This past weekend I took a trip with some friends down to South Georgia for a couple nights of camping in the wilderness. The trip involved a night at Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo, GA and then a 9 mile canoe trip through the Okefenokee Nation Wildlife Refuge to camp on a platform, with return to the park and our cars the next day. Nerves were high for this trip because of the isolated nature of our destination which lies in the middle of 700 square miles of intact ecosystem. Complete with alligators and black bears. Also worrying was the prospect of being eaten alive by mosquitoes given that South Georgia had recently declared a health emergency because of booming mosquito populations following this springs’ rains. Still the weather looked good and we had already put money down for the reservations so we headed south with extra DEET and sunscreen.
The first challenge of the weekend was to make it into the state park before 10PM when the gates closed. In total we were a group of eight in two cars and despite a few necessary stops and a missed turn we made it to the park in time. We set up camp and had some time to socialize before heading off to bed in preparation of the next day. One thing that was completely perfect about the timing of the trip was its coincidence with the peak of the lunar display. Both nights we were there we had a nearly full moon. This made for poor star gazing but afforded us a glimpse of the swamp at night without the use of headlamps.
Friday night when we arrived at the ranger station to pick up our camping permits they were waiting for us outside but oddly the door to the ranger’s office was unlocked even though they had left for the evening. The next day when we packed up camp and headed down to the pier/dock/livery/ranger station we encountered more of the same relaxed, if not negligent, work ethic. We paid our money for the canoes, were given a canoe number, and told where to find cushions, life jackets and oars. That was it for the orientation, no instructions on how to handle alligators, no emergency procedures for snake bites, no supervision getting the canoes in the water. It was all surprisingly informal. We turned the canoes over, loaded them up and launched them ourselves.
At the beginning of the trip my nervous curiosity around alligators and snakes was high. The water is the color of tea, so much so that you expect the smell of tea to get stirred up each time you move the paddle through the water. You can’t see anything below the surface and you wonder what you’re gliding over and how deep it is. After we went through the first narrow canal and got out into more open waters we spotted our first gator basking on the edge in the lilly pads and some of the tension was nervous tension was released. When we saw the second one, we were already talking about moving in for a closer look.
We stopped for lunch at a platform about halfway between the launch and our final destination. There we saw some other folks canoeing and got our first taste of what our digs would look like. The day was clear and beautiful so we were making use of all the sunscreen we brought but were only beginning to realize that the bug spray and DEET weren’t all that essential (of course it was only the middle of the day). We forged ahead through the second half. It seemed a bit longer and tougher as we were going against the current and the sun became more intense.
We arrived at the small turnoff for Big Water at about 3:30. The platform was another 100 feet down a narrow inlet. We set up our tents and began to adjust to the new space we’d be sharing for the next half-day. At first I found myself moving around a lot, not sure where to settle an trying to get out of the sun. The other thing that kept people moving around a lot at first were the huge spiders we were finding. Like the alligators our initial nervous energy subsided. We continued to pass the time with conversation and pretzels until we spotted a visitor in the water just off the platform. It was an alligator that would continue to lurk back and forth in the canal the whole time were staying there. Nick named him (for some reason, everyone refers to all alligators using the masculine pronoun) Nubs because of his characteristic short, nubby limbs.
At night we played games by lantern light and listened to the chorus of frogs. Behind all the different frog noises you can also begin to hear a low and long bellow that belongs to the alligators that you realize are all around you. (see video here) Unfortunately we couldn’t really see anything around the platform because it was located in the middle of trees and other brush. I was thinking it would be something with more of a vista, where we would be able to see for a mile in every direction and get a great sunset but it was a lot different. Even when you’re in the canoe you can always see what you think is the shore and it becomes very strange to think that the ‘ground’ at the edges is hardly ground. When we got closer to the forested edges you began to understand that it was under water as far as you could see into it.
The trip back to the park entrance was much easier on Sunday when we were heading with the current. By the time we arrived at our cars the surprise absences of mosquitoes that had only begun to set in by lunch on Saturday was fully realized. While on the platform I did not even have to use bug spray, there just weren’t mosquitoes. We had mosquito coils set up and smoking around the platform but I really credit the biodiversity of the place with keeping the mosquitoes under control. The trip was forecast by everyone to be a swarming nightmare with regard to bugs yet it was anything but. The number of predators like dragonflies, snakes, spiders and birds in the swamp must help tremendously in keeping the pests under control. Or we somehow hit a spell of fine timing.
South Georgia is still a venerable mystery to me, but a trip to the swamp is a great way to introduce yourself to the area, even in May. That is not to say that I wouldn’t also consider booking a trip in the winter months when the water is lower, the bugs are guaranteed to be low and the sunsets may be better through thinner vegetation. regardless I recommend taking along some friends. Spending hours confined to a platform in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp (it’s like your childhood fantasies come true) is a great way to bond.