Janice Parks lives on the edge of a beautiful mystery.
Her hometown cozies up to the border of the Okefenokee Swamp, which seeps deep into the heritage of her neighbors and lures thousands of visitors annually.
“We all live here and are a little bit jaded by it, but there is an absolute beauty of the wild flowers and the reflections off the tea-colored water,” Parks says. “The swamp is not your Stephen King vision of a swamp. It’s a mysterious garden spot.”
The community of Waycross, Ga., (pop. 15,333) grew up around the railroad industry. Four lines crossed about 70 miles from the Georgia coast, an intersection providing the town its name. The rails, along with timber, remain crucial to the town’s economy.
And then there is the swamp.
The Okefenokee—reaching 10 feet at its deepest—is a fresh water-filled depression about 25 miles wide and 40 miles long. It encompasses 600 square miles in Georgia and north Florida, with Waycross as its northernmost, and busiest, entrance.
Visitors from throughout the world travel to the Okefenokee Swamp Park for boat tours and nature lessons. The more adventuresome rent canoes and paddle into the wild.
In the spring and fall, the swamp is filled with long-legged water birds and tiny songbirds. Wildflowers compete with water lilies in a show of color. And long silences are interrupted by the roar of alligators, or the sound of a bullfrog grown impossibly large.
It’s a place that’s captured the imagination of many, but few more famously than Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo. Kelly, who died in 1973, created a world of swamp creatures living in the Okefenokee, and their antics mixed a down-home sweetness with occasionally pointed political satire.
The strip ran long after Kelly’s death and helped the Okefenokee earn a place in the public conscious. Parks, who served on the city commission for 20 years, now helps keep the memory alive by organizing the annual Pogofest, which draws loyal fans of the strip to Waycross each spring. They travel from as far away as Washington state and Minnesota.
While Pogo and a string of movies with names such as Swamp Water shaped the public’s perception of the Okefenokee, the truth of the swamp rests in the history and memories of its residents.
“I was a tomboy growing up, and everybody fishes in the swamp, so my grandfather would take us out in it,” Parks says.
On the trips she would hear stories of hidden caves and so-called spook lights. “They are swamp gas, and when the train comes through, it appears it’s chasing these lights,” says Parks, who admits to enjoying the tall tales. “My girlfriends and I scared quite a few boys one time, and they didn’t want to have anything more to do with the swamp.”
Some in the community don’t always appreciate the natural wonder at their doorsteps, but others hold old ways dear, says Tina Rowell, coordinator of programming for The Okefenokee Heritage Center. She learned the traditions while working for a decade as director of Obediah’s Okefenok, a restored homestead built in the 1800s, complete with a log cabin touted as the area’s oldest remaining swamp home.
People living on the edge of the swamp often are still called Swampers, though they now choose contemporary-style homes. And they may travel to town for jobs, but they still hold to tradition, even claiming a dialect that eliminates letters in certain words. For example, they would say “Okefenok” instead of “Okefenokee.”
“You’d almost need a glossary to know what all of the words mean,” Rowell says.
With scattered families holding to old ways, tales of flickering swamp lights, and a storied comic strip, Waycross, indeed, has a distinct flavor—one which locals like Rowell cherish.
“We have just a wonderful, natural, mysterious piece of God’s earth.”