Meeting the Gators Head On
“Keep your elbows away from the water” – crucial advice I suddenly recalled from reading up on the Okefenokee Swamp, as my kayak, low to the drink, drifted a little further into the lily pads and towards whatever lurked amongst them.
The carpet of green lily leaves floating on the water was dotted with Yellow Pond Lily flower heads that never fully open to reveal their hidden beauty; also concealed is the swamp’s most famous inhabitant, the American alligator. Beauty and the Beast, side by side.
Deciding I’d prefer to keep my elbows for the rest of 2012, and beyond, I raised my shoulders whilst reversing my small craft away from the edge of Billy’s Lake, at three miles long, the largest lake in the Okefenokee.
The swamp, named by an indigenous tribe, is said to mean “land of the trembling earth”, denoting the peat bogs between proper islands that quake under foot.
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia, the Okefenokee, near the border with Florida, is, at over 400,000 acres, the largest blackwater swamp in North America, and a place of astounding scenery. Even so, a swamp is not the first choice of a weekend break for my city-loving partner Guy, who was reluctantly persuaded to accompany me and to lend my photos a more interesting perspective as a human subject alongside the gators. The Okefenokee is pretty exotic for two Brits, or any city dweller, and it was not long before this untamed, tranquil wilderness seduced us both.
“Way down upon the Swanee River…”
There are three main entrances to Okefenokee, each a gateway to distinct experiences. The eastern one, the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area offers boat and canoe hire, boardwalks over the swamp and an observation tower overlooking the largely open prairie landscape that attracts more birds.
The northern entrance, the Okefenokee Swamp Park, is the most suitable for young families and has a zoo plus boat hire, although low water levels can restrict tours.
The Stephen C Foster State Park, for the more adventurous, is the western entrance and the most remote part of the swamp, reached by a 17-mile road that follows the Suwannee River upstream from the nearby small town of Fargo. The river was immortalized in 19th century songwriter Stephen Collins Foster’s The Swanee River (written in the days before spell check), the Official state song of Florida. The Suwannee drains most of the swamp and near the start of its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico, the river passes through Fargo on a bend where the Suwannee Visitor Center is located.
From the Center, raised high up out of the flood plain, you can already see the tea-stained color of the river, caused by tannic acid from decaying vegetation, which seems, close-up, to dye lily roots a russet color in the swamp’s dark waters. Otherwise, the waters provide a perfect mirror of the surrounding trees.
At the Center you will be face-to-face with some of the swamp’s inhabitants including the rarely spotted brown bear (there are 300-400 in the Okefenokee and a stuffed one in the Center), sliders (turtle) and, of course, alligator (baby ones in the Center). Running at the Center, a beautifully shot ten-minute film of the swamp, with impressive aerial footage, will whet your appetite for your visit to this largely unexplored “world governed by water”.
Less than a mile north from the Center on Highway 441, opposite Fargo Golf Course, we stayed at the Suwannee River Eco-Lodge which has eight comfortable cabins for hire. Ours came with a hot shower, aircon (it was mercifully free of mosquitoes inside), a porch with rocking chairs and a kitchenette, ideal since Fargo is not known for its cuisine. Bring your own food (and corkscrew!) and pack something to eat and store in a dry container in the kayak for the next day’s journey into the swamp.
An easy meal
Early in the morning, along the easy 30 minute drive to the Stephen C Foster State Park, we saw a white-tailed deer standing by the roadside. But set off too early in spring or fall and you limit your chances of spotting gators straight away in the park since they prefer warmer temperatures (usually over 70 Fahrenheit) and nighttime and dawn can be chilly outside of summer.
Standing on our porch at the Eco-Lodge, in the morning air we could see our own breath, before the sun worked its magic. As the day heated up, the gators started to appear, at first often climbing onto logs and banks to bask their cold-blooded bodies in the sun.
Our first encounter with a gator occurred just as we arrived in Billy’s Lake, reached by a narrow channel from the kayak rental office in the park. We were oblivious to anything but the breath-taking scenery, however, a nearby fisherman pointed at a large reptile just a few feet from his canoe of not dissimilar size and complained, “He keeps snagging my line,” the gator obviously hoping to intervene on a catch. An easy meal.
