I always thought the Okefenokee Swamp was in Florida. I mean, Florida and swamp just go together… like shrimp and grits… or bacon and everything. Nope, that’s the Okeechobee, the Okefenokee Swamp is in southern Georgia, about as southern as you can get. Just 10 miles from the Florida border is Stephen C Foster State Park, smack dab in the middle of endless swampland considered as the headwaters of the Suwanee River. (Not to be confused with another Stephen Foster State Park in northern Florida).
Our first summer excursion in our van, “V-Ger”, was destined for this remote corner of Georgia, 700 square miles of wilderness wetlands wonder. With about 66 campsites, this small Georgia State park was packed. But according to the rangers, it’s typically empty all summer except for holiday weekends. Why so overlooked?
One hour to civilization
If you are looking for seclusion, look no further. An hour off highway 75 and the nearest grocery store, this park is on the way to nowhere. The nearest gas station is STILL 18 miles away. So prepare to be self-contained for the duration, lest you drive 2 hours just to find more hot dogs for that campfire. Nothing but swampland and trees and more swampland for miles and miles around. Internet? Forget it. Cell phone? Spotty to non-existent.
This is the first time we’ve experienced a campground locking their gates at night. No in or out traffic after 10pm. And if you stay here, you should know…10pm means 10:00pm. How do we know? Dad and Terry raced to make the deadline and unfortunately missed it by literally 1 minute. The heavily fortified, automatic gate is 7 miles from the actual campground… no way in, no way out. Stuck sleeping in a truck on the side of an endless country road until dawn in the middle of nowhere with spotty cell phone service? Not happy campers! But they were not the first, nor will they be the last to set up camp outside those gates.
Bugs… GIANT Bugs
Bugs rule this land. Horse flies half the size of my hand, swarms of deer flies, invisible chiggers galore and… spiders. While boating, I put my paddle on a tree to keep from hitting it with the boat and startled a giant spider. I shrieked, of course, and suspiciously eyed all the other trees within arm’s reach as threatening and arachnid-infested. I overheard our camper neighbor as he described waking up to a ticking sound and, shining a flashlight onto the tree outside his tent, saw a huge spider crawling, its legs producing that hair-raising tick-tick-tick. Yeah, it was that big. Ewwww. (Glad I wasn’t in a tent.) Our walk down the boardwalk nature trail was riddled with spiders menacingly hanging in the trees just beyond the rail perimeter – thank you to the brave rangers for clearing this pathway.
The bathhouse exterior was not immune to strange crawly things and moths and…what… there’s two walking sticks having “relations”, seriously, I’m not kidding. My only consolation was the dragonflies, which I am not afraid of… they were everywhere. Fortunately, no snakes. I wouldn’t have believed it - swamps usually equal snakes. Right? I mean, that’s like a rule or something. There used to be tons, according to a ranger, but they all moved away when people encroached. What people?
Despite several years living in the southeast and many extensive visits, we’d never been catastrophically bothered by chiggers. Unaware of this menace, we carelessly sported flipflops for two days before our feet, ankles and shins started to itch like crazy, riddled with pinhead-sized red welts. Chiggers do not embed themselves into their host (as commonly thought) but insert enzymes that destroy and harden skin into a feeding tube, hence the welt. And the ITCHING… I wanted to rip my feet off. Since we were a long way from nowhere, we put up with it for a night. Camping trip complete, we drove ‘til we found a Walmart and purchased a variety of itch treatments with not much luck.
Brian’s Floridian cousins, who are quite used to putting up with these vicious critters, diagnosed our maddening malady and suggested puppy flea shampoo (less medicated). So I spread it (undiluted) on our feet, waited 5-10 minutes and rinsed off (a couple times per day for several days). The medicated shampoo soothes and seems to soak into the sores, drying up the skin and, I guess, the enzyme. I don’t care how it worked, but it did. I could feel the medication tingling so it’s probably not a good idea to leave on very long or apply to children. Thank goodness after a couple treatments, the itch began to subside and we could sleep again. But the remnant, ghost itch didn’t quit for about two weeks. Ahhh… I love the outdoors/I hate the outdoors.
But don’t let spiders and chiggers stop you from coming here and enjoying this cool park. (Just wear tennis shoes and socks at all times.) I can put up with the bugs for a couple days to witness the beauty.
Swamp Skiffing in Water World
For our afternoon excursion, we rented an aluminum skiff. Some areas, like our campground, form higher ground consisting of hardwood trees and solid land… but for the most part, the water and swampland just go on forever. 120 miles of water trails branch out before us, actually marked by street signs, lest you get lost. It’s a perfect for paddling canoes or slowly motoring a small run-about down these lonesome canals in search of nature.
Surrounded by the peaceful hum of cicadas and a fresh “green” smell of moist earth and dewdrops, we entered another world. The tranquil water ahead showed a mirror image of majestic cypress trees… their giant, tented roots clinging to the water’s edge… their branches sprouting legions of grey-green Spanish moss that, when backed by sunlight, appeared as an angelic, glowing cloud. Locked in by lush green lily pads, guarded by gators, our watery path became narrower and narrower, quieter and quieter. We were literally in the middle of nowhere - a fairyland, with little gnomes hiding behind trees, water faeries basking atop white lilies, tinkerbells flitting amongst the moss-laden branches.
Tall cypress eventually closed in high above, blocking all sunlight. My fairy wonderland faded into the forbidding FireSwamp. I felt just a liiittle toooo far away from civilization (the thought of our old, cranky motor quitting 4 miles away in the middle of a maze of channels was disconcerting), a liiittle toooo dense (not to mention spidery) and a touch creepy (with that backwoods “Deliverance” sort of feeling). These waterways are frequented by good ‘ole boys in plaid shirts and denim overalls, none too thrilled ‘bout us visitors gaming in on their good fishing holes. (Stereotypical? I personally witnessed multiple overalls.)
So we turned around and headed back into the dazzling sunlight, back to the fairyland. Glad the ranger reminded us to take our paddles, just in case of engine breakdown. Well, we needed them. The engine didn’t do so well in shallow water, cutting out several times. Plus, due to tidal outflow the current became a little stiffer. No real option for a nice slow puttering, the motor either went fast or really fast. Sliding around on the water, we had to pole ourselves out away from the close banks to keep from hitting trees (and scaring spiders) several times.
Visitors love this place for its solitude and various outdoor activities: fishing, wildlife sightings, photography, birding, or for the enjoyment of being out on the calm waters. You can be ON the water. Just make sure not to go IN the water. Why? MOST people come here to see the alligators.
Gators thankfully did not favor lounging around in the enclosed and shaded tributaries but were visible in force along the main channel. Every so often we’d see one sticking his head out of the water, only his snout and eyes visible. Watching. Waiting. It was eerie. Yet cool. When we’d get close they’d slide below the surface without so much as a whisper. Don’t bother trying to glimpse them underwater, the silt level is too heavy. I’m probably better off NOT being able to see into the depths; there are 14,000 in this swamp alone. If we were eaten by a gator, would anyone know? Doubt it.
This park is paradise for birders. On our travels down the waterway we noted cranes and egrets and owls perched along the shoreline. One massive tree was filled to the brim with hundreds of roosting white egrets, appearing as a Christmas Tree decorated in bits of white marshmallow fluff. Pondering those that roost near the waters’ edge, we’ve awarded them a class yearbook moniker “most likely to get gator-snatched”. Alligators can, according to the wise “internet”, jump up to 6 feet in the air and run 35 mph (in short bursts)!
Night Gator Viewing
It seems that even when we travel on land we can’t refrain from gravitating towards the water. It’s a sickness. So for our final excursion, we booked passage on a sunset/night boat tour with another 12 or so of our camper neighbors and a park ranger tour guide. Gliding out into the solemn waters for a second time, we witnessed a spectacular sunset. But the best part was after sunset. It’s feeding time!
It seems as if all the alligators come out to play at dusk - they were everywhere. While not uncomfortably close to our shallow tour boat, there were probably 3 times as many as during mid-day when you’d see one here and another there. Now we typically saw 5 and 6 at a time within a stone’s throw, cruising to and fro, dipping their nose up for a peek at us and back down again. But those are the ones we could immediately see; how many more are hiding in the shadows or under the boat? What’s that number again? 14,000? Let’s just say I did not imagine a decent chance of survival had anyone fallen off that boat – in fact, I got the feeling they were just patiently waiting for someone to trip.
As the sun winked away, our little boat became enveloped in shadow. Silence all around, but for our touristy whispers. “Ha. Over there…to your left. Another one…up ahead. Oohh, that one was close.” We searched for the slippery beasts via flashlight. The goal was to spot a glowing red eye contrasting to blackness of night. It was not hard. Multiple fiery gemstones glared back from the water’s surface. Ancient dragon’s eyes…unblinking, unafraid, ever-watchful….prepared to pounce whenever dinner presented itself.
Stuck in the Muck
As our tour boat headed into the narrow channel on our return back home, the outboard motor got stuck in the muck. A mildly nervous chatty twitter arose from our little boat. Instantly, no shortage of volunteers became available to help pole our way forward until we found deeper water. No one wanted to be out there in an inoperable skiff… in the pitch black… in 3 foot deep water… only 2 feet from shore… in the company of soooooooo many alligators!
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A side note if you wish to camp here (and you should, despite the spiders – yes, I said that out loud): This park does not allow pets. Why? Do the math. And… maybe… extend that same reasoning with tiny children. Just saying. And by the way, I wouldn’t take a kayak out there in the swamp. Kayaks are tippier than canoes. Like I said – your sole goal is to remain OUT of the water!