An Okefenokee Experience

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.
Lord of all to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.
    –Folliott S. Pierpoint (1864)

The evening settles quietly on the Okefenokee like an old, worn, hand-stitched quilt, bringing comforting familiarity and the reassurance that things can withstand the test of time. Tall cypress trees, their knotty knees protruding from the brackish waters, stand as sentinels of the Swamp’s diverse inhabitants, including its endangered and threatened species. 

An alligator’s deep and resonant voice suddenly infringes upon the calmness of the night. Perhaps he’s sending a message to another gator or calling a potential mate. This bellowing, however, doesn’t discourage the entertainment provided by a chorus of frogs, each contributing melodic sounds to their nighttime symphony. The occasional eerie scream of a panther echoes through the stillness of the Swamp. 

With the sunrise, the Okefenokee Swamp awakens, shimmering in her beauty, revealing her unique personality, and sharing her mysteries and wonders. The morning silence is soon interrupted by the call of a bird or the unexpected flight of a sandhill crane. Alligators sunbathe on the swamp banks, warming their armored bodies before returning to the calm waters. The allure of this natural wonder called the Okefenokee beckons us as it has from the beginning, urging us to appreciate her beauty and the inhabitants she cherishes. 

The people of this region who were ‘born and raised’ here accept the Okefenokee as their heritage. It is a gift received from the past and is ours to value and enjoy in the present. But most importantly, it is our responsibility to preserve and pass on this heritage to future generations. 

In the northern part of Charlton County lies a small, once vibrant community called Racepond, which was home to several generations of Okefenokee descendants, among them a young Harvin Carter. On the edge of the Swamp, Harvin hunted, fished, and explored the surrounding woods and bogs, often referred to as the Little Okefenokee.

In the early morning hours, Harvin and his father would gather their fishing gear, pack a lunch, and travel the 3 miles “from the house” for a day of fishing. Remembering those days, Harvin said, “We would ‘put in’ at Kingfisher Landing. I waded barefoot in the shallow waters, pushing us off the boat ramp.” As the boat began to drift, he would jump in. “It’s a wonder a cottonmouth never bit me.” Cottonmouth and diamondback rattlers are among the most venomous species in the Swamp. 

“The best fishing was found in deserted gator holes,” Harvin said. “So, I watched for the gator holes.” Alligators would create depressions in the swampy waters using their feet, snouts, and tails. These depressions would retain water even during dry spells, allowing gators to stay cool. It was also a good place for them to attract a mate or other prey. These holes also provided a refuge for fish, especially during the dry season. 

“When we found a hole, and there was no gator in it, we would drop our lines and spend quiet hours fishing,” he recalls. “Sometimes, we would go as far as Buzzard’s Roost Lake, and dark would catch us before making it back to the Landing. I didn’t care anything about being in the Swamp after dark.”

In later years, as a young man, home from college on the weekends, Harvin would take his mother, Ms. Eyre, an avid fisherwoman, and her friend and neighbor of many years, Lavon Drury, to Kingfisher Landing. Unlike the days of his youth, he was considerably more cautious when wading into the brackish waters as he launched the boat. They would spend the better part of a day fishing in the familiar dark waters, always coming home with a ‘mess of fish,’ usually warmouths.  

Following the devastation of large-scale logging operations in 1937, landowner John King, Jr. set up a peat mining operation at Kingfisher Landing. Because of its ability to retain moisture and release nutrients into the soil, sphagnum and peat moss was harvested and sold to agricultural industries. The unstable, sponge-like peat moss covers much of the Swamp floor and, when stepped upon, will tremble or quiver, giving meaning to the phrase associated with the Okefenokee. The Land of the Trembling Earth.  

Harvin remembers vividly, “I was only ten or eleven years old the first time I stepped out on that peat moss and began to sink. It was a scary feeling.” 

Harvin recalls that his brother-in-law, Hoyt Padgett had a lucrative moss business. “The sphagnum and peat would be raked with potato racks and hauled to the Landing on the bogie. The bogie was a flat cart that ran on rail tracks, probably left by the loggers.” He explains that “the rails lay on old wooden planks and functioned as a temporary railroad.”  

“Then they laid out the peat moss to dry and later baled it for sale. Hoyt would haul truckloads of the dried moss, sometimes traveling as far as Texas,” Harvin shares. 

Finally, in 1969, the remaining private acreage of the Okefenokee was purchased by the federal government and added to the National Wildlife Refuge, ending all private commercial operations. Wounds left by the near-fatal ventures have healed, but the scars remain.

The solid and sturdy roots of the Okefenokee folks have endured. The Swamp, its history, and its survival remain an integral part of the descendants of these early settlers.                            

Their homes remain in the Swamp and offer us a glimpse into the past. As one of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge experiences, visitors can visit the old, restored homesteads. 

These Swamp families are now gone and, along with them, a way of life that cannot be reclaimed. Because it is our heritage, we gladly share the spirit of the Great Okefenokee, keeping it alive for future generations.