Untrammeled! Celebrating 50 Years of American Wilderness

A podcast and radio series that celebrates American wilderness

Episode 2: Okefenokee Wilderness

12/15/2014 - download audio - subscribe
Running time 18:35 minutes, MP3 format (128 kbps), 44.1 kHz stereo, 13,774,093 bytes (13.8 MB).



Purple flowers

Grass and black water

Lillies and black water

Deep swamp


Chip Campbell

Chip Campbell

Red shouldered hawk on top of the cypress

Lily flower

Lily pad

Muck and flower

Wild turkey

Crane take-off

Crane in low flight

Swamp horizon

Canoe trail

Owl in tree

These photos were generously donated to the Wilderness50 project by professional photographer Hyde Post.


SARA AICHER: ...its always amazing to hear the chorus of frogs... You fall asleep to that, and then you wake up that in the early morning and everything is completely still. You wonder what that magic hour when everything becomes quiet... It's a pretty nice experience to be out there. It refreshes the soul.

CHIP CAMPBELL: This is a wilderness. It is not physically possible to insure your safety... This is not a created attraction. This is a genuine wilderness. Wilderness isn't wilderness if somebody holding your hand.

STEVE SERGEANT: Welcome to "Untrammeled."

[Intro theme in and under.]

STEVE SERGEANT: I'm your Host, Steve Sergeant.

STEVE SERGEANT: It's easy to imagine the American wilderness as a series of sweeping vistas. But not all of our wilderness takes that form. There are some wild lands we can only appreciate up close, from within their living ecosystem.

This is true of one of the largest preserved marsh lands in the United States.

STEVE SERGEANT: In this episode of Untrammeled, producer Philip Graitcer profiles the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area -- located in southeast Georgia.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Up ahead, Chip sees what looks to me like a submerged log.

CHIP CAMPBELL: By the way, there's an alligator, right there in front of you. Yeah, you pointed at him. We're looking at the back of his head. There's another one, out in the canal out in front of us that eased across. You see him yet?


STEVE SERGEANT: The Okeefenokee is a vast bog: 38 miles long and 25 miles wide. It's set in a huge depression that was once the ocean floor. People have been hunting, fishing, and camping in the Okeefenokee swamp since colonial times.

STEVE SERGEANT: The last Native Americans to seek sanctuary here, the Seminole, were driven out of the swamp and into Florida in 1850 -- Living on to become the only Native American tribe to refuse a treaty with the U.S. government.

One developer dug the Suwanee Canal, a 12-mile long channel right through the middle of the swamp. He was inspired by the taming of the Florida Everglades in the 1890s.

STEVE SERGEANT: But the wild Okeefenokee proved difficult to tame. And so in 1933, the federal government bought the Okefenokee, designating it a federal national wildlife refuge.

STEVE SERGEANT: Today, the swamp is also a designated national wilderness area managed by the U.S. fish and wildlife service – 400 thousand acres of waterways, cypress trees, misty bogs, and open, wet prairies. People make home or camp there on man-made platforms situated directly in the swampy waters, and only accessible by boat.

STEVE SERGEANT: Producer Philip Graitcer took to the water to explore the great Okeefenokee Wilderness.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Looking at a map, it's hard to think of the Okefenokee swamp as a wilderness area.

PHILIP GRAITCER: But travel just a few hundred yards from the Okefenokee Welcome Center and you're in the wild.

CHIP CAMPBELL: We got a bunch of birds right on the edge. I just saw some juvenile blue herons winding across behind us.

PHILIP GRAITCER: That's Chip Campbell. Chip's been here since 2000, running visitor services at the Okefenokee.

CHIP CAMPBELL: There's a great egret off in the distance

PHILIP GRAITCER: He'll rent you a canoe, kayak or flat-bottom motor boat like this one, and take you on a tour.

CHIP CAMPBELL: and of course a pilated or pileated woodpecker. This place is woodpecker heaven after this fire.

PHILIP GRAITCER: The fire he's talking about ripped through here in 2011, drastically changing the landscape. But the swamp is resilient.

CHIP CAMPBELL: We're on the Suwanee Canal.

CHIP CAMPBELL: Real grandiose vision, it was going to be the Venice of Georgia, if you read the promotion material from the 1890s. I mean they laid it on thick, long lists of the crops you could grow in the reclaimed muck lands of the swamp... Didn't work out very well.

PHILIP GRAITCER: I'm realizing that the Suwanee Canal is perhaps the most beautiful drainage ditch in the world. It's about 40 feet wide and green shrubs line its banks. Orb spiders have built webs four feet wide between the bushes. Birds play in the burnt out tree trunks. Heron fly overhead. This long still canal is also an alligator superhighway through the marsh.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Up ahead, Chip sees what looks to me like a submerged log.

