|Sage, at the take-out point|
You've been waiting for this! In late March, I led a group of eight other men into the Okefenokee. Seven of us live on Skidaway. We were joined by my father (he was proud to be the oldest in the group) and a friend of mine from St. Simon's Island. It was a different experience from my two previous trips on the east side of the swamp. On one of these trips, I went in just for the day with my dad. The other was a two-night, three day solo. I would have liked to have spent another night in the swamp, but they limit stays to two nights in March and April because they are the most popular months to explore the swamp.
|Bob and Gary in the canoe, John in the kayak|
I couldn't see them, but they were there, close by as we paddled through the narrow water trail that led from Floyd's Island back to the Suwanee River. At times, their bellowing made what's left of my hair stand on end. Other times, what seemed to be a soft purr rose from just inside the thick vegetation. They were obviously enjoying themselves, and although I heard dozens, I only saw one alligator that morning. It quickly submerged as I paddle closer. But the others were there, hidden from view as they filled the swamp with the voices of their erotic spring mating rituals. I paddled into several of the watery prairies in hope of catching a glimpse of a bull gator lifting its head and bellowing, but was not blessed to experience it. Instead, I was left with the haunting memories of the sounds of gators courting.
It was our second day in the Okefenokee. The day before, a group of us had met at 5:30 AM. We followed one another through the darkness, driving south down 95 in the rain: three vehicles and three kayaks and one canoe. South of Brunswick, as the darkness waned, we left the interstate and drove on two-lane roads to Folkston and then following the edge of the swamp boundaries into Florida and back into Georgia. At Fargo, we left the main highway and drove on 17 miles into the swamp to Stephen Foster State Park. Although most of the swamp is a national wildlife refuge, this section, bordered on the north and east by the Suwanee River, is owned by the state of Georgia. Although he wrote a song about it, I don't think Stephen Foster ever made it down here. Soon, four others joined us. Two had driven down the night before and were surprised, arriving in Fargo and staying in one of the towns two-four room motels, that there were no restaurants open on Sundays and that dinner the night before consisted of chips, junk food and beer purchased at the gas station. Another had stayed in Waycross the evening before and a fourth, who lives on St Simon’s Island, drove over from there. At ten o’clock, after shuttling a vehicle to be close to where we planned to take out on Wednesday morning, leaving it at a private campground just outside the park, ran by a guy who has a wonderful collection of mounted snakes: good-sized Caneback and Timber Rattlers with their fangs showing as well as the equally poisonous Cottonmouth, along with a Copperhead and a small but deadly Coral Snakes. I asked the ranger as we were putting in the boats if we would likely see any snakes and he said he doubted we’d see any in the water as we paddled as the gators tend to keep the population in check. He was right, we didn’t see any while paddling and only one while on land.
At 10:30 AM, we paddled down a short canal by the visitor’s center and out into the Suwanee River where we then turned upstream, paddling against the current. Thankfully, the rain had ended by the time we were loading boats, but the day remained overcast. In a mile, we passed the Suwanee Canal. Had we kept paddling east for ten miles, we’d reached the last place I camped on my trip into the swamp last December. Instead, we stayed with the river which headed north, through a narrow channel that snaked through cypress trees and lily pads. The river alternated between a narrow channel through swamp bottom hardwoods and cypress and opening up as it paddled through prairies. We stopped for lunch at a wooden platform at Minnies Lake. A mile and a half after Minnies, we left the Suwanee and paddled a narrow canoe paddle that skirted the south side of Floyd’s Island Prairie. I only saw two gators this afternoon, the lack of sun keeping them at bay. However, despite the grayness of the day, there were a number of butterflies flying around and enjoying the nectar of spring flowers.
|taken on Floyd's Island|
In about four miles, the trail ended at Floyd's Island, which was named for the army officer who led a group of soldiers through the swamp during the Seminole Wars in the early 19th Century. It is a nice to have solid ground and at the campsite there is a cabin built in the 1920s by a Swamper. Most of the guys decided to sleep inside the cabin, the exception being Brandon and me who had hammocks and thought our sleeping arrangements might be more comfortable than the wooden floors of the cabin which is known for the families of swamp rats who live there, feasting on food carelessly left by campers. Besides, we wouldn’t’ have to listen to a bunch of guys snore.
|My hammock (set up on Mixon's Hammock)|
After cocktails, we feasted on chili made by John's wife. Dave introduced us to his Irish Fisherman Stove, which uses just a few twigs to boil water and several of us had tea after dinner. Someone built a fire. Dave, who also has completed the Appalachian Trail, and I shared stories of our hike and Brandon told about his other trips into the swamp. By 9;30, everyone was tired and in bed. At 3 AM, I woke to the hooting of an owl that sounded as if it was right over my hammock. A little later, the whip-o-wills started. From this point on, I didn't sleep well, and had some weird dreams. After finally staying asleep for an hour and a half, I got up a little before 7, with the sound of birds chirping and mosquitoes buzzing just outside the net of my hammock. My first order of business was making coffee. Everyone seemed to enjoy having perked coffee to go with our instant oatmeal. After breakfast, we explored the island a bit then packed up our boats.
