North Florida’s Great Wetland: The Okefenokee Swamp

North Florida’s Everglades

We all know that the Everglades is one of the largest and most important wetlands in the world. But did you know that on the opposite side of the state lies another great swamp that holds the same amount of ecological significance? This is the Okefenokee Swamp, located on the Florida-Georgia border. It houses over 350,000 acres of some of the most crucial wetland habitats in the world. This National Wildlife Refuge is also a hotspot for migratory birds, which often have a layover here on their way down to the Everglades and beyond.

Kayaking the Okefenokee

Last spring break I explored the Everglades for the first time, so it was only fitting that this spring break I went to its counterpart in the north. The whole family tagged along, and we made the journey into Georgia, where there is public access to the swamp. From the main entrance in Folkston, Georgia we paddled down the Suwanee Canal which was created in 1891 in an attempt to drain the swamp for agriculture and logging. Luckily this effort failed, and the canal has been reclaimed by nature while offering a ride into the heart of the swamp.

In the Thick of It

While going down the canal, wildlife surrounded us. For the first hour of the paddle, it seemed like there was a gator or turtle sighting every minute. We also saw plenty of wading birds like Herons and Egrets and a bird I’d never seen before, the American Bittern. When it heard us, it pointed its beak straight up as if attempting to camouflage amongst the reeds. At one point a guided tour passed us and the ranger pointed out a Red Shoulder Hawk nest, and sure enough on the paddle back, I got to see it perched near its nest.

Taking the Scenic Route

After the long paddle, we decided to give our arms a rest and cruise along the 7-mile Swamp Island Drive to our next destination. The drive started strong when we were greeted by a raccoon crossing the road, which gave me a great photo op. Shortly after we stopped at a pond surrounded by old-growth longleaf pine, where I was mesmerized by the tree’s reflections. If you look close enough you can see some longleaf pines that have white bands painted around them, this indicates a nesting cavity that belongs to the federally endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. These woodpeckers are unique in that they only nest in live pines that are at least 60 years old. Unfortunately, this is also the reason that they are endangered as only 3% of the historic 90 million acres of longleaf pine habitat remain after logging and development.

Chesser Island Trail

Our destination at the end of the scenic Swamp Island Drive was the Chesser Island Boardwalk, a 1.5-mile out-and-back trail with the best views of the swamp from land. This popular boardwalk goes through a dense cypress hammock and then opens up into the expansive wetland. Once the boardwalk ended, we climbed up the Owls Nest observation tower and were rewarded with a stunning 360-degree view of the swamp, which was the perfect way to cap off our Okefenokee adventure.

Land of Trembling Earth

The Okefenokee gets its name from the Native Americans who used to inhabit the land and it translates to “Land of Trembling Earth”. This is due to the high amounts of peat moss in the soil, which is squishy when stepped on from all the water stored within it. The formation of peat is a crucial natural process that occurs in wetlands and stores massive amounts of carbon. Peatlands only make up 3% of the Earth’s surface, but store double the carbon of the worlds forest’s. However, due to the high carbon content, peat mined for fuel or burned in wildfires releases substantial amounts of carbon back into our atmosphere.

Mining Near a National Treasure

The Okefenokee is a truly special place that is designated both a National Natural Landmark and a Wetland of International Importance. Because of its rich history and significance, it is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service who aim to protect the swamp for generations to come. Even with these distinctions, the state of Georgia is currently in the permitting process to allow a titanium mine near the swamp’s southern edge. The proposed mine will withdraw 1.44 million gallons of water a day from the Floridian Aquifer, which the USFWS says may cause “irreversible damage” to the swamp and expose the ancient peat deposits to wildfires. Lower water levels in the swamp may also endanger the habitat for all the wildlife that call this biodiversity hotspot home. This battle is still ongoing, and the hope is that the USFWS can assert its federal water rights to protect the swamp from mining.

Florida and Beyond

Even though a majority of the Okefenokee is in Georgia, it is still a natural connection to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The Osceola National Forest lies directly south of the swamp, which connects to the Ocala National Forest in the O2O Corridor. The Floridan Aquifer is also the main source of water for our springs and is likely the drinking water source for anyone living in North Florida. What happens in the Okefenokee will affect the wildlife and people of North Florida, which can have ripple effects across the state. If there is one thing, I have learned from my time exploring the corridor is that everything is connected, and when one piece is affected, everything else can feel the impact.

Ethan Coyle Photography Intern
Ethan is a senior at the University of South Florida studying Advertising and Environmental Science. Born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, he has spent most of his time outdoors leading him to develop a passion for nature photography. Most recently, he spent his spring break exploring the Everglades after being inspired by the “Path of the Panther” documentary. He is a true lover of old Florida and hopes to use his visual creativity to spark interest in preserving our state’s beautiful landscapes.

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