What I became that long, long night I paddled alone through darkness in the desolate wilderness.
When crossing the largest swamp east of the Mississippi, a three-day journey through 700 square miles of wilderness full of alligators, the goal is clear: don’t lose anyone.
We started out with nine—three women and a man, plus five boys about 14 who acted like boys do: goofy, anything for a laugh, teeter-tottering between X-men and grown men, our sons and their friends.
The boy Zachary was riding in my canoe. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed, tall for his age. He was different, more aloof. Sometimes he didn’t like the antics of the other boys. He got angry quickly.
Zack lived at the very edge of the swamp and had been in many times with his father, Jackie, but had never paddled it. I was good friends with his father. Jackie was a wild man—alligator trapper, bear hunter, coyote tracker. He was made wilder by a stint in Vietnam, where one Easter Sunday going to church he stepped on a land mine that left enough shrapnel in his body to set off metal detectors.
He would have drunk himself to death, he told me, except the swamp saved him. He would go in for two weeks at a time, camping on some island or other, watching the cranes and wood ducks, following bear trails, drinking. He had been in and out of the swamp all his life. It was his place, his salvation, his refuge in time of trouble.
So I was surprised at what happened. Years later, I still think of it.
I believe death is the ultimate wilderness, waiting to be explored. I don’t want to go there yet. As a lover of nature, I want to get as close as possible to essential wildness without actually dying, so I’m careful to keep on life’s side of life, skirting the trackless territory of death and mitigating the forces that press us toward it.
I had assembled a first-aid kit, imagining possible attacks on the human body—cuts, scrapes, punctures, splinters, sunburn, wasp stings, chigger digs, flea pricks, snake bites, wildcat rips, Giardia, viruses, bacteria, yeasts, constipations, diarrheas, muscle aches, appendicitis, sinusitis, pancreatitis, tonsillitis, heart attacks, liver failures.
We might need band-aids and antibiotic cream, rubbing alcohol and aspirin. I put in a tourniquet, although I’d never used one and wouldn’t even know how. A stethoscope, being analytical and not curative, wasn’t useful. A defibrillator was too heavy. Antivenin was not affordable. I decided against packing the U.S. Army’s Survival Handbook.
Zack and I were in the water first. He was aft.
“Can I have a drink?” Zack said.
A lot was happening and I didn’t look back. “You can have whatever is in this boat,” I said.
In seconds Zack gagged and started spitting over the side.
I looked back. “What’s wrong?”
“That drink is ruined,” he said.
“Oh my god. Zach. That’s not a drink.”
He seemed confused. “What is it?”
“Lamp oil. Did you actually drink it?”
“I took a big swig,” he said.
“Did you swallow any?”
“I swallowed some.”
“That’s poison. Didn’t you see I wrote Poison on the bottle? I drew a skull-and-crossbones on it.”
He ducked his head and spat more. “All I knew was I was thirsty.”
“We’ve got to get you out.”
The canoe scraped and I stepped into shallow, amber-colored water. The large container of oil was in my truck. I had grabbed a small Gatorade bottle and parsed a reasonable amount into it. Sure enough, it was poisonous. On the label was a number to call.
I had no experience with poisons. Nothing in the first-aid kit was going to help. I seemed to remember charcoal being an antidote, and milk, but each poison might be unique and have a singular cure. Why didn’t the oil container announce in bold letters the curative?
I borrowed a cell phone and called Zack’s dad. He thought Zack would be all right. Probably he didn’t drink enough to hurt him, he thought. If you called the hotline, you’d be waiting a long time and you knew what they’d say.
“I’m worried about you going,” I said to Zack. “How do you feel?”
“I feel fine.”
He seemed okay. “If something happens, we can’t get back easily,” I said. “Maybe you should stay.”
“I spit most of it out,” he said. “I don’t feel anything.”
Everybody was waiting. “Well… let’s give it a shot.”
I spoke to my own son then, making sure he was ready and had everything he needed. My son was Silas, tall and slim, black-headed, a fun-loving kid who all his life would value friends as his most cherished possessions. He wasn’t jealous of Zack riding in my canoe. He had his own kayak and often paddled with me. He’d rather be with his buddies, in their kayaks, than with his mom.