For our second day of paddling, we headed back the way we came. This time, the current was with us and we made good time, stopping again at Minnies for an early lunch. Although we only heard gators in the morning, shortly after arriving where the river widens and joins the Suwanee Canal, we started seeing many of them. The sun was out and so were the gators who seemed exhausted and not really interested in us as they allowed us to get close enough to get good photos (but not too close to disturb them!). In addition to alligators, the dragon flies took to the air, providing some entertainment with their maneuvering and mating. Brandon and Dave left the group when we passed Stephan Foster's State Park, as they had reasons to get back to home.
|two large alligators|
|My father and his sit on top kayaks|
Dad likes to fish from his and it's hard to fish in a regular kayak
We camp on the second night at Mixon's Hammock... When we arrived, Gary and Bob who were in a canoe and had paddled on ahead, was not there. I decided to try to find them and took off down a section of the river known as the narrows. I made good time going with the current, yelling out their names. I was afraid they’d passed the campsite. Finally, after paddling about a mile and a half, I stopped and turned on my cell phone and was able to get one bar of service, enough to get a text out to Gary. I figured that sooner or later, he’d turn on his phone and learn that he’d missed the campsite. Then I turned around and paddled back to Mixon’s Hammock, only to find that the two of them had gone into the State Park to dump trash and then helped Brandon and Dave load their boats. They were all waiting for me at Mixon’s, having yelled their heads off for me to come back (sound must not carry too far in the swamp). However, in my additional paddling, I was treated to seeing a rookery where dozens of white ibis nesting and probably the largest alligator I’d seen (he was as long as my boat which is just shy of 15 feet).
|Sage (photo by John)|
Again, we had cocktails at 5 PM, followed by a chicken and noodle dinner. After exploring the hammock a bit (it wasn't that large) we sat around a fire, swatting bugs and telling stories. John told us about his flying refueling jets out of Thailand during the Vietnam War and Gary about his travels in Europe at the same time. My dad, who was along on the trip, and Jim talked about living and working in Japan. Walt, a retired teacher, told about one of his students who had become a world famous videographer and had filmed several Everest expeditions. The stories lasted as long as our wood supply which kept the smoke in the air and the bugs at bay. At around 9:30, we had all retired to our tents or hammocks. I tried to read a bit once I got in my hammock, but was tired and when the rains came a little later, I feel asleep. It rained off and on all night, but it was hard to tell when it wasn't raining as you still had water dripping off the leaves. Again, I had weird dreams including one in which I ran into a Roger, who was glad to see me since my lecture on Mark Twain in Nevada was scheduled to start in just a few minutes... I had not prepared because I thought the lecture was a month out and so slipped into a bathroom to jot down a quick outline. This was a dream grounded in reality since I had just committed to doing a series of lectures on Mark Twain’s western travels this summer.
It was wet and cool the next morning, out last in the swamp. We continued paddling down the Suwanee for a few miles, first through a beautiful section of cypress known as the narrows (which I had paddled the afternoon before). As the river snaked back and forth, I was paddling at a slower rate and able to catch the scent of honeysuckle. After the narrows, the river opened up. It was here that I’d seen so many ibis the evening before but they were gone this morning. In one of the dead trees, I did see a pleated woodpecker and there were a few kingfishers flying around. This water is impounded by a sill that runs along the southwest side of the swamp and controls river flow downstream.
|The outlet to the sill |
(the Suwanee leaves here and flows to the Gulf)
We paddled up to the sill, where there were a few fisherman along the banks and in boats along the channel by the river. We paddled to the boat ramp on the east end of the sill and got out of our boats. Our time in the swamp was over. From here, I had to walk a few miles to pick up the vehicle we left at the snake-man’s campground, but thankfully after about a half mile, I was offered a ride in a truck by a couple of the fisherman who we’d passed. They didn’t have much luck and were heading back to their home in Homersville. With their assistance, we were able to soon have all the vehicles shuttled down to the sill (they don’t allow overnight parking there). We loaded our boats and gear and headed home, except for Bob and Gary who were spending two more days of paddling on the Suwanee.
Blog posts from my late-December solo trip: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
Blog posts from my late-December solo trip: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
|Paddling along the sill toward our takeout|