Kayaking the Okefenokee Swamp
the “land of the trembling earth”
I grew up in Georgia. Northern Georgia. As a child my family went to Florida for vacation. As an adult, it has been my goal to go back down south and fill in all the hot spots that I missed as a child. The Okefenokee Swamp has been on my bucket list for several years now. However, in 2007, and then in 2011, the Swamp experienced two wild fires, and in 2011, a major drought. Hence, my trip was postponed for several years. When I finally was able to schedule a trip, I planned a three day, two night, guided adventure. The guided part of the trip, I thought, was to mainly provided us with tents, sleeping bags, kayaks, and food; things we didn’t want to transport on a plane. Who knew that our guide would be so special and provide us with such a unique view of the swamp and its history. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The Okefenokee Swamp:
The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest black water swamp and the largest fresh water swamp in the United States. It is located primarily in Southern Georgia, near the Florida border. The swamp is a massive 438,000 acres and during drought years water may be only an inch or so deep in some areas. The Okefenokee is a configuration of 80% rain water, with the remaining 20% of water being provided by streams and springs. The swamp’s survival is heavily dependent on rain water. The Okefenokee is also home to abundant and protected alligators. Alligators are found only in two places in the world-the southern United States and China. In the southeastern United States there are an estimated 5 million alligators and they are our largest reptile. This is wild, untamed habitat, but it does not mean that man has not tried to tame and exploit her. The Suwanee Canal, leading from the visitors center, is a twelve mile canal that was dug in 1891 in an attempt to drain the swamp and turn the land over to farming and logging. The tenacity of the swamp won out, however, and the project was abandoned in 1895. There continued to be extensive logging, nevertheless, of bald cypress trees well in to the 1920’s, and a few logging operations lasted into the 1940’s. In 1974, the Okefenokee Swamp was designated a National Wildlife Refuge and an American treasure.
Day # 1:
My original plan had been to kayak from Kingfisher Landing and end at the Steven Foster Park. Several days before the trip, Joy, one of the owners from Okefenokee Adventures, emailed me and said that there wasn’t enough water, especially out around Maul’s Hammock. She said it would be a matter of getting in and out of the kayaks to negotiate over blow downs and that could prove quite arduous. Several days later, after having actually kayaked in the swamp, I realized that she was, indeed. correct. Getting in and out of a kayak in the swamp would have been nearly impossible.
Initially, I was disappointed in the change of plans, as I had wanted to experience the more remote areas of the swamp. Joy assured me, however, that I would not be disappointed with the more traditional route she had chosen for us. If we were dissatisfied at the end our trip, she offered to refund our money.
The first day, the route we would be taking was to kayak the canal for nine miles, starting from the Suwanee Canal Recreation area, where we would, then, turn into Chase Prairie for three more miles. We would end up at Roundtop Shelter for the evening. A total of twelve miles for day one. Our group consisted of five women and our guide, Sheila.
To say that Sheila was an unexpected and delightful part of our experience would be an understatement. Sheila is a fifth generation “Swamper,” with Chesser Prairie being named after her “great-great-grandpa”. He was accused of killing a man in North Carolina and ended up fleeing to and settling in the swamp. He was later acquitted, but still remained in the swamp.
With her heavy, southern drawl, that even confounded several other southerners on our trip, she was a wealth of information. Not only did she have generations of folklore to share, but she also had an extensive knowledge of the plants. As we slowly paddled, she would explain that, “in the book they will call it this, but here we just call it this”. This being, Soap bush, or Snot weed, or Tick weed, just to name a few. She, also, knew the wildlife and birds, though she said she needed “to get better at her frogs”. Her extensive knowledge and charm, helped me forgive her for always calling us “mam’, despite us all being in the same age bracket.
