Canoe Camping the Okefenokee Swamp

There is always a first time for everything.  Or, there is always a first time for everything you do at least once.  For me, this was my first time canoe camping.  I’ve camped instead of staying in hotels on long road trips.  I’ve RV camped.  I’ve gone glamping.  I’ve camped on overnight backpacking trips.  But canoe camping?  This was new to me.

And you know what?  Its awesome.  But, a goodly part of it being awesome was the location, and of the Okefenokee Swamp I do not think enough good things can be said.

The Trip Begins

Our trip began with a brief stay at an AirBNB in Fargo,Georgia.  The air conditioning worked, the furniture was upholstered in camouflage, and nary a surface in the living room was without taxidermy. The beds were a great prep for camping accommodations: hard and uncomfortable.

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Photo from AirBNB listing.

Why the AirBNB prior to a camping trip?  Simply logistics.  To get from Atlanta to the swamp takes the better part of five hours.  Leaving after work on Thursday meant that there was no way to realistically get to the swamp before dark…and while setting up a campsite in the dark is doable, it isn’t fun.

Canoes and Gear

Our trip began from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, where we rented canoes and gear, bought a map and snacks, and saw our first of many alligators.  The facility that rents canoes also rents supplies like camp stoves, water jugs, etc.  The stove is a good idea if you don’t have your own, but I would advise against the water jugs.  Renting a 5 gallon jug costs more than buying 5 gallons of water in resealable (screw top)  jugs.  The individual gallon jugs are easier to use, easier to carry, and easier to arrange in your canoe.  Save yourself the inconvenience of the rental water and make a stop at a grocery store.  Just be sure to get screw top jugs, the cheap milk-jug style with pop lids aren’t really robust enough to be tossed around.

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National Geographic map vs US Fish and Wildlife map

The Suwannee Canal Recreation Area (SCRA) will provide you with a map when you arrive.  This map is great for one thing: putting in your scrap book/memory box of trips you’ve taken.  Feel free to bring it with you so it gets a nice patina of swamp on it for authenticity.  But then buy the really nice waterproof/tear-resistant National Geographic topographical map from the place where you rent your canoe.  Seriously, buy the map.  Its a beautiful piece of work (if you’re into that sort of thing…and admittedly I am) and contains more information than the paper map.

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The green squares cover approximately the same amount of area. The NatGeo map (larger map) is double sided as well, so more of the region is on the back

Day 1: SCRA to Canal Run Overnight Shelter

Our first day we started out along the Orange Trail, which follows the Suwannee Canal.  The canal  was created in an effort to drain the Okefenokee Swamp, a task that thankfully was never finished.  The canal splits after about two miles and the signage is vague bordering on unhelpful.  To the maps!

I had picked up the NatGeo map and my friend had the park service map, so we reckoned that we’d be able to figure out where we were and how to get where we needed to go in a hurry.  Well, it turns out his map was in the bottom of a bag which was quite tightly secured in his canoe the map and thus completely inaccessible.  Map Lesson #1 keep your map easily accessible.

Map Lesson #2: read the map before you need the map.  The only downside of the NatGeo map is its sheer size.  If you don’t know where your intended path of travel is it takes a serious amount of time to figure out where you are on it!  After fifteen minutes of passing the map between boats while being pushed by a slight breeze repeatedly into a thicket we figured out the answer: we should bear right!  Oh…and we could have gone left too – it leads to the same place (as long as you don’t take two lefts, at that point you’d be going the wrong way).  The advantage to going right instead of left is that the right hand route is canoe only (a plus when none of the canoeists are particularly adept at canoeing) and also a bathroom is available on the right-hand trail.

Bathrooms in the swamp.  It sounds like a joke, or perhaps the premise to a horror flick, but honestly they were fairly nice.  Now, I’m not saying nice relative to the Ritz Carlton, or even a fast-food restaurant…but they had toilet paper and hand sanitizer which is more than I could say for one of the gas stations we stopped at on the way back!

The trail was wide with dappled shade, making the journey pleasant and easy.  There were occasional S-bends which forced us to acknowledge that none of us were particularly good at canoeing…but also provided an opportunity to practice synchronized paddling.  The result of bumping into the brush along the sides of the banks is the rapid acquisition of a healthy spider population in your boat.  Literally every branch along the side is home to spiders.  Big spiders, small spiders, really really big spiders, and medium spiders.  Basically if you aren’t a fan of spiders I advise you figure out how to steer your canoe in a hurry.

On Alligators

So, by now I’ve only mentioned alligators once… let me first explain my expectation of alligators in the swamp.  I had hoped to see an alligator.  And I had intended on bringing binoculars to facilitate that endeavor (I forgot them, along with an avocado, at home).  Oh how I misjudged how many alligators there are in the swamp.  Within the first two miles we had spotted over a dozen alligators.  Based on the well established piece of folklore that alligators are as long in feet as they are in inches from nose to eyes (which all of us had heard and none of us could say from where) we probably had seen several hundred feet of gator by the time we arrived at our campsite.  The biggest were easily 12 feet long.  After awhile we weren’t tired of seeing alligators per se…but we were less impressed by the casual alligator sighting.

Coffee Bay Day Shelter

Our second stop of the day was at the Coffee Bay Day Shelter.  If you are coming from the SCRA you’ll first spot Coffee Bay’s restroom.  It looks hard to get to, involving a scramble through some brush.  Yea, don’t do that.  Keep going another 100 yards and you’ll see a big covered pavilion with easy canoe access.  There is a trail leading from the pavilion to the restroom.

Stopping for lunch is a really nice treat when you are in a canoe.  While having a little snack or drink in a canoe is easy, there is something really satisfying about getting out, making yourself a peanut butter, honey, and chili-flake sandwich and taking a minute without having to worry about crashing into a tree full of spiders.

Canal Run Overnight Shelter

There had been some concern earlier in the day that our pace wasn’t adequate to arrive before dark as our first two miles took nearly two hours!  Once we started paying attention to our pace we were easily able to average 1.5mph, even while leisurely paddling, and taking every opportunity to stop and admire the scenery.  After briefly being scared that we were doomed to spend the entire day on the water it was really pleasant arriving at the shelter at 5pm.  We were able to set up our tents and then had an impromptu yoga session on the platform.

In the middle of yoga we were startled by what we later learned was the mating call of a male alligator.

If you’ve never had your yoga interrupted by an astonishingly loud alligator mating call, then you perhaps do not realize how primordially frightening the noise is.  We took a brief break from downward dogging to scream investigate the cause of the noise.  In the grand scheme of things, the fellow who was making all of the racket wasn’t particularly big.  Maybe only 8 feet long or so, which sounds like a lot but its mostly tail…

The rest of our yoga finished up uneventfully…although it involved a lot more staring at our alligator friend.

It seems as though the gators expect to be fed.  We came to notice a recurring theme, every time we’d show up at a shelter (day use or overnight) a gator would drift on over and make themself easily visible.  Normally they wouldn’t stick around if our canoes drifted close, so it seems that they might get scraps from people using the shelters.  I think this should go without saying but do not feed the gators.  This is why we can’t have nice things people!

Day 2: Canal Run to Floyd’s Island

The first day had been an easy 7 hour trip (including stops) and we had covered over eight miles.  The second day was going to be much shorter, around four miles.  This we decided was not an adequate journey to embark upon.  So we figured out how to make it better.

The four(ish) mile route involved back tracking briefly along the Orange trail, turning onto the Blue trail and taking that until it teed into the Green trail.  Our modification involved going a bit further down the Orange trail, and taking the considerably longer Purple Trail.  Ok, enough with the colors…what exactly did this mean?

At first it meant we were able to experience some really awesome sites.  The Purple trail meanders through the Chase Prairie, and if you’ve never seen a swamp prairie it is a sight to behold. 

Water lilies as far as the eye can see.  Swamp irises in bloom. Carnivorous plants abound – with the pitcher plants making the most impressive displays and the dainty sundews requiring a bit more patience to spot.

But as the day wore on we noticed that paddling in the prairie is hard work.  The refreshing breeze would occasionally drive us into the lily pads…which doesn’t sound like such a bad thing until you realize how much extra drag lily pads impart onto your canoe.  Sometimes the path was choked with lily pads and the normal “stroke, stroke, glide” of canoeing turned “stroke, stroke, rapidly decelerate, stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke…” and became our recreation of Ancient Greek Triremes.

