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On the Wildside: Winter dreams of warm places

A view of the Okeefenokee Swamp, Georgia. Submitted photo by Mike Eubanks

Winter weather often triggers fond memories of times in warmer climes. Carol and I have had many fun winter trips to the south over the years. We haven't joined the migrating flocks of snowbird retirees yet, but we look forward to getting away from winter again.

Carol and I had a memorable winter trip many years ago when I took a job in Georgia. We moved from River Falls down to Macon, south of Atlanta in the middle of the state. I arranged a month off before starting work. Carol and I found a place to live, had the movers to deliver our meager possessions to Macon, and then we headed for the ocean.

We toured the beautiful old city of Savannah, enjoyed some real "soul food" and then took a ferry boat to Cumberland Island. We passed many winding tidal creeks and extensive salt marshes along the St. Mary's River. Cumberland Island is one of the barrier islands along the Georgia coast. Now a national seashore, the island is one of the most significant natural areas in the country.

Carol and I hiked along trails through the live oak and palmetto marine forest, wandered through the dunes and along the long Atlantic side beach. We fought off raccoons that were persistent campsite invaders and saw wild pigs and wild horses on the island.

We spent Christmas at Anastasia State Park near St. Augustine, Florida. The weather was fine and there were few people in the park. We canoed through some tidal estuaries, caught bluefish and flounders off a rickety pier extending out from the beach, and caught sheephead with wide black and white vertical stripes off the jetty at the harbor entrance. There were flocks of terns, gulls and shorebirds along the beach. Muddy low spots were crawling with fiddler crabs.

Our next stop was the Okeefenokee Swamp near Waycross, Georgia. The Okeefenokee Swamp covers about 700 square miles and is the largest intact wilderness swamp in the lower 48 states. There are over 120 miles of marked trails for paddling and raised deck tent platforms for camping out in the swamp. We obtained our permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and toured the swamp by canoe. There were so many alligators in some places that they looked like log jams. Cypress trees with knobby "knees", tupelo trees all draped with Spanish moss, "hammock" islands with palmetto and oaks, all floating in black tannin-stained water made for a beautiful but unfamiliar scene. We saw lots of birds like wintering sandhill cranes, ibis with curved bills soaring high overhead, herons, and egrets.

It actually snowed several inches when we returned to Macon, Georgia. It hadn't snowed in Macon for many, many years. I put on my cross country skis and toured around the Indian mounds in the Ocmulgee National Monument. Local kids who had never seen snow started following me thinking I was the Pied Piper. It was supposed to be the day for garbage pickup. I took some heavy pieces cardboard from along the street and showed the kids how to slide down hills on the snow. They had a great time.

There are lots of places like the Georgia Sea Islands, the Okeefenokee Swamp, the Suwanee River and Crystal Rivers in Florida, rivers and barrier islands in the Florida Panhandle, and Big Bend National Park in Texas that we would like to visit during the cold months. More winter rain may drive us south sooner than expected.

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