Zack didn’t have a mom in his life, nor experience with a kayak. He was in the right place.
Death is the ultimate wilderness, waiting to be explored.
We left Kingfisher Landing headed toward Carter Prairie.
Okefenokee Swamp is a large bog, a depression, a peat-maker, a mosaic of peat batteries, a saucer not a cup. There is very little solid high ground, only floating sod. The sphagnum that defines the bog is so thick it appears weight-bearing, but when you step onto it, you sink, floundering in the detritus of centuries of vegetation, or you stand trembling. The Okefenokee is called “land of the trembling earth” for a reason. So a prairie in the swamp is not what you would think. It’s a wet, flat area filled with aquatic wildflowers.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day. Carter Prairie was popping with water lily, spatterdock sticking up its yellow bonnets, swamp iris of the color purple, golden club like birthday candles. In shallower places carnivorous plants were going crazy: yellow bladderwort, purple bladderwort, and both the hooded pitcher plant and the golden trumpet, blooming their flappy flowers. Hatpins were everywhere, like tiny marshmallows on sticks or white balloons on strings or little flags on delicate poles. All the metaphors I can think of for hatpins are happy.
The first night we’d stay at the shelter at Maul Hammock, 12 miles in. The second night we’d stay at Big Water. By the time we emerged at Billy’s Lake on the western edge, we’d have traveled 31 miles.
When most of us think of wilderness, we think of Alaska or the West. But there’s wild wilderness even in places like southern Georgia that have been inhabited for long centuries and degraded in the process. For me, not enough wilderness is left and every day I resent this. It’s a crying shame that humans have trampled so much of this world with such abandon.
Every guide book we’d read said the 12 miles to Maul Hammock were hard miles. Why became quickly clear. In a flat there’s no current; only sheer muscular force will propel a boat. Sometimes we had to get out and drag our boats through the dinner-plate leaves of water lily and spatterdock, tangles of flowers: beautiful but exhausting.
Zack maintained his share of paddling. I kept asking him how he was doing and he kept saying he was good. He seemed good. Maybe he got the poison out. Still, I was angry at him for not paying attention and angry at myself for not ripping off the Gatorade label and for not hiding the bottle where a kid couldn’t find it. I encouraged him occasionally to eat crackers. I thought they would settle his stomach and absorb lamp oil residue.
The water was mica-colored, lava-like, obsidian glass, reflecting white puffy clouds in a blue sky. The trail flecked with foam. Prothonotary warblers called, whk whk whk whk whk. Dragonflies, some golden reddish and some powder blue, zipped along. Startled kingfishers careered raucously away.
We passed mile marker #1 and #2 and #3. Once we stopped to knock our boats into a knot and pass around energy bars. At #4, where a darkwater pool was ringed with trees, we tied up to the wooden marker and ate lunch.
“Can we swim?” one of the boys asked.
“Not a good idea,” said one of the adults. The gators had pressed wide highways through the peat battery around us.
The boys found a log up-slanted out of the water. One by one they crawled onto it, careful to stay balanced.
I was responsible for one other kid, Max, one of Silas’s school friends. He loved to test limits in the most endearing ways. He spent a lot of time at my house and I knew what to expect from him.
Of course it was Max who slipped and fell in. He surfaced, brown eyes large above the water, thrashing.
“Ayyyyy,” he shrieked. “Get me out of here.”
Here I admit to laughing. Max churned back to the tree and tried to pull himself up. He slipped again and disappeared underwater. He surfaced.
“I’m gonna die!” he said. Even he didn’t believe it.
“You’re not,” I said. “Get to the edge.”
Zack was still in my canoe. That was the kind of kid he was. He watched from a safe distance.
I’d begged his dad Jackie to let me bring Zack. Jackie was the wildest looking, wildest acting man I’d ever seen. He had long, yellow-white hair that he kept pulled back. He was sinewy and muscular, although he never saw the inside of a gym. He had a raw, visceral animal power—electricity, duende—running through him. Any watch he wore stopped running. Jackie’s hunt-club buddies were always hanging around his place, usually swigging on a bottle of whiskey.
