kayaking the Suwannee River

Somebody’s Watching Me: Kayaking in the Okefenokee Swamp

The moss-cloaked trees reflect on the glassy surface of the headwaters of the Suwannee River, the trees delineating the horizon and it feels like we’re paddling in a still image, floating on the blue sky colored water reflecting a parallel world. Our kayaks slice through the water and only our wake disturbs the stillness, the ripples long and undulating. We can hear a low, rumbling growl, best described like a deep and prolonged guttural belch coming from ahead of us. Barry and I look at each other, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and against my instinct to flee, curiosity cautiously propels me toward the source of the sound.

Kayaking Okefenokee Swamp

Early morning reflections in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia

Ahead of us I can see large alligators cutting through the water, crisscrossing our path like a classic arcade game of Pong. The low, primordial growling sound in the early hours on this spring morning is coming from them – it is the beginning of the mating season for these American Alligators.

kayaking with alligators

Kayaking with alligators in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp

This is our second kayaking foray into the Okefenokee Swamp (link to Please Don’t Feed the Alligators), this time we’ve put in at Stephen C. Foster State Park, named after the composer of the famed song Swanee River, and located a few miles from Fargo, GA. The park is part of the National Wildlife Refuge, home to an estimated 12,000 alligators, some of which can be spotted sunning themselves on the edge of the river, completely indifferent to our presence.

As we paddle further, our eyes become trained for spotting alligators. Some slowly submerge into the water as we approach, leaving only their eyes and nostrils visible above the water, others slowly swim to the river’s edge, their armored bodies swishing through the water in an unhurried manner, and others, maybe caught off guard, plunge into the water with a big splash, causing me to jerk my paddle up in the air, a natural reaction to the unlikely scenario of being snatched into the water.

Alligator watch

Why does it feel like somebody’s watching me? Photo: Barry Scully

We maneuver our pointy ocean kayaks around the large bases of submerged trees, the cypress knees tucked close to their trunks. The water is swift as we paddle up stream toward Big Water Lake in what the interpretive map aptly refers to as ‘Pinball Alley’. After several hours kayaking, we pull up to a rest shelter to stretch our legs. The shelter is a platform with a covered picnic area and an outhouse and is similar to the camping setups within the refuge’s extensive waterways. Presumably alligators can’t walk up steps? It is, however, with some comfort that we spot a water snake curled in the vegetation just below the platform. I’m still not brave enough to camp in this wilderness, give me a bear encounter any day over a cold-blooded snake slithering in my sleeping bag seeking warmth.

kayaking pinball alley

Navigating between the large buttressed tree trunks

The way back to the park headquarters was much quicker as we drift with the current – occasionally skewering the bow of our kayaks into the thick lily pads for a better view of the alligators and turtles sunning on the riverbank, or to watch the herons, egrets and ibises pick through the lush green foliage for snails, insects and frogs. I focus my lens on one alligator as it glides through the water. Looking up from my camera, I realize that the alligator has crossed my path much closer than I’m comfortable with – the wide-angle lens skews the perspective and objects are definitely much closer than they appear.

alligator with fishing lure

This formidable alligator is resting with a neon green fishing lure piercing. Photo: Barry Scully

The next morning we encounter a huge alligator along the edge of the river. Again, it is unperturbed by our presence. Other visitors refer to this alligator by name. Apparently that’s Sophie, distinguished by the bright green fishing lure pierced in her jaw – the lead weight is visible just below her teeth. The park interpreters have clearly done a good job of humanizing these predators in an effort to protect them and their threatened habitat. I had seen these women on the tour boat while paddling, even joked with them on who would win in a kayak/alligator encounter. To see them swoon over this alligator was a testament to the park rangers’ efforts to engage and educate people about conservation efforts.

Watch this short video of our paddle through the refuge. You can hear an alligator bellow in the first clip: 

These kayak trips are vastly different from our past trips through Ontario’s lakes and rivers. Paddling through a forest of cypress trees and encountering alligators is one of the most unique experiences living in the South. Weaving between a forest of trees and exploring this habitat reveals a rich and diverse world that is far beyond any stereotypical perceptions of a mosquito-infested backwater and I look forward to exploring more of these swamps while we’ve got access to these rich waterways.

