With ten days before we were due in Charlotte for Tweak Week we turned south and headed to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This 402,000 acre area of dense swamp along the Suwannee River straddles the central Georgia/Florida border. If you are looking to “get away from it all” this is the place to come. We’d be staying at Georgia’s Stephen C. Foster State Park which is reached by the western entrance to the refuge. It is eighteen miles from the nearest town if you can call Fargo a town. There’s a convenience store/gas station, post office, cafe, Visitors Center and the Eco Lodge for non-campers. The nearest grocery store is 50 miles away so when they say bring everything with you, they mean it. Cell coverage drops to one tiny bar about five miles out of Fargo. The park office does offer free internet but you have to sit on the front porch to use it. Both the Wildlife Refuge and the State Park gates close and lock at 10pm. Unlike some parks there is no code so you can’t come or go after that hour. Of course there isn’t anywhere to go! When emergency care is needed the park is served by helicopter because of the distance. One of the rangers said once they were halfway done with refueling before they realized the “helicopter” was a mosquito! Fortunately at this time of year bugs were no problem. Click on the link below for a detailed map of the refuge and paddle trails.
Normally an entrance fee is charged for the NWR but with our Interagency Senior Pass that was waived. Georgia also offers a 20% senior discount on camping fees at the time of registration versus when you book online. I guess they want to see the gray hair and wrinkles for themselves. Stephen C. Foster State Park has a modern campground with 50 electric and water sites for RVs up to 40 feet. There are two loops each with their own bathhouse and laundry. There is also a cabin colony and primitive camping area across the main road, a picnic area and a nature center. The park rents bikes, canoes, kayaks, and jon boats.The website says the Nature Trail is closed due to fire damage but this is inaccurate. It is open and offers a nice walk for campers with pets.
A word about pets here in the NWR. The park website says they are permitted but not recommended because of the alligators and other wildlife. The refuge has over 1200 alligators and they can be near to the campground. We had no choice. Opal had to come with us. I’ll let her tell you about one incident in her own words. Mom and I were out for our usual morning walk. We’d just turned off of the campground road onto the main road. There was a drainage ditch alongside the road. Normally I love to snoop into the pipes under the road. I was about five feet away from the water when all of a sudden I heard a BIG splash. Well, I knew that was no fish! I ran back to Mom and didn’t go near the water again. Later that day Mom and Dad saw the 4′ alligator that calls that pipe home. Other animals frequent the campground such as deer and turkeys. While the area is considered bear country we did not see any during our stay. The birds are all over and their songs fill the air. We would wake up to a chorus every morning punctuated with a hooting owl or the rat-tat-tat of a piliated woodpecker.
While the main attraction of the refuge is the water trail we opted for a bike ride as rain was predicted on our first day. This area is flat as a pancake and conducive to a long rides. Before we knew it we’d gone 13.6 miles. There were stops along the way to watch butterflies and to check kayaking put-ins at the Suwannee Sill. The next two days it rained and rained and rained. A total of 7.5 inches in less than 48 hours. After all, it is a swamp.
When it finally cleared about mid day on Wednesday we were itching to get out on the water. The park runs a 90 minute pontoon boat trip with a naturalist at 10am, 1:30pm and 3pm. The cost is $15 per person. This was an excellent introduction.
The next day we took our kayaks and returned to the same area called Minnie’s Trail. It’s a bit unnerving to launch in the canal that connects the park to the river. One alligator hangs out near the rental boats and others gather near the boat ramp. At least at this time of year they’re cold and don’t move too fast. The video below was done on this trip. I hope you will overlook a few brain farts where for some reason I called the cypress trees cedars and Spanish moss became spaghum moss. I guess paddling, shooting video and talking all at the same time was more multitasking than I could handle. Enjoy!
So where do all the new cypress trees come from? It’s simple … see below for the answer………….
Just a brief explanation of the next 19-second video clip. We were cruising through the swamp when I saw an opportunity ahead of us for a cool ‘gator video. Up ahead of us, just a little bit, was an alligator sunning himself on a log, right alongside the channel. I pointed it out to Chari, who immediately picked up her camera. I took out my pocket camera, which has a video feature.
Now anyone familiar with driving a small boat with an outboard motor knows that the operator will sit in the stern seat, facing forward, with his left hand reaching behind him, holding onto the tiller control on the motor. In my right hand was the camera, which I was holding up shooting the gator as we motored past, but as we motored on by, my body kind of twisted to the right as I was watching him through the back of the camera.
Now here is an elementary physics lesson. A left hand, extended behind a body in motion (twisting to the right) will move to the left. A motor boat, when the motor is moved to the left, will turn to the right.
OK… got that? Where was the gator? On a log. Where was the log? To my right. What happened? This isn’t rocket science!
The boat hit the log, the gator moved with lightning speed, into the water, and banged the back of the boat with his tail as he blissfully swam away, just a little too close for comfort!
By my calculation, it just took you at least twice as long to read this as the entire episode! (Steve)
On a quieter note, we’d like to leave you with a sense of peace that we felt surrounded by the Okefenokee and the Suwannee River. This is a short video set to music. Sit back. Put your feet up. Take a deep breath. Relax.