Swamp Things

Despite the popular vision of swamps as creepy wastelands, these environmental oases offer some of the richest opportunities for wildlife
An osprey sits atop a bald cypress tree at dawn, Eustis, Florida.
Cypress and tupelo trees, Congaree National Park, South Carolina.

A swamp by any other name would certainly sound sweeter. Just the mention of these soggy woodlands is enough to send Northerners packing back to the temperate climates of their upstate homes. What most people don't realize, however, is that our verdant swamps offer some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing, solitude and adventure south of the Mason-Dixon line.

There are few other ecosystems in the world that carry such undeserved negative baggage, born from millennia of cultural misunderstandings. When a group of professional nature photographers recently were asked what adjectives they associated with swamps, their answers ran the gamut of "muddy," "smelly," "buggy," "scary" and "dangerous." Of the 20 or so descriptors that echoed back, not one was positive. If this is what seasoned outdoorspeople thought of swamps, what hope can we hold out for the general public or the elected officials tasked with governing these natural havens?

A red rat snake slithers across a fallen live oak on Kanapaha Prairie, Gainesville, Florida.

Unfortunately, we're left with a PR nightmare for bottomlands, one that has pervaded generations since our ancestors first arrived to the United States. For centuries, swamps have been relegated as wastelands, landscapes only suitable for draining and harvesting timber. In fact, during the 19th and 20th centuries, turning swamps into farmlands or cities—relieving its citizens of the ceaseless wetlands—was the very essence of conservation. We've certainly come a long way in the last 100 years. With the establishment of national parks, nature preserves and sanctuaries to protect these critical habitats, perhaps there exists a chance we might reconnect with what's left of our low-country heritage and tear down our old biases toward swamps.
Today, America's flooded woodlands have been diminished to only a handful of fragmented old-growth tracts. While hiking or paddling through these timeless backwoods, you get the feeling there's something inherently primordial and sacred that governs. In the humid whispers of bottomland swamps, life continues as it did thousands of years ago. Under the creaking limbs of ancient cypress trees, some dating back to the height of the Byzantine Empire, wilderness takes its form. Alligators, which have changed very little in the last 60 million years, are still today the dominant predators of the blackwater. They're the freshwater equivalent to sharks, their reputation marred by bad press and preferring a life far away from people.

In the shallows, gnarled cypress knees boil up from the tannin-stained tributaries like petrified lava, radiating from flared buttresses of bald cypress trees. Their unique formations, sometimes mimicking deformed faces, haunted British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, purporting the myth that swamps were cursed. We know better now than to believe mythological creatures lurk in the hollows, yet our imagination runs wild in these habitats. Perhaps that's what draws me to swamps.

A prothonotary warbler feeding its young in a nest in a hollowed tree.

As a Floridian child reading Where The Wild Things Are, I could romp around the creeks and cypress sloughs of my backyard and immediately be transported to another world. With neighboring alligators and venomous snakes, going out to the swamps around Gainesville was the only time I could experience the visceral tug of vulnerability. In the 21st century, it's a welcomed discomfort to feel part of nature, rather than its master.

Red mangrove in Florida Bay, Everglades National Park, Florida.

Commonly associated with bootleggers, rebels, convicts and eccentric hermits, swamps have always been the outliers—the places where people would go to escape the world. And where people are scarce, nature abounds. As humans develop around wetlands, the deep interiors serve as wilderness alcoves, natural bottlenecks for myriad species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fishes and birds. Wildlife teems in these landscapes, allowing unparalleled access and proximity to a number of animals. Combined with the subtle seasonal pulse of water levels and temperatures, species diversity is constantly in flux beneath the canopy. In the spring, migratory birds like the prothonotary warbler fly in from Central America to nest in tree cavities. The bright-yellow birds fill the air with flashes of color trailed by their distinct songs. During this time, various snake species emerge from their warm subterranean homes and begin basking on branches. Competing for precious sunny real estate, alligators and turtles clamber on logs and exposed banks to soak up the sun. Wildflowers and orchids bloom en masse along high burms, and radiant greens fill in the lush understory.

During the fall, red maples and cypress trees turn a fiery orange before dropping their leaves. When winter arrives, the skeletal bodies of knobby tupelos and sweet gums remain, providing hollowed homes for wintering reptiles, bats, owls and various mammals. In South Florida's swamps, the winter is marked by rapid decreases in water levels. As the creeks and sloughs dry up, wildlife is concentrated into the deepest areas. In some places within Big Cypress National Preserve, during the dry season one can find gator holes, muddy depressions where hundreds of American alligators congregate until the rains return.