As we paddled the arrow straight canal with its easy paddling, I came to appreciate the mirrored reflections of the “black water swamp” as it reflected back the Bald Cypress draped with Spanish Moss. The black water is from the highly tannic acid of peat moss from the swamp’s bottom, that formed millions of years ago. The water is so acidic that methane gas releases from the bottom in bubbles of gas. As the gas rises to the top, it takes with it a measure of peat, which settles onto top of the water, eventually collecting grasses. These methane eruptions are called “blowups”, which can get quite large. So large in fact, that they can obstruct the 15′ foot wide canal. They are movable mattes, which, if small, can be moved by a canoe. When large, the Fish and Wildlife airboats either ram them to the side, or just try to plow over them. For us, the blowups were not extensive and we could easily navigate around them with our kayaks.
We had a catered lunch at Coffee Bay Shelter about five miles into our trip. This gave our behinds a needed rest. This also was the only place for a bathroom break before we got to Roundtop Shelter that evening (though we did take a slight detour before heading into Round top for a pit stop at Canal Run.) Needless to say, the bathroom opportunities are limited and infrequent in the swamp. A man in a canoe will have success, but women be forewarned. There is no solid ground on which to stand. They don’t call it the “land of the trembling earth” for no reason.
Just as I was starting to tire of the canal, we headed into Chase Prairie. The Prairie is a land of grasses covering a vast area of the swamp. In some areas, the land gets built up enough to form “houses” and “hammocks”. Sheila keep talking about the “houses”. I would look to where she was pointing but could only see an area of trees clustered together. She explained to me that this cluster was a “house”, as it was a safe place for wildlife and bears to “din” or den. Hammocks were, essentially, smaller houses. As we slowly paddled, as their was no need to get to our platform early, she would point out wildlife, “That there is a little blue”- a Little Blue Heron. “There goes a Bittern”- an American Bittern. We saw Wood Storks, White Ibis, Snowy and Great Egrets and the Florida version of the Sandhill Crane. I knew Sandhill Cranes, but did not know that there was a Florida version. Though I knew a lot of the birds we saw, I needed Sheila’s expertise and eye to recognize them on the wing. “There goes a Black Crowned,” a Black Crowned Night Heron, she would say, and I would follow the bird taking flight, trying to memorize its flight markings.
I loved Chase Prairie, just as Joy had predicted. We were there in the first of October and there was still abundant wildflowers in bloom. As we paddled through tangled strands of water lilies, Sheila pointed out plants and their uses. “This here is Blood Root. See how if you rub it between your fingers how they get all red”, and, “See this here, in the book they call it Dollar Lily, but we just call it Snotweed”. Then she would pull up a sample and have us feel its slimmy stalks and petals.
And then of course there were the alligators, big ones and small one. They were everywhere, resting on the banks, on small blowups, among the grasses, swimming beside us. Supposedly they are not interested in us, but I didn’t want to test that assumption. At one point, as we were paddling the narrow path through the prairie, there was an alligator resting on some grasses just a foot or so from the path that our kayaks needed to take. My wife, first in line, called out with some alarm, “Sheila, there is an alligator in the way.” Sheila’s response, “Just paddle on by.” Another query, “But Sheila it’s right there.” Sheila’s response, “just paddle on by.” And with trepidation we all did. With the last paddler, the alligator slipped into the water and passed underneath her kayak. Not that you could see it in the inky black water, which made me wonder how many were actually lurking around us unseen. For this and many moments on our trip, I was glad for Sheila’s expertise.
We arrived at Roundtop Shelter around 5:30 P.M. after 12 leisurely, beautiful miles of kayaking and over seven hours of being kayak bound. Roundtop Shelter is set in the middle of Chase Prairie, sporting 360 degree prairie vistas. As we dismounted and started unloading our kayaks and helping Sheila unload her canoe, the alligators appeared, floating around the platform. Accustomed to human visitors, they were looking for hand outs, which we did not provide. However, as the platform sits only a foot above water, they seemed to be lurking underneath, making us question whether we wanted to dip our wash cloths in for washing up.
