Saturday, February 26, 2011

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia has been on our list of places we wanted to visit, at least briefly, since we moved to Atlanta. Maybe it was all those years of reading Pogo in the comic strips, but I've always been curious about the "land of trembling earth," and so has the S.O.

Visitors to Okefenokee have several choices on how to approach the swamp: there's the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area operated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service on the east side, Stephen C. Foster State Park on the west, and a private park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) on the north. There are also a couple other locations where a person can launch a boat, but don't have any other services. Both the recreation area and the state park have various amenities (visitor center, cafe, boat rentals, etc.). If a person has the time, there are guided boat trips, and it's also possible to go camping, although the number of wilderness sites that are accessible by canoe or kayak is limited.  The state park does have cabins and campsites, and, prior to our trip, I did look into what the costs would be for a cabin rental there. (I may complain about the state of Georgia, but the state park system does have a decent web site and on-line reservation system.) We decided to go in through the east entrance.
After wandering into the Visitor Center and sitting through a short, vertigo-inducing film (seeing the swamp from a dragon fly's perspective can be a tad disorienting), we decided to take the tour road over to an area -- Chesser Island -- with a boardwalk, observation tower, and a historic homestead. The homestead is interesting. The house was built in the early part of the 20th century using sawmill construction, and is beautifully preserved.
According to the volunteer docent hanging out at the homestead, when the last family members left, they donated quite a few items to Fish & Wildlife to ensure the interior of the house would be preserved in as original condition as possible. I'm always a little dubious when I hear claims like that, especially if it's been 50 years since the last family member left, but you never know. At least they (Fish & Wildlife) didn't burn it down or abandon it, which puts them way ahead of a lot of national parks when it comes to preserving vernacular construction and local history.
Sawmill construction is a technique that was used a lot down South. It's probably structurally the weakest way possible to build a house, but when the structure is fairly small, the roofing material is light weight, and you don't have to worry about snowloads, it's a fast, easy way to throw up a building. There are no wall studs to speak of, just corner posts, and sometimes even those are pretty feeble looking. It's one of those building techniques that causes engineers and architects to do a double-take and wonder out loud that sawmill houses over 100 years old are still standing.
The exterior of the house has battens, another typical feature of sawmill houses.
It's also typical southern construction in that the entire structure rests on piers -- blocks of wood -- that strike me as being much too far apart. There seem to be a lot of houses in the south that specialize in defying gravity, perched on piers (usually loose laid field stone) that look extremely unstable. These piers didn't look unstable, just not close enough together.

The white sand around the house, incidentally, is typical of the area. It's a very fine beach sand; at one time the area was shallow ocean bottom. Rural families in the Okefenokee area would keep the area around their houses raked so there'd be a wide strip of naked sand between the buildings and the forest; it served as an ideal fire break in an environment (pine forest) where fire is common.

After touring the homestead, we continued on our way to the boardwalk and observation tower. The walk to the tower is nice -- the boardwalk kind of meanders and has a couple short side trails to provide different perspectives. 
The tower itself gives a nice overview of the swamp. You can see the mix: open water, grassy areas that from a distance look solid but aren't, and the pine-covered islands -- areas where the land is a little higher and drier. Photo at the top was taken from the tower. There were other visitors there at the same time, and it seemed like we were all interested in the same thing:  seeing an alligator in the wild. One woman claimed she could see an alligator from the tower, but the only thing visible to me was a herd of turtles sunning themselves on a mudbank. 

We did see an alligator while at Okefenokee, but it wasn't anywhere near the observation tower. On the drive in, we had noticed a couple motorcyclists had stopped to look at something in the ditch next to the road. On the way out, we stopped, too, and there he was -- spitting distance from the pavement.
Odd how one 'gator by itself is kind of neat, but a zillion of them hanging out together in an enclosure at the Alligator Farm was really, really creepy.

Having been to Okefenokee once, it's now been added to the list of places I'd like to see more of. Maybe next time we'll rent a cabin at the state park and do a guided boat trip from that side.


  1. I grew up on Pogo, too. Friday the 13th come on a Monday this month was a household expression. Thanks for the tour and background. Add to my list of places I would like to visit and also to learn some historical background to..

  2. Enjoy it while you can, get a job there if you can. Steal that wood burning kitchen stove if you can.

  3. one of my favorite words..unlike my least favorite word..oxnard.

  4. I love the wood-burning range. Maybe it's part of the structure of the house.
    When we moved into this house, I needed a place to put tools and such, so I built a small shop using the modern equivalent of sawmill construction: treated 4x4 corner posts, 2x4 stringers, and OSB siding.I almost had to weight the thing down, until I started building shelves and workbenches inside and tying them into the structure. That stove may be kinda' like that. Remove it, and the house falls down in the next storm.
    OBTW, you will be happy to know that the "new" house is on piers.


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