Would you Kayak with Alligators at Okefenokee?
Our travels this spring took us to the Okefenokee Swamp, an amazing place full of water, Spanish Moss, Cypress trees, birds, turtles and of course, alligators! The Swamp covers nearly 700 square miles, mostly in Georgia with a small piece in Florida. It has been a National Wildlife Refuge since 1937 and a National Wilderness Area since 1974.
I have met a lot of courageous kayakers in our travels, but that usually means white water and Class 5 rapids. The Swamp offers adventures that require a different kind of courage. We are told that Alligators “usually” don’t come near “creatures” (you and me) that are larger than they are. This of course is followed by “except when … mothers are protecting babies, etc.”
Because we normally kayak with our dog, Tucker, we decided to leave the small boat excursion to others and jumped on the pontoon boat instead (also without the dog).
The easiest way to visit the park is to enter from the east side on Suwanee Canal Road, out of Folkston, Georgia. The US Fish and Wildlife Service hosts a visitor center at the end of the Suwanee Canal Road. The center has some great interpretative displays and maps to hikes through the swamps, often on raised platforms above the water. The views are amazing! The easiest hike is less than a mile one way and of course, very flat.
Time to get on the water
Next stop was the Okefenokee Adventures shop, at the same location. This group provides kayaks and canoes to rent, guided paddles into the swamp, or for the less adventurous, a very nice pontoon boat ride with a knowledgeable narrator/captain.
The Story of the Okefenokee Swamps
Indians have occupied this land as early as 3,000 years ago. There is evidence of sand mounds constructed around AD 500 and AD 1200. The Spanish built missions near the swamp between 1620 and 1656. Later, the Creek Indians used the area as hunting grounds. Seminole Indians had a village here in the first half of the nineteenth century, which was burned down during the Second Seminole war in 1838.
White settlers lived in and around the swamp as early as 1805, hunting, fishing, and raising cattle and corn. Their lives were fairly isolated, although they traded with the Seminole Indians and with neighboring towns.
Drain the Swamp!
In 1889 the Suwanee Canal Company purchased the property and attempted to drain the swamp by constructing a canal to drain it to the east into the St. Mary’s River. They funded their efforts by harvesting the valuable cypress timber. For more information on the Suwanee Canal see Wikipedia The ancient cypress trees were aggressively harvested over the next 40 years.
Draining the swamp, however, proved to be more work than it was worth and efforts were halted. The partial canal is now part of the waterways through the area. Your boat trip will start there if you enter the swamps from Folkston, GA.
No, Preserve The Swamp!
Preservation efforts were begun in 1926 and in 1935 the cut-over and burned-over lands were purchased by the federal government. Additional lands were purchased in 1937. Designating the lands as a wildlife refuge preserved the swamp but drove out residents. Because the locals were not allowed to kill bears and wildcats which attacked their livestock, most residents had left by 1958.
For more details about the history of this amazing area, see Human History of the Okefenokee Swamp .
Our Travel Details
We looked for RV parks in Waycross, GA and the area right around Folkston. There are a few but the reviews were not positive and our big (42′) beast requires a bit of breathing room. We found a wonderful park half way between Hilliard and Callahan on highway 301 called Kelly’s Countryside RV Park. (Note: this link goes to Good Sam web site, the actual park link appears to be down at the moment.) It is simple but very clean and it was a pleasure to stay there.
A driving warning for those with large rigs: if you are headed south you will turn right. Be careful to turn into the large driveway and not the little neighborhood street that comes first! Coming from the south, you will turn across the highway into a driveway that looks like an antique store (currently closed). If you miss that turn, it will be a while before you can turn around!
Your drive to the entrance to the park is about 30 minutes and completely worth the effort. Please note that NO DOGS are allowed on any boats or on the raised walkways. This is probably a good policy!
During our stay at Kelly’s we also did some Kayaking in the Estuary at Amelia Island. Dogs allowed there, since alligators don’t care for salt water!