“Gators eat fish, otters, snakes; they’ll eat whatever they can get hold of. They’ll eat other gators if there are smaller ones out there,” Brian Gray, the Park Manager, told me at the desk of the park’s office, gift shop and store where you can hire kayaks, canoes, boats and book guided tours on much larger craft during the day, at sunset, and for astronomy lovers, experience programs at night.
In the spring, female alligators will protect their eggs but generally they are safe to be around as long as you don’t approach them. “There’s a few that will approach you and the rule of thumb is to just get away from them,” added Gray, “they get used to people. You’re not supposed to feed gators; but there are people who do, and there are some gators that get used to it. They see a boat and they’ll approach because they think they’re gonna get fed, but that’s highly illegal in the swamp.”
As for snakes, it’s a good idea to check kayaks before getting in them, just in case you’re carrying an extra passenger. Gray’s colleague, Tour Guide Michael Ellis believes they won’t bother you out on the water. “I always say: the smart snakes stay away from the water and the dumb snakes have already been eaten. Where you see a good gator population you usually don’t see many snakes.”
At the park’s office, there’s a 2100 foot boardwalk raised over the swamp and a three quarters of a mile Trembling Earth Nature Trail with descriptions of local vegetation. In the nearby Interpretive Center and museum there are more clues to the wetlands’ flora and fauna.
There are more than 12,000 alligators in the swamp and we saw over 20 on our trip, as many as the motorboats and other water craft we saw in one day on a ‘busy’ weekend.
After our first sighting, we were on the lookout paddling towards Billy’s Island, the second largest island in the swamp at one by five miles long and named after Indian Billy, a Seminole murdered there in the early 19th century.
The swamp had a long history of being inhabited, as a home to hermits, refugees, runaway slaves, Civil War deserters and frontiersmen. Billy’s Island was once home to a lumber community of 600 that dwindled along with the swamp’s supply of hardy cypress.
Thankfully the cypress returned as a significant feature of the landscape but the island is now eerily deserted, apart from determined mosquitoes. All that remains is a small fenced-off cemetery and artifacts from the 1920s logging town, rusted and abandoned along a short walking trail from the island’s tiny wooden dock where we hauled up our kayaks for a 20 minute stroll.
Earth, air, fire and water
Fire played a role in driving out some inhabitants and continues to change the face of the swamp. Paddling along Billy’s Lake there are cindered stumps, dark lines against the blue sky and upturned roots of trees, as black as tar, as far as the eye can see. A lightning strike sparked a fire in 2011 and mixed with the devastating Bugaboo Scrub Fire of 2007, the largest of its kind in both Georgia and Florida, both transforming the Okefenokee in recent years. Now deemed to be officially over, the fires actually served in restoring the ecosystem, making way for fresh prairie grass and the tall, thin, elegant longleaf pine.
Burnt, blackened timbers, marked with bumpy nodules and floating part-submerged, are easily mistaken for dark alligators (and vice versa!) at a glance when moving through the waters in a kayak, especially travelling at greater speed through the next part of the swamp.
Doubling back towards Billy’s Lake, follow an easy-to-spot signpost to Minnie’s Lake, you take a right and eventually the more open water leads to a narrow channel. It’s faster moving even against the slight current and especially so on the return journey and has not been nicknamed Pinball Alley for nothing.
All too often we found ourselves colliding with each other and bouncing off the wide stumps of bald or pond cypresses and cypress “knees” that project out of the water alongside other twisted boughs.
The trick here is not to disturb the Spanish moss that seems made to adorn a swamp, lending the trees a ghostly cloak. Up close, its twirls of grey-green house chiggers, burrowing insects you don’t want on your skin which is one reason why wearing long sleeves and pants is advised. Otherwise, out on the water but seldom near the banks, there are few insects in the spring sunshine. The best times to avoid mosquitoes are, “early and right at the end of winter,” said Brian Gray, “anywhere in February, March, they are good times. And then October and November.”
Spring is fantastic for a little added color. “Visually there’s not a lot of color change down here in the fall,” added Gray. “We have leaves down here because it stays warm for so long, so some of that doesn’t fall until really late, generally the end of November, December.”
