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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Kayaking toward a little blue heron fishing in the lily pads. 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.

Please Don’t Feed the Alligators

September 15, 2016 Kayak, South Carolina, Swamp 1 Comment

An over correction almost tips me into the opaque black water. I’m sure the alligator I nearly knocked over the head with my paddle was just as alarmed. It was at this point that I graciously let Barry glide ahead, falling back just enough to avoid a collision, but follow close by to occasionally touch the stern of his kayak. He’s now officially on alligator patrol.

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Paddling the Suwannee Canal

The long, narrow channel is straddled with trees decked with Spanish moss like clumps of tinsel randomly tossed on the overhanging branches. We’re exploring the Okefenokee Swamp that seeps across the Georgia and Florida border. It’s everything I’ve ever imagined a swamp to be – a black water maze studded with deadheads the size of tombstones, tall cypress trees firmly crouched in the mud, their knees poking above the water to take in the oxygen, and of course, the American alligator – alligator mississippiensis, scoping its territory camouflaged under green algae, or sun bathing on the edges of the river, with one eye open to disturbances from bright mango and lime-colored kayaks.

With misguided ambition and ultimately financial failure, the Suwannee Canal, which we currently paddling on, was dug in an attempt to drain the swamp. That failure eventually led to wide-scale logging of the rot-resistant bald cypress trees. Having exhausted the natural resources, logging stopped and the land was eventually designated a national wildlife refuge that covers more than 400,000 acres.

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Paddling the shallow, narrow channel in Okefenokee swamp

Keeping my fingers out of the water and with a clipped paddle, we move deeper into the swamp and divert into an ever-narrowing side tributary. The water is much shallower here and the trees give way to open marshy areas. We paddle past carnivorous pitcher plants and huge water lilies, and this time we surprise a siege of immature blue herons (as per proper birder nomenclature) that awkwardly balance on bleached branches. Barry promptly wedges his kayak across the channel and if it wasn’t for the scorching sun, I would have lost him for the rest of the day.

American alligator

Please don’t feed the alligators

Undaunted by alligators, our next paddling trip into the swamp was the northeastern tip of Lake Marion, SC. We had driven past towns with relics from a more prosperous time, now mostly shuttered along the roadside, to a secluded parking lot crowded with pickup trucks and empty trailers.

We slipped our kayaks into what can best be described as an enchanted forest. While Lake Marion was built in the early 1940’s as part of the Santee Cooper Project when the Santee River was dammed to create hydro-electric power and employment opportunities, this section is more like a swirl of confusing passages and dead end tributaries.

We paddled past ubiquitous bullet-hole riddled signposts, giant waterlogged stumps sprouting new vegetation and the occasional fishing lure stranded in a tree branch. There is little evidence of an artificially created environment. The towering black cypress and swamp tupelo trees form a navigable waterlogged forest. The path we make through the carpet of green algae closes in just as quickly as it parts for our kayaks, and without a GPS, we double back after a few hours, cautiously paddling around sturdy webs set by equally formidable spiders.

The stillness of the forest is broken with the occasional splash from a silvery fish skipping across the water glimpsed in our peripheral vision. There is a sound we have come to recognize that comes from a baby alligator calling its mom. It’s a kind of a guttural chirp, and there is no mistaking it for a frog. Maybe next time I’ll be brave enough to camp on one of those elevated platforms that stands somewhat precariously in the swamp. Who needs sleep anyway?