|On the return from a great trip to the Florida Keys, I decided to stop by for a second visit to the Okefenokee Swamp. The previous year, my friends and I had done our first paddle in this legendary swamp. We spent two days here, one on the east side and one on the west. It was the middle of January then and it was cold. We saw a few migratory cranes but the alligators were few. Everything was brown in the dead of winter. I was interested to see what it was like in March.
I motored into Stephen Foster State Park and parked in the commodious parking lot, which was very empty. The only car had a nice little setup - a tandem bicycle and a Sirius kayak on a Volvo. Spring clearly had not arrive. It was still cool, although not cold as it was in January. There was no green on the trees yet, but a few of the maples had red buds on them. It seemed that things were not going to be as different from January as I has hoped.
I got ready to launch just as a group of canoes came in from an "across the swamp" trip. Overnight camping in the very popular park is available by permit. These sites must be reserved, starting two months prior to your departure date. Only certain fixed preplanned trips are allowed. This takes all of the adventure of the trip out of it for me. "Wilderness travel" according to a preplanned mandated schedule just doesn't cut it. With the overuse of the swamp, there is no other way to manage the fragile resources of the swamp. So I was planning on doing just a few day trips. I would not get deep into the swamp, but I would cover some of the park we had missed during the previous trip.
I paddled out the canal to Billy's Lake, a large pool along the Suwannee River that drains the west side of the swamp. Located just north of one of the few dry places in the swamp - an island where Stephen Foster State Park and campground is located - the several mile long lake gathers the waters of the Suwannee River and a canoe trail. The Suwannee River continues on west through a myriad of channels and eventually comes to a '"sill". The sill is a man made berm intended to control the height of the water in the swamp. I would paddled to the sill the next day, but for now I headed out into the dark tannin stained waters. Not so much as a rippled disturbed the mirror surface. Large cypress trees regrown after the extensive logging of the swamp in the first part of the 20th century stood along the edge of the lake. A big turtle hauled out on a log waited long enough to have his picture taken before slipping into the water.
At the east end of the lake, just a couple miles from the launch is another island rising a few inches out of the swamp. Here is where the cypress loggers were based when the valuable cypress timber was cut from the swamp. A small canoe dock along the northern piece of the island allows one to land and explore the trails on the island. Little except shadows of the house foundations and the "main street"' remain. Park signage identifies some of the remains which have nearly disappeared into and under the swamp foliage.
The lake narrows into a passage forming one of the trails that head back to the east side of the swamp. Tall cypress line the edges of the bank and stand out in the shallow waters. The red bark of the cypress merges with the reddish water of the lake, perfectly reflecting the canopy above. An alligator was hauled out on a log on the side of the bank, warming himself in the bright sunshine. After poking into the tight confines of the overhanging foliage of the canoe trail, I turned around at the first place that was wide enough and paddled half way back down Billy's Lake.
The main fork of the Suwannee River enters the north side of the lake about half way between the Stephen Foster ramp canal and Billy's Island. I turned and followed the river, paddling against the current. The pond lilies were in bloom, sending their golden spikes up from the 4-5 foot deep water. Small cypress lined the banks. The boles of the cypress here were impressive. Spanish moss draped over the branches and hung down into the water. Each turn in the river brought another cypress with an even more magnificent bole.
When I got to the junction with the green trail, i turned and paddled several mile up that. This trail was much narrower than the Suwannee River itself. The trail led out into the start of the prairie which comprises the bulk of the center and east side of the swamp. Here a ridge of tall grass separated the maintained canoe trail from the pools of water standing over the peat. I heard several Sandhill cranes honking in the tall grass and I just caught sight of them as they flew away long before I reached them.
I unloaded the kayak into the van and set up camp in the nearly deserted campground. It had been a good day.
I turned around and headed back to the river, turning upstream once more. I made up past Big Water another open area like Billy's Lake and Minnie Lake, where we had turned around on our last trip. The river got quite narrow and shallow as the current picked up. Submerged logs and limbs made it necessary to pay attention even as I paddled upstream. Finally, with the trail getting quite narrow, the time had come to turn around in order to make the curfew for day trippers. Every one without a camping permit has to be back by 4:30 or 5:30 PM depending on the time of year. A lone cypress snag stood like a sentinel to my journey back home.
Day 2 - To the sill and back.
The next day I headed out the canal and back into Billy's Lake. Instead of turning right and heading East against the current of the Suwannee River, I turned west to follow the river. The water surface was almost black this morning and the smooth surface perfectly reflected the young cypress along the edge of the river. The large cypress stood out in the water towering over the lilies that lazily turned their leaves over to catch the morning sun. At the end of the lake a small side creek filled with lilies provided a place for egrets to fish. As the sun rose over the opposite banks, the golden sunlight splashed on the budding leaves, all perfectly reflected in the silver black mirror of the water. The view was even more spectacular from deck level.
The cypress closed in once more replacing the rushes. This familiar scenery slowly gave way to banks covered in a thick tangle of tree limbs. The muddy and recently flooded ground was barely above water level. This was a very different and rather unpleasant looking place. It was the kind of place that would make a great ghost story setting to scare children.
I headed on down the lake to a small outlet where the river got very narrow and the current picked up. On occasion this portion of the river can run at as much as 3 knots but today it was only 2 at best. The river winds through narrow passages which at time seemed to almost shut off. But a sharp turn will keep you centered in the flow and your bow out of the foliage. The Narrows would make the return journey through this section much slower than this rush through the swamp. About one half mile a this twisting ride, and the river widen and the current diminished. Now burned cypress stumps from the early logging lined both banks. The cypress retreated from the banks and the low ground was covered by reddish grasses with last seasons seed heads still attached.
Day 3 - Lake Marion
Finally this ended at the sill - the man made berm controlling the water level in the swamp. The earth for the sill was taken from the swamp immediately next to the sill, so there is now a straight as in arrow canal that runs for 5 miles along the earthen embankment. On top the sill is a dirt road that is gated off from vehicular traffic. It made a great bike ride however. I stopped and got out to walk along the completely flat sill to stretch the legs. At the end of the canal is another island and the last back-country camp site. That was too far for this day, so I got back in the boat and headed upstream, battling the current through the Narrows. An alligator just looked at me as if thinking that that was just too much work.
I paddled back to the ramp and loaded the kayak onto the car for the last time this trip. It had been a good an varied experience. When I arrived home, I was greeted by the first harbingers of spring. Soon kayak season would be in full swing here as well.
The next day I drove up to Lake Marion, named after revolutionary hero Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox. There as a campground with a ramp located on the south side of the lake about half way along its considerable length. It was a rainy, foggy day as I paddled among the cypress and tupelo along the shores of the big lake. I crossed over to the far side of the lake and in and out of stands of submerge trees. There were a number of floating fishing camps moored to the trees. I wondered who got the rights to put these eye sores out here and if such a practice was still legal or whether once these sank or were abandoned whether there would be no more allowed. From the look of them, i also wondered if the owners were prohibited from updating them.
See my trip report on Okefenokee 2003