Soon you reach the Rest Shelter at Minnie’s Lake, nearly four miles from the kayak rental. The dock has a restroom and place to tie up canoes. Just over five miles further is Big Water Lake, the heart of the swamp, an ambitious trek for a day’s kayaking. It too has an elevated wooden platform, this one for overnight camping for those who want to kayak across the swamp on a longer visit (and with considerably more organization required).
We managed nearly nine miles in just over six hours in our kayaks at a fairly leisurely pace with a gentle breeze, occasionally stopping to take photos. Progress could be tough with stronger winds and low water. With really low water levels, kayaking and canoeing are not permitted.
This is to avoid “dragging” – having to step into the water to pull your craft along. And in case you were wondering, swimming is not allowed in the swamp waters. It’s great to be close to nature, but not that close.
Stepping onto the platform at Minnie’s Lake, I heard a deep growl, from a nearby gator I couldn’t see. Its sound prompted another visitor at the shelter to relay a tale of a legendary gator. “It was called Big Al and was bigger than my canoe. It sure scared my wife when it growled when we were camping by Big Water.”
I was reminded of my first visit to the Okefenokee, on the east side. A few minutes’ walk from our parked car in a trail through the forest I stepped up on a rocky bank to take a photo of the landscape from a vantage point and a few foot below in a small pond I could hear a deep, deep bellow. Needless to say, I didn’t get that shot. The American alligator is the loudest of all reptiles and very effective in clearing its immediate vicinity when it wants to.
Apart from gators bellowing territorial warnings, there are fewer sounds than expected in the daytime’s peaceful isolation, at least on our April visit. The most notable sound from nature was the occasional woodpecker at work, echoing from timber to timber. Other birds we saw: a Little Blue Heron stalking for fish and the incredible sight of large, almost totally white birds of prey with forked tails: Swallow-tailed Kites circling overhead. Also soaring in the air above are turkey vultures but don’t take it as a bad omen.
Gliding with gators
All the time we were wondering what creatures were attracted to the scent of our pastrami sandwiches, water-proofed in a plastic container stowed in one of our kayaks. Raccoons, for example, have been known to forage for food in unattended kayaks. This was no longer an issue after we’d finished lunch fairly quickly, tentatively moored by the side of a tree, still sat in our kayaks as there are few places to stretch your legs.
Stopping for a rest can be tricky in narrow channels. You can easily get carried away taking photos, in more ways than one. Suddenly that gator looms larger and larger in the viewfinder – your kayak has drifted on the current. Laughing nervously as you back-paddle, be careful not to drop the oar, as I did, then having to fish it out of the dark waters, by hand. Disconcertingly, alligators sometimes appear to coast towards you, then slowly dip below the surface.
Returning to the park’s Boat Basin, a fisherman at a relatively safe distance perched on a bank yelled to us, “Is it true those kayaks are easy to flip?” Actually they were very stable, except when stepping in or out. A shared canoe rather than a kayak is easier to dock and they’re also higher upon the water, so that your elbows feel safer.
Nothing beats a kayak for that feeling of freedom, and yes, a little more vulnerability, but also control over how exactly you want to explore. At times it was odd to think that the next day we’d be back in Atlanta, just a five hour drive but a world away from moments of unexpected bliss on the waters of the Okefenokee.
The Stephen C. Foster State Park has a $5 entrance / parking fee – the best $5 I’ve ever spent in Georgia.
The Park is open 7am to 10pm and gates are locked outside these hours. Call ahead to check water levels for kayaking and availability of camping and cottages within the park itself. (912) 637-5274 www.gastateparks.org/StephenCFoster
To make reservations at the Suwannee River Eco-Lodge, go to www.gastateparks.org/SuwanneeRiver-EcoLodge. Prices vary but are around $100 a night for a cottage.
The Stephen C. Foster State Park’s Office hours are 8am to 5pm. At the office, kayak rental is $30 for up to8 hours; cheaper for shorter rentals. There are also year-round boat tours, boat rentals, cycling and other activities. If you plan to stay overnight in the Okefenokee, check online for further details on limited permits, reservations and preparation. Bring your own gear, food and ample water supply for your visit.
Lee Howard is from the UK and divides his time between London and Atlanta. He has worked in music and film journalism for over 20 years and his work has been published in over 20 countries. Currently obsessed with Georgia, he wonders if he’ll ever make it to all 50 states in the USA but loves the prospect.
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