Okefenokee Swamp Canoe Trip

The Okefenokee Swamp has been on John’s “to visit” list for quite some time now, so as a birthday trip, we decided to go down there and do a little canoe camping. The Okefenokee Swamp is in Southern Georgia, almost on the border of Florida.

(March 27th) We enjoyed a night camping not far from the swamp at a place called Trader’s Hill, which let us set up a tent for just $10. We spent the night underneath gigantic live oaks, dripping in sweat, as there was somewhat of a heat wave going through (or maybe it’s normal for it to be in the upper-80’s low 90’s?).

(March 28th) We had been told to show up to rent our canoe by 10AM. The park rents canoes by the day, and we also reserved a camping spot for that night on a little island called Floyd’s Island out in the middle of the swamp.

We got to the visitor’s center at Stephen C Foster State Park in the western portion of the swamp, and asked for our canoe. The lady at the desk pointed us to a row of canoes parked next to a canal leading out into the swamp and told us ours was number 26, and pointed us towards a shed that would contain paddles and life jackets. I stood there waiting for any more information, but when she failed to provide any, we wandered out to find our canoe.

When I thought of a few questions, like “are there toilets anywhere on the swamp?” and “do you have a map we can buy?” I went back in and posed them. Yes, there were toilets, and if you want to spend $15 on a basically useless map, you’re more than welcome to.

We loaded our canoe and headed out. I immediately felt uneasy in the water aboard our wobbly boat. I hadn’t been in a canoe in well over a year, and I felt very out of place. My anxiety slowly subsided, but not before we saw our first alligator hanging out on the side of the canoe path.

It was hot, and we lathered ourselves in sunscreen, and covered ourselves head to toe in lightweight clothing including a wide brimmed hat and white gloves in an effort not to get sun burnt or eaten alive by bugs. The bugs were not actually that bad. There were millions of dragonflies buzzing around, but since they feast on other insects, we were delighted to have their company.

We started counting the number of alligators that we saw, and I slowly became more accustomed to seeing them lounging on the side of the canoe path, sunbathing. That was until I noticed that a very large alligator was swimming directly at our boat. I panicked, and shouted at John, “what do we do, do you see that alligator!?!?” He had no solution, and we both stopped paddling, but not before the alligator was only a few feet in front of our boat. I tensed up, expecting the worst, but the alligator disappeared under the water, and presumably swam underneath our boat. The water in this swamp is practically black, as it is full of tannins, so the minute the alligator went beneath the surface of the water, we could no longer see it. We paddled vigorously away.

Knowing that the general reaction of alligators was to slowly try to avoid us, I felt a little bit more at ease. The canals that we were paddling in started to narrow into a tight path. It took a bit more effort to keep the canoe from hitting the cypress trees which lined the side of the canoe path (there is very little land in this swamp – the cypress trees grow directly out of the water).

We stopped for lunch at a small wooden landing with a toilet, and while we were preparing our lunch, a few other canoes and kayaks showed up. We shared the platform, and chatted with the group of young folks from Atlanta who were also trying to eat lunch aboard this small platform. They told us that we weren’t supposed to drink the swamp water – something that we didn’t actually realize up until this point (why hadn’t the helpful lady at the visitor’s center told us this?), and since they were heading out of the swamp and we were heading in, they shared about 5 liters of water with us.

Nearby, a little alligator was hanging out looking for handouts. We also spotted a small copperhead snake curled up near the platform.

After lunch, we kept canoeing for what felt like forever, and my arms felt like they were going to fall off. The trail was very narrow, and we had to work hard to keep from hitting various trees or branches. The path was often only maybe 5 or 6 feet wide, which is really not very wide when there are alligators lurking on either side. Our total alligator count for the day was 20. We also saw two turtles, along with the copperhead snake we saw at lunch-time.

Finally, we got to our island, the first piece of land we had seen since we left the visitor’s center. We spent some time wandering around the Island, admiring an old cabin that had been built there long ago, and picking a spot to set up camp. We got to camp quite early all things considered, maybe between 3 and 4pm, but my arms were so tired, I wouldn’t have been able to canoe more if I had wanted to. This is what it must be like to be a beginner. I always thought folks who went backpacking and setup camp that early were wasting some of the best hiking hours of the day. But I can hike more hours than I would want to be awake for, and that is absolutely not the case with canoeing.