We stopped in the middle of the day at the Round Top day shelter, which was lovely except for an unfortunate breeze that gently wafted the aroma of swamp-toilet right into the covered pavilion.  Reading the log book at the shelter we learned that despite our paddling “being hard” we hadn’t experienced anything as bad as the unfortunate souls who had been forced by a thunderstorm to spend the night at this shelter.  After lunch, a brief nap, and some jiu-jitsu shenanigans we were refreshed and ready to continue on.

Can’t see any harm taking the scenic route

day 2
Huh, what’s that funny gray squiggle?

By 4 o’clock we came to an intersection, where the Black trail made a small looping detour.  Since we only had a mile to go we decided that a little extra time on the water would be well spent.  This is one of those times where you might not even know that the Black trail existed if you used the free map.

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Oh, that gray squiggle is a scenic detour… I wonder why these little canoe icons are different colors…?

Armed with our more detailed map we happily took a left onto the Black trail.  We were relieved to see that the it looked like the lily pad jungle was thinning.  Unfortunately what had happened was we had simply taken a wrong turn…  the actual path was simply so overgrown with lily pads that we rejected it as a possible route without much thought on the matter.  Only after the trail gradually became progressively more overgrown and impassable did we admit to ourselves that we had gone wrong somewhere and turned around.

A note on turning around…  No one likes to turn around.  It means acknowledging error.  In a canoe, in narrow confines, with three boats stacked on each other, it means making friends with all of the local spiders.  But, eventually we got ourselves turned back around and with greater vigilance spotted the weed choked remainder of the Black trail.

Once more the path tried to tempt us along a false route…while the route to the left seemed clearer the path to the right made a lot more sense to according to map.  We ignored the siren call of a path bereft of frictious lily pads and carried on.  Only we must have missed where the black path and the blue path and the green path merged…because we never saw the intersection.  This combination of factors meant we were not as certain as we would have liked to be – but as we were only a mile from our final destination we did not think it too serious a problem.

Map Reading Skillz

Well…this is probably the time to mention Map Lesson #2: read the map before you need the map.  Apparently the map included color coded trail difficulty indicators.  And we were about to traverse our first region of “difficult.”

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We discovered the difficult ratings the next day…so what followed was surprising.  The path narrowed dramatically.  The water became so shallow that paddling was more like “poling,” except most of the time the paddle just sank uselessly into a mass of peat.  At one point we were more rolling atop submerged logs than floating.  The light was thinking about waning, we were tired, and we were only mostly sure that we were going the right way.

And then we hit a dead end.

Move directly to Stage 5 (acceptance), do not pass go, do not collect $200

All I could do was laugh.  We had come all this way down a torturous path and had expected to be greeted with a cheerful campsite and instead we were at the end of a cul-de-sac filled with miasma and broken dreams.  Well, there was nothing to be done for it today…we pulled our canoes ashore and I began to mentally calculate where the tents would fit.  And then we noticed a path going off into the woods.  Before unloading the canoes we ventured out down the path.  After about 100 yards a miraculous site appeared before us: a swamp toilet.  Were we in the right spot?  Still not sure, but we were somewhere that humans were intended to be!

Floyd’s Cabin

Another quarter mile down the path we came to Floyd’s Cabin – the campground we had been seeking.

At the campground there was a “cart” that appeared good for transporting our stuff from the canoes to camp.  I wish I had taken a picture of this nefarious beast because it is made out of deception, lies, sadness, and pain, and is in no way shape or form more helpful than carrying each and every item by hand.  The cart is made out of the heaviest steel tubing that the demonically possessed welder could lay hands on.  The expression “don’t reinvent the wheel” applied to the wheels of this contraption, which were vaguely circular and appeared to be made out of some type of metamorphic rock.  The handles were positioned perfectly far apart as to make grabbing them sublimely awkward.  The balance point was such that in order to lift it and keep the loading platform level you could neither have your arms at full extension nor at full flexion.  You had to carefully maintain a 10 degree or so bend in your elbow, perfectly calibrated to be exhausting after spending 8 hours canoeing.  And then every single time that you hit a root something, usually multiple somethings will go flying off of the cart and lodge themselves under its pseudo-wheels.

Fatigue being what it is, I didn’t realize the machine was doing this on purpose and persisted in using it until impaling myself on it the next morning.