Jackie also grew roses and strung up millions of holiday lights every year and baked cinnamon buns, but still. Imagine being a kid with no mom raised by a man like him. One person never could be two parents. And as a single mother myself, I knew Jackie would welcome a break. It’d be good for Zack to go camping with us.
As soon as we ate, Zack’s problems started. He clambered out of the boat and rushed onto a floating island. When he got back he was pale. He sat down on the thwart, his head hanging.
“My stomach hurts and my head hurts. I keep burping up that stuff. It tastes nasty. I’m feeling sick.”
“Was that diarrhea?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He was such a damned polite kid.
“I don’t like it that you’re starting to get sick now,” I said. I glanced at the marker.
“I think I’ll be okay.” Almost as soon as he said it he tipped the boat sideways and retched into the black water.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“I’m okay,” he said.
“At least you’re getting it out of your system.”
The boys climbed into their boats and we set off. Zack curled up in the canoe. The hot sun was beating down. I dipped my bandanna over the side and spread it across his forehead then covered his arms so he wouldn’t get burned. I offered him water. I paddled.
The bottle had clearly said Poison. It said upon ingestion to call the National Poison Hotline. Poison kills. As dangerous it was to continue, I hated Zack missing the trip. I kept thinking, “Maybe.”
At Mile #5 I knew I’d made the wrong decision.
The adults huddled. We decided to switch boats so I could take a kayak, which would move faster. I’d pull Zack in a second kayak. My gear would get divided. I’d go back, they’d go on, I’d catch up. The other adults would take care of Silas and Max.
“Silas, I’ll be back. It may be after dark. You’re not going to worry, are you?”
“I’m not worried,” he said. Many times I had paddled for the both of us, dragging him in his boat, until he was old enough to paddle long distances himself.
“Well, please don’t worry. I’ll be okay. But this is going to take hours, you know that?”
“It’s okay,” he said. I have never seen my kid intentionally hurt anyone or anything.
I was strong. I could easily pull a boat roped to a second boat wherein a boy lay, his seat reclined as far as it would go. The drag of his weight was nothing. The first mile was nothing. The second mile was easy. On the third mile I wanted to rest but Zack was worse. He would lift himself and vomit, then fall back, pale as a tissue.
I pulled right, I pulled left, right, left, right, left, right, left. I jabbed the double-bladed paddle into the water on the right as far to the bow as I could reach, pulled as hard as I could as far behind me as I could, felt the boat surge, plowing through its own wake, if that’s possible. Fetterbush and lizardtail and duck-potato blurred on either side. With the left blade I stabbed forward, using my entire body to torque, pulling hard until the blade was behind me. Ahead, a wood duck screamed and flew around a bend. I stabbed right again, left, right, left. We were flying, me with the boy’s pack in my boat, the boy alone in his plastic boat, sick. When I reached the wood duck, she screamed and fled anew, over and over.
With each stroke I pulled farther from my own son and our friends, but closer to help for Zack. I was paddling upstream on the River Styx, through hot lava, trying to escape a giant arm reaching toward me from the underworld.
I was in a horror movie. The camera was panning. A woman was in focus, churning two boats forward while the landscape streamed by in a blur.
The woman was becoming bigger and bigger until she was archetypal. She was a warrior, teeth and claws on strings around her neck, bangles rattling on her wrists. Her torso grew into lioness’s, horns sprang from her head, and in her hands she wielded a lightning bolt. She left behind a wake of sparks.
I became something more than I’d ever been as I rowed Zack out of the primordial gunk. As I fought, I also birthed. I birthed Zack and I birthed myself. I birthed too the power of any woman to not be afraid, to not let the fear of death stop her from doing what was needed, to fight for life.
We forget that most of the time we are warriors fighting for life—to protect it, to continue it, to birth it, to care for it, to honor it. As humans, as women, that’s the biggest job we do.
Even as my hips grew tight against the yellow kayak, I was simply a tired woman whose shoulder blades stuck out, whose elbows were sharp, with hair in my mouth, with beads of sweat popping on my brow, strung with three hammocks for carrying babies, one on the left, one on the right, and one on the back. My breasts could not fill fast enough for their hunger. Where my stomach should have been was a big gnawing hole.
I returned through all the places we’d visited that morning, scene upon scene in reverse. In the open prairies the sun beat brutally.
I called Zack’s name.
He didn’t answer.
I had tied the bow of his boat to my prow with no leeway in the rope, to prevent his kayak listing and dragging. I couldn’t double back to him.
I called more loudly.
“Drink some water,” I said. “You’ll dehydrate.”
“No, thank you,” he said. There was that awful politeness.
“Drink it,” I said. I hoped I was doing the right thing.
Then I was off again, a human windmill, around and around—seeming, like a windmill, not to move at all.
Carter Prairie slowed me down, with its shallow water and underbrush of weeds. Our boats scratched through it, and I cursed the Fish and Wildlife Service for not clearing the trails more often. Then my boat stopped short, stuck. I leaped from it and sank knee-deep into layers of ropy, pithy, snaky muck. I began running slow-motion through the battery, dragging the boats behind me, until the water suddenly deepened. I pulled myself back into my boat.
Twenty yards ahead it happened again. Then again. We got into a stretch of weedless water and I paddled more furiously. My arms burned. I was wearing out.
Finally far ahead I spotted a fisherman in a boat. I was already calling to him. Did he have a phone? Would he dial Jackie Carter? I had a sick kid, a poisoned kid. Here’s his number. Could he meet me at the landing?
Did he reach Jackie? What did he say? Would he be there?
Zack struggled up, vomited again into the water, and instantly something changed. Color began to seep back into his face. He looked around. “Whew,” he said. “I feel better now.”
I stopped paddling. “Seriously?”
“I think I’m okay now.”
“You scared me back there,” I said. I loved the kid, as I’ve said.
“That was nasty.”
“We’ll be at the landing soon. Your dad’s coming.”
“I want to go back in,” he said.
“Not this time.”
Jackie had called his doctor, but Zack was acting like a normal kid, waving to his dad and grinning, paddling behind me. I felt a little foolish. We scraped.
“He may be over it,” I said.
Jackie didn’t say anything. We got out.
“Get your pack, Zack,” I said, stooping to untie the knot that held the boats together.
“You going back in?” Jackie asked me.
“I need to,” I said. By then it was almost four o’clock. “But I have to get all the way to Maul Hammock.”
“Let me get Zack home,” he said. “I can take you partway.”
“In your motorboat?”
“What else?” he said. He was like that, mean and kind at the same time.
“I hate it,” I said. “I really wanted to take him.”
“I thought he was going to die, back there,” I said.
The mile to Jackie’s house was quick. Zack grabbed a basketball and started playing. I sat on the concrete steps into Jackie’s house, resting, watching purple martins swooping and swinging, going in and out of their white gourds. Jackie had hung cables low, and in some places the birds were barely above head height.
Zack went to the refrigerator on the porch and came out with a drink. “Now this is a real drink,” he said.
I laughed. “I can’t believe you didn’t smell the lamp oil before it actually got to your mouth.”
“I know,” he said.
“Or once it was on your tongue, why didn’t you taste that it wasn’t Gatorade?”
“I gulped it,” he said. We both laughed, having beaten the odds of a bad mistake. In the yard Jackie had backed his pickup to the boat trailer. His brother was helping clamp it to the hitch.
“You wanted to be a light,” I said to Zack.
“It lit me up,” he said.
“I’ll stop by in a few days,” I said.
As I fought, I also birthed. I birthed Zack and I birthed myself. I birthed too the power of any woman to not be afraid, to not let the fear of death stop her from doing what was needed, to fight for life.
At the landing Jackie backed his trailer into the water. He unloaded his boat, stuck my yellow kayak across it, yanked the engine cord. We started out with a roar, which is how he accomplished most things. I crouched in the front puffed up in my life vest and watched.