Key to Kayaking in Florida

February 16, 2017 Florida Keys, Kayak, road trip 6 Comments

…it doesn’t always have to be epic

With a pair of incredibly dull telemark skis resurrected from a dump and a love of the mountains, I found myself ass over teakettle heading down a chute, my jacket filling with snow, coming to a most ungraceful stop at the bottom of the mountain to cheers from the patiently awaiting party. I was completely out of my league, but that was backwoods British Columbia, and I was younger then and yes, it was epic.

What does this have to do with kayaking? Year’s later, while I still don’t know any better, I have come to a realization that not everything has to be grand to be worthy of a great adventure.

mangroves

A tangle of mangroves in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys

This winter, Barry and I went on an abbreviated trip to Florida. Traveling along the overseas highway we reached our base at the not so touristy Big Pine Key where we had rented a very last minute apartment. Our first day included the compulsory sunburn (never said I was any wiser) during a leisurely walk on the beach at Bahia Honda State Park. Arriving back to the apartment we realized we were sharing it with some long-time residents – a sticky-footed and well-fed gecko that occupied the bedroom, and a family of roaches that lived under the kitchen sink. Who wants to cook anyway when you can easily get a cheeseburger in paradise?

palm tree

a bit of shelter under the palm tree

Without an agenda, we drove down to Summerland Key where we put-in at the end of a road. Being familiar with how tides can create challenges for kayakers, we were keen to get there at high tide. It didn’t seem to matter this time since there was only about a foot-high tide, besides, as is typical with our explorations, we edged closer and closer to the shallows, running aground on the soft sand and occasionally finding ourselves sitting on shelves of tangled grasses.

We quietly paddled towards the numerous shorebirds and hawks perched on the mangroves and watched them stab at skittish schools of fish. Our paddles scared up juvenile nurse sharks and stingrays, forcing them to dart off in the opposite direction. We meandered in the shallow and sheltered waters fringed by mangroves, as if floating over an aquarium stocked with tropical fish.

fishhawk photo bscully

A great catch of this fish hawk with a successful hunt. Photo Barry Scully

Most of the time we paddled in 6-inches of water – and if it wasn’t for all the jellyfish bobbing on the surface, we could have walked. Half way through the day, I realized I was wearing my lifejacket. It seemed kind of silly, but in the words of a wise friend, “not as silly as drowning in 6-inches of water.”– Where was that voice of reason 25 years ago?

key deer

A key deer standing at the edge of the road looks a lot like a miniature ornament.

On an early morning run, to moderate the effects of all those cheeseburgers, I was surprised at a nonplussed buck standing by the side of the road, which at 3-feet high looked more like a lawn ornament. Big Pine Key is home to the endangered key deer. These miniature herbivores are a subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer and are a highly protected species. With all the signs and warnings on the roads, hitting a deer with your car would have been as sacrilegious as running over a cow in India.

A walk through the Key Deer Refuge showed evidence of the effects of hurricane Wilma in 2005. The storm surge flooded the area with salt water and left behind the skeletal remains of slash pine trees. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the remaining pine rockland stands represent less than 3% of their original extent. The bare trees were perfect perches for the bald eagles, but a troubling reminder of the rising sea levels.

bald eagle perched on a tree branch

A bald eagle perched on a dead tree branch. Photo by Barry Scully

Down the road from our apartment was a large blue freshwater hole set in the pocked limestone. The resident American Alligators appeared to be patiently waiting for handouts at the edge of the observation platform – clearly accustomed to people feeding them.

Gators waiting for handouts

These alligators are clearly accustomed to getting handouts from visitors

While we only spent a couple of days kayaking in the keys, the last-minute nature meant that I didn’t have time to do infinite Internet searches for the best places to eat, sleep, walk or watch the sunset. I didn’t have time to read every disgruntled review that was sure to color my perceptions. This trip was wonderfully unplanned, and it allowed us to discover an area that subsides largely on tourism in an uncharted way. We sampled a few different restaurants and resisted buying the obligatory mile marker t-shirts (what’s with that?), drank cheap beer and didn’t worry about where to catch the best sunset. And in case you’re wondering? Sure, Key West was nice and most certainly a bit of a spectacle, but the sunset at Key Deer Refuge was epic!

Sunset in Key Deer Refuge

A sunset at Key Deer Refuge – arguably more spectacular than the one’s in Key West