As night descended and we ate our dinner of fried shrimp, the prairie started to come alive with the sounds of the night. The mosquitoes came as well, but we were prepared with long sleeves and bug nets. The Barred Owls hooted, the Sandhill Cranes croaked, the Wood Ducks called out an eerie refrain, while the frogs regaled us with a mixture of noises and plunks. In fact, as we slept during the night, the frogs were quite active, one sounding like a barking dog. In fact, I thought it might have been a coyote, but then realized it was, indeed, a frog’s call.
We began another leisurely 10 mile day of paddling, passing a clutch of baby alligators, perhaps only a foot long, and 20 or so to the batch. Momma alligator, perhaps a good seven footer, was resting near by. To guess the length of an alligator, you can approximate its length by judging the distance from its eyes to its snout. Each inch on the snout equals one foot in length. Thus, Momma seemed like about a seven footer. An interesting fact about young alligators is that the temperature of the eggs determines the sex of the baby gator. Gators that hatch on warmer levees (think Louisiana) are mostly males, as they like a temperature of around 93 F. Females gators are born more in cooler, wet marshes. They like a temperature of around 86 F.
Besides the alligators, we watched at a close distance a pair of “Florida” Sandhill Cranes. When I returned home, I referenced by Bird app, IBird Pro as I wanted to see what they said about the Florida version of the crane. What I did learned from the “app” is that “a crane fossil approximately 10 million years old was found in Nebraska and is structurally identical to the modern Sandhill Crane, making it the oldest known bird species still surviving”. So we were paddling with two living specimens of the dinosaur age- alligators and Sand hill Cranes. You don’t experience that every day.
As we continued along, we heard and saw many Wood Storks. They flew overhead and with their massive wingspan and distinct black wing markings, I wondered about the habitat needed to sustained such a massive bird. I hoped that the Okefenokee was providing such a refuge. All through out the day, we heard the calls of the ever present Red- Shouldered hawk. Another IBird fact that I learned is that Red-shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls inhabit the same territory. So we had Red shouldered Hawks calling out during the day and Barred Owls serenading us with their “Who cooks for you. Who cooks for you.” throughout the night.
As we circle around Chase Prairie and headed back out to the canal to our nights shelter at Coffee Bay, it was not hard for me to understand why Sheila and her family had lived five generations in such an enchanting place.
After staying at Coffee Bay Shelter, which was a day use shelter converted to an overnight shelter, we headed back down the canal and towards home. But, Sheila, ever the intrepid guide, wanted to make sure that we experienced as much of her beloved swamp as we could. To that end, a few miles down the canal, we did a short bushwack, dismantling our kayak paddles and using the shorter end as a paddle, to get to a side trail that is often used by day use travelers in the busier spring and summer months.
This gave us access to another view of the prairie that seemed to benefit from the 2011 wildfires. Before the fires the trail had been lined by thick shrubs, obstructing all views. Now with the fires, however, we were able to see far into the prairie. We were also able to see just how extensive and close the wildfires had actually come to the visitors center. In fact, the 2011 wildfire burned almost 370,000 of the 400,000 acres of the swamp. The visitors center was a narrow miss.
It amazes me still how just three days can take you so far outside your experiences as to be exotic. Of course, without Sheila as one paddler noted, it would just have been another kayak paddle. Joy was right, as well, I did not want a refund. You know it is a great trip, when you finish grungy and dirty, but exhilarated and still talking about the trip days later. It’s not that I haven’t had many great adventures, but being taken back into a time and place, seemingly, undisturbed by civilization is a true wilderness gift. And a balm for the soul.
Because we were in a kayak, and not hiking or backpacking, I carried with me my new Nikon D810 camera with a Really Right Stuff L bracket, a cable release and a Hoodman Loupe. The camera sat between my legs in the kayak. I did have a clear 20ml drybag readily available to protect the camera if necessary. I also carried a Benro Travel Angel Tripod. Other than 2 extra batteries and memory cards, I did not carry any filters other than a Circular Polarizer. I had read that the Nikon D810 might chew through batteries, but I used the same battery for all three days.
More Okefenokee moments: