Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Folkston, Georgia

We lived in Georgia for 27 years and never made it down to St. Marys (on the coast just above Jacksonville) or the Okefenokee Swamp. We are headed up the east coast this summer and St. Marys and the Swamp were on our itinerary.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers 630 square miles and encompasses nearly all of the world renowned Okefenokee Swamp where alligators, wood storks, raccoons, sandhill cranes and many other animals.  We stopped in the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center first to get information about the area, then took the Swamp Island Drive. If you have your Senior Pass, it does not cost anything to get into the Refuge. They offer a boat ride into the swamp for $20 per person, but we did not get to take one as there was a huge bus tour that arrived while we were in the Visitor Center, so we took the Swamp Island Drive instead.

Purple Gallinule

Snowy Egret

Longleaf Pine
Red Cockaded Woodpecker
Cypress Trees

Freshwater Marsh

Our first stop on the Swamp Island Drive was a pond dug to supply sand for the road. This was where we saw a couple of alligators, one of which swam toward us and just stopped short of us, staying in the water. Almost seemed as though it was waiting for us to feed it. The video below shows the alligator swimming toward us and then sitting in the water.

This was a big alligator we saw in the canal by the side of the road.

Next stop on the Swamp Island Drive was the Chesser Island Homestead. In the mid-1800s, the Chessers settled a small island on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Chessers were a rugged family, carving out a life in the often harsh conditions of the area. Their story is typical of many early settlers; they lived simply, played hard, and worked even harder.

Mom & Dad Chesser

The Chessers had seven children. Two of the younger sons settled near their parents in the swamp. One child, Robert, had 13 children and the other, Sam, had 9 children. The youngest son of Sam, Tom, built the present homestead in 1927. The house was built from yellow pine and cypress in 21 days. The house consisted of three bedrooms, a parlor and a front porch. The out-buildings include a smokehouse, syrup shed, chicken coop, corn crib and a hog pen.

The Chesser family was typical of the pioneer families that settled throughout south Georgia. They ate what they could grow in the sandy soil, catch in the swamp or rivers, or hunt on land. The little cash needed for items such as cloth and flour was obtained by growing sugar cane and tapping pine trees for turpentine. Work and play often came together; hog butchering and cane grinding were times when families got together to visit, work, and play. Typical of families of the time, they told stories, attended church all day on Sunday and played with toys made at home. The Chessers were fond of a distinctive music: four-note or sacred harp singing.

Electricity was not brought to the island while the Chessers lived there, but they did have some more modern amenities. In the 1940s they purchased a propane refrigerator, similar to the one in the home today.

They also had a gasoline washing machine which was much better than the old fashioned scrub boards and "battling" sticks. They also had the luxury of a battery operated radio to listen to radio programs in the evenings. 

Storage Shed

Smoke House

Syrup Shed
Corn Crib
The last section on the Drive was the Chesser Island Boardwalk.

At the end is the Owls Roost Tower which we climbed up to get a view of the Chesser Prairie and Seagrove Lake. 

The Okefenokee is a vast bog inside a huge saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The swamp, which extends 38 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. It remains one of the most well preserved and intact freshwater ecosystems in the world. The refuge carries the designation of a Wetland of International Importance, and refuge staff work to preserve the natural qualities of the swamp.

Fire has shaped the Okefenokee for generations. Today, the refuge uses prescribed burning to reduce hazardous fuels and restore and maintain the longleaf pine ecosystem. The longleaf pine is a slow growing tree that once covered more than 90 million acres in the southeastern United States. Only three percent of these pine forests remain and they are some of the most diverse and ecologically important habitats for several endangered species. 

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