The Okefenokee is a place of splendid solitude, I told her, and it is a place you can stop speaking, breathe, and hear nothing but the sound of the trees living, and the wind and the birds, and the odd sounds that The Swamp will give you, but never noise. It is a place where time ceases to exists, and where cell phones do not work. It is a place where two people might get away to themselves and speak plainly and openly while walking and no one but the deer and fish would hear their voices. The Okefenokee, I say to her, is magical and beautiful, and quiet.
The ride to The Swamp is magnificent, with the approaching canoe trip seemingly already begun. The road stretches before us long and straight, and the sun comes up bright and warm, the sky clear and nothing in the way of a day spent on the water in the woods, with birds calling and perhaps wildlife standing in the shade of the cypress trees, posing perfectly for photographs.
When we got to the park the evidence of the fire earlier in the year was apparent. It was worse, far worse, then the fire of 2007, just four years ago. The damage to the tree was more severe than I expected, and as we drive deeper into the park the more obvious, and horrible, the sight became. As we pulled in there was a small crowd of people loading canoes, and there were noisy people, speaking loudly and loading a year’s worth of supplies into each craft, and wandering around without purpose. We waited for them to get ahead of us, but finally gave up and got into the water what was left of it. I have never seen the water level so low in The Swamp. Worse still, and the two words “worse still” will reappear here again and again, worse still, the banks of the canal leading into The Swamp had been mauled by the fire, and clear cut, a lonely deer stood in the ruins as if she were the only witness left alive. The camera died too, the batteries no longer capable of sustaining life, much like the burned out banks of the Okefenokee.
No sooner did we reach the wide channel, or what was once a wide channel, in The Swamp, did we realize the damage was far worse, much more worse, than I ever feared or imagined. The water level was horribly low, forcing all the canoeists into a smaller area. The people ahead of us were loud, and behind us were another group, so we pulled over to the blasted western bank to allow them to pass. It was a terrible sight. Nearly every tree was scorched and many, many, many, many trees were now gone. Those that were left looked like the survivors of Hiroshima, standing in mute shock, to stunned by the violence to escape the scene of the carnage. The shade of the trees extending over the water were gone, and even had the trees been there the water was gone, too. The deep dark red black water was gone, and replaced by a muddy colored stream that looked more like something you’d find in a theme park than the greatest natural swamp left in Georgia.
Those people ahead of us we could hear, but from behind us came the sound as if someone were dragging a logging chain down a paved road with tin cans attached to it. Again, we let them pass, and this was a mother and father, with a teenaged girl in front of the boat with the mother, and a tiny five year old in the front of the boat with the father. They banged and clanged with paddles against their canoes if the boats were sonically driven. We nicknamed them “The Clangers” and waited a while to let them pass. Far, down the river they went, like a sound driven disaster, mirroring the actual damage by the fire.
But there were more and more and more people to come. In a place where I could have counted the people I’ve seen totally in the years on my fingers and toes, suddenly the holocaustic Swamp was an amusement park full of inept boaters who could not hear the silence of The Swamp and would not allow it for others. We got behind a man and a woman speaking a foreign language that sounded like Russian and they could not control their canoe, and they zigzagged their way in the narrows, blocking us from passing, and causing more people to bunch up behind us like lemmings at the edge of a cliff. Everyone was heading for Billy’s Island, and it was like a traffic jam there, with canoes and canoeists littering the bank. The dock, usually flush with water, hung five feet in the air, useless for unloading or extracting a canoe from the water. We managed to get out boat out of the water, but the Clunkers came behind us, having taken a side path. The father tried to beach his canoe with his little girl in front, instead of backing in, and I had to help pull the thing to shore. The man was close to true stupidity, trying to get a boat out of the water with the heavy end still in the water, and a five year old trying to get out alone. Getting him back into the water was also more fun than it needed to be, and I wonder, truly wonder, if he really knows what happens to people in the water when the air temperature is below sixty. Hypothermia can, and will, kill a child before you can get her dried off, or back to somewhere they can keep her warm.
Billy’s Island was already populated by the Russian speaking people, but they were now speaking Spanish. Everyone had arrived at once and there were more people on Billy’s Island than there had ever lived here before. The trials were crowded and even though we had a good conversation with people from Atlanta, who had never seen such a crowd or the water as low, there was no wildlife to see. The Spanish Russian had made camp in the middle of the trail and we had to walk around them. A nice little bench in the middle of the forest might have been a good place for a break but this was rush hour and there was no semblance of privacy to be had at all.
We lost most of the crowd on the way back, and we totally lost track of the Clunkers. They were ahead of us, noisily setting the pace, and suddenly we did not hear them anymore. But the trip back to the landing revealed more damage, more dead trees, more burned growth, and no sign that this was some sort of rejuvenation of nature. We asked the woman at the landing if she had seen the Clunkers and she seemed uninterested in their fate. The Okefenokee is not what it was and I am not sure if it will ever be again. I would have rather died than to have ever seen such a sight as I have seen and I can only hope that somehow, nature can heal her own.