Social distancing before it was required

Reflections at the alligator pond.

My wife and I were social distancing before we knew there was such a thing.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., I made an all-day social distancing trip to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It was a mere hour’s drive from our winter hideout on Amelia Island, Florida.

I invited my lovely wife to accompany me. Having already visited there briefly with friends, Neva declined. Her aversion to snakes and reptiles made that an easy decision. However, I wanted to explore the place more thoroughly.

I didn’t mind going solo at all. We each believe that doing our own thing has contributed to the longevity and quality of our marriage. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

You might know the refuge by its more colloquial name, Okefenokee Swamp. That is what the locals call it. Take a tour, however, and you will quickly learn that Okefenokee isn’t a swamp at all.

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Native Americans gave the sprawling area the name centuries ago. In English, Okefenokee means “land of the trembling earth.” The moniker fits. In the less disturbed marshy areas, the land beneath reverberates with each step you take.

Okefenokee has been a national wildlife refuge since 1937. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1974.

Much more than a shallow blackwater swamp, the 403,000 acres that comprise Okefenokee are a beautiful blend of hammock forests, creeks, wetland prairies, and cypress groves. Altogether, they serve as the headwaters for both the Suwannee River and the St. Mary’s River, which marks the Florida/Georgia boundary.

My heart jumped when I saw this woodpecker land on the trunk of this longleaf pine. It was a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I arrived mid-morning under hazy, smoky skies in early February. My main objective was to find the elusive and rare red-cockaded woodpecker. Okefenokee is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for the endangered bird.

I drove down the eerily lovely Swamp Island Drive in search of the woodpecker. I had never seen one, and after spending the morning trying, I still haven’t. I did see plenty of nest holes high up in the longleaf pine trunks.

I wasn’t disappointed. Just being among all the beauty and the sounds and earthy fragrances of nature was sufficient.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes cackled unseen in the wetlands beyond the pines that surrounded a small pond. An alligator laid like a fallen log on the pond’s far lip. A brown-headed nuthatch foraged on a tree trunk only four feet from me.

Bigger alligators rested roadside along shallow ditches. I found it surprising how much the vegetation changed at the slightest rise or dip in elevation. The scenery was stunning despite the gray overcast sky and smoke from a nearby forest fire.


Only a few feet from the boardwalk trail, alligators absorbed whatever warmth the day offered. Neva would not have approved. By the time I reached the observation tower, the sandhill cranes had quieted and were out of sight.

I learned much more about Okefenokee on the afternoon boat tour. Our guide explained that the deepest water was only four feet. The vast geologic basin was filled with peat, which is why it quivered when stepped upon.

Our small flat-bottom boat cruised between stands of cypress graciously draped with Spanish moss, which isn’t a moss at all. Huge alligators lounged along the way, while a highly venomous water moccasin soaked in the filtered sunshine. Red-shouldered hawks screeched from high perches on old snags.

As I headed back to our condo, I savored the day that had buoyed me. For Neva and me, that style of social distancing helps enrich both our individuality and our affinity.

A cypress grove along the Suwannee Canal.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020