Noteworthy Paddle in TAG: The Okefenokee Swamp
Activities: Paddling, fishing, wildlife observation, camping
Rating: Easy to Moderate
The Okefenokee Swamp, which is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia and the headwaters for the Suwannee and St Marys Rivers, is a 438,000 acre peat filled wetland located in southeastern Georgia. It straddles the Georgia-Florida line and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge along with the Okefenokee Wilderness protect the majority of the swamp. The swamp provides habitats for threatened and endangered species for a wide variety of wildlife species and is world renowned for its amphibian populations. There have also been more than 600 plant species identified on the refuge.
The swamp was formed over the past 7,000 years by the accumulation of peat in a shallow basin on the edge of an ancient Atlantic coastal terrace, the geological relic of a Pleistocene estuary. Trail Ridge, which is a strip of elevated land believed to have formed as coastal dunes or an offshore barrier island also borders the swamp.
By executive order, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1936 and is the largest in the eastern United States. The US Fish & Wildlife Service manages paddle trails throughout the swamp and there are 5 public access entrances to the swamp:
1) Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, Folkston, Georgia
2) Kingfisher Landing at Race Pond, Georgia
3) Stephen C. Foster State Park, Fargo, Georgia
4) Suwannee Sill Recreation Area, Fargo, Georgia
5) Okefenokee Swamp Park, Waycross, Georgia
For our Friendsgiving in 2021, we decided we wanted to do a paddle trip on the Okefenokee Swamp. You do have to make reservations, but they cannot be made more than 60 days in advance. In addition, they can only be made by phone on certain days of the week. Since the swamp is becoming more popular, I am not going to provide details on how to get a permit, just note that if you decide you want to plan a trip, have multiple trips planned so when you make your call you have a back up plan and a back up for the back up plan in case your selected itinerary is already booked.
After making many calls and finally getting thru to the reservation line, we were able to book a 2 night, 3 day paddle on the swamp. We would be starting out at Stephen C. Foster State Park, paddling to Floyd’s Island and then for the second night paddling to the Big Water shelter. This would give us 3 days of paddling and approximately 28 miles of paddling.
There were 11 in our group however, you can have up to 20 per permit. I do recommend keeping the group small, especially if you are going to be camping on a platform as once you start putting up tents and hammocks, your walking space on the platform becomes very small.
We all drove down on Thanksgiving Day, arriving at Stephen C. Foster State Park which is where we were camping for the night. One of the wonderful things about the paddle we selected is it is an in and out at the same location. This means we did not have to spend precious time shuttling vehicles to the takeout. After setting up camp, Jason and I took some time to explore around the park and check out the Trembling Earth Nature Trail. We then cooked a few Buffalo Chicken dutch oven pizzas for dinner. Once everyone arrived, we spent time together for a while around the campfire before heading off to bed.
Jason and I at the entrance to the park
Our campsite at Stephen C. Foster State Park
Dutch Oven Cooking!
The next morning, the weather wasn’t looking so great. We packed up and ate some quick breakfast and drove our boats and gear to the put in. We spent about 30 minutes or so getting all of our boats loaded with our gear. It had started sprinkling but we were all prepared with raincoats. We waited around for a bit before deciding to go ahead and push off. We had a long day of paddling so we didn’t want to waist a lot of time for the sprinkles to stop because we knew they were eventually going to. We set off heading up towards Canal Run. Going this route to Floyds Island added a few miles to our paddle but we felt it would be worth it in the end as we would complete a loop instead of a straight in and out. This would also give us more opportunity to see more of the preserve and wildlife. Since we are all experienced paddlers, we knew it would be very doable for our group. And no matter which way we decided to go, we would have an upstream paddle on the way!
The put in at Stephen C. Foster State Park
Putting in during the rain!
About 2 miles in, we came to Billy’s Island, where we stopped to take the short walk around. Just before getting back in our boats, Christina accidentally dropped her cell phone. We watched it as it bounced and before we could even do anything it went right into the swamp. Um, what to do? No worries, Shaun, another member in our group said he would try and retrieve it for her. We all nervously watched as he carefully creeped down into the waist deep and chilly water. Since it was wintertime, there were not many alligators around to worry about or at least that we could see! After spending a few minutes searching around the bottom with his feet, he carefully started to pull something up. As it neared the surface and he retrieved it, we all very excitedly thought it was going to be the cell phone but instead it was a pair of binoculars. A few jokes were made, but Shaun was still persistent and was not ready to give up. He spent another few minutes searching and finally he said, “I think I have it” and sure enough he did. We all cheered, and we then continued our paddle up Canal Run, knowing our next stop would be at the Canal Run platform/shelter. There are no “bathrooms” per say on the swamp, so you must plan accordingly. There are day use and overnight shelters/platforms, and they have a port o let, but honestly, they are quite smelly and gross. So, you must plan ahead, and I highly suggest bringing your own toilet paper and for the ladies you will need to think about bringing something in case you have to go while in between shelters and still in your boat!
Jenny at Billys Island
Once we go to the Canal Run shelter, we stopped for lunch. There was another couple already there that had reserved the shelter for the night so we asked them if they would be ok for us hanging out for a bit, they were so we all chatted for a while and enjoying our lunch. After lunch, we got pack in our canoes and continued our way to Floyd’s Island.
Canal Run Shelter/Platform
Floyds Island and the swamp were hunting grounds for the Creek Indians in the 1800’s. During the Second Seminole War in Florida in 1838, it extended into the Okefenokee. The Georgia militia and U.S. army troops patrolled the swamp and they burned down a Seminole village on the island and they subsequently renamed it Floyds Island, for Charles Rinaldo Floyd. Later in 1925, Daniel Hebard, the son of the Hebard Lumber Company’s founder, built a hunting cabin on Floyds Island. The cabin still stands today and with a permit you are allowed to camp on the island. Since it is an island, you are also allowed to have fires. Knowing this ahead of time, allowed for us to plan for a group meal. We brought some crappy fish that Jason and I had caught earlier in the spring. Others brought side dishes and we all had a nice meal cooked on the campfire and later enjoyed the beautiful night sky.
Portaging gear to the camping area at Floyds Island
The Cabin at Floyds Island
Dinner on the fire!
The next morning, we decided we would also cook a group breakfast and take our time as it was only about a 6 mile paddle to our next stop, Big Water. We cooked a wonderful breakfast of sausage, bagels, English muffins, scrambled eggs, cheese, fruit and potatoes. We all enjoyed a walk around the island exploring before setting off for our next destination, Big Water. The area we would paddle thru next is quite different than what we had previously been paddling. It was more of a prairie and it was very beautiful.
Once at Big Shelter, we set up our camp kitchen and tents. We cooked a group meal of chicken quesadillas for dinner and afterwards enjoyed one of the most beautiful night skies ever.
Big Water Shelter
Sunday morning, we woke up and began packing up. It was about an 8 mile paddle back to Stephen C. Foster State Park and then we all had a 4-6 hour drive home. On the paddle out we saw a few more alligators and some swamp otters. All in all, it was a wonderful paddle and we look forward to paddling more of the swamp in the future.
Day use shelter on Minnies Lake on the way back to Stephen C. Foster