“Stretching from Waycross, Georgia to the Georgia-Florida border, the Okefenokee Swamp represented the last of the untamed wilderness in Georgia after the War Between the States. Covering more than 700 square miles of territory, this vast land mass was once thought to be uninhabitable and as such was not distributed by Georgia when it was “acquired” from the Creek Nation. Actually, the Okefenokee was inhabitable and had been extensively settled by early cultures of Moundbuilders, both prehistoric and transitional.” OurGeorgia History.com (other Okefenokee facts)
The group with which I had just paddled on the Suwanee had thrown out the idea leaving the possibility ‘open’ of stopping by the Okefenokee for a quick paddle on the return trip home –
– traveling separately my primary mission returning home was to check out some river-points and land-marks along the upper Suwannee for a complete paddle of the river the following month, but I too ‘left the possibility ‘open’ to paddle the Swamp.
In moving ahead of the others I was able to maintain a casual pace making stops in White Springs, Big Shoals, Cone Bridge Landing and then Hwy 6 at the river – the Northern most accessible areas of the Suwannee, its more of a large creek as the river passes the Georgia state line.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is pretty much off the ‘beaten trail in the lower part of Georgia, but its also a point that I regularly travel past without entering. Getting into the heart of the Okefenokee requires following hwy 177 from Hwy 441 near Fargo, Ga – to its abrupt end 18-miles into the center of the swamp.
(VGPS – 17515 GA-177, Fargo, GA)
Being raised near the Everglades in South Florida I have always held some doubt as to a similar landscape further North, but its there – alive and well in the South Georgia heat – along with the gators, turtles, hawks, and all the other swamp critters that love to call a swamp its home.
Once inside the Stephen P Foster State Park I found the group unloading near the store landing, I guess a quick paddle of the Okefenokee was going to work-out after all.
At the landing the Park service has a neat little store with some interesting trinkets (no stuffed gators) along with basic quick food improvisations, and this is where you pay the day-fee of five-bucks. From this point its possible to rent one of their thirty something John-boats (4-hp motors) canoes or kayaks and head out along the canals and canoe trails to witness the cypress trees, wildlife, – its a sense of living geography – with the minimal of direction.
The gators were present and closely watching at the ramp, from there it was just a matter of heading out and along this narrow canal to a larger one (Billy’s Lake) about a half-a-mile further into the swamp.
Once on the larger canal you decide which direction to take – we went to the right towards Billy’s Island, once a Billy Bowlegs hideout for 20 years. This earthen island (4-miles long 1.5 miles wide) once served as home to early native Americans and then a village of about 500 loggers early in the 1900’s.
There is signage to help with your decision to which way to paddle, and from what I noticed back at the store – help is on hand if something arises – just might take them a bit to get to you.
There were gators immediately apparent, most basking in the sun or immediately proximate to our kayaks – with the number of us I figure the odds were good that I’d make it back uneaten, just needed to stay in the boat. Paddlin towards Billy’s island there was always the sense that something was watching – lots of gators, some that look across as you paddle by, those that slowly sink under the water as you near – and then those that lay motionless just beneath you.
Along some areas of the swamp there were large and impressive cypress stumps left over from the logging many years ago, many with new growth. The cypress trees have made a solid comeback, pondering on the stumps it was easy to imagine the once majestic and prehistoric forest that once stood here.
Hundreds of gators – I wanted to kid one kayaker that they were just along as ‘bait,’ but then the ‘aura’ of the place told me ‘No’. In paddlin the swamp there is more regard than concern – with that it remained the kind of place that a person would not want to be splashing around.
again there are marked canoe trails that ran off of this main channel.
I was surprised at the number of other folks that were out on those little boats – paddling, canoeing – and other groups, there were almost as many people as there were alligators.
a small dock marked the Billy’s island landing
I hear banjo music…
The walk was about thirty minutes, and once back at the dock we paused with a snack while other paddlers and families continued to come and go, again a much busier place than I had anticipated.
and this is where I had another issue too – a camera issue. Actually it was my error in knocking the adjustment to the wrong position and not noticing, so after an hour or so paddle back out and taking some great shots (easy to say) of some great stumps and gators with the sun at my back – none of my pictures ‘came out’ (overexposed)….. but don’t take my word for it – paddle the ‘Oke
You will just have to believe me that the scenery was impressive…. My suggestion on paddling the Okefenokee is to paddle with another for sure – we spent about 4 hours there to Billy’s Island and then through a paddle trail – we could have easily spent more time going into the trails.
If you are on a trip south, its a simple day paddle and I highly recommend it, paddling in the presence of the Okefenokee alligators will prepare you for any others that you may encounter further south – heck, others may not even phase you after paddling here.
Water Clarity – naturally tainted and high-quality
Natural Quality – 10
perception – Feb weekend
note: even though mentioned and shown on available maps – there are NO river mile markers along the Suwannee river (which begins in the Okefenokee) , landmarks or bridges, ramps, and river camps along the way. For further Suwannee River mileage information, check this link – Suwannee River Mileage, Trip Agenda ideas.
It would be positive to see a marker every couple of miles or on existing landmarks, benchmarks – as safety reference markers.