By Hannah E. Jones
Last weekend, nine Folkston County families embarked on their first-ever camping trip. For two days and nights, the parents and children engaged with nature in ways they never had before — sleeping in tents, eating meals by the fire and trying different outdoor activities in the Okefenokee Swamp as part of a program to help folks connect with nature.
Camp Charlie is a weekend of camping, primarily catered towards families who want to experience the outdoors with their children but lack the knowledge and resources. The program was established by the Georgia Wildlife Federation (GWF) in 2012 and is offered about once a year. Camp Charlie’s goal is to strengthen residents’ appreciation of nature, a crucial first step towards conservation.
“Camping seems to be one [activity] that intimidates people, and it can feel more intimidating than it actually is,” said DeAnna Harris, GWF conservation resource manager. “At the end of the weekend, everyone might not start taking their family camping but they may connect to a certain activity — hiking, cookouts outside, anything. The hope is to get people engaged and connected to the outdoors in ways they weren’t before.”
On Friday, Nov. 4, the nine families, along with several volunteers and representatives gathered at the South Georgia camping grounds and shared dinner around the campfire. The next day, the families learned about the land’s cultural and ecological importance, through a presentation from Cherokee of Georgia representatives and Okefenokee Adventures.
They also got active — trying their hands at outdoor classics like fishing, birding and canoeing, followed by an evening boat tour through the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. For many of the campers, this was their first time casting a line or paddling an oar.
“Our emphasis was really on connecting Folkston residents with the swamp,” Harris said. “The goal is that everybody wants to get outdoors on their own.”
Trying something new, especially in an area known for its alligator population, takes guts. Sowing Seeds Founder Antwon Nixon can relate — this was his first time camping, too.
“I don’t know anyone who camps. Many of us don’t do things because we have no exposure to it, so we’re naturally inclined to say no,” Nixon said. “But entertaining a new thought can change your whole life. Camp Charlie was something that I saw as bridging the gap — bringing the community together, getting families out of the household and instead enjoying nature.”
Nixon recalled one woman from the weekend who announced that she was “here for everything,” even the activities completely new to her. Sure enough, she tried them all, even leading her family’s canoe ride despite learning a few minutes prior.
“Once you just try something, you can get over the hurdles,” Nixon said. “It wasn’t just a camping trip for me — it was a spiritual trip, a fellowship trip.”
He added: “The turnout was amazing. Seeing how everyone took to it and was asking when the next one is, it showed me that the [trip] worked.”
Recently, fostering a local appreciation of the swamp and its natural wonders has been especially critical, with Twin Pines Minerals seeking to mine within three miles of the swamp. Nixon hopes this camping trip was one step toward greater education and action.
“I’d really like to see the whole community come together and stand up for [the Okefenokee Swamp],” Nixon said. “Too often, we see how money dictates everybody’s decisions. People are [making decisions] under our noses and we don’t even know about it. But once you do, I feel you’re obligated to do something.”