|One of the many alligators I saw|
I strike something with the paddle on my port side (left) and feel a quick jerk. Out of the corner of my eye I see something dark rise up and a splash. The boat rocks in the turbulence and I gasp. “Was it an alligator? Or a large fish, maybe a pike?” I’m pretty sure it was a gator. I’ve seen many since the clouds began to break up late in the morning, allowing for sun to penetrate and dry out the swamp. The water isn’t very deep, but its dark tannic stain hides everything. Earlier there was a large gator in the channel swimming in my direction, almost as if it was playing chicken with me. I stopped and the gator, about twenty feet in front of my kayak silently submerged. The water in the channel was only three feet or so deep and it was eerie to flat over the top of a gator. I held my breath for a moment, feeling as if I was on a warship with an enemy submarine just below me. But nothing happened. In this case, I wondered if I had accidentally hit a gator just under the water with the blade of my paddle. I’ll never know for sure but for the next hour every lily leaf that’s turned up and glistening in the sun appears as the eyes of a gator. That said, I do see a dozen or so more gators as I paddle around the western boundary of Chase Prairie. I am surprised to see so many for this is the next to last day of 2014. It is winter, but it’s also warm and the sun makes everything cheerful.
|Looking toward Bluff Lake from the camping platform|
The day started out gray
I had woken up at day break, dreaming about on a canoe trip on the Genesee River in New York State. I was leading a youth group and the other group leaders were people I knew from Utah and Michigan. We were late getting started and I was worried that we might be on the river at night if we didn’t get going soon as our destination was Letchworth State Park. I am not sure how I was going to canoe through the waterfalls on the river in the park, but the falls along the Genesee in Letchworth Gorge never entered my mind in the dream, it’s only after I was awake that I wonder about the foolishness of taking a youth group down that river with people from various periods of my past.
It is still raining, but only lightly, not nearly as hard as it has rained throughout the night. The sky is gray and fog hangs over the water. I crawl out of the hammock and begin boiling water for coffee (Folger’s coffee bags) and putt around a bit before fixing my instant oatmeal. I pack up everything but the hammock, hoping that its fly will dry a little before I stow it away. I spend a few minutes reading Robert Burns and chuckle at the line:
“Ah, Tan! Ah, Tan! Thou’ll get thy fairin!
In hell, they’ll roast thee like a herrin!”
|At Bluff Lake Platform|
Kayak ready and waiting on a paddler (me)
By 9, the rain has stopped but the tarp isn’t any drier, and with the humid it seems to be a vain task, so I pack everything up, putting back on the wet clothes (that haven’t dried any). Even though the temperature must be in the 60s, the damp shirt is chilling. I pack up my boat and by 9:30 AM I am on the water.
The platform was on just off the south end of Bluff Lake and as I paddled south, the channel becomes narrower and narrower and begins to move westward, deeper into the heart of the swamp. It’s like paddling though the middle of a Carolina Bay, the vegetation so thick that one couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. It’s mostly shrubs: a variety of bay, myrtles, magnolia, hollies, palm trees, mixed in with small cypress and, when the ground is a few inches above water, an occasional pine. I see evidence of the Mormon missionaries’ work as the brush has been cut back to allow for a tunnel of vegetation through which I paddle. However, I find myself feasting on a second breakfast of silk webs spun overnight by spiders that cling to my face and also realize that my double-ended paddle is a liability as the blade out of the water is catching on the branches that cover the waterway. I’d brought along a canoe paddle for this, as I had been told it might be a problem plus it is always good to have a second paddle, but instead of pulling it out and stowing my kayak paddle, I just break my paddle in half and stow one half into the kayak and paddle with the other, switching sides constantly (the J stroke which is used in canoes doesn’t work well in this situation).
|floating mud bogs|
After paddling a mile through a rather deep channel with overhanging vegetation, I enter an area where mud floats on top of the water and I have to paddle hard to push the boat through it. This floating mud slows me down and my paddle appears to be stirring a chocolate cake batter. I fight through this for maybe an hour. Some of this area has been burned in the past few years. I see a cypress that is maybe six inches thick that burned but new sprouts are growing and some are already fifteen or twenty feet tall. I struggle for maybe an hour through this section, covering only a mile according to the markers. As I come to the end of this section, the vegetation thins out as I enter Territorial Prairie.