I get teary at this point. Jackie’s dead now—he died a couple of years ago of what was probably his heart. He came in from bushhogging to take a nap and never woke up. He died with his work boots by his bed.
When he died, a part of Okefenokee Swamp died. Jackie was the swamp. He’d lived right at it his entire life. When he was a kid, his family gathered its sphagnum moss to sell. Vietnam was a shitstorm he would not have survived had it not been for Okefenokee.
Some of us meditate in old-growth forests. Some of us watch birds. Some of us gaze out at a beautiful view of a lake. But the instinct is the same, I think, to understand that the earth is wild, and that we are of the earth, and also wild. Some of us are willing to feel this more strongly than others. Jackie felt it more than anyone I know, so much that he was feral, living outside the strictures of domestication.
He was one of the most untempered people I’ve known. He wasn’t wild like a pheasant hunter who gathers up bird dogs and hikes in knee boots through soft-edged grassland. He wasn’t wild like a hunter shooting a grizzly from a helicopter.
He was the pheasant, he was the grizzly.
I loved him for this. I loved him too because he not only represented my place, the beleaguered land of southern Georgia—he was my place, the entirety of it. For years he had to keep one foot in the world of humans, putting up Christmas lights, getting alligators out of backyard ponds, shooting fireworks, baking cinnamon rolls. Now he is wholly the land.
That night as I sank into the cradle of the boat, as the sun lowered, Jackie wielded the rudder effortlessly. Watching him was like watching an athlete. He was an artist at the wheel. He was always on point, strategizing, maneuvering, navigating the tight mazes, jerking his motor up and down to untangle vegetation from the blades. His calculations were impeccable, even as he swigged Lord Calvert from a bottle and chased it with water. Of course he wasn’t wearing a vest.
He cut the motor when he passed the fisherman. “How do,” he said.
“Can’t beat it,” the man said, his blue ball cap turned backwards. “Y’all seen any fish want to ride in my boat?”
Jackie laughed loudly. “We’ll be on the lookout.”
Then I remembered a moment that morning in the boat. Zack wasn’t sick yet and we were coasting along.
“That cypress tree,” I said, “isn’t it beautiful?”
“I bet it’s a hundred years old,” he said.
“I bet you’re right.” A minute passed with the two of us eyeballing a gorgeous, many-branching, ballet-dancing cypress tree.
Zack would grow up to be a tall, strong man, devoted husband and father, the kind of guy who takes his kids trick-or-treating one week and then hunting the next. I couldn’t see that yet. And yet I could.
The vision happened in the quiet moment of boy and his not-mama sitting quietly looking at a magnificent tree. Zack pointed off. “That’s what’s pretty to me,” he said. “The way the grass looks there.”
“Peaceful,” I said.
Jackie had arrived at a quick series of sharp, wooded bends. He was working the rudder like a dancer. “You’re great at this,” I said.
“Don’t you know I was raised in here?” he said. “I’ve tore up that corner a few times. I lost a string of fish up here. I tipped the boat and the fish got away.”
I stayed quiet.
“I’ll get you as far as I can,” he said. He took another hit of Lord Calvert. “At least to 6. That’s halfway. But it’s all motorless once you cross the wilderness line.”
“Six’d be a huge help,” I said.
On the north end of Double Lakes, Jackie pulled up at mile marker #6. The sun was hanging above a head of moss-strung cypress trees to the west. Turkey vultures circled down toward some conclusion I couldn’t see, maybe Cowhorse Island. Jackie moved to unload my boat even as his glided forward.
“Let me help,” I said.
“Well, unhook that side,” he said, impatient.
I locked my boat against the side of his johnboat and climbed down. Falling in was the kind of thing a puny woman would do. I pushed away and centered my paddle with a clank. “Sorry again, Jackie,” I said. “I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
“I thank you for bringing me all this way.”
He still said nothing.
“No worries,” I said. “There’s only six miles to go.”
“That’s still a ride.” He turned, revved, roared, and was gone.
To understand that the earth is wild, and that we are of the earth, and also wild: some of us are willing to feel this more strongly than others.
