Sacred Waters

By Jim Garvey  |  Photos by Mark Albertin

Okefenokee. The magical name carries images of a dark, untouched wilderness of cypress, Spanish moss, exotic birds and alligators. I’d always meant to see it someday. Maybe that day was now.

The adventure began at the Fresh Market. I was filling my cart with fish, greens, fruit, dutifully checking off each item on the list, a contemporary husband’s version of hunting and gathering, when I remembered my wife’s request: “Don’t just stick to the things on the list. Be unpredictable. Get something surprising.”

So, I ventured into an unfamiliar aisle scanning left and right for surprises. I spotted a fellow shopper near the far end, crouched at floor level, examining ginger ales. As I approached, the figure unfolded, rising to a full six-foot-five feet, smiled down at me and said, “Hey, Jim. How ya doin’?”

Mark Albertin, Augusta’s best-known videographer. The time since our last chance meeting was long enough for him to grow an imposing salt and pepper beard. Despite the unfamiliar look, Mark was still a disarmingly friendly giant. He is like a six-foot-five Labrador retriever — eager to love and be loved, full of enthusiastic affection for friends and strangers alike.

We caught up in the aisle, Mark describing one current video project that grabbed my attention.

He told me it was a documentary on the Okefenokee Swamp. “I’m going down next week for a few days of filming.” Suddenly, an idea lit up his face. “Hey, do you want to come down with me? You might find it interesting and I could use the help.”

A week later, Mark pulled up to my house. We stuffed my gear alongside his cooler, cameras, tripods, cables, sound gear and food bag. Jamie, my wife, made us promise not to get eaten by alligators. We crossed our hearts, climbed into the van, and headed south. Way south. This would be the first of two trips we made to the swamp, one in mid-July, the second three weeks later.

Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi. We got a sense of its size as we drove for hours through the green countryside. On the way, Mark explained this project: A mining company had purchased thousands of acres at the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee and was waiting for the final approval to dig a titanium mine. Fearing what the mining operation might do to the park’s delicate ecosystem, a consortium of environmental groups enlisted Mark to tell the story of the swamp and warn the public about what was coming.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge stretches from Waycross in the north to the Florida border 40 miles south, and from Folkston on the east to the Stephen C. Foster State Park 20 miles west. Its 438,000 unspoiled acres of forest, marsh and blackwater channels teem with more species of plants, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, birds and fish than almost anywhere else on the planet. This vast untrammeled ecosystem is about as pristine as Eden.

But not quite.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Okefenokee was exploited on a massive scale. There was the ill-fated Suwannee Canal, designed to drain the swamp in the 1890s. It didn’t work, and the enterprise was abandoned after two years with 21 miles dug. Then, between 1909 and 1924, loggers chopped down the vast stands of ancient cypress trees, some of them 1,000 years old, and hauled them out on railroad tracks built across the swamp.

The possibility of future depredations ended in 1937 when Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Okefenokee as a national park. The handful of “swamper” families who lived in the Okefenokee farming, hunting and fishing all left by the 1950s.

Mark soaked up Okefenokee lore like a sponge. He had accepted this commission because of his passion for documentary videography and the natural world.

“At 59 I still have a lot to learn, but one thing I have learned: this planet is a wonderful place. The closest you can get to God, whatever you believe in, is within the earth, within the planet, within the waters — the Okefenokee’s beautiful tea-colored waters. I experience that presence with the egrets, the alligators, the sounds we heard, that wonderful fragrant air we breathed carrying the smell of flowers and forests. You can’t beat that with anything made by man. It’s perfection. So, when I hear about the risk with mining there, all kinds of red flags go up.”

To tell the story on film, Mark had to prepare carefully. The “B-roll,” or the nature footage to run beneath the narration, would require a Nikon D810 camera and multiple lenses, a Zoom H4N audio recorder, a shotgun microphone with a windshield, a microphone stand, three tripods, a GoPro camera for underwater footage and a Sony camera and gimble. For interviews, which make up the “A-roll,” you add LED lights. As Mark’s grunt, I learned a lot about nature photography, cameras, lighting, sound recording, interviewing, and how surprisingly heavy two tripods become when you lug them for a mile.

