Jacksonville, FL: Swamp Season (Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia)

Paddle through a blackwater swamp and see A-list wildlife in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. BY KATHY KYLE
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Paddle through a blackwater swamp and see A-list wildlife in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. BY KATHY KYLE
Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge [Minden Pictures]

Cypress trees shawled in gray moss shield my crew of eight from the sunshine. We float through a cluster of lily pads as our aluminum canoes clunk off roots in the narrow canal of coffee-colored water. A doe looks up at us while nibbling on some moss, unconcerned with our intrusion. Here, in the Lower 48’s largest blackwater swamp, she must not get many visitors. We’re less than an hour into a 21-mile paddle and we’ve already seen a group of tumbling otters, a hawk, and a gator—each one more disinterested in us than the last. Given that our only intention was to flee the cold for T-shirt weather, I’ll consider this a landslide win.

Trip stats:
Distance: 20.8 miles (out and back)
Time: 3 days

Turn-by-turn
From Kingfisher Landing

(1) Paddle .3 mile north to the dark-water Suwannee River.
(2) Turn east into the flatwater and go 1.1 miles to another confluence.
(3) Split north into the Middle Fork Suwannee River and follow it 4.3 miles.
(4) Veer east into a signed, 4-foot-wide channel and paddle 3.3 miles to Floyds Island.
(5) Retrace your strokes 8.7 miles to the original junction near the put-in.
(6) Instead of returning to the launch, keep going 1.5 miles to Mixons Hammock.
(7) Head 1.7 miles back to the launch.

Campsite 1
Floyds Island (mile 9)

Spend night one in a simple, metal-roofed hunting cabin built in the 1920s. There are four rooms (no furnishings; bring a pad) that surround a living room with a wood-burning stove. Pack something for happy hour on one of the covered porches, as well as your gaiters: Floyds extends about 5 miles. Reserve the cabin ($15/person; recreation.gov). If it’s taken, tent camp nearby (same permit needed).

Campsite 2
Mixons Hammock (mile 19.1)

The best spot for tent camping in the area is on this tiny island. Paddle ashore and follow the footpath less than .5 mile to the first-come, first-serve clearing (room for 10 tents) amid saw palmettos. At night, listen for barred owls—or any of the other 234 birds that call the refuge home. (It’s also $15/person.)

Wildlife
November to March is best for viewing because the birds are more active and the alligators are dormant (making their prey, like otters, more active). Keep an ear out for the trilling of sandhill cranes, and scan for red-shouldered hawks surveying the swamp from tree branches. Yellow-bellied sliders and snapping turtles lounge on logs.

DO IT Put-in 30.827873, -82.361155; 18 miles northeast of Fargo off GA-177 N Season October through May (beware the aggressive gators in spring) Permit Required ($15/night per person); reserve at recreation.gov. Boat rentals Stephen C. Foster State Park rents canoes for $50 per day. Water The tannic water is technically A-OK if filtered, but you have a boat, so bring a gallon per person per day (in mild conditions). Custom mapbit.do/BPmapOkefenokee ($15) Contactbit.do/okefenokeeTrip databackpacker.com/okefenokee

Trail Facts

  • State: GA
  • City: Jacksonville, FL
  • Distance: 20.9
  • Contact: bit.do/okefenokee
  • Land Type: National Wildlife Refuge