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Archive for December, 2020

This is a confessional. As a native son of Georgia, I have sinned against my home state’s natural wonders. It is a sin of omission. The Okefenokee Swamp has been at my doorstep my whole life, but until recently, I’d never plied the water of the Okefenokee’s 120 miles of wilderness canoe trails.

Ben Thompson plies the “Pink Trail” en route to Monkey Lake in the Okefenokee Swamp.

In mid-November, I set out with friends Ben Thompson and Barry O’Neill to track some 16 miles through the easternmost portion of the swamp. After just a day in this watery wilderness, I’m confident that I’ll be taken to task on judgment day for this 54-year-old sin of omission.

“I gave you this beauty to enjoy,” God might say. “What took you so long?”

 I can only plead forgiveness…and tell the almighty I tried to save it (but more on that later).

I’ve paddled thousands of miles on Georgia’s rivers; nothing compares to the Okefenokee. It is vast, magical and beautiful. Of course, such words don’t do it justice. They’re like calling the Empire State Building a shack.

The swamp covers 438,000 acres. If you plopped all the land inside Atlanta’s perimeter highway atop the swamp, you’d still have 200-square miles of wilderness spreading around the edges.

They say there’s 200 species of birds in the swamp. On our short journey, Thompson, a noted birder, spotted 41 species.

Pitcher plants with beggarticks in bloom in the Okefenokee Swamp.

If it’s birder’s paradise; then it’s a photographer’s nirvana. I’m a photographer. At every bend of the paddle path, something caught my eye. A tiny rose begonia orchid here, a lounging gator there, lily pads everywhere.  More than a thousand digital frames in, I lagged behind my paddling companions. They waited patiently for me at our take out site.

A day after that initial excursion, I ran into 90-year-old Al Griffis at the fish camp he operates along the Suwannee River on the western edge of the swamp.

He’s the second generation of Griffises to operate the camp ($8 per person to tent). By the time he was 14, he was guiding trips into the swamp. He sat in his camp office surrounded by walls displaying trophy bass and bucks along with Native American artifacts and newspaper clippings and photographs—the ones with the young boys struggling to hold up massive stringers of fish beneath camp signs that read “Welcome fisherman, hunters and other liars.”

Rose begonia orchid.

“A lot of people around here consider it a bog hole with briars in it,” Griffis said of the swamp. But Griffis, like others who have entered its heart, know the swamp for  much more than that. That bog hole attracts 600,000 visitors annually. It’s the reason the hamlets of Folkston and Fargo advertise themselves as the “gateways” to the Okefenokee, and why on Friday nights, Ware County High’s Gators play football in a stadium they call “The Swamp.” Though shallow in depth, the waters of the swamp run deep in the region’s cultural identity.

That’s why for the past two years locals and swamp lovers from across the globe have become so alarmed over a proposed titanium mine adjacent to the vast wilderness. As proposed, the operation would dig 50-foot deep pits along Trail Ridge, the low rise of land on the swamp’s eastern boundary that acts as a natural dam, helping regulate water levels within the swamp.

Hydrologists—those not working for the mining company—have expressed grave concerns about the mine’s potential impacts, warning of irreparable harm.  

Their fears have only heightened since federal regulators were released from any environmental oversight of the project. The Trump Administration’s weakening of Clean Water Act rules saw to that. Now, all that stands in the way of mining on Trail Ridge is a handful of environmental permits that the mining company must secure from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.  

A young alligator peers out between lily pads.

Extractive industries are nothing new for this part of Georgia. Al Griffis reminded me of that. He told stories from his childhood when he could earn up to six dollars a day taping turpentine from the tall pines on the outskirts of the swamp. Indeed, now sleepy Fargo was once a bustling town dotted with turpentine stills and lumber mills that converted the region’s natural bounty into capital. 

The forests of longleaf pine–like the naval stores industry that they supported—disappeared long ago. Of the 90 million acres of longleaf forests that once covered the southeast, less than three percent remains. Gone with the stills and sawmills are many of the animals that once called the forest home.

Indigo snakes and red cockaded woodpeckers are but two of more than 30 threatened and endangered species that still depend on the greatly diminished longleaf habitat. Within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge land managers are attempting to restore some of this primeval forest.

Given this history, what then are we to do with this proposed new extractive industry on the swamp’s outskirts in a region starved for economic development?

Titanium, it could be argued, is a kind of pine tree for the 21st century, used to make everything from surgical tools to military equipment. But, like the pines that still grow across large swaths of Georgia, it’s a commonly found mineral, abundant elsewhere. In fact, the titanium dug from Trail Ridge on the swamp’s east side is more likely to end up as a pigment in paint, plastic or even toothpaste.

Lily pads, clouds and blackwater.

Just guessing, but I think there will never come a time when the billboards in Folkston announce the city as the “gateway to the nation’s titanium mines.”

I’ve now seen the beauty of the swamp.  I wouldn’t trade it for white toothpaste.

Locally, the swamp is one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders. Globally, it is so significant that it may soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is not the sort of place you tinker with to extract something you can easily find elsewhere. Don’t be fooled. That “bog hole with briars” is something special. It deserves a visit, and it deserves our protection.

To learn more about the swamp and send Gov. Brian Kemp a message urging him to save the swamp, visit www.protectokefenokee.org

To join Georgia River Network for a swamp excursion in 2021, visit https://garivers.org/grn-events/

Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator

Dec. 2020

A rainbow spans across the Okefenokee’s western boundary at sunset.
Cypress trees reflect in the Suwannee Canal.

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