Birthday In the Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp, Chesser Prairie

Okefenokee Swamp, Chesser Prairie

I’ve told the story of my 50th birthday, when my sister Jane booked us a five-day trip to Nebraska in March, where we sat in a duck blind before dawn in sub-freezing temperatures, to witness one of the “Ten Great Animal Migrations” of the world – 400,000 Great Sandhill Cranes migrating north to their winter breeding grounds in the Arctic.

We watched as great clouds of birds with six-foot wingspans circled the sky, dawn and sunset, over their nighttime roosting site in the shallows of the Platte River. As they called to one another, the sounds of their voices filled the sky. I’ll admit, it was spectacular.

And cold.

So for Jane’s birthday this past November, I wanted to measure up with a comparable getaway. For sheer one-upsmanship, I liked the sound of a Swamp trip.

Specifically, Okefenokee Swamp – the largest freshwater swamp east of the Mississippi, located in the middle of nowhere in south Georgia.

I figured there was no way to top the spectacle of a great Animal Migration. I was hoping for alligators (and not too many mosquitos). I booked us a guided, three-day kayak trip, during which we would ferry our supplies in our boats, and camp each night on platforms raised above the swamp waters.

As it turned out, there were alligators. Every hour. Everywhere.

But there were also surprises.

Our guide Sheila was a piece of living history – a self-proclaimed “Swamper” whose family had lived in the trackless swamp going back almost two hundred years. Sixty years old, she is a member of perhaps the last generation to know so many of the old settler stories, a trove of tales she shared with us about life in the swamp as it once was.

As she led our kayaks through the maze of water trails, she often stopped us to point out countless strange bird calls, and name the source of each. In one instance, she pulled up to a hummock of ground where she stripped some leaves from a bush, wetted and crushed them, and showed us “Poor Man’s Soap,” lathering in her hands.

As for the alligators: one woke us with a huge bellow somewhere just beside our platform at dawn the first morning. And as Jane and I paddled through a narrow channel the second afternoon, a big twelve-footer slid from the grasses into the water just in front of our kayak.

Jane and I froze – and then strained to stop our kayak. We knew he must be in the water just ahead of us. We called anxiously to Sheila behind us. Nonchalantly she paddled up, glanced at the tea-tinted shallows, and said “Looks like he has enough room down there to stay out of your way. Go ahead.”

The real Okefenokee was not at all what I had pictured. There were moss-draped trees and dark waters – but there were also wide “prairies,” mirrors of glass-like water, covered with pools of blooming waterlilies under the sun. Great shining white egrets perched in watchtower trees above the water, and the healthy waters were alive with fish and turtles and frogs.

Sandhill Cranes, potential header or spot illustrationAt sunset the final night, like an unexpected benediction, we heard the strangely familiar bird cries across the swamp from our platform. Sheila pulled out her binoculars to let us look – and there, heads and necks bobbing above the marsh grasses, were four sandhill cranes, settling down for their evening roost in the water.

For Jane’s birthday, Nature had graced us once again – so we could see the sandhill cranes, a thousand miles from Nebraska, for another birthday celebration.