For a few minutes I sat in my boat, feeling the wilderness descend. I’d been sad when Zack drank the poison, worried when he began to throw up, panicked as his sickness grew, then sad again. I’d paddled ten hard miles, five of them towing a boat with a boy. Six more lay ahead of me. My folks had arrived at the Maul Hammock shelter by now. The adults would be cooking supper. The boys might be helping, though more likely they’d be playing chess, or fishing, or reading.
Seven-hundred square miles is a big wilderness. I had a vision of every alligator in the place rising up out of flower-ridden water, sitting on its tail, and waving. There would be a lot of alligators, some of them as long as 14 feet, and there would be 74 teeth per alligator, each sharpened to a point. Beyond that bad feng shui there would be black bears, and beyond, panthers. For these, medicinals do not exist.
Something red flickered at the edge of my vision—male cardinal in a stand of impenetrable titi. Farther away a great egret stalked the shadows. A belted kingfisher came wheeling up the water-trail, then careened away, stuttering. In two miles I’d be at Ohio Lake, and in four more, home for the night. There was nothing else to do.
Just at dusk I heard loud bugling. Sandhill cranes, four feet tall, were feeding in a prairie, hollering to each other or maybe hollering to be hollering. They tiptoed through the wet spongy depths of sphagnum, plying it with their long bills. They wore crimson caps atop gray cassocks, perfect feathers laid down perfectly.
Night fell and the moon levitated above the inconceivable and primitive swamp. I paddled by its light, staying within the water trail, spotting trail markers with my light. Large splashes sounded near me, and strange birds loosed weird calls. A bellowing began that I had never heard but knew to be the mating calls of alligators.
I went on and on. I refused to rest because the vastness of the swamp and my own smallness scared me. I paddled more quietly. I held my breath.
I passed mile marker #11 close enough that I could touch it with a blade of my paddle. I went on through the thick, mercurial waters. Finally I thought I heard a kid laugh. I saw, across open water, a small glow. I hollered. Hollering is one way swamp folk communicated with each other. They had recognizable hollers, and hollers meant things like I’m almost home. You can quit your worry. The naturalist Francis Harper, when he visited Okefenokee in the 1910s, recorded some of the hollers, and I’d wound up with a copy of the tape.
Somebody hollered back. It was my own boy.
When I reach Maul Hammock, Silas was crouched at the edge of the platform. He was a kind-hearted boy who would grow up to be a kind-hearted man. I reached out and touched him.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said. “I made it.”
“I knew you would,” he said. “I was waiting on you.”
My friends wanted to know all the details. How was Zack and how was I? Was I hungry? We saved spaghetti. Eat and then tell us everything. First I had to pull myself from the boat and sit on the platform until my knees quit shaking.
I refused to rest because the vastness of the swamp and my own smallness scared me.
The next day we would scrabble through Sapling Prairie and Dinner Pond, then Big Water Lake. We would camp in a shelter there. Somewhere along the way we’d leave wet prairie and enter a fast-moving black creek, the Middle Fork of the Suwannee, one of two rivers that rise from the great swamp, so narrow in places that our paddles swiped the walls of trees. We would come out at Billy’s Island, on the other side.
I was pretty much hailed as a hero but I was no hero. What I’d done was remedial, a defenseless mistake in a grand, heroic, mythic life, and I was damned lucky that a remedy had been available.
Most of us, most of our lives, are asked to live small. Most of us quit trying very young to live the bigness we know is possible. Now, no matter what I choose or what is asked of me, I know what I became that long, long night I paddled alone through darkness in the desolate wilderness just this side of the ultimate wilderness. I have seen the warrior.
Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject is often nature. She earned an MFA from the University of Montana and has published five books of nonfiction and a volume of eco-poetry. Her first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, is a memoir about growing up on a junkyard in the severely diminished longleaf pine ecosystem. It was named a New York Times Notable Book. Ray has won a Pushcart Prize, an American Book Award, and a Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Award, among others. She lives on an organic farm in Georgia.
Header photo by Fine Art Photos, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Janisse Ray by Nancy Marshall.