GA - Okefenokee Swamp - 2003/01/13 to 2003/01/14 - 33 Miles

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From sandhill cranes stalking through grassy swamp prairies to twisting channels through cypress boles, Okefenokee swamp provides a unique and varied experience perfect for kayaks and canoes.


"Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 in order to preserve the 438,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp. Presently, the refuge encompasses approximately 396,000 acres. In 1974, to further ensure the protection of this unique ecosystem, the interior 353,981 acres of the refuge were designated a National Wilderness Area. The swamp remains one of the oldest and most well preserved freshwater areas in America and extends 38 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west."

"Okefenokee is a vast bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The swamp now lies 103 to 128 feet above mean sea level. Okefenokee is the white man’s rendition of the Indian words meaning "Land of the Trembling Earth". 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."

"The slow-moving waters of the Okefenokee are tea-colored due to the tannic acid released from decaying vegetation. The principal outlet of the swamp, the Suwannee River, originates in the heart of the Okefenokee and drains southwest into the Gulf of Mexico. The swamp’s southeastern drainage to the Atlantic Ocean is the St. Mary’s River, which forms the boundary between Georgia and Florida."

"The swamp contains numerous islands and lakes, along with vast areas of non-forested terrain. Prairies cover about 60,000 acres of the swamp. Once forested, these expanses of marsh were created during periods of severe drought when fires burned out vegetation and the top layers of peat. The prairies harbor a variety of wading birds: herons, egrets, ibises, cranes, and bitterns."

"Okefenokee Canoe ShelterCamping is permitted only at designated stops. There are only seven designated stops within the swamp--only seven groups may be in the swamp on a given night. Consider the skill level of individuals in your party before choosing a trail! The swamp terrain is flat; there is no fast water and very little dry land. Your paddle will be used every inch of the way as you wind through cypress forests or cross open prairies exposed to the sun and wind. Paddling can be slow-going and strenuous on shallow and/or narrow trails. You may have to get out of your canoe and push across peat blow-ups or shallow water. Water levels in the Okefenokee Swamp sometimes become too low to paddle on certain trails; when this occurs reservation holders will be notified. Swamp conditions may dictate closing certain trails."

"Additional planning is required if you choose a trail that does not return to the same landing. Arrangements for a shuttle can be made in advance through the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area Concession (912)496-7156. Shuttles are subject to availability. Highway distance between landings:

Suwannee Canal Recreation Area-Kingfisher Landing: 20 miles.
Suwannee Canal Recreation Area-Stephen Foster State Park: 85 miles.
Stephen Foster State Park-Kingfisher Landing: 95 miles."

From the National Wildlife Federation

Okefenokee Swamp Map

"Okefenokee Swamp is notable because it is one of the world's largest intact freshwater systems. The system has long been noted for its high water quality. Sailors would draw water from the St. Mary's River, because it would not 'sour' quickly, during the 18th and 19th centuries. More recently, the upper portions of the Suwannee River are held as a standard reference for water quality worldwide. "

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

"The longleaf pine, or Pinus palustris, goes by many names, including longstraw, yellow, southern yellow, swamp, hard or heart, pitch, and Georgia pine. This tree can grow in many different elevations, from the beach to the mountaintop. It grows in warm, wet temperate climates characterized by hot summers and mild winters. A healthy longleaf pine forest needs fire. Without fire, hardwoods and other pines encroach on the longleaf forest. The thick bark of mature trees make longleaf pine fire resistant. "

Okefenokee Longleaf pine forest

Longleaf pine cone

"Longleaf pine is hardy in other ways, because it is resistant to most insects or pathogens. For example, it resists the southern pine beetle. It also does well with fire, unlike many forests. However, the longleaf pine is vulnerable if surrounded by other types of trees because it cannot compete well for space. Longleaf pines may reach heights of 80 to 100 feet and diameters of 2.5 feet. Tall trunks with no branches are topped by a small, open crown. Needles may be 8 to 18 inches long and the cones range from 5 to 10 inches in length."
"Many people are familiar with the Okefenokee swamp from the long running newspaper cartoon Pogo. Perhaps the best known cartoon of that series is the one below, expressing the sentiment that unfortunately still is appropriate in many locations that we kayak. Thankfully, there was no indication of any trash in the park."

Pogo on the Okefenokee

Our Trip

We left our Days Inn motel room in Folkston and headed over to the Huddle House for a hearty breakfast of 3 eggs, 2 sausages, grits, toast and hash browns for $4.99. Left town at 9:20 AM. Missed the turn heading south just one block after the railroad tracks and spent about 10 minutes getting ourselves back on the right path. The sign pointing to Okefenokee is a little inconspicuous, being a metallic color and set up against a building on the opposite side of the road. It was very easy to miss, but little time was lost.