Wading birds also take advantage of the shallow water during the winter, arriving by the hundreds to feed upon trapped fishes, which they bring back to their hungry chicks. With so much verdant life, photographing bottomlands is often overwhelming.

When hiking through swamps, I frequently prefer to go barefoot to avoid losing shoes or sandals in viscous sediment. Once you get past the squish of organic leaf litter between your toes, the only discomfort you feel is the occasional nipping by killifish. At night, I bring a high-power flashlight to paint intricate scenes of the blackwater landscape. Going to sleep, I hang my hammock above the water and listen to the cacophonous chirps of green tree frogs. It's all so perfect.

Over the years, we've become so accustomed to tidy trails and tame landscapes that raw wilderness makes most of us uneasy. As photographers, we have a unique opportunity to rewrite the narrative for our heralded wetlands and reshape public opinion. Swamps hold the key to the hydrology of our southeastern states and are sanctuaries for down-home adventure. If nothing else, swamps are great barometers for any photographer looking to push the limits of his or her creativity and grit while experiencing one of America's remaining relics of true wilderness.

See more of Mac Stone's photography at www.macstonephoto.com.

How To Photograph In The Swamps

In this way, swamps can be both a photographer's nightmare and a visual paradise. There are no towering mountains, topographical relief or scenic canyons that allow the eye to wander into an endless horizon. The complex and baroque nature of these ecosystems challenges photographers to find subtle beauty amidst the chaos of epiphytes, twisting branches and mottled light. Like shopping in a bustling market, we have to retrain our eyes to see selectively. Forcing the adage that less is more, wide lenses are often replaced by mid-range zooms, condensing scenes into their most basic elements. The fickle weather of Southern ecosystems also creates another obstacle. In this way, swamps can be both a photographer's nightmare and a visual paradise. There are no towering mountains, topographical relief or scenic canyons that allow the eye to wander into an endless horizon. The complex and baroque nature of these ecosystems challenges photographers to find subtle beauty amidst the chaos of epiphytes, twisting branches and mottled light. Like shopping in a bustling market, we have to retrain our eyes to see selectively. Forcing the adage that less is more, wide lenses are often replaced by mid-range zooms, condensing scenes into their most basic elements. The fickle weather of Southern ecosystems also creates another obstacle. The constant onslaught of water is problematic, but easily solved by waterproof bags and rain sleeves. Photographing beneath a canopy during summer rains is one of the most invigorating experiences, and I often plan my trips to coincide with bad weather specifically for this reason. Photographing beneath a canopy during summer rains is one of the most invigorating experiences, and I often plan my trips to coincide with bad weather specifically for this reason.

Where To Go And What To Bring

A few of my favorite swamps to visit are Florida's Tate's Hell Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park and Corkscrew Swamp. In Georgia, the famous Okefenokee Swamp isn't to be missed, and in South Carolina, Francis Beidler Forest and Congaree National Park are excellent locations.When photographing in swamps, it's critical to have gear that can repel water. I prefer to slog by foot in swamps, so I want gear that I can access while walking. For bags, I use the Lowepro Flipside, which you can access completely without ever having to set down the bag. Since wildlife frequents these areas, I always make sure to have my longest lens on the camera in case a fleeting bird, deer or alligator appears. Some swamps, deep-braided channels, make it difficult to get proper height out of your tripod, so I carry a large tripod with a center column. When in a canoe, I have an additional tripod, which I modified to reach 10 feet for particularly deep areas. In many swamps, fickle weather can be an issue, so I have a small waterproof bag with rags to wipe down my lenses and also a $3 Op/Tech plastic camera cover so I can shoot in the rain. I hate hiking in wet shoes, so I recommend either wearing Vibram FiveFingers dive booties with a hard sole or going barefoot! Mosquitoes can be a problem in certain times of the year, but I always avoid DEET and instead opt for pants and long-sleeved shirts.To take advantage of all of the potential photo opportunities, I carry a fair amount of photo gear. Because swamps have photo opportunities for everything from big landscapes to wildlife to macro subjects, I want to be ready with the right lens. Here's what I carry in my camera bag: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS, Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS, Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS, Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4, Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L Macro lens, two Canon Speedlite 550EX II flashes, Feisol Tournament carbon-fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

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