We pushed through flooded forest until we finally reached dry ground. Floyd’s Island is a sizeable stand of oaks, pines and magnolia in the middle of the swamp. I spotted a small herd of deer grazing on the sandy soil. An old cabin stood near the boat landing, built in the early 20th century as a hunting retreat for owners of the Hebard Cypress Company, which logged the swamp.
On our last day in the Okefenokee we canoed on the Suwanee Canal, built more than 100 years ago to drain the swamp and make way for sugarcane, rice and cotton plantations. The canal was never completed, and cypress logging became the swamp’s major industry until the refuge was established and prohibited commercial enterprise.
On my trip down the canal, I spotted a new alligator every few minutes, sunning amid fallen logs. Cypress trees lined the banks, nearly lost in the thick, gray tendrils of Spanish moss. The wide, straight canal eased me back into civilization, leading me to the refuge visitor's center.
After leaving the swamp, I called Jackie Carter, who clears canoe trails in the refuge and whose family has lived on the edge of the swamp for generations. He considers the Okefenokee one of the most beautiful places on earth, and says all of us can learn from it. “It teaches you a lot about humility. The swamp is always teaching you something,” he told me. “People get in there and feel the peacefulness and quiet.”