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The Okefenokee Swamp: Waycross Area

Obediah's Okefenok

[Fig. 23(2)] This quirky site offers a look at the swamper's life in the 1800s. Obediah Barber, born in 1825, was one of the first settlers on the northern boundary of the swamp. A backwoods naturalist, he loved the creatures and plants of the swamp, and became a famous outdoorsman whose Bunyanesque exploits in the Okefenokee earned him the title of King of the Swamp. One story tells how he was attacked by a black bear. Unarmed, Barber grabbed a piece of wood and beat the bear into submission. Apparently, he was equally hard on his women, as he was married three times and fathered 20 children. During the Civil War, he supplied beef to the Confederate Army. He died in 1909 at the age of 84. This homestead features his mid-1800s cabin, several farm buildings, a nature trail, animal exhibits, and a general store.

Okefenokee Heritage Center and Southern Forest World

[Fig. 23(1)] Located 2 miles west of Waycross, the Okefenokee Heritage Center features exhibits on life in and around the swamp. Indian culture and local history are documented through artifacts and displays. Southern Forest World is an interpretive center that tells the story of southern forestry and includes exhibits on timbering skills and naval stores operations that had a tremendous economic impact on the Georgia coast.

Laura S. Walker State Park

[Fig. 23(3)] Laura S. Walker is one of those all-things-to-all-people state parks, with a full range of facilities and recreation opportunities located near the Okefenokee Swamp Park and Dixon Memorial Forest Wildlife Management Area. Camping, swimming, boating, golfing, and picnicking are all popular activities here. During hunting season, sportsmen stay here for easy access to Dixon Memorial Forest. Campers may want to consider staying in the 306-acre park at night while they explore the various attractions related to the Okefenokee during the day. An 18-hole golf course is located here. During warmer months, insect repellant is recommended at this site.

In reality, the park is not in the Okefenokee/Suwannee/St. Marys watershed: Its waters flow north to the Satilla River and the Atlantic coast. The terrain, flora, and fauna, however, are characteristic of the Okefenokee Swamp's boundary landscape. Animals seen here include deer, bobcats, alligators, and gopher tortoises, along with fascinating carnivorous sundew and hooded pitcher plants. The lake, created by an impoundment, is stocked with common game fish such as largemouth bass and bream.

Built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the park was named for Mrs. Laura Singleton Walker, a writer, teacher, and civic leader who supported conservation long before it was popular to do so.

The Big Creek Nature Trail, located across GA 177 from the campgrounds, is a good place for early morning birding and to learn about Coastal Plain flora and fauna. The easy trail loops around to Big Creek, the dammed brook that creates Walker Lake, before heading back to the trailhead. At the beginning of the trail, the habitat is typical Coastal Plain pinelands, with longleaf pines, laurel oaks, bluejack oaks, palmetto, sparkleberry, perfoliate rattleweed, and honeysuckle vines. Mounds of white sand tip off gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) burrows, a sign of a sandhill area. The threatened gopher tortoise is a large reptile that is adept at digging underground chambers that are in turn used by a community of animals, including Eastern indigo snakes, gopher frogs, and diamondback rattlesnakes. It is the existence of the latter that has been the cause of suffering for gophers tortoises at the hand of man. Snake hunters, who search the Georgia woods for rattlesnakes for rattlesnake roundup events and to make snakeskin souvenirs and clothing, pour gasoline down the burrows to flush the serpents out, which kills a community of animals dependent on the protection of this sandy den.

Farther along the trail, hikers approach a wetland area identified as a Carolina bay. These mysterious, round depressions are the only natural lakes in Georgia, believed to be created by meteors, according to one theory, or gale force winds, another theory. (Georgia's other lakes are created by dams on rivers.) Most Carolina Bays are large and hard to reach due to the swamp wetlands that surround their borders. They are found in the Coastal Plain and can be identified by looking at a map for teardrop-shaped lakes. This area has some of the natural components of a Carolina bay. In this swampy area, hikers will find tupelo, sweet gum, Live Oaks, and laurel oaks, with wax myrtle and titi shrubs occupying the midstory. The trail returns to cutover pinelands that are undergoing succession.

Dixon Memorial Forest Wildlife Management Area

[Fig. 23(5)] At 38,464 acres, this wildlife management area is the third largest in the state. Popular for hunting deer, bears, turkeys, small game, raccoons, and opossums, Dixon Memorial Forest sits like a cap just north of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Primitive camping is allowed in the forest, but many choose to stay at Laura S. Walker State Park located nearby. Hikers should only visit this wildlife management area when it is not hunting season and must give notice to the forest supervisor. Contact the Wildlife Resources Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources for hunting seasons.

Okefenokee Swamp Park

[Fig. 23(4)] This park offers quick, easy, and safe access to the Okefenokee Swamp experience, suitable for all members of the family. A network of trails and boardwalks wind through animal exhibits in the park, where visitors can familiarize themselves with the flora and fauna of the swamp—or stop at a snack bar for an ice cream cone. Animals highlighted here are young and adult alligators (some grown to impressive size), bears, deer, otters, turtles, and snakes. The swamp here consists mainly of young tupelo and cypress, surrounded by pine flatland.

The park is leased by a nonprofit organization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is located in the national wildlife refuge, so uncontrolled wildlife makes an appearance, including otters, water snakes, and migratory birds. Wading bird rookeries can be sighted with binoculars. Boat tours, interpretive exhibits, lectures, wildlife shows, wilderness walkways, a 90-foot observation tower, a pioneer homestead, and a Seminole Indian village all combine to educate and highlight the Okefenokee Swamp. Don't miss the Serpentarium. The more adventurous can rent a canoe and head out on the boat trails by themselves.

Kingfisher Landing

[Fig. 23(6)] Many wilderness canoeists and campers start their journey at Kingfisher Landing, which offers a boat ramp into the northern reaches of the swamp. The red and green canoe trails begin here (see Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, below). The grounds of this site are worth exploring for plant and animal species found in the swamp. Of interest to historians is abandoned railroad equipment located south of the trailhead, a silent reminder of the logging and peat moss gathering activities that occurred in the swamp. The vegetation growing over, around, and through the rusty equipment testifies to the perseverance of nature.

Fishing is allowed here but is subject to regulations governing the wildlife refuge. Call (912) 496-7836 for details.

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