Sleeping with Alligators in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp
I got a surprise from work this year when they told me I hadn't used a week of vacation in 2014. The best part? It could be used this year, but had to be used before March 15. So I did what most people do in this situation and booked a 3-day canoeing and camping adventure in the 438,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp. After all, what says "vacation" better than canoeing 30 miles through dense swamp, sleeping on wooden platforms in the middle of nowhere, and sharing your personal space with alligators?
To get started, I turned to Okefenokee Adventures, an outfit that has been offering guided tours of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge since 2000. It's owned by a husband and wife team, Chip and Joy Campbell, and they were very accommodating from the start. Joy explained they had an upcoming 3-day overnight canoeing adventure that was set to depart on March 7. Included would be two nights tent camping, about 30 miles of canoeing, meals, a guide, and a pretty good chance of seeing more than a few gators up close.
I was thrilled at the prospect of roughing it for a couple of nights in the swamp and signed up. My enthusiasm carried over and I eventually convinced (coerced?) my dad, Al, and oldest nephew, Brandon, to join me. Truth be told, my dad was more than a bit concerned about the alligators after he saw a "feeding frenzy" video on YouTube, but he was a great sport and never backed out.
We loaded our gear and set out for Folkston, Georgia, the night before. After a night in a cheap motel and some very weak coffee, we set out for the refuge bright and early on the 7th. There, we met our guide, Chip (co-owner of Okefenokee Adventures), and some other folks who signed up for the journey. In all, we had a friendly group of nine that we would be spending the next few days with. We got educated on some basics, like wearing life jackets, what to do if the canoe tipped, and -- most importantly -- canoe potty etiquette. The answer to what you're wondering: Throw out your pride, hold on tight, and hang your rear over the side. Just hope your canoeing partner is upwind.
After the basics were covered, our journey began with loading and launching the canoes at Kingfisher Landing. And it's intimidating right from the start if you're a little leery about alligators. While we were loading, one surfaced by the platform briefly and then submerged itself. Even though it submerged just a few feet from us, we couldn't see it once it went under. The water in Okefenokee is black and looks right back at you. The locals call it "tea-colored," but they're delusional. It's black. You quickly realize that whatever you drop into the swamp is going to stay there for a long time.
That first day on the swamp was really enjoyable. I paddled with my dad in the bow and we got into a rhythm right off the bat. We were old pros at canoeing and got our vessel going at a pretty good clip. We were less than an hour into the trip and already expert paddlers. Then Chip caught up to us and told us everything we were doing wrong. He didn't do it in a nasty way; instead he offered some suggestions to improve our speed. Surely he was wrong, but we conceded and tried his method anyways. And the worst part is it worked.
This was just a taste of the vast knowledge of our erudite guide. Chip knows the swamp, biology, ecosystems, canoeing, big words, cooking, snakes, NC State history, birds, camping . . . in short, everything. Really. The guy's a paddling encyclopedia. And he's happy to share his wisdom all along the way. He's been taking trips to the swamp since he was a young boy and he wears his passion for Okefenokee on his sleeve. He and Joy even honeymooned here! So if you've got a question, Chip's your guy. Just be ready for a lengthy response -- he's not short on words or breath.
Our first day on the swamp ended after a relatively easy 7-mile paddle. To our joy, we saw a few alligators and none of them attacked us or our canoes. In fact, many of them stayed still long enough to snap some quick pictures. We saw egrets, vultures, and herons. Brandon, Li, and I even stumbled upon a sandhill crane lying on a nest.
It got cold fast back at camp on the first night at the Bluff Lake Shelter. Most of the group ate the jambalaya Chip cooked up and headed to their tents. But it was also a remarkably clear night, so a couple of us stayed up to take some photos of the fading light and the big dipper rising above the horizon. We were treated to a full moon silhouetting the longleaf pine and cypress trees as well. A member of our group, Li, spent some time teaching me the art of shooting night scenes, which opened up a completely new photography realm for me.
Now to the camping. Remember how much fun you had sharing a tent with two other grown men who snore loudly and frequently use the privy? Me neither. And now I'm reminded why. It seemed like the tent was being unzipped and zipped every few minutes. I caught the short end of the stick and landed the sought after middle "seat" too, so every time somebody left the tent, they found a way to step on my shins or put a knee in my calf. The good news? My bunkmates went back to their snoring contest before the pain subsided and I closed my eyes. But I persevered. Because it's not proper etiquette to throw your 72-year-old dad into the swamp. All in all, I guess it wasn't bad for camp sleep, but it was a heck of a way from the Ritz Carlton.
As you can imagine, I couldn't wait for morning to break! In fact, I hopped out of the tent and put my camera on its tripod before 6:45. And I'm glad I did. It was such a cool experience to hear the great horned owls in the distance and the sandhill cranes calling nearby. First light in the swamp is an amazing time that fills your senses. It's completely still, yet full of sounds at the same time. I took a video to try to capture the moment. My microphone didn't catch all of the sounds, but it gives you an idea.
Day Two was much more demanding. We had a 12-mile adventure that took us through several tight spots, including a couple of miles of dense forest with all sorts of switchbacks. Brandon switched to my dad's canoe, so I paddled with Brady's wife, Jill.
The weather was great and reached into the 70's before lunch, so we saw an abundance of sunning alligators. Many of these alligators stayed on their strip of peat bog as we approached and we were able to get some great photos. We also had to paddle extremely close to some of the gators while we passed, getting within just a few feet at times. But most of the trepidation we had about alligators at the start of the trip had vanished by the second day.
Just when we were getting comfortable with our new swamp friends, our canoe drifted close to an 10-footer resting on a peat bog. I reached for the camera, but the gator wasn't in the mood for photos. It exploded into the water with intense speed and headed in the direction of our canoe. Jill screamed, our canoe tilted way to the side, and I nearly dropped my camera in the canal as I jumped in my seat. The gator dove right under our canoe. Lovely visions of being overturned Lake Placid style ran through my head. It was a timely reminder that we weren't invincible in our Old Town polyethylene shields.
The forested section of the trail was pretty interesting. It wasn't more than a few feet wide in any given spot and the tree canopy closed in overhead. About 100 yards into the trees, we started noticing things dropping into the water under the trees. Whatever it was made a splash into the water, but it was difficult to catch a good glimpse of the mystery objects. A couple hundred more yards in and we realized we were hearing snakes as they fell from the trees. As if the gators aren't enough, the swamp gods throw snakes at you too. According to Chip, they were a type of water snake and nothing to worry about. Thankfully none landed in our canoe.
Our group stopped for lunch in a shaded section of the trail and we had some great conversation. Chip got going about the real meaning of Okefenokee by the indigenous Native Americans ("Bubbling Water" versus the oft-cited "Land of Trembling Water"). He also showed us the "Never Wet" plant and told us how its engineering was applied in the creation of Gore-Tex. He taught us about birds and some of the other native plants, including Blaspheme Vine, as well. It's amazing to me that one mind can contain so much.
The paddling wasn't easy and the 12-miles seemed to go on forever. Fortunately, the competitive spirit in some of the group started to show itself on this stage. Jill & I spent the better part of the last half of the day trying to catch up with the canoe piloted by her husband, Brady, and daughter, Sandy. This is where my size becomes detrimental. Try as we might, we never took over the lead. During the final attempt, we garnered some great speed and were gaining on them just to veer off right into a peat bog. We were defeated. And we were spent. So, isn't it fitting that my dad and nephew took a shortcut while we were in the midst of our race and passed us shortly afterwards? My pride was demolished. They may as well have fed me to the gators.
We kept a good pace the rest of the way and landed at Roundtop Shelter shortly after the victors. The day's paddling took up a large chunk of daylight and we were arriving just before sunset. The great feature of Roundtop is that it offers panoramic views of the swamp in every direction. We set up our tents and snapped some quick photos of the sun going down. Chip then made some killer ravioli and we used our flashlights to find the red glare of gator eyes in the surrounding waterways. There's actually an alligator that frequently hangs out by this shelter and doesn't seem affected by the presence of humans. It seemed just as curious about us and kept one eye on us the whole time.
Because of the panoramic views, I thought it would be a good time to try out my new gear I bought for time lapse photography. Here's the resulting video:
After what could be considered as more "decent camp sleep" we sprang out of the tents for our final day in the swamp. The showers that the meteorologists had been calling for were now called off and the weather was going to be perfect for our passage down the Suwanee Canal. We packed up the gear from Roundtop, had some breakfast consisting of feral hog (you read that correctly) and eggs, and set sail. Brandon was in my canoe for the final leg of the trip.
I think the last day on the swamp was my favorite because of the scenery. Once we got onto the Suwanee Canal, it was like hitting I-75. Wide waterways. Cypress trees galore. And Spanish moss dripping from every branch. There were spots everywhere for alligators to catch sun and we saw more reptiles than we could photograph.
We took it easy for most of the trip down the canal and spent quite a bit of time with Sandra and Li. Li wasn't in any rush with her DSLR and Sandra was happy to take it slow and soak it all in. Brandon was in charge of photos in our canoe and we had fun pointing out alligators, turtles, and birds to each other.
Brady and Dad managed to take the lead (they both have a competitive streak) and they camped out for a few minutes under a barred owl while they waited for us to catch up. We encountered a group of kayakers that were visiting the swamp on a tour of the Southeast and ate lunch at the same picnic area. While the canal is one of the most scenic sections of the tour, anyone can access it. You don't need permits like you do for most of the areas we paddled. Unfortunately, that means it's much busier and the added traffic certainly detracts from the adventure. Luckily the kayaks passed and we resumed our quiet jaunt down the canal.
Determined not to lose again, Brandon and I made record time down the home stretch. We took the lead and never looked back, beating the 2nd place canoe of Brady and my dad by at least 10 minutes. Don't think we gloated. Well, maybe a little. Maybe I even took a video.
The trip was an epic adventure I was happy to share with a great group. It's great to disconnect from the everyday grind and it's a wonderful way to get out of your comfort zone. The wildlife is extraordinary, the scenery is gorgeous, and the companionship is priceless.
It was great to have my dad and Brandon along for the journey. This is one of those trips that we'll remember for the rest of our lives, even though we'll probably forget most of the stories we retold. I'm proud of my dad for making the trek. Well, aside from his poor tent manners anyway. I hope that I'll be up for the same adventures when I'm 72 years young. And I'm happy Brandon got to spend some quality time hearing his grandpa's stories. It's safe to say we strengthened some family bonds.
I highly recommend this trip through Okefenokee Adventures. You can reach them to schedule your overnight trip at www.okefenokeeadventures.com or at 912-496-7156. Ask for Joy and make sure you get Chip as your guide.
If your budget doesn't match a guided tour, you can take your own day or overnight trip through the Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has some great information available at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Okefenokee/visit/plan_your_visit.html