The eastern entrance to the park is well marked. At this time of year there was no one manning the entrance station. Only a sign asking that entrance fees be paid at the concessioner, Okefenokee Adventures, further down the road. Canoes and motor boats can be rented at Okefenokee Adventures and interpretive tours are available in season. A nice ramp next to the store provides access to the canal heading out into refuge itself. There is a lodge located here, but there is no camping within the refuge. There is a private campground just across the road at the entrance to the park. Restrooms, water, a few food items and a snack bar are located in the store, as well as the usual assortment of memorabilia, books and clothing. The entrance fee is $5.00 for a 7 day pass. I purchased a year long pass, a Golden Eagle, for $65.00 since I plan to be going to a lot of parks this year. Golden Eagles are good for entrance fees only and do not include "use fees", so if you purchase one, you need to realize that many parks charge a use fee instead of an entrance fee (See Jupiter Springs trip and Florida Bay trip).

A sign at the ramp informed us that day use of the park ended at 4:00 PM, which seemed really early, since sunset wasn't until 5:30. This caused some concern as we were a bit late getting started this morning. It was already 10:15 AM and we wanted to go out about 7 miles through the prairies. We quickly launched and headed up the canal into the refuge. The canal was lined with small cypress, through which we could see the prairie of grasses and submerged lilies. A blue heron kept advancing down the canal in front of us until we finally passed his territory and he wheeled out over the open water to return to his section.

Okefenokee trail sign
Mary at Okefenokee trail sign
Photo by Steve Rohrs

The canoe trails in the refuge are clearly marked at the junctions with large signs in white lettering. Along the trails, color coded signs give the mileage every couple of miles. The system is very easy to follow. Here is Mary at the first junction, called the triangle, where we left the canal and headed out into the closest prairie.

At the junction, we turned south into Prairie Lakes on our way to Chesser prairie. The prairie consisted of a narrow channel through the maidencane and other grasses with lilies floating on the top of the water. It was a cool, grey day with morning temperatures in the 30s. Afternoon temperatures was in the 50's.

Along the canal and on the islands, the bald cypress were in fact bald, having dropped their needles, showing only the cluster of seed pods that looked, well, like hair. The smaller pond cypress have spherical seed pods. So we decided that we could easily tell them apart in the winter, because the bald cypress have hair and the pond cypress are balled.

Several weeks before we arrived, the water level in the swamp had been quite low, with the water gauge at White Springs on the Suwannee River, the major outlet for the swamp's water, running at 51 feet. But since then the rains had been heavy and the gauge had risen to 54.5 feet. There was a lot of water in the swamp and the lilies were actually a little under the water. Being the middle of January, the grasses were brown, there were only a few flowers out, and the lilies were showing signs of age on their leaves with very few new ones unfurling their shiny leaves.

As we exited the canal onto the prairie, we saw a large broad shouldered bird in a cypress tree, that after some discussion, we concluded was a wood stork. Its almost triangular body with nearly a foot of shoulder ruled out the other large birds in the area, sandhill cranes.

We were soon hearing the calls of many sandhills, a call with the cadence of a rain dove, the pitch of a rooster and the carry of a Canada goose. Flocks of cranes flew ahead of us moving from one island of woods to another. We began seeing them in pairs feeding in the tall grasses all around us. Getting a picture was difficult because they were very wary and took to flight long before our modest cameras could take a good picture.

Okefenokee Canoe Trail
Along the trail
Photo by Steve Rohrs

We continued down the maintained boat trail. On one side of the trail were mud and root "banks" where the peat had been removed from the trail that we were following. Although they looked solid, a poke with a paddle revealed that they were just floating on the water's surface. Large tubular roots from the water lilies floated at the surface with peat and mud dredged up out of the formed channel.

Along the side of the channel we saw many carnivorous pitcher plants standing 9 to 12 inches above the rather high level of the swamp water. A hood covered a tube where a slick surface, downward facing hairs and a corrosive liquid kept any insect that ventured into its cavity from returning. In the pool of attracting liquid at the bottom of this tube, those unfortunate enough to visit would be slowly digested and their nutrients used to nourish the plant.

