If I can do it, anyone can. Seriously. Gators notwithstanding.
The hardest part of kayaking is getting in and out of the peapod-shaped craft, especially at one of the backcountry shelters in the Okefenokee Swamp. But once you’re tucked inside, water bottle between your legs and pack stowed at your feet, you are now part of the current. It takes a little practice to slice the oars so they don’t slap-slap the water. Even more importantly, how to raise them so water doesn’t slide down the paddle onto your legs. But if I can do it, so can you.
Okefenokee Adventures, the concessionaire at the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area (East Entrance of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Folkston, Georgia) rents kayaks for $30 a day, and they supply a PFD (Personal Flotation Device, otherwise known as a life jacket.) You get in, adjust the foot rests and seat, and then get pushed off into the Suwannee Canal. Woo hoo!
The Canal is a wide, clear route dug in 1891 by those who wanted to drain the land for cotton, sugar cane, and rice plantations, and when that failed, to exploit the swamp’s cypress forests. After eleven miles were dug, the company went bankrupt. It now serves as the entrance to other parts of the Refuge – primarily the wetland prairies, islands, and lakes of the backcountry. And it’s full of alligators!
Lots and lots of gators. Okay, so nobody’s been eaten yet in the Okefenokee, right? I mean, these ancient reptiles look like deceptively docile sculptures on land, but water is their element. This is where they hunt. Where they eat turtles, snakes, and herons, and any other critter they can catch.
Deep breath. There’s one ahead. It’s little, though. The next five or six are little, too – not more than four or five feet long. Then I pass a water trail created by gators from the abutting prairie, and two big ones hear my paddle splashing. They are swimming out to see if this means a helpless meal floundering in the water. They are coming toward me! There are TWO of them. And they are BIG. I keep paddling. I don’t dare turn around to see if they are following, because I might tip the kayak.
There are other big gators, too. They float unmoving in the canal, then slowly submerge like Death Star submarines as I approach. Not knowing just where they are is unnerving. Are they under the kayak? Will my paddle hit one? Don’t they know they could very well upturn the boat and have me for a meal? Deep breath. I keep paddling.
Allowing an hour to paddle two miles assures a comfortable ride with time to stop and watch birds or wildlife. The first mile-and-a-half of this trip shows the ravages of the 2011-2012 Honey Prairie fire which burned 483 square miles of the refuge and surrounding lands over a 12-month period. Yet the resilient cypress trees are in full bloom, with their rusty catkins spreading a film of pollen on the water.
Here and there, splotches of cardinal-red dahoon holly berries shock the winter-sere landscape. Scolding notes of a wren, a flash of yellow on the butterbutts (yellow-rumped warblers), and the bobbing tails of fly-catching phoebes compete with the rattling chrrrrrrrr of a kingfisher, or the distant staccato of the sandhill cranes. The only other sound is that of your paddle sliding out of the water. It was so beautiful I almost cried.
As if it were planned that way, and not created by the fire, as soon as you pass the sign that says “Entering National Wilderness Area” the landscape changes. The fire didn’t touch the mossy gray beards on this stretch of the canal, and you get a sense of the primordial cypress forest that was all but removed during the logging era.
You will undoubtedly encounter the Okefenokee Adventures motorized tour boat, which takes visitors on a 90-minute ride ($18.50 age 12+ and $11.25 for kids age 5-11.) down the canal into Chesser Prairie. Just pull over and wave to the visitors. In about two miles, you can turn right to Cedar Hammock on Mizell Prairie, or continue a little further to Chesser Prairie on the left.
On the spur of the moment, I decided to go to Cedar Hammock. This wetland prairie is more intimate than Chesser – for one, the narrow canoe trail doesn’t need to accommodate the tour boat. For another, it is less used, and the peat blowups slow you down a little. Peat blowups are part of the peat swamp bottom that have detached and float to the surface. They become colonized by grasses, plants, and small shrubs, but you can push them out of the way or row over them.
I was able to get good photographs of the white ibis and families of adult and juvenile little blue herons. The sandhill cranes kept their distance, though, and I spooked a nice flock of them just as I rounded the corner to the Cedar Hammock shelter. I also heard a pair of barred owls echoing in the distant pines “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuuuu?” It pays to just stop paddling and listen.
Taking photographs from a kayak wasn’t quite as easy as I expected. For one, you have to lay the paddle across the opening so it doesn’t fall out, or so you can grab it quickly if it starts to. And for another, you keep moving, either with the current, the wind, or your momentum, so it can be hard to line up the right angle. I discovered that parking myself in a peat blowup keeps the kayak in place.
Thankfully, before I had shoved off, I noticed there was no rope to tie off the kayak to a platform where the outhouses are. So I asked for one. I had to figure out, however, how to both park the boat so I could get out, and how to keep it from floating away before I could tie it off, seeing as how the rope was on the bow and I couldn’t reach it from inside. I tucked the kayak in a narrow area between the ramp and the platform, bordered by plants, held onto the boat while I climbed out, then tied it off.
Getting back in was harder. I first had to untie the kayak, then used the rope as a stabilizer around the post while I got in. Unfortunately, I tipped it in the process, getting my pack and myself wet, but not dunking completely. I will definitely need some tips on these procedures, if anybody cares to offer any.
On the way back, a big gator I had passed sunning itself was now in the middle of the narrow channel. I took a deep breath and it submerged. I rowed over the spot it had just been. I kept paddling, faster this time. For some reason, I wasn’t too keen to photograph gators at close range and at nearly eye level.
I still had plenty of time to visit Chesser Prairie, which had more big gators. Perhaps it was the time of day, but I saw fewer birds, and the sandhill cranes were shy – unlike two weeks earlier during a motor boat trip for the 2012 Christmas Bird Count. I turned west at the Cooter Lake/Tater Rake intersection and nearly bumped into the biggest gator yet as I photographed a phoebe. He was sunning on a grassy patch and didn’t look like he wanted to move. I respectfully backpaddled and started for home.
If the map is right, I paddled 10 miles in six hours. My arms and chest were sore, but I did not feel exhausted. This is a great workout for strengthening stomach muscles, and my lower back felt better when the trip was done than when I had started! I marveled at the ease at which one could skim over the water with just muscles for power, without the intrusion of motors or diesel odors. This is something I want to do again. And again and again.
If I can do it, anybody can!
p.s. I counted fifteen gators in all. And those were only the ones I could see!
Tips for newbies:
*Insist on a tie-off rope or bring your own.
*Try to get a paddle with two drip guards.
*Bring more drinking water than you think you need, unless you want to do like Okefenokee Joe and drink tannic water straight from the swamp. (Not recommended.)
*Wear sunscreen, even in January. (I did get a little red, to my surprise.)
*Never hurts to bring bug dope, even in winter.
*Bring a waterproof dry bag big enough for your pack, just in case.
*It’s windy at the prairie shelters – keep stuff from blowing away.
*Bring biker’s gloves to avoid blisters, and vary your hand placement on the paddle to keep from rubbing the same tender places.
*Wear quick-drying clothing, especially if it’s cold. Cotton stays wet.
*Bring toilet paper
*You will ALWAYS think you see more gators than are there – many logs look JUST like them!
All photographs and text are copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre