(Wired) WAYCROSS, Georgia — Strange things happen in the 700 miles of mostly wet wilderness that comprise the Okefenokee Swamp. Locals here cheerfully trade stories of being pursued by odd glowing orbs of green light, alien abductions and encounters with the Pig Man, a Southern version of Bigfoot. These mysterious meetings purportedly occur both deep within the swamp and along the dark and lonely roads that border it.
“Your technology can’t be counted on in the swamp,” said guide Milford Simpson. “Signals get scrambled, electronics go screwy. Mother Nature kicks technology’s butt in here.”
It’s true that most high-tech gadgets are less reliable than usual in the Okefenokee. Simpson’s cell phone worked in a few areas of the swamp but cut out in others. A GPS mapping device was pretty accurate, but since much of the swamp can’t be navigated by humans, it wouldn’t have been all that helpful had we become lost. Our computers hated the muggy heat and responded more fitfully than usual to user commands.
But all of that is easily explained and not at all mysterious, unlike Simpson’s stories of being chased by blobs of pulsating light that seem to have minds of their own.
“I’ve only seen them a few times in my life, but that’s enough,” said 67-year-old Simpson. “Even though you rationally know there’s a natural explanation for them, it just doesn’t seem natural when a glowing glob is following you down the road.”
Most of the predatory light stories are attributed to sightings of swamp gas, a totally non-paranormal event also known as “foxfire” and “wetland flatulence,” according to Steve Knight, owner of Okefenokee Pastimes. Knight also guides people through the swamp.
Swamp gas is formed by decaying organic matter that has been naturally transformed into a luminescent gaseous form, Knight explained. No one knows why the gas globs sometimes appear to track and pursue humans. Some assume it’s an optical illusion caused when headlights or flashlights illuminate the gas, but others aren’t so sure.
“I want to say foxfire is beautiful, but honestly it’s just plain creepy,” said Kim Donell, a Waycross resident.
There’s plenty of gas-producing decay going on in the swamp, and rotting plants form a significant part of the Okefenokee land mass.
When vegetation dies it sinks below the swamp’s water, and as it decomposes, methane gas is produced. When enough gas forms under the mat of peat that forms a thick carpet below much of the swamp’s water, a section of the peat breaks away and floats to the water’s surface. Plants soon begin to grow on this new little land mass, trees send down roots, and eventually a new island is born.
Most of these islets float on the swamp water and are a strange combination of land and liquid. Poke one with a stick or oar, and it’ll bob up and down. Hence “Okefenokee” — an Indian word that has been translated into English as the “land of the trembling earth.”
This process of renewal also results in a quite flatulent swamp, which emits pops of gas on a semi-regular basis. Mostly the gas just hovers innocently over the swamp, appearing as a greenish-yellow fuzzy blob of light if it’s visible at all. But occasionally, according to locals, it leaves the swamp and romps around town.
The eerie gas stories aren’t new. American Indian and early European settlers also saw the lights, according to the lore collected in the Okefenokee Album by Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley, published by the University of Georgia Press.
The book is filled with sightings of strange glowing lights that seem “to pulsate almost like a beating heart, with pulsating white and purplish light instead of blood” as well as unidentified balls of light bouncing along the ground.
Unsurprisingly, UFO stories and abduction reports also make the rounds among locals. They usually involve folks who disappeared into the swamp, were given up for lost and then resurfaced a bit worse for wear but alive.
The most recent incident happened in 1996, when a retired Everglades park ranger disappeared for over a month and then was found on a small island in the swamp.
According to the story that appears on the Okefenokee Pastimes website, “The man insisted that he had been on Billy’s Island wandering aimlessly the whole time, living off the land. But Billy’s Island is a small, well-used island, and federal, state and local officials do not buy his story. Speculation around the swamp is that he was taken without his knowledge from the island and then returned sometime after the search had been scaled down, with his memory seemingly erased.”
Others insist that the man most likely spent the month in a nearby hotel.
The swamp is also swimming with tales about weredeers, werebears and werepanthers that roam the swamp’s islands at night and can only be killed by silver bullets. But the most common story told, besides swamp gas sightings, is of encounters with the Southern Georgia Pig Man.
Those claiming to have seen him describe a huge, hairy ape with a hog’s nose and a skunky smell. Despite his threatening appearance, he is evidently a sweetheart, shy and timid with huge sad eyes.
The Everglades reportedly harbors a similar creature known as the Florida Skunk Ape. Locals here speculate that the Pig Man and the Skunk Ape are one in the same or are at least related.
Also occasionally seen around these parts is the Booger Man, yet another hairy, stinky critter with a pig-like nose. It’s unclear what differentiates the Booger from the Skunk Ape or the Pig Man, apart from the location where the creature is spotted.
Sadly, during our time in the swamp, we didn’t see a werecritter or any of the various variations of the Missing Link, and we weren’t pursued by even one glowing orb of pulsating light.
But after spending a couple of days as deep in the swamp as a guide and boat could get us, getting snarled at by alligators (they also grunt, growl and bellow), hissed at by snakes, and seeing spiders as big as our hands, we wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see a Booger Man or a UFO. The Okefenokee is truly a magical and mysterious place.
“You get the sense anything could happen here,” said Simpson. “And to tell you the truth, I figure there’s maybe even stranger stuff deep, deep in this swamp than Boogers and UFOs.”