Lessons from the Swamp 2

A father-son canoe 
trip yields much more than mosquito bites.

Georgia is called the ‘Adventure State’ because of the variety of its destinations from the Appalachian mountain highlands to the sandy beaches of the Golden Isles. One lesser known gem is the seven hundred square miles of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge – the largest swamp in North America.

Thirty years ago my dad took me on a father-son canoeing trip through the Okefenokee. Following that example, I recently persuaded a group of father-son pairs to leave the suburban comforts of Cobb County and travel down below the gnat line in search of re-creating that adventure. We launched our canoes at the Suwanee Canal Recreation Center on the eastern edge of the wildlife preserve and emerged three days later on the western side at Stephen Foster State Park – a journey involving some 30 miles of canoeing.

The swamp is chock full of wildlife – snakes, frogs, turtles, deer, bobcats, bear, an astounding variety of birds and yes, many alligators. The dads offered well-intentioned, but bumbling, advice to our boys affirming that we were not the least bit afraid and making assurances like: “Alligators only eat once a week and typically drown their prey rather than eating it alive.” Those pitiful platitudes sounded decidedly less confident as we pressed deeper into the swamp and lost the last bars of service on our cell phones.

We paddled through inky-black water in the shadows of ancient cypress trees draped in curtains of Spanish moss which seemed immune to the passage of time. We camped on lonely wooden platforms elevated a few inches above lily-pad covered water-prairies.  Each long day of paddling ended with the forty-something year-old dads popping aspirin and bemoaning the lack of an available masseuse. Then after raiding the Yeti coolers, we reluctantly attacked the byzantine tasks of erecting complicated tents, Jetboil cooktops and Eno hammocks for the evening – a moment of which Adventure Outdoors would be very proud!

Three hundred miles from Atlanta’s traffic and glare of the city lights, we enjoyed the simple pleasures of spending quality time together, disconnected from the distracting digital world back home. We found amazement lying under the immense dome of stars while listening to the other-worldly cacophony of sounds from the nocturnal swamp creatures.

The adventure weekend also offered occasional opportunities for heroism. When one of the boys dropped his dad’s Nikon camera into the water, I boldly proclaimed, “if only the camera were waterproof, I myself would swim and retrieve it.” To my dismay, I was informed that the camera was indeed waterproof. And once you have announced your bravado to a group of teenage boys, you are required to bet your life in order to save your ego. I had been searching in the murky water about twenty minutes, when one of the dads calmly advised that a large gator was quietly approaching. So, at the expense of my pride, I made an executive decision to declare the camera lost forever and the search completed.

Now having twice survived the swamp experience, I can attest that these trips with our children reinforce character traits of teamwork, courage, discipline, perseverance and hard work – as well as the value of laughing at oneself. It was a golden opportunity to see a breathtaking part of our Adventure State, make unforgettable memories and help shape our boys into the talented young men they are becoming. Thirty years from now, I hope my son will tell me stories of returning to the swamp with his own children. That should be about the time my shoulder stops aching from all the paddling.