We contemplated which way we would canoe back the next day -whether we would go back the way we came, or try to portage the canoe (carry it) to the other side of the little island in order to canoe onward and create a loop. John took out the descriptions of the canoe trails, and read them out loud to me. The loop would be slightly longer, but it would provide us with new terrain to cover. Based on that, we decided to go ahead and carry our canoe over to the other side so that we would be set up for the morning.

After dinner, we got comfortable inside our tent, and as the sun set, we noticed that lightning bugs were lighting up around us. Lightning bugs in March!!!

(March 29th) We woke up with the rising sun, and immediately noticed a swarm of mosquitos had found our tent. Luckily, our tent has bug netting, so we just watched them eagerly trying to find ways to get through the bug netting. Where all these mosquitoes came from was beyond us; they certainly were not out the night before. We decided to sleep in a little in hopes that they would eventually lose interest as the sun hit our tent, but eventually I had to get up and pee, so I braved the blood-thirsty swarm and ventured outside. I wandered away from the tent and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitoes away from the tent. Based on that, we decided to pack up and get moving.

We got into our canoe and headed out.

The canoe trails are fairly well labeled, and so when I saw a sign post, we pulled up next to it and took a look at our (free) map. I glanced back at the sign only to notice out of the corner of my eye that a gigantic alligator was laying right under the sign, and had started to open its mouth at us. My heart nearly choked me as it leapt into my throat and I yelled, “Alligator!!” at John, throwing the map back into the canoe and grabbing my paddle. The alligator responded by hissing at us, kind of like a cat, but much more alligator-y.

I was much more vigilant after that encounter. We found a platform to take a break and eat some food. Luckily the day was much cooler than the day before, barely above 70F, which made the paddling a little more enjoyable. The next section of trail became very difficult and narrow. In fact it was so narrow that our canoe could barely make any of the turns because the canoe was too long, and the turns were too sharp. John kept yelling at me to paddle harder, or stop paddling or paddle backwards (he was in the back, controlling the direction of the vessel), however, we often would go crashing into the bushes, having to back out and try to maneuver around them. All the while, staying vigilant for alligators lurking around each turn.

There were also a ton of spiders with long spindly legs, and probably the size of the palm of my hand. Dozens of them would wind up in the canoe as we were weaving under trees and often ducking under low hanging branches. We didn’t feel as though we could take the time to constantly evict them from the canoe because we were too worried about drifting into some bushes or into an alligator at any given moment, so we just let them accumulate in the canoe. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there were probably over a hundred spiders catching a ride with us.

Each time we went crashing into the bushes because of a sharp turn in the trail, John would shout “you didn’t paddle hard enough!” or “when I say stop paddling, you actually have to paddle backwards!” I was getting frustrated with all the commanding and nitpicking about my paddling, so when we went plunging into a particularly thick set of branches, and we got totally tangled up in them, I asked “so what do you want me to do now?!”

“Just suffer with me…” John said in a defeated voice as he pushed through the bushes, wearing twigs, spanish moss, and a couple of random spiders in his hair. While we were stuck there, we decided to take a moment to laugh about it while picking a few dozen spiders up by their spindly legs and tossing them out of the canoe into the dense swamp.

Apparently I had not been listening to John when he was reading the description of this section of trail. This section had “difficult” bits of trail whereas yesterday’s path was only “moderate.” That’ll teach me not to zone off next time John’s reading me something. “I thought you knew this section was labeled difficult,” John suggested. I scowled. This was definitely not what I thought I had signed up for. In retrospect, the adventure was worth it, but in the moment I was pretty tired of being stuck in a canoe in the middle of a gigantic swamp full of alligators and spiders.

When the canoe path opened up again to one of the more main trails where even motorboats where allowed, I was quite pleased. There was a large island called Billy’s Island that we could take a break at, and it was full of tourists who were brought there on a motorboat, and looked so innocent and fresh.

Now we were only an easy mile or two away from the visitor’s center and our car.

I enjoyed the last bit of paddling through the wide channel with other boats passing by, and the odd alligator sunbathing many yards away from us.

When we got back to our car, I was grateful to be out of the swamp, but also grateful for the experience of having been deep in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp for two days.

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