Okefenokee Skink
Photo by Julio Perez

We continued down the trail until we reached the day use area at Monkey Lake where there was a small dock, a day use shelter and a sanitary facility . We got out of kayaks, thankful to stretch our legs after the 3 hour paddle. In the crack of the door to the vault, I found a small and very cold skink. He was so cold and stiff that he just fell to the floor when the door was opened. He was too cold to even smile for his photo. We replaced him and bid him farewell.

We left the dock at 2:15 PM, and with 7 miles to go for the return and less than 2 hours to meet the deadline of 4:00 PM at the ramp, we set up a four man drafting system were one person would lead and the others would use the wake of the boat in front to ease the paddling effort. This way we all returned to the ramp at 3:55 without as much effort if we had to paddle separately. I noticed some slowing effects of the narrow, shallow channel on our boats on the way out. Seven miles in 1 hour 45 minutes was a good effort, although I doubt if anyone would have noticed if we had been a bit late. There were no other canoes or kayaks out that day. We had the swamp all to ourselves.

We loaded our boats onto the trailer and headed back to our hotel in Folkston. On the return trip we saw a horrendous wreck where a police car had gone off the side of the road at a gentle curve and completely wrapped itself around a tree. Many cars were pulled over, but the ambulance had not yet arrived. A fire truck can screaming down the road. It looked as if the trooper needed to be cut out of the vehicle. It was the most serious accident I have ever seen. The scene was right across from an exit from the local school and I can not help but wonder if someone pulled out of the school exit into the trooper's path, blissfully ignoring the siren that no doubt was blaring, forcing the trooper from the road. There was little other apparent reason for the trooper's car to leave the road. Only the tree saved the house of the shocked resident of the house just beyond. We never heard what happened to the trooper as we left for the other side of the swamp the next day, and did not see anything about it on the news.

In town again after spending a long time waiting for the CSX freight train to clear the tracks, we tried unsuccessfully to locate a catfish restaurant recommended to us by a local. We finally gave up and returned to the Huddle House where we enjoyed a good meal. The local barbecue restaurant, in the center of town, was also recommended highly, but it was only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

At 6:30 AM the next morning we were once again off to the Huddle House for breakfast. and then on the road toward St. George, Fargo and the western entrance of Okefenokee park at Stephen Foster State Park. There I used the pass I had purchased at the other entrance, but Steve had to buy another pass to get his car in. There is a large campground there and there were perhaps two campers using it. There are also cabins in the park, but there did not seem to be anybody in them. Again Okefenokee Adventures was the concessioner and there were about 30 canoes and 20 motorboats available for rent. There was a snackbar, store and restroom facilities here as well.

We drove past the store to the launching area. There is a hard surface ramp, but also a long grassy area perfect for launching canoes and kayaks. There was no other canoe or kayak activity and we parked our cars in the large lot near the ramp. We were the only ones in it. Here day use boats had to be "out of the water" by 5:00 PM. The day had clear skies and a temperature of 34 degrees with light variable winds. The launching area was at the beginning of a canal leading out into Billy's Lake and was lined with large cypress standing in the quiet blackwater.

We paddled down the canal and turned right (east) into Billy's Lake, following the orange and red trails. As on the other side of the park, there was very complete signage at each junction.

Cypress boles along Billy's Lake
Photo by Steve Rohrs

Here the Suwannee River, which starts in the northern section of the swamp, is wide and slow moving. Large cypress line the banks of the lake. We stopped to take several pictures and poked up into the nooks and indentations along the north shore.

Many buzzards were warming themselves in the strong sunlight. In one cove we saw an otter, swimming along, catching fish handily and just seeming to be enjoying himself. On one pad of grass along the edge of the lake Steve, noticed an alligator, but only after he had already passed right by it once already. The cold temperatures had made the alligator as lethargic as the skink we saw the day before. Sunning out of the water is the only way for these creatures to raise their body temperatures and give them more mobility. However, once we noticed him, we gave the alligator plenty of room incase he wasn't as cold as he looked.

We continued to follow the red trail as it turned north out of Billy's Lake, following the course of the nascent Suwannee River. The trail was surrounded by the straight trunks of the cypress that gradually closed in on us until we followed a narrow stream twisting in and out among the cypress boles. The current against us increased as the channel narrowed.

Group kayak paddle in Okefenokee swamp
Our group paddles through a lake
Photo by Steve Rohrs

Many trees showed the scars of less skilled or less careful visitors who had run their boats into them as they negotiated the passage. With the current approaching 2 knots in some of the tighter turns, I could understand how maneuvering a motorboat through the trees could be difficult. With 30 canoes and 20 motorboats from the rental concession and a normal number of private boats during the warmer months, this section might even be a cause for a boat jam. But since we appeared to be the only ones out today, it was a lot of fun negotiating the tight turns and current. All day we saw only one other boat.