|Paddling through chocolate cake batter|
|a more open canal with lots of floating bogs|
After a few more miles of paddling, I feel the need to rid myself of coffee and to stretch my body as my legs are cramping in the kayak. Solid ground is not available but I paddle up into a prairie area where the water is about a foot deep and push my boat between two trees. Holding onto the trees, I am able to stand and stretch as well as provide some “over the side” relief to my bladder. I also pull out my DSLR camera as the clouds are breaking apart and I am pretty sure we’re done with the rain for the day and snap a few photos before paddling on.
|Between Territory and Chase Prairie|
|Between Territory and Chase Prairie|
Some of this area appears to have burned during the huge fires of 2007 or 2011 and in many places there are standing cypress that had died (some of which have sprouted new growth) along with the stalks of dead pines slowly rotting. As I come toward the end of the prairie, I notice more and more hammocks (high ground, but here high is relative) with pines that must have been large enough to have survived the fires. At the end of the prairie, the path tightens back into another tight channel, but it is not nearly as tight as it was between Territory Prairie and Bluff Lake. In these tight sections, I notice the water is moving, toward the Suwanee River which drains much of the swamp. I had noticed this earlier in the morning, too. It’s not much flow, but it gives hope that I am going in the right direction and am being helped a bit.
After a couple of miles, the water opens up as I enter Chase Prairie. The sun is now peeking through clouds and it is warm and I began to see more and more alligators. Some remain on top, but most submerge as I pass by. Although I am back in a prairie with lots of brush and some pitcher plants hanging on from last summer, I can tell that to the north (which is Floyd’s Island_, there are huge trees, mostly pine but some cypress and other hardwoods. The trail follows the north edge of the prairie. I stop up on a floating mud island, pulling the boat up on it in order to hold it still and fix and eat lunch while sitting in the boat. Afterwards, I use my paddle to help me stand without tipping the boat and stretch my legs before paddling on.
|Trail to Floyds Island|
After a little over a mile after I entered Chase Prairie, I come to the waterway to Floyds Island. I’ve been told that this hasn’t been cleared since the fires and it would be nearly impossible to paddle to the island. I paddle up a ways and see that there are many logs over the stream, so I turn south and follow a secondary path that swings closer to the edge of the watery prairie in which I have been told there are a lot of alligator holes. Sure enough, I see numerous gators including the encounter I described earlier.
As I paddle south along the western boundary of Chase Prairie, I spot four sandhill cranes to the southwest. The wind is also coming from that direction and is pretty strong, which should cover my scent and sound. I quietly paddle pass them until I am at a point where I am directly behind them.
|cranes taking flight|
|Alligator across from my camping spot|
Heading south, I spot what I think is the canal. I am so glad to be nearing my camping spot that I paddle fast upstream but realize, after a while, that this canal didn’t go very far (maybe a mile) and I have to back track. I do and a half mile later enter the Suwanee Canal and turn westward and in a few minutes I’m at the shelter. It is a 3:30 and I’ve been on the river for six hours without getting out of my kayak. This platform is up on the berm of the canal (which is only 18 or so inches above the water). I pull up my boat and set up camp. The whole time, an alligator is sitting on the far bank, all but the tip of tail out of the water (it seems gators often leave a tip of their tail in water as if to remind them where to find their natural habitat). Afterwards, I walk along the canal and collect wood for a fire. Because of the high ground, this is one of the few places in the refuge one can have a fire. Then I write in my journal and start cooking dinner, which I do while reading Burns. Since no one is around, I read out loud and obviously annoying the gator across the canal as it slides back into the water. Frogs and insects are singing and occasionally a fish jumps in the canal.
|Set up for the night|
I eat dinner by a fire, enjoy the last of the wine (I had enough for a “glass” each night). A bit after dark I go to bed. The past few weeks had taken their toil and I need sleep and this will be my last night out. I savor the time asleep. The wind is up and it is cooling off more than the previous night. I get a sense that the weather is changing again.
|An ibis in Chase Prairie|
I am now planning a two night trip in the Okefenokee in late March, starting from the Fargo side and exploring Floyds Island and prairie. Anyone want to join me?