Billy Bowleg’s Island on Okefenokee: Swamp of Refuge and Escape

Though I like to write fiction, creating worlds and developing characters, I want to share my experiences venturing the wild. These adventures are part of what make me who I am. Without them, I’d be more lost than I am. So, I guess it is accurate to say, exploring the charted wilds in this country, and one day other parts of the world helps me understand myself more.  Of course, I’ll venture off and explore other planets and uncharted territoty beneath the ice caps in Antartica, as well as other unknown locations…in my fiction. But let me show you another experience in nature. While living in south Georgia, I learn about the nearby Okefenokee Swamp. I research about it, and Its history, nature, wildlife, and deep waterways enticed me to rent a kayak and explore it. I get what I expected and a little more.

Me taking a selfie as I set out on my voyage across the swamp.

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One thing that I forget to consider enough before renting a kayak on the southern swamp is how low I will be to the water, stinky algae, and its inhabitants, particularly the American Alligator. I convince myself by listening to the lady at the ranger station that “Don’t swim or feed the alligators and you’ll be fine.”  Well, those are simple instructions to abide by. Not being quite insane, I am have no intentions in swimming in water dominated by gators. And the food in my pack is going in my mouth. once I’m banked safely on Billy Bowleg’s Island, away from the beautiful, prehistoric reptiles with exception to the snakes and lizards.

Point me the right way.

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Gliding between the giant Cypress Trees.

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Deeper into the swampy wilderness, I witness not my first alligator, but my first alligators. Yes, it is a plural experience, and the first time I’ve been so near the modern-day dinosaurs. Like green logs with legs, they bathe under the shafts of sunlight. As my kayak starts drifting nearer to the gators, my hand trembles and I drop the damn camera. Paddling as if being chased by them, I imagine them clawing the side of my kayak and tipping it over to rip me apart with their 80 conical-shaped teeth.

This is a photo from another experience. But I wanted to give an example of the alligator’s beautiful smile.

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This fear of these reptilians can be a result of watching movies and TV, where gators are portrayed to be aggressive monsters. Real monsters, alot of the time, are disguised. These creatures do not care if I am there or not, as long as I’m not feeding them or taunting them. Back in the middle of the swamp, I circle back, cell phone camera aimed at the gators. This time my attempt is a success.

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Further along, the gators hidden beneath the inky swamp water, I am joined by this guy…or gal. I hope he/she is aware of the gators.

Racoon Shore-Scavenger

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A few hours in and I make my way through a narrower part of the swamp, the sunlight gleaming on the wet lilypads and on this turtle’s shell.

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These reptiles usually vanish in the water when I paddle along, but not this one. It stands and poses while I snap a photo of it. Onward, the trees on both sides of the swamp grow closer. Giant logs protrude from the water. Some look like alligators drifting in front of me, until my kayak glides closer. A scraping came beneath my kayak. I push the blade against the water, splashing water on myself to move forward, heart beating faster. I had heard stories of people paddleing their conaoes and kayaks over the rough backs of alligators. Twisting around, I see that it is a fallen tree under the water. The knot in my stomach loosens and I paddle with a little more aggression toward my destination. There is a ingenious reason people do not venture the swamp when the water is low. Alligators float across the surface like herds of logs being driven down the river.

Sweat trickling down my back and face, the swamp opens into a circle area. A slim path continues on the other side. To the left of it, is the untraditional entrance to Billy Bowlegs Island. It seems to already have visitors fluttering through the air.

The front, or one side of Billy Bowleg’s Island.

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The entrance to Billy Bowleg’s (Well, my entrance. The traditional entrance is actually on the other side.)

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After paddling and pushing my way through the sun-baked weeds, I arrive on the Billy’s Island. I drag my kayak on shore and began hiking between the bush and trees. A small graveyard set fenced in to the right that I imagine is the resting place of former inhabitants. These aren’t the Seminole Indians I am referring to, but the settlers that came long after the Native Americans fled down south to the Florida Everglades. Deeper into the island, I search for the Indian burial mound. As I walk into the underbrush, I find what appears to be a narrow trail made by some animal, a deer more than likely. Something else I keep in mind is that Florida Black Bears live in the wilderness off the Okefenokee. I have nothing by means to defend myself save for my mind and awareness. First sight of bear scat or tracks and I’m running back to my kayak and heading back to camp. Though, I think the bears will be more fearful and threatened of me than I of them.

I spin around to a rattle in the bush and leaves crunching. I pause, swallowing a breath. Nothing is around, so, I hike, slower, shifting my eyes around the woods and blood rushing. I am new at exploring the wilderness alone, adding to my rattling nerves. Then my lurker reveals itself, a pretty doe, staring at me.

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It comes close enough for me to touch its wet nose then trots away and vanishes into the underbrush and I trudge on.

Okefenokee is rich with history as it is wildlife. Billy Bowleg’s Island is also the place of The Wilde’s Family massacre. I did not look into this as much as I did Billy and his tribe living off the island and swamp, taking refuge from the U.S. military for years before fleeing to the Everglades. I don’t know how true this murder story is, but there are a number of resources about it. The Seminole Indian tribe, from my research, are and were not an aggressive and violent tribe.  The article at the end of this blog has alot of intelligence about the Seminole Indians’ business in the swamp and island, as well as The Wilde’s Family massacre. This may explain the small graveyard I wandered upon.

Reminiscence of the settlers on the island back in 1920s, after the Seminole Indians left.

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There is much more to explore on the Okefenokee Swamp in regards to history, culture, and wildlife. Some islands are off-limits to people due to artifacts and whatnot and are protected by the government. Though, there are ways to get on them if you feel like taking the risk. The Okefenokee is one of many places to visit nature and wildlife, and witness the remains of what use to be a community where people lived, fished, hunted, danced, worked, loved, and used the wilderness to survive day-by-day. Now it is a ghostly place where the Indian mounds and the rusted remains of tools and equipment remind people of the once popping culture. I can imagine the stories that occurred on this island.

On the way back, a friendly resident surfaces to send me on my way. I’d guess it is ten to twelve feet in length, after seeing it crawl into the water from the shore.

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http://www.ourgeorgiahistory.com/places/okefenokee.html

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