The word “lost” deserves some deference. It tends to upset people, and therefore should only be uttered once all other adjectives regarding one’s position have been carefully reviewed and rejected. As the de facto leader of a modest flotilla of canoes plowing through the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, I tried to maintain a positive attitude, even though a good hour and a half had passed since we exchanged our relatively wide waterway for a drain-pipe-sized side canal at the behest of a map and a dubious-looking signpost.
As afternoon turned into early evening, the trail gradually narrowed to a meandering capillary. We wound through thick scrub congested by fallen logs, and ducked grasping branches that rained spiders at the slightest provocation.
“Has anyone seen a signpost since we left Floyd’s Prairie?” I yelled behind me. “No,” came the reply through moist air. And after a pause, “Can you see anything up there?” Only the trees, I thought. “We’re heading in the right direction,” I answered optimistically, looking at my compass. “And I haven’t seen any forks in the trail.”
Ultimately my uncertainty was misplaced, and it transformed into a mixture of relief and pride of accomplishment as the bank of the low-lying island came into view a little before sundown. “Piece of cake,” I announced as I hauled my boat out of the water. The group gave a half-hearted laugh and started hauling supplies up the trail to the small cabin where we would pitch camp.
Despite its theme-park-sounding name, the Okefenokee is a pretty serious place. The name itself means “land of the trembling earth” in the language of once indigenous Native American groups, referring to the swamp’s many floating islands of peat that shake when walked upon. Located on the Georgia/Florida border, this Deep South idyll covers roughly 400,000 acres of primal, tannin-stained wetlands, making it the largest “blackwater” swamp in North America.
We had launched our boats earlier that morning from Stephen C. Foster State Park, the only access point on the western edge of the refuge, and initially paddled upstream along the Suwannee River, one of two slow-flowing rivers that originate here (the St. Mary’s River is the other). After a couple miles of easy paddling, a well-marked crossroads pointed us into the 120-mile-long network of boat trails maintained by the National Wildlife Refuge.
Visitors can arrange self-guided trips along these trails with the refuge office, which provides permits for 12 designated overnight trips of varying difficulty, from one to four nights long. The permits allow exclusive access to the trails and the overnight spots along them, making it entirely possible to venture into the wilderness for days without encountering significant signs of civilization, or even another person, along the way.
Paddling alone through this wilderness, the place has an ethereal rainforest feel to it, dense and steamy, packed to the fern fronds with some of the region’s most exotic plants—like micro-forests of predatory pitcher plants—and more than 200 species of birds, including endangered species like wood storks and sandhill cranes, not to mention lurking alligators, venomous water moccasins and an endless barrage of orbiting mosquitoes and biting flies. One can easily imagine that, when the Devil came down to Georgia—presumably for the weather and the company—he holed up here.
Once we settled on Floyd’s Island, night came quickly. There are eight campsites scattered throughout the swamp, but Floyd’s Island is the only one on dry land—the others feature stilted, corrugated-roofed wooden platforms built over the water or above peaty hummocks—and the breezeless, tree-covered island harbors significantly more biting insects than the open-air platforms. So, thanks to the flies and mosquitoes, we retired early, with their fitful buzzing, and the humidity, lulling us into a shallow, malarial sleep.
The next day, after portaging our canoes across the island, our time spent slogging into the heart of this vast wetland seemed pulled from the pages of A Journey to the Center of the Earth. Like Jules Verne’s explorers, we had delved into meandering tunnels, battled exotic creatures and emerged through the backdoor of the swamp to find a prehistoric paradise where the canoe path skirted the heavily wooded fringes of shimmering lakes, wide-open wetland prairies bloomed with blankets of fragrant water lilies and the trees and clear blue sky reflected off the water’s famously mirror-like surface.
Each stroke of our paddles set off a cascade of action alongside the boats: Frogs croaked with alarm before belly flopping into the water, dragonflies the size of small birds alighted from their perches to buzz around our airspace, and the protruding yellow eyes of log-like, and otherwise submerged, alligators tracked us cautiously before slipping below the surface.
Occasionally, we’d steer into shady grottoes buffeted by the breeze flowing over the canals and nose the boats into the reeds to sit motionless and watch a crane fishing in the distance or an owl swiveling its head 180 degrees in its treetop perch.
After about four miles, we passed under a canopy of interlocking cypress branches and turned onto a modest river with trees tall enough on either side to block the mid-afternoon sun. And nestled into the underbrush, we found the spacious wooden platform of the Canal Run Shelter boasting an irresistible waterfront view. With plenty of daylight left, we unloaded the boats, set up camp and spent the afternoon exploring smaller side trails unencumbered by the ballast weight of our gear.
After a peaceful night sleeping alongside the dark water with frogs and insects volleying their choruses across the canal, the next and final leg of our three-day expedition pointed back to the start, and like the inbound trail to Floyd’s Island, returning from the center of the swamp proved challenging. The eight-mile path included six miles of the notorious “Orange Trail,” which at times appeared indistinguishable from the surrounding scrub brush and frustrated our forward momentum with a mixture of downed logs and thick peat quagmires that slowed paddling to a crawl.
At one point, caught in one of these dense patches of vegetation, I inched alongside a wide lily pad piled with a handful of chirping newborn alligators about the size of my forearm. The encounter was briefly exhilarating, but in the back of my mind, I knew babies must have a mother nearby. So, I dug my paddle in deep and pushed forward with newfound gusto.
After a full day of paddling and the persistent uncertainty about our direction that one gets when bushwhacking through a particularly dense jungle, an opening appeared in the underbrush like the mouth of a cave, and the trail spit us back onto the wide course of the Suwannee River like walking out the front door. Almost immediately, signposts pointed downstream to Billy’s Island and onward to Stephen C. Foster State Park, bringing the trip full circle, and reminding us we were never all that far from civilization.
It’s a special thing to escape, even for day or two, and explore unhindered through one of the country’s last true wildernesses, and that sense of isolation is realtively comfortable and accessible when it’s supported and maintained by the National Wildlife Refuge like it is here. In a way, we came to the land of the trembling earth hoping to get a little lost. But of course, I never admitted it.