Okefenokee NWR Day 1

Canoeing past pitcher plants in the Okefenokee

Lately I’ve neglected this blog. Partially it was due to my personal life being busy (I am writing a book and until recently was also working full time preparing fossils). Partially it was due to my own laziness.

Partially my lack of writing here reflected the overwhelming nature of the news in the US today. It seems trivial to speak of a trip through swamps, no matter how important to you, when the capital building is stormed by white supremacist seditionists intent on stealing your nation. However, I’ve promised for a long time to write this post and it seems you and I could probably both use the distraction, so here it goes.

In October of 2020 I rented a car in South Carolina, where I’d been volunteering on alligator research (probably room for more blog posts there too). I drove from South Carolina on a short road trip highlighting some very cool crocodilian habitat in North America. My first stop was at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

King Fisher in a cypress tree, OKefenokee NWR, Very bad photo.

I rented a canoe for a three day trip into the swamp of Okefenokee. As I started on an easy paddle down the wide and deep Suwannee Canal, I listened casually to a tour guide in a nearby boat. The guide was talking to an elderly couple about the history and natural history of the Okefenokee as I took advantage, eavesdropping while simultaneously looking forward to solitude.

The guide told us all about the attempt to drain the Okefenokee by using prison labor to dig the canal where our boats now floated. I listened to him say that the Okefenokee is the largest freshwater wetlands in the lower 48 states.

Just before throttling the motor boat’s engine to greater speeds and leaving me alone at slower paddling speed, the guide spotted a barred owl sitting on a tall stump rising from the wetlands. The owl seemed completely focused on something below and the guide ineffectively tried to get the bird’s attention. I watched the owl for a bit after they left and snapped some photos.

Barred Owl, Okefenokee NWR, Suwannee Canal

Leaving the owl behind, I paddled on and soon saw a small alligator floating quietly in the water at the side of the canal. I rejoiced at boating in something small, slow and quiet, so I could see more wildlife than those in motorized craft. Later I attempted to snap a photo of a king fisher flying across the canal and only got a photo of the motor boat ahead of me on the canal.

Suwannee Canal with tour boat in background. Not a good photo I’m afraid.

Interestingly, as I paddled on I came to the boundary of the wilderness area, and immediately it seemed the cypress trees closed in more on the canal, grew taller, were more adorned with Spanish moss. In a word, wild is what the canal suddenly seemed to become, in defiance of the humans who dug it to destroy a swamp. Thinking this was all in my mind, I took note of the same thing when I paddled out of the wilderness area days later and confirmed my first impression.

I canoed past lily pads and pitcher plants in the swamp.

Soon, I was paddling down a smaller side channel, away from the Suwannee Canal and it’s tall cypress. The trail wound through a wet prairie with soft islands of plant material and mud that ripple and bounce underfoot. The big trees were mostly behind me but the prairie was adorned with water lilies and the fantastic pitcher plants. I saw more alligators of course but only the small ones stuck around long enough to be photographed.

Small alligator in Okefenokee NWR

I paddled on and eventually came to a small campsite, tucked back on a wooden platform built on a lightly flooded island, where crayfish hunted among the trunks of trees and frogs called at night.

Before I decided to call it a day, I paddled out to a small pond past the island campsite and heard two barred owls calling back and forth to each other, only one of which I saw.

That night I watched a panoply of swamp creatures from the safe wooden platform of my campsite. Fishes and spiders and two baby alligators all stalked among the trees of the island or swam in the open water of the pond it sat in. Nowhere besides the tropics has seemed so full of a myriad of strange and wonderful creatures. I fell asleep listening to the song of insects.

Alligator eyes just above the water as night falls, Okefenokee NWR

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