(State #8/50) The swamp burns; the long drought has ceded to wildfire. My plan was to canoe deep into the Okefenokee Nation Wildlife Refuge — a vast wetland wilderness in Southeast Georgia, which I’ve always wanted to see. A lightning bolt on April 6th had other ideas. “All primitive camping in the Okefenokee is closed until June because of the fire. The west side is closed and the east will be closing tomorrow,” a woman at the refuge explained by phone. “You might try canoeing the Saint Mary’s River near Folkston. The fire’s not there, yet.” she said. So there it was, Georgia Plan B.
Hours later, I crossed into Georgia and wondered about the strange cloud to the northwest. What interesting weather phenomenon is this? I mused, forgetting my recently acquired knowledge. It was, of course, a plume of smoke and condensation from the fire. As I entered the town of Folkston, the air grew foggy with smoke and the sun turned blood red.
Upon the advice of the local Chamber of Commerce, I parked at the Traders Hill Recreation area. The air was less smoky, but the ominous gray cloud still loomed. Unloading the car and canoe, I looked at my Bending Branches wooden paddle. A crack extended from the blade and up the shaft. Not good. It happened in the Everglades, when I was tearing through the mangrove maze. I wedged it between two stocks and split the wood. I remembered the sound, but didn’t notice the crack for a few days. A guy in the Keys recommended a hose clamp to fix it. “Duct tape will get all slimy,” he warned. He’s probably right, but I wrapped it in duct tape anyways.
I put in the water at 6:20 p.m. and began canoeing up the St. Mary’s river. The water was flat and black. If I canoed on sweet tea in Mississippi and Alabama, I was floating over weak coffee now. The river was thick with the tannic leeching of the surrounding vegetation. When I put the paddle blade into the water, it disappeared into blackness after 8 inches.
Separating the states of Florida of Georgia at this point, the St. Mary’s River was wide and, at first, appeared still. After a few minutes of canoeing upstream, however, I began to notice the slight pushback of the water flowing against my canoe, crawling towards the Atlantic. The banks were lined with dense, mostly hardwood forests. Cypress, water oaks, sweet gums and the occasional large Longleaf pines grew amongst other species along the banks in many places. Spanish moss was present, but not overwhelming. The most dominant feature, besides the black water, were the groves of Palmettos lining the 4-8 foot cut banks. The happy plants grew in large clusters, often 6 feet high and 30 feet wide, creating a tropical feel in the otherwise temperate landscape. Slower portions had lily pads and blooming white flowers. Grass and other vegetation grew a foot above the water on fallen logs and snags caught in the water.
The Saint Mary’s bended and meandered and finally headed south. I’d notice, every so often the red sun, weakly penetrating the cloud of wildfire smoke, was on the opposite side of the river without realizing I had made a 180 degree turn. At first I didn’t see many sandbars — just orange “No Trespassing” signs posted along banks and little hunting/fishing camps. After 2 miles white sand banks became more common and I grew less anxious about the sun setting without having a place to pitch a tent.
Bees hummed in the blooming trees. Closing in on sundown, the high-pitched buzz of unseen insects reached a constant hum. It sounded like high-pitched string instruments building the tension in a horror movie; the whole river held that tense tone as if the killer was about to strike. I heard noises in the brush on the Florida side of the river accompanied by strange screaming/hissing noises. I saw movement, maybe deer, but couldn’t get a good look. I tied Rider to a cypress knee, climbed out of the boat and up the bank. I peered around the undulating floodplain, searching for the culprit and found nothing. Fearing getting shot by landowners or mauled by Bigfoot, I went back to my canoe and the black river.
With the sun already below the horizon, I put in big strokes until I reached a wide sand beach on the Georgia side, void of ‘No Trespassing’ signs. I unloaded, set up the tent, arranged my gear and set up the stove and food for dinner. My meal supplies were bottom barrel — I prepared ramen noodles with a wrinkly jalapeño and Vienna Sausages, which I fried up and dumped in the broth of soft, cardboard noodles. It was… food… I guess.