CHIP CAMPBELL: By the way, there's an alligator, right there in front of you. Yeah, you pointed at him. We're looking at the back of his head. There's another one, out in the canal out in front of us that eased across. You see him yet?

CHIP CAMPBELL: He's moving. He's moving away from us, steadily down the canal. When they're cruising around, it's the head you'll see.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, and the water really looks black. The water's color plus its stillness makes a perfect mirror.

CHIP CAMPBELL: ...if I dip some of it up, you can see that it looks like I dipped up tea, but notice when I pour it out (pouring sounds), its not murky. You're not seeing suspended solids. It's clear. It looks like I'm pouring tea out of this dipper bucket. The water takes a stain. Tannins, ... tannic acids that leach out of organic material in the swamp..

PHILIP GRAITCER: In the days of the tall ships, sailors took the swamp's blackwater on long ocean voyages; the low pH of the acidic water suppresses bacteria, so the blackwater stayed fresh while clear water sources would tend to spoil. Chip tells me that up until the 1930s, people, know as swampers, lived in the swamp.

CHIP CAMPBELL: There was a culture, a swamper culture, that developed among these mostly Scots and Irish settlers who moved into the area following the Seminole wars. [T89:1010] They hunted alligators, they trapped in the swamp. That kind of subsidence living.. That's gone

CHIP CAMPBELL: There still remains those people that have a special affinity for the swamp and a special sense of heritage and culture that is swamp.

[0:22 sings amazing grace.]

PHILIP GRAITCER: Judy Drury is a swamper.

[Continues amazing grace]

JUDY DRURY: It's called four notes, its something my grandaddy taught us, four notes, shape notes, some people sacred harp.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Judy is taking me to the edge of the swamp to see the homestead where her great uncle Tom Chesser and her grandparents lived.

JUDY DRURY: Right over here on this side is where my grandaddy lived. Sam's homestead was over here. Robert Allen which was my great grandfather, his homestead was over here. Grandaddy and them had the cane mill and had the syrup boiler. So they kinda shared back and forth come supper time. What one had, the other didn't.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Both sides of Judy s family has lived in the swamp and in nearby Charlton County for four generations. Her grandfathers worked for the logging companies that harvested cypress trees in the 1920s.

JUDY DRURY: When I was little, we used to have Chesser reunions. We used to have dinner on the ground. Ever hear of dinner on the ground. Where my grandfather lived it was clear. There was a big clear cut area over there. And they would spread dinner on the ground and when we were little, because theres a handpump on the back porch, and we'd get the handpump going, pump some water, and then wed go back over there. We used to play baseball and stuff, but thats the only time wed ever come out here during the reunion.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Judy has stayed close to the swamp – she's worked for the fish and wildlife services headquarters for more than 20 years and lived all her life in Folkston. She's the first person you talk to when make a camping reservation

JUDY DRURY: Good morning, Welcome to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. I hope you enjoy your visit.

PHILIP GRAITCER: And she works with wildlife biologists like Sara Aicher.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Aicher is one of the Okefenokee's watchdogs. She keeps track of the animal population, water levels, air quality; anything that could impact the swamp and it's ecology. Now that the swamp is mostly protected from human manipulation, there are only a two things that really impact this place: rain and fire.

SARA AICHER: Rain is the main source of water for the Okefenokee.

SARA AICHER: Depending on how dry we are, the lightning either starts a fire that moves across the landscape or stays in one place if we do have a lot of water.

PHILIP GRAITCER: It's been a wet summer in South Georgia, and although there's little risk today of a serious fire spreading in the swamp, that wasn't the case in 2011; it was exceptionally dry year.

SARA AICHER: The fire sat south of here for about a month without moving, and then all of a sudden got up and started running to the north, and one evening, it wiped most of this out.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Trees burned, shrubs and brush were destroyed. When the fire was finally declared extinguished about 85% of the swamp had been burned. What were areas of lush vegetation are now open vistas.

PHILIP GRAITCER: But with this devastation comes rejuvenation.

SARA AICHER: The biddens, the yellow flower is coming out and you see how the shrubs are starting to sprout, and then you have this tangle of green briar on top, and that's real typical of the swamp. The shrub layer coming in and the smilex just covering it and making it a bit tangled. Great for songbirds migrating through. And there's a great egret flying by.

PHILIP GRAITCER: As the vegetation grows back there's an abundance of insects and other food sources. That's good for wildlife.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Back on the motor boat with Chip Campbell, we turn off the canal into a huge open area. As far as the eye can see there are water lilies.