We scheduled several boat trips with three different guides, filming the waters both on the east side of the swamp and in the Stephen C. Foster State Park on the west side. Mark filmed mostly in the “golden hours” around sunrise and sunset when the light is most beautiful and when the birds are singing and the frogs are croaking their hearts out. That meant adapting our schedule to nature’s — rising at 5 a.m. in the pre-dawn darkness, napping midday and venturing out again in the evening.

The first morning we were blasted awake by Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You, Babe.” That happened again on the second, third and every subsequent morning. Every day for Mark, it turns out, is Groundhog Day — another chance to get it right.

As a nature photographer, Mark must be still and wily, setting up cameras on tripods in likely places for encounters with wildlife, getting on his hands and knees to get close to a water lily or frog or dragonfly. In most of Georgia, plants and animals have had to learn to adapt to human ways. In the swamp, the reverse is true. We are the guests in the vast reaches of their home. The 600,000 visitors to Okefenokee each year, paddling its channels or walking its trails, see only a tiny sliver of this wilderness.

Sometimes, luck strikes. After shooting sunrise one morning, we were wearily walking back on a boardwalk trail when we heard an alligator bellow nearby. An alligator bellow is a mind-blowing experience. Once you’ve heard this sound, a guttural roar that seems to come from the depths of the earth and the time of dinosaurs, you never forget it. A couple of women walking by said they saw the gator beside the boardwalk. We headed that way.

I searched the grassy water and saw nothing. Mark, whose photographer’s eyes often see what mine miss, spotted him in the muck right where I was looking! Slowly, silently, he set his camera on a tripod, focused it and began filming. We carefully stepped away, retreating out of sight.

“The camera will film for 20 minutes,” Mark whispered. “It has to happen by then.”

We waited in silence. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen.

Nothing.

Then off in the far distance, we heard a bellow. That bellow triggered an answering bellow nearby. Another minute passed. And suddenly he roared, long and loud. And again. And again. The planks beneath our feet seemed to shake. 

Grinning and hopeful, Mark reviewed the video. There it was: the gator rearing back, his throat swelling with gulped air, bellowing his territorial rights. All there on video. We thanked the gator and high-fived each other. “That’s my ‘money shot,’” Mark said.

But nature isn’t always so cooperative.

Mark desperately hoped to film a time-lapse sequence of the night sky. The Okefenokee has been designated an international dark sky park — free of light pollution. The nighttime sky fills with stars, but only when it’s clear. We were there during a rainy season, except for two nights. On both, the clouds cleared, and Mark filmed all night watching the Milky Way slowly revolve in its splendor, occasionally cut across by a shooting star.

But hours later when he played back the night’s filming, he had captured only the opening sequence of the stars. The high humidity fogged over the lens, leaving him nothing to share but his fond memories of the star-studded sky and the hooting owls.

No rivers flow into the swamp, though two rivers flow from it: the Suwannee (of Stephen Foster fame) and the St. Marys. The Okefenokee’s life-giving water comes primarily from rainfall. (Okefenokee comes from the Creek words for “bubbling water.”)

Because of a rainy summer, the swamp was brim full to overflowing. It is not always so. On a hot day water evaporates or is drawn up into the vegetation so rapidly that it can lose an inch-and-a-half per day. Two hot summer weeks without rain can draw down the water level by 21 inches, leaving many acres high and dry. A drought turns the dried acres to tinder, and historically, major droughts occur every 20-30 years.

A lightning strike then can ignite the peat that forms at the bottom of the swamp; peat — as thick as 15 feet in the Okefenokee — can burn for years, or until the rains return. Though Smokey the Bear always warned fire was the enemy, we now realize that fire is an essential piece of the natural cycle, burning away old dead accumulations to make way for new growth. Without periodic fires, the Okefenokee would disappear.

But this particular summer, daily cloudbursts filled the wetland, and we were able to venture far into the swamp by boat.

Mark filmed an egret rookery, the trees on either side of the channel filled with white fluffball chicks. The slightly older birds took quick flights from branch to branch like adolescents taking driving lessons. Alex, our guide, cut the engine. As we drifted through the rookery alarming the birds, he kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, we’re not here to bother you.”

Mark would later interview Alex for the film. He sports a long, scraggly red beard and looks like the archetypal “swamper.” Educated, eloquent and an encyclopedia of botanical and zoological information, he is a man in love with this wet world where he has lived almost all his life. I commented on how many things here could kill you.

Alex corrected me. “No, nothing here would kill you. They’re not interested in you. Sure, once you’re dead they’d eat you, but they wouldn’t kill you. What will kill you is the heat. That is the real danger here.”

We believed it. That’s why Mark quit shooting by 10 a.m., to go back to the cabin and look over the morning’s footage, read and nap. Then after a freeze-dried dinner, we were back out to catch the evening light.

We spent one evening on a ‘“prairie,’ a vast open stretch of water covered with lily pads, pitcher plants, grasses, and punctuated with islands of peat. They make up 20% of the swamp. We floated silently into the middle of one while Mark’s time-lapse camera filmed the sunset. Then he set up a microphone to record the concert our guide mentioned was about to begin.

A vast chorus of frogs began a chirping commotion in the distance; it died down to be picked up by a chorus of thousands slightly closer, which faded, and then, all around our boat, the din of a zillion frogs screeching filled the air. They then died down to be taken up farther on. “That was crazy!” Mark said, grinning. It was like the wave at a baseball game performed by frogs.

Mark likes thinking of this vast swamp as the womb of the world, its waters giving birth to thousands of life forms. Floating in the primal waters seemed to take us back to our own time in the womb and the slurps, rasps and gurgles we heard there before we were born.

On the other hand, a holy stillness pervaded the dark tunnels of cypress hung with Spanish moss when our boat glided the channels that probed the forest. Here we were lost in time, visitors to an enchanted world, the trees and moss and sky perfectly reflected in the water. 

Here even whispering seemed profane, and as we passed from one space to another, Mark filmed the cathedral-like vistas in silence. Sometimes a little choir of frogs sang, and sometimes a cloud of egrets would ascend like angels, mounting with slow strokes of their elegant white wings.

But nature photography is just one piece of the film. Mark also interviewed a dozen people, including a local pastor and parishioners, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, several scientists and a poet. 

When the filming was complete, Mark attended to the lonely, exacting, time-consuming work of editing. “I did about 35 hours of shooting. Editing takes double or triple that. Editing is hard. You have to be extremely organized making a film. You go through each interview, find cuts — John talking about alligators, say, or John talking about spiritual aspects of the swamp — then you pull them, name them and create folders on each topic. Maybe four people had something to say about alligator nests, so you pull those comments out of the larger interviews and put them into your ‘alligator nests’ folder. Then you edit them in the film so that they’ll play off each other.”

Mark still had to collaborate with a writer on the script, choose a narrator, and weave it all together for a September deadline — in time to alert people to the review process for the mine excavation in October. “I want to show that this is our Yellowstone. You can never create another Okefenokee, but you can dig for titanium someplace else.”

Finally, there’s the soundtrack. Mark knew all along he wanted singer Coco Love Alcorn’s song “The River.” When she allowed permission to use it, he was like a kid on Christmas morning. The song opens and closes the film:

Water heal my body
Water heal my soul
When I go down, down
To the water
By the water, I feel whole.

Mark considers the film, named Sacred Waters, along with other films he’s made about threats to our environment to be the core of his purpose as a documentarian: “Creating such films,” he states, “really can change the world. I don’t have any kids, but I want to leave something behind. I want my legacy to be the films that helped protect this planet.”

To view the documentary Sacred Waters, visit www.protectokefenokee.org/documentary
For more information about the titanium mine, go to www.protectokefenokee.org
Send comments to the DNR: [email protected]

Appears in the January 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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