I saw single dim fire fly on the Florida side of the bank and listened to coyotes howl. I read Goodbye to a River as I slurped up the soup. John Graves spoke about the old settlers (on the Texas frontier) resenting the newer settlers. The new comers, as Graves explained, did not distinguish between the ‘peaceful’ Indians and the raiding Comanches. They also, apparently, grazed the land until it was worthless before moving on to ruin the next tract. I thought about how every generation regards the up and coming new generation with a mild, head shaking disdain (I’m a Millennial, for God’s sakes, of course I know this). I do it, my parent’s generations does it, and so, it seems, have people for all time. I’m not saying there’s no validity behind these disapprovals. I’m only saying that for all our changes, a dislike for the new way remains the same. With that thought, I headed for the tent.
I took out my contacts and was cleaning my glasses with my clean underwear (a common practice) when a lens fell out. Upon inspection, I noticed the tiny screw holding the frame together had dissolved. I wish I had fishing line now, I thought. I found the dental floss in my dopp kit and spent 10 minutes tying a series of crude tiny knots with my stubby carny hands. If this doesn’t hold up, I’ll get the duct tape, I decided
It was a rough night’s sleep. The Vienna sausage and ramen mixture turned on me. My stomach groaned and gurgled every few seconds. I scoured my belongings, searching for anti-acids or my bottle of Pepto, but it was all miles away in the car. I laid down and read, listening to my stomach compete with the hooting owls, crickets and coyotes. I slept, eventually.
I was slow to stir the next morning, emerging from the tent to make oatmeal and coffee around 9 a.m. Brushing my teeth, I watched without much concern, as a big gust of wind blew over my tent. Then, snap! One of the metal poles had snapped in half. Getting used to plans changing and things breaking, I sighed and repaired the pole using a splint and duct tape.
I canoed back towards the landing, with the flow of the coffee river. I passed a stand of tall longleaf pines. I drifted and listened to the wind pass through 100,000 needles. A Cardinal called, insects hummed and a woodpecker machine gunned a tree in the distance. Downstream, I watched thousands of gnats hover above the river in a tight cluster. They appeared more like a school of fish or a murmuration of starlings than a swarm of insects. The wind picked up and swept them over the rippled surface, like wind passing over a dry dirt road.
Feeling tired, but stubborn, I decided to to drive to the last open part of the Okefenokee after I got off the St. Mary’s. I canoed a mile and saw a single small alligator and the yellow flowers of the carnivorous pitcher plants. Satisfied, I canoed back under the haze of smoke. My throat was scratchy and I was exhausted. I pulled out a Georgia flag sticker from inside the car and slapped it on the side of the canoe, feeling I had earned it.
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Saint Mary’s River, Georgia (4/26-27/17)
- Weather: Warm, clear minus the large plume of smoke
- Miles canoed: 9 (7 on Saint Mary’s, 2 on Okefenokee Swamp)
- Launch/Takeout Point: Traders Hill Recreation Area (30.782925, -082.024312)
- Camped: Sand bank on Georgia side (30.75588,-82.017698)
- Song Sung on River: Georgia on My Mind (Ray Charles), Walkin’ Back to Georgia (Jim Croce)
- Thanks to workers at the Okefenokee NWR and Okefenokee Chamber of Commerce in Folkston.
- Books to Read from Area: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: Osprey, mourning doves, sand pipers, a hawk, great blue heron and a pileated woodpecker.
- Reptile: One small alligator in Okefenokee NWR, a few turtles
- Noted Species: Black Bear, Alligators, Gopher tortoise, Indigo Snake, Red Cockaded Woodpecker and Pitcher Plants
- Dominant vegetation: Palmettos, Cypress, Water Oak, Long Leaf Pines
- Ecoregion: Southern Coastal Plains, (75f) Sea Island Flatwoods
- Current Threats: Development, disturbing watershed and human impact on “zone of influence” Wildfires can be destructive, but are a natural part of the ecosystems of the South East.
- Trash collected: Beer cans, plastic bottles, cooking pan and campaign sign.