CHIP CAMPBELL: We've just moved into the prairie. We're in Chesser Prairie. This is the dominant habitat of this eastern Okefenokee swamp. We're seeing the open areas of the swamp. These are fields of water lilies, fragrant water lily. There's a spear shaped plant with a heavy leathery leaf type growing up among the water lilies, we call that never wet. You see its not just a uniform field of water lilies, its punctuated all over by what appear to be little domes of trees and shrub We call it prairie.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Okefenokee prairies have a sandy bottom, covered by peat that's created by the natural composting the swamp's organic material. As the peat decomposes, methane gas is generated. Sometimes a bubble of methane pushes up a mound of peat, called a dome or it creates a floating island. These floating peat domes and islands dot the prairie; they're unstable, squishy to walk on. That's probably how the Okefenokee got its name: from Choctaw Indian term for "land of trembling earth."

PHILIP GRAITCER: Wildlife thrives on the prairies.

CHIP CAMPBELL: Red shouldered hawk on top of the cypress, about 11 o'clock. That's our common raptor. And they are a generalist predator. They are a stone cold killer. I have seen those things kill everything from wood ducks to snakes, frogs, rodents of all kinds, squirrels, baby alligators, lizards.

PHILIP GRAITCER: The peat domes are fertile grounds for foraging.

CHIP CAMPBELL: Those are white ibis, the two.. three birds on the right. They're probing for crawfish. There on the left is a wild turkey (laughs). No telling what's eating. He's pretty omnivorous. He'll pick up little frogs.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Although they're seldom seen, black bear roam the swamp - there are between 600 and 800 of them, and they have a big impact on the swamp's ecology.

CHIP CAMPBELL: This is an alligator nest, I actually watched her build this nest on and off over a period of several days, and she diligently guarded this nest for about 3 weeks. And then one day, I came up here and it was intact, and she was guarding and hissing and blowing,

PHILIP GRAITCER: We come alongside what looks like a dug up garden.

CHIP CAMPBELL: A couple days later, I came up here and she was gone, and it had been laid open. That's what a bear does to an alligator nest. That bear sat up there on top of that nest and pulled it completely open and it ate every egg that had been laid in that nest. [0225] But that speaks to the integrity of this particular wilderness system. We still got enough black bear that they are themselves a significant control factor in the reproductive success of the Okefenokee alligators.

PHILIP GRAITCER: In the Okefenokee there are more than thirty species of fish, 200 types of birds, dozens of different amphibians.

CHIP CAMPBELL: This is a wilderness. It is not physically possible to insure your safety. Disneyworld is fun. Disneyland is fun. This ain't Disneyland. This is not Disneyworld. This is not a created attraction. This is a genuine wilderness. Wilderness isn't wilderness if somebody holding your hand. Wilderness is about just that. The big wild. [00:26]

[Song: "Sad Saz" - Podington Bear]

PHILIP GRAITCER: A big wild that's constantly changing, shaped by the forces of nature - rain, drought, lightning and fire.

PHILIP GRAITCER: After 23 years here, Okefenokee biologist Sara Aicher is still moved.

SARA AICHER: If you are on certain platforms you can see the sunset, beautiful sunsets, the birds, like the white ibis, flying to roost at night.

SARA AICHER: Staying on one of the platforms at night, its always amazing to hear the chorus of frogs.

SARA AICHER: Its almost deafening. Its just amazing, that chorus, that all of a sudden comes alive. You fall asleep to that, you wonder what that magic hour when everything becomes quiet. But then you wake up that in the early morning hours and everything is completely still.

[Song returns]

SARA AICHER: It's a pretty nice experience being out there whether its just during the day or the evening. It really refreshes the soul.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Philip Graitcer, in the Okefenokee Swamp.


STEVE SERGEANT: You can explore the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area on one their the 16 miles of developed nature trails. But a deeper visit to a swampland wilderness like the Okeefenokee requires special attention to planning and preparation. To learn more, visit wilderness five zero T H dot org slash untrammeled. That's wilderness-fiftieth, dot org.

[Theme music slowly fade-in under.]

STEVE SERGEANT: This show is part of the celebration of the fiftieth year of the American Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act of 1964 preserves public lands for the American people to use and enjoy -- places where the earth, and its community of life, are untrammeled by man.

STEVE SERGEANT: Untrammeled is produced by Effable Communications, in collaboration with AudioLuxe Media.

STEVE SERGEANT: The AudioLuxe team includes: Mia Lobel [loh-BEL], Ellison Libiran [LIB - er - ahn], Nick Lamb, Chloe Davidson, and Olivia Swilley. Composer Danny Clay produced our theme music. Jean Higham assisted with editing and research. Our Senior Producer is Stacy Bond. I'm the Executive Producer and your host, Steve Sergeant.

STEVE SERGEANT: Thank you for listening!

[Theme music finale.]

MIA LOBEL: "Untrammeled" is made possible with funds provided by the University of Montana's Wilderness Institute, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, the Society for Wilderness Stewardship, and the Wilderness50 project.

back to episodes...