wish Steve had taken a picture of me leaning over the bow of the boat lining up my shot with my Hasselblad just inches above the tea-colored water.) When the wind died down, and the sun rose high enough, I was able to use my monopod on the bow of the boat to get a steady enough shot.

Day 4 -- October 24, 2006

In the morning, after sleeping in a little bit, I hiked a couple of trails at the East entrance to the Park. Lots of gators, but not much else. Because the water level of the Okefenokee was so low, the whole area at the East entrance seemed more like a lowland forest than a swamp.

During the afternoon, I set out to Chesser Island on foot via the Ridley Island Trail. It's about 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead to the Chesser Homestead. Again, with adequate rainfall, the trail would have borne some resemblance to swampland. As it was, it seemed more like a hike through the woods.

When I got to the Homestead, it as very quiet, very empty, and had a deserted feel to it. It was as if the family tidied everything up, put all their stuff away, and just left. Kind of spooky. One of the things that really enhance the deserted feel was the grounds themselves. The whole of the Homestead property was freshly swept hard-packed white sand with a few scattered Cypress (which is what constitutes much of Chesser Island). I was told that the idea behind keeping the grounds so clean is to keep the Pygmy Rattlesnakes off the property. The snakes don't like the white sand because it gets hot in the sun, and it's very bright. The contrast of the white sand also makes the dark-colored snakes easily visible.

The effect of the Homestead was surreal. These shots were done in infrared to enhance that feeling.

After I returned from Chesser Island, Steve and I went out on the St. Mary's river to try to get some more shots. We put in around 4pm, tooling around until sundown. The river itself is beautiful and peaceful, but not very swamp-like. However, we took the boat into the sloughs -- the small, backwater offshoots of the river -- where there are some very picturesque areas of near complete solitude. Sometimes the sloughs go for a mile or more, and sometimes they barely draw out 50 yards. Most meander slowly through dense overhangs of Cypress, Pine, and Oak, often ending in a cul-de-sac pool of almost-still water covered over with blankets of lily pads. These sloughs provide homes to countless fish, waterfowl, and, of course, alligators. But, not to worry. The gators on the river are much more shy than the gators in the swamp, so the chances of actually seeing one are pretty slim. As a matter of fact, we didn't see a single alligator on the river (compared to one every 50 feet or so in the swamp.)

Deep into the sloughs, the tranquility is almost tangible. During the cooler months of September and October, it would be an ideal camping spot. Nobody around, easy fishing, fresh water... an outdoorsman's paradise.

And, one of the most contrasting, but interesting parts of the river were the beaches. Yes, there are beaches on the river. The inside of some of the curves of both the river proper and the sloughs have clean white sandy beaches. (Just another reminder of how close to the ocean you actually are.)

That evening, as I sat at my cabin cooking some chili for dinner, I met a nice young couple from Germany, Julia and Ulf, as they were moving into the cabin next to me. We sat at the table, had some beer and wine, talked politics, social patterns, cultural norms, etc., and had a great time. They were very intelligent, and the conversation was stimulating. It was a good change of pace from the self-imposed solitude I'd been experiencing for the past few days.

Day 5 -- October 25, 2006

I got up around 6am, packed my gear, and hurried down to the Owl's Nest Tower to try and catch the swamp's prairies nestled in the fog. Had I waited to pack until after I took the photos, I would have gotten some great shots to add to my Fog series. As it was, I was too late, and the sun had already burned the fog off the water. Next time: shoot first, pack later.

After the Tower, I drove straight to St. Mary's, a little town on the Georgia Coast, and hopped on the ferry to Cumberland Island. You can pick up on the Cumberland Island part of my trip in the following entry.

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