Jan 3-6: Okey dokey Okefenokee!

The pandemic has brought many changes to Earlham's campus, and so many opportunities have been lost. However, Earlham's proliferation of opportunities has persevered with creativity and the hard work of dedicated professors. This January, we start off 2022 on a hopeful note with a journey to Florida. We gathered around a table in Richmond on the 3rd for dinner. The next day 12 students, 2 vans, and 1 Ant Man Chris Smith departed Richmond. We were off to a good start when we intercepted Mike and Driver 501 on walkie-talkie channel 19. Earlhamites make friends wherever we go, but we decided to move our party to a different channel and left Mike to go back to his coffee.
9 hours later... we arrived at our first Pioneer Campsite in the darkness and spread the knowledge of how to set up tents (or hammock!). Looking back, we really had beginner's luck with the rice for dinner...
Next day we had a destination in mind- the legendary Okefenokee swamp! At 438,000 acres, it is one of the largest intact wetlands in the world. We rented some motorboats in order to explore up close. At a request for drivers, many hands shot up... only the strongest would survive. The boat containing a couple skilled boaters and Chris sped away, leaving two boats of bewildered students with the simple instructions "Be back at 5:00."
Chris's boat took a narrow inlet through the swamp for quite a distance. After two long days of driving, we floated downstream into the setting sun, a few bird chirps the only sound breaking the silence.
A couple boats spotted two baby raccoons climbing a tree! All the boats were treated to a plethora of unfamiliar flora and fauna. The swamp consisted mainly of cypress trees that have wide bases and tall straight trunks. They have odd growths called "knees" that look like cones of wood coming out of the water. Chris informed us that their purpose is still unknown, but probably related to stabilization. Decomposing leaves add tannin to the water, making it dark red. Chris supposed this may prevent the growth of hydrilla, an invasive algae that unfortunately clogs many waterways. We also saw many birds, including a pied-billed grebe, a wood stork, double-crested cormorant, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, white ibis, turkey vulture, red-shouldered hawk, belted kingfisher, red-bellied woodpecker, eastern phoebe, american crow, northern mockingbird, american robin, and yellow-rumped warbler.
The boats reunited. It was quite the picture: Three motorboats full of students motoring along like a formation of geese in dark red water reflecting the setting sun.
Our second campsite is also designated "Pioneer"- but we are more blessed than the pioneers by the modern innovation of running water and a pavilion. We split into three groups for dinner, with varying success (see above, rice). Halfway through cooking we were called by a shout to look at the stars. Okefenokee is designated a Dark Sky Park, and the stars were absolutely fantastic.
Evening activities included an hours-long foray into fire starting. This group has no shortage of fire experts, lighter fluid, and firewood, but it was not cooperative. We had John Henry style contest starting fire with kindling vs. a high-tech Esbit cube... and the winner goes to Miette, with good ol' home split kindling! By late evening the fire was big enough for smores.
The other activity was an impromptu owl prowl. We happen to have Joseph Moore Museum's very own Owl Prowler Extraordinaire (AKA Nathen). He seduced several barred owls with his "lady owl impression."
The next morning some of us went birding... but one of the highlights (simultaneously a low-light) was a baby deer (not too young- it isn't breeding season) that approached us and let us pet it and licked our hands. Clearly campers have been feeding them, despite the many signs... we ended up shooing it away. We also saw some birds on our bird walk, notably a brown-headed nuthatch and a red-shouldered hawk pair with nest.
After a short hop to Tall Timbers Research Station, we went to see "Ant Heaven"- site of Chris's master degree research. There were ants. It was Chris's heaven.
We learned that ants have an alarm response to carbon dioxide i.e. if you blow down their ant hole they freak out. We also learned that many ants collect things, such as charcoal. We saw nests with a neat circle of charcoal surrounding a hole down into the nest. It's possible the charcoal raises the temperature of the nest, but after counting thousands of ants, Chris is... still unsure.
Finally, we sat down to grilled perogies and listened to Nathen's lovely guitar. There was an audible gasp when we saw the beds with sheets and showers at our lodge at Tall Timbers. Here's to a good night's sleep!
All together...
Okey dokey? - Okefenokee!

-Thea Clarkberg
senior Biology major from Ithaca ,New York

Posted on January 07, 2022 02:22 AM by crsmithant crsmithant


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