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Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge: 5-Day Canoe Trip

Posted by on August 9, 2019

February 22nd-23rd, 2019

I walked into the Mardi Gras Zone on Royal street around 2:45AM, bought a caffeinated coconut water, then chugged it on the sidewalk outside while I waited for Carlos the Lyft driver. Mardi Gras Zone is like a warehouse-sized version of all the other corner stores in Bywater: 24 hour grocery store, deli/kitchen, costumes/gifts, tobacco/CBD, and a climb up the spiral staircase brings you to the sit-down-whenever-and-play piano next to all their camping gear. It’s also on the west side of the railroad tracks, meaning the driver won’t have to get stuck waiting for a train if they’re coming from downtown. My first month of being back in New Orleans was hard. Between the existential angst that still lingered from having my ass handed to me in the Maze back in November, trying to reestablish a healthy platonic relationship with an ex-girlfriend whom I still am very much in love with but who is now in a committed monogamous relationship with someone else, and having my Craigslist-arranged living situation fall apart once the deeply manic and interpersonally exhausting landlord moved in, I felt more depressed, incapable, and craved solitude more than I had in a long time. I’d spent countless hours hiding behind my computer, researching every facet of Southeast Utah’s natural and human history with the intent of writing an encyclopedic account of where I was, what happened to me, and how that fits into the context of space and time, as far as my Maze misadventure was concerned. I escaped into David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and spent a over a week doing not much else but reading it, only to have the entire plot of the novel point its finger at me and laugh for having spent so much time and effort trying to escape into its fantasy. The irony was not lost on me, and I spent a morning mapping out what exactly my priorities were. On the whiteboard in my room, I wrote a list- “RUN, Yoga/Meditation, Calisthenics, Read, Write, Cook, Practice/Play (music), Speak (currently means learning Spanish)”- so that I could be reminded of what daily practices would make me feel happier, stronger, and more productive. Maybe 4 or 5 days into my daily struggle to feel good again, I got a call from one of my oldest homies, Stank, the same dude I hiked the AT with. He and one of his buddies were going down to paddle the Okefenokee Swamp in Southern Georgia at the end of February, and so hit me up to see if I could swing it. Impeccable timing, and just the sort of thing I needed; some time to be with somebody that really gets me, time to be on the water, and time spent in a place that is alien to me and full of life. So I sit outside the Mardi Gras Zone waiting for Carlos, looking at this app I’ve only just started to use through a phone I like to think I’m not attached to. The train comes. And Carlos gets stuck on the other side. He did not come from downtown. I walk towards the GPS point that symbolizes Carlos, and meet him with a wave on the other side of the tracks when the train has passed. Like myself and many others, he’s a transplant to New Orleans, and truly loves living there. I couldn’t have helped myself anyway, being so ready at the level of my soul to be in a canoe for a few days after not boating for 3 months, to talk about anything else, yet he indulged me and asked lots of discerning questions about what being a whitewater boater and a canoe vacationer was all about. We shake hands at the gate, I make sure to give him a 5 star review right away, and I walk into Louis Armstrong International Airport. The flight to Fort Lauderdale was spent half-sleeping, but rushing to connect to Richmond and find a quick bite to eat in a sea of people left me feeling impatient. My turn to have my boarding pass checked and the woman from Spirit Airlines decided to have me pay $65 to have guitar on board as a last-minute carry-on even though I had made to Fort Lauderdale with my guitar without a hitch. I rolled my eyes at her dramatically. More half-sleep to Richmond and when I get outside I talk to Stank about finding him a fuel canister for his stove while their on their way to pick me up, and I struggled to actively maintain alertness or at least not grumpiness. The 7A bus brings me downtown to Broad and 7th, and I elect to walk 3 miles down Cary St to stretch my legs and maybe wake myself up a bit. Walking through the city is refreshing, but strange. For a Friday morning, the city seems pretty dead, at least until I get closer to VCU and start to see the many students walking by, all the bars that just closed a few hours ago for Thirsty Thursday, and all the breakfast joints that are buzzing now. I see a kid with an NRS life jacket strapped onto his backpack, and look down at the river to see what kind of stuff he might be paddling today. Pretty mellow, but fun on a kayak. I stop at the Walkabout Outfitter to grab the fuel canister and must have looked like just enough of