The Okefenokee Swamp is one of those incredible places that paddlers see on a map, hear about around campfires, and eagerly await the opportunity explore its interior. The best time to visit the park is from late October through March. Bugs are down, daytime temperatures are perfect, there’s less chance of rain, and the wildlife is abundant. The park service limits paddling options to 12 different trails, ranging from 2-day to 5-day trips, and have it set up so separate groups should never meet up; this planning, along with the vastness of the place, offer a truly primitive back country experience.
Established in 1937, the Okefenokee Refuge covers more than 600 square miles and contains nearly 354,000 acres of designated wilderness. A number of fresh water springs feed the Refuge, which in turn gives birth to two well-known rivers, the Suwannee and the St. Mary’s. Though pure and clean, the Refuge’s waters are stained dark from the tannic acid in decaying vegetation. Species abundance is breathtaking: black bears, otters, sand hill cranes, ospreys, alligators, bald eagles, yellow-fringed orchids and pitcher plants all find home in the Okefenokee.
The swamp contains numerous lakes and cypress-covered islands, along with expanses of open terrain; prairies cover about 60,000 acres of the swamp. Once forested, these large marshes were created during periods of severe drought, when fires burned out vegetation and some of the top layers of peat. The remaining peat deposits, up to 15 feet thick, cover much of the swamp floor. These deposits are so unstable in spots that one can cause trees and surrounding bushes to tremble by stomping the surface. In fact, Okefenokee is a European rendition of the Indian words meaning “land of the trembling earth.”
Paddling the swamp in October or November you will experience the beginning of fall migration. Sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and warblers in great numbers start to appear. Black bears increase their feeding to get ready for their hibernation. With the cooler temperatures, the cypress needles become rust and yellow in color, and the sweet gum leaves turn electric red, then fall carpeting the swamp floor. Temperatures drop, and nights can become very cool.
Paddling trail #12, a five-day trip, is one of the best. Camping is on island ground sites and on 28’ by 28’ raised platforms, like the chickees in the Everglades. The platformshelp keep you dry and prevent you from becoming an alligator’s dinner –seriously. Trail #12 offers the unique opportunity to experience all the varied landscapes of the refuge. From the open “marsh-prairies” of the east side, to the forestedcypress swamps of the west, with all the islands in between. Passing under the towering cypress trees, draped with a thousand years of Spanish moss, can be overwhelming; the bright yellow water plants and the red and blues of wildflowers, are reflected in the blackwater of the swamp; the sounds of breezes ruffling the foliage, bird calls, and water dripping from your paddles are all that disturbs the silence.
To take part of this environment you must make reservations, which can be made up to 2 months in advance – only by phone (912.496.3331) between 7am-10am, Monday through Friday. For the best chance of getting the dates you want, it’s best to call exactly 60 days prior to your desired departure day. There are many rules and regulations concerning backcountry paddling; when you call, ask for a copy of them.
Your put-in will be a ramp called Kingfisher Landing, 13 miles north-east of Folkston, Georgia, off of US 1. When you pass through Folkston, make sure to stop at the Okefenokee Café for your last “real meal,” and stock up on local Tupelo honey and mayhaw jelly.
Remember if you go, take your time, take the kids, be safe, and file a float plan.
TRAIL #12 ITINERARY:
- Enter: Kingfisher ramp
- First Night: Maul Hammock
- Second Night: Big Water
- Third Night: Floyds Island
- Fourth Night: Canal Run
- Exit: Suwannee Canal or Stephen Foster State Park
Okefinokee [sic] Album, by Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley
A Naturalist’s Guide to the Okefenokee Swamp, by Taylor Schoettle