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Into the wild

Roughing it in the Okefenokee with little more than a canoe — and some moxie



If you're one of those rare Atlantans who thrive on heat, humidity and nature – and are either immune to or unfazed by mosquitoes – you'll be right at home in the southeast corner of the state, where a muggy, majestic bog flush with the harshest of elements awaits you. Lucky for all of us, that pocket of Georgia will remain that way forever.

The legendary Okefenokee Swamp, a 685-square-mile wilderness that touches three counties, consists of a whopping 120 miles of waterway trails. Best enjoyed in a slow-paddling canoe, the Okefenokee boasts beady-eyed alligators, towering swamp grass and jaw-dropping sunsets. The mossy wetland, the majority of which is overseen and protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is home to hundreds of diverse species.

"In the evening, when the sun begins to set, you see birds come flying across the prairies and making their landing noises and gathering conversations," says Don Berryhill, a longtime educator who's lived in the area since 1945. "Right after sunset, the frogs come alive. And the crescendo of the frog symphony is incredible."

For centuries, the muddy area was home to Native American tribes, one of which gave the swamp its name (which means "Land of the Trembling Earth"). Through the mid-1800s and into the 20th century, logging companies eager to profit from the swamp's abundant supply of cypress trees nearly left the paradise a wasteland of stumps. Fortunately, local preservationists convinced the federal government to protect the area. And though Okefenokee Swamp suffered heavy damage during a widespread blaze in 2007, much of it has slowly recovered.

Visitors can access the swamp through four entrances scattered around its perimeter, each one offering canoe rentals and its own perspective on the diverse refuge. Stephen C. Foster Park (17515 Ga. 177, 912-637-5274, www.gastateparks.org/info/scfoster) is accessible along the eastern border and features the massive, hundreds-years-old cypress trees that escaped deforestation. For paddlers who want to canoe through tea-colored still water and sleep under the stars on camping platforms, head to Kingfisher Landing (located off U.S. 1 between Waycross and Folkston), a bare-bones, oft-overlooked outpost roughly 11 miles north of Folkston on the refuge's western edge. If you plan to spend the night, you'll have to sign up ahead of time with the wildlife service. According to Berryhill, the waiting list often fills up nearly two months in advance.

For those interested in a slightly more arms-length experience, there's the Okefenokee Swamp Park (U.S. 1 south, Waycross, 912-283-0583, www.okeswamp.com), a nonprofit nature facility that lets you experience the refuge without bunking in the swamp. The park offers boat tours, canoe rentals, and a two-mile, Six Flags-esque railroad line out to a replica village in the refuge.

Remember that cliched adage about "leave only footsteps, take only memories"? Same thing applies in the delicate Okefenokee. There are no trash containers along the canoe trails, so take out what you bring in. Also, pack a lunch. Outside of fast food and chain restaurants, it's slim pickings when it comes to dining.

Don't leave home without ... Sunscreen and bug spray. Lots of it.

Don't miss ... The carnivorous plants. The swamp boasts thousands of these bizarre flora – some of which grow as tall as 5 feet. They supplement their sunshine diet with insects and even small frogs and lizards.

Recommended song for the drive ... "Green Arrow," Yo La Tengo

Souvenir ... If you really want one, you'll find rubber alligators in local convenience stores.

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