Three Day Trips in the Okefinokee


No,
The Hawk did not misspell the place y’all know as “Okefenokee”.
He did his homework and discovered that the historically correct
spelling is “Okefinokee”. The name Okefinokee was derived
from the Creek O-ke-fin-ocau and was used beginning with George
White’s 1849 Statistics of Georgia. In the early 20th Century the
United States Geographical Board (part of our government bureaucracy)
decreed the spelling would be Okefenokee.

Okefinokee
is the largest swamp in North America, occupying about 700 square
miles and draining a 1,400 square mile watershed. Okefinokee is
clearly visible in satellite imagery because it occupies a high,
sandy basin in southern Georgia, which acts as an extensive shallow
wetland catch basin. Okefinokee has quite different habitats, which
vary from extensive canopied forests (pond cypress, loblolly bay,
black gum, and red maple), to sprawling emergent shrub communities
(hurrah bush, titi, poorman’s soap), to prairies (shallow marshes or
wetland meadows with hydrophytic plants), and finally to extensive
lakes. These habitats provide homes to beacoup animal species.

You’ll
immediately see alligators, raccoons, and birds. It takes a bit more
work to find otter, mink, beaver, black bear and bobcat. If you’re
really up for it, see if you can catalog the 14 different species of
turtles representing five different families. In summary, Okefinokee
is as unique to the world as the Grand Canyon and is a mandatory trip
for any paddler.

The
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 400,000 acres with
110 miles of canoe trails. Canoe camping provides the ultimate
Okefinokee experience and two to five day trips are possible, if you
score a permit. Permits can be obtained from the Wildlife Refuge
office by calling 912.496.3331 between 07:00 and 10:00, Monday
through Friday, only within two months (calendar) of the date your
trip begins. This can be difficult. If you call at 06:59 no one will
answer and if you call after 07:01 the line will be busy and you
should prepare to hit the redial button as rapidly as possible
(sometimes for more than an hour). However, this permit system works
and if you get one you’ll be in complete solitude your entire trip.
The Refuge website day trips allow one to observe a greater ecologic
variety (much more comfortably) than a canoe camping adventure. Most
recently, we went there over Memorial Day, based in Waycross, and
took three quite different day trips.

Kingfisher
Landing through Carter’s Prairie.

For
the first day, we decided to explore the northeastern swamp,
launching at Kingfisher Landing. Kingfisher is one of three access
points to the Refuge, basically consists of a parking lot with a boat
ramp, groover, and sign-in log. Use of the refuge requires a park
permit. Either buy it at one of the Visitor Centers (west entrance
Steven Foster, or the east entrance Suwannee Canal Recreation Area).
If you have a Golden Eagle Pass just put it on your dashboard.

The
rangers check regularly and will ticket.

Kingfisher
Landing was the center of peat-mining operations and a mile-long
canal dredged at that time constitutes the first mile or so of trail.
You will find the remains of the railroad and old machinery at the
end of the parking area off to the left. Be sure to check it out. Two
routes (Green and Red Trails) begin at Kingfisher. At the end of the
canal the Green Trail goes south and the Red Trail, which we followed
for about five miles to Double Lakes, goes north. This is one of the
least used areas of the Refuge and we never saw anyone else.

The
northeastern swamp is emergent prairie with scattered lakes and
hammocks. Vegetation primarily comprises shrubbery and the emergent
prairie supports yellow-eyed grasses. For me the most interesting
form of life is made up of large stands of water lily and assorted
carnivorous hooded pitcher plants and sundew in the numerous lakes
and tons of frogs. Numerous hammocks, which I still haven’t been able
to land on, are heavily wooded with various hardwoods. Finally, in
the fall and winter it’s a good place for birding. You’ll find great
egrets, little blue herons, and white ibis.

To
get to Kingfisher Landing, take U.S. Highway 1 south from Waycross
for about 20 miles to Race Pond. The road to the landing (heading
west) is well signed. Another 12 miles or so on Highway 1 will take
you to the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area

Steven
Foster Landing through Floyd’s Prairie.

The
second day we put in at Steven Foster State Park (the Refuge’s west
entrance) and followed the Red Trail north for five or six miles to
Floyd’s Prairie. This is a much more dark and mysterious part of the
park and, reminiscent of Mirkwood Forest, follows the Suwannee River
as it meanders through densely wooded forests of bays, maple, and
cypress. The river traverses one of the most spectacular stands of
mature cypress in the swamp and supports a surfeit of wildlife.

Sure
there are turtles, alligators and otters. But there are also more
rare species such as the bright yellow protonotaria warbler hanging
out by the canal side. This is a very tight paddle, especially in a
22′ tandem sea kayak. Unfortunately, it’s also the most popular
section of the swamp, so it’s impossible to avoid people. Be alert.
Things can get really interesting when negotiating a four-footwide
blind curve simultaneously with a john-boat piloted by a tourist (AKA
idiot).

To
get to Steven Foster, take U.S. 84 west from Waycross to Homerville.
In Homereville, take 441 south to Fargo then 177 up the Suwannee
River to the park.

Chesser
Island.
We didn’t have time to paddle the third day, so we took
U.S. Highway 1 past Kingfisher down to the Suwannee Canal Recreation
Area where we checked out Swamp Island Drive, the Chesser Island
Homestead, and the boardwalk. The homestead was built by the Chesser
family in 1927 and illustrates how the swampers eked out a living.
Sugar cane, cane syrup, and turpentine comprised the primary cash
crops. Swampers also farmed, kept livestock, hunted, and fished. The
boardwalk winds through about a mile of dense swamp, ends at an
observation tower, and provides an opportunity to see things you
could not get to from your boat.

How
to get there:
The drive from Atlanta to Okefinokee takes three or
four hours. Just take I-75 south way past Macon to Tifton. At Tifton
follow US 82 east towards Waycross. At about this time you have to
finalize a pivotal decision concerning your destination. Waycross is
my current favorite and we based from there on this trip. It’s at the
northern tip of the Refuge and has numerous hotels, restaurants, and
B&Bs. If you’re planning on paddling the eastern section, there
are also hotels in Folkston, which is down US 1 from Waycross. If you
will be limited to the eastern portion (i.e., Steven Foster) stay on
I-75 to Valdosta, then take US 84 to Homerville, which has hotels and
B&Bs. To the best of my knowledge, there are no hotels in Fargo
(although camping is available). Camping and cabins are also
available at Steven Foster State Park (check availability before
leaving).

One
other important tidbit of advice. We did this trip in late May. The
weather was wonderful, not only for paddling but also for yellow
tabanids (AKA horseflies). These puppies are not fun (except for
entomologists like Will). The optimum time to paddle the swamp is
spring and fall. This avoids summer heat/humidity and major insect
densities, and the more extreme winter conditions (when many animals
and plants are dormant). Actually it’s the alligators that are
dormant and other critters like otters, wood storks, and ibis are
free to play without fear of becoming alligator food. Also almost
half of the swamp’s rainfall occurs during afternoon thunderstorms
June through September.

by
William C. Reeves (The Hawk)

From
The Eddy Line, August 2003