When it comes to place names, Stephen Foster is a pretty popular guy. Although Foster never visited the South during his most prolific period of writing fictional lyrics about it, his name adorns both the Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia and the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs, Florida.
While it’s pretty impressive to have two major destinations named after you, Foster really gets going with the number of schools that bear his name. There are Stephen C. Foster schools, Stephen Foster schools and just plain Foster schools, and they range from coast to coast, starting with Foster Elementary in Pittsburgh, the songwriter’s hometown. From there, we travel to Alexandria, Detroit, Tulsa, Gainesville, Dallas, Indianapolis, Ft. Lauderdale, Compton (CA), Lakewood (also CA), and San Diego. This list is not exhaustive. There may be more. Foster is no slouch when it comes to educational place names, even if he is well behind both Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, who themselves are distanced by Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
Still, Foster’s is quite an achievement, considering that he was not a politician, an astronaut, or a great humanitarian. He was just a guy from Pennsylvania who had a knack for what he imagined a Southern Negro dialect to be and he knew how to pen a snappy tune.
Although it is a mystery why certain of the schools carry Foster’s name (Compton?), the naming of the state park in the Okeefenokee Swamp after Foster is the most apropos use of the name yet, since it is there that the Suwannee River rises.
You can access the park via four public entrances. We used the one at Fargo, for the state park, but there are also entrances at the Suwannee Sill Recreation Area (also in Fargo), the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area (Folkston) and at Kingfisher Landing (Race Pond).
A fifth entrance is to what is known as an “attraction,” whose bigger advertising budget and snazzy Web site probably draws more visitors than the other four combined. I will add “unfortunately” to this sentence, since the Okeefenokee Swamp and entertainment complete with gaily colored choo-choo train, stuffed alligator, and souvenir gift shop ought by law to be mutually exclusive. If you must visit it anyway, it’s called the Okeefenokee Swamp Park and you access it near Waycross.
If you like your pleasures less impacted by man, head for the state park, park your car, and strike out on the Trembling Earth Trail. The trail has a superb boardwalk that stretches out over the tannin-stained waters of the swamp.
Stephen C. Foster State Park is a no-frills affair. You turn off the road in Fargo and drive several miles on the Okeefenokee Trail to reach the parking lot. The park comprises the parking lot, a restroom facility, some picnic tables, a fish-cleaning station, a small office building, and a boat corral. Small boats are available for rental and a larger pontoon boat takes visitors out to the lake.
Since it is our custom to arrive too late in the day to do much, we skipped the boats and hiked instead. This was fine, because the park all but demands repeat visits.
A few signs along the boardwalk trail displayed the type of wildlife you might see, but we saw nothing but a wild discarded bottle of Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink. We backtracked on the trail and then took another one that was part-boardwalk, part gravel. I hesitated when the boardwalk ended, and I could tell my companion was thinking, Wuss.
The trail eventually wound back to the boat corral, where a five-foot alligator was resting among lily pads. This was the only alligator I saw in the Okeefenokee, but apparently fall is the best season for viewing. Armed with that knowledge, I was still apprehensive about walking along the canal to watch some kayakers and canoeists take their crafts out of the water. Visions of Oscar, the enormous stuffed alligator at the Swamp Park, rushing out of the water to snap at my heels were a bit too lively. I turned around and marched back to the car, leaving my companion to talk to a guy who drops campers off in the middle of the swamp and then leaves them there for three days. He’d been waiting for them to return. I learned later that there are camping platforms built above the swamp, but if you sleepwalk you might want to consider staying elsewhere.
Stephen C. Foster State Park: *****
I am from New England originally and one of our most famous regionalisms is “wicked.” As in “wicked pissa,” which the swamp is.
Cypress knees. Some of these were rather, uh, erotic in nature, especially when viewed horizontally.
If there ever were a place to view watersnakes, this was it. Didn’t see one, though. After my father related a story of a snake dropping on his head in Naples, I kept my eyes above me as well. I think I like a bit of drama.
Swamp connoisseurs may notice slight differences between the Okeefenokee and other locations. My father, on the other hand, looks at two of my swamp studies and says, “Are these all going to be the same thing?”
Alligator-warning sign at the entrance to the boat corral. While I am fairly certain that I could step into either the pontoon tour boat or a small skiff in the presence of alligators, I am not so sure about a kayak. The idea of being at butt-level with an alligator isn’t terribly appealing. I leave such activities to Dave.