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.

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.

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A tangle of mangroves

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?

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Shelter under the Palm

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.

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Great catch. 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?

keydeerOn 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.

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Perched. 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.

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Waiting for handouts

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!

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Sunset at Key Deer Refuge

Calling All Bears – Smoky Mountain Discoveries

Under cover of a thin ribbon of mist, I could make out the outline of a buck, his antlers branching off the top of his head. In the foreground, a solitary photographer, respectfully watching from a safe distance. The quiet of this early morning was quickly disrupted when I heard several car doors slamming behind me. iPhone in hand, a group of women squeezed beneath the wire fence and marched directly up to the deer.

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“I just love deer,” said one of the women as they tramped across the wet grass and back to the car. The deer, while mostly used to such intrusion, moved quickly across the field and high tailed it to the other side of the road, leaping effortlessly over the fence.

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Effortlessly leaping over fence – photo: Barry Scully

This was to be one of many such encounters as Barry and I wandered through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Inching forward at 10 miles an hour along the 11-mile conveyor belt loop circumnavigating the broad valley, you are guaranteed to see wildlife if you peer beyond the bumper-to-bumper line of cars.

“Hey Bear, over here, check these guys out.” I say to Barry who I rarely call Barry.

“What? Bear? Where?” asks a stranger from across the street.

“Oh no, just a bunch of turkeys. I call my husband Bear!” That really cracks me up, but when the stakes are high, this is no laughing matter.

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Well-worn path

Animal encounters in National Parks are what people come for – in this case, everyone wants to see a bear, and it’s obvious when there’s a sighting. At an already crawling pace, traffic comes to slow halt, each car edging forward to try to get a glimpse. It doesn’t help matters when people abandon their cars in the middle of the road – doors wide-open, engines running, to get a closer look at the animals.

Of course, not all encounters end amicably for either the people or the animals. At another part of the park, volunteers tell me about people getting close enough to pet the elk. In another incident at Yellowstone, a tourist put a bison calf in their back seat because they thought it was cold. Unfortunately, that bison was rejected by the heard and was euthanized.

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Too close for comfort. A huge elk keeps his distance from a little boy eating grass (yes, the boy was eating grass).

With iPhones acting as a magical protective shield, people approach the wilderness through a rectangular screen, once removed from harm and inches away from the animals. The animals, for their part, either reluctantly move deeper into the bush or bolt across the road to escape. Some of them are clearly agitated, but being outnumbered, they cower away.

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Trying out the panorama feature on his new iPhone for the first time!

I have slowly learned to abandon travel agendas and checklists of ‘Must Sees’ or ‘Top 10 Must Dos’, their authoritarian tone causing me an alarming level of anxiety. In a time where people are embracing so-called minimalist lifestyles and moving away from accumulating things in preference to acquiring experiences, there is the proliferation of bucket lists that turn these experiences into a commodity. The rush to tick off all the boxes leaves little time to linger, where is the pleasure in that?

Now, if everyone turns to go left, we turn right, and in spite of these traffic jams, we pull off the road several times and lose ourselves in the bush. Our favorite time is early in the morning, just before the sun burns off the dense mist, slowly, patiently peeling away the layers of fog revealing the distant hardwood forests and ancient mountains.

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Beautiful black bear foraging for acorns – Photo: Barry Scully

We hop back onto the conveyor belt and drive a mile before Barry spots a black bear. I let him out and park off the side of the road. By the time I join him the bear, a large male, has moved into the trees. A group had come up behind me, and in their excitement at seeing a bear, scared him off.

Later in the day, we decide to hike a trail that follows Abrams River to the falls. As we begin our hike, the mass exodus of people streaming out surprises us.

“You planning on camping overnight? It’ll be dark by the time you come out,” offers one hiker.

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Me venturing upstream along Abrams creek – photo: Barry Scully

Undeterred, we enjoy the solitude as we walk deeper and higher up the valley, the river getting father away beneath us. We round the bend and start our decline toward the river, and eventually to the falls. We’re not the last ones in and a few fishermen follow behind us – it looks like a favorite place to catch trout. We do make it out before dark and just in time to join another line of cars leaving the park.

The next day we explore several homesteads scattered around the valley, their isolation a testament to the tenacity of the early settlers who carved out a living in this remote region that was once part of the Cherokee nation. A walk through some of the cemeteries reveals the story of nature’s indifference to people’s resolve. There are numerous children’s graves, some with pennies left atop gravestones as remembrance.

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In remembrance of a short-lived life

“Bear, bear,” I hear myself saying as I try to get Barry’s attention, trying to conceal the panic in my voice. Barry was walking deeper into the woods, but the bear that had previously disappeared into the bush had doubled back and was hunched on a branch behind me, looking even more nervous than me. The small yearling eventually crossed the road safely, appearing to pause for the numerous paparazzi before rambling into the bush.

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Why did the bear cross the road? Photo: Barry Scully

We were reluctant to leave the park, having become familiar with the trails, anticipating what is around the next bend and predicting where the bears are likely to be foraging. It is easy to understand why Smoky Mountain is the most visited National Park, averaging more than 10 million visitors annually. But if you do go, a few steps into the woods will uncover solitude readily found within the layers of mountains.