Details: Okefenokee Swamp
“Now bounce up and down,” Griffin orders.
“Are you serious?” I ask.
“Jump!” he instructs, hiding a bemused smile.
Feeling a bit of trepidation, I start jumping straight up and down, like a Masai warrior. Then something weirdly wonderful happens: The ground quivers, jellylike, beneath my freezing bare feet.
“Whoa!” I laugh. “This is fun!”
“There you have it.” Griffin nods knowingly. “The trembling earth.”
We’re in the Okefenokee Swamp, or the Land of the Trembling Earth, which is what it means in the Creek Indians’ tongue. And I’ve just reconfirmed a Georgia history lesson I learned as a child, about how the swamp got its name.
I’m kind of surprised that it’s taken me this long to actually experience it.
Back to the swamp
If there’s one thing I know, it’s nature. As a onetime tomboy, I grew up traipsing endless miles through the tall pine forests and red clay roads of South Georgia.
From a very young age, I learned to identify just about every wild critter that has ever slithered, crawled, hopped, pranced or winged across this still-wild landscape: whitetail deer, raccoons and possums, gopher tortoises, indigos and rattlers, turkeys and hawks, black bears — and squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels.
So when I last visited the Okefenokee Swamp, which is about as far south in Georgia as you can get without falling over into Florida, I felt very much at home. All these creatures and their cousins, plus more alligators — about 20,000 to 22,000 of them — than you can shake a squirrel at, live in this vast wetland of about 700 square miles.
For my entire life, I’ve lived only an hour or two at the most from any of the swamp’s outer fringes. But I hadn’t visited in, oh, let’s just say a few decades. The last time, in fact, I was only 5 or 6, not even old enough to know what an alligator was.
Then the Okefenokee blipped back onto my radar screen when it made national headlines because of Mother Nature’s fury. Much of the swamp burned, first in 2007 in a fire that gobbled a half-million acres across the Okefenokee region and all of South Georgia, and then again in 2011, when another lightning-induced blaze charred more than 300,000 acres within Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Suddenly, I was aware of the swamp once again and wanted to see it anew for the first time since I was, in local vernacular, a young’un.
Camera in hand, I climb into Griffin’s small pontoon boat at the east entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Ga., close to the Florida line. As I settle in my seat, an elderly couple from Michigan gingerly climbs into the boat.
“The Okefenokee is not Disney World,” warns Griffin, a longtime guide and eighth-generation swamper who jokes that he comes from so far back in the Georgia woods that he couldn’t get the Saturday night “Grand Ol’ Opry” radio program until Wednesday. “It’s not about the people. It’s all about the animals living free in their natural environment.”