Large cypress
Photo by Mary Rohrs

After a mile or so of very narrow channels, the river once again broadened and we came upon the day use shelter, where we stopped for a stretch and a relief break. After the short stop, we continued on into a small lake called Minnie's Lake. Bright sunshine shone off the tannin stained tea colored water and lit up the lilies floating on the top of the water. The lilies here seemed a little fresher than those over on the eastern side of the refuge, their green and purple colors glinting in the sunlight.

There were many large cypress in the lakes where the growing conditions were favorable. Although all of the swamp was logged early on, there has been sufficent time for a few large trees to develop.

We continued following the middle fork of the Suwannee River along the red trail into Big Water prairie to the final day use platform. Past this facility, a back-country use permit is required. We turned our boats around and enjoyed the paddle with the current. We saw another alligator next to the bank. The twisting channels of the cypress forest were even more challenging with the current behind us. We arrived at the Stephen Foster Campground at 4:50 PM just 10 minutes before the deadline. We packed up the kayaks and headed south to look for a motel near the interstate and Lake City. We found a newly built Days Inn at the intersection of route 441 and Interstate 10 for $45.00 per night. Drove into Lake City and had an adequate catfish dinner at Cedar River restaurant.

Back at the hotel, we arranged out gear, cleaned up and made arrangements for our next days start down the Suwannee River. That night it got quite cold, even for northern Florida, as the frost on the kayaks the next morning shows. The next day we would begin our trip down the Suwannee River.

Other nearby trips...

Suwannee River

St. Mary's River

Crooked River

Another trip to the Okefenokee

Following Photos by Melissa Farlow National Geographic Photographer

Okefenokee Water Lillies by Melissa FarlowOkefenokee Prairie Lead by Melissa Farlow

Okefenokee Palmetto by Melissa Farlow

Okefenokee Cypress by Melissa Farlow

from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This photo available as wallpaper.

Links and Resources

Water Levels Suwannee River 52.0 And Above good conditions 51.6 - 52.0 Many Shoals Below 51.6 Poor

USGS Water Gauge Fargo near Sill

USGS Water Gauge above Fargo

Okefenokee Swamp Park

B&B in Folkston

Canoe & Motorboat Concession

History of the Okefenokee

Flora & Fauna of the Okefenokee

Natural History of the Okefenokee

University of Georgia picture tour

Four Old Geezers trip Report

Music by Lighthouse String Ensemble

Stephen Foster State Campground
1-800-864-7275 912-637-5274 Route 1, Box 131, Fargo, GA 31631

Average Maximum and Minimum Temperatures:

Jacksonville, FL

Words to the background song

Sister Mary, she wears a golden chain
Sister Mary, she wears a golden chain
Sister Mary, she wears a golden chain
On every link there's Jesus name
There's no hiding place down here

There's no hiding place down here
There's no hiding place down here
Well, I run to the rocks and I hide my face
The rocks cried out, No hiding place
There's no hiding place down here

Oh, the devil, he wears a hypocrite's shoe
The devil, he wears a hypocrite's shoe
The devil wears hypocrite's shoe
If you don't watch, he'll slip it on you
There's no hiding place down here

I'll pitch my tent on the old camp ground
I'll pitch my tent on the old camp ground
I'll pitch my tent on the old camp ground
I'll give old Satan one more round
There's no hiding place down here


Paddling Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge by David O'Neill & Elizabeth A. Dominique
Okefenokee Album By Francis Harper and Delma Presley - Brown Thrasher Books - University of Georgia Press - Athens, Georgia - ISBN C-8203-1274-6

Maps for our trip
Okefenokee01.gif Okefenokee02.gif Okefenokee03.gif

Accommodations :

Folkston, GA - Recommendation Western Motel

Western Motel

U.S.1 & 301 South
31 Rooms, AARP Discount,
Swimming Pool, Jacuzzi Room,
Executive Rooms
(912) 496-4711
The Inn at Folkston

509 W. Main Street
Bed & Breakfast
4 Rooms, Wheelchair accessible
Full breakfast & afternoon
refreshments served.
(912) 496-6256

Star Motel

1900 N. Second St.
(Hwy. 301 North)

25 rooms, 8 with cable TV & refrigerator, twin beds or double beds in rooms.

(912) 496-7767

Days Inn
1201 S. 2nd Street
Folkston, GA, 31537 US




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