It works really nicely as a bench however…just be careful not to have someone sitting on the cantilevered end when you get up or else they’ll end up in a pile on the ground.

A Cabin in the Woods

When we booked the campsite we did not realize it came with the namesake cabin.  Well, for those looking to travel to Floyd’s Island, I still recommend a tent as the cabin is the building equivalent of an alligator’s mating call: primordially disturbing.  It just isn’t quite right as it was built to look like a cabin but lacks the basic layout of a real house.  No kitchen for instance.  And it is entirely illuminated by shadows.  Thank you but no thank you!  I’ll sleep outside under the stars.

This campsite was noticeably buggier than the other with the mosquitoes coming out to feast as darkness fell.  We were all exhausted so did not need much encouragement to crawl into our tents and fall asleep.

A note on stars

Capture
Light Pollution Map

The Okefenokee Swamp is supposed to be one of the darkest places in the United States.  Or, perhaps more properly there is incredibly artificial light pollution.

Normally this means you get to see the milky way, and beautiful skies full of stars.  However, since the moon was full we mostly saw a retina-searing full moon.  It was so bright that one of us woke up in the middle of the night thinking it was dawn.

Day 3: Floyd’s Island to Stephen C. Foster State Park

The day prior we had scouted ahead and determined that there was a continuation of the trail on the other side of the island.  There are no indications on the map nor trail guides about a portage…but we decided that we’d take our chances with the new path.  Anything would be better than the tough path we had come in on.

Once the canoes were hauled across the island and reloaded we set out.  Our goal was to make good time since we were all intending on driving straight home afterwards.  We had a ride scheduled to meet us at 3pm at Stephen C. Foster State Park (arranged through Okefenokee Adventures) and were hoping to be there when he arrived.

Well, that was the plan at least.  This side of the trail was every bit as bad as the inbound side.  Perhaps there were fewer underwater obstructions, but the trail was considerably narrower.  The spider boarding parties were myriad.  I became proficient in catching them, flinging them overboard, and then resuming paddling without breaking my rhythm.

Swamp Spiders

Please dear reader, do not feel bad for these wee beasties.  I was not flinging them into the water where they would sink to Davy Jones’ locker and their doom.  You see, swamp spiders have this remarkable ability: they can run on water!  Once tossed into the water they skittered away, off to go do more spidery things.

Kayaking in narrow confines

One of our group was in a kayak.  This meant that she was faster, more nimble, and not subject to the silliness that is cooperative paddling.  However, in these tight passageways the kayak double-ended paddle was a severe hindrance.  This was a good reminder that there are rarely pros without cons.

Minnies Lake

Finally, we left behind the serpentine Green trail and made our way onto the Red trail.  This was a relief.  Amidst towering cypresses we were gently propelled downriver by a lovely current.  With only minute steering adjustments one could make meaningful progress.  Since we were keen on making up for the time we had lost we didn’t coast, instead using the current as a much appreciated speed boost.  For a couple of miles we averaged nearly 3 miles per hour.  By the time we made it to Minnies Lake we had recovered much of the time we had lost in the first two miles.  Minnies Lake is more of a widening of the river than a traditional lake, and easily had the most gators out of any section of trail we had yet traversed.  We stopped and enjoyed one final meal on the Minnies Lake day shelter, although by the end of our journey our food options had narrowed considerably.  I had a bagel and couldn’t be bothered to put anything on it.  We had also run out of beer the night before.  Canoe Lesson: Figure out how much beer you need.  Add a six pack to that.  And then another.

The trail turns onto the Suwannee River, and the current goes from with you to against you.  The good news is that its not a particularly intense current and there isn’t much more to go.  A trend I noticed is that the wider the river the larger the gators present.  I spotted one gator here that was massive.

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Alligators in cellphone pictures are larger than appear.

The journey ends

We pulled into Stephen C. Foster State Park a little after 2pm.  As we pulled our canoes ashore our ride pulled up.  We loaded the canoes onto his trailer, dragged ourselves into the air-conditioned cab and drifted in and out of consciousness along the hour and half drive back to Suwannee Canal Recreation Area.

There is always a first time for everything – and for me this was my first time canoe camping.  I am looking forward to the first time I canoe camp for the second time, and would happily return to the Okefenokee.  The trip was excellent, and I suspect that given the lessons I learned the next time will be even better.

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