a dirtbag for the dude at the counter that he asked me where I was headed. Okefenokee, paddling trip. Sweet. I walk another few blocks to the Kroger and get some tasty and refreshing food, despite the part of my tired brain that was demanding the salty fatty something that it wanted. Salad from the salad bar and coconut water, eaten outside on the public picnic tables near the entrance. With food in my belly, my body conclusively decided that it was time to sleep, but I quickly searched on my phone for the nearest library, hoping to find some quiet space that I could close my eyes. 4 blocks away, I found a cozy chair in the corner and pulled my buff over my eyes. About an hour later, a woman from the library firmly told me that I could not sleep here and that I would have to leave. Deep sigh, grumble grumble grumble. Now to Panera for a cup of black coffee. Stank and Markus ought to be here in just a couple hours, and in trying to kill time while waiting for them, most of what I’ve done is walk around, with only an hour of sleep since 36 hours ago. Finally I meet up with them in the Kroger parking lot right after dark, and at first they mistake one of the homeless dudes sitting at the picnic tables for me. Easy mistake. We got some more caffeine, and last minute trip items like TP and yet more caffeine, and when we got into the car, it was my turn to drive. They had been working all day and just drove for 3 or 4 hours. I was extremely tired, but I took on the challenge. We made a stop at the waffle house where I could continue to drink coffee and get one small plate of hash browns to satisfy that salty fatty craving from hours ago. Our waitress asked “anything else?”, and I said, “Yes, ma’am, lots of maple syrup please. For my coffee”, and the exact question and answer repeated 3 times with no maple syrup delivered. At this point of my day, this minuscule detail was trying to shape itself as a major mishap in my tired mind. I laughed at the silliness of what my tired brain was trying to do, but when I laughed it was from the corners of my eyes mostly, my belly and chest and throat too tired to really laugh. Just as we were about to leave, some cops showed up and asked the lady at the counter about some guy who was giving them a hard time, drunk or something, but had just left before the cops showed up. This was Markus’ second time in a waffle house. God Bless America. I put Cory Henry on the radio quietly, to help me stay awake and to help put them to sleep. 3 hours and a sugar-free Red Bull for what was now my third wind before Markus hopped behind the wheel. He was tired too, and felt like he needed to get hyped and turned the music up loud. Everything from Latin jams to Creed to Daft Punk and lots of Chance the Rapper, and I quietly cringed over how I would still not be able to sleep. By the time the sun came up, I was a zombie. I told James that I felt like I was tripping on my own sleep deprivation and that please could he handle getting the rental canoe from the shop so I didn’t have to drool/vomit out some nonsense at the woman behind the counter. We strapped the canoe down, drove out to Kingfisher Landing, and quickly threw everything in the boat while it was still cloudy with a little warm drizzle. James in the back, Markus sitting on the floor in the middle, and me up front. Fully loaded. We did 12 miles, the sun came out, and we kept a solid 2-3 mph pace through the mirror-like Blackwater. Spanish moss on Cypress trees, tall Florida Pines, swamp scrub, flooded and muddy algae-dense grass prairies, with a trail corridor chopped and dredged out of the brush. I felt braindead all day. We saw more than 15 gators, including at our camp at the stilted shelter in Maul Hammock. The shelter was a wooden platform, raised above the water on stilts, with a corrugated metal roof and no walls. Benches lined the railings and small triangular tables were built in the corners. There was a 20 foot long walkway over to the privy, which was one of the cylindrical white plastic ones I’ve seen in the Park System before, but this one I was very curious about. How did they build this with the holding tank under the surface of the water? Maul Hammock was basically a flooded prairie with lily pads blanketing the surface, and tons of tiny pickerel swimming chaotically in tight pods beneath the surface, alligators sitting at the surface with their eyeballs reflecting in the light of our headlamps at night. Around the edges of the hammock were lots of Golden Club, pitcher plants, and scrubby brush, with intermixed Cypress and hardwood forest on the mossy, swampy islands between the lakes and hammocks. We saw many really tiny yellowish frogs and bullfrogs around camp, and throughout the day got to see great egrets, one great blue heron, a redtailed hawk or something similar to it, black vultures, cow birds, kingfisher, and called back and forth with some horny Barred Owl. Stuffed myself with cookpot dinner, climbed into the hammock I had slung between the 6×6″ stilts/support beams, got one really good glimpse of the hammock at sunset and slept for the next 14 hours.

Water sounds at mile 11

Frogs at mile 11.5

Kingfisher Landing

 

Alligator

 

Stank and Markus Panorama near Carter’s Prairie

 

Trout Lake

 

Trail Corridor

 

Alligator

 

Peat-Moss

 

Cypress/Shrub/Scrub Forest

 

Maul Hammock Shelter

 

Alligator

 

Maul Hammock Sunset

 

February 24th, 2019

I woke up feeling much better. Granola bars in the morning, coffee with coconut creamer too, and we packed up and got moving fairly quickly. The mosquitoes had been pretty bad last night and became bad again as soon as the sun came back up. 8 miles today. When we paddled out of the hammock, we started out day navigating multiple flooded prairies, and after the first hour or so it rained on us on and off steadily all morning, but it was warm. By midday, the rain turned to clouds and the trail corridor suddenly narrowed, to the point where we were getting constantly smacked by branches on both sides. The sun finally came out and we took our shirts off while in the shade. There were many more ghostly Cypress trees covered in Spanish Moss, overgrown scrub, algae, and a million lillypads, some uprooted with tubers floating on the surface. Pink patches of lichen grew on a few of the trees, sphagnum moss grew right next to shallow water, and the Golden Clubs were ubiquitous. I took the middle position today, and with our refreshed energies, and a little bit of technique, we were becoming much more efficient paddlers already. Markus was getting back pain from sitting in the middle, but I felt moderately comfortable, if a little cramped there. But with him in the front, paddling more freely, and me in the middle paddling as well as someone can from that position, both of us paddling on one side and stank paddling on the other from the stern, we could make great speed in straight-aways. In tight turns, Stank would pry, Markus would sweep, and I would draw (google paddling strokes), and we could bank every turn without losing very much speed. It is Markus’ 30th birthday today, and what a place to celebrate. We heard many cowbirds at the end of the day, and our gator count was now above 25 and we were losing track on exactly how many we had seen. The next shelter, Big Water, was right at the mouth of the Suwannee River, so there was some very slow current moving by here all night, out of the swamp and down towards Florida. It was much colder tonight, so the mosquitoes were not so bad. Yet another excellent sunset. We jammed on our guitars, and played chess with the miniature magnetic chess set I brought with me. Stank was the last one up, softly jamming and freestyle rapping with his guitar, bottle of whiskey at his side.

Sounds at mile 18.5

Stank/Quiet Earp Jam session

Dragonfly

 

Sapling Prairie

 

Markus Putting on Sunscreen in Sapling Prairie

 

Sapling Prarie

Sapling Prairie

 

Alligator

 

Alligator

 

Big Water

 

Big Water

 

Big Water Sunset

 

February 25th, 2019

Coffee and granola bars in the morning, mosquitoes coming out with the sun. We packed up and were out by 10, soaring down the the rest of the red trail with the slow current of the headwaters of the Suwannee River. We saw a couple Great Egrets, many Kingfishers, one or two jumping fish, dragonflies, yellow and black Swallowtail Butterflies with blue spots on their wings, an Anhinga, and more Alligators, some of which were very close. We were in the groove, moving at around 4-5 mph on the flat water, taking some breaks along the way to just sit in the boat and look around. I’ve always had a hard time peeing from boats, and we each had our own technique for pulling it off. Marcus and I preferred to stand, two of us holding onto branches or tree trunks to stabilize the boat and one of us peeing. Stank, however, had no issues staying seated and pointing his junk up and and away, power pissing in a high arc over himself and the edge of the boat. Even if there’s a little dribble or splashback, it’s not hard to clean yourself of when you’re on the water. At some point, I realized that we had missed the first turn off to Floyd’s Island, but we decided to just stick with it and take the next one. A tailwind pushed us right along and Stank even tried to use his sleeping pad as a sail, but with unreliable results. Today was cooler than the past couple days, so it made for a perfectly comfortable day of paddling. We passed many large areas of old-growth cypress groves, their wide bases tapering to a straight trunk a few feet above the muddy banks, hundreds of knobs protruding out of the water around them, and heaps of eerily silent grey Spanish Moss swaying around in the wind from every branch. Some patches of this mixed hardwood forest had clearly seen fires in the past, and at one point, we paddled about 40 feet into the densely packed trees outside the trail corridor, using our hands to push ourselves along through the low branches more we used our paddles. The still blackwater acted as a nearly perfect mirror, and as we gazed into deeper into the forest, the forest and its reflection would blur together and our minds could be easily fooled into momentarily trusting the optical illusion. As we continued, we made our turn onto the start of the green trail, and were glad to have taken this turn instead, agreeing that trail we passed earlier would have been a slow narrow one with lots of lillypads on the surface to slow our momentum. Of course, the green trail we were now on got narrower, but at this point, we had done pretty well to dial in our team paddling strategy, and we deftly made our way through the thin trail corridor toward Floyd’s Island. We saw swarms of dragonflies, many more Golden Clubs, swamp grasses, a tree with pink leaves (red maple, maybe?), all in a broken light-beam, half-shadowed tunnel of scrub on both sides and above us. The water became gradually shallower as we approached Floyd’s Island and we began to see more continuous forest on either side. The paddling became more challenging as the trail corridor narrowed to just a couple feet wider than the middle of our canoe, and we often used our paddles to pry ourselves forward in the mud, or over sunken logs a few inches beneath the surface. Finally, for the first time in 2 days, we hit land. The trail corridor ended on a leaf-littered, sandy beach, and as we climbed out of the canoe, we walked into a lush stand of tall, wide, mature and delightfully shady trees. An old rusty canoe cart sat in the grass above the beach, so before we went exploring around the island, we loaded all of our gear onto the cart and I hauled it the 100 yards or so up the the cabin, one or two bags bouncing off as I tried to gingerly roll the thing over exposed roots. The canoe was quite a bit longer than the cart, so with Stank and I holding onto either side of the rear gunwale, and the bow resting on the cart, Marcus pulled us along until we dry-docked the canoe in the sand right next the wide wooden porch of the cabin. “Don’t forget to tie it off” was Stank’s comment as he thoroughly knotted the bow line to a tree. The cabin was large enough to comfortably fit 20 people and if needed up to 40. There was a nice fireplace inside, tall windows, wooden picnic tables and a corrugated metal roof with an awning over the porch. However, a large tree had fallen onto the roof, causing about half of it to collapse inward, and therefore deeming it a liability. So, yellow caution tape had been stretched around the building and the door was locked. The tree has been cut and the logs lie in a pile behind the building, all of which led us to believe that the tree had only fallen a few months ago. Stank started a fire in the fire pit and used a rake from the utility shed to neatly clean up the leaf litter from around the fire, Marcus set up his hammock with the bug netting and lounged inside it half-napping, and I did a full-body yoga session in the soft dirt that Stank had exposed from his raking. Stank cooked a can of Dinty-Moore that was left at the shelter, and we hucked the frisbee for about half an hour. As teens, Stank and I lived in a cul-de-sac with a gang of dudes around our age, and every single day we would ritualistically toss the frisbee in the court, or on the road, or during games of pickup ultimate frisbee at the park, or with”Glory”, the rogue ultimate team we put together that placed in the state tournament each year, or we’d play frisbee golf in the 18 hole frisbee golf course/bike trail/miscreant teen escape fortress that we constructed in the woods by our house. Needless to say, our frisbee game and our chemistry is still very strong after all these years and it was an epic session. Flicks, hammers, behind-the-backs, chicken wings, lefties, outside or inside curves, between-the-legs jumping catches, gypsies, snakes, yodas, push passes, thwomps, taps on taps on taps, and a metric shitload of gamebreaker. My bros know what I’m talking about. Having looked at the Natgeo map, I found that the high point on Floyd’s Island was only about half a mile way from the cabin and at 126 feet above sea level. Our camp was at about 55 feet above sea level, so I determined that I would try to hike to this high point and find out if point 126 could be an overlook in this otherwise flat terrain. I pushed through lots of pokey branches, moving very slowly, less than half a mile an hour, crawling, duck-walking, with limitied visibility, loads of crawly bugs and spiders webs, but brief patches of open palmetto prairie with fallen trees to hike across above the sharp spines of the palmettos. I’d say it a 6.5 out of 10 in terms of difficulty in off-trail travel. There was absolutely no exposure to big falls, it was out-and-back navigation on a peninsula, and no matter how bushy it was on solid ground. But thick as any swampy jungly terrain I’ve ever seen. Ultimately, I didn’t make it to the high point. I got boxed out by the scrub about halfway, having taken about 40 minutes to travel .25 miles. When I reemerged from the scrub, I found myself by the privy, where some large trees that had been chopped down provided me a means to exit the thick. I did see some scat, probably a coyote. There were some pretty little yellow petaled flowers, and some thin white mushrooms. It felt very nice to just walk away from camp and do some not easy hiking by myself after being in the canoe with the boys all day. Not that I didn’t enjoy being with them, but simply because I’ve come to love that kind of solitude so much. By the time I got back to the cabin, some other canoeists had just pulled up and apparently told Stank and Marcus that they had the permit for this campsite and that we had to leave. The coyly smiling, beer bellied, white bearded tall dude asked to see our permit, but we knew that our permit was for tomorrow. We had banked on the assumption that nobodyelse would be out here. We had started our trip a day earlier than our permit so all of our reservations were off by a day. I was bushwhacking during most of the discussion, but they had told Stank and Marcus that they’d been coming here for 45 years and that we must “immediately vacate the premises”. I kept my mouth shut, and loaded up the old rusty cart with our gear once again, pulling it the other side of the island along the sandy trail another 200 yards away from the cabin to the little beach on the other side where you put you boat back in the water. I set up my hammock, as did Marcus, and Stank set up his tent, making jokes about the old goats that insisted we vacate. “They just wanted to steal the nicely raked fire area we made”, Stank proclaimed. I made dinner, played a little jazz on my guitar, and as I was eating, a Turkey walked right through our camp with very little care that we were there. A woodpecker knocked on the side of a tree right above us. We played chess with my tiny magnetic chess set, and I heard them before I saw them. “What are those?”, Marcus asked. “Sandhill cranes!”, Stank and I said at the same time. I rushed for my camera, just catching the end of the second group of 5 or 6 as they flew past the setting sun, glorious in their size and grace.

Floyd’s Island sounds

Cypress Swamp

 

Markus and the Suwannee River

 

Reeds and Lily Pads

 

Golden-Club, AKA Never-Wet

 

Dahoon Holly (?)

 

Fetterbush,

 

Markus on the Trail Into Floyds Island

 

Floyds Island Landing

 

Floyds Island Cabin

 

Floyds Island

 

Bushwhacking to the High Point

 

Yellow Butterwort

 

Peat Moss

 

Virginia Chain Fern

 

Wolf Spider

 

Turkey Through Camp on Floyds Island

 

Sandhill Cranes

February 26th, 2019

Saw an Eastern Towhee, a large group of White Ibis grazing in the algae and hanging out up in a tree, Northern Harriers, a Night Heron, Anhinga, more Sandhill Cranes, a Swamp Wren (?), cowbirds, a Ring-necked duck, lots of Barred Owls calling last night, Turkey Vultures, Wood Ducks, Black Ducks, Mockingbirds, lots of Fathersgilla and pitcher plants, Marcus saw a doe on the island in the morning, Stank saw a green anole by the privy, and we saw the largest alligator we’ve seen so far, maybe about 10 feet long and we were guessing about 500-600 pounds. Today was the most physically demanding paddling day through pretty soupy lillypad prairie, like paddling through a stew, then very shallow and mossy logs fallen across the channel where we could only use our paddles against branches above the water in a very tight trail corridor. It was now day 4, which meant that we had been in a boat with each other just long enough to start debating about most effective paddling strategies. Lots of thorn bushes to the face, then respite when we hit bluff lake. Pictures say it all.

 

Crickets and Mosquitoes

Northern Harrier

Peat Moss

 

Laurel Greenbriar

 

Swamp Titi

 

Bluff Lake

 

Bluff Lake Shelter

 

Mosquitoes at Bluff Lake

February 27th, 2019

Last day was the paddle out day, so we crushed the last few miles before noon. Excellent misty sunrise but hellacious mosquitoes in the morning. Ran the canoe back to the outfitter, then lunched at a buffet in Folkston on the way out, then they dropped me off at the Atlanta airport. This was the trip that reset me this year. After the end of a whitewater season, moving to New Orleans and feeling kind of lost and depressed and struggling to just feel like I’m taking care of myself like I ought to, hanging out with and old friend and a new one, surrounded by a wildly different ecosystem than I’m used to, and especially one that is so unique, this was exactly the outside time I needed to get myself back on track. Life is good.

Northern Harrier

Sunny Morning at Bluff Lake

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