Okefenokee Swamp: kayaking in the corporate woods

We decided to take off for a week to kayak as spring is here and we always get the itch to go somewhere.  For whatever reason,  Okefenokee Swamp in deep Southern Georgia popped to the forefront of the itinerary. I have a thing for swamps with still, dark water as it appeals to the goth in me. Also, I like to say the word Okefenokee because it makes me giggle. I had no real idea of what we would see which is how every single Harrison adventure starts: pack your stuff, get in the car and drive. There are zero hotels anywhere nearby which meant a tent would be involved. We made reservations in Stephen C. Foster State Park to camp in a campground.

Okefenokee is near nothing and getting to it takes some driving no matter which way you come in. Miles and miles of pine forest surround this national preserve. Logged pine forest. I have a thing for nature and I appreciate the fact that it has a beauty all its own that is arrived at without planning or forethought and which is based on nothing more than random luck and Darwinism. Sadly, the timber companies which logged the land think replanting trees in soldier rows makes a forest. Not so much. There’s nothing but rows of trees for miles on end spaced precisely six feet apart which has the depressing ability to make nature look like corporate America.  I had zero idea that you could log the forest in a national preserve, but a preserve is not a national park and apparently our national forests are totally for sale.  Even a morally-bankrupt lawyer like me finds this disturbing. I could not bring myself to take a picture of the corporate forest so I made this drawing instead.

This is the forest of my childish imagination. Except it would have squirrels. Sadly, I can't draw squirrels so you'll just have to picture it in your head.

The campgrounds of Stephen C. Foster State Park are weirdly inside the actual national preserve. Fortunately, Georgia has good campgrounds and this is a nice one as far as campgrounds go. Each campsite had running water and electricity which for one of Troy’s trips practically makes it a four-star hotel.  Also, there are showers with hot water. Heaven.  Mercifully, the campground was pretty empty but as luck would have it, we were placed in a nearly empty campground next to chatty lesbian kayakers. So much for listening to the wind in the pines.

Chez Harrison at Stephen C. Foster campground in Okefenokee. Note the presence of electricity adjacent to the tent.

We rolled in late Saturday night as the sun was setting. With the setting of the sun came a dropping of temperatures. I loathe freezing and the wind coming in off the ocean 40 miles away smelled of salt and portended a long night of shivering. Thankfully, I had the foresight to bring fuzzy socks and flannel sheets. I did freeze to some extent and staggering out to pee at 3 a.m. is bracing to say the least. (Note to non-natives: be careful in choosing an outdoor location to pee, as saw palmettos have painful points that can do damage to exposed butt cheeks in the dark). This is a great place to see stars as there is no light anywhere around to pollute the night sky and the stars were brilliant.  Of course, my communion with nature is limited in cold weather and as much as I enjoy the vastness of the universe in the middle of the night, I also really enjoy not freezing and 50 degrees with a 20 mile an hour wind is going to get your attention.

The sun always rises early and we lost an hour to daylight savings time on this trip, so it was time to hit the water. Okefenokee is divided into canoe trails labeled by color. Stephen C. Foster State Park is on the west side of the swamp and the main area to put in is just down the road from the campground.  Okefenokee is the headwater of the Suwanee River and you can kayak the canal to the river if you like, but we headed down the main canal and hooked a right to the red trail and then on to the orange trail. The main canal is a manmade structure dredged out eons ago. It is wide and deep and reasonably still, lined by stands of old growth cypress draped in Spanish moss:

Cypress in the early spring always look like dead grey ghosts to me, but this is pretty much what the water and trees look like.

The wind was reasonably stiff and paddling against a headwind is tiring. We decided to explore the red trail up to Minnie’s Lake and Big Water. This is the best kayaking we saw as the canal narrowed down to a beautiful  forest on both sides with lots of water lilies. Sadly, morons are allowed to run in this area in motor boats so you have to avoid the wakes from boats, but it was still very much worth it:

Heading up to Millie's Lake with still water, just before a boat of rednecks attempted to mow us down.

The scenery along the red trail is spectacular:

Cypress and lilies.

Heading back down, we paddled off for Billy’s Island and the Orange Trail. The scenery is much the same, but we saw a lot of wildlife, including river otters and lots of big alligators. We subsequently learned that those adorable otters are actually pretty amazing killers and they prey on young alligators in the four to five foot range. I have new respect for otters.

Say hello to our little friend.

For those who actually want to know about the kayaking in Okefenokee, our experience is that the western part of the preserve is far more scenic than the eastern side with the entrance off of Folkston, although the east entrance has a lot more amenities including a grill. There are no grocery stores within 3o miles of the park, and aside from candy bars and ice, there’s nothing to buy from the concessions in the park. Plan accordingly. The gates close at 10 p.m. and campers need to be in before then. If you arrive after 5 pm, you can get your reservation form from the trading post and pick your own spot in the campground, a decided advantage, and you just check in before 10 the next morning at the trading post.  There is a cell signal in the campground, albeit faint. You can rent canoes and kayaks to tour the waterways, but if you don’t plan to hit the water, this park is a complete waste for you. There is almost nothing to see that you don’t have to paddle to appreciate. There is a loop drive on the east side and some walking trails, but they are boring.  Water levels vary and many trails are closed due to low water at times so it pays to call and ask before you head out.

There are bears in the area and alligators are all over the park and common sense rules apply. Do not slather sardines on your naked body and sleep in the woods and don’t swim in the area unless you have always wanted to know what it’s like to drown in the jaws of a 1000 pound alligator. This is also a mosquito haven so expect to be drained of blood and slather yourself in deet in the vain hopes you won’t be eaten alive.  The bastards are actually less of a problem on the water as the water is too acidic to support the larvae.  At dusk and dawn, the mosquitoes are out in droves so be prepared. You can bring your pets, but why would you want to since they can’t go on the water and there are many creatures that would like to snack on them.

This is the resident campground alligator that lives in the storm culvert. We were not clear on what he ate there as the ditch has zero fish, but there are a lot of people who bring their dogs to the park.