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Amelia Islander

Rebirth on the Prairie

Sep 09, 2014 04:30PM
A lightning strike on Thursday, April 28, 2011 set off the Honey Prairie fire in the southwest portion of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Folkston, Georgia. The fire was declared out on April 17, 2012, but it left behind acres of devastation. Yet, in just two years, the refuge has come back to life, and the prairie is even more beautiful and vital than it ever was. I took a trip up to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to take a boat trip with my friends, Joy and Chip Campbell, owners of Okefenokee Adventures, one early Sunday morning, and I was astounded with the way that nature comes back and takes care of its own.

My friend, Sherry, came along with me, brandishing her camera, and we set out for a three-hour excursion through the swamp and the Chesser Prairie. Chip began our tour with an explanation of how fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, and we learned about the periodic cycles of drought and fire, and how it is actually is good for the prairie. “The prairie wouldn’t exist without fire,” said Chip. “You can see the expanse now, see how it has cleared the way for new growth. Everything has come back even stronger now.” Cyprus trees still dot the landscape because they are resilient to fire. You can see their greenery coming back and the trees standing tall. We observed hawks and owls nesting in their branches, along with numerous other birds and squirrels. Raccoons, black bear, and wild turkeys have all come back to the swamp. Within a few minutes of our boat trip, we saw an alligator soaking up the sun. Red wing blackbirds flitted about, and warblers sang out with their bullfrog counterparts.

If you take a trip to the swamp, whether it’s with a tour or on your own, there are signs that help you navigate your way through the channels. Our boat traveled down the Suwannee Canal, and then into Chesser Prairie, where we were greeted by a profusion of fragrant water lilies and other beautiful and rare plants that can only be found in a swamp. Chip and Joy explained to us how the “trembling earth” of the Okefenokee is born. Beneath the water in the swamp, organic material oxidizes, producing methane gas, and then a “blow up” of peat, which rises to the surface of the water. Eventually, greenery will grow in the peat, creating a “battery.” When the battery forms a permanent island, it is called a “house”. When hardwood trees grow on these islands, it is called a “hammock”. Throughout the prairie, Sherry and I saw some extraordinary plants, like the carnivorous pitcher plants and purple bladderworts, along with yellow-eyed grass, hat pins, swamp iris, and even orchids.

Both Chip and Joy worked at Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina before taking over the sole concession inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. They host many activities at Okefenokee Adventures and suggest that one of the best times to visit is autumn, when the weather has cooled and the fall flowers are in bloom. Morning is the best time for wildlife viewing. Boat tours run throughout the day, or you can make reservations in advance. They even conduct primitive camping trips within the swamp. For more information about trips and tours, call (912) 496–7156 or visit