1 Tank Trip: The Okefenokee Swamp

Published: Sep. 24, 2008 at 3:17 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 25, 2008 at 7:00 PM EDT
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By Jay Polk - bio | email

September 24, 2008

FARGO, GA (WALB) - Most Georgians don't give the Suwannee River, or the Okefenokee Swamp much thought. Even if you're going to the coast, the swamp is a place that you go around, not through.

Stephen Foster never saw the Suwannee River. But the 19th century songwriter made it famous with his song "Old Folks at Home." The river seems to have a timeless quality about it. Maybe that's because it doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry as it meanders its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

After seemingly being forgotten by time, the river got some welcome attention when the Suwannee River Visitor Center opened in 2004 in Fargo. The center has earned the distinction of being a green building.

Sam Williams from the Stephen Foster State Park tells us what makes this building green:  "A lot of the building materials were recycled. Some of the wall supports were made of recycled wiring insulation. The decking on the porches is made of recycled plastics. The concrete in the parking lot is pervious concrete which allows water to instead of completely running off into the surrounding areas, it slowly seeps down through the concrete."

At the Visitor Center, there are exhibits on the history of the river, with displays showing how the people lived in this area in the past. And it's a nice jumping off point for our next stop, the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp.

The Okefenokee is a land of great mystery. When you come here, it feels like you might very well be the first human to ever leave a footprint on this forbidding land. Make no mistake, the gators are far more at home here than the humans. But this place appeals to something inside of us.

Tony White of West Union, SC told us what drew him here:  "I think what attracts me is it's like primeval, you know. When you get out there in the swamp, you're on your own."

Almost 20 miles from the Visitor Center is Stephen Foster State park. One of three entrances to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, it is the only state park actually inside of the refuge and is part of a unique agreement between the state and federal authorities.

"We work in co-operation with each other and we assist them and they assist us, and it works out good for both of us," said Williams.

If you like unspoiled natural beauty, you can't do much better than coming here. There's plenty to do. "We've got an interpretive museum located on the park, we've got a couple of hiking trails, we've got motorboats, canoes and kayaks that you can rent and go out and tour the swamp on your own or you can take one of our guided tours that goes out at 10:00, 1:00 and 3:00 each day," says Williams.

Meanwhile back in Fargo, the park also offers a nine hole golf course and a soon to be opened conference center and cottage complex.

And with so much to do, you'll probably want to stay for more than one day. If that's the case there are 66 campsites which are able to accommodate RVs up to 50 feet long, in addition to nine cabins. And even though the swamp itself is untamed, you don't necessarily have to rough it here.  "Our campsites that we have all of them have electricity, running water and cable TV, so you can bring most of the luxuries of home with you," said Williams.

And since it is a ways from civilization, basic supplies are available at the park headquarters. While many of the visitors are campers, some people come for just the day. No matter how long that you spend here, the wildlife is not in short supply.

Shari Wilson of San Francisco, California enjoyed what she saw.  "We saw a lot of gators, lots of blue herons... yeah, really beautiful."

And both the plants and animals in this area are quite resilient. Named after the Native American word which means "Land of the Trembling Earth", the Okefenokee shook off the effects of the massive wildfire that burned more than 80% of the swamp in 2007. Quickly, the vegetation began to make a comeback.

"Within weeks of the fire we were already seeing vegetation come back in those burned areas," said Williams.  And he told us that Fall and Spring are good times to come to the park.

"It's the cooler times of the year here, the bugs aren't near as bad during those months," said Williams.

So answer your call to return to nature by coming to the Okefenokee. The gators will be waiting. But Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets are welcome too. In fact, for the Wilsons, the Southern hospitality was what they'll always remember.

Shari Wilson said, "I've never met friendlier people in any of my travels."

From Thomasville to Callaway Gardens and from Kolomoki Mounds to the Okefenokee Swamp, it's the friendliness of the people of South Georgia that stands out and makes our One Tank Trips worthwhile.

The river and the swamp are a ways from Albany, but worth the trip.  The Suwannee River Visitor Center is in Fargo, about 45 miles southeast of Valdosta on Highway 94. The Stephen Foster State Park is about 18 miles northeast of Fargo on Georgia Highway 177. They are both accessible on a single tank of gas.