Kingfisher Landing, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, is quiet. A few warblers are flitting around in the fetterbush and holly-like shrubs that line the channel around the put in. I unroll a sleeping pad and stretch out in the sun. It’s the first warm day I’ve seen in months.
Eventually the others return from the car shuttle run. Gear piles into the canoes and we after it.
The swamp water is inky black here. Dead still everywhere.
When the water becomes shallower on day two it reveals its true colors, a deep cinnamon red that’s often compared to well-steeped Earl Grey tea. The color comes from the acid in the myriad decaying plants. The stillness comes from something else.
The water is so still that even following another canoe, provided you hang back a hundred yards, the water never appears disturbed — the ripples of previous paddles quickly fade, absorbed into the marshland around the narrow channels.
It isn’t more than a couple of hours paddling before we run across the first alligator, sunning itself on a boggy patch of mud, one of the countless floating islands of the swamp.
Some of these islands are hardly worthy of the name, a patch of mud barely big enough to support a six-foot alligator, others are immense, supporting swamp cypress, pines and who knows what else lurking deep in the impenetrable thickets of grass and shrubs and undergrowth.
Okefenokee is a Creek Indian word, O-ke-fin-o-cau, “Land of the Trembling Earth.”
Standing on the islands would be akin to walking on a waterbed. Full of alligators. None of us try it.
Our route through the swamp takes us mainly through the prairie areas — grasses and sedges with patches of peat, water lilies starting to bloom, clumps of pitcher plants luring unsuspecting insects.
The first two days we see no one. Once, as the channel swings back toward the edge of the swamp we hear distant murmur of a train whistle. The rest of the time the only sounds are the splash of paddles in the water. The cries of Red Tailed Hawks, Wood Ducks and Cowbirds. The occasional groan of an alligator.
In the evenings Ibis and Sand Hill Cranes can be heard calling in the shadows of larger islands. The silhouettes of Sand Hills glide across the horizon, their enormous wingspans black against the orange of the setting sun.
We paddle for six hours a day. Muscles complain. The shoulders, the triceps, the back. Something called the rotator cuff. It is hard not to suddenly wonder about the exact names of these new pinpoints of pain, muscles previously unaccounted for in daily activities.
The aches start in the shoulders and generally cascades down the back. But it’s bearable. An acceptable trade off for solitude, Sand Hills and a land of trembling earth.
When the channel narrows and weaves through the dense thickets of forest on day two, our pace slows to only one mile an hour. Otherwise we are able to do two, even three at times, depending on midday beer consumption.
The last night a smallish alligator, no bigger than your leg really, shows up right around dinner time, circling the front of the platform in what looks like a reptilian attempt to beg for food. At some point the alligator has no doubt been fed a leftover clump of cold pasta, a extra Oreo cookie or some other paddler morsel and is now attempting, as best its species can, to beg for more.
Strange though it might sound, it’s hard not to find the alligator (hereafter, Steve), well, scaly yes, but also somehow strangely, yes, perhaps even cute.
It’s likewise difficult to not regard Steve’s dark watery eyes, nearly unblinking in their stare, as quite simply curious. An alligator in the midst of teenage curiosity and rebellion.
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize. It’s also hard not to see any single alligator as possessing the entire history of the species. True, Steve in particular has not been alive since the Late Cretaceous Age, but the species has. It found its niche and did so well that evolution decided it was done, perfection attained, no need for further change. And it survived shifting continents, disappearing oceans, possibly comets, ice ages and all other manner of geologic apocalypse.
Alligators are one of the only living links back to the dinosaurs. 100 million odd years of continuous existence on earth.
There is something Zen-like about the alligator. A creature which has not only not changed in 100 million years, but found a way to spend the majority of its day simply lying in the sun, eating when it wants, doing nothing when it wants.
It is the apex of evolution in many ways. Perhaps not the top, perhaps not the goal, but nevertheless able to be here now, then, and like the swamp itself, perhaps here forever.
In the mean time, we will have to move on.
Assorted notes and further thoughts:
- to the person or persons who complained in the registration book at the Bluff Lake shelter that some “jerks” left a large bundle of plastic piled under the cooking table
- The “jerks” are the rangers who left it there so your hemp sleeping bag won’t get wet should the rain become horizontal. Are you by chance the owners of the DIY wooden camper we saw in the parking lot with the license plate VEGANS?
- to people buying things made of alligator skin.
- to the only live armadillo I have ever seen, which was running at breakneck speed toward the very cars and highway that reduced its brethren to the far more familiar smear of blood and guts and flattened shell
- to the very loud, very drunk retirees camping in the monstrous bus-size vehicle near the water at Laura Walker state park who quite clearly were not worried what the neighbors might think
- Rock on.
- to the wonderful people of Stinton’s barbecue in Lumber City, Georgia
- The ribs were delicious. We hope that Mrs _____ finds a buyer for her land and that coons are not too much trouble (we can’t help thinking six acres for $20,000 is a steal, inquire within). We do not, however, think that the girl sitting at the table by the windows was really old enough to get married. We are assuming this is some sort of inside joke played on passersby like ourselves. In any case, the mustard sauce was excellent.
- to the person or persons who erected the dogmatic, and frankly, quite alarming, religious billboards in Lumber City
- We are concerned about your soul and hope that your view of humanity is soon